Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Thinking about Mother's Day and Julia Ward Howe

In May of 1990, my son was about to graduate from Wheat Ridge high school in the suburban Denver area. It had been a long haul getting him through school, as he was an indifferent student and had some learning quirks that complicated his approach to the books.

I was more than ready for him to begin a new phase of his life, increasing his independence to the point where he would move out, perhaps attend college, and come into his own.

But I was not prepared to have him come home one afternoon from school to tell me that he had signed up with the military recruiters at his high school for the Early Entrance program into military service. He would take the ASVAB, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, in a few days, which would determine which military vocation he might enter. And then, after graduation, he would be assigned to a military unit, attend boot camp, and become a soldier.

He was starry-eyed. He saw this as a chance to learn a trade, to leave traditional education behind, to earn some money, and to leave home. His dad and I gulped, rationalized that there seemed to be no solid reason to object, since he was already 18, and our country was in peacetime.

After he took the ASVAB test, he was even more enthused, for its results showed that he had high aptitude in intelligence work and he chose this area of specialization when he visited the recruiter to schedule his physical exam a few days later.

On the morning of the physical, he was up and about earlier than I had ever seen him---without my help. He drove his battered Plymouth Duster to Buckley Field where he was to have the physical exam. I was a bit numb all day, waiting for him to come home, unready for my only child to be removed from my care so precipitously. I wasn’t sure how I felt, but I did believe that he had to make these decisions for himself.

We had not talked much about the military in those days. Viet Nam was behind us; for him it was only a subject skimmed over in history class. There were no major conflicts in the offing, that we knew about, and the military seemed like a reasonable next step for a young man who had been unhappy in school and needed independence.

My son came home later that day with mixed news. They really wanted him to be a soldier, but surgery in his early years to correct a slight malformation of both Achilles tendons had meant that plastic inserts had been placed in his ankles to substitute for bone and cartilage that had not grown properly. The surgeon had told us that as he grew, the inserts would be superfluous and could be removed. The military recruiter said he could not be a soldier with any foreign object in his body.

Our son wanted to know if we would help him get the inserts removed, by the doctor who had implanted them when he was nine years old. His dad and I agreed, and the removal procedure went smoothly. He returned to the military recruiter in July to complete his registration for boot camp and military school, but after all he had done to comply with their requirements, he was denied entrance to military service.

And on Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the run-up to the Gulf War began.

Julia Ward Howe's "Mother's Day Proclamation" took on new significance for me in 1990.


Ms. Theologian said...

That must have been very scary for you as his mom.

I think I must be the same age as your son too. I can remember recruiters in 1990 (pre-August) selling a very seductive story about skills, free college, etc.

LinguistFriend said...

From your other posts about your son, it sounds as if he has taken a while to become focussed on a direction in life which is likely to be permanent. However, it is one for which there is a family precedent and even maternal enthusiasm, so that sounds fine. He has taken a long time to settle down, but what he aims at is very workable and is not likely to leave him with nightmares or traumatic stress syndrome. The plastic inserts were good luck, I suspect.

Joel said...

Ms. T, I was a few years older than her son in 1990, but I still kind of regret not having enlisted in time for Desert Storm. (Scandalized gasps.) I think it probably would have been beneficial to him, too.

Mile High Pixie said...

Wow! My hubby got out of the Army only a few months before Desert Storm. had it gone on as long as the present conflict, he might have been called back in. My friend with whom I've recently stopped talking finished basic training a couple of weeks before Desert Storm--he still has nightmares about some of the things he saw and did there.

Joel said...

My little brother was a Marine in Bosnia and Mogadishu, and is still having problems from it. My grandfather came back from the Italian campaign and had to spend some time in a mental hospital. It certainly exacts a price.

Still, I kind of envy the guys who have seen the elephant. I wonder how much of the perpetual boyhood of men in my generation comes from not having faced a war together. There seems to be a tempering effect.

ms. kitty said...

I guess I'd rather have a live, late blooming "boy" than a dead or violence-damaged son who may never recover from his wounds. It's a no-brainer for me. Of course, neither state is a guarantee of permanent wholeness or of brokenness. It depends on the resilience and/or persistence of the individual. I think your cousin is in pretty good shape; I think your brother is working at getting there. Both of them have had many demons to wrestle with.