Saturday, April 28, 2012

A long, circular path

Just the other morning I was sitting on a hotel balcony watching the early morning sun play across the breakers washing the beach while the wind buffeted (yes, buffeted – it was quite windy) the beach grass. I was reflecting on how life can lead you along paths you don't expect, and that sometimes those paths are circles that bring you back to places you never expected to see again.

In January of 1976 I headed off to Coast Guard Basic Training in Cape May, New Jersey. Though my driver's license said I was of age, in truth I was just a kid, less mature than many of my age. Basic was a brutal plunge into the demanding world of responsible adulthood, as well as the start of a period of severe spiritual trial and maturing for me. January 12, 1976 was truly the beginning of my adult life.

I didn't see that much of Cape May because recruits in Basic usually don't. If they do well, they might earn a little off-base liberty late in training, but largely their world lies within the base gates. Once finished, they make tracks to their first duty station. They may appreciate, but few relish, their weeks of Basic. So it was for me: “Cape May” was synonymous with stress, trial, and hard-won maturity. It was a place for passing through on my way to the rest of my life.

That was also largely true of my brief Coast Guard career. Though I appreciated what I learned and how I grew during my enlistment, from the outset I intended it to be a temporary time, and so it proved. I did my obligatory four years, got out, and availed myself of the educational benefits to get my degree – which had always been my intent. Though I was proud of my service, it wasn't the most defining thing about me. I didn't trim my house with spar paint, or have a Semper Paratus ringtone, or even join a veteran's association. Some nautical terms in my vocabulary (like “deck” and “belay” - not those other ones), a veteran's license plate, and some Coast Guard coasters are about the most obvious things about my history.

My eldest son, however, decided even from his high school days that the Guard looked like a good option, and made it his goal to join. He called the recruiter the day after graduation and within six months was off to Basic himself. About eight weeks later we followed him to observe his graduation. My parents hadn't come to my graduation, but we thought it important to be at his, so I ended up returning to where I'd never expected to – Cape May. There were the expectable memories, but little nostalgia, for the old place. I was proud that my son was following my footsteps, in a small way, but I would have been equally proud if he'd chosen another service, or gone to college, or done whatever he'd chosen to do to take responsibility for his own life.

My second son chose to go to college after high school, and loved it, but after the first year did a financial analysis and decided that he'd prefer to do what I did – get the educational benefits in advance before going for the degree. Though any service would have done for that, the only one he really considered was the Coast Guard, and was willing to wait quite some time to join. But in early March of this year we sent him off to Basic, so that meant at the end of April we made another trip to Cape May – me, Ellen, and my eldest son, who flew down from his duty station in Alaska.
Which was how I ended up on the balcony overlooking the Atlantic shortly after sunrise on the morning of April 27th. Just over 36 years before, I'd left that same city to embark on a path of adulthood that would lead me places I'd never expected and give me experiences I'd never forget. Now I was back to see the second of my two sons start out on the same road. Later that morning I watched as my elder son handed his brother his graduation certificate. It was a proud and touching moment.