“Grandpa, how did you and Grandma meet?”
As Sarah sat on my lap, she me and innocent smile, knowing I couldn’t resist it. “You know I told you this story a thousand times. Why do you want to hear it again?”
Sarah bounced in my lap. “Because it’s so hard to believe. It’s almost like magic.”
“It does seem like magic, doesn’t it? I’ll tell you Sarah, truth can be stranger than fiction.” I pulled her close to my chest. “Alright. Close your eyes, for I’m going to take you back to the beginning. It was February 1975…”
I was living in West Eaton, New York. It was town, according to the map, that had a population of two-hundred-fifty people, even I could never find that many in town. That morning, I was driving around with my best friend, Norman. We were eighteen years old and wondering what we were going to do for the rest of our lives. Neither of us was college bound and had little hopes of having a career in a small town.
Norman was the impulsive one between us and when he had an idea, he usually followed up on it and today wasn’t an exception. “Hey John, why don’t we join the service? We can learn a trade there and afterwards we can get out and get real jobs.”
“What about Vietnam?” I asked. “just because the war is over now, doesn’t mean we won’t be back there soon.”
Norman paused for a moment, then replied. “What about the Coast Guard? They’re not going anywhere near there. We can do a hitch with them, then be on our ways.”
Most of Norman’s impulses seemed to backfire, but I could see the logic in this one. So, I gave in. “Let’s do it. It’s better than sitting on our hands here.”
The next morning, we drove up to Syracuse to see the Coast Guard Recruiter. When we arrived, we were greeted by Chief Petty Officer Noonan. We told him our story and gave us some good news. “We have a Buddy Program. If you guys sign up now, you can go through Basic Training together. How does that sound?”
We were sold. We filled out some paperwork and he gave each of us an attitude test to complete. When we finished, he scored the grades and told us the results. “You passed, Norman, but John, I’ve never seen anything like it. You maxed out on the test. I’m sure the Coast Guard will have something good instore for you.”
I was elated, to say the least. “So, what next?”
“Next, you’ll have to pass a physical. Meet me here tomorrow at 0500 hours and I’ll take you to the Military Entrance Processing Station where they’ll administer it.”
Soon after, we were on the road, all excited about our futures in the Coast Guard. Nothing was going to stop us now.
Morning came and we were standing in front of the Recruiting Station, when Chief Noonan came in. He pointed at a nearby van. “Hop in, boys. I’ll take you down there. The van was clod from sitting all night and before it got warmed up, we were at the MEPPS Station. Chief Noonan took us to the second floor where we found a line of men about our age standing in front of us. “Don’t worry about the line, it’ll go quickly. When you’re done, I’ll meet you outside by the van.” Then he left us there, where we became one with an assembly line.
We had our tongues out, temperatures taken, blood pressure test, x-rays, health questionnaires, ear tests, eye tests, and prodded and poke where people shouldn’t be poking you.
Finally, I saw the doctor. He flipped through pages of my chart and pointed at one item. “What’s up with your eyesight?”
Few people who looked at me could never tell I had poor vision in one eye. Most doctors told me I had toxoplasmosis, which scarred the retina of my right eye and left me with 20/70 vision at best.
When I explained it to the doctor, he closed my chart and released me to see my recruiter. By the time I found Chief Noonan by the van, he already heard the news. “I don’t know what to say, John. The Coast Guard as a strict policy on eyesight. You must have vision that’s correctable to 20/30. I tried talking to my superiors about your high scores and eyesight, but they couldn’t help.”
I looked at Norman. “Don’t worry about me. Go ahead and join the Coast Guard. I’ll find my way around.” Dejected, we got back in the van and began our return to the recruiting station. Before we arrived, Chief Noonan spoke to me. “You know, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but since we can’t recruit you anyways, we have nothing to lose. The Army’s guidance on vision requirements is much more relaxed. If you go through them, you should have no problem enlisting.”
I figured I had nothing to lose, so when we parted ways, I went home with a new plan in mind. “Go Army!”
The next day, I went to Syracuse alone to see the Army Recruiter. There, I met SFC Carr and he told me I was fine Army material, even with my bad eye. He even said I could pick mt MOS, whatever that was, and choose my duty station.
“How does being a tank driver sound to you?” he asked.
I thought about what jobs were available in the Army and all I could come up with was infantry, so of course driving a tank seemed much cooler.
“And where would you like to be stationed? Does Colorado sound nice to you?”
I had to admit to myself, Colorado sounded good, so that’s what I signed up for.
The recruiter was more than happy with my quick decision. “Great. I’ll give you four weeks to settle everything at home, and I’ll come to pick you up.”
I went home and told Norman the great news. The next day, Norman drove me to a nearby bar to shoot a little pool to celebrate our new-found careers. After a couple of hours, of getting beat, we start the drive home. Now remember, it was the end of February and snow in New York is no laughing matter. The roads were slushy, and Norman had a little too much to drink. As Norman drove, I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes. As I laid there, I heard Norman shout, “Watch out!” Not thinking anything about it, I did nothing. Then, I blanked out.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself stark naked, laying on a bed in a hospital room. My back was killing me, and I sported a lump on my forehead the size of a golf ball, which left me with an eye, blacker than coal. Later I found out Norman was going too fast, skidded off the road and struck a tree, next to where I was sitting. According to the doctor, I was lucky not to be paralyzed.
A week later, I was released from the hospital and told SFC Carr about my accident. Upon receiving my news, he had me come the next morning in to be checked again with the military doctor. The news he gave me was interesting, to say the least. He told me I was unfit to drive a tank, not due to my black eye, but to the blindness I originally had.
SFC Carr, in his earnest to ensure my enlistment, came up with another offer. “Maybe you can’t be a tank driver, but don’t worry. If you want, we can make you a generator mechanic. The only hitch is, we can’t offer your choice of assignment. That’ll be up for the Army to decide.”
My first thought was being a generator mechanic sounded a lot cooler a tank driver, but on the other hand, I had no say in where I was going to be stationed. As far as I could tell, I could be assigned to an outpost located in the South Pole, freezing to death.
I thought of turning down military life all together, but one thought stopped me. “What would I do then?” Not seeing a bright future in my life left me with few options. “Generator mechanic, you say. Sounds good to me.”
It was settled. April came and I found myself in Basic Training. My black eye was still present, marking me as an easy target for the Drill Sergeants’ taunts and ridicule. Two months of training seemed like three years. Then, I went to Advanced Individual Training to learn about generator maintenance. My then my black eye has faded to an old memory and I felt like one of the boys. Before I knew, graduation day had come, and we were to learn where we would be stationed.
The first name that were called out were the ones who had guaranteed assignments. Then the rest of us learned our fates. Since my last name started with an “S”, I had to wait. The Drill Sergeant began by saying their names and duty assignments. “Boyers, Germany, Cartwright, Germany, Connors, Germany.” And word Germany was repeated time and again. Finally, he came to my name. “Smith, Korea.” After that, everyone was assigned to Germany.
It wasn’t long after, I found myself flying over the Pacific Ocean, followed by landing in Seoul, South Korea. We were bused to Yong San and taken to a large assembly hall where we all stood, waiting for whatever came next. The room was bare, except for some tables lined against the walls and some chairs were pushed against them. The walls were decorated with dozens of insignias of companies, battalions, and divisions located in the country. I gazed at them, one at a time, then my eyes fixed on one. The insignia was in the same of an arrow pointing downwards. In it, was a picture of a missile with a bolt of lightning passing through it. Above the insignia was a tab and in it was written, “4th Missile”.
A voice from a corner of the room broke out and soon we were standing in line as in processing commenced. As it turned out, of the soldiers who arrived with me were assigned to the Second Division, and like before, I was singled out. Instead of going to 2nd ID in Dong Du Chon, I found myself on a bus heading to Camp Page in Chun Chon, after being assign to 226th Signal Company, 4th Missile Command.
I was there a week, when I decided to take some college courses and headed to the education office. As soon as I stepped in, fate struck again. The Education Director looked at me and said, “Would you be interested in teaching English conversation?” Having plenty of free time and little money, I told him I would.
That evening, the director met me outside the front gate and led me to a building nearby the base. We ascended the stairs to the second floor, and he opened it for me. I peered inside and found a half dozen Korean men and women, mostly in their twenties, looking back at me.
A moment of fear and uncertainty passed through me, but then I found one face that shown out from the rest. Her appearance was indifferent from most Asians. She had a slight dark complexion, dark brown hair, but her eyes, held something behind them, something I knew was meant for me.
When I walked up to the door, my purpose was to teach English conversation, but when I stepped through the door, I had a new purpose. I was going to find out what was hidden behind that woman’s eyes and to make her part of my life. And that is what I did.
For the next forty-five years of my life, your grandmother and I have been exploring each other’s hearts and minds, through the good times, as well as the bad. We stood by each other when we were sick and enjoyed our lives while we were well. When we were poor, we held each other up, and when we were rich, we shared our wealth with others. Our love was so great, it poured from us and our family grew from this love. Not only to you, your Mom and your Dad, but to all our honorary family and friends.
I began as an unemployed teenager, trying to join the Coast Guard. Then, fate took over. I went from Coast Guard, to Army, to accident survivor, to new Army career, sole country assignment, sole unit assignment, and randomly chosen teacher, to meet your Grandmother. Some people may say this is coincidences, but the odds for something like this to happens, comes closer to a miracle or if you’re religious, an act of God.
“So, Sarah, what do you think?” She didn’t answer me, but it wasn’t a surprise. She fell asleep halfway through the story. I knew I was long winded, and she was too young to understand everything I was saying. Though she fell asleep, I continued, for I enjoy telling it. But the truth be known, there is one more thing I enjoy, and that’s living it.