Some people tend to get touchy about their birthdays as they get older, and I can certainly understand the reasoning behind it. We all celebrate the important touchstones of our transition into adulthood at eighteen and twenty-one because each birthday that came prior served as “one more” toward achieving independence, becoming self-reliant, or maybe just buying our own booze. Once you’re solidly into your twenties, however, birthdays begin to lose their luster for many, as they instead begin to serve as “one more” toward far heavier concepts like eternity, mortality, and these grey hairs that keep popping up in my beard. Once your cross the barrier into your thirties, some folks can get downright touchy.
I’ve never been bothered by that sort of thing on birthdays. Maybe it’s a product of growing up poor, or as the middle child, or just faulty wiring, but my birthday has never been much more than another day for me. I don’t like asking for attention (though after a few beers I’m not opposed to demanding it), and it makes me uncomfortable to have the people I love put themselves out on my behalf. While my home is certainly not a patriarchy – my wife will always be the commanding officer – I have this (perhaps dated) sense of masculine responsibility that tells me that my job is buy her flowers, change her oil, and make sure she knows each birthday after thirty has only made her prettier to me. Doting over me on February 4th of each year just isn’t in keeping with that mindset, so I usually ask that we do something quiet and alone for my birthday; preferably as deep into the woods as we can get.
But there is one date each year that chews me up inside in a way I have to imagine is similar to those who come to rue their own birthdays: the anniversary of the date I joined the Marine Corps.
The first time I tried to enlist was in 2003, but as I’ve noted in other articles, I was only about a year out of having a pretty serious injury to my right leg that resulted in adding a whole lot of hardware to my ankle and spending a little over a week in the hospital. Although I felt like I was ready to get into the fight, the Marine Corps recruiter I met with told me I’d need to secure a medical waiver for all the pins, wire, and screws holding my leg together. He also told me that it likely wouldn’t come because they weren’t recruiting aggressively at the time.
Fast forward to 2006, when a twenty-one-year-old Alex found himself in love with a crazy chick from Connecticut who was practically the now-clichéd “manic-pixie dream girl” we see in every romantic comedy about a man trying to find his way in the world. She was irresponsible, barely employed, smoked the dreaded marijuana I always feared would compromise my college football prospects if I even smelled, and of course, had no health insurance.
For twenty-one, I was trying my best at being forty. I was in college on a scholarship (after a brief quarter-life crisis over losing my chance to play football), studying to become a journalist and with aspirations of wearing a derby with my press pass tucked into the band, lurking in the dangerous corners of Gotham City and illuminating society’s darkness through my writing. I had a five, ten and 30-year plan and most of all, I was absolutely certain of who I was and who I was going to be.
You guys all know how this story goes, because we probably all lived it to one extent or another. It turns out, having everything “figured out” at twenty-one actually means you have no idea what the hell is going on – and it took a brunette from Connecticut that drank like a sailor and kept loose cigarettes tucked into her bra to make me realize it.
Before I knew it, I was no longer a college student with a plan, I was a dropout with a girlfriend and a job turning wrenches. I was happy and bereft of forethought; just plunging headlong into this romance that engulfed me and relying on fate to see me through. This is the second time the older generation of readers will likely see my mistake.
Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “pray to God, but row away from the rocks.” I suppose that during this short stint of ignorant bliss, I was relying only on the first half of that axiom, but I’d soon learn about the second half the hard way. My beloved brunette found herself admitted to the hospital with pneumonia so bad she’d cracked her ribs coughing, and with no health insurance between the two of us, those first inklings of that out-dated masculine responsibility began to set in. I walked into the recruiter’s office and put my cards on the table. He explained that times had changed and that they needed everyone they could get – my leg wouldn’t even require a waiver anymore, and if I didn’t care much about what job I was assigned, I could leave in two days. I agreed, and on Easter Sunday I kissed my new fiancee’ on the cheek and left her behind in her hospital bed. My recruiter drove me to a local airbase where I’d take the ASVAB at 10PM that night and fly to Parris Island in the morning.
See, I don’t mind birthdays because a part of me revels in the opportunity to strive to be sort of man I looked up to as a kid. At thirty-two, I don’t feel old – I feel young. Hell, according to the comics, Bruce Wayne didn’t even first don the cape and cowl of Batman until he was thirty-two. That means I’ve got decades of crime fighting left in me… but the anniversary of that day I first stepped on the yellow footprints is another story. April 17th of each year always makes me feel old.
This year, April 17th fell on a Monday – and like my birthdays, I celebrated it without saying a word. I got up that morning, made my coffee and headed back to the home office I had probably only left six hours earlier (writing is a whacky job that sometimes means working twenty hour days and sometimes means being done in four), but instead of popping open my e-mail to check on stories I’m working on, or pulling out the black book I keep my notes in, I pulled a sealed envelope out of my desk drawer.
The letter is addressed to Sergeant Hollings, with a return address that lists, in messy handwriting, “Recruit Hollings” care of Parris Island. I don’t remember writing the letter, but I remember it waiting for me when I got home on boot leave. I had intended to read it the day I picked up sergeant, but when the day came that I pinned those chevrons on, I was on the other side of the planet. By the time I got home, I had forgotten all about it – and it remained in the box of boot camp stuff I’ve forgotten about until last year when I moved to Georgia.
I still haven’t opened the letter, and honestly, I may never. At this point, it represents so much more than whatever I could have scribbled under the fluorescent lights of the stall-less toilet I’m sure I sat on to write it. It represents a different person – a kid that had no idea what I was in for – a kid whose perspective on life and the world hadn’t been shaped by hardship and loss. I’m not saying my life has been awful since those days, but there were tough times ahead, and if I’m honest with myself, I know some of those tough times would break parts of me forever – parts I can hardly recall ever having – but parts that remained alive and well in the mind of Recruit Hollings.
To say I’ve become jaded isn’t fair. I’m pragmatic, sure, but I’m an optimist. The Marine Corps didn’t kill the joy in my life, and although I’ve lost friends, I’ve gained a whole lot too. It isn’t that I’m a broken man at all, far from it, but like a car that’s thirty plus years old, you’re going to have some problems. Maybe it struggles to start on a cold morning here or there. Maybe I struggle to remember how lucky I am on a long night. Just like the car, I’ll still get where I’m going, and on occasion, I can clean up pretty good too.
So in honor of the anniversary that celebrates the end of my ignorance, I’d like to extend a congratulations to each of you that has your own. For me, serving in the Marine Corps was the best thing that could have happened to me – it made me the man I am and gave me the opportunity to pursue a career in writing – but life is about balance, and in order to be so lucky, I’ve had to hurt my fair share too. I have no doubt every one of us can relate to that, even if you don’t look back on your time in uniform as fondly.
Serving your country isn’t about pride, despite how important that is to us. It’s really about modesty. You have to accept that you aren’t as good as you can be in order to strive to improve. You have to acknowledge that those who came before you have experience on their side in order to be willing to learn. You have to embrace the reality that men and women in uniform earn respect through the act of serving, not because it’s issued in the service.
And you have to take your lumps, heal up the best you can, and keep moving toward the sound of gunfire.
It’s been eleven years since I was that kid that thought he had it all figured out, and while that isn’t all that long in the grand scheme of things, it’s been a lifetime in terms of mileage. I don’t feel old when I look back at my childhood – I feel lucky to have come this far. I do, however, feel old when I think of the guy I was when I “had it all figured out.” In a lot of ways, I’m further from that guy now than I am from being a child.
So nope, I’ll probably never change my stance on birthdays – I was barely present for my first one and they haven’t amounted to much ever since. April 17th, 2006, however, was the first day of the rest of my life – and with each passing year, I’m that much further from the day I chose to grow up.
And growing up means a hell of a lot more to me than just showing up.
Image courtesy of the Island Packet