Being All I Could Be; or, Descent into Madness
Over the nine-month period beginning in December 1984, my 42-year-old uncle had been slowly dying of cancer, and my family buried three of my great-uncles. By the Spring 1985 semester, I had gotten halfway through a BA in Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but I found myself in college with no real reason for being there and going into debt for the privilege. During this semester, a series of events at school contributed further to my disenchantment. I dropped to a single course to maintain my enrollment, and I got a fulltime job.
For four and a half months during the spring and summer of 1985, I worked as a cashier and nominal assistant manager in a convenience store. Even worse, a buddy and fellow Philosophy major who had recently graduated happened to come into my store one day and told me of his plans to spend a month or two in Europe before he started grad school. I remember thinking, "Great, he's going to Europe, and I'm stuck in North Carolina caught in the job of the damned." I quit in August, but the damage had been done.
During my summer job, I apparently suffered serious brain damage at the very least, and I may very well have lost my mind outright. I returned to UNCG in the fall but quickly realized that I had lost all interest in school. I dreaded the thought of enduring another piddling, dead-end, minimum wage job; I wanted and needed to get out of North Carolina after more than twenty-four years. The threads of my life had entwined to form a rope that I could use either to pull myself out of the pit in which I found myself or to hang myself. In retrospect, I did both. Life was too short. It was time for a decisive change. At the height of my madness, I dropped out of school and enlisted in the Army for four years.
Actually, I was quite rational about the whole thing. The Army offered a legitimate alternative to my quagmire. I had been seeing Army College Fund commercials all summer; for a four-year enlistment and $1,200, I would get at least $25,200 tax-free for school. Because I had completed over sixty semester hours of college, I entered service with the rank of Private First Class (pay grade E-3) instead of Private (pay grade E-1); this meant higher pay from the start and a jump on promotion to Specialist (pay grade E-4). I also got to Europe through a two-year tour in Germany. I even got a $2,500 enlistment bonus by enlisting for a critical MOS. (MOS is "Military Occupational Specialty"; that is, my duty job.) While one couldn't get rich on military pay, it was better than minimum wage and went a lot further. And perhaps most importantly, I finally could satisfy my sense of obligation to serve my country as a partial payment for the freedom that I so richly enjoyed as an American.
I got everything that I had wanted (and all that I could have gotten!), so it was "You're in the Army Now" for me. Anyway, another friend who also had graduated the previous semester had told me, "You lack commitment." He was right, so I committed myself to a four-year Army enlistment, but that wasn't what he had in mind as he had been referring to my attitude towards my studies. He and many others were baffled by my decision. There goes that drummer again!
On 28 September 1985, I raised my right hand and swore this oath of enlistment in the U.S. Army:
"I, James Matthew Wallace, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice."
I immediately realized that I had just sworn away the next eight years of my life and maybe even my very existence. And even more astonishingly, I was completely at peace with the notion. As the other enlistees parroted "So help me God" to complete their oaths, I was overwhelmed by the sense that I had just died. Without hesitation, I internally ratified this intuition, "So be it." In retrospect, the Hebrew equivalent would have been more succinct and just as appropriate: Amen.
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