Port Chester, N.Y., January 12, 2016 – January 12 was a Friday in 1968.
I had been looking forward to the day for months because the Air Force said that was the day I would return to the U.S. after a three-year tour in England.
That was 48 years ago. In each of those subsequent years, I’ve observed January 12 as a personal holiday that marks an important event in my life: the end of my transition from adolescence to adulthood.
The commemoration, of course, is arbitrary. On January 12, 1968 I was 21 and my cerebral cortex was a work in progress. Even so, I had survived several of life’s common passages. I had left home, endured military basic training, lived in Texas for several months, and managed to find my way from Syracuse’s Hancock Airport to Bentwaters and Woodbridge, the tactical fighter bases where I would spend the next three years.
All of these were notable accomplishments for a teenager from a tiny town in Central New York. Even so, they were not definitive proof of adulthood. The Air Force grooms recruits to make responsible life decisions, so long as they choose to do what they are told. No recruit ever got out of basic training without hearing a sergeant’s precise definition of loco parentis: “While you’re here, I will be your mother. I will be your father. I will be your grandmother and your grandfather. But I will not be your lover, so don’t f**k with me.”
Despite the limited range of choices Mother Air Force offered, I did a fair amount of growing up under her tutelage. I lived in a World War II vintage Quonset hut with three other airmen who could have inspired a Quentin Tarantino romp: a lisping cook who yearned to be a disk jockey and horrified us with explicit fantasies about his sister back home in Detroit; a security police airman with reeking feet who secretly dated the 16-year-old daughter of a master sergeant, and a bathless personnel typist who tried relentlessly to convince us he had a biblical knowledge of Julie Christie.
My days were spent at the Woodbridge chapel across the street, where I was a chaplain’s assistant.
Life in the chapel was an ideal preparation for the ecclesial and ecumenical chores I would have in future years.
But my serene days at a comfortable desk were frequently interrupted by more mundane services to my country, such as monthly KP assignments that began at 0430 hours and ended at 1930, and twice-monthly alert duty. Alerts were little practice wars in which the bases would strive to break speed records for uploading nukes to F4C and F100 tactical fighter jets. My alert assignment was to shoulder an antique M1 carbine and stand menacingly in front of a jet to scare away Commies and the polemicists of the Baader Meinhof Complex, which I always accomplished. It was my contribution to victory in the Cold War.
Despite these frequent unpleasantnesses, I have no unpleasant memories of my Air Force years. These years could well have been the most formative of my life, given that I still dream I never left the Air Force or have been recalled to it as a 70-year-old typewriter jockey with faded chevrons unraveling on my tattered sleeve of care.
I usually don’t dwell on these memories, but they all come hissing back on January 12. Each year on a day that is as dark and cold in Port Chester, N.Y, as it was in England, I resurrect my youth and revisit long past events that seem illogically close at hand.
This year the Proustian rush has been more vivid than usual thanks to a phenomenon that was unthinkable on January 12, 1968: social media. Yesterday Doug Greene, my good friend from those days, posted on Facebook a picture of himself as he was then: a young airman in England. Looking at Doug’s familiar, young, and smiling face, I realized we shared an experience common to all youth: a total unawareness that time will pass, youth will fade, and the time will come when we have more days to look back on than forward to.
I haven’t seen Doug in decades, but I know we could both write vast autobiographical volumes about our lives since 1968. There would be chapters of comedy and tragedy in each volume, but I have no doubt we both look back with satisfaction on the lives we lived.
But on January 12 each year, I like to reflect on a period when I was aware I was completing one phase of my life and moving on to another.
The blessing of youth is that we seize that new phase with confidence that whatever the future years bring, it will be good.
God knows this is not always the case, and not every year is joyful or good.
But January 12 is my day to reflect on both my past and present.
And it’s a comforting reassurance that I can celebrate the good days long gone and relish the good days now at hand, surrounded by loved ones and connected with old, old friends.
January 12 is my day to take stock.
It’s the day I remind myself that my life – then and now – has been abundantly blessed.