I had been in the Army for all of four months on that April day in 1985. I awoke sneezing in my usual series of three (a running joke in my family, I’ve always sneezed an in series of three for as long as anyone can remember) at the requisite and ungodly hour of five in the morning, when even mother nature is still in bed, and performed the ritual of physical training that the Army requires of its recruits. I knew I wasn’t going to have a typical day when I woke up, but the import of that particular day was still sinking in. I performed the two-mile run with a bit more energy than usual and rushed through my typical morning hygiene regimen faster than ever. My fellow soldiers watched my burst of energy and shook their heads. They knew why I was so anxious and a few of them could understand, having been there themselves. I was in uniform and in the Platoon Sergeant’s office before first formation, to get myself excused from the training schedule for the day. It was Friday, which meant I was asking for a three-day weekend– a big favor to ask while in training.
The Sergeant knew of my situation and had already given his O.K. for the day-off, but I still needed the commander’s permission. I stood at a stiff parade rest position, feet shoulder width apart, hands stacked one on top of the other behind the back, and eyes front while the Sergeant briefed the commander. Captain Benton sat passively and leaned back in his plain gray metal desk chair and regarded me silently as the Sergeant went on about how good a soldier I was.
“PFC. Hand,” the Captain addressed me once the Sergeant was finished, “am I to understand that you are ahead of schedule in your training?”
“Yes, sir,” I responded quickly and with as much military bearing as I could muster.
“And you won’t miss anything by skipping classes today,” he continued.
“I have already finished the book assignments for the next week, Sir.”
“You’re not asking for a whole week off….” he said more than asked.
“Oh, no Sir. Just today. I’ll be back for duty Monday morning.”
“Very well,” he said and I relaxed a little, “good luck, and congratulations.”
I fairly ran out of the office and over to the barracks, where my bags were packed and waiting by my bunk. I hefted the duffel and the overnight bag and wrestled them outside and into my car. As I did so, my platoon was in formation preparing to march to the classroom. Several of my fellow soldiers hollered their support for me while others asked if they could use my car while I was gone. I was one of the very few trainees who had a car, and as such, it was in much demand and I was very popular. I thanked them and then started the car. It was one hundred eighty miles to Houston from Fort Sam Houston and I didn’t have three hours to make it. It was already after eight in the morning and I had to be there by eleven.
San Antonio is very picturesque and Fort Sam is smack dab in the middle of the city, near the down-town area. I left the post and started the drive past the historical buildings and the contrasting facade of new sky scrapers, running just over the posted in city speed limit. The weather was perfect and as it was early April, the oppressive dry heat that San Antonio is known for had yet to develop and the sky was crisp and clear. It was not hot enough for an air conditioner and just right to keep the window down. Once I cleared the city limits, I cranked the speed up to seventy miles-per-hour and readied myself for a long drive.
Interstate 10 is a flat, straight, boring affair with nothing much to see and as such, lends itself to introspection and not a little drowsiness. Staying awake on that drive is a chore itself, with the sun shining through the windshield and the warmth of the early spring morning, but I had an impetus to stay awake, the import of this trip was paramount. So as the country side flew past in an ever increasing blur, I thought about how my life had changed from what I had expected. I had envisioned myself as a college graduate with a plethora of girlfriends and nothing to fetter me. Circumstances dictated something else, however, and I found myself married young and enlisting in the Army to support us. I had no real complaints at that time. I was young, without any real direction, lacking major goals and so when a major turn of life came, I rolled with it.
The military was not easy, but neither was it particularly difficult. The biggest trick that I discovered for surviving the regimental mentality of the Army, was to adopt the attitude of “if five million people throughout the history of the Armed forces could survive this, then so could I.” Certainly there were the uncomfortable moments when a drill sergeant would get in my face and issue the longest, most vial stream of expletives that would make John Wayne blush. You learned to take those occasions in stride. After four months, things in the Army developed a routine that was getting comfortable, if not simple.
The time on the road ticked by faster than I would like while at the same time, creeping at a snail’s pace. I knew I had to go faster to make it on time, but the drive seemed to go on forever. I continued to reflect as I drove, hoping to pass the time, as I watched the speedometer creep towards 90.
I was looking forward to four years of military service with absolutely no idea of what could happen in that time. The future was a blank slate that I had no idea how it would be filled. New marriage, new career in a unknown field, big question marks loomed ominously on the horizon and I had no answers or ideas. I was just rolling with the punches, including the punch that was landing that day. I could only hope that the punches wouldn’t be too far below the belt for comfort.
The Houston skyline appeared on the horizon and I knew I had to slow down, lest I fall victim to the highway patrol’s radar. The clock read 10:45 and I knew that I had broke my personal record for travel time, and more important, I would make it on time or close to it. Houston is an Impressive sight from I-10 with the glimmering buildings thrusting up from the twisting and convoluted mass of interstate that coiled around the base of the city like a pile of spaghetti. Navigating this mess is a tricky proposition and the uninitiated can find themselves lost very quickly. I had cut my teeth on these roads, knew them well, so getting to where I was going wasn’t too terribly difficult. The exit was well documented by a giant green sign indicating that ST. Joseph’s Hospital was near. My destination was at hand, as was a big part of my future.
I had directions for the necessary floor and only had to ask for assistance once to get where I was going. My watch said 10:59 and the procedure was scheduled for 11, so I hoped the staff wasn’t too efficient. One of the benefits of the advances in medical science is that it can allow for accurate scheduling of things that had been previously left up to providence. Instead of wondering for weeks when this day would come, I knew not only the date but the time it would happen for over a week in advance. After finding the ward and the room I found her sitting up and the nurse administering the medication. I hadn’t missed anything.
The IV bag hanging on the pole was labeled Pitocin and a start time was indicated. The nurse said that it would hit her system almost immediately and the result would be evident soon. My wife sat up in the bed and looked nervous. We had been waiting for this moment for nine months and now it was at hand. She was two weeks over due which is why her OB decided to induce labor, which gave us the happy ability to schedule the delivery when I could be home to see it. Now the waiting was reduced to the time it took for the pitocin to kick in, which it did very quickly. Two hours later, and after several explicates that would have made a drill sergeant proud, my wife was wheeled into the delivery room. Soon after, I watched my nine-pound, nine-ounce, twenty-one inch long son being wheeled into the nursery. D.J. (David Junior) was peaceful at first and lay there quietly looking around with unfocused black and gray eyes. Then he sneezed three times. I smiled and realized that this was a special moment that would last in my mind for the rest of my life.