I was introduced to the concept of “Pretenders” and “Contenders” in 1985 by Master Gunnery Sergeant Bearup, United States Marine Corps, while attending Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) in Pensacola, Florida. He had been assigned to AOCS as the Chief Drill Instructor just a week prior to our graduation and commissioning as Ensigns in the United States Navy.
AOCS was a physically and mentally intense fourteen week training program that was, in the final analysis, all “pretend.” The academics, the brutal exercise sessions, the calculated abuse, were all conducted in a carefully controlled environment (although we didn’t know it at the time) to build stress to near real world levels with the goal of teaching us how to survive as Navy pilots and flight officers.
Still, everyone took AOCS extremely seriously.
There was one essential component of the training that enabled AOCS to rise above its contrived roots of pretense and challenge us to be true “Contenders”: the drill instructors.
My drill instructor, like all of the tightly screened noncommissioned officers selected for AOCS duty, lived in a world of “locked up” discipline that verged on religion. In fourteen weeks, my assessment of Staff Sergeant Gerhardt, United States Marine Corps, went from brutal sadist to mentor and hero, even though his actions were remarkably consistent throughout the experience. I was the one who changed.
Two images from the experience stay fresh in my mind, each associated with a lesson learned on my final day at AOCS that I am only now really coming to appreciate.
The first is that of Staff Sergeant Gerhardt’s enigmatic expression as I hand him the traditional silver dollar to convey my thanks for his training.
Eyes as serious as death; an almost undetectable curl at the edge of lip, perhaps representing a grudging nod to life’s penchant for irony; and an aura of absolute respect absent the tiniest hint of the disdainful snarl offered by the same man just a week earlier.
The image moves; it is alive, and my drill instructor is ageless. Staff Sergeant Gerhardt, United States Marine Corps, exercises reality’s cautious deliberation with a single hand, raised in the perfect edge of a salute. His fingers quiver in muscular tension as the salute reaches its apex, and with the barest acknowledgement of a descent, the hand disappears as if a magician’s trick.
It took me decades to truly understand that Staff Sergeant Gerhardt was not saluting me that day 29 years ago. Certainly, he was paying respect to the new rank, but there was more to it – he was saluting my accomplishment. He was honoring my perseverance in making it through AOCS.
He was saluting the person that I now knew I could be.
Instead of honoring a one dimensional snapshot of fleeting achievement, he was saluting the human potential that resides in all of us as we rise to challenge.
It wasn’t until very recently that I was able to broaden my understanding of the second AOCS image to its rightful importance. The scene is from within the AOCS barracks.
With no fanfare and no one to witness it, Master Gunnery Sergeant Bearup calls our class to form up in the hallway.
Master Gunnery Sergeant Bearup has been here before. The last time he walked these halls, it was with the same sense of noble urgency. Then, he faced the inevitable statistical horrors of Vietnam. Many of the young men that took a similar printed card from him during that tour did not return alive.
He walks up to us slowly, hands us each a small card, and looking me square in the eye asks without inflection, “Which will it be?”
I remember looking down at that card for the first of what would be many times in my life, in reflection if not always in reality. It read:
“In life, there are Pretenders, and there are Contenders. The question is – which are you?”
It is only now, at a not-so-spry 52 years of age that I begin to feel comfortable tackling the question. The honest truth is that I’ve been both Pretender and Contender at different points in my life, but as Staff Sergeant Gerhardt’s salute taught me, what one has done in the past is not what is important; what matters is how you resolve to live every day of your life, starting right now.
The past six months has been challenging to me in unprecedented ways. I initiated an on-the-water/underwater research project with the intent of writing about the experience in my next book. The short summary is that there is plenty to write about.
One of the unforeseen lessons from the experience was the degree to which I was still connected to an identity that I honestly thought had been left behind years earlier. Suffice it to say that I took on challenges that I would not have considered five years ago, and I got beat up pretty good and in the traditional sense failed to meet some of them, a few by a very long shot.
My Parkinson’s grew dramatically worse during the same six months, and I did my best to hide my near-constant pain. Each Parkinson’s transition – and there are now as many as a dozen a day – was accompanied by a wave of deep futility, a sensation of running in deep, immovable sand, of fighting a losing battle with a desperately urgent outcome in the balance. Unimaginably powerful ennui became my daily companion, a listlessness that is almost impossible to shake.
I would show up at my boat for often 10 hours of non-stop concentrated effort, fighting wiggles, painfully deep muscle contortions, debilitating fatigue, and surprise anxiety attacks of dizzying intensity.
And as I dragged my reluctant body home in absolute exhaustion, I would marvel at how lucky I truly was, because unlike most people I know (I’m fairly certain), I was honestly and soulfully happy: occasionally embarrassed for my short comings and difficult to explain changing limitations, but happy.
I was also tired, hungry, proud, scared, and many other states, but as I took on each new challenge – most of which were tasks I had given up all hope of ever tackling again four or five years ago – and succeeded in some and failed miserably in others, I realized a fundamental truth carelessly tossed aside as a child: winning or losing really doesn’t matter so long as you did your level best and never quit.
Parkinson’s disease is a sneaky son of a bitch, but I had endured, persevered, relentlessly refused to quit until the small victories were stacked high all around me, even though I was the only one who could see them.
And then, PD’s churlish specter found a chink in my armor. I had faced surprise attacks before, but none as cleverly devastating as this.
In the final several weeks of the project’s research, the tight quarters, stress, and risks of varying sorts combined in a crescendo of pressure and circumstance that allowed me to finally see clearly the fiendishly cruel nature of my adversary.
I knew that my symptoms had grown to the point of distraction, but it was not clear to me what that really meant until I saw for myself. I had been placing a GoPro video camera at different spots on the boat to jog my memory and help fill out detail in the coming winter when I actually started to write. I watched the videos.
It was immediately evident that my symptoms no longer just affected me; they had a direct and immediate impact on everyone around me. My nervous shuffle made everyone on edge; my gloomy struggle back from dystonia would bring everyone down, even my light-hearted wiggles made it difficult to look in my direction. I was a visual train wreck of distraction. And to top it off, my voice became so soft and muffled that is was virtually impossible to understand me at times.
I saw the video and it was painfully obvious that these were legitimate complaints: it is damn hard to be around me. This is not an indictment of anyone, it is simply a fact. Parkinson’s had found a way in.
Parkinson’s has attacked me in a highly vulnerable spot: it is attempting to isolate me, to push away those around me and eliminate the relationships that make life what it is. And for now, it might be winning.
For the first time since my diagnoses, I am very concerned. I am also emboldened. I have learned tricks to get around past attacks, and I will learn new ones to beat PD’s latest end run.
Twenty-nine years later, here’s my answer: I am a Contender.