Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Hand You're Dealt

Life is either not fair, pure and simple, or it’s what you make of it, come what may. I don’t mean to complain. I try to count my blessings. Every once in a while, however, I think about my lot in life. True, the bigger questions about meaning and purpose usually preoccupy my contemplative life. How did all of this get here? Why are we here? Is there something beyond the material realm? Yet I also think about my social and economic status from time to time. An introspective moment in the latter sense  came to me again this past weekend when I was fulfilling my Army drill duty at Fort Elroy.

I assisted my platoon sergeant in a land navigation exercise out in the vast woods south of the installation. We would instruct soldiers in the basics of identifying terrain features, finding coordinates on a map, and using a compass. I might not have a clue in life, and I can get lost in the urban jungle; but I’m good at land navigation. Give me a compass, throw me into a forest, and I’m G to G. It’s a dying skill, however, what with GPS and other technologies. I’m told that the military doesn’t include instruction on it in basic training anymore. Anyway, many of the soldiers last Saturday had a tough time locating the three coordinates that we required them to find. The way it works is that each soldier (and later we had them go out in pairs) uses the coordinates and distances he or she already plotted on the map in order to find yellow wooden posts. Each post has a number on it. The soldier would write this number down to prove he or she indeed found the coordinate. Sometimes soldiers would get lost or just take too long to find their points.  Concerned about their safety on a humd day, we would take the Humvees out to look for them along the perimeter roads.

Okay, the foregoing paragraphs were gratuitous set-up for what I really wanted to write! One of the soldiers whom I’ll call Private Snuffy volunteered to search for lost soldiers with his own vehicle. Hours later we hadn’t heard from him and had to send out a search party for the search party! Private Snuffy, who I happen to know works for a rail company, is a rotund man in his mid to late twenties; frankly, he shouldn’t be in the military because of his weight alone. More to the point, he’s not the brightest apple in the bushel. At the risk of sounding insensitive, I suspect he was a special ed student back in school. He’s not just dense in the head; he also has a way of getting under your skin. He invades people’s body space and stares at you with creepy eyes. Anyway, it turns out he got his brand new, red Suburban with an exhaust pipe as big as a cannon stuck in a place he shouldn’t have been driving it in the first place. I would think twice driving even a Humvee through the thickets and heavy brush, but he had no such compunction.

Once we spotted him, we took two Humvees out recover his vehicle. My platoon sergeant hitched up the truck to pull it out as the rest of us stood by in amazement at Private Snuffy. He wasn’t even apologetic; rather, perhaps in an effort to deal with the scoffing and our dumbfounded expressions, he was putting on a macho front. “Yeah, it don’t matter to me. It’s just a truck.” It took some effort but we got the vehicle out. Lucky for Private Snuffy! He could have had a situation on his hands for the rest of the weekend.

Now, here’s my thought-process during all of this. Private Snuffy apparently has all the money in the world. Granted, I don’t have a passion for rail, but he nonetheless has a great job. (I know about his job because I first met him in April when I was in California for Annual Training. At the time he was boasting about having provided soldiers with safety vests from his company.) And maybe there’s something I don’t know, like his father being the owner of the company or him getting some kind of disability benefit for life.

Nonetheless, I looked at this fat, lazy, insensitive dumbass lacking social skills as he sat in his nice big truck. (A sergeant informed me that Private Snuffy once owned an even larger vehicle but that he probably got rid of it because he was getting fatter and it became more difficult to climb up into it.)  Then I turned introspective. I have higher degrees, presumably a modicum of intelligence, an awareness of the world beyond myself, and sensitivity toward the perceptions and needs of others. So I should be living in a castle in comparison to this guy, right? Nope, it doesn’t work that way. Life deals you your hand and you make the best of it. I don’t begrudge Private Snuffy for his prosperity and insouciance. Moreover, it’s not like I dwell on my lot in life all the time. I can’t help but ask, though, why my life couldn’t have turned out slightly better than it did, you know?

I learned over many years of disappointment and dashed expectations to get excited over scraps from the table.  Going up against hard reality, my objectives gradually diminished in scope.  I had set out to land a tenure-track position as a university professor and applied diligently for over a decade.  I had publications, a great teaching record, and involement in academic conferences.  Nowadays I'd be happy to teach as a part-time adjunct.  Before you sanguine types and optimists beat me to the punch, let me acknowledge again that I count my blessings. I have my health, wonderful children, a home, sources of income, and I have time to write blogs about my discontent in life. What more could I ask?  Well, a castle for starters.