Something happened to me a few weeks ago that I’ve seldom gone through. I read the name of a friend from long ago in the local obits. It really threw me off since it was a person that had helped change the direction of my life. It also from a time over thirty years ago and two thousand miles away on the far side of this United States. He was distant kin and I was almost half way around the world when I chanced to meet him. Out of respect, I called him “Chief” due to military rank, and he called me “Cuz”. Often times when old friends pass, particularly when they are not that much older, it sets your mind off on an excursion to rediscover the things that you went through, especially those things that may have had an impact on the lives of others.
I was about halfway through my Air Force career, stationed at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada. I would have been described as an arrogant and self-centered young sergeant. I worked on the high side of construction and design. We often went on temporary assignments and completed construction projects, such as buildings, roads and utility systems.
Not long after I was stationed in Las Vegas, I came across a brass, cigar-smoking chief master sergeant who had the same last name as my mom’s maiden name “Whitlow”. A short while later I asked if he was kin to the Whitlow’s from North Carolina. To my surprise he said he was. He also said that my grandfather was his uncle. What a coincidence! It always gave us something to talk about.
The other things we often had opportunities to talk about was my mouth and attitude. Both were horrible. Not a time I’m proud of. I often wonder now how my wife could stand to be around me back then. I won’t go into everything, but after the second time I lost my temper and said some very unprofessional, rude things to a young lieutenant he came to my rescue. The lieutenant was extremely angry because of the name I called him and threatened to put me up on charges. Chief saw (heard) what was going on and moseyed over to where we were having our conversation. He said that I was needed back on the job site right away because there was a problem. I think I was the problem. As I walked away, I heard, “Excuse me sir, could I speak to you for a moment?”
I don’t know what was said in their conversation, but I do know that after I apologized to the Lieutenant, he agreed not to file charges. After the butt-chewing I received from Chief, all I could say was thank-you. I still remember some of the words he told me. He said, “Stack“, I knew I was in it deep. “This is the last time I save your ass. You are the best at what you do. You don’t have to tell people, they can see it in the quality of your work. You need to grow-up and make sure that you want to make the Air Force a career, because if you keep on this path you won’t last.” I was surprised that he cared enough to call me out, and I’ve never forgotten. It was more than just being family. Even though I lost track of him, I never lost respect.
I often wonder if I have touched people in this way (the caring part, not the rude part). I started to turn my life around and eventually I became a Christian. After retirement, I went back to school and became a middle school teacher. I felt that God pulled me in this direction and now I’m completing my twentieth year. I’ve taught hundreds of middle-schoolers. When I think back I question whether my old-school ways had positive effects on these students or was I too tough? Did I care enough? I like to think I did but often felt that my standards were a lot higher than the parent’s or kid’s expectations.
And then I think about the children that have lived in our home. God provided us with a house way too large for just my wife and I, and then asked “what are you going to do with all these rooms?” (no, God did not speak directly to us but as we talked this was what we felt.) We became foster parents about eleven years ago and have had twenty-two babies get their start from our arms. I hope these beginnings have been positive. I often ask myself, “have my fallings and failures affected these babies?”
As a teacher we are supposed to reflect on what we do. Self-examination is much more difficult, and I hate them both. I don’t like the feelings of inadequacy that I have when I question myself. Will I get past this before I’m called to account that final time? I know that I can’t please everyone, but will I meet my own standards for me?
***John E. Stack is the author of Cody’s Almost Trip to the Zoo, Cody and the Great Zoo Escape and co-authored with his daughter Olivia’s Sweet Adventure.