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1235140886702I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “don’t quit your day job.” There are negative connotations contained therein, hinting that your skills are not mad enough to sustain essential activities such as putting food on the table and providing a roof over your and your loved ones heads. I’m not so concerned about that aspect for this story, but the advice still holds. A “sure thing” doesn’t always turn out to be so sure, but you can still learn a good lesson from a bad experience.

The longer tale began, I suppose, with the September 11th attacks. I worked for Chrysler, and ran a mom and pop coffee shop and used bookstore in Peru, Indiana with my wife. The day before the attacks, things were hopping. The factory work was steady, and the family business was ramping up week after week, even if the curve wasn’t climbing as boldly as we would have liked. It was heading in the right direction. The day after the attacks, it was like we had somehow been thrown into an alt universe. As time passed, several factories scaled production down, moved away, or closed their doors. Folks on unemployment and public assistance don’t pay three bucks for a cup of coffee, no matter how good it is. We ended up being one of the businesses that closed its doors.

I still had my day job. I was job-setting a bank of machines that made tranny subcomponents. The trannies went in vehicles that were still selling, so things seemed stable. When the machines are running smoothly, there’s a bit of time to pursue other activities as long as you stay on the line. My pastime was reading. One day there was a story in the Indianapolis Star about a National Guard military police unit that was deploying to Iraq from Camp Atterbury in southern Indiana. I’d been a medical platoon leader in the Guard several years prior, but got out to take a year off. One year turned into two, then two into five. Reading that story got me thinking. When you’re in the individual ready reserve or “IRR” you get a lot of strongly worded mail begging you to come back in. I’ve got a patriotic streak, and watching Atterbury transform from an under-used training site into a state of the art mobilization station piqued my interest. The 21st century was off to a terrifying start in an ideological clash between the East and the West. The question mark over my head concerned whether I’d be at peace with myself as an old man in a rocker, or if I’d be asking myself if there was more I could have done when the stakes were so high. I put my uniform back on.

Within a year, I was at Fort Hood, Texas commanding the headquarters detachment of a main support battalion for a year. I knew I was where I was supposed to be, and it felt good. Since we were in the States, the wife and kids ended up coming down, too. Our unit sent soldiers out to the ports on the eastern seaboard, unloading and loading ships headed to and from destinations I’m sure you’re familiar with. As an aside, we fell in love with the Texas hill country. When we headed back to Indiana in the middle of an ice storm, we left part of our hearts there. Trying to get back to Texas became a compulsion.

Back at the factory after returning from our mobilization, I was sure of two things. I had to get out, and I had to get out soon.

The following summer, I was in San Antonio for three months going through Captain Career Course. The year after that I was back for a three week medical plans and operations course. The following spring we took a week’s vacation to Killeen and drank in the blooming of the bluebonnets. Before we left that weekend, I’d turned in my paperwork to take a job buyout from the factory. Two months later, I was working as a recruiting officer for the ROTC program at the University of Texas at San Antonio. My oldest son wanted to stay in Peru and graduate high school with his friends, so we’d decided that I’d take the job in SA and they’d stay behind until the school year was over. I’d come home on weekends when I could, and they’d travel down to visit when they could. Well, it blew up in our faces. A family emergency forced me back to Indiana, and I ended up resigning my ROTC position on very short notice.

Before spring 2008, I had started a new job as a fraternal insurance agent, making about one third of my previoius salary. I was meeting all of the requirements for my validation bonuses, and at least I was working. Meanwhile, the economy was tanking. Right before the holidays I got an email from a friend in the Guard about a medical operations position at Guard Bureau in Virginia. He had mentioned my name as a candidate and they wanted me to apply, so I put my packet together and was supposed to start in the middle of December. It was a sure thing, a good gig. It would be a permanent change of station (PCS) move, a paid move with all of the perks. I talked to my insurance general manager and told him what was going on, and they let me out of my contract.

The next day Virginia called and said, “hold on…there’s a problem with the funding.” Okay, so I’d be starting in January. They’d surely have the position funded by then…no, wait. It’ll definitely be in February. The Indiana Guard put me on state orders. December zipped by, then most of January. They kept me on for three more weeks on annual training orders. Still no word. They extended me for another week. The middle of February came closer. Then I got an email from Virginia saying that they’d be asking for the position to be funded in April. December…January…February…April? This was not happening the way I’d envisioned!

As the comedian Ron White wryly states, “I told you all of that so I can tell you this…”

We’ve been living out of boxes for nearly three months, and it isn’t fun. I’ve learned a few things, though.

1. You don’t realize how much stuff you’ve accumulated until you go to box it up.
2. Estimating how many boxes you’ll need is an inexact science.
3. You can live without most of the stuff you’ve boxed up.
4. Label your boxes clearly.
5. Most of the stuff you can’t live without is in the bottom boxes.

And as with boxes, so it is with life. I’m starting to think this was a cosmic exercise, independent of whatever move we’ll now take. Or whether. Or not. At this point I couldn’t say, and that is scary. But take this lesson home with you if you will. Most of the stuff you can’t live without is in the bottom boxes. If you take the time to label them, you’ll find that the ones on the bottom tend to have words such as “love” and “laughter” and “faith” and “friendship” printed on them. The top boxes tend to be full of assorted worries and hurries and stresses and anxieties that pass by us and dissolve with or without our interference. Those boxes are a lot lighter than we think they are. They’re smaller, too, and really don’t hold very much. It takes a lot of little boxes to box all of that junk up. My advice? Don’t put too many boxes on top of the important ones. They aren’t worth all that trouble.

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