Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Be All You Can Be, But What All Would That Be?

There are times in my professional life where I truly wonder if I chose the right career path.

When I was a kid playing little league baseball, I thought I would grow up to be a professional baseball player. A shortstop for the Detroit Tigers. I was scouted when I was fifteen. But at that same time, I fell in love with soccer. I picked the game up quick and found that I could easily dribble the ball in circles around my opposition.

When I went to try out for the baseball team the next spring, our soccer coach put the word out I would not be allowed to play baseball. So I was cut before I even tried out.

That sent my Dad through the roof. I think he wanted my brother Paul and I to grow up and be baseball players too. I'm not sure my Dad ever really forgave me for that decision. I regret it still today. No, I don't think I would have been a pro baseball player.

Our soccer team was pretty elite – and we did have a shot to win the state (of Georgia) championship next fall. We came close but it didn't pan out. But I did get scouted to play college soccer. Remember that in the U.S. the term College is almost synonymous with the term University in Canada. I played soccer in college and was hurt shortly after our first season, destroying my knee. At the same time, I was also journalism major and a political science minor. But the professor there said I should quit journalism as the written word is going to vanish and be replaced by television. And in his opinion I had no chance of being a television journalist. So I switched to Computer Science.

Shortly afterwards I withdrew.

I was there to play soccer – I thought. If I can't play, then I shouldn't be here. I still regret that decision too.

After that I did some wandering around trying to 'find myself'. I did take a crack at playing a higher level of Soccer – but the knee was just not ready yet. And I did try to go back to school, both in New Orleans and in Baton Rouge. But I kept running out of funding.

I enlisted into the United States Coast Guard after watching a documentary on TV about the rescue divers. "I'm a great swimmer", I thought to myself. "I could really be a great rescue diver too!"

So down to New Orleans I went to enlist.

One of the questions the recruitment officer asked me was my nationality. "Canadian", I replied. "That shouldn't be a problem", he stated as he signed my papers and set me up to ship out to Cape May, New Jersey for boot camp. And while the military style of life was both intimidating and difficult, I liked the Coast Guard and found there was nothing they could throw at me I couldn't do.

I aced the swimming tests. I aced the written tests. But when the running portions of the physical exam were held, I finished with a limp on my right leg. My knee was not quite ready for that kind of running.

Shortly after that I found myself in the office of the Admiral of the base. I wish I remember his name. I do have his signature – on my honorable discharge papers.

It seems they don't let Canadian's in the Coast guard reach a rank any higher than a Seaman Recruit. That translates to the lowest rank of Private in the Army. My Coast Guard career would have consisted of mopping floors at the hospital on base until I achieved U.S. citizenship. That would take about five years. I had enlisted for four.

"I don't know why you're here son?" Said the Admiral as I stood at attention.

"Sir, I want to be a rescue diver, sir!" I snapped back as my minimal training had taught me to always start a sentence with Sir, and you ended that sentence with Sir.

"At ease, boy", he replied.

"Sir, Permission to speak freely , Sir?" I requested, not quite so snappish this time.

"I think that would be in order, seaman."

"Sir, I am an excellent athlete, and an accomplished swimmer. I had a scholarship to play soccer. I know I could be an outstanding diver, Sir."

"Some think you came here to get free surgery on your knee, boy."

"Sir, I've had the surgery, and the knee gets stronger every day", I said – now in a normal speaking voice, with all the sincerity I could muster.

"You're a Canadian, son?" he asked.

"I am Sir."

"Why did you not apply for American Citizenship? Don't you want to be an American, boy?" he asked.

"Sir, it had never been an issue before, I guess I never really thought I wasn't one, Sir."

That man looked me up and down. And he told me the rules. And rules in the Military are most definitely rules. And he asked me for the name of my recruiting officer, which at the time I still remembered, and told him.

"You should never have gotten this far, Fred." He said. I was stunned to hear my name. No one had called me Fred for four whole weeks. But he called me Fred.

"Your recruiting officer will be disciplined. And I am sorry that I have to give you two options, and the decision must be made right now." He said. "You can either apply right now for American citizenship and spend the remainder of your time on base as a Seaman recruit, or I will sign this Honorable Discharge for you and you can leave in the morning." The Admiral was still sitting in his chair behind his beautiful cherry red wood desk, he sat back and looked at me. It was not a mean look. It was the look of a man who was being sincere with me.

"I can't be a rescue diver, can I sir."

"Not in this tour son."

"I can't serve on a ship either?"

"Sorry".

"I guess I am of little use here, Sir. I want to be useful."

"Then you should go home and be useful to your family."

"Aye-aye, Sir."

And he signed my papers.

I am still a Canadian citizen still to this day. I am also loosely considered an American veteran, although I would never claim to be, nor expect any of the benefits of one.

When I returned to Baton Rouge, I found work. Hard work. Managing the night crew at a huge grocery store for a couple of years, and driving delivery trucks and warehouse work for an electrical supply company after that. And I learned that hard work means hard and work. And I knew that I had to get an education and figure out soon what it was I was supposed to do with my life.

When I came back to Canada to go to back to school, the Canadian Immigration officer at the Sarnia, Ontario port of entry said to me "Welcome home". I took that to heart. "They want me here!"

And since being back in Canada, I have always felt at home. Southern drawl or not, I am Canadian.

Since returning to Canada, I achieved my diploma, and for the past twenty-something years have been working in IT or IS - whichever you prefer – the last fifteen years at various levels of project management. And I have a pretty lengthy list of professional accomplishments, not to mention a wonderful family of a wife, two little girls, and now a cat and a dog, all living in what is still our dream home.

But I still sit and wonder about the decisions I made earlier in life. And I still regret I was never a rescue diver for the United States Coast Guard.

And tomorrow I'm getting this bloody knee fixed again.

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