Paths Not Taken

(Written November 10, 2003) Be advised that what follows are the arm chair ramblings of an Old Fart, which may or may not have a point. If you consider such to be a waste of time you can stop now.

This weekend I was talking with a friend from the Old Days, and one bit of news he had was that a guy I had known in high school, “Tom”, had died - although he had no further information. In the time when I was in high school, although it was the early 60’s, the “60’s” had not yet begun. The Beatles were still a brand new band, and no one male even thought about wearing long hair. There were two social groups in high school, the Surfers/Collegians and the Greasers. I hung with the Greasers, whose main point seemed to be impressing the world with the fact that they were Bad Asses. I guess I was never really more than a BA wannabe - I did get in little bits of trouble here and there, but nothing ever serious enough to get expelled or locked up for. No so with Tom, who was the genuine article. He hung with all the baddest guys, got arrested and locked up on a regular basis, and never did finish high school because he was finally permanently expelled. I was actually pretty proud of the fact that he and I socialized in the Industrial Ed classes (for those learning a “trade”, without expectations of college in their future) - it was like just hanging out with the guy gave me some BA credentials.

I “graduated” from HS with a 1.8 GPA, which is better than what Tom did. At about 17 or so he got a girl pregnant and via a shot gun wedding he became the first of the Class of 1965 to get married, although it may not yet have been 1965. He also got expelled for whatever reason before graduation.

After high school I was pretty much a loose cannon, working jobs I didn’t much care for and doing my best to get into serious trouble. Viet Nam was just starting up in earnest and I figured nothing would burnish my BA credentials like being a Returning Combat Veteran (ahhh, the “logic” of youth…) So into the Army I went, near the end of 65. A couple of months later, while home on leave from Basic Training, I was sitting on a friend’s porch one evening and heard lots of gun fire erupting very nearby. Turns out it was a “fire fight” between two rival motorcycle gangs, the Pagans and the Avengers. This was right in Arlington Virginia and created a hell of a lot of noise, although they must have been lousy shots because I don’t think anyone was actually hit.

Anyhow, the next day, right there on TV, were most of the crew I had hung out with in high school - all hand-cuffed to a chain and being led into the court house. I have no way of saying for sure, but I think there were pretty good odds that if I hadn’t joined the Army when I did, that I might have been in that line up too. If not that one then likely another one, for I was certainly on that sort of path.

Years later, at either my 20th or 25th HS reunion (the only two I ever went to) - I ran into Tom again. Although he had never graduated, this was the class year he should have graduated with, and he came to visit. But this time the tables were somewhat turned, as many of the guys we had hung out with didn’t come, and he was glad to see me as I was one of the few people there that he knew. His life had not been easy and he was looking a lot more beaten down than the guy I knew in high school. He was bemoaning the fact that with his record the police never stopped harassing him, although I suspect he may have had something to do with the continued difficulties. Still, whether self inflicted or not, his path was not easy and he was barely making it on low end jobs. And that was the last I ever saw of him. Then the news this weekend.

Which got me to thinking once again (a common disease of Old Farts) about the forks in the road and decisions we make every day. To run that light or not, wear that condom, drop out of school for a summer. Some big decisions have small consequences, while some seemingly small ones can make a huge difference. Mostly we can never know what might have happened if we had taken any of those countless other forks in the road, although sometimes we do get glimpses. Which was the case with Tom.

If I hadn’t joined the Army when I did, I might have well been a lot closer to the place that Tom was when I saw him last. Almost certainly I would never have made it to college. The only way I went as it was (10 years out of high school as a freshman in the local community college) was having the GI Bill to pay for it. And even with that I can’t believe now how close a thing it was. The deadline for using the education benefits was approaching and it was not something I had ever thought much about it. Then, in the period of a couple of days, I made the decision to “give it a shot” while I still had the benefits - pretty much a spur of the moment sort of thing. Without the GI Bill I’m sure the idea would probably never have even seriously arisen.

And while I was on those sorts of thoughts, I recalled another path not taken, although this was much more literal with far more drastic consequences. In Viet Nam we were getting ready to leave a hill top one morning, after having spent the night there. For whatever tactical reason we were moving out in separate, small units of one or two squads, and at slightly different times. I was the point man for our squad that morning, and I started down a trail that led in the general direction we were going. Not too far down the trail I veered off of it for some reason. Maybe something in the back of my mind reminded me that walking on the trail was pretty dumb, or maybe it was just a matter of seeing a more direct path to our immediate destination. Some time later we heard a large explosion behind us. It turned out that the squad that left after we did came down the same trail, but they stayed on it and ran into a large booby trap. Their point man was seriously messed up, with some one saying he had “lost half his face”, and many other serious injuries. I don’t even remember his name now, or if he survived. But if he did survive it was certainly on a much harder path than the one I had. That was one of those small decisions with huge consequences, although I guess we can never know which those are going to be.
(NOTE: some years after I wrote this I ran into this guy at a Vietnam reunion - there was no visible evidence of his injuries, and he seemed to be doing quite well)

So what is my point - well, not sure that there is one, other than maybe being aware of the ongoing daily drama of watching our lives unfold. But then you were warned that this was just going to be Old Fart ramblings…

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