When you’ve been around a few decades—I’m into my seventh now, as of last October—you occasionally find yourself thinking back to certain decisions you made and wonder what life would’ve been like if you’d made a different call. When you’re a kid, it’s usually decisions made by your parents that have the greatest impact, and there wasn’t much you could do about those at the time. But around the age of 14 or 15, you can start thinking for yourself a bit more. Or at least you should. For guys at that age, most decisions don’t go past the upcoming weekend: Do I dare ask Mary Jane for a date? In the game Friday night, do I drive the hoop or go with my jump shot? What movie will me and the guys go see Saturday night (assuming MJ turns me down again)?
Young teens rarely think very far ahead. I really didn’t start planning my post-high school future until I was 17, in my junior year at Potosi. I had pretty much decided on a career in broadcasting, and was thinking that Naval ROTC would be the way to go. The only campus in the University of Wisconsin system back then that offered NROTC was the big one in Madison, so I was focused on that. But after my knee injury and subsequent surgery, I convinced myself that the military would never accept me, so I put NROTC and Madison out of my mind and thought a campus closer to home, UW-Platteville, would be better. (As it turned out, it almost certainly was a better choice than Madison would’ve been, even without NROTC.)
But there was a point a few years before that when I could’ve made a decision that might have had a profound impact on my life, and it never really occurred to me at the time.
In the summer of 1971, after my 8th grade school year ended, my folks took us on a camping vacation out West. This endeavor involved putting our tent and other gear in the rooftop carrier on top of Dad’s ’68 Oldsmobile, filling up the trunk with clothes and a cooler full of water, pop and sandwiches, and setting forth, with my parents in the front seat (Dad almost always at the wheel) and us three boys in the back. Remember, this was long before the days of onboard TV screens or portable game players. We had the radio and that was it. (And it was AM only besides.) Occasionally Mom would sit in back so us boys could rotate through the front passenger seat. Somehow, in spite of the primitive conditions, we managed to go on camping trips to South Dakota, then Colorado and then Florida, without anybody committing homicide or child abuse.
We eventually arrived in Colorado and spent a few days camping at a mountainside place near Colorado Springs. One day we made our way to the Air Force Academy and took an informal tour. I remember being very impressed with their basketball and hockey arenas, and the football stadium. Although I had never played hockey, I loved basketball and intended to give football a try that fall as a high school freshman. If I remember correctly, sometime after the tour my father asked me if I would ever be interested in attending the academy. I probably grunted something noncommittal—this was when I was beginning my Dad’s-sometimes-an-idiot phase—but I wonder now what would’ve happened had I said, “Yeah, let’s take a look at it.”
Getting into AFA, like the military academy at West Point and naval academy at Annapolis, is not easy. I would’ve had to dedicate myself to excelling in the classroom, on the basketball court and in the community for the four short years of my high school days. I wound up getting very good grades anyway, and was all-conference in hoops my senior year, but that wouldn’t have been enough. I especially would’ve had to up my game in math. But I had excellent teachers in math back then, Mr. Heck and Mr. Schicker, and I’m sure they would’ve helped me with special tutoring. Still, it would’ve been a lot of work with no guarantee of securing an appointment from my congressman, much less qualifying to enter the academy.
But what if I had done that and succeeded? Right after high school graduation at the beginning of June in 1975, I would’ve been off to Colorado for six weeks of Basic Cadet Training (BCT). The AFA website today says, “You’ll be pushed to your limits, and beyond.”
Assuming I would’ve survived BCT, then I would’ve begun the rigors of academic and social life at the academy. Add to that, joining the basketball team, and playing ball at an academy doesn’t cut you any slack in the classroom as it so often does at civilian schools. Could a small-town Wisconsin kid even make it onto the team? Well, this year’s roster of the AFA Falcons showed a dozen states represented among the 20 players, including a kid from Woodbury, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities, and smallish towns in Illinois, Georgia and Texas.
I could’ve been a “Zoomie”…maybe.
It’s fun to daydream about what-might-have-been every now and then. Suppose I had worked my tail off at Potosi, spending a lot more time studying and working on my game and doing community projects than I did chasing girls, and all that work pays off with an appointment to the academy? Suppose I would’ve survived BCT and later that fall made it onto the basketball team? And further suppose that I would’ve had a good four years at AFA, played a lot of basketball, and gotten a degree from a top-flight institution without spending a dime? (Girl-chasing would probably not have happened, certainly not in my freshman year; women were admitted beginning with the 1976-77 school year, and they were outnumbered 20-1 by the men.)
And then, as the Air Force anthem goes, “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder.” For me, being a pilot would’ve been out of the question, thanks to my borderline eyesight and 6’5″ of height that would’ve ruled me out of being in a cockpit even if I didn’t have to wear glasses. But there is plenty to do in the Air Force that doesn’t involve the glamorous job of being a pilot, especially a fighter jock.
Overall, AFA cadets are a diverse but well-qualified group. The Class of 2016 broke down this way: 77% male, 23% female; 26% considered members of minority groups; 46% were pilot-qualified. Nearly one in ten were Eagle Scouts. Their average high school GPA was 3.86, average SAT scores were 643 verbal, 673 math. Of the 812 in the class who wound up graduating, 345 (42.5%) went on to pilot training, with another 11 grads going to navigator training. Sixty would become drone pilots—where, presumably, eyesight and height don’t matter. But there were no drones in 1979. Still, I’m sure I could’ve found something to suit my abilities.
Maybe I could’ve gone into intelligence work; today’s Air Force has more than a dozen MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) listings for intelligence work. Another intriguing option: Special Operations. The Air Force Special Operations Command was formed in 1990, and today it is part of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which includes Army Special Forces (“Green Berets”) Navy SEALs, Delta Force, and probably a lot more we don’t know about. That would’ve been exciting work indeed, involving as it does a lot of parachuting behind enemy lines, working with front-line ground troops as an airstrike controller, and many other duties that don’t necessarily involve piloting an aircraft. I could’ve retired after 20 years of active duty in 1999, or maybe tack on another five just for kicks, and by 2004, the year I turned 48, I would’ve been able to find a nice (well-paying) civilian job while still enjoying full military benefits. And what rank could I have achieved? Historically, about 1.5% of AFA grads eventually wear general’s stars.
SpecOps wannabes are all over TV these days.
I started thinking about this again recently while watching a limited-run “reality” series on the History Channel, The Selection: Special Operations Experiment. The premise of the show is to take 30 men and women with no military background and place them in a boot camp environment in which they’re subjected to much of the same training regimen as real special operations troops, only without weapons. The candidates can drop out anytime they want by simply telling the cadre of instructors—all retired special operators themselves—that they’re done. The show followed the candidates over less than two weeks’ time and it didn’t take long before most of the starting 30 gave up. In the end, only three made it to the end of the final “evolution,” a long trek carrying a full rucksack, known as a “ruck march,” under the hot Southern California sun. They were all men; seven of the original 30 were women, including twin sisters. The ages of the candidates ranged from 21-45, and the oldest in the group, 45-year-old Christian Griffith, was one of the three who survived. (Names of the candidates were never mentioned during the show; everyone had a number, and they quit by taking their number patch off and handing it to an instructor. Griffith was No. 11, and the cadre recognized early on that he might very well have the right stuff.)
All the way through, I was measuring myself against the challenges the candidates faced. How would I fare? There were some that I was sure I could handle, such as the calisthenics, hand-to-hand combatives and the swimming tests in the pool. Others, like the long ruck marches, would’ve been very tough. I have read extensively about U.S. military Special Operations training in the various services, and nobody—nobody—aces everything. No matter how physically fit a person is going in, the evolutions will eventually get you. It all comes down to mental toughness, or as we taekwondo black belts call it, indomitable spirit.
Last spring, another show was aired that served as an inspiration: American Grit on Fox. The host was pro wrestler and actor John Cena, and his cadre consisted of four veterans: two men from the Army, one of whom was a Ranger sniper and the other a sergeant who had lost an arm and a leg in combat; a woman who’d been a Marine; and former Navy SEAL Rorke Denver, who had starred in the movie Act of Valor after leaving the service. Each member of the cadre started with four contestants who were put through a series of evolutions involving military-style training and team-building exercises. The team that won that day’s evolution was safe for the next round, but each losing team had to send one of its members to the “circus,” a final test of endurance. Every circus was guaranteed to end with one of the contestants failing and “ringing out,” leaving the show by ringing a large bell, similar to what Navy SEAL candidates have to do when they VW (voluntarily withdraw).
I don’t know what the survivors on The Competition got in terms of compensation, but on the first season of American Grit the winning team shared $250,000, and if I remember correctly there were three members who split the kitty. The second season will kick off June 11th, with four new cadre members and 17 contestants, ten of whom are women.
Sue and I watched the first season and the more I thought about the show, the more I realized that I wanted to be on it. The season ended in June but there was no announcement about a second season until around the first of August. I sent in my online application and actually had a phone interview with the company that Fox was using for the selection process, but I didn’t make it past that round. If I had, I would’ve had a follow up Skype interview, and success there would’ve led to a personal interview at the Fox studios in Los Angeles. It would’ve been great fun to take Sue to LA and maybe get to meet Cena. Of course if I’d gotten that far, I would’ve been greatly disappointed if I hadn’t made the final cut to get on the show. It would’ve meant taking about a month of unpaid leave from my job, but I’d already spoken to my boss about it and she was amenable. Alas, we will never know how I would’ve done.
In reading about this new season, it became clear to me why I wasn’t chosen for Season 2’s cast. Unlike Season 1, whose cast included a former NFL wide receiver, an Olympic gold medalist in track, a police officer, a lumberjack, a professional ocean fisherman and several more physically-fit, mentally-tough individuals, they’re taking a radically different approach this time, writes Andy Denhart of realityblurred.com: American Grit Season 2
The addition of the son of former heavyweight champ (and portable grill pitchman) George Foreman brings something of a celebrity cachet to the show that was missing, although not necessarily missed, last season. But one has to wonder if this year’s cadre will be spending more time helping these people deal with their feelings as opposed to coaching them on how to achieve their goals on the course. In the interview, Cena’s enthusiasm for the new season seems feigned. It appeared he truly enjoyed himself the first time around and got to rub elbows with like-minded individuals. Every now and then one of them would need a gut check, and Cena was there to provide it in the form of a one-on-one, no-holds-barred talk. They always seemed to have an impact, except for the first one, with an egotistical, self-proclaimed “trainer to the stars” from LA who turned out to be the first contestant to fail the circus. This year, Cena might find his pep talks to be quite different.
Another thing about the first season was that there was very little drama in the “house,” which tends to be a staple of reality shows. There has to be conflict; Season 1 provided that by matching the teams against each other in rigorous challenges. Generally, though, these shows try to gin up conflict among the contestants. There really wasn’t any of that last year; the only drama, such that it was, occurred when one of the men, a young pro-wrestler-wannabe who thought it was the coolest thing ever to have a beer with John Cena, engaged in some occasional make-out sessions with an older woman athlete who was on the show largely because her father was a Marine.
So, in retrospect, I’m glad I’m not on the show. I probably would’ve tossed half of my housemates out the window in the first episode. But I’ll have the DVR whirring when Season 2 premières; Sue and I will be out of the country then, in Peru on our latest adventure.
Putting ourselves to the test.
Maybe that long-ago decision not to pursue a military career was what prompted me to start pushing myself, even though it took about 25 years to get there. I started martial arts training in 2001 and it was every bit as challenging as I expected, and far more rewarding. Now I hold black belts in two disciplines and have trained with warrior martial artists from all over the world. I became a certified scuba diver in 1998, and since then Sue and I have dived many times in the Caribbean and South Pacific. In the last several years, in part to rehab knee replacements but also to hold off the impact of (gack!) aging, I have ramped up my own workouts, often engaging the services of a personal trainer to push myself to the next level. A typical week now finds me swimming three mornings a week and in the gym three more, taking the day off on Sunday (but using that day to take the dog for a walk, weather permitting). The result of all this is that my weight is down about 20 pounds in the past year and I generally feel better than I have in quite some time. If a little more sore, but that’s the price one has to pay, I guess. As they say, no pain, no gain. Actually, I prefer this saying, when it comes to pain:
I’m the first to say that while I have worked hard at my fitness, there are many people out there who can’t get to this level no matter how hard they might try, or how badly they might want it. For those folks, we who are fit and healthy (and paying taxes) need to provide a helping hand. But I’m also aware, through my own work for the government going on 14 years now, that a lot of people are in that category because of poor choices they’ve made. One of my issues with the current healthcare debate is that not nearly enough is being done to inspire people to live healthier, fitter lifestyles. But inspiring people to do something is hard; giving them money after the fact is relatively easy by comparison. Until we start approaching our healthcare politics in a way that isn’t bass-ackwards, we will continue to struggle as a society with this most important of issues.
My novels’ protagonists are either members of the military or martial artists— in the case of Jo Ann Geary, star of the White Vixen series, she’s both— and so I’ve had to do a lot of research into military training and operations. Tons of books have been written in recent years by veterans of our current operations overseas, and we’ve even seen a resurgence in memoirs about Vietnam. My research for my next novel, which will involve a modern-day Army Special Forces officer and his Rough Rider great-great-grandfather, has led me to read some of the work of Dick Couch, who served in Vietnam as a Navy SEAL and who since then has written some great accounts of modern-day military training as well as some first-rate fiction. And as I read these accounts of the off-the-charts strenuous training these young people today are undergoing—all of them volunteers, remember—I wonder how I would’ve done.
This summer, in a way, I will find out. Sue and I are going to Peru in June to hike the Salkantay Trail, five days of trekking through the Andes and finishing at the famed Inca mountaintop city of Machu Picchu. I’ve talked to friends at the pool who’ve done the trek and they it was some of the most rigorous— and fun— days they’ve ever had. To say we’re looking forward to it is an understatement.
I’ll never be an Air Force special operator, or a Green Beret or a Navy SEAL, but that’s okay. If I’d gone to AFA, I never would’ve met Sue, my two great kids would never have been born, and our Yorkie, Sophie, would be living somewhere else. Put in those terms, my decision to avoid the challenge of the academy turned out pretty well.
Now, though, the time for my ultimate test is coming. When we’re on the Salkantay in two months, I’ll be pushing myself to limits I’ve never approached before. There will be several hours of hiking every day, with altitudes in excess of 15,000 feet. There will be trail guides, of course, but no cadre sergeants yelling at us to keep up or drop out. We won’t be turning in our patches or ringing the bell to go home. Once we get on that plane in Minneapolis for the long flight through Atlanta and Lima to Cusco, we will be committed to what may turn out to be our greatest adventure.
And this time, I will answer the question, “Can I meet the challenge?”