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I take as my reading today these immortal words written by A.A. Milne of Winnie the Pooh fame:
They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
"A soldier's life is terrible hard."
Now, I think we can all agree that Alice was a wise woman, even if she had nanny-like tendencies. She recognized that a soldier's life is terrible hard, or terribly hard for those of you inclined to be a fussy sergeant major walking the parade ground of grammar and inspecting adverbs.
Because it is terribly hard, it builds character. As it happens, I am quite a character myself and I owe much of that to the time I spent writing press releases on the ramparts of freedom, which was one of my military jobs — that and killing spies with lead pencils, which I am afraid I cannot talk about because it is classified. Indeed, I believe everybody should experience military service firsthand in order to have lived a full life.
Of course, it is not the only requirement to accumulate wisdom in the ways of the world. Among the other essentials of a well-lived life, I would also include at least one great love affair — whether it happens to end in happiness or in marriage. (Note to spouse: Just kidding.) To have loved someone other than relatives or yourself is to tune into the vast sympathy that inclines the human race to hug each other in creative ways, even when the participants are rather unattractive.
Attending college full-time is another life experience that a person should do before they curl up their toes. Where else can you explore the life of the mind and at the same time attend keg parties? It is one of my regrets that I only had the opportunity to attend college part-time, which meant that I had to pursue my own reading list and drink beer excessively in spare moments to keep up with all the scholars.
Another essential ingredient of a well-seasoned life is to have played on a sports team. You learn the value of teamwork playing sports, unless you go out for nude trampoline, in which case you are on your own, at least until a crowd gathers.
The great life lesson of sports is that you play hard and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose — and losing doesn't matter so much because defeat is good for the soul, in my case so good that I suspect my teammates on the paddle tennis court last season called me Mother Teresa behind my back.
Now, I would be the first to concede that a person doesn't have to do all of these things to be a well-rounded human being. If you happen to have done none of them, but still served in the military, in my book you are still worldly wise beyond any civilian's knowing.
Being in the military is the experience that combines elements of all the other teaching occasions. It's a university of life with camaraderie, teamwork, adventure, boredom, laughs, tears, the smartest people and the dumbest — which really is no way to talk about the officers.
As for me, I was a private soldier, which is a little military joke as a private has no privacy, just large, drooling sergeants telling him in public he is useless, which in my case was accurate. Nevertheless, I was promoted to corporal in one of the great military mistakes of the age.
Of course, my promotion cannot be blamed on U.S. forces because I grew up in Australia and was drafted into the Australian Army. If memory serves, they pulled numbers out of a kangaroo's pouch. (Memo to readers: Disregard kangaroo remark as unreliable.)
As much as the discipline rankled at the time, I am very proud of my service, which included 10 months in Vietnam. Being young and stupid, I was very keen to get into a firefight. Although I was in some tight spots, the Viet Cong never obliged by taking a shot at me — they just gave me a good sulking. (Memo to the Almighty: Belated thanks.)
All this is by way of explaining that I will be at my usual spot for the Memorial Day Parade next week in my adopted hometown of Sewickley, Pa. — an old Christopher Robin warrior applauding the real heroes who march by. Yes, I am no supporter of the terrible hard folly that sends soldiers to a new Vietnam, but Memorial Day is not a time for political debates. Instead, all honor to those who have served or still serve. I wish they could all come back to their Alices.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)