Looking back, I would never have chosen to be standing there 36 years ago today. There was in a quiet place at the Albuquerque airport. Saying goodbye to my wife after just seven married months. With my mother-in-law waiting nearby to take Cathy to her girlhood home.
No, it's not what you might think. Our parting wasn't because of problems. We shared a last kiss and I boarded the plane unsure of what I would find at the other end of my journey.
In a way, this "trip" had begun many months earlier. The previous Spring I had left college -- without graduating -- on my way to a new job and a new life. That August Cathy and I, after a summer in different regions of the country, met in New Mexico for our wedding.
1972 was a turbulent year in our nation's history. The "push back" to Viet Nam had finally brought the announced withdrawal of U.S. forces. With the end of that long conflict came the planned conclusion of the draft. I lost my student deferment when I left school, but was still surprised to learn that -- with a low draft lottery number -- I would be selected if I passed my physical.
I received my notice to report for that physical when we arrived back at my job in Ohio. That was just the beginning of a vortex of change that would re-direct our lives. Before the scheduled physical date I left my job and we traveled back to New Mexico to decide our next step. Upon arrival there, I went to see the local Army National Guard recruiter, who was an old family friend. He tested my aptitude for service and scheduled a physical a number of weeks before the one already on the calendar.
I took that physical, expecting to be passed over because of my (very) flat feet. At the end, the physician took notice of my "malady" and seemed to say that he was declaring me "fit for service" since I had enlisted and (obviously) wanted to join the military. My real plan had been to take the physical early, be given a deferment and go on with my life -- probably back to college.
My enlistment date was early November, but the earliest date I could receive for Basic Combat Training was March 20, 1973. I was headed to Fort Ord, California.
It was lonely and nerve-wracking as I flew across the western U.S. The first few days at the "Reception Station" are a blur now. The regimen of getting haircuts, inoculations and uniforms was really no big deal. The Drill Instructors seemed like reasonably nice men.
Until we stepped off the bus at our barracks for the "real" beginning of training. Those gentle, understanding guys who were helping us figure out life in the army became yelling, pushy, ornery, bossy thorns in our collective sides. That first week was horrible. Gradually we settled in to the task of leaving behind our individuality and becoming soldiers. Our instructors were all recent Viet Nam vets and they were preparing us for what they had just faced.
It was, perhaps, the most challenging two months of my life.
And I've been grateful for it ever since. It's why March 20 is indelibly etched in my personal calendar.
What has stretched you permanently?