The Gift

I’ve gotten many birthday gifts over the years. I’m one of those people that really enjoys celebrating my birthday. I didn’t panic at eighteen or faint with angst at a quarter century, and life really does begin at forty. Every birthday means I’ve had another awesome year sharing this universe with some truly amazing people. I’ve had the privilege of seeing fantastic sights:  gorgeous sunsets and sunrises, an entire field of beautiful sunflowers, a hot air balloon squeak upward just enough so as to not land on the freeway as we were heading right toward it. I’ve heard music that made me laugh and cry. I’ve read phenomenal books by great writers. I’ve learned, I’ve grown, and I’ve written. So Friday, September 20, 2013 was a very good day for me…

But Friday, as I sat at the new Sacramento Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor with my best friend, celebrating not only my ninth birthday (life begins at forty remember…), but also the thirtieth anniversary of our first date (which was actually at the Farrell’s in Ala Moana Center), I couldn’t help but remember the best gift I ever got, and I’d like to share that gift with you because it’s extremely special to me.

I had just started my sophomore year at the University of Hawaii. I had met some new friends during freshman year, but mostly I just missed high school. The majority of my friends had gone to other universities. Truth be told, my life plan hadn’t included UH at all. From the age of about twelve, the ‘day job’ I planned on having to support my writing habit was to be the first female commander of an aircraft carrier.

I was hooked from the moment I laid eyes on the most beautiful ship in the world, the USS Constellation. I still get ribbed for the open mouthed stare and glazed eyes induced by that first sight of her, with the fire engine at the end of the dock looking like a toy by comparison. From that moment, I had it all planned…Junior ROTC in high school, followed by the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and maybe three or four years later, I’d be sailing the seven seas at the helm of my own carrier. Hey, a twelve year old can dream.

Fast forward a few years, and cold hard reality set in. At that time, females weren’t even allowed to set foot on combatant ships, let alone command one, and the completely unrealistic timeline I’d set for myself showed exactly how much “planning” I’d actually put in to my career. It’s a good thing really. My strengths are in analysis and writing, and not in leading anybody but myself. Plus the fact that I would have also had to learn how to fly and land on a carrier… Ha! I can’t even do a roller coaster without shaking like a leaf. Trust me the world is a safer place with me sitting where I am rather than in the Captain’s Chair.

But as I entered college, I was not as comfortable in my skin as I am now. I was left adrift, having my life path yanked out from under me because I wasn’t plumbed correctly. I gave up on Annapolis, and decided instead to pursue a degree in Spanish, with a minor in German and maybe Japanese, and then teach English around the world.

I was at least determined to finish in four years and took a full course load, plus working during the summer as a summer fun leader. And then, back off to UH for another full load, this year including history and political science back to back, both required subjects, and the second one taken only because it was either that or economics. Have I mentioned that I’m horrible at math?

One of the guys had been in my English class the previous year, so at least there was a familiar face, and it turned out he was taking both of those classes, each on opposite ends of the campus. We had fifteen minutes to get from one to the other, and we ended up that first few weeks making the hike together and chit-chatting along the way. Both of us were civil-service brats, his dad for the Navy, and my parents both Army, and he had a similar outlook on life, part of which included an intense dislike of the political science professor, who was absolutely 100% anti-military like most of the rest of the class.

Short digression. The grade that I am most proud of in college was an A+ on one of his essays, in which I had deconstructed a documentary scene by scene (using the techniques learned in the Novel and Film class I wrote about in Practice, Man. Practice) showing how the director had used camera techniques and other film making tricks to persuade the audience rather than persuading the audience by presenting any supportable facts. I showed where the gathered data was flawed and spin-doctored, and in general ripped the film’s premise to shreds (I wasn’t one for subtlety at that age). The film was pretty much in line with the professor’s worldview, and he loved it, lecturing about it for a week’s worth of classes. On my paper, next to the A+, he wrote “A brilliantly argued paper, with which I totally disagree.” Now that’s a teacher I can respect.

Back to the story… During our hikes between classes, we talked about majors and classes, Lord of the Rings and Star Trek, and other science fiction shows and fantasy novels. I even ditched my zoris (that’s flip-flops to you mainlanders) and started wearing sneakers so that I could keep up with him (soccer players walk fast), because I was actually really enjoying our walks and our conversations.

He was very easy to talk to. In one of our walks, when he asked about what I wanted to do after college, I even let slip my original dream of commanding a carrier. No idea why. It just came out. We commiserated a bit. He’d also thought about a military career, but went with accounting instead. We went on to class and I thought nothing of it.

Our next class was Thursday, and happened to be my birthday. I was sitting in Griffith Hall, outside our history class. I had actually been nervously thinking about asking if maybe he might possibly want to come to Farrell’s with me after school to celebrate, so I had arrived early to work up the courage, and hopefully to blurt out the invitation before any other students got there.

He walked up only a few minutes after I’d arrived, sat down next to me and opened his backpack, pulling out a stapled something that looked like it came off one of the school printers (it actually came from his own…his family was much more tech savvy than mine and he had a computer long before I ever left my manual typewriter…).

He handed me four beautiful dot-matrix printed pages. In those pages, I was the commander of a Starfleet Scout Ship. Me. In a story. He didn’t know it was my birthday. Hell, I didn’t even know he was interested in writing fiction. The subject had never come up. I read it right then. I read it again. And again. And again. Someone had cared enough to listen, and take the time to write, without any prompting whatsoever, a story for me, with me as a character, and give it to me for no reason other than to provide me some little taste of the day job I’d wanted but would never have.

And thirty years to the day later, he sat across from me, eating the same Reuben sandwich (well, not the same one…he polished off the original a long time ago), and helped me celebrate my birthday by working with me over lunch on twists and turns and plot points for my first book, this time to help me toward the career I’ve always wanted, and will have. Best. Gift. Ever.

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