Unlike privileged author Elizabeth Gilbert, I did not receive a hefty cash advance to spend four months in exotic distant lands finding myself and learning how to eat yogurt like Julia Roberts. But I kinda got to do it anyway over the course of several years. In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that my journey of self-discovery was paid for by the U.S. Government.
I was in the Army from 1974-1977. I was stationed at a tiny outpost in Germany for most of my enlistment. As a journalist, I was editor of the base newspaper and kind of a big wheel on campus. Coffee on occasion with the officers who ran the place and a mentor who brought me copies of the New York Times Book Review. A lot of responsibility but equal amounts of freedom and clout, and life wasn't bad for an 18-year-old girl who did so poorly on college placement tests that a high school guidance counselor actually recommended the Army as the best career path.
Nine months before my enlistment was up, I was transferred to Ft. Bragg, N.C. This was the real Army, where they did not appreciate my relaxed and enlightened approach to the dress code. I understood you were supposed to take your hat off upon entering a building, but I thought it was more important to take it off inside the women's restroom, where I could adjust my hair in front of the mirror. It was only a few steps from the entrance of the building where I worked to the latrine (as they called it). Those dirty dogs posted sentries by the door to yell at you as soon as your foot crossed over the line.
Remove that hat!
Um, but I wanted to fix my hair first ...
I said now, soldier!
All the chatter made me a nervous wreck. I didn't exactly lay on the bathroom floor crying like Liz, mainly because I shared the bathroom with 30 of my closest friends, but it was rough all the same. I had nine months left in this bittersweet relationship with the Army. My mission was to get out alive.
I was overweight from living my fat-cat lifestyle in Germany. Plump juicy wurst, pommes frites and all the candy I could poke down from the zucker boutique. I called my little bunk in the barracks the eat 'n read. I'd slowly devour an entire box of cookies as I lay in bed reading at night.
Luckily for me, the stress of Ft. Bragg gave me chronic diarrhea. I had to eat better, or I would explode. Simple foods like chicken, vegetables, lean meats, yogurt. It wasn't Italy, but it would do. In the cold months, I strung a basket from a rope outside my barracks window to keep healthy snacks refrigerated. Sadly, I had to give up the all-you-can-eat-dessert-fest at the mess hall.
Maybe it was just a cosmic coincidence, but by the time I was honorably disharged and left Ft. Bragg for civilian life, I had learned to eat, my stomach calmed down and I no longer lived in fear of a major blow-out.
I never was much of an exerciser. I had to lose 15 pounds just to get in the Army, and didn't I have a time gaining it back! We had what they called PT -- physical training -- but it wasn't a big deal at my duty station in Germany. A little bit of run/walk, and you could check it off the list.
Ft. Bragg was a different story. This is the home of the 82nd Airborne Division. Gung-ho. I really can't remember anymore, but maybe we had to run every day? Could that be possible? I know I ran my ass off singing jodies about being Airborne! All the Way! Every Day! Airborne! Except I wasn't and surely arrived at this destination by mistake.
I was always last in the pack, ready to quit, getting yelled at. My boobs hurt. But I kept doing it, because there was no choice. Running, coupled with the stress-related diarrhea I described earlier, led to a 30-pound weight loss, which I liked. Although I went into it kicking and screaming, I came out of it with a new appreciation for fitness. I don't run anymore, but I have exercised religiously ever since.
By day I worked in the XVIII Airborne Corps Public Affairs Office churning out articles for the base newspaper and performing other duties as assigned.
They often sent the 82nd to assist in disasters, and they would send soldiers from my office to help with stuff. I don't exactly know what stuff they did, because I never got to go. One of my fellow soldiers went to Buffalo, N.Y. for a huge snowstorm, and another went to Guatemala after an earthquake. I asked the lieutenant in charge why I was never selected.
He said, "Pekar, it's got something to do with what's between your nose and your chin."
I remember touching my nose, then my chin and arriving at the place in the middle -- my mouth.
The issue with the mouth has been a lifelong problem, starting in kindergarten, when the teacher said I needed to talk less ... let others have a turn. But the Army was the first time it became clear to me that lack of mouth control can affect one's livelihood. It's one thing to speak up when it matters, but it's quite another thing to drone on about small annoyances because it's fun to be an articulate bitch. I enjoyed the witty whiner role but came to the conclusion at Ft. Bragg that it was not a good career strategy.
As one of my friends at work says, sometimes you just have to shut up and color.
I'm no Julia Roberts, but I did meet a guy. We've been together 32 years. I survived the Army. Ft. Bragg. The whole thing. Glad I went in, glad I got out. And here I am, many years later, reflecting on three important lessons I learned right out of the chute (you'll forgive the paratrooper humor). If you pay attention and look at every opportunity as an opportunity to learn, you don't need a trip to strange new places.
Then again, maybe you do.