Half a lifetime ago, it was esprit de corps. It was smoking breakfast, sleeping through lunch, and drinking dinner. It was hard working weekdays, and lazy weekends. It was little pay and long hours, and not caring about either.
Half a lifetime ago, days went by as years. The soundtrack was Blink-182 and Korn. The beer was warm and cheap, and almost all “home-cooked meals” consisted of some form of noodles or junk food. The only feelings were that of morning humidity and skinned knuckles. My brothers and sisters “in-arms” all shared in this routine eagerly. We’d all been through the same things, in the same places, around the same time.
Half a lifetime ago, 15 people would pile into 3 cars on a Saturday drive to the beach. Seven would return in a state best described not as “wasted”, but “happy”. The remaining eight would have stories to tell. There were no real bills and our biggest concerns were being on time and in uniform for Monday morning’s 5 mile run.
It was, simply put, fun. I miss it. Those were some of the best days of my life. Before I was a widower. Before I was a father. Before I had even met Megan, or even cared about meeting anyone. It was carefree routine, peppered with deployments to some far off land for a few months, again with the same brothers and sisters. Sure, there were arguments. There were times when we had to suffer through trying to sleep in 100+ degree desert heat, because we pulled the night shift. There were times when we had to wait for hours in line at the base barber shop, because every single Marine gets a haircut, every Sunday. There were times when we blew our car payment money on that cheap beer, and the Monday morning run was done with a hangover. But it was all worth it.
Or was it?
It’s human nature to look at our distant past with rose-colored glasses. To pine for what we perceive as our sense of innocence. We take our struggles and stresses that we currently have, and justify that because our spouses hadn’t died yet, and the bills we have to pay didn’t exist “back then”, then it must have been a better time. Anything negative in one’s life would not have happened if we had just re-enlisted, or stayed in school, or hadn’t made such and such decision. Hell, I would be fully retired, with a pension as of last December had I stayed put back then.
Nostalgia kicks in fiercely and unapologetically. It’s why we tend to put our late partners on pedestals. It’s why we parents don’t want our kids to grow up too fast, because it felt as if years went by as days, and we don’t want that for our children. It’s why we have triggers and moments and random weeps. We look for the “better times” involuntarily, and shape and mold the memories to suit our own egos.
When one becomes conscious of these tendencies though, it’s much easier to appreciate the present, and our presence in it. I have missed my time in the Marine Corps since the day I received my discharge, but let me be honest...a whole hell of a lot of that time absolutley sucked. Recruit training was not “fun” like I tend to remember it. It was 18 hour days of being yelled at, marching, being ground to a pulp, learning history, uniform codes, rifle ballistics, and patrol techniques. It was being cut off from the world, with a single 3 hour span (if we were lucky) per week on Sunday to write letters back home. Once graduated, my time in the fleet was, a lot of the time, being broke, hungover, and tired. It was the shared suffering of all those around me that tempered it.
Just the same, the 12 years I had with Megan were not “perfect”. I spent cumulative years by her side in the hospital. Vacations were cut short because of emergency room visits. We had arguments where I still disagree with her position to this day. She and I BOTH could “do wrong” from time to time. There were never any real falling outs, major arguments, or deal breakers. In reality, we were just a normal couple. I still miss her, and still consider our time together as outstanding, but in all honesty, it was a tough 12 years. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Megan being dead doesn’t change that fact. I’ve done my best to suppress the curse of “what-if”. So much good came from my early adulthood in the Marine Corps, and even more came from my decade-plus with Megan, but those particular eras are done. I’m a father, full-time employee, and new partner. I take those memories from half a lifetime ago and make them lessons. I take the good and the bad, and make them non-fiction stories, rather than daydreams.
“Would’a, could’a, should’a” is a dangerous sentiment to have when you have an over-imaginative brain. I could spend hours asking myself “what if I had re-enlisted?” and the answer will, at some point, become freakishly outlandish. I’m talking “killed in a freak mayonnaise accident in Estonia” levels here. It could actually lead to even more stress when it’s about Megan, as in imagining divorce or further suffering for her.
It’s why I tend to let the past be the past, facts be facts, and memories remain memories. “What if” will get me nowhere in the past or present. “What if” is a question to ask for the future.
Half a lifetime from now, that question will certainly still be a part of my life. I don’t ever want it to become “what if I hadn’t spent so much time asking what if?”