The painful process of maturation involves more than simply celebrating a significant birthday that celebrates one’s legal majority. Literature recognizes the significance of this stage of life in “coming of age” stories, such as Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The coming of age process entails a level of angst and pain that those of us who survived that stage decades ago can remember with mixed fondness and regret. We recall that stage of our lives when the world was our oyster, when life beckoned with vast potential, when opportunities seemed limitless.
Then reality kicked us in the teeth.
Although I’ve no direct experience, I imagine that basic military basic training and service accelerate the maturation process. Take an 18-year-old kid who’s grown up without much responsibility and throw him into a situation wherein he’s now subjected to physical and mental duress in the military’s effort to break him down and rebuild him to their specifications, and that kid realizes that life has kicked him in the teeth–and that he’s signed on for at least four years of indentured servitude. That differs vastly from the experience of the college student who eases into adulthood. Military recruits must master in mere months what most college students take four to six years to accomplish: the transition to responsible adulthood.
These thoughts arise from the first letter received yesterday from my younger son who’s in basic training. The platitude is that the first week is the hardest. He misses his family, his home, and his cat more than he expected. I want to tell him that it will get better. Basic training doesn’t last forever. If he does his best, keeps his nose clean, and masters the requirements, life will get easier. But I can’t tell him that, because odds are high that he’ll be deployed overseas after tech school. There’s nothing easy about active duty service, especially for those enduring combat assignments.
My father enlisted in the Air Force, served in Vietnam, and afterward rose through the ranks to Lt. Colonel after transferring to the Ohio Air Guard. My mother was an Air Force nurse. My oldest brother enlisted in the Air Force shortly before the Gulf War. Although we didn’t move around like many military families, I knew the life of waiting for a deployed family member to return home.
One of my earliest childhood memories is waiting with Mommy and two of my brothers–one a toddler, the other still a babe in arms, and the third not yet a twinkle in our father’s eye–on the hot tarmac on a bright summer day as we waited for Daddy to get off the airplane. I remember my mother fretting that my father wouldn’t be one of those soldiers who’d returned home. That memory sums up my personal recollection of the Vietnam War.
I also lived through Women’s Lib, but don’t remember that with any clarity.
Growing up, Dad was there or he wasn’t. He usually returned from his overseas deployments bearing gifts. I still have the swag lamp he brought home from Spain, two cedar chests from Portugal, dolls from several other countries, a crystal candy dish from Germany. Not valuable in themselves, these items mark happy times when Dad came home. My own kids won’t want them when I die, because they’re my memories of a time when Dad was practically superhuman and Mom kept the home fires burning.
My younger son’s own painful and accelerated transition to adulthood has begun away from family. It’s more difficult than he anticipated. More painful. Decisions have new and forceful consequences, especially since Mom and Dad aren’t there to protect him from the full impact. But, if he embraces the maturation process and speeds through the coming of age angst, he’ll find joy and pleasure in the experiences of adulthood as well as pain and disappointment. Because that’s life.
Embrace the suck, Brian. Your homecoming, however temporary when it finally happens, will be a happy time, too, to be savored and tucked away like the precious memory it will become.