Failure: Defined and Owned

11 Nov

On Friday, my sister texted me a picture of a star, along with the following caption: [Name of her 6-year-old daughter] wants to put u on this star because u went to military school!

The following text dialogue ensued:


Me: Awww, she’s cute! But I’m not a veteran. Have her put Joe Jackson instead [Joe is one of my R2R buddies and my niece recently met him while serving as his “cheerleader” at a National Masters Swim Championship meet]

Sis: I told her that you are not a veteran because you never went to war and she said “Well, military school SHOULD count!”

Me: You don’t need to go to war to be a veteran, but you do need to have served in an Active Duty capacity — going to West Point for a few weeks does NOT count as active duty, lol!

More texts followed. Ultimately my niece chose to put “Grandpa Z” (her great-grandfather who served in the Army, whom she never met) on the star, but I LOVE that my epic failure at military service nevertheless provided an initial inspiration to my niece.

It’s an important lesson for everyone — sometimes our failures can be just as meaningful as our successes.

Failure – noun \ˈfāl-yər\ – omission of occurrence or performance.

For sure, my attempt at military service was a 100% unmitigated failure: Passing out on the Parade Ground and being admitted to the hospital <48 hours after arriving on the West Point campus was a really bad way to start. And getting dual diagnoses of Mono -AND- Measles shortly before I was “supposed” to be released from care meant that I was, instead, relegated to the decidedly non-elite “Transient Barracks” immediately following my hospital discharge.

Officially, I learned only three things while I was “in the Army”:

(1) How to properly salute the Cadet in the Red Sash,

(2) How to disassemble, clean, and reassemble my rifle, and

(3) How to take a 90-second shower — shampoo and leg-shave included.  Ooorah!

Unofficially, I learned a helluvalot more…

During the ~2 weeks I spent in Transient Barracks, I witnessed a level of badassery, commitment, and courage that I never could’ve imagined as I watched my fellow Plebes transform from clueless, starry-eyed kids into focused, incisive adults. If there’s a better way to turn a child into a TRUE grown-up than through military service, I don’t know what it might be. Even the “wash outs” in my Transient Barracks demonstrated a type of selfless service in the name of a (maybe?) greater good that has stuck with me and inspired me throughout the past ~23 years…

I don’t know why I got so obsessed with the Nestlé Quik Bunny mug that was featured on the back of the chocolate milk mix that adorned our breakfast tables, but, MAN, did I ever want it — badly! The only way to get it was to submit 12 box-top tabs to the fulfillment company. TWELVE tabs! That’s a whole lotta chocolate milk! And West Point has really super strict rules about how to conduct oneself in the dinning hall. Scarfing a dozen boxes of Nestlé Quik over a few days was a ludicrous idea in its own right; figuring out how to remove and translocate the box-top tab thingies while being surveilled by the upper class cadre was a whole ‘nother level of ridonkulous.

I have NO idea why my fellow West Point drop-outs decided to undertake this clearly impossible mission on my behalf, but once they committed themselves to the task, there was no stopping them. And when my separation papers were processed more rapidly than expected, it REALLY was “Game on” time!

Heading into my penultimate day, after 11 days’ worth of Quik-drinking and box-top-pilfering efforts, we had secured 9 tabs. We had 3 tabs left to go and 2 days in which to get ’em. On that penultimate day, those boys (and a gal) chewed their way through cups of sludge in order to fulfill the mission. That effort, by rights, should’ve earned me (us?) two more tabs. Alas, this Herculean effort was perhaps a bit too strong. Our nefarious activities were detected. The Quik boxes were confiscated, we didn’t get the tabs from our 2 nearly-empty boxes, and the next morning, my last morning, there were no Quik boxes to be seen anywhere. Sadness.

I left West Point with: (a) Mono, (b) Measles, (c) a crushing heartache related to my failure to become a military leader, and (d) 9 box tops, but no Bunny mug. I wasn’t sure which of these was worse…

Luckily, (a) and (b) proved generally easy to recover from (although query whether my ongoing litany of super-odd medical maladies could be attributable to the fact that West Point GAVE ME FRIGGIN’ MEASLES?!?), and (d) was quickly taken care of by my dear friend Sean whose mother ran an in-home day care center that just happened to use a LOT of Nestlé Quik mix in its daily operations — thank you, Sean!

IMG_0585Failure (c), however, has plagued me for the last 23+ years, and that failure is made ever more poignant whenever I sip from the Bunny mug. Each time I use the mug, I think about the utterly selfless effort put forth by those now-nameless (but never forgotten) Transient Barracks mates of mine. And then I think about the EVEN MORE UNSELFISH acts undertaken by those who actually graduated from West Point, or any of the other Academies. Or by anyone who ever enlisted in any of the armed services. Or — holy creezus — by those who actually were drafted into service back in the day…

The Bunny mug serves as a daily reminder of my failure to serve our country and as an indelible indicator of our Veterans’ unparalleled successes on that front. The mug also prompts me to view whatever moderate successes I manage to achieve in my meager civilian life as being the product of our Veterans’ choice to secure our freedoms and make up for my failings.

To say “Thank you to all who served” doesn’t come anywhere close to conveying the deep appreciation I feel for these men and women.

I salute and honor you not just today, but every day.

THANK YOU, VETERANS, FOR ALL THAT YOU DO — past, present, and future; day-in and day-out; large and small — it all matters and it’s all appreciated, at least by me.

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