The most pivotal moments in life never seem that way in the present. The weight of our actions usually become known only when we look back on them and realize how significant they really were.
For example, taking a Wall Street job in 2014 wasn’t a pivotal moment. That was merely one predictable decision along the life-arc that began weeks earlier, when I unassumingly sat across from a guy at a restaurant who just accepted a position at Goldman Sachs. Or, maybe you can go back to 2004, when I stumbled onto the MSN stock market message boards as a bored Army Private in Alaska—a foundational period of my life when both time and money were relatively abundant.
My seating choice at restaurants is important, it seems. Eight years ago I sat across from a young lady at another restaurant, which began a relationship that thankfully lives on today. Some months later I decided to propose to Wife29; we decided to buy a home together, and we decided to have kids. But really, those decisions were predictable. The tangential moment came at that restaurant when my predictable life changed completely by the introduction of love.
As important as these moments turned out to be, there was a moment that preceded the all. Just before my junior year of high school I was wasting time on AOL Instant Messenger when I answered the phone.
It was Uncle Sam, and he was lookin’ for some fine young recruits.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
The axiom goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Yeah, that was me in high school. I was never a runner, but I joined cross country because my friend Dan was on the team. I started working at McDonald’s so Dan (a different Dan) could get a $50 referral bonus. Intramural basketball—same thing. Come to think of it, most of what I did was not my idea.
I wasn’t feelin’ the whole college thing, either. I wasn’t “For” or “Against,” I just didn’t hold a strong opinion. I figured my parents weren’t too keen on letting me hang around, and working in/around St. Cloud, MN didn’t seem like a great idea, either. I was impressionable, and looking for some direction to be directed. If the University of Wherever called me at that same moment, I’d probably be getting their alumni fundraising calls today. But instead, it was Sergeant McCann from the National Guard recruiting office. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was getting my head shaved at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
How Was the Army?
I love it when people ask me this because they ask it in the same tone as they would ask a waiter, “How’s the queso?” They can’t possibly be geared up for a thoughtful response, so I always give the short answer: “Good.”
I’ve never really put together a long answer. Hence the post today.
Our family enjoys attending the occasional sporting event. In February we saw “my” team, the Golden Gophers, beat the Terrapins in College Park. Whenever I’m at a college game, I’m always a bit envious of the student section. This group of attractive, excited young people not only get discounted tickets to the game, but probably have no kids, comparatively minuscule responsibilities, and are surrounded by friends and similarly responsibility-less folks.
In these moments, I get a bit envious that I never had the traditional “college experience.” A month after I graduated high school I started basic training, and from the first chorus of Hey, Hey, Captain Jack and for the seven years that followed, my life would be so different (for the better, thankfully).
How does one sum up seven years? I suppose I could write an impossibly long post that only I would get value from, or I could give you the bullet points and if you want to know more then we can have a beer together (or ask a question in the comments and I’ll oblige).
First Stop: Basic Training
Basic was three, 3-week phases: red, white, and blue. Red phase is essentially three weeks of getting smoked: push-ups, mule-kicks, flutter-kicks. It’s like The Biggest Loser but everyone is wearing fatigues and smells terrible. White phase is much of the same, but with many, many long days at the range learning the ins-and-outs of an M-16 (M4 nowadays), M-249, and M-203. Every Soldier is infantry, as they say. Blue phase is more getting smoked, but now learning some drill and ceremony, ruck marching, and field exercises (like Scout Camp, but no fun).
AIT: When I Decided I’d Be a Board Soldier
Seven weeks of Advanced Individual Training immediately followed Basic. I got a 99 on the ASVAB, so I had my pick of specialties. I liked money, so finance seemed like a good fit. So, during this seven weeks at Fort Jackson, SC I learned how to be a Finance Specialist.
I made a pretty bad first impression. Apparently it’s taboo to change into shorts and flip-flops at the airport before reporting in. Compounding this, my flight out of Lawton, Oklahoma was delayed, so my bags missed the connecting flight. This resulted in me, and only me, suiting up in my Class-Bs for the first few days of AIT.
Sometime about halfway through AIT, I desired to stand out more among my peers. I submitted myself to a “Soldier of the Week” board, where a half-dozen Soldiers from throughout the Battalion compete by looking sharp in front of a board of NCOs and answer questions about the Army. I won that board, and got to wear a sweet medal for a week. That made me feel special. I also graduated top of my class—the Distinguished Honor Graduate—which got me some special recognition and my first of many challenge coins (more on that later).
Fort Richardson, Alaska – More Boards. A Lot More Boards.
Alaska was the closest thing I can relate to a “college experience.” I was single, lived with my friends, didn’t have a ton of money, and only had a cell phone bill. I took a lot of night classes, but I was primarily a Soldier. Alaska is beautiful, by the way. It’s not a place to live, in my opinion, but is absolutely a place to visit for extended periods (in the summer). The Northern Lights are indescribable.
I arrived to Alaska in early 2004 as another face in the crowd. I wanted to quickly change that, and I think I did. Almost immediately I started attending Soldier boards and competitions, and I won almost all of them. These weren’t just question-and-answer interview-style boards, as higher-level competitions included things to buy ar 15 accessories, marksmanship, land navigation, combatives, weapon assembly, essays, and fitness tests. I started as the Battalion and Brigade Soldier of the Month for March (I arrived in January), then Quarter, then Year. Then Fort Richardson Soldier of the Year, then US Army Alaska, then US Army Pacific. I ran the table until I competed for Department of the Army Soldier of the Year in 2005, where I finished in something like second or third place.
I kept going, of course, with the only thing really stopping me was my PCS to Fort Meade.
Fort Meade, Maryland – More Boards. And a Wife.
I love numbers, and the Army promotion system was all about numbers. There are 800 possible points, made up of things like military and professional education, marksmanship and fitness scores, promotion board scores and commander’s points. For military occupations where there is a big need for Sergeants and Staff Sergeants (like Infantry), the cutoff score is usually very low—like in the 400’s. So, if you’re promotion-eligible, then you’ll probably get picked up lickety-split.
For Finance, there isn’t a need for lot of of NCOs, so cutoff scores are often impossibly high, like 798. It’s never 800, as they need to give people some hope if you really want to be promoted. Facing that tall order, I made sure I got all 800 points so that I made Sergeant at 30 months time-in-service and Staff Sergeant at 50 months time-in-service. I actually got the call that I made Sergeant while driving through West Virginia on my way to Fort Meade.
Helping along the way was a renewed focus on boards, this time at the NCO level, competing against fellow Sergeants and above. I went to dozens of these things, primarily with success. In my first five months at Fort Meade I won four boards (Battalion Month/Year, Brigade Year, MACOM Year), only to come up short one step before another Department of the Army competition. This came just in time for me to do a tour in Iraq, where I made some good friends and got baptized in Saddam’s swimming pool.
Upon my return, I went straight back to the boards, going through the paces enroute to another try at the Department of the Army level, this time as an NCO. I failed again after I forgot to adjust the rear aperture in the night-fire rifle qualification. After that second failing, I started working more on my degree, and boards took a back seat.
Being a Soldier at Fort Meade was more like a job than a lifestyle. I lived off-post among the civilians. I shopped at grocery stores. I had a car. There was PT in the morning, but it was nothing like Alaska.
Summing It All Up
In the end, my military service was pretty unique. I got promoted fast (probably too fast). Even though I received tons of awards and accolades, when getting down to brass tacks I don’t think I was all that good of a Soldier. I craved the spotlight. On paper I was a phenom, but if you asked my fellow Soldiers and NCOs, they probably could’ve done without me. I rarely counseled subordinates. I was disorganized. I often went without shaving. My drive into PT each morning was a harried dash. I lied on several occasions regarding my whereabouts when I missed a formation. My briefings were hurried and lacked good preparation. I would do what was necessary to get what and where I wanted, and I avoided the rest—and it worked. My superiors loved me because they got to put what I did on their own evaluations. But behind the scenes, I think I was somewhat of a shitbag. A decorated shitbag, but a shitbag nonetheless.
Granted, I saved a lot of money, saw some interesting parts of the world, made some lifelong friends, and got myself some good work experience and a security clearance. I also get bountiful free meals every November 11th. All in all, I got the long end of the deal.
The Army, as an organization, is pretty much like any other place you might work, just with more camaraderie. Two-thirds of Soldiers are good folks. They’ll work hard, do what’s right, and selflessly serve. But, just like anywhere else, tons of Soldiers are damn awful. They’ll have childcare issues constantly, they’ll piss and moan at every task, they won’t manage their money, they’ll mess around with somebody’s spouse, they’ll be on a never-ending weight control program, they’ll be insubordinate, and everything else you can imagine. Thankfully, the public’s perception of an average military member is that of somebody belonging to the “good” two-thirds, rather than those other guys (of which there are, unfortunately, very many).
What to Do with All Those Mementos
Okay, let’s get down to business. While much of the above was a 1500-word back-patting session for yours truly, there was a point to writing all of that.
From the moment we receive our first “You Tried” trophy in tee-ball, mementos have a way of collecting in our lives. Yearbooks. Plaques. Paperweights. Knick-knacks. You win salesman of the week?—here’s an engraved doorstop. Leaving for a new company?—take this 8×10 with some superficial well-wishes.
These items accumulate on the walls of home offices in typical “set it and forget it” fashion, only to be noticed again when they need to be moved to another residence. At some point, the recipient of this growing collection sees these items as a burden, rather than an award.
That was me a couple months ago. A byproduct of being good at boards was that I had this relatively large collection of things. I derived little value from them, and they weren’t exactly something I could put on Amazon. This was no small collection, either.
Perhaps most amazingly, this wasn’t even all of it. This picture shows about half. Several trophies were victims of destruction or being left behind in prior moves, and a bunch of plaques succumbed to water damage back in 2011. So, this collection was already heavily culled.
Then, there’s the challenge coins. 150 of them, to be exact.
Every one of those came with a handshake.
How could I get rid of this stuff? “I can’t just throw them away,” I would tell myself. The memory surrounding the item had value to me, and I equated the item to the memory itself. I foolishly believed that tossing the item would erase my memory faster than a Clinton e-mail server. This paralyzed me, and as the years would pass, this mounting collection just became an appendage that would follow me from house to house.
Nesting: The Mother of All Decluttering
Last month we welcomed our second child to our house, BabyBoy29. We spent most of the spring turning our second guest bedroom into a nursery. As a part of this process, I had to move my mementos box from one closet to another. This was, apparently, the last straw. The breaking point. Every time I moved that box it was like another car passing over I-35W. That went on for years without a problem until that day, it was just one too many and it all fell apart.
Those things had to go. But how?
Well, the first step was taking a photo of them and putting that photo into this WordPress post. Now, even though it’s a digital form, they will never be “lost” completely, but rather transformed into tiny digital bits.
Second, was writing about the experience in long-form content. This reformed and restated those memories in a way that I can refer back to whenever I please. I doubt that will be very often, but if my grandkids ever ask me, “How was the Army?”, I’ll have a quick answer that doesn’t involve trudging up to the attic.
Third, and this was key, was putting them in a trash can. You’ll notice that a trash can is not a landfill. I can recover them from a trash can, like a bag of leftover McDonald’s when you’re absolutely famished. I boxed up all of this stuff and put the box in the big trash bin in the garage. It sat there for three days. I awaited a sense of loss and regret that never came. Suddenly, the open space that was now on my closet floor became far more valuable than those items. I never once felt the need to go retrieve them.
When trash day finally came, I wheeled them out to the curb and donated them back to the earth from whence they came.
I’ve spoken before about how the physical inventory of our life so often holds little value and tremendous cost. If we were running the business of our life, we would remove a lot of this inventory quickly. I think back over the years and realize that I received zero value from this inventory. However, it came with costs. I had to look at it. I had to move it. I had to store it more than once. It weighed down my trunk and occupied my shelves.
Now, I have space. And, I still have the memories.
Maybe you can take these lessons and apply them to your own box that keeps hanging around. I believe that if you are like me, you’ll find that the space which something occupies may have more value to you than the thing itself.
Good luck and thanks for reading.