The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 59 Renni

People who’d known me for many years pulled me aside and said they liked me better, but they attributed my change to Renni. In Christmas cards, people wrote that I was lucky to have her. They liked that I’d settled down, joined them in couples’ domesticity. It was like at a wedding when everyone claps and celebrates two more people easing into the matrimonial box. They encouraged the status quo, the joining in the fabric of society.

      I nodded and smiled toothlessly at the sideways compliments. That didn’t mean that I agreed with what they said; it just meant that I didn’t look for an argument, to get into an indignant word fight. Which hill did I choose to die on, right? I was trying to be more mature, to decrease conflict in my life. I agreed that I’d somehow changed, but they implied that before I met Renni, I was douchey, and now I was the fortunate disabled half of our coupleship. Was the story of our romance that I played the slacker role, the reckless guy who wooed and won the gorgeous overachiever, the girl who didn’t get into trouble, the college pentathlete and coach who went on to academic success? I straightened up to win her over, and then everyone liked me better? Renni tamed me? Was I pussy-whipped? Had the critics finally beaten me down into a cold surrender? I at least had to consider my domesticity, what it looked like, because I was too young to sell out. Even though my peak experience had made me a more loving person, I still hadn’t given up my quest to join the ranks of the mad-to-burn.

      Those folks connected my behaving more empathetically, more considerately of others, with pairing off with Renni. They thought the two events were correlated—like during baseball season, there were mosquitoes; therefore, baseball caused mosquitoes. Wasn’t that loose thinking? They liked me better attached to Renni. I wasn’t as acceptable by myself? I liked me better, too, but why would they tell me that? Their faces and tone implied that they thought they were complimenting me and teaching me a much-needed life lesson. Do I sound defensive? 

      But was I really so horribly out of my league? Did I deserve someone less intelligent, attractive, ambitious, or generous? Was this yet another example of the low expectations placed upon me or a comment on my chameleon colors? Was Renni’s judgment of men so poor? Shouldn’t she be insulted, too?

      Let’s suppose that Renni recognized a complimentary piece to make a stronger whole. Maybe she was brilliant to have chosen me; she saw beneath the chameleon color to the authentic me. Looking back, I was actually a good thing for her as well, not a restoration project at all. I brought liberal arts to her science, a bit of art to her logic, a bit of mellow to her intensity; so as a couple, we were fairly well rounded. It certainly didn’t feel as if I’d sold out by settling down, as if I’d compromised something of myself. It felt just the opposite, as if I had a strong teammate charging down the track with a huge lead, about to pass me the baton so that I could anchor the relay to a big win. Life became easier with an ambitious partner. I still wanted to make a difference, to shine a light on the absurdities of society and human existence. There was still a piece of me that was rebellious; I was still me, and Renni wasn’t asking me to be anything different.

      Don’t get me wrong; I am grateful for Renni. She gets a huge hunk of credit for making me want to be a better man. But what about my peak experience? Was the moment my paradigm shifted the moment my brain made the final neural connection necessary to maturate to match my chronological age of twenty-seven? I literally became mature in that moment. What about losing the dream of elite distance running causing me to let go of the selfishness needed to perform at that level? What about the freedom I enjoyed to be myself after the repression of army life? What about losing my religion, which forced me to investigate other possibilities? I was ready to become more responsible. I didn’t want to be a lowly private any longer; I was ready to be an officer, a leader. I wanted to bring Renni along with me, and being in love with my best friend made it feel like less of a struggle and more of an adventure. So the change in me was multifactorial and not as simple as the idea that a good woman cleaned me up and straightened me out.

      So no, I wasn’t pussy-whipped. I just morphed into a new and better color, someone cognitively abler. I became someone emotionally more mature who considered other people’s points of view and cared that they, too, had thoughts and feelings of their own that mattered. I became someone just a bit more authentically me and more loving and accepting of others’ authenticity and foibles. But no, I certainly was not pussy-whipped.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 58 Peak Experience

I again made the trip from Virginia to New Mexico, to the Duke City, Albuquerque, the near-unspellable place of my birth. If it were true that you don’t look at the chameleon to determine whom he or she is, you look at his or her environment, I was excited to figure out who I’d become next. I couldn’t be Timmy Two-Mile any longer because of my injury, but neither would I be Corporal, Specialist, Private, Trainee, Taco Tim, Two-by-Four, Aunt Jemima, a freak, a leader of minions, T-Bub, Ratty Snake, or Happy Jack.

      After setting tile all day with my old high-school cross-country buddy Antelope Legs, I went to Kaplan Education Center to study for the GRE—Graduate Records Exam. I figured a master of arts in creative writing would help me to earn more as a teacher, a future incarnation I’d decided to move toward, something with “Mister” as a prefix. I was ready to try Mom’s way, to try sitting nicely on her bus. Smeared with Quick Set concrete and reeking of sweat, my high-and-tight haircut growing out, I requested GRE cassette lessons from a cute woman who worked there. I’d just met Renni, “like Penny but with an R.” She was studying to get into medical school, which I respected, the whole medical paradigm no longer a deal breaker for me. Turned out we were the same age, twenty-six, had grown up within a mile of each other, and had many track friends in common. The dividing line between our schools had kept us from meeting until then, thank goodness, because she was a good girl, and I was, well, you know. A chameleon, I guess.

      Without distance running and the army to dominate my life, I had time for both Renni and serious studies. I experienced a sort of emotional and intellectual renaissance. They say we have to experience sorrow to experience joy; we need the relative difference. My heart and mind were greedy after being constricted in the military. Dating Renni and the university experience were the exact opposite of my rigid army experience. My life had opened up and was my own to live.

      One evening, we sat in a hot tub having our usual existential conversation. Renni was a fine listener and didn’t mind the torrent of concepts and questions that spewed out of me in my search for “Ultimate Truth.” That was my new thing then, to finally pin it down. Someone should’ve already figured it out, right? Not I, but someone brilliant, and then I could just ask that person for the answer, like in high-school algebra class. Why would I, among the billions of people throughout history who’d already asked the same questions, finally figure it out? No, the information must already be out there; I just needed to research it. So I talked to anyone I could about it. I must’ve irritated those who wished to impose their world views on me when they mistook my eagerness to mean that I would be an easy convert. I always admired people who searched for truth, but I was suspicious of those who claimed to have it. Although I was open-minded, I never committed. I just couldn’t make the leap of faith. Prayer seemed silly when compared with science, which never required me to make that leap and was replicable. Spirituality versus science was a conflict for me, even though the world view I inherited, Christian Science, tried to merge the two.

      But science certainly didn’t have all the answers, so I did a cursory overview of some of the great thinkers throughout history and read books on religion and philosophy, ranging from materialism to spiritualism. I eventually circled back to Christian Science, which, not coincidentally, always felt like the best fit, despite the neglect it engendered. I was kind of like a battered spouse who refused to leave his abuser, if for no other reasons than she claimed to love me and was at least familiar to me. Of course, after the honeymoon and build-up period, the spouse gets beaten again, which was exactly what happened to me. See, I was asked to be the graduate student representative on campus for the Christian Science Student Organization. I agreed because I felt pressured, having been raised in the Sunday school, with a mother who was still prominent in the church (in living memory), and being the only grad student available. As I’d gotten serious about scrupulous honesty, I pulled the faculty adviser aside and told him that I still enjoyed a chilled Guinness, in a can, of course. His face set hard, and he never spoke to me again. Needless to say, I was out of the student organization, and I never again entered a Christian Science church. Although in many ways it fit me, it still wasn’t a good-enough fit. I was finally done with the church once it became clear that the church was finally done with me. I was trying to be a good person, to be honest and authentic; but when I revealed myself, I was judged, and that made me want to conceal myself again. I knew by then that authenticity was the way, even if it made me a poorer fit for organized religions.

      So, my angst-driven search for Ultimate Truth continued.

      Then something wonderful happened.

      In that hot tub with Renni, I guessed what time it was. I got out, looked at my watch, and was exactly right about the time. In that moment, an ecstatic state of euphoria and harmonization flooded over me. It had nothing to do with organized religion but everything to do with being a spiritual being. There were revelations about the interconnectedness of the universe that felt mystical and spiritual. I had intense feelings of happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and knowledge of higher truth. The overwhelming beauty of nature astounded me and affirmed the meaning, miraculousness, and value of existence. I had free will, self-determination, creativity, and empathy. My sense of self dissolved into an awareness of greater unity.

      It was the opposite of atheism, materialism, or every dog for himself. I realized that the so-called Ultimate Truth somehow hinged on love. Although I still liked the word “free,” both as meaning of no cost to me and not being under the power or control of another, my new favorite word was “love.”

      That probably sounds corny to some, obvious to others, and overly simplistic to true intellectuals, but that’s what was revealed to me at that hot-tub moment, and I’m sticking with it.

      My paradigm shifted.

      Maslow called it a “peak experience.” It sometimes happened to people on LSD and to volunteers using psychedelic mushrooms. It also happened to people steeped in religious and existential pursuits, like cloistered monks or, you know, me. Yes, that’s what it was, a peak experience. They say that if you don’t know what it is, then you haven’t had one. It wasn’t just an “Ah-ha! moment.” It was more than merely a sudden insight; it was a tectonic shift of perspective. My toilet-paper tube widened. In that moment, I literally became a more loving and empathetic person. What might have happened, I theorize today, was that my brain finally made the necessary neural connections it’d been lacking, which enabled it to open up wider and have deeper understanding of the universe and my place in it. That, or something truly spiritual occurred.

      Although there was no chorus, harp music, or shaft of light from the heavens, it was as if venetian blinds had been opened to the outside sunlight, except that the light never faded; I just grew accustomed to living in brightness. I felt bliss for weeks, and then it became my new normal.

      So the words prominently displayed on the Christian Science church wall that I took for granted as a boy were the most profound concept of all: God Is Love. No religion captured everything I looked for, which meant that love became my spirituality, my religion—and I got to keep my vices and sleep in on Sundays.

      I also became much more loving to my core self. This included all my thoughts, emotions, and past; it was who I was authentically. I was innately lovable, as I’d been on the day I was born—before people and events had time to poison my mind against me and I compensated with chameleon behavior.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 57 The Presidio

The army sent me to San Francisco to be on the All-Army Track Team. The Presidio was an army post back then and wouldn’t become a national park until 1994. From my barrack, I had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge a quarter mile away. We held formations two times a day on the parade field, mornings in the mist and evenings before the sun set behind Seacliff. I only had to make both formations, attend track practice, and run fast. It was as close to being a professional runner as I ever got, and it was the kind of support I’d had in mind when I joined up.

      After the foggy morning runs, I spent my free hours in the post library writing long, overwrought letters to friends and reading Ginsberg’s Howl and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, which I’d bought at City Lights Bookstore. I imagined the people who preceded me in San Francisco, such as Jack Kerouac, who was shy the way I sometimes felt—but man, he sure didn’t write shyly, and I didn’t want to, either. I liked that the beatniks were beaten down the way I felt at the time. I marinated, I’m telling you, right there at the corner of Haight-Ashbury, right where the hippies had stood. But by then, the cast looked more like drug addicts and homeless people and did not resemble the characters I’d read about and seen on TV. It reminded me that I still straddled worlds: a literary life and a military life, liberal and conservative, Mom’s way and Dad’s way, freaks and jocks, Christian and Science, or spirit and materialism. I still felt caught in the middle, not sure exactly who I was.

      I was injured during my last race for the army. I led the race and wouldn’t drop out when my heel blistered. It was a championship race, and I thought people who DNF (did not finish) were quitters. I’d never dropped out of a race, which was obviously inflexible thinking and ignorant, because the injury ended my running career. The activity that had saved my life was no longer viable for me.

***

I returned to Fort Meyer on crutches and began a life stage that somehow couldn’t be about distance running. I was lost. But “Fuck up, move up” was an army maxim, so they made me a corporal, the lowest noncommissioned officer. I got my own team, which meant three guys plus me, and I was expected to keep them at a distance, not get personal. They had to respect the rank and take my orders without question, without complaint. They couldn’t even criticize me. Hypothetically, one day I might lead them into combat. I found the toughness, the invulnerability, the uniform like armor, but it wasn’t as good as I’d imagined. It was emotionally safe but lonely, and it certainly didn’t nurture me; it was as cold as moving chess pieces. I was a lonely chameleon with a really hard shell.

      When my hitch ended, I drove off post and headed west. Have you ever felt freedom? Imagine being underwater, your lungs and head bursting, and you can’t stand it, but then you push off the bottom and crash through the surface with a gasp. It was like that, but one hundred times stronger and way longer and better.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 56 Garin

Garin, a tough kid from the Bronx, always said he didn’t give a fuck. I totally dug Garin the way I’d dug Ramon back when I was a kid. When anyone corrected Garin, he said, “You know what? Fuck you! How ’bout that?” in his best Tony-Montana-from-Scarface voice. I liked hanging out with him because I felt like a badass and safe to be his friend. Someone said, “Hey, man, that’s a nice suitcase,” and Garin replied, “What? A black man can’t have a nice suitcase?” and puffed himself up to fight. I guffawed to encourage him. 

      Garin looked very intimidating if you didn’t know him. Still, he once got into a fistfight with another buddy over a pyramid of empty beer cans that got knocked down. Garin got the worst of it, and I kind of feel bad about it now, because I might’ve been able to stop the fight. But I’d vowed not to be codependent while in the army, not to play the role of middle child, facilitator, peacemaker, track and cross-country captain, and rescuer. I was being who I thought I should be—a badass infantry chameleon who liked fights—when in fact, I felt vulnerable. I didn’t want my friends to fight each other. I wanted to be peacemaker, but I consciously decided to be merely the observer, and I promise you that I really thought at the time, “And if the boys want to fight, you’d better let ’em,” from Thin Lizzy. It was kind of my army mantra.

      When we got wild in the café across from the fort, a couple plainclothesmen said, “We’re officers in the US Navy, and you men are too loud.” Garin stood, pushed his face close to the officer’s face, and said, “Well, I’m a private in the US Army, and I don’t give a fuck.” I felt obligated to stand, because backing up a buddy outweighed spending a night in the brig, losing a stripe, and being transferred to South Korea. Thankfully, the officers backed down, and later Garin bragged about me having his back. I’m not saying I’m proud of this; I’m just saying that despite the army’s brainwashing about the importance of rank, my loyalty to friends still trumped everything. Of course, the army also trained us to have our buddy’s back. If I were sitting in that café today with my family, I’d think, Wow, what inconsiderate jerks. Grow up. It’s hard for me to remember myself in that way. At the time, I was proud of it. At the time, I thought, Yep, there’s another anecdote.

      One night in Georgetown, Garin and I were barhopping again. As we took opposite sides of an alley to relieve ourselves, a couple of men walked past and told Garin that he’d better tuck it in. I don’t know if they were racists or they just didn’t see me. But, of course, Garin said, “You know what? Fuck you! How ’bout that?” It turned out that they were plainclothes cops, but even after seeing their badges, Garin said he still didn’t give a fuck. So, the cops pulled out blackjacks like you’d see in old black-and-white gangster movies. I told Garin to slug the one on the left, and I’d punch the one on the right, and then we’d run like hell, serpentine through M Street traffic. I was confident that I could get away. I was an idiot. I suppose our prisons are full of idiots like I was. But I wasn’t really an idiot; I was a chameleon. Always keep in mind that at the time, I thought it was cool to be a bit antisocial. I waited for Garin to hit first, but he didn’t; he wasn’t a runner like me, so he just allowed himself to be handcuffed as more cops arrived in patrol cars. A crowd formed, and young people taunted the cops for hassling a black man. Some cop flung a young guy onto his car hood and then body-slammed another onto the sidewalk. I thought, Jeez, this is exactly the kind of stuff I’ve been wanting! This is better than a bare ass shattering a windshield! This is a good story, man! Apparently, the cops still didn’t have a beef with me, so I just bailed Garin out of jail.

      A few months later, Garin was a witness to a murder in DC and made himself scarce as the CID (US Army Criminal Investigation Command) searched for him. He called me, but I was nervous by then, not wanting that kind of fun, especially as my discharge date approached. Garin wanted money, but when he came over, I wasn’t there; I’d decided to extract myself from his drama. I’d had second thoughts about that whole badass thing by then. I mean, Garin was a badass, but he seemed serious about it and not just goofing around as I was. Isn’t hitting a cop a felony? If I had a felony conviction, I couldn’t be a psychologist today. See what I mean about being luckier than I was smart? How many people have ruined their lives because of poor judgment, rough company, being jacked on testosterone or cheap beer, and having a yearning to create youthful anecdotes? I should’ve thanked Garin for submitting to the handcuffs. I didn’t, though. He’d only feel uncomfortable and say, “You know what? Fuck you! How ’bout that?”

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 55 Flawless

I was bummed because I wouldn’t see combat. I served during the Reagan years, when there were no conflicts. You’d think that’d be a good thing, but not for me. I later met a police officer in Palo Alto, California. When I asked him how great it was to be a cop in such a calm, wealthy town, he said, “Sucks, man. No action.” See, he was a cop because he wanted to catch bad guys, and I became an infantryman because I wanted to go to war. Of course, today I understand the insanity of my yearning. I had something to prove to myself regarding my masculinity; I still wanted the combat anecdotes, plus I still had some magical thinking, believing that nothing bad could happen to me. But even if there’d been a hot conflict instead of merely a Cold War, it was unlikely that I’d see combat. 

      You see, while in basic training, recruiters approached me to change my orders from West Germany to the Old Guard at Fort Myer, Virginia. Recall that when I was a road racer, I’d lived just a few blocks from the fort and was impressed by the soldiers. So I changed my orders. Someone had to bury the fallen warriors, and if they were buried in Arlington National Cemetery, then I might’ve done it. As a member of the Presidential Honor Guard, my job was to present a good impression of the United States. At the Tomb of the Unknowns, tourists watched from behind velvet ropes as we marched up the white marble steps and presented arms as some bigwig laid a wreath. Blue-pressed and perfect, we were chosen because we were the brightest tall, thin infantry soldiers at the time, and we appeared homogeneously neat and fit. We functioned as a single entity, flawless in our appearance, with impeccably timed and choreographed routines. It was the opposite of the unique individual I’d struggled to be for most of my life, so yeah, another irony. Personalities and personal desires were set aside for uniformity. It was overt impression management taken to an absurd extreme. Still, for me to be a part of something larger than myself, excellent and observed, was cool for…like, two months. Even at the time, I saw value in what I did; it was just that I thought I had more to offer than being a cog in a company- or battalion-sized slick machine. I’d become exactly what my running and writing heroes resisted.

***

I began to stand out again when I resumed winning road races around Northern Virginia. Afterward, I showed my trophies to my commanding officer as self-promotion. My captain was impressed and called company formations to present those trophies back to me. The troops began to resent these unnecessary formations, and I endured yet another round of ostracism—number four if you’re counting my early home life, the “Pigeth” episode, the “Colorado Six-Pack” fiasco, and now the army SNAFU.

      And there it was; a clear pattern had emerged by the time I was twenty-five years old. My reaction to my woundedness—whether it was my snarky mouth or my addict-like drive to win races—alienated groups of people from me. My anxious style of attachment made me fear that I couldn’t trust people to be there for me, so I defended myself by pushing them away, and then the thing I feared the most—social ostracism—manifested, and the cycle continued.

      I made rank quickly, but inside I felt turmoil. I was so bored, standing around and waiting, which was mostly what the army wanted from me. But Maslow’s press toward self-actualization was a stronger drive for me than fitting in was. I habitually sought a balance between individualism and joining with the collective, but the army didn’t care about me as an individual; it only wanted me to fit into the mission goal. At the time, it just felt like oppression that I couldn’t escape, or they’d send me to Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary. Sometimes I needed to be alone to regroup and take a breath. I needed to get away from the other soldiers. But that wasn’t the way it was done in the infantry; it was just the opposite. It was all about teamwork, which, as you can imagine, was especially challenging for me, having been raised to think that it was every dog for himself and having specialized in the solitary pursuits of distance running, reading, and writing.

      But yeah, I figured that too much uniformity wasted my life, except when we did funerals in “the boneyard.” Eight of us, all identical, walked beside a casket set upon an exact replica of the caisson that carried JFK’s body. It reminded me of my own mortality and how badly I needed to get on with my life. I felt stalled out. I was conflicted; I was proud to do what we did, but all the inefficiency stressed me out. I just wanted out of their army. It made me wonder about people who worked civilian jobs that they hated but wouldn’t quit. They are scared to change, whereas I’ve always been more afraid of wasting my life than switching jobs.

      When I carried my first casket that contained a corpse, I was shocked by the added heft. We trained with empty, government-issue, silver caskets on the back porch of our barrack, so to move from the mock-up to the real thing was profound for me. Am I too ghoulish? I’m starting to worry. I prefer to think of myself as very existential. All I’m saying is that the first few times I felt the weight of dead human meat, it unsettled me. Still, you would’ve only seen me standing still as a robot, waiting to run the next program.

      Adding to my angst was that I didn’t have enough time to run. The training necessary to be a subelite distance runner was incongruent with military life. I missed weeks of training when I humped the bush, aggressing the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. We orienteered and did other tasks to earn our EIBs, expert infantryman’s badges. I didn’t earn my EIB, which was a big deal to me at the time. But what we all coveted was a CIB, a combat infantryman’s badge. Only one man in our entire company had a CIB. He’d fought in Granada, and although he was only a corporal, he had mad respect—exactly what I wanted.

      Today I wonder what it’d be like if I’d earned all the medals and badges I’d wanted, even a CIB. I’ve concluded that nothing would be different. In thirty years, nobody has ever asked about accolades from my service, which military schools I attended, or what my experience was like. I wanted to impress everyone, but in retrospect, I see that we only impressed other soldiers: EIB, a Ranger tab, Air Assault…Before the carnage of Iraq and Afghanistan, civilians didn’t care, except in some hypothetical “thank-you-for-your-service” way, which nobody except old people said back then. Many Georgetown bars wouldn’t even allow us inside. They saw our high-and-tight haircuts and said they didn’t want trouble. When I said, “I have to whiz,” they said, “There’s the alley.” 

      Of course, today I realize that I was way too self-involved and overly impressed by my own supposed importance. But at the time, I was blind to it. I suspect the people who earn CIBs and Olympic medals experience a general unconcern regarding their accolades. I think they discover that those things bring them less attention than the rest of us imagine they receive.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 54 444

As a trainee, I wore a helmet liner with three numbers on the front. It was then that the number 444 began to appear in my life. I was in fourth platoon. There were forty-four men in my platoon, eleven men per squad. I was in fourth squad because we were assigned alphabetically. When I was promoted to squad leader, my new spot was the 444 spot. It meant nothing to me at the time. As the years passed, 444 regularly showed up on digital clocks, exercise machines, license plates, confirmation numbers, security codes, running records, and so on. It showed up more frequently than three fours should statistically show up together. At least that was my perception. Was I only adding meaning to random events, like hearing a poltergeist when it was really the house settling?

      Still, a part of me wondered if 444 was my lucky number. Was it a good omen? Was Mom watching me, as if I were still sitting on a curb and scraping my initials into the hot tar? Mom made 444 appear, and I was supposed to know that I wasn’t alone? Again, I turned around, and she wasn’t there. 

      Was it a sign? An evil omen, a residue from my poltergeist years? I wanted to believe that it was an angel, number 444, which meant, “All is well.” Was it merely coincidence that that was a Christian Science motto and one of my family of origin’s mottos? Remember, I’m not making up any of this. There’s a part of me that’s superstitious. I don’t like that part. It seems ignorant. But there’s so much that we, as a species, don’t know. 

      I do know that other people are superstitious, too. Some have their lucky pair of racing socks. Others think hard and believe that they are communicating with an omniscient being. Some people believe that 444 represents the ancient mystery schools, and my noticing it is a sign of my budding awareness of spirituality; I’ve been admitted to the mystery school and will explore it via books (they say). I sometimes fantasize that my life has been in synchronicity; somehow, things always work out for me as they should. I imagine that something larger than myself is signaling to me that although material existence degenerates into chaos and nothingness, there is human energy—maybe even spirit—and an intelligence greater than I can even imagine that created and runs things, even to the point of watching over me to make sure that I’m fine. Still, I fear that these are only the last vestiges of the magical thinking of a child or the pre-Enlightenment superstition that still lingers in every culture, which we call “religion.”

      In The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck cites the second law of thermodynamics, which is the law of entropy. Everything moves toward disorder; everything degrades. But evolution is also true, and humans have a natural growth toward godhead, love, or spirituality via serendipity and synchronicity. It’s hard for me to make that leap, but I’m trying—or, at least, it has my attention.

      In the meantime, my psychological training suggests that I merely became aware of 444 and now notice it more often. It’s like becoming aware of yellow Volkswagens and then suddenly seeing them all over town. Try it: yellow Volkswagen Beetles.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 53 Basic

If I’m being honest—and I am—I felt small and vulnerable, so I sought to be part of something bigger and tougher than myself. Dad swore into the army a dozen young men plus me. I went in as an enlisted man because I wanted to be one of the guys, to fit in with Everyman and learn from the inside what infantry life was all about, as Tim O’Brien or Colonel David Hackworth had done. I didn’t have the self-esteem to be an officer and assume the responsibility of commanding other soldiers. Also, I didn’t wish to make a six-year commitment; I didn’t know if I’d be a career soldier, as Dad was. I just hoped.

      Dad was always very poised, especially while in uniform, but he wasn’t a Great Santini type of military father. I was very proud of him, of his rank, his reputation, and his manliness. I thought he’d make a great subject for an oil painting. I pictured him standing in one of those open WWII-era jeeps with a white star on the hood. No, wait, even better: sitting astride a white stallion and holding a chrome helmet. Of course, he was more than a two-dimensional character, but that was all I saw and all he showed me back then. See, people intermittently approached me over the years and said how Dad had saved their lives during the Vietnam War. He was the guy who decided which men got into the New Mexico Army National Guard and which men did not. Those who didn’t get in risked being drafted into the regular army as infantry soldiers, shipped to Vietnam, and sent back to the Land of Enchantment in a body bag. Which meant that when Dad’s son volunteered for the regular army as a grunt, it was ironic as all get out.

      I dug how weird it was for me to join as a private first class, at twenty-four-years old, with a college degree. It made me unpredictable. I liked to think of myself as a nonconformist even to the nonconformists. Basic training was about conformity, but I thought I’d hunker down inside their camouflage box and check it out for a while. It’ll be an adventure to write about, I said.

      As a boy, I was never immunized, so I got my first shots at Fort Benning, Georgia. There were many firsts for me there, such as the first time I heard a person openly admit that he wanted to kill someone. Our drill sergeant had seated us in a circle and asked why we’d joined his army. A seventeen-year-old sociopath said, “I just want to kill somebody and get away with it.” His statement was well received; everyone grinned and nodded because we were all there to be lethal—no cooks, clerks, or rear echelon motherfuckers. We were killers in training.

      I, too, wondered what it’d be like to kill somebody, preferably a communist, because then it wouldn’t be murder; it’d be heroic and make me a badass, I imagined. Who’d mess with a killer? But when my turn came, I said, “To serve my country.” The words, although partially true, sounded corny back then. Remember, this was only eleven years after America dragged herself out of the Vietnam quagmire and still seventeen years before the revived patriotism from 9/11. The other trainees—most of whom were just months out of high school with no better options than to join the army and no higher intelligence than to qualify for the infantry—furrowed their brows. Apparently, the sociopath had the right answer, so I didn’t mention my other reasons: support for my running and anecdotes for my writing. Those reasons sounded too limp-wristed to say aloud in this massive green machine that I had placed myself into.

      Hooah!

      I shouted, “Argh!” during bayonet training but felt silly. The other trainees seemed genuinely into it, though. I saluted the way you see in movies and walked the same way everybody else did—you know, marching—and then stood closely behind the other trainees in the chow line as the drills shouted, “Tighten it up! Make your buddy smile!” All the bloodlust and formality would feel natural at some point, I predicted. It never did; for the next two years, I felt inauthentic playing the soldier and killer and going through the rituals demanded in the military. I was an olive-drab chameleon. I even wore contact lenses through basic because I couldn’t stand how geeky those military-issue, black, horn-rimmed glasses made me look. Remember, I parodied as best I could the real soldiers I’d respected while growing up, and they didn’t wear thick, birth-control glasses. Can you imagine Vic Morrow, John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood wearing those glasses? I was always pretending; other guys seemed to embrace the silliness, but it didn’t feel natural to me. It felt like we parodied real soldiers, but I could never really be one. I didn’t like the abuse or the phoniness, and I hoped I’d like the army better after I got to my unit, but it never got better for me; it was never a good fit. Everybody I knew complained as much as I did, but then those same guys later reupped, which totally flabbergasted me. I was ready to get out of the army even as I nodded sleepily in the lecture halls while instructors droned on about the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Claymore mines, and how courageous we were expected to be. When a drill shouted, “All trainees, on your feet!” we leaped up or they leaned over us and growled, “Stay alert, stay alive, scumbag! Drop and give me twenty!” and you either did push-ups and asked permission to recover, or things got a whole lot worse. As the weeks wore on, the drills modified their pay-attention ploy with, “All queers, on your meat!” (Back then, in this subculture, it was encouraged to disparage gays). If, half-asleep, I shot to my feet as conditioned, the drills descended: “You queer, boy? Ain’t no faggots in my army, trainee! Pay attention to details! Just drop and start knockin’ ’em the fuck out! Go!” So I got into the front-lean-and-rest position, and my skinny, quivering distance-guy arms pumped out more push-ups.

      They invited us to quit, to go ahead and join Jody back on the block (who, they assured us, was diddling our girlfriends). They dared anyone who didn’t wish to be a hardcore US Army infantry soldier to stand and get kicked out of their army. They didn’t want any “homos” or “good-for-nothing flat dicks.” I was concerned about getting injured and then recycled, which would prolong basic training. Or even worse, if I washed out, the humiliation would be overwhelming. After all, when my drill heard that I was the son of a (by this time) full-bird colonel, he dropped and did push-ups for me!

      It really was as you see in movies, except in movies, you get to leave after a couple hours. I had to get through an excruciating thirteen weeks. I wondered if the movies reflected us, or if we all aped what we saw in the movies. I saw one guy cleaning the latrine with a toothbrush, even though nobody told him to do it that way. Do you think he was collecting anecdotes, too?

      One day, when they again asked who wanted out of their army, a pale teenager stood and said that in fact, he did not wish to be in their army.

      Oh, how the drills descended on him. But he stared straight ahead at the position of attention and took the onslaught. They degraded him, screamed in both of his ears, and made him do mountain climbers. The pale teen endured it, and each time they asked who wanted to quit, he again stood. At every lecture, in the chow hall, and while standing in formation, they talked about his cowardice, they questioned his manhood, they said what a “faggot” he was, and they talked about the sexually deviant things they were going to do to his mama.

      And still, he endured it.

      I didn’t respect him because he wasn’t honoring his commitment—and as I toughed it out, he should tough it out too—but I respected how he withstood the abuse. Even though I viewed him as a quitter with poor integrity, I thought that he had awesome fortitude. He was courageous to endure so much hostility; I wasn’t sure that I could have.

      The pale teen marched with us at graduation. Seems he didn’t really want out of their army; he just wanted out to go home to work things out with his new wife. He was allowed to make a long phone call to his wife, somehow fixed his problem, stayed, and the hazing ceased. Maybe he had his priorities straight. I do a bit of marriage counseling in my practice, and I’ve been married thirty years. I see who has my back and who doesn’t. My wife does. The army never had my back, but I had some buddies who did. Ironically, the pale kid might’ve been the most courageous and honorable of us all, at least from his wife’s point of view. The problem, I suppose, is that if everybody were as honorable as he was, where would we find the heroes to do the fighting, killing, and dying for the rest of us? Who would keep us safe and free to become chameleons or authentic or anything in between?