Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Empty Chair

By the grace of God and the talents of some amazing friends, we have a great house to live in.

The two best porches in history.

One is private. I have coffee and a smoke there most mornings as I watch the mist rise over the lake.

The other porch is the social porch. When I turned 50, dear friends at Foundation Design sent me five Adirondack chairs as a present.

Those chairs are part of our family and my life.

Pete and I sat on the porch in those chairs and talked for hours. And hours.

Pete never had a casual conversation. He really was interested in what you had to say. And, he had a point of view about everything.

Not in an argumentitive way, an informed way.

This kid had been reading National Geographic since he was five.

He read Russian history books for fun.

He studied sports because he became a sportswriter and he didn't want to be a hack.

I learned more from him on my back porch than I have ever learned in a university.

Pete was different. He wanted to make a difference in this lifetime.

After graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in International Studies, he went to France to work as a tour guide. He had the gift of language. He was fluent in French within months. I remember visiting him in Nice. He was working his cell phone in French. How the hell did he do that.

When he came back to Dallas, he moved into our house and became something of a recluse. We were worried. He spent hours daily in his room. Rarely came out. Rarely went out to play with his buds.

Months later I came to understand why.

Pete had applied to the CIA. The application process is grueling.

He told us nothing about what he was doing. We were concerned he was into something bad, but we should have known better.

One day out of the blue, I get the following phone call.

"Dad, I am in Langley, Virginia."

"What are you doing there?"

"The CIA just offered me a job."

"Out of the blue?"

"No, dad. This is what I have been working on in secret for the past months."

"Well, congratulations. What an honor. You must be thrilled."

"Yes and no, pops. I'm honored they want me. But, something in my gut tells me it's just not right."

"Pete, I can't help you. This is your decision. This is so outside my realm, I am helpless to give advice. Trust your gut."

He turned them down.

To this day, I don't know why. It was his gut.

He returned to Dallas and tried to make his way in his version of corporate America. He had told me years ago that he could never do what I do. Seventy hour weeks. Meeting upon meeting that weren't meaningful.

He loved sports. So, he worked in sports. And learned that if you aren't on the field, it is business. Cowboys. Desperados. FC Dallas.

He liked and appreciated every one he worked for and with. He just hated the meaningless of the job. He hated working for money. He had bigger ideas.

Pete had talked since early high school about serving his country in some way. He understood history. He wanted to be a part of it in a positive way.

We sat in those Adirondacks for hours upon hours. Night after night.

He talked to every branch in the military.

After much study, he decided the Army was where he should be.

"Pete, this means you will more than likely be in Iraq."

"I know, dad. I don't agree with the strategy. But, this is not somebody else's war to fight. This is what our country is doing. If that's what's necessary, even though I don't agree, so be it. I want to serve and I like what the Army is about. I want to be an officer in the Army."

Be careful what you ask for.

The honor graduate of his Basic Training class at Fort Benning. President of his Officer Candidate School class. Off to Fort Sill for Field Artillery training.

He hated field artillery. Fort Benning is the home of the Infantry. He did not want to be part of the "gear in the rear". He wanted to be on the front line.

Shortly after the surge strategy was announced, Pete learned he had been assigned to the Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment. Based in Vilseck, Germany, but headed for Iraq.

Pete was a physical animal. He loved to test himself.

He applied for Ranger School. He was accepted. Infantry officers are somewhat expected to carry that tab.

He went back to Fort Benning. The first week is fight week. He passed.

The next test is land navigation. They get you lost in the woods and you have to find your way out. He missed by five minutes.

When you fail, they either tell you to go to your unit, or they tell you you can have another shot.

He stayed. He wanted the tab. And, he felt that as an officer, he needed that tab to prove to his men that he was qualified to lead them.

Five weeks in the Fort Benning heat. Sweeping. Mopping. Doing nothing but biding time until his next class. Working out like a mad man.

The next class started. He fought his way thru fight week and won.

In order to get to Ranger School, he had to complete 18 mile runs with 80 pound rucksacks. If you ever meet someone with the Ranger tab, know that you have met a man.

Here is his email from that second try.

hello ladies and gents,
well, i'm sad to report, that after all that waiting at fort benning, i was unable to complete ranger school. my second attempt at ranger school started out much better, as i passed land navigation without any problems. however, on day 4 i injured my back during the road march. it's nothing debilitating, however, at the time, once i finished the march, i was unable to stand up straight. many other injuries can be overcome in ranger school, but, when you hurt your back, to put it simply, you're screwed. ranger school requires you to be able to carry a heavy rucksack along with other equipment for several kilometers at a time through the woods. with the the way my back felt, that would have not have been possible.
so, i was given the choice to recycle again or drop out and come back later when i'm healed up. naturally, i chose the latter, which brings me to my next bit of news. i will be reporting to my unit on sunday, july 29, in vilseck, germany. as for when i might head to iraq, i don't know, but i would expect sooner rather than later.
anyway, i will have phone and e-mail access should you want to contact me.
i hope all is well with everyone, and i'll talk to you all soon.

Pete was given the choice of staying for one more try. Most don't get that.

He chose to go join his team. He felt guilty that Ranger school was selfish. He felt he needed to be with his men.

And so, he did.

And so, there is an empty chair on my back porch.

Physically, empty.

But, I sit out there every night and talk to Pete. I am still learning from him.

There will always be an empty chair in our family.

But, as much as we miss him, we are thankful for the change he has fomented.

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