Chapter 2: The phone call that turned me into a man
The second most memorable moment in my life occurred merely a couple of hours after standing up to Smith. (If you missed Part 1, you can catch it by clicking the link.)
Let’s quickly get to that story. (You can watch the video or keep reading!)
If memory serves me correctly, I think I had told my parents I would call that night after checking in with my unit. I had driven eight-plus hours and, after all, I was finally supposed to be happy. Let me explain what I mean by that.
They had gone through the same setbacks I had with Boot Camp and School of Infantry. Each were supposed to be the bliss I had been searching for when I signed up and left home. Each had proven to merely be a milestone along the journey.
I mean, sure, I enjoyed parts of Boot Camp, but I had told them I’d hated how badly we were treated. Who wouldn’t? BUT, School of Infantry will be better, I said prior to leaving for it. I’ll actually be a Marine and won’t be treated completely like shit.
Well, it turned out that School of Infantry wasn’t a whole lot different than Boot Camp. it was eight weeks of brutal, tough training — much more difficult than Boot Camp, which surprised me — and we were still treated like lower-than-life boots (newbies).
But I had ended it by telling my parents, “Now, all the super sucky parts of being a Marine are over. They were just trying to train and mode us in Boot Camp and School of Infantry. Now, finally, they’ll treat us like real men. Like real Marines.”
I truly assumed before packing up to drive down to 1/8 that the enjoyable part of being a Marine would begin at my unit. No more getting screamed at constantly. No more having to wait on taxis to leave base!
I, like every other young Marine, had gone out and bought a new vehicle. Nearly every Marine takes the money they earn while in Boot Camp, which you can’t spend during those three months, so it accumulates nicely, and uses it as a down payment on a vehicle.
Car dealers love service members. It’s a guaranteed payment for them because if you fail to make your payments, they’ll just contact the Marine Corps and garner your wages. And they know you’re going to have a guaranteed job for the next four years!
In my case, I had a brand new ’96 Chevy S-10. It was red and four-wheel drive! It was amazing and I felt like a king driving it.
I mean, I had my truck, I had my new five pounds of muscles, and I was a Marine! Who wouldn’t want to marry me?!?!
And I knew before checking into 1/8 that I’d not only get to own a vehicle and have the right to drive it on base, I’d also finally get my own room!!
Just me and two other guys! No more open squad bays with sixty dudes sharing just a few showers and toilets!
I was a full-scale Marine now! And I had left home with such euphoria in that green pair of Alpha’s!
But you just finished Chapter 1. You know what happened. I’d just learned the Alphas were a sick joke, which attracted harassment like a substitute teacher in a school of unruly kids.
I’d also met Smith. And I knew he’d be coming back to kick my a** when he and his buddies returned from drinking in a few hours.
It was in such a mood that I called home that night. I had barely managed to put down some food for dinner, as I had no appetite.
I was convinced that Smith would return with all his friends and we would return to our conversation about how I’m not accepting a beer is an insult to someone from Kansas.
With such thoughts in my head, I trudged to the phones out near our barracks. I called home and my Dad answered.
He was in a good mood and couldn’t wait to hear my report about how great things were. But he caught on quickly but on was not well.
I managed in my dejected mood to explain the situation.
“Dad, I’m pretty sure when he gets back, they are going to beat me up pretty bad.”
Even now, I can’t imagine how painful it must be to be a parent and have your son call home and inform you that in a few hours, he is going to be severely beaten. Possibly, even hospitalized, by a dude who had a reputation for sending people to the emergency room.
After a few moments, my Dad said he wasn’t sure what to say. He said he would be praying for me — he’s deeply religious — and that I would have to do the best I could. That he had no idea what advice to give.
I think it was at this point, following some long pauses, that I mentioned that I would call him tomorrow and tell him how it went with Smith in a few hours.
He paused for a moment and finally said, “Now son, you know your Mom and me weren’t in favor of you joining.”
This was very true. They had wanted me to go to college, and I had begged and begged them to sign the papers allowing me to join the Delayed Entry Program, in which I sat for an entire year. To make this clear, this means at the end of my junior year, I had met with a recruiter and convinced my parents that I was dead set about joining the Marine Corps. That I had no interest in college. And that a full year in the Delayed Entry Program would allow me to meet monthly with the recruiters and get a headstart into my career.
What’s just say that 20 years later, I now see things from their perspective. It is crazy to allow a 17-year-old kid to convince his parents that he wants to go ahead and sign up, so he can go to Boot Camp while he’s still 17. (By law, you have to be 18 by the time you graduate Boot Camp.)
But I had been relentless with them and they had reluctantly signed the papers.
Now that same boy was calling home and saying how bad it was, same as he had said about Boot Camp and School of Infantry.
My Dad continued, “I know it’s tough and I know it’s scary, but you can’t keep calling home every night and upsetting me and your Mom. There’s literally nothing we can do and it hurts us to hear these stories.”
It was probably a good thing that my Mom wasn’t on the phone, because I would not have wanted her to know about the Smith guy and the trouble I was in, and I also think had she been on the phone, she would have said something to prevent my Dad saying what he said next. And believe me, I needed to hear these words.
I’m not sure how he said it, from a strength perspective so to speak, but my Dad said, “You need to not call us for a couple of weeks. Maybe a month. We love you, but you’re going to have to work this out yourself.”
I managed to hold my tongue, tell him I loved him, and get off the phone without saying something stupid. But I was so angry. I felt betrayed. Cut off. Kicked in the face.
I told a few of my friends and they were shocked as well. But let me tell you, in the weeks and months and years that followed, I became convinced that there was nothing he could have said that was better than the words that came out of his mouth.
He was absolutely right. I had wanted to join the Marine Corps, they had advised against it, but ultimately supported my wishes. What more can you ask from a set of parents?
It was also true that my mother and sister dreadfully worried about me all through Boot Camp and School of Infantry.
What I was doing was completely new. My family has only had one member ever join the military, so we had no experience regarding expectations, how things would work, or anything. My uncle had served in the Navy, but other than that we didn’t know much about serving in the military.
And I know it was super tough on my Mom to have her only son not only join the Marine Corps, but insist to the recruiter that he be placed in the infantry.
I had heard from my sister, a couple of people at church, and some family members, that my mother was worried sick about me. Almost 24/7. I think it’s safe to say that she wrote me about as much as a mother can write a son while I was in Boot Camp.
Clearly, my Dad had probably seen this affecting her health (her first bouts of seizures were just beginning), and he had probably realized it was time to turn me into a real man.
That phone call, more than anything else, turned me into a man. I was 18 years old, I was a Marine, and it was time to take that final step of growing up and become a man.
I need to add here that I have discussed this phone call with my Dad in recent years, and he does not remember it. Not even in the slightest. So maybe some guiding force from above was guiding his words, which I so desperately needed to hear. Or maybe I misinterpreted greatly whatever it was he truly said.
But I know I am not making it up. Or at least not how I remember it. I can remember exactly which phone booth I used. I can remember wanting to swing the plastic handset against the metal plate of the phone until it crashed into a thousand pieces. I can remember stomping back to my barracks room, feeling completely abandoned. Honestly, feeling so angry at my Dad that I could breathe fire.
But my Dad did what a great Dad should do. It’s the circle of life. It’s the mama bird pushing her babies out of the nest.
I shudder to imagine the pathetic wimp I would have been had he said, “Yes, please call us tomorrow to tell me you are all right. Please call us as often as you can.”
And I could have. I could have called them every single night that we weren’t in the field. (Honestly, a few guys — a very few — actually did.)
That single, brutal message from my Dad culminated a nearly perfect upbringing. I was raised so well and couldn’t have asked for a better father.
And whatever toughness I possess, you can be certain he’s responsible for putting much of it in there.
Here’s one thing I’d like you to take from this story, which I’m sure seems at least a little jarring.
I know life is hard and cruel, and that we all get knocked down by adversity and money problems, but you’re impacting your kids, and those around you, every single day, whether you realize it or not.
In my Dad’s case, he fell thirty-eight feet on a job site accident and landed right on his head in a rock pile, crushing three vertebrae in his back. (They had been given hard hats, but his fell off in the air.)
This happened when I was just a young boy and it was a miracle he even survived. But he broke his back and was told he’d be confined to a wheelchair the rest of his life. He refused to accept that diagnosis.
Year after year, he fought to improve, and eventually he was pushing around a walker. He still had a massive back brace that encased his entire upper body from the hips to just under his armpits. It helped support the rods they had placed in his back.
So many people told my Dad he should sue the company he worked for. That he could own them because they hadn’t provided a safety belt for him and a coworker, who were working on a roof. But my Dad refused. He believed they would hold a job for him, and even I thought he was wrong on this; even as a boy. Why would a rock quarry company bring a man back who couldn’t do a thing after being bedridden for months?
But he believed them and never sued. And before long, he had dropped the back brace and moved to a four-legged cane. But he still had a big plastic boot that ran up to his knee. His foot was partially paralyzed and he needed this artificial support.
Many months later, he had shed this as well. And eventually, he shed the cane.
Just as incredible, the company brought him back, letting him work in a weigh station doing some administrative work. It wasn’t long until he was running heavy equipment again.
Here’s the thing. Through this all, my Dad never really said a thing. I NEVER remember a rah-rah speech, where he said, “Son, you’ve got to be tough and never give up.”
Nope. He never said it. He’s a man of few words, but I heard every word that he never said.
Matter of fact, in all my years with him, I can’t recall a single time that he complained of his back hurting. Never.
But I remember numerous times that my Mom told me and my sister that she’d wake up in the middle of the night, finding him wide awake beside her in serious pain but never saying a word. And when she’d ask, he’d lie and say he just couldn’t sleep, but that he wasn’t in pain.
My point in relaying this story is that you, my lovely reader, are impacting those around you with your actions. And with your words, too, but your actions speak far more loudly.
My Dad could have blamed the company, or life, or even God. He did none of those things. He always counted his blessings and was grateful to have survived.
He always had this optimism that the company wouldn’t get rid of him. And they haven’t to this day, despite four different mega-corporation buyouts. Trust me, he works so hard — the man is a maniac about work — that no sane company would ever get rid of him.
Thankfully, he passed that work ethic to me. Or at least part of it, since I can’t work nearly as hard or long as him. Either way, I’m eternally grateful he showed me this toughness and work ethic.
You see, I can imagine a different outcome.
What if he’d have blamed the company or life? He could have crushed every dream I ever had by such an attitude.
Or he could have sued the company, made a million or two, and taught me that all the bad things that happen to you in life are someone else’s fault.
Instead, he fought back from a massive setback, kept his job, and has been richly rewarded with work and long-term friendships. (Seriously, he loves to work, and he’ll tell you that if you don’t enjoy your job, try not working for a year.)
So to sum up this too-long tell about my Dad, I can’t emphasize enough that complaining about life is killing your kid’s dreams. They see and hear everything. And they believe it.
The second major lesson is support your kid’s dreams, no matter how outlandish they seem.
I was crazy enough to think I could write novels as a kid. My Dad or Mom, neither of whom went to college, could have said that dream was crazy. (It was and still is, quite frankly!)
They could have said I needed to plan on getting a real job. But they didn’t.
And as I said earlier, even when their son wanted to do something they couldn’t fully support — joining the Marines — they eventually embraced that dream. (For instance, they proudly attended my Boot Camp graduation, whereas they could have said, “We let him join, but we don’t have to support his foolishness.”
I went into Boot Camp a pretty tough hombre. I had the bullies I mentioned in Chapter 1, forcing me to lift weights and study martial arts. I had my Dad’s example, of laughing at life’s cruelty and persevering to overcome it.
But that one call on that night after my near-fight with Smith is what sealed it. That was the final vertebra in my backbone.
That was the reminder that he had suffered his pain in silence and I should as well. (Within reason.)
That was the moment I remembered, “My Dad’s a total badass, so why aren’t I?”
And in the months and years that followed, I would think of just how hard it would be to say such words to your son: “You need to not call us for a couple of weeks. Maybe a month. We love you, but you’re going to have to work this out yourself.”
I don’t have any kids, but I’m honestly not sure that if I did I’d ever be strong enough to ever say those words. But here’s what I want to share with you: if you’re a parent, you need to say those words.
If your kid gets in trouble at school or with the police, they need to pay the price. I’m not saying be totally cold. Maybe the first time you try to get them out of trouble. But if not the first time, then certainly the second time: let them pay the price.
My parents told me all kinds of valid concerns about why I shouldn’t join. Did I listen? Of course not. But I learned from that day forward that I should listen better. And that when you make a decision, you better be ready to bear the consequences.
I wanted to be a Marine. Actually, I wanted more than that. I wanted to be guaranteed infantry in my contract, despite a high ASVAB score that could have gotten me in intelligence, where my recruiter begged me to go. My recruiter, probably wisely trying to assign some hard-to-fill spot, had not only pushed intelligence, he went even further and said there were no infantry slots available.
Think of that? No infantry slots in the Marine Corps. I’m assuming he believed I would cave and sign up for intelligence.
I didn’t. I went and met with the Army two different times and nearly signed up for guaranteed infantry slot with them before the Marine recruiter “miraculously” found a guaranteed infantry slot. Trust me, I’m a determined, hard-headed individual, just like my Dad, and I usually don’t quit until I get what I want.
But for all my stubbornness, I had gotten my wish. I was an infantry Marine, but now I had to deal with a guy named Smith.
An important note here, regarding the phone call. Not every parent reacts the way my Dad did. During my four years on active duty, some parents received similar phone calls as I had made and some of these parents scrambled, calling Congressmen to complain about various things and working to get their sons out of their contracts. Sometimes it even worked.
But do you have any idea how those Marines were mocked, harassed, and laughed at afterward? And even those whose parents succeeded, I’ll bet you the Marines themselves bear a shame to this day. Or perhaps they blame everything that goes wrong with them as someone else’s fault. That would be an even heavier sentence.
So parents, be strong for your kids with your example. And teach them that life has consequences. Both our good actions and our bad ones.
Every day you are impacting your kids. Whether you’re a mother or a father, you need to show them strength. Through the pain they see you pushing through, through the hardships they see you battling, they are feeding. You are their best example. And you don’t need to be giving speeches. You need to just be battling and working hard.
Don’t whine about things such as the TV or the evils of the internet or whatever political party you despise. Instead, go throw a ball with them or take interest in their drawings or whatever hobby they enjoy.
I still remember my Dad coming home from work after long days and not even taking his boots off, but immediately going outside to throw ball with me. (I used to love baseball.)
I don’t know about you, but when I used to get home from my day job, all I could think about was eating and getting out of my clothes into something comfortable. He didn’t have time for that because it would get dark soon.
That lesson alone (of throwing a ball, along with taking me to batting cages on many Friday nights) taught me that if I wanted to be great, I was going to have to practice and put in the hard work.
Just as importantly as hobbies though, make sure you take interest in your kids’ grades and schooling. Stop whining about how math is taught now or whether teachers give too much homework.
Tell your kids that their grades matter. I’m so glad my parents did, and that they gave my sister and I money for our report cards when we did well. We both earned scholarships and completed college — the first in our family! She’s smarter in that she became a CPA, whereas I thought journalism or fiction writing was the way to the big bucks! But the point remains: your children are watching you and listening to what you say.
I know life is tough. I know we all get tired. But literally, the life of your child is in your hands. And I’m not just talking about short-term safety. I’m talking about their lives and earning power for the next sixty to seventy years. Don’t doom them to failure. Don’t allow them to believe that dreams can’t happen.
Be strong, show them tons of support, and don’t be afraid of a little tough love. I think I’m living proof that it’ll pay off, no matter how hard headed they are. : )
Finally, before we end this segment, let me also say that a lesson I took from this is that we should limit how much we share. From that phone call that night forward, I’m not sure I ever really shared how things were going with my parents.
I didn’t want to put that burden on them. And I think if you’re in the military, you should do the same. Don’t mention you’re in nasty combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Tell them your zone is quiet. Because really, what can they do? Why add loads of stress and worry to them.
Same thing in the civilian world. If you’re an adult facing bankruptcy or something terrifying, don’t share that to your bedridden grandparent. You can mention life is tough right now, but cheer them up. Build them up. Tell them the story about your daughter doing her first recital. Or your son making his first tackle at peewee football. Even better, bring some photos! And some good food as well.
The world is a cruel enough place, and life is hard enough, without dropping your burdens on your friends and loved ones. They’ve already got enough to carry. Don’t add more. Instead, aim to remove some of theirs and spread some good cheer. One word of caution. Obviously, you can take withholding too much information too far. And I’m very guilty of that.
But I’d rather err on the side of withholding than in adding weight to someone who might be considering starting that side business or going back to school. It takes so little to change a person’s perceptions. Don’t be the one who keeps someone from going after their dreams.
In closing, be strong, show your kids tons of support, and don’t be afraid of a little tough love. They’ll thank you for it later, even if it’s the last thing that they want to hear when you initially say it. : )
Stan R. Mitchell
P.S. Enjoy my writing or videos?! You can leave me a tip at this PayPal link. : )—————————
Stan R. Mitchell, author and prior Marine, is best known for his Nick Woods Marine Sniper series, which has remained in the Top 100 on Amazon for more than three years. The series has also been picked up by Audible.com for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.