"Day after day/Alone on a hill/The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still/But nobody wants to know him/They can see that he's just a fool/And he never gives an answer/But the fool on the hill/Sees the sun going down/And the eyes in his head/See the world spinning 'round."
"The Fool on the Hill" – The Beatles
Whenever one door opens, it's sure to follow that another one, somewhere, closes. For every split in the road, the road you didn’t take represents a whole new set of opportunities and outcomes that will never come to pass.
But just because they didn't come to pass, doesn't mean you can’t entertain them, consider what might have been, what would life be like had you zigged instead of zagged.
I'm there today, thinking on the what-ifs and could-have-beens. Let's start with my first real choice as an adult: joining the Marine Corps.
Following a brief summer job right out of high school as a delivery guy for the local pizza shop (that in itself is a whole 'nother story), lying in my bed on Christmas eve 1992 a stark thought struck me: if I don't get out of this town, I'm dead.
Now see, I didn't run afoul of the law or anger some loan shark or anything like that. I was running with a bad crowd; one of the guys, Keith, had been shot dead at another friend's house over some drug deal gone bad. Those were the people I was hanging out with. And the longer I was there, the deeper into things I was getting.
So as I lay there that Christmas Eve waiting for the remainder of the family to awaken, I knew it was time to go, and time to go big. Actually that's not really true. I'd love to say I joined the Marines because I wanted the challenge, because I felt the sense of honor and pride in being a devil-dog, or any of that television commercial stuff. Nope, I joined the Marines because the day I went down to the mall in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the recruiting station across from the old Fred Meyers department store off College Avenue, the Marine Corps recruiting office was the only one open.
"Sign me up and get me the hell out of here before I change my mind," I distinctly remember telling Staff Sgt. Erickson, the recruiter at the time.
This was the holiday season and obviously I'd caught Erickson at a not so opportune time. He wasn't in his service uniform or even his fatigues; nope, he was wearing a pair of sweat pants and a red USMC sweatshirt.
Erickson looked me up and down. I must have been something for him to see – long hair, overweight, but a determined look in my eyes, and I could see his mind was racing to put me into context, like he'd seen me before. He had; I prayed he didn't remember the encounter.
"We’re not even open today, I just came in to get some paperwork," Erickson told me.
"You have to get me out of here now!" I replied.
Erickson must have sensed something in my voice, something that said I really wasn't kidding.
"Ok, hold on a second while I fire some things up," he said, dodging into his office.
"Wait a minute," I heard him call from his office. "Aren't you the guy who told me to…"
He finished that statement, I just can't print the rest of it. See, one day back in school, Erickson had showed up at North Pole High School. I was a cocky-for-no-good-reason senior at the time. Big man on campus, with a sort of falsely confident swagger to my gait, I knew it all and you couldn't tell me a darn thing. Strolling along the hallways, past the commons, headed outside for a cigarette I blew past Erickson and his booth.
"Hey, how about joining the Marine Corps," he called to me.
"Hey, how about you go … yourself!" I emphatically replied.
In my head at the time, the exchange ended something like this: Ben 1, Marine Corps 0. Man, talk about stupid.
Anyway, I admitted to being that guy and apologized. Erickson accepted the apology and three weeks later I was staring down at Fairbanks from the vantage point of a seat on an Alaska Airlines flight to San Diego, the most transformative four years of my life about to begin.
But what if I hadn't? What if I hadn't walked into that office? Or what if Erickson hadn't decided to come in to grab some office work? Would I have eventually removed my cranium from my anal cavity? Hard to tell; I had already walked away from a full-ride scholarship to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, so apparently my decision-making skills weren't firing all that well.
Maybe, like a lot of my friends of the time, I would have turned to a harder life — not much to do in Fairbanks, and a lot of people there find themselves wrapped up in illicit trade.
Who knows. But every so often I do try and walk that trail back a bit. To crack open some of those closed doors and see if there was anything there.