The folks at GEICO have put out a very funny commercial which begins with the question, “Does GEICO provide great insurance? Does a drill instructor make a terrible therapist.” Former Drill Instructor R. Lee Ermey then plays a therapist calling his patient a “jackwagon” and smacks the him over the head with a box of tissues. The commercial is funny and makes my own experience that much more ironic.
Anyone who appreciates irony will appreciate this story; as will anyone who appreciates the adage, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.” Since many of my readers are parents, I hope that you’re all smart enough to know that if your child messes up, it is vital to separate the behavior from the individual. If you say, “Johnny, you spilled noodles on the floor; that’s bad.” The kid will say, “What’s the big deal? I spilled noodles on the floor and if I pick them up, everything will be fine.” On the other hand, if you say, “What’s wrong with you? You spilled noodles on the floor, you rotten kid.” The kid will reply, “What’s the problem? I’m a rotten kid.”
I really wish someone had explained that principle to my father about half a century ago. My father was in the habit of saying, “This is ANOTHER example of your goddam half-assed attitude.” Let’s parse this statement. First, I’m “goddamned,” which means I’m divinely cursed. (A pretty ironic statement for someone who has been an atheist for half a century.) And I’m “half-assed,” which sounds like a terrible congenital birth defect.
I once told my father that I didn’t know who taught him to say that, but I told him that I hoped whoever it was was burning in hell.
Back in 1989-1990, I spent almost ten straight months teaching on board US Navy ships as part of a program providing sailors with a college education. While on board the USS Lawrence in the sub-Equatorial reaches in the Indian Ocean, I happened upon some literature from Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve never had any problem with alcohol or any other substance abuse, but as I read that literature, I had a complete revelation. I knew that some of my behaviors were so compulsive that they could be classed as addictive and I knew I needed to make some major changes in my life. In March of 1990, the USS Cape Cod (which I cross-decked to) pulled into San Diego and I had the delightful experience of catching up with some old friends I hadn’t seen in years: Mark and Barbara and their three children. I’ll never forget walking in their front door and being treated to the sight of their six-year-old and three-year-old daughters Erin and Seana jumping up and down and yelling, “It’s Uncle Kent! It’s Uncle Kent!” If that wasn’t the happiest moment of my life, it easily cracks the top five.
During my visit, I had occasion to sit down and had a long talk with Mark, who is one of the more colorful characters it has been my pleasure to meet. After a stellar twenty-five year career with the Marine Corps, he retired as a First Sergeant, a rank which about 1% of all Marines attain. In five of those years, he served as a Drill Instructor, one cycle as a Junior DI, another as a Senior DI, a long stretch as a Chief Drill Instructor. Then he was selected for duty at the Drill Instructor Academy. At the end of his career, he was offered the opportunity to train aviation cadets at the Military Academy in Pensacola. (Does everybody who saw "An Officer and a Gentleman" remember Louis Gossett, Jr. as Gunnery Sergeant Foley? Yeah, one of those guys.)
The First Sergeant does not have much college education, but over the years, he frequently surprised me with what a thoughtful and intuitive fellow he can be. Indeed, if you gauge a man’s intelligence by the woman he marries and the children he raises, he is a *flat-out* *genius*. I have at times kidded him that listening to his comments resembles watching Dom Perignon pour out of an oil can. While wearing the biggest grin I could manage, I’ve told him that I’ve never known anyone who is so much dramatically smarter than he looks. I am delighted to report that he shot me back an even *broader* grin and replied, “You bet! Camouflage is one of the most important military weapons.”
I told him about the reading I’ve done and the insights I’ve gained and that I have a lot of work to do. He nodded and said, “Kent, it sounds like you have a great attitude.” A couple months later, I was working at Mead Data Central near Dayton, Ohio. I once took a break to go to the cafeteria, which was, at that hour, completely deserted. When I tried to put a nickel into the Coke machine, I dropped it and the coin landed on its edge, rolled under the Coke machine and I couldn’t retrieve it. I was terribly frustrated and somehow, while I was not hallucinating, I could vividly imagine my father whispering to me, “This is ANOTHER example of your goddam half-assed attitude.” I was so angry that I started hammering my fist on the Coke machine. After a few minutes, I caught myself with the thought, “Dear God, I’m turning into Norman Bates.” It also occurred to me that if anyone saw me acting that way, there was the distinct possibility that they would be coming after me with a bunch of butterfly nets. I took control of myself and my mind played a trick on me. For some reason, I remembered the words of my friend, the First Sergeant: “Kent, it sounds like you have a great attitude.” It then occurred to me that I would VERY much like to see my father try to get in a shouting contest with the First Sergeant, a man seven inches taller, sixty pounds heavier and thirty-five years younger than he. The image of that mismatched confrontation made me guffaw. Yeah, Dad. Try yelling at someone who did that for a living. Go for it, Dad.
In the years since, I sometimes share that story with people I met at twelve-step meetings. (There are twelve-step meetings for a number of addictive behaviors.) Maybe I’ve done someone else some good; I know it did good for me. It’s fascinating how the mind can heal itself.