Andy called me Saturday morning. He was driving back to Camp Lejeune from Fort Benning in Georgia. He usually calls me when he is bored, and apparently the drive across Georgia is amazingly boring. He had been at Fort Benning for three weeks in Airborne school, part of his Special Forces training.
“I graduated,” he told me.
“Congratulations!” I said. “I saw your pictures on Facebook.”
“I don’t know if you want to hear this,” he went on, “but I amost died.”
There is not much you can say when your son tells you that. “NO, I DON’T WANT TO HEAR THAT!” is the first thing that comes to mind. But it seemed like he really wanted to tell me, so I let him tell me the story.
To make a long story a little more entertaining, you might want to watch the above YouTube video of the last week of Airborne training. The students do five jumps from a lower altitude before they can graduate. Andy told me they all have two parachutes, one on their back and one on their front. The back chute will open automatically after four seconds. If they count to six seconds and their chute does not open, they must manually open their front chute, like a failsafe. From the moment they jump (or are pushed out the door), they have twenty seconds before they hit the ground.
Andy got to six seconds and realized his back chute did open, but for some reason it didn’t open completely. It was just streaming, closed, in the air above him. He opened his front chute, but he said that because of the little bit of drag created by having his main chute flapping above him, the front chute didn’t do what it was supposed to do and instead just wrapped around his face so he couldn’t see. He heard his instructors yelling around him, and like an answer to prayer, the main chute finally caught the wind and opened. Then boom, he was on the ground. Everyone came running up to him and told him he’d scared the #$@ out of them.
He said there’s no time to be scared, it all happens so fast you just do what you have to do. He seemed totally fine with the whole thing, as you might expect from a young man who wants adventure and to see the world. At one point during our conversation, he said, “You only get one life. I wish I believed in reincarnation so I could do it all again.”
He went on to talk about what he wants to do in the future. Three more years in the Marines, and while he is still active duty he plans to earn most or all of his bachelor’s degree in some kind of science. When he gets out, he wants to go to graduate school with his GI Bill, then teach for a while while he works on his Doctorate. THEN, he wants to submit his application to NASA to be an astronaut. “How can they refuse me?” he said in all sincerity. I felt a tad bit faint.
I miss him being away, but I am so proud of all his accomplishments. He knows, like he said, that he only gets one shot at life, one chance to be 24 and getting paid to jump out of airplanes. He knows what he wants, and he is living his dream.
I think about my life, going to work, coming home, housework, and a little TV. Every day. My kids are gone, so for the most part I do what I want. But what do I want? I know I don’t want to jump out of airplanes, but surely there is something more out there. I may not be able to go where the action is, but I can create my own action. I can make each day count by investing in other people’s lives, by just being a friend. Instead of putzing around the house on a Saturday off, I can help my friend move, or go visit my dad and take him a casserole. I can go out to eat with my daughter, and have a good chat. I can make a nice meal for my husband, and listen to him tell me about his day.
You only have one life. And what do you have at the end of it unless you have spent your time doing things that truly matter? I guess, when you hit the second half of your life and the clock is ticking down instead of up, you start to think more about these things. Andy’s clock is still ticking up, and he’s already figured it out.
I may tell him, though, that I don’t want to hear bad stories about the second phase of his airborne training – high altitude jumps. I’m pretty sure that would be the end of me.