Sunday, January 30, 2022

Some Years Ending in the Number Two

This year being 2022 memories from previous years ending in the number two are on my mind. 1972 is the earliest. In January of that year I was fresh off the plane home from Vietnam, happy to be alive and looking forward to beginning life after the Army and war. I had plans but it took some effort to get back into civilian life. I soon discovered that much of the war came home with me. Not in the sense of flashbacks and nightmares but rather just sheer dumbfoundedness at the whole experience. But those thoughts, while ubiquitous, were compartmentalized—always there but not particularly controlling over my life. As it turned out, I was accepted into the public administration master’s degree program at the University of Virginia and even landed an research assistant position at the university’s Institute of Government. By May I was back in Charlottesville where I had spent four years as an undergraduate before the Army and Vietnam

The surroundings were familiar but I felt detached from them, especially since everyone I knew from my undergraduate days was long gone. Meeting new people during the slow days of summer was difficult. I spent a fair amount of time on my own hiking and camping in Virginia’s mountains where it dawned on me that I was unlikely to ever walk in the woods without thinking about walking in the jungle. It also dawned on me that I was unlikely to be actually be at risk in those mountains except due to inexperience or carelessness. I did find a couple friends from my undergraduate days still in town, Peyton Coyner and Gordon Kerby. I hung out with Peyton a lot that summer and to a lesser extent with Gordon. Both kindly listened to my Vietnam stories and we have been close friends ever since. Once school began in September my world opened up considerably and I began to feel more like a normal person rather than a war veteran.

Ten years later, also in January, I wrestled with the decision to move to Arizona. By that time I had long ago finished my master’s degree and worked over seven years as an analyst for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in Richmond. It was interesting work in a good environment. By late 1981, though, future opportunities within JLARC were limited—the senior management positions were not likely to turn over any time soon. I was restless and looking about for other opportunities in Richmond when a colleague returned from a conference and told me that the Arizona Auditor General was looking for a performance audit manager. I was definitely interested although it would mean a big change. That opportunity fell through when the position was filled before I could arrange an interview but the director suggested I might consider a Senior Auditor position at a decently higher salary. I was less interested in simply doing the same work in a different place but decided to interview anyway even though I would have to pay my own travel costs. I figured that, if nothing else, I would get a chance to see another part of the country. I flew out to Phoenix for an interview and they were sufficiently impressed to offer me the position at an attractive salary. That meant I had to make a decision.

At first, I was not inclined to take the offer. Phoenix did not impress me—it looked like an endless procession of strip malls and housing developments stretching into the desert infinity. Even worse, moving to Arizona would mean leaving everything and everyone I knew. But I was restless in my job and my life. I was recently divorced and I had no family remaining in Virginia; my mother died a few years earlier. Several things finally convinced me to make the move. A brief excursion into the Verde Valley, Oak Creek Canyon and Flagstaff during my interview visit gave me a glimpse of Arizona’s grandeur beyond Phoenix. So did looking an Arizona map and seeing vast swaths of national forest and the Grand Canyon. I figured I could do some bodacious hiking there. Ten years earlier I had considered moving to Washington State after being impressed with what I saw there during Army training at Fort Lewis. I chose not to make that move and wondered ever since where that would have led. In 1982 I was more open to taking a chance so I accepted the position and made the move. It was emotionally difficult. It was also one of the best decisions of my life.

Fast forward to early 2002 and I was preparing to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail—2,000 miles north from Georgia to Maine. In January I had relocated back to Phoenix after working as a audit manager for the Navajo Nation Auditor General for almost five years. Life was much more complex than 20 years earlier and figuring out how to just step away from it all for eight months was daunting, especially the part about making a living without a job. As it turned out, I didn’t actually figure it out so much as I just made it work—with much help from my partner, Maggie, many friends along the way and even some complete strangers. Many loose ends remained when I departed Phoenix in late March for the trailhead in Georgia. I never entirely escaped them on the trail but I did make it all the way to Maine. Along the way I had my share of trials but I also met many amazing people and experienced many moments of joy and wonder.

As with every hike since Vietnam, my thru-hike brought back memories of walking in the jungle carrying a weapon. Unlike those previous hikes, the lengthy duration and many hours walking alone on the trail gave me an opportunity (or forced me)  to sort through those memories and come to terms with that experience in a way that had eluded me for three decades. Intrusive war memories not withstanding, my thru-hike remains one of my most memorable life experiences.

Not all of my major life decisions occurred in years ending in the number 2 but these three sure did.

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