That summer flew by as I worked like a dog for the sake of my little gardening business and then the day finally came when I had to go to summer school.
Math, my archenemy, fought me on a daily basis for those few weeks, but amazingly, I passed the class and happily got my diploma.
I remember that day, running through the halls of the school one last time. I felt like shouting, “I’m the king of the world!”
Finally, it was over! I almost didn’t pass my summer school math class but after intense study and all night cramming was able to pass my final exam.
Even Mr. Carroll couldn’t get under my skin that day as I saw him walking to his office. I had just accomplished a major goal and nothing was going to mess up my day!
I finally attained my primary goal: passing high school. I was a graduate for real with the big world waiting in front of me.
For all four years in high school, I lived in a dream thinking that I would go to college to become a landscape architect after high school then after I graduated college, I would have a full-fledged landscape business.
And now with the start of college fast approaching and no scholarship or fat bank account to support me, I kept asking myself, “Is this what I really want to do with my life?”
I didn’t know what I wanted and didn’t feel like spending my money on text books or college courses, waiting for the answer to come to me and I was also beginning to question if I wanted to stay in gardening and landscaping for the rest of my life.
I knew an older guy, who was a family friend who had a little gardening and tree trimming business like mine and yet, at his age he was still working like a slave and not getting ahead in life.
My friend’s name was Pat; he was only in his mid 40’s but he looked much older because of the many years that he had spent working in the hot sun performing backbreaking labor.
Pat had no college education or a certification in Landscaping.
He got into the business at an early age, married young, and now he was too old to go into anything else and with his responsibilities was stuck and unable to do anything else with his life.
I did not want to work day after day for the next 20 years of my life like him, doing the same thing and one day wake up and find myself worn down by life just like him.
I was beginning to see that if I wanted to get anywhere in life, that I had better start thinking about a career in something.
But what did I want to have a career in?
What did I want to be? A fireman, policeman, politician, actor, businessman, serve in the military or be a teacher? I didn’t know.
The general advice that adults gave me at the time was “just pick one of those careers and stick with it for fifteen or twenty years” because then I would have a good job and a steady income to build a life for myself, marry and start a family.
That advice sounds rational and good, but it just didn’t excite me. I didn’t want to spend the next twenty years of my life living the same day over and over again until one day, I could retire and actually do something with my life that would make me happy and might make a difference in the world.
I felt that I had talents, I did well in managing and running my small gardening business, I could lead others and solve problems but I didn’t know how to apply those talents to a long term career in something that would make me happy.
I was considering everything from joining the Peace Corps to being a fitness instructor on a cruise ship, but nothing in particular struck my internal desire.
I felt lost.
Cliff and I continued to bounce around for a while when one Saturday as we were on our way to buy some items at the local K-Mart he announced that he had joined the Air Force.
I stopped the truck.
“You? You’re going into the Air Force?” I asked perplexed.
I thought Cliff was joking because he had always seemed like the anti establishment type.
“Yeah,” he said, “my step-dad convinced me to do it.” He looked shocked at his own words while he talked about it.
Cliff hated his step-dad and I couldn’t believe that he took his step-dad’s advice and joined the Air Force.
“Jer, I just can’t believe that it’s happening. I thought our lives would easily go on like now, forever,” he said.
“I know dude, I know,” I said.
I didn’t think we would keep loafing around for another 20 years, because it was already getting old just after a few months but what I did hope for was that Cliff and I would have a close, lifelong friendship and now, it looked like that wasn’t going to happen.
“Jer? Have you thought about what you want to do with your life?” Cliff asked.
“I don’t know Dude,” I said. “Maybe I should explore the same options as you.”
Cliff knew how I felt about my little gardening business. He knew that I just was not excited about it anymore as I once was so he started to encourage me to follow the same path as him.
“I think you‘re right Dude. Maybe I will look into joining the Air Force and do something with my life, because right now I just don’t feel like my life is going anywhere. I’m sick of what I’m doing and I want more out of life” I said.
I was getting tired of doing gardening work every single day because it was taking a physical toll on my body. Every day, I came home exhausted and sun burnt from being outside all day. And it wasn’t as financially rewarding as it once was in high school because now I had to support myself off the income from my gardening accounts and I didn’t have enough money coming in to live off of.
I was beginning to hate it.
I had been gardening consistently ever since I first started working when I was 10 years old. I felt like a burnt out old man at age 18 and couldn’t see myself continuing with this line of work.
“Jeremy, I think you should consider the Air Force too. Maybe we can go in together!” Cliff said with a hopeful look on his face.
And so, my father, took me to see the Air Force recruiter in El Cajon the following week to see if I had a future in that branch of the military.
After meeting with the Air Force recruiter and taking a few tests I quickly realized that I didn’t have the mechanical aptitude for it and decided not to pursue the Air Force as a career possibility.
I walked out of the Air Force recruiters office depressed, feeling like I was handed another strike in my young life because of my bad math and mechanical skills.
“Don’t give up son, maybe tomorrow I can take you to see the recruiter for the Army.” My father said
The next day my father took me to see an Army recruiter in San Diego. From the second I walked through the door to the recruiter’s office, I was swooped up by one of the Army recruiters who was eager to show me all of the benefits of devoting four years of my life to the United States Army.
It’s true what they say about military recruiters being good salesmen. They really do know their business from A to Z and will do whatever it takes to make sure that you sign up with them.
This recruiter looked like Joe Peschi’s clone and had the New York accent to match.
As we sat in his dingy little office with cheap motivational pictures hanging on the walls, I didn’t know if I should stay or run for my life.
“What do you want to do with your life?” The recruiter asked me. “Do you want to go to college? Because you know, the Army offers you $12,000 for college if you enroll with us.”
“I don’t know Sir I’m just exploring my options right now,” I said.
“Okay how about this: sign up with me today and we will offer you $12,000 for college plus a $2,000 signing bonus just for signing up.”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Okay, okay, okay, here is my final offer: sign up with me today and I will give you $12,000 for college, $2,000 signing bonus, and guarantee that you get stationed somewhere with hot chicks like Hawaii or someplace.”
“What do you think?” “If you get stationed in a place like Hawaii or Japan you can have a new chick every day of the week,” he said.
“Damn, I wish I was 18 again. I had so much fun when I was your age and stationed overseas.
“When I was stationed in Japan, my buddies and I practically lived in the whorehouses every weekend and knew every chick there by name.”
“Hell, I probably have a few kids running around over there that I don’t know about,” he said laughing “That’s my final offer, kid, what do you think?” The recruiter asked.
“Well, I think I will take you up on your final offer.” I replied.
Growing up I was a big fan of action movies like Rambo, Full Metal Jacket and loved playing soldier with my friends so I thought, “I can be a soldier, why not?”
I almost made the biggest mistake of my life.
The reason I didn’t end up in the Army was because of my always reliable honesty.
Before the military accepts you, you undergo a battery of physical and writing tests for them to determine if you fit their standards.
On one of their tests, they ask you to answer questions about your medical history.
They tell you to tell the complete truth because some Air Force recruits died in basic training the previous year, after failing to mention that they had asthma.
Remembering what my parents always told me about telling the truth, I put down that I was diagnosed with asthma when I was 10 years old.
This diagnosis turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.
The curse: it ended any chance of getting into the military for four years because they were scared that I was a health risk and I was PMR, permanently medically rejected for four years.
It was a blessing because the following week, I went hiking in the dessert with Victor, a “gung ho,” friend that served in the Marines.
Victor took me and my friend Shane on a total boot camp march through 100-degree heat without the freedom of stopping for any breaks.
Being the “gung-ho,” Marine that he was, Victor also made us stay up all night and pack hiking packs that contained water, rations, clothes, tools and our sleeping bags.
I hated carrying the massive pack on my back, walking on rocky terrain, and dodging the ever present rattlesnakes.
I was tired and miserable, and so was my friend Shane who became dehydrated and exhausted and I ended up carrying his pack for him.
Victor quickly saw that I was miserable and Shane was dehydrated and exhausted and decided to end the hike only after a few hours and drive us home.
Once we got back to his air conditioned Jeep, I couldn’t believe that I could have been doing this for the next four to five years of my life, unable to stop, rest and make decisions for myself when I wanted to.
“I’m such a stupid idiot!” I said to myself over and over again as Victor drove us home.
That night, once I got home I had a huge dinner and went straight for the bathtub for a hot bath, as I soaked in my super hot bath I thanked God for not letting me make the biggest mistake of my life and saving me from four years of pain in the Army.
So there I was, wondering again, “What do I want to do with my life?”
The military was now absolutely out of the question. There were no other quick long-term fixes I could think of and I didn’t know where to look next.
I felt like I was lost in an unending labyrinth unable to get out.
I really wanted something solid to build into a career, but nothing came my way, at lest not yet.
As I was busy questioning myself. Cliff was preparing to leave for basic training in the Air Force.
We looked to that day with mutual fear and sadness, and decided to spend every minute and every second of Cliff’s final days of freedom like it was our last.
We stayed up late ever night partying, saw every movie, hooked up with old girlfriends, played “mailbox baseball,” egged cars and toilet papered houses knowing that these were our last fun times together and we would never do these things again.
Finally, the day came when I had to take Cliff to the bus station. I held back my emotions, knowing that I might never see my friend again.
We stopped at the station without really knowing what to say to each other because we had become like brothers and we would miss the bond we had established since our senior year in high school.
I looked at Cliff and thanked him for everything he had done for me over the previous year and told him that I would always be a phone call away if he ever needed me. And then we shook hands, hugged and he got out of my truck and headed for the bus with his suitcase in hand on his way to boot camp.
That would be the last I would see of my friend for almost four years. During his time away from home, he wrote letters, constantly telling me of the ups and downs of his new life.
One day my prophecy about one of us getting married early in life came true.
I got a letter on day from Cliff that told me that he had met a beautiful girl in the Air Force named Laura and they had had a whirlwind romance and were married soon after.
Cliff was always the romantic, so it did not surprise me or anyone in my family that he went this route so early in life.
I sent him an “I told you so,” card and congratulated him on his new union and wished him nothing but the very best.
That wedding announcement would be the last I would see or hear of my friend for a long time. He steadily got involved in his new life in the Air Force and our relationship slowly grew more distant.
It’s really hard to maintain a relationship with someone who lives far away and has a totally different life than you do.
The last few times that we talked on the phone, it almost felt like we were two strangers talking to each other.
Cliff now had a wife and a home, and here I was, still struggling with the first phase of my life and still living at home while he was doing things far more adult and full of responsibility than I was.
We would not see each other for a while, but when we did meet again, I was shocked at how different he had become in such a short period of time…….