On Friday evening I sat on the patio of my favorite Italian restaurant and listened to my son’s stories.
Little more than a year ago, he and his older brother successfully completed the U.S. Army’s Ranger School, often considered the most difficult thing the Army can throw at a young man outside of actual combat. As though that were not enough, this strapping son had just come through the Army’s other elite training program, the Sapper Leader Course (a.k.a. ‘Sapper School’).
A few hours earlier, his father-in-law and I had dabbed at moist eyes as the 24 soldiers—of 45 who began the course—received their Sapper ‘tabs’ in one of those military ceremonies that is at once understated and profound.
Kind people say ‘You must be proud’, but I am not proud. I deeply admire the commitment and relentless persistence that have produced my two sons’ achievements. More, in fact, than I can say. But there is no place here for a father’s pride. What they’ve done, they have done. I’ve stood back in bemused awe, always, and cheered them on when I can. But this thing is theirs, not mine.
Back to an exquisite Missouri evening and that Italian restaurant. I know of no more gentle, no kinder human being that the son across the table in front of me. People sometimes observe aloud that he is authentically humble, and they could not be more right. My son’s mere conversational tone, his attentive interest in the stranger just met, his deflection of naive praise, deflate military caricatures in the time it takes to get to the second sentence.
Of the Sapper Leader Course’s 28 unforgiving days and nights, my son describes nine days straight of unending ‘missions’, a bewildering kaleidoscope of hunger, sleep deprivation, and cerebral challenges. When asked, he says that he and his ‘Sapper’ comrades averaged 45 minutes of sleep every 24 hours during that phase of their training. He has lost fifteen pounds in these four weeks, his muscular face now chiseled by the lost body fat that in gentler times softens the lines of his jaw.
I hear, between his lines, the tale of countless moments when he felt that he could not do the next thing. And then found out that he could.
From my remote (and emphatically more rotund) position in the conversation, I recognize what he’s describing. No stranger to pain—though I have volunteered for less of it than my sons—I am familiar with the moment when you know you can’t. And then find out that you can. The moment when you do the next thing, the surprise when you’ve come—How does this happen?!—to the other side.
This is, I think, one of the mysteries of being human. This meticulous construction of limits and limitations, and then this capacity to perforate them. This knowing that I can’t. This discovery that in fact I can.
My son is now ‘double tabbed’. He belongs to that elite cadre of my country’s soldiers who wear on their uniform two muted arcs of fabric that signal to the knowledgeable that they have been to hell and back, in a manner of speaking, two times.
One says ‘Ranger’, the other ‘Sapper’.
And that my son and others like him stand ready to deploy the dark skills and the self-mastery that are required when softer people decide that our nation needs them.
My son is not a morality play. He is not a parable of achievement. He cannot be reduced to the uniform he wears when he must. He’s my son.
But on this Sunday morning, he is a reminder—no, he has reminded me—that the moment when we cannot comes just an instant before we discover that we can. One day we will understand the mystery of being human better than we do now, this odd mingling of glory and squalor that is our nature and our fate. Perhaps this capacity to overcome will stand near to the core of what we have discovered that we are.