Thursday, November 15, 2007

On Turning 60

Today is my birthday. I made it to age 60! Since we all want to live a long life, we should expect to turn 60 but somehow, we cringe at the idea of being that old. When I think of the many 60 year olds I have known during my life, it always seemed very old. Now that I have attained that ripe age, it seems pretty normal. I still think of myself as the young person I was in previous years even if the calendar and my very white beard tell me otherwise. The white beard isn’t definitive but the calendar doesn’t lie–1947 has always been my birth year and that year recedes farther and farther into history. (Jeezus, we didn’t even have television back then.) I can also look back and see a lot of personal history. It’s a fact: I’ve been around. Even more stark is the fact that I have much less time left in my life than has already past.

American culture makes a big deal about aging. We prefer youth; mid to late 20's seems to be the “ideal” age. After that, the images suggest decline and decay. I don’t think my generation is the first to long for perpetual youth but we Boomers seem to have made a fetish of it, starting with “don’t trust anyone over 30" and “redefining” the decades as we pass through them. Because we are such a demographic bulge and very affluent, society has catered to us, indulging our fantasies as long as we are willing to spend. But none of that changes the actuarial fact that we (including yours truly) are inching closer to “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate”.

Maybe I’m just another Boomer seeking to think my way out of life’s inevitable trajectory, but I consider this birthday to be yet another beginning, the opportunity to continue living, learning and marveling at what the world has to offer. I certainly have no expectation of living a long life. I know all too well that I am alive by chance and it could end at any time, equally by chance. But I don’t know when my number will come up, so the best alternative is to make what I will of the time I have. For now that means packing and moving to Olympia, making new friends, keeping up with longtime friends and contributing in my own small way to making the world a better place for myself and others.

Birthdays are always good for reflection, which can be tricky since I often think of the many things I haven’t done or the times I’ve been disappointed. I see friends and colleagues who’ve served in public office, been prominent in their professions or have become longstanding members of their communities. As a teenager, I looked forward to running public office but those aspirations gave way to the security and comfort of a somewhat anonymous job as an adult. I succeeded in my profession but am not among its recognized leaders. And I’ve led a peripatetic life, moving from place to place in search of opportunity and adventure. I never spawned, so I will leave no genetic legacy to the world. There’s much that I’ve not done.

All that notwithstanding, I can’t complain. I’ve had an interesting life that has taken me over much of North America, to Europe and Asia and included some incredible adventures. Even better, I have enjoyed the companionship of many fine people who have become longtime friends. I am fortunate to share life with a wonderful woman and have been associated with five very fine dogs. Fame and fortune has not come my way but in many respects I’m a rich man. Not bad for 60 years.

I look forward to whatever time is left. Who knows what it will bring but I don’t think it will be at all disappointing.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Veterans Day 2007

A mere 37 years ago this month I completed advanced individual training as a light weapons infantryman and was christened with the military occupational specialty 11B20–Eleven Bravo for short. Along with that title, I was handed orders to report to the Oakland Army Terminal for shipment to Vietnam. This was the future I had dreaded all through college, a future that I hoped luck and my bachelors degree would help me dodge. Instead, I walked right into that maelstrom with all the naivete’ of a child. Fourteen months later, I returned, happy to still be alive and wondering who I really was.

My exposure to combat was brief and pretty uneventful. The luck I had counted on to keep me safe did in fact come through for me. Not in the way I hoped but well enough. I saw combat, no doubt about that, but it was hardly the stuff of novels and movies, just the boredom of mindless effort and the ever present tension that comes with knowing that others have every reason and intention of killing me. There’s no good reason I survived when so many others did not. Sheer luck and sheer chance, that’s all. It sure wasn’t my skill as an infantryman.

November always brings these thoughts back to me. Veterans Day is a day of remembrance of something I cannot forget and reminds me that I share this experience with 2.5 million men of my generation and so many others of generations past and, unfortunately, the present. Then comes Thanksgiving and memories of that all too strange hiatus between infantry training and reporting to Oakland, a time when I was in with friends and family yet so apart from them. They were getting on with their lives, mine was on hold with highly uncertain prospects. People didn’t quite know how to act toward me. Neither I nor others wanted to acknowledge the fact that we might never see each other again even as it hung so largely between us. It was a time of uncertainty that will forever be part of the holiday season for me.

More than the actual combat this uncertainty is the experience I share with my fellow veterans. Even the gung-ho types must know that they will be at risk. They offset their doubts with the expectation that their enthusiasm and skill with keep them safe but they must also know that death is waiting for them and that all their efforts will not save them if their number comes up. At least that’s my perception. For me there was no enthusiasm, no confidence in my skill. The booby trap training alone convinced me that I would never survive; I set off so many of the dummy traps the drill sergeants rigged up that I figured I wouldn’t have a chance.

But I went anyway, submitting to the demand of my government that I kill on its behalf. Maybe deep down I knew I would luck out. Or maybe I was just numb and resigned to fate, whatever it may bring. I am forever grateful that I was spared even as I recognize that I no more deserved my good luck than any of the dead and maimed deserved their ill fortune.

For whatever it’s worth I am a veteran. I’ve been to the end of the pipeline where the shit flows and managed to return. I will never forget the experience nor the many others who served before and after me. And I will forever speak out as a veteran against the folly of war. My fervent wish ever since my own service is that no one ever again go to war, as I did, for a lie.

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