The only thing constant in life…

It’s been three months since my last post, and that means I’m not doing very well in sticking to my goal of one or two posts per month. I do, however, have an excuse.

About the time I published the most recent one, in the middle of February, I reached a decision about my ongoing radio work. I had moved up from part-time to full-time at the Koser Radio Network in Rice Lake, Wis., as of March 1, 2021, and now I was getting tired of that, to be honest. The money was good and the work was challenging, but I had come to realize that working that many hours–38-40 per week, by my count, when it was supposed to be about 32–was keeping me away from the gym and the pool too often, and just as importantly, the grind was keeping me away from writing. Something had to change, and I decided that the radio job would be the one to go. Part of it, anyway.

One of the best bosses I ever had in radio, or in any job, for that matter, was a fellow named Perry St. John. He was the general manager of WKTY/WSPL Radio in La Crosse, Wis., from 1984-88, during my tenure there. I well remember him saying this: “The only thing constant in life is change.” Perry taught me a lot about radio, which only stood to reason, because he had more than a quarter-century of experience in the business by the time he arrived in La Crosse from Des Moines, Ia., where he’d been a successful announcer and program director for many years: PSJ’s switch from rock to country.

Perry showed us how to make radio not only profitable, but fun, with stunts like putting announcers on billboards for their show.

Mike Kearns, one of my friends and colleagues at WKTY during the ’80s, did his show live from a billboard one time. If I remember, he won the “Radio Hero Contest” hands down. Mike passed away about a year ago, but we had many great times together in the studio.

Remembering what Perry had said all those years ago, I knew that making the change from full-time down to part-time radio work would go just fine. In terms of career changes, it was really small potatoes, nothing like the one I’d made in 1999, when I left radio entirely for a 20-year sojourn through the world of customer service, in the private and public sectors, with some radio work on the side thrown in.

So, I told my boss in mid-February, as I approached my first anniversary on the job, that I wanted to cut back. I would hold onto the morning show on WJMC-FM but would give up the production director job. He agreed, a decision no doubt made easier by the fact that the announcer I’d replaced a year earlier had indicated a desire to return. So, as of March 21, it was airshift-only for yours truly.

Last Friday, I completed my 9th week in the new regimen, and things have gone well. At first I felt a sort of disconnect with the rest of the staff, since I would be concluding my (half-)day around 9:30am, when the rest of the staff was barely settling into their days. Typically, my most contact has been with the other early-morning folks at the station, and I might say hello to the rest of the staff on my way out the door.

But the time…ah, the extra time! I can go to the gym, to the pool, or home early to get to work on the novel. It quickly became clear to me that my decision had been the right one, and I was able to resume work in earnest on the new book.

The Man In the Arena

When I started thinking about the new book, I thought that this one would be more personal than the rest, more literary, if you will, with less of an emphasis on action than my previous work. The genesis of it was personal, after all. It involved that question almost everybody asks at some point in their lives: what if I’d made a different choice?

It was the summer of 1971, before the start of my freshman year of high school. We left our home in southwest Wisconsin on a family driving vacation to Colorado, sleeping in a tent, eating most meals out of the trunk of my dad’s ’68 Oldsmobile. We had no particular itinerary, desiring only to see the mountains. When we got there, we’d see about what there might be to do.

One day, when we were near Colorado Springs, the suggestion was made that we visit the U.S. Air Force Academy. So we did, driving over to the campus and wandering around, unescorted. While such impromptu touring would never be allowed today, things were more relaxed half a century ago. It being summertime, classes were not in session, although incoming freshmen–doolies, as they were called and as I would learn much, much later–were nearby, attending Beast, which is indoctrination and basic training for new cadets. I don’t recall interacting with any Academy personnel, cadets or otherwise, but I do remember being very impressed with their athletic facilities.

The Academy basketball gym, Clune Arena, has been upgraded since my visit all those years ago, but it was mighty impressive to a young kid who would soon be playing on a tile floor in a gym with seating for maybe 500 fans.

When we returned to our campground, my father asked me if I might be interested in attending AFA for college. By then, though, I’d already started thinking seriously about a career in radio, and that meant UW-Platteville, which at the time had a world-class radio/TV broadcasting major. Besides that, I was 14 going on 25 and convinced that my father was, shall we say, out of touch with reality. I’m sure I just gave him a noncommittal grunt, as was my wont in those days. I never did take a look at it, in spite of their terrific basketball arena.

But what if I had?

If I’d entered the Academy in the fall of 1975, after surviving Beast that summer, I wouldn’t have been a pilot-in-training, not with my height and especially poor eyesight. But the Air Force has a lot of other jobs. I might’ve even been able to make the Academy basketball team. AFA’s Falcons were then, and still are, a Division I program that relies on hard-working, smart athletes who aren’t necessarily pro prospects or even good enough, in most cases, to be sought after by the nation’s elite basketball factories, which in those days included schools like UCLA, Marquette and Indiana. Basketball or not–and every cadet must either compete on an interscholastic team or participate in intramurals, a requirement that would never fly at any civilian school–I would’ve graduated in 1979 and been sworn in as a second lieutenant in the Air Force.

Twenty-five years later, it would’ve been 2004 and I would’ve been 47 years old. My four years at the Academy would’ve counted toward my retirement, giving me an actual total of 29 years in uniform. The retirement benefits–pension, healthcare, investment opportunities–would’ve been far better than anything I ever would’ve gotten from a much-longer career in radio. In real life, I’d left radio in ’99 and embarked on a second career in customer service, which would lead to retirement from the Social Security Administration in 2019 with a pretty decent life ahead of me. But even as good as that has been, good enough to allow me to go back to work in radio on my own terms, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good as what that quarter-century-plus in the Air Force would’ve meant.

Had I taken Dad’s suggestion seriously, I could’ve been marching past the iconic AFA Chapel, just like these cadets.

Flying a jet or a helicopter wouldn’t have been an option, as mentioned, but maybe working in Intelligence would’ve been the career path to take after graduation. In the late ’80s, special operations started getting more attention in the entire military, and the Air Force was no exception. Maybe I would’ve transitioned over to Special Tactics for the rest of my career, doing some very exciting stuff, considering how U.S. military operations were going to start ramping up with Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91. At the tail end of my career, I might’ve been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, perhaps both. It would’ve been dangerous, quite probably, but exciting, without question, certainly much more so than what I wound up doing.

So, after that exciting career, then what?

Retired veterans often have a difficult time transitioning back to civilian life, especially if they’ve seen a lot of combat during their time in uniform. We’ve all heard the sad stories of veterans who are homeless, who suffer from mental illness, who commit suicide. While this is certainly a problem that our nation must address (whenever we get around to it), I’m sure most veterans do pretty well once they get home.

But as I consider what my own alternate future might have been, one thing I do know is that I wouldn’t be where I am now. I met my wife Sue on this very date 31 years ago, three days after I started the radio job at WJMC. If I’d gone the Academy route and then made a career of the Air Force, I would certainly never have found myself in Rice Lake in 1991. Sue would’ve wound up spending the rest of her life with another man (or perhaps nobody; she’s told me that if something were ever to happen to me, she would never remarry). Yes, I probably would’ve met and married someone else, but I can’t imagine life without Sue. So, I am satisfied with the decision I made all those years ago. Serving my country in uniform would’ve been fine, but I would’ve missed out on all this:

Practicing a song for church with our daughter, Kim.
Enjoying some father-son time with our son Jim.
Christmas 2021 with our grandson, Pax.
One of my favorite photos of me and the love of my life. Sturgeon Bay, Wis., 2016. Twenty-five years together, on the way to forever.

So, I have no regrets over having passed on the Academy. I got a fine education at UW-Platteville and am proud to be a Pioneer. My career has been (and continues to be) fulfilling. And, most especially, I couldn’t have asked for a better family. With the stresses and strains that a long military career puts on the person in uniform, I doubt I would’ve had any better luck on the family front.

But I can write about my “what-if” scenario, though, which is why work is being wrapped up soon on my next novel, The Man In the Arena. In this book, a young man from a Mississippi River town in southwest Wisconsin makes the decision to forgo college in Wisconsin and instead, fulfilling a promise to his late grandfather, he goes to the Air Force Academy. Twenty-five years after graduating, he comes home, newly retired and not really knowing what’s next for him. I’ve thrown a few major-league curveballs at Jackson Scott Armstrong, Lt. Col., USAF (retired), and he will face more challenges than he anticipates as he rediscovers life among the bluffs and coulees of our state’s Driftless Area.

Even though he’s spent a quarter-century dealing with the enemies of his country, Scott Armstrong will face new and in many ways more daunting challenges when he comes back home to Wisconsin.

The book is scheduled for release on September 3, and I promise to keep you posted. Right now, though, it’s time to enjoy a beautiful spring afternoon and take the dog for a walk. I wouldn’t have had Maisie, either, had I taken that other path all those years ago.

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