Once in a while, cosmic forces will bring polar opposites crashing violently into each other. I found myself battling for my very soul in one of the debates I knew was imminent the closer and closer I got to getting out.
"So you re-enlisting?" he asks, leaning back on a swivel chair. I give him my typical response to this question: a contorted face that says Are you serious? You gotta be kidding man. You know better.
He laughs. "You might be, just wait."
Already a little offended, I told him, "I can guarantee you with absolute certainty that I won't voluntarily extend my service."
"You say that n--" he began, at which point I sat up and interrupted.
"Since day ONE it's been a four year enlistment. The plans have never changed. Not even for a second. I've always been short. Always."
He's already got the inevitable question ready and fires away. "Why did you enlist?"
"To go to Iraq," my response is as basic as possible.
"Huh...well looks like you got that out of the way."
"Yeah, and now it's just killing time. Listen, I don't hate the Army, not by any means. In a lot of ways, yeah, it's been really cool, but you know how they always half-assed say that the Army isn't for everyone? Well it's true. And I knew it from the beginning. I fucking KNEW that I'd be out of place here and I went and did it anyway. Full knowing it was only four years."
He blinks, so I continue.
"I did it, did all I signed up to do, and now it's just a matter of fulfilling the contract, a technicality, you know? And then I can get out, and start doing what I should have been doing when I was nineteen."
"That's cool man," he offers, keeping the peace. "What are you planning on doing?"
Now it's my turn to slouch in my seat. "Depends on what day of the week it is, how I'll answer that question. Y'know, when the re-enlistment NCO comes around. I'll tell them, 'I'm going to call you while you're eating dinner and try to get you to subscribe to Parade and Vibe and US Weekly.'"
He looks at me like I'm fucking crazy and laughs. Mind you, I'm easily encouraged.
"Yeah, or you know, when I was three, I thought being a garbage man would be a good gig. Or who knows, I'll just tell them something elaborate, something they don't want to hear. I'll tell them my family owns a chain of hotels and they're giving me one to own to teach me about business and all that, get my feet wet. Or.....or I'll tell them that I already have a house lined up, got some roommates who haven't seen me in a while. Then I'll just tell it straight and say that I've decided to move back in with my parents, watch cartoons and eat cereal all night. Maybe flip burgers."
We keep this game going for a good twenty minutes, making up ridiculous answers to life after the Army. Have a few laughs, and then it hits me, and all I do is verbalize it.
"I miss the freedom. Not that Toby Keith flag-waving freedom, but I mean like personal freedom. To be able to do anything you want within reason, live anywhere, be anything. Stop being anything that isn't working. Know what I mean?"
I study him for a second to gauge his reaction. Then I prattle on some more.
"Maybe we just really get used to the way the Army does things. Hell, I noticed something the other day that I've seen a million times, but it never clicked like it first did when I was a new soldier. You know how when an NCO is smoking (forcing an enlistee to do pushups and other exercises as punishment -Ed) someone, they tend to stand there with their arms crossed, watching them? Well I was watching someone get smoked the other day, and I was like, "What the hell....at none of my other jobs would I ever have to physically degrade myself because the boss was pissed." You know what I mean? I have NEVER had to crawl through dirt and mud at any other job before. I've never given a boss so much power before."
We laughed about it for a second, because good God, it made SENSE. WEIRD!
"But yeah, it's the freedoms. Be able to do anything you want. Flip burgers and wash cars or sit in a cubicle or scan groceries or manage franchises, become a suit and set fire to Wall Street, write graffiti on the moon (someone has to have done it by now). Go to college, don't go to college. Be a bum or climb the corporate ladder, anything in between. How does that NOT sound appealing? There's endless possibilities, and at any point, you can switch gears or go in a total different direction. You don't like where you live? You can pick up roots and move somewhere new that's better suited to you. You just have to have the drive and courage to do these things, that's what I think. You can't tell yourself that you can't do it."
I stopped and thought about everything I'd just said.
"Fuck, that's what the re-enlistment guys are for. Let THEM tell you you can't."