Reinventing Yourself

I have an unusual talent. I have periodically reinvented myself during my lifetime. Let me explain.

I grew up in a small town in segregated Louisiana. School was not challenging, and none of the teachers or counselors took any particular interest in me. I was average, and my family was quite poor. My only extracurricular activity was band, and even there, I could only play an instrument that the school provided.

I was something of what would become known as a nerd later, although I didn’t see myself as such. My fellow students did. I didn’t find this out until my 50th high school graduation reunion. But my grades were not good enough for a college scholarship.

My family were unable to provide any support for further education. And I had no idea of whether I could do college-level work. My school was not known for academic achievement post-high-school.

I had worked for a number of people around that small town. My last job was working for an old man. I did a number of jobs and clearly he liked what I did; I could see a future working for him, unlike the clerk-style jobs I’d had before. I was happy and I began an effort to really learn how to do the jobs I was hired to do. I went to the local library and checked out books on the subject.

And then he died. My job died with him when his estate became tied up in the courts. His children fought over his various businesses and they closed down while the infighting went on. This occurred during my senior year of high school. I was out of school and out of work.
And the draft was waiting. Usually that ‘friends and neighbors’ greeting card arrived in the 20’s. But I saw no reason to wait. I tried the Navy and the Air Force, but I am color-blind, and both rejected me. The Marines weren’t interested either. The Army was not so choosy.

I became a soldier. I did not realize it until later, but when I joined the Army I reinvented myself for the first time.

For the first time in my life, I now associated closely with people of other races. My horizons expanded. After basic combat training, I went to a course I’d signed up for before enlisting. I would work on rockets, because I had been an avid reader of science fiction. After BCT in Arkansas, I was sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

El Paso was a city. I had no car, but that didn’t matter. There were buses. Even taxicabs, but they were expensive when your income is a private soldier’s pay. My first paycheck was $77.10. The Army took $20 of that for haircut and required supplies.

Change? I resisted for a time. The desert was strange and lifeless after growing up in Louisiana. The people were dark-skinned, and they freely crossed the bridges back and forth from Texas to Mexico. They often spoke Spanish, and some on the streets and in the shops barely spoke English if at all. But I adapted.

Within a few months, my best friend was a Black man. I learned something of his problem, trying not to be different within a society that wouldn’t admit you. Not all of it, of course. But when we went out to have a few beers in Juarez, we learned to be very careful which bars we went into. Some wouldn’t accept him, some wouldn’t accept me, even though we were together. Friends and drinking buddies that we were, patrons of some of the bars simply didn’t want one or the other of us around.

I was aware of the life I left behind, but it no longer meant much. The things I’d been told were obviously false. I left the old life and barely looked back. Just as a snake sheds its skin, I shed my past.

We finished school, and now I had a basic education in things I’d barely been aware of before. Pneumatics. Electronics. Hydraulics. Mechanics. Basic nuclear weapons design. And logic; how to diagnose what was wrong with a missile by looking at symptoms. If this, then that. And not just missiles, but launchers, complicated test sets, high-pressure air compressors, generators that produced 45 kw of 3-phase electrical power. This, to someone who had grown up and never had electricity beyond that provided by batteries in a flashlight until I was a teenager. It was a long way from that huge diesel-powered generator back to the kerosene lamps I’d depended on when I was learning to love reading.

I became a soldier. Except for a short break for two years, living and working in El Paso and then California as a civilian, I remained a soldier for the next 20+ years.

I lived in Chicago for a couple of years and married before transferring. I found that Chicago, despite what I’d believed, was as racist as anyplace I’d been. California was a model of tolerance compared to Chicago. My future wife and I shared a distaste for that; we went on one block-busting expedition together to try to find housing for a young Black woman, a friend of my wife, in a ‘neighborhood’. Chicago is famous for them; they’re ethnically isolated. And racist.

I emphasize the racism because that’s the greatest illustration I can think about to show how I had changed. My life didn’t revolve around race relations, far from it. But when the situation intruded, that was my mindset now and so I acted not as I’d been taught but as I had learned.

That willingness to totally change outlook based on what I learned, and then move on in a new direction, is what I call reinventing myself.

More tomorrow; the Internationalist.

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