It was 1965, I was sitting on a hill in Vietnam surrounded in every direction by armed men. I was sitting there wondering how my life’s journey had brought me to that place and time.
After Marine Officer’s Basic School in Quantico I was given a plum duty station, two years with the First Marine Brigade in Hawaii. About seven months into that tour our equipment was loaded on ships in Pearl Harbor awaiting our expected departure. We were headed for California for landing exercises—or so we thought. Everyone was excited about the trip. Then word was passed that the California landing exercises were put on hold; but the ships were to stay loaded with our tanks, artillery, jeeps and trucks because we might be going somewhere else. Several days later we got orders to be at the parade field in twelve hours with all of our military gear; lock up your other stuff in your room closet the order said, it would be shipped home for you—we are probably not coming back here. Our destination was to be a country called Vietnam, a place few of us were familiar with at the time. First, we sailed across the Pacific to Okinawa, spent a couple weeks getting prepared, and then embarked for Vietnam. There was trouble brewing there with an enemy called the Viet Cong. Our battalion was among the second group of American military units sent into that country.
Once in Vietnam, our company was assigned to guard the Phu Bai Airfield, south of the city of Hue, and to patrol into the surrounding region looking to clear it of any Viet Cong. We spent the next month and a half in night defense around the airfield or in day and night patrols out across streams and in patches of jungle looking for Viet Cong. I was getting by on one or two hours sleep a night and had not eaten a piece of fresh food in all that time—everything came out of cans.
This particular day we were on patrol, our company was spread out over a series of small hills in a perimeter, taking a break when a helicopter set down in our midst.
A couple of Marines came out of the helicopter carrying two large cardboard crates; there were hard boiled eggs in one and oranges in the second. It was Easter Sunday. The crate carriers went around the whole company of 175 or so men giving each of us an egg and an orange. I remember it being sunny. I sat there with the egg and orange on my lap, but I wasn’t touching them. I was too fascinated looking at the members of my platoon and the rest of the company. They were in awe. Their faces were lit up with a glow, eyes alive, broad smiles of joy, contentment and pleasure spread across their faces. It was as if the egg and the orange were made of solid gold; (better even, because you couldn’t eat the gold!) I was kind of basking in their enjoyment, when a thought came to mind: “Back home, in the next week, oranges and eggs will be spoiling in fruit bowls and refrigerators—neglected, while here they are riches, objects of the greatest pleasure.” The men were savoring every little bite like it was a treasure; they just couldn’t stop smiling.
Then another thought came to my mind, “If you ever again complain about missing your favorite TV show or any other such blowing up of what are really trivial things, you ought to be ashamed of such pettiness. If you make it home from this place, come home with your priorities straight. Know how to distinguish what is important—life, family, friendships, and meaningful work, from the unimportant: all the excesses and small-mindedness of our lives at times.
That was the day that I began in a serious way to search for what was really important in life. My learning continues to this day. One thing I am sure of: helping kids get off to the best possible start in life through educational excellence is important and worth doing. We worked for all those years with the Doyon School and then wrote our book to further that end, hoping to help administrators and teachers transform their schools into nurturing and respectful communities of learning. The choice I made almost twenty years ago to try to do something worthwhile in the field of education really began much earlier with the ideals that came flooding into my mind that Easter Sunday on a hill in Vietnam—it all began for me with an orange and a hard-boiled egg.
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