"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost
Looking back, I'm sure many of us can identify certain benchmark moments, places where two roads diverged in a wood, times when something happened, usually a decision-based event that we could've taken one direction or another, that had lasting impact on the remainder of our lives. Right? Moments that we know if we went back to and tweaked one little bit, we could've ended up someplace significantly different. I do, anyway. In fact, I can come up with several of those moments.
Sometimes, I wish I could go back and tweak some of them.
One of my first examples was at Ranger School. Yep, that was pretty nearly the toughest half hour of my life to date.
See, by the summer of '89 I was a fresh young college--West Point, at that--graduate. I was dang proud of it, too. Not only had I graduated with Dean's List stamped under most of the semesters on my transcript, but I'd also double-majored in two pretty tough disciplines, toured much of the nation in the Glee Club, and racked up some great experiences in the Cadet Chapel Choir as well as the Theatre Arts Guild. And I'd chosen infantry as my branch, not so much because I enjoyed it but rather in homage to many a general officer who had begun their careers in the most combative of combat arms.
Heck, I could even close my eyes and envision the stars of a flag officer already shining from my lapels.
I don't recall a whole lot of Officer's Basic Course except that it confirmed my already fairly lofty opinion of myself. We'd had to qualify Expert on our M-16s in the hottest part of an August day (in Georgia) or else we couldn't leave the range, and I'd quickly figured out that the chief concern wasn't aiming--I grew up shooting and had already qualified Expert several times--but rather keeping the sweat out of my eyes as I did so. One slight adjustment to the routine, and voila! I left the range on time. Same with the land navigation course--I killed it. I was just that good.
We also had this road march. Well, we had a great many road marches, all in the name of what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. This one was particularly brutal, though, because it came as a surprise after a night exercise in the fall. It got really cold that night, and we were all laying in the dirt, so through the course of the silent hours we all slipped our long undies out of our rucks and under our BDUs, and then donned our cold weather gear on top. First light, then, we were swooped up on trucks (open-backed, of course) and taken through still-frigid air to some spot out on some road in the middle of--well, somewhere. "Line up and march" came the order, and off we went. The Lesson, I suppose, was that we needed to be prepared for anything. We weren't. As the humid heat of the Autumn day rose and the air above the asphalt turned oven-esque, people who were still wearing long undies couldn't drink enough water to keep up. Only seven of us, out of the original thirty-some, reached the finish. By that point I was carrying my own M-16, one of the M-60 machine guns and its complement of (blank, of course) 7.62 rounds, and two LAW rocket launchers in addition to my rather heavy rucksack. Granted, I'm pretty certain that if there'd been an enemy attack at the moment we'd arrived I would've been in no shape to fire any of 'em. But at least I made it.
The lesson of the day for us was supposed to be Be Prepared For Anything. For the guy who sneaked up behind a cadre member and lifted his rucksack with a single finger, it was that Cadre Cheat. For me, it was a I'm God's gift to the U.S. Infantry.
No, really. And don't laugh. We've all known some young 21-year-old who's God's Gift to something. That was me. The fact that I can recognize that attitude now has helped me many times over dealing with that same attitude in the youthful students with whom I regularly come in contact.
Only thing was, I really didn't want to go to Ranger School after IOBC.
See, all I'd heard about Ranger School was how much it sucked. How you went days without eating or sleeping. How people died there all the time but the Army kept it hush-hush. Nobody ever really talked about what the learning objectives for the eight weeks of simulated hell in four different climates really were; the buzz was all about the suck. And while I was hearing all this, I was looking around at the Infantry and finding out that you don't have to be Ranger qualified to be in most units in the Army. It's not a prerequisite for the pretty silver star on the lapel, either.
To me, then, Ranger School merely represented 8 weeks of meaningless suckage that stood between me and getting out and doing my job, commanding hardworking troops in service to a grateful nation while defending the Constitution against all enemies, and--well, all that stuff.
I really didn't want to go.
Besides, I'd met Rangers during my training at West Point. I'd worked with Special Forces folks too. I'd noticed a huge difference. The Rangers, to me, filled their uniforms with bluff and bluster; while in Airborne school in the summer I spent at Ft. Benning, you could tell the Rangers were on their way to the club because their ego would arrive 15 minutes before they did. The SF, not so much. I sorta liked the SF guys. I really respected the SF guys. They didn't bluff and bluster at all; in fact, they hardly even spoke. When they did, you heard more than they said. They'd say "Cadet, while moving down this path your unit really should slow down and fan out to the sides," but you'd hear, "Cadet, I can think of 36 ways to kill you without touching my weapon so while moving down this path your unit really should slow down and fan out to the sides so I don't have to test one of those 36 ways." No, I'm serious. The SF trainers who worked with us weren't big men, nor were they physically notable in any manner, nor did they display any particular meanness in attitude, but there was just this thing about glancing up at night to see one standing right over my shoulder watching me that freaked me the hell out.
I wanted to be one. Of the SF, not the Rangers. And it wasn't SF school I was headed to, it was Ranger School.
Now, a quick disclaimer is needed--I'm describing the attitudes I held then. Since that time I've grown up a lot and learned even more. But this was then. My attitudes, especially toward the Rangers, weren't right, but they were what I had.
Anyway, the thing was, I had to go. Had to. One thing an infantry officer didn't want on his record was a notice that he turned down a spin at the holiest of grails. Notice I didn't say I had to pass, though. I had to go. Many people at the time would fail out their first time around, and (from what I understood) they'd go back to base camp to wash windows and floors and such (and wow, was that base camp clean) till the next class started a couple of weeks later. It was literally called "recycling." Of course, the soldier had the choice of returning (or reporting, if he hadn't been yet) to his unit.
Which, have I already mentioned that was where I wanted to be?
So the first day of Ranger School we all gathered on the bleachers, some four hundred and *mumbledy* of us. It was cold, being January in Georgia, and dark, being oh-my-God-it's-only-four-thirty. So then the show began as a guy who perfectly fit my already-formed notion of a Ranger leaped up in front of us and started preachin' about how hard we'd have it, how much we'd gain out of it (yeah, right--did you hear about me toting an M-16 and an M-60, Sergeant? I can teach you a thing or two about toughness already), and how there were about a hundred more people there than they had spaces for in the start. Only the best would get to go, and the rest could just wait till the next start.
Fine. First test: push-ups. Everybody has to do minimum of 62 pushups to get into the school. At the time, I could do 62 pushups without really working hard. I waited in line just like everybody else, and when it came time for me I plopped right down on my hands and toes and did 62 of the most perfect pushups I've ever done. Then I made a mistake: I stopped and looked up at the cadre member who was responsible for my official count.
"Fifty-six," he stated in a flat voice.
See, now I know that was a mistake. They were looking for desire, for effort, not for 62 perfect pushups. Who the hell really cares whether a person can execute 62 perfect pushups if they have the heart to make it through the real tests?
Incidentally, everybody else, I'd noticed, had to be told to stop; I assumed that meant the dummies had lost count in the cold.
Continuing the mistake, then, I did the math quickly: 62 minus 56 is 6. I did six more perfect pushups and looked up at him again.
"Fifty-seven," he said in an even flatter voice.
Now, with the benefit of years of experience, I know he was giving me a chance to wise up.
I didn't take it.
That was that moment.
Despite the fact that I still had plenty more pushups in me, I just plopped right on down into the mud, rolled over, and sauntered over to the "we failed" line. I blamed it on the cadre member, in fact; those were perfect damn pushups, and everybody knows Rangers are arrogant, and he didn't like me, so he'd made it impossible for me to pass the test. His test was the failure, not me.
I was wrong, though. His test had actually worked perfectly. He was looking to see if I really wanted it, and I didn't, and that had been brought to light. Brilliant guy that I was, I was just too dense to realize it.
All right. Dumb move, right? Sure. But I've made plenty of dumb moves in the past, many even dumber than this. So why does this qualify as one of those moments, you're asking? It's because it really did set up a series of events, none of which I could've known at the time, that significantly impacted my career (short as it ended up being). To wit: I arrived at my duty station the day after the unit had left on a training exercise, which meant that I met the battalion XO first. He wasn't too bad of a guy, but he was very, very hooah Ranger oriented. So much so, in fact, that the very first thing he said to me was "where's your tab?" Not hi, not welcome to our happy unit, not we're glad to see you. "Where's your tab, Lieutenant?" I told him about failing out and how I wanted to eventually go back and blah and blah and blah, but to be honest, I'm surprised he was able to keep a straight face through my lame excuse. I know I'd have a hard time doing so at this point in my life.
Hell, I'd probably have put myself on the next flight back to Georgia, with a bootprint on the 21-year-old-God's-Gift's butt if needed.
The timing meant something else, though. It meant that I arrived at the unit four months before a change of command. Had I completed that ranger school cycle, it would've been two months before. Had I recycled, it would've been even less. The key is that at changes of command every officer who's been there for three months or longer gets a review. My review from that four month period, for various and well-deserved reasons, was very, very bad. Now, later on I redeemed myself, but that wasn't how the Army worked back then. In fact, when I called branch to ask about a transfer to signal corps, the guy actually laughed at me: "We're reducing our force, and a guy like you with a four-block OER is more likely to get kicked out than rewarded with a branch transfer."
That OER even eventually cost me a Captain's spot in the National Guard, believe it or not. "We picked [the other officer] because you had a very bad review on active service." "It was my very first four months. I've had one-blocks since then." "Doesn't matter."
*sigh* Lesson learned. Too late for that path, but it's helped on others.
The timing did other things, too, but all the effects are too long-winded to mention here. The important thing is that at that one moment, the point in time when I made the decision to leave Ranger School and go to my base, I made a bad choice in that I should have taken the time and had the patience to thoroughly prepare myself for the career I had set myself up for. All that said, though, in addition to simply making a bad choice, I also unknowingly set myself down a path that eventually led to several more significant failures.
Unfortunately, unless you are a Time Lord yourself or happen to know one, you can't go back and change Those Moments. Still, don't you wish there were a way to recognize Those Moments when they're happening?
Wouldn't it be nice if there really were diverging paths to see?