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The Ride, the Rose, and the Resurrection
A True Story about Crisis, Faith, and Survival
By David Charles Stieler
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 David Charles Stieler
All rights reserved.
Square Peg—Round Hole
* * *
Whoever said that happiness is watching a workplace disappear in the rearview mirror has never been forced to sit idle. Trading a livelihood for leisurely living may sound appealing when the hounds are howling, but after all of the stressful issues have finally been resolved and the dust has settled on that last decisive challenge, the overwhelming sense of uselessness that comes with inactivity is crippling. The longer a guy is out of the game, the more he is inclined to crave being a player.
Sometime during the winter of 2006, thoughts of retirement began seriously crowding my scenery. Visions of laying down the wrenches and kicking back into a life of leisure had always been in the back of my mind, but other than putting money into an IRA and paying off the mortgage, I had not formulated much of a plan for crossing that career-ending finish line. It occurred to me that making the transition from dream to reality was no longer all that far into the future, but gazing over the hill at the backside of fifty also presented an interesting dilemma. Do people actually put away their careers and still have purpose? More to the point, could I ever realistically afford to stop working?
For years I had been quietly observing the lifestyles of the retired and anonymous. At one end of the spectrum, the golden years seemed to be characterized as winters spent in Florida playing shuffleboard, Tuesday morning tee times, and a wardrobe consisting of plaid polyester slacks and polo shirts. On the flip side there was Bubba in his backyard next to the outdoor refrigerator, charring burgers on the grill, a spatula in one hand and a beer in the other, sporting a sleeveless football jersey and a ball cap with his favorite NASCAR driver's number on the back.
Both images screamed "Run for your life!" Although certain aspects of nearly every lifestyle held a measure of appeal, the thought of a pigeonholed existence to any extreme scared me to death.
Understandably, my idea of front-yard, hands-on hobbies would likely be considered intolerable inside one of those sterile gated communities full of perfectly manicured lawns and painted driveways. Likewise, I would find no comfort living in a neighborhood full of cars on blocks, staring at the engine parts spread across the guy next door's front porch.
In other words, if I decided to spend my retirement years on a golf course, it would probably have to be as the cart mechanic. Fun is relevant, but there needs to be something more tangible than bragging rights to show for the time I invest in leisure activity. A score card just doesn't do it for me.
And there lay the problem: What exactly was retirement supposed to look like, anyway?
Dad was a World War II veteran who had lost his leg to a German mortar. If anything, the challenges he faced as a leg amputee inspired him to rise above the obstacles and show the world that he did not need crutches. He pursued happiness through independence and self-discipline.
Like most folks of his generation, war and strife had hardened Dad. Growing up without a mother during the Great Depression of the 1930s forced him and his eight siblings into survival through the school of hard knocks. Nobody had held their hands when they were faced with adversity, so they weren't about to hold anyone else's. When it came time to introduce their own children to the ways of the world, all they had to fall back on was their pitiless self-confidence.
When I was somewhere around the age of nine, Dad tagged me with the nickname Daze, probably because I always struggled when handed chores that didn't come with instructions. It never occurred to me that his approach to getting things done might actually have been a vote of confidence in my ability to handle them on my own.
It was disappointing after each project had been finished to watch Dad review my bent-nail-and-split-board quality of workmanship with head-shaking frustration while grumbling under his breath. My nickname was eventually changed from Daze to Dunce. I pictured myself in the front corner of the classroom, wearing one of those cone-shaped hats while classmates pointed and snickered.
In spite of feeling as though I would never be able to please him, I still loved my dad. Adolescence wasn't all that bad by comparison. Our guidance had certainly been laced with impressive doses of fear, rejection, disappointment, and uncertainty, but at the time, there seemed to be nothing unusual about the way my brothers, my sister, and I were being raised.
By the time I was a teenager, life for the most part had become void of any recreational interaction with my parents. I always had a job at the family business to earn spending money, so there was never any lack of opportunity to learn the value of a buck. But once the time card went through the clock at the end of the workday, the Dunce was usually nowhere to be found.
Dad frequently tracked me down to lend a hand with his backyard projects, but even on a good day our working relationship was halfhearted at best. We had little patience for each other.
About halfway through one of those father-and-son weekend encounters, progress at the work site came to a screeching halt when I finally threw down my tools out of frustration and staged my own protest. I was tired of trying to read his mind only to be scolded for having misinterpreted some elusive gesture. I got into Dad's face and took a full swing at his chin with a closed fist, but I pulled the punch inches before making contact when something in my eighteen-year-old brain suddenly brought me to my senses.
Firing a warning shot across his bow certainly seemed to get his attention. After that showdown, Dad dropped the nicknames and began making a noticeable effort to include me during the planning stages of every project we launched together. Owing to what appeared to be a total change of heart, my father found ways to explain what he was trying to accomplish while we worked. My little mutiny had somehow earned his respect.
The episode also established in me a significant sense of sovereignty. It goes without saying that someone must lead and others should follow, but following felt a lot like being pushed around to me, and that was unacceptable. One successful rebellion against authority and I was ready to make it through life on my own. Unfortunately, because of that bullheaded independence, I never learned the art of losing.
Looking back, I have to admit that Dad's tough love seemed an appropriate way to teach self-discipline. Personal responsibility was deeply ingrained. Aside from his one-legged swagger, he was very much like many of the other dads I knew. The world today might be a better place for everyone if misbehaving juveniles with their droopy drawers and flat-brimmed attitudes were forced to face Dad's brand of discipline.
Through my teenage years in the 1960s, our small rural community experienced its share of economic euphoria. Following the terror brought on by World War II and the Korean War, Americans were industrious and profitable, but their bullish behavior spawned a generation of overfed, rebellious children later known as the Baby Boomers. Public optimism began to wane only after the first shots had been fired in Southeast Asia. That's when the all-knowing, all-seeing politicians in Washington, DC, started shipping young men into the jungles of Vietnam to fight an enemy nobody knew how to identify.
Vietnam was an unpopular war to say the least. Nobody wanted to go there, but once the US Army's draft lottery numbers had been drawn, those who were chosen faced very few options. Many Boomers rose up and rebelled against the war. Some left the country, while others burned their draft cards and joined the growing number of protesters. I stood on the sidelines and watched, trying to avoid a trip to Vietnam by attending college.
There was a very real fear of what the future had in store for my generation. In spite of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address and Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" oration, civil unrest and cultural disharmony seemed to prevail. But Dad's method of raising children had not only taught us to ignore the color of another man's skin; he had also inadvertently prepared me to face the jaws of death without flinching.
After two miserable years trying to maintain a grade point average high enough to avoid flunking out of school, I finally gave up. At the age of twenty, with no particular interest in anything beyond finding a paying job and getting on with life in 1969, I became the family's first college dropout.
Factory jobs weren't hard to find in those days, so the transition from student to laborer went smoothly. In no time my pockets were full of spending money and I hadn't a care in the world. That was obviously an extremely shortsighted point of view. It didn't take long for the US Army to receive word that I was no longer a student. In August 1969, friends and hippies exploring their communal peace of mind headed for the little town of Bethel, New York, for an event called Woodstock. I, on the other hand, landed a round-trip bus ride to the Armed Forces Induction Center at Fort Wayne, Detroit, to undergo the army's preinduction physical examination.
While being herded from room to room in our underwear during the physical examination process that day, a group of us who had been crammed together in a corner discovered the military's lottery within the lottery. We watched a marine liaison emerge from his cubicle, walk over to a line of draftees, and tag every third guy as an inductee into the Corps.
"Can they do that?" I whispered to the guy standing next to me. "They can't draft guys into the marines, can they?"
"Apparently they can," he whispered back. "I know my number's comin' up, so when I get out of here, I'm gonna go see the navy recruiter. There's no way I'm gonna be a marine!"
Everyone knew that both the US Army and the Marine Corps guaranteed its soldiers an all-expense paid trip straight into the jaws of combat. Contemplating that bone-chilling prospect sent a wave of fear shivering through my body.
A week later I paid a visit to the US Air Force recruiter in Port Huron, Michigan. He put my name on the list for the next scheduled session of air force entrance exams and stuck my application into his files. Thank God for that bit of foresight. On behalf of the war department, Uncle Sam sent me a Christmas card that year with a personal invitation to join the party. One frantic phone call to the air force recruiter's office, and the army's paperwork was intercepted. Two days later I signed on the dotted line and became a brand-new US Air Force recruit through the delayed enlistment program, although the delay wasn't nearly as long as I would have preferred. Three more months of civilian life and I was wheels-up aboard a military charter flight, wondering what had happened to that freedom everyone always talked about.
For entirely different reasons, both Woodstock and the military were interesting and eye-opening experiences. Country Joe sang protest songs to the throngs of young adults crowding the stage set up in the Catskills while GI Joe waded through the jungles, trying to avoid contact with the Vietcong.
My twenty-first birthday came and went while in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. My next stop was twelve weeks of aircraft maintenance training. On August 1, 1970, I married my girlfriend, Carole, and then climbed aboard a flight bound for Southeast Asia.
So much for avoiding the war in Vietnam.
Although I never experienced a real fear of dying while overseas, I honestly did not expect to come home alive. One night in October 1970, two months into my tour, that fatalistic premonition rubbed shoulders with reality when a C-130 I should have been aboard went missing. My friend Tom Bosnick was on that flight. We were both very upset by the fact that our squadron commander would not authorize me to join him as his maintenance assistant. Tom took off for Taipei, and I returned to the barracks. The wreckage and remains were finally found two weeks later, plastered to the side of a mountain seventy-five miles off course. Everyone aboard had perished.
Shortly after that airplane went down, I was taken off the flight line and assigned a desk job. So ended the threat of having to fly into a firefight at treetop level over the jungles of Vietnam.
I wasn't one of those who were spit on when they came back stateside, but I sure didn't receive a hero's welcome either. "Ignored" would be a more fitting description of the reception received when I was feet-dry on American soil. Regardless, I was proud to have served my country honorably, and nobody was going to take that away from me.
The public's lack of respect didn't really faze me. I was just happy to be back in the arms of the girl that I had married only two weeks prior to shipping out for Taiwan.
I came home to Michigan and rejoined the family business after being discharged from the air force in September 1973. There were a lot of other career opportunities to explore, but I had been programmed to take the safe, conservative route. Buying into and owning the family business seemed to be the socially accepted and responsible thing to do at the time, so into the cauldron I dove.
I was haunted by my decision to walk away from college, and this caused me to seriously contemplate the future. The key to happiness would be independence, but independence required an education. Thanks to the GI Bill, college tuition funding was available. I spent my nights and weekends pursuing a degree, one course at a time.
The wheels hauling my young family unit toward financial security were in motion, but it wasn't long before that train derailed. I finally abandoned my plans to take over the business in 1979, when Dad had an emotional meltdown and leveled his sights on me after verbally firing defensive rounds into every corner of his executives' offices. Once again, the plunder of disappointment had carried the day.
Slipping back into survival mode, I walked away from the family operation for the last time and spent the next few years traveling as a working musician until leaving the road to finish college and start a home-based bookkeeping business. Carole supported the kids and me while I struggled to develop a future.
Near the end of the recession that had lain to waste so much of America's industry in the 1970s, men in black suits from the IRS audited my parents' livelihood and retirement plans into oblivion. Witnessing the way our government had allowed one of its agencies to turn so venomously on my father, a disabled veteran, was breathtaking. The IRS agents sent to conduct an audit were the equivalent of Nazi storm troopers dispatched by the SS. Those guys weren't there to help preserve the operation; their assignment was to gut what few assets remained and leave the carcass for local buzzards to pick apart.
Our parents' encounter with that bureaucratic death squad taught me to be wary of the potential for destruction at the hands of strangers whose sinister authority granted sufficient power to crush lives. Looking back I can see how the experience ignited in me a bitter fear of failure, which might explain my cynical attitude and relentless effort to keep my own little world from unraveling.
Generally speaking, however, there was not much remorse among my siblings and me over the unfortunate demise of the family business. Compassion during our formative years had never been a prime directive. Besides, we had all moved on to other things in our own lives, so the end of a would-be legacy presented no personal sacrifice. We just stood with hands in pockets on the sidelines watching Mom and Dad's ship go down, dragging their little nest egg with it.
Growing up in a family business while living in a rural farming community offered very little opportunity for becoming streetwise. A couple of pyramid scams handed me some hard lessons, but there were still a few enticing shell games to trip over until my necessary education in survival had been polished.
While I was still struggling to get my little bookkeeping business up and running, an old high school friend approached with a plan for saving his floundering manufacturing operation. I needed an income, and he needed someone with experience to manage his business operation, so we joined forces. His offer included ownership in the operation in lieu of a decent salary. The arrangement seemed legitimate and provided all the incentive needed to sign on with reckless abandon. The deal was done on a handshake. He dangled the bait, and I swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.
Excerpted from The Ride, the Rose, and the Resurrection by David Charles Stieler. Copyright © 2013 David Charles Stieler. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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