My awakening began with a five-minute conversation with a total stranger.
I was killing time at a USO in Okinawa Japan, drinking beers with some friends. Some of us were preparing to separate from the military in the days ahead and we were talking about what we were going to do back home. The topics ranged wildly from entrepreneurship and starting an import-export business, to being relegated to law enforcement, fire-fighting and prison guards due to our lack of transferrable job skills. We had no real plan but lots of exciting ideas about the new chapters we were preparing to open in our lives. We had no clue whatsoever of the identity crisis and the trials of transition we were about to encounter. In retrospect, rough waters were ahead for most of us.
At that moment, we were Marines. Bulletproof and full of ourselves. But just under the surface, underneath the buzz from the beer, we were all deflecting our insecurities and fears of the unknown the civilian world held that would soon come for us. We had spent a lot of time one-on-one with each other about our futures and we all seemed to share the same naive point of view. We were trained to be unstoppable and to accomplish our objectives, this would, of course, translate easily into civilian life. Anyone could see we were fit, military athletes with impeccable uniforms that signified we were part of an elite and special tribe with a heritage that spanned over 200 years. We were under a spell of misplaced conviction that we would be successful at whatever we set our minds. But really, who were we outside of this deeply engrained identity? We had no idea and this was about to be tested for each of us.
Unbeknownst to us, a Warrant Officer, who was leaning against the bar just behind us, had been eavesdropping on our entire conversation. Warrant Officers have a distinctive and well-respected status in the military. The gold bar on their collar with three red squares signifies they were once enlisted but got out to go to college and then re-entered the service as an officer.
When I approached the bar to get another pitcher of beer, the Warrant Officer nodded a greeting as we sized each other up.
“Getting out soon I gather?” He said in a friendly tone.
“Yes sir! Just a couple of days now” I replied.
He paused as he took a sip of his beer and asked “Mind if I share some advice with you?”
“Not at all sir” I replied. “When a Warrant Officer offers advice, take it” I thought.
He looked straight at me a bit more seriously and began to talk in a calm and reassuring tone. “Within a couple of days of getting home, probably not more than a couple of weeks, you’re going to have a stark realization.” “The world is exactly the same but you’ve changed.” He paused to see if this sunk in and then continued. “This is a realization you will either deal with and embrace, or you will avoid it and numb out like most Veterans.” “but this is an important moment in your life when you have a choice.”
“But don’t make the mistake of dismissing the fact that you need to wake up.” “Because if you don’t, before you know it, it will be 10 years from now and you will wish to hell you would have got this sooner.”
“Are you getting this?” He asked.
“I think so sir,” I replied, not fully comprehending the magnitude of what he was attempting to impart but I could tell by his sincerity and seriousness, I’d better fully engaged. “Can you say that again sir?” “I guess I’m not sure I get this.”
“You’ve changed because of your experiences but the world is exactly the same as before you left home” “This is what I’m getting at.”
“Wow! You’re right sir!” I replied. “I have changed a lot, but when I went home on leave a few times, all my friends were still doing exactly what they were doing, which was pretty much, nothing but drinking and smoking weed, going nowhere”
He leaned in a bit as not be overheard by my others.
“On a more serious note,” he said; “If I were you… Instead of sitting here drinking and laughing with my buddies… I’d go to the self-help section of the closest book store… And I’d look for anything that jumps off the shelf at me… And I’d start reading about who I’m becoming.”
He took another gulp of his beer as he waited in the silent pause that followed. His words and message reverberating through me as I waited for the punchline. “Where is this heading?” I thought.
“This is about learning who you are and who you are becoming, not just being stuck in your identity as a Veteran.” “You will always be a Veteran, but this is not all you are”. “Soon or later you will discover the world doesn’t really need another hard-ass who can parachute out of helicopters at night with big heavy packs.” “ You need to re-invent who you are as a civilian, as a person, in addition to being a Veteran.”
“Self-help section of the bookstore? what is that sir?” I felt embarrassed to ask.
He shared that it is a part of every bookstore that has to do with a more practical approach for the average person to learn about personal development.
“I’m not going to tell you what to look for or tell you anything more than this. You will not be in the military any longer and will need to find out what gives you meaning and purpose.” “The self-help section, not the psychology section, start there.”
I can’t remember much about the brief conversation that followed because I was deep in thought, processing, and trying to make sense of what I had just heard. He knew he got my attention as he laid some money on the bar and reached out to shake my hand. “Good luck to you, I hope this was helpful.” “I wish someone had given me this advice before I got out to go back to school,” He said. “I’m just paying it forward.”
I thanked him for his advice and watched him walk away as he put on his cover to exit the door.
I stood at the bar for several minutes, struggling with what had just been shared, sensing it was a gift that I needed to open and look into. Eventually, I walked back to my seat with my beer feeling an odd mixture of apprehension and anticipation about what I had just encountered. “This guy, a total stranger, offered up this advice, why me?” I thought. I remember sitting with my buddies, disengaged and deep in thought about what he had said. I was restless and disinterested in the surface conversation and the juvenile jabs and jokes being thrown about.
His words had me hooked and without giving it any more thought, I decided I needed to investigate the mystery of what he had shared. I tapped my buddy Chuck on the shoulder and said, “Hey, we need to roll, suck down your beer.” Within minutes we were walking toward the exit, “I’ll explain this in a minute.” I said as we walked out of the building. I shared what had just happened and he was equally intrigued, but also a little surprised with the timeliness of this message. He too was needing a kick in the ass about what he was going to do with his life after the military. Chuck didn’t come from blue-collar stock as I had on my father’s side, his great grandfather was the founder of a very successful family business and he joined the military partially out of rebellion, I think. But he had always talked about how he was expected to find his place in the family business when he got out of the service. He usually spoke about this in a reluctant and frustrated tone. He had other family members and half-brothers in the business and they didn’t seem to be on the best of terms with all of their mutual ambitions. Chuck was to go spearfishing with his grandfather and father in the Caribbean on their family yacht to talk about his plans for the future and of course, discuss where he would attend college before working in the family business. He had an anxiousness about going home and wanted to make his own mark in the world but seemed to have a deep sense of resentment of where he was in the family pecking order.
Me, on the other hand, I would arrive home to an impatient father who told me to stay in the service because it was “Reaganomics” with no jobs in his opinion. He was disappointed I had not stayed in to make a career in the military as he had done.
“We need to get to the bookstore before it closes” I declared to Chuck, he agreed. We grabbed a taxi and it was not long before we arrived. We walked straight to the cashier, to ask for the “self-help” section. She sundered through a maze of rows ahead of us until she gestured in its direction as she rounded the corner out of sight. And there we were, standing in front of a long section of books about five rows high and about 20 ft long. Still not knowing what “self-help” really meant I decided to jump right in scanning from the top left shelf and working my way to the right. Row by row, I read every single bookbinding to find what caught my eye. Amazed with all of the attention-getting titles, I started setting books aside in stacks of potential picks I would take home. I was starting to understand what he meant by “Find what jumps off the shelf at you.”
As I went through my stacks my excitement grew. I decided I could probably afford two or three right now and narrowed down the selection to three definite titles that grabbed my attention. “The Magic of Thinking Big” by Schwartz, of course, I thought, the title just got my immediate attention. The second; “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. Again, what a great title, just what I needed to see. The third title was so strange I had to pick it up and read some of the introduction; “Psycho-Cybernetics” by Maxwell Maltz. He was a plastic surgeon who made people beautiful. But inside, they still felt ugly and damaged. I guess I related to this because of how I looked so impeccable in my uniform but underneath the surface, I had so much anxiety, rage, and frustration, it was severely impairing my life. So, I felt this book needed to find me.
Chuck also picked up some books and seemed thankful for the insights and we took a taxi back to our barracks. That evening, after lights out I went to the laundry room of the squad bay because the lights were on all night and there were some chairs to sit and read. I remember opening the treasures I had found with a great sense of anticipation. As I read through the first few chapters I realized this was really my first experience of wanting to read. Up until then, I had been forced to read in school and had to read to pass the exams in my military vocational schools. This felt completely different, this was by choice and it was liberating to think and to imagine where this would take me. Little did I know that self-help and personal development would completely transform me and would be my source of healing and growth for the rest of my life. A five-minute conversation with a complete stranger, actually, in retrospect, an angel, put on my path to irreversibly interrupt the upward trajectory of my life.
As I read further, my mind was on fire with ideas and insights that were completely new to me. Up until this point in my life, I had read only a few books completely. I think it had to do with my self-image. My father had always referred to me as “stupo”, “Deufus” or “moron”, I didn’t think I was very smart because he literally told me I was stupid. I was dumbed down from infancy and I grew to hate him for this. As I awoke more and more through these first chapters of awakening, I felt a sense of gratitude for this person choosing to share this with me. I often remember our conversation and wish I could thank him one more time.
Chapter and book after book, I started to get a glimpse of how I had lived my life and how I used numbness to avoid my pain. How my negative self-image and self-worth had been determined by my father, the very person who was supposed to uphold and help me. I was both sad and angry until I decided to talk with a number of my relatives about him. I wanted to understand the monster I feared and hated. I got a good glimpse of his upbringing from a couple of my aunts. I realized that he had a terrible and violent childhood and had to drop out of school in the 7th or 8th grade to pick fruit in the Fresno Valley of California to help support the family. He then joined the Marines and suffered through some extremely traumatic experiences in Korea he couldn’t speak about. He then transferred to the Air Force as a Combat Reconnaissance photographer and from what I heard after he died, he was shot down with his pilot and had to evade capture by living in the jungles and swamps until his rescue. I often wondered growing up why he was so uncomfortable around water and never got in the pool with us. He made his second wife promise she would never share anything about him and what he opened up to her about, until after he had passed. At least he found someone to share his pain with I thought but I resented the fact that he didn’t tell me these things from father to son.
Self-medicating with alcohol was his way of killing his pain. Another pain killer for him was his job as a bouncer at the largest Mexican bar in South Phoenix called “Salon Mexico”. He thrived on the confrontations and violence every Friday and Saturday night and would go straight from the Air Force base to the bar to change out of his uniform. On many weekend mornings, I would see his stitches and bruises and he would share how he maced and thumped people with his baton who were too drunk or who confronted him.
I would often relive his stories first hand as he would point at the dried pools of blood on the dance floor and outside the exits. He would laugh and joke and point to the stitches across his hand where he had been cut with a knife and then tell me about how he had to take down a group of drunk and defiant thugs. And then he would tell me to clean it up. I was essentially free child labor at about age 12, working as a janitor at the bar on weekend mornings. One day, he simply told me to get in the car because he was taking me to work with him. At first, I was excited to see where he worked, until he told me the janitor quit and that it was an emergency he volunteered to handle in order to get the club ready for tonight. I didn’t realize this would be my new weekend job for the months ahead. To make things worse, my only pay were thousands of Coors Light beer cans left over from the night before. At the end of each Saturday and Sunday cleaning, under the heat of the Phoenix mid-day scorching sun, I would have the privilege of loading up fifty to a hundred cases of used, rancid beer cans to take home and stack on the side of our house. Every month or so we would make a haul to the recycler where I would finally get some actual pay. It was disgusting, I still can’t stand the sight of Coors Light beer, not even the logo on a sign. But this wasn’t the worst part of my experience of Salon Mexico. Cleaning the women’s bathroom of a bar with over 1,000 customers per night was by far the lowest point of my life and not good for the psyche of a young man.
So much for that tangent, all this to say, my father was a troubled and violent soul who didn’t know the damage he was causing with his ignorance.
As I continued to read my world continued to open up. I also discovered the world of audiobooks and found that I much preferred them as I could lose myself in the narrations and stories. Reading for me, while therapeutic, was laboring and I would often find myself looking at the page number I was on compared to the rest of the book. This left me frustrated and the number of books I owned and intended to get to was growing exponentially. I would most often find myself dosing off after just a chapter or so. It was frustrating because there was so much I needed to know and to learn. Audiobooks opened my time up for learning and everywhere I went in my car, or when I would workout with headphones, I was listening and my mind was expanding.
Through my learning, I began to unearth who I am. Who I really am