How Robert Redford Changed My Life

When I was a kid, I had a crazy dream.  Naturally, it didn’t seem so crazy at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable. You see I grew up with a pretty active imagination and something of a wild streak.  Not ridiculous/reckless, but I was known to get into a fair amount of trouble in the name of adventure.  I climbed a lot of things I shouldn’t have, jumped off those things, crawled into tunnels, swung on a rope across a (seemingly) huge ditch, wandered the streets from home to Peter Piper Pizza and so forth.  As my grampa used to say, I was “all boy.”  I grew up pretending to be G.I.Joe or Rambo or Iceman from Top Gun.  I never wanted to be Maverick, he was just plain out of his mind.  My favorite toys were Nerf guns, army sets and Legos I’d build into armed spaceships to defend the planet.  So it wasn’t so crazy to dream that someday I’d save the world.

Or at least help.  I was never delusional like some kids.  I have fair amount of former military in my family, including an entire generation of WWII vets, West Point grads and grunts.  I was fairly young when I learned what people meant when they said “All gave some, some gave all.”  Nobody saves the world alone.  But sometimes a group of people come together for a cause and can accomplish some pretty amazing things.  And so I figured that someday, somehow, I’d find a way to contribute.  At the time I had my sights set on flying an Apache helicopter, but mostly only because I hadn’t yet discovered the face-melting awesomeness that is the A-10 Thunderbolt.  I mean really, that thing is sweet.

But then, as usual, the universe stepped in.  For me, this deus ex machina took the form of some pretty bum knees.  It’s no secret at all that I hate running.  I don’t get it.  I only run when I’m being chased, and I don’t get chased much.  I know better.  So as I entered my teens (and probably just before that), my poor knees decided “well if you hate running, we’ll just turn to garbage and you won’t have to do that anymore.”  At the time, I was something of an athlete.  I say “something” because I was not good.  I played a handful of sports, but none of them exceedingly well.  I was good at soccer, I was a good short stop and I had a good mid-range jump shot.  But it was painfully obvious that I’d never make my junior high school basketball team or anything even remotely close to that.

Well, I thought, that’s kind of a drag.  I’d grown up seeing tough guys, strapping young men in the peak of physical fitness throw on a uniform and mow down Russians with an M60, lead platoons into Grenada, fly jets upside down, and have juxtaposed homoerotic beach volleyball games.  How would I be able to do any of that if I couldn’t run?  This was probably about the same time I first heard the joke about the “Chair Force,” but still, those dudes had to be in shape.  I saw “The Right Stuff,” those Air Force dudes were tough as nails.  I never got to the point where I couldn’t walk, but I had a number of doctor’s visits, some special exercises to do and a string of braces to wear on one knee or the other.  To this day they make a pretty sickening grinding sound when I climb stairs.  Yeah. Gross.

So I sort of put that thought aside.  I started dreaming of being a movie star or a toy designer or Secretary of the Interior.  Typical kid stuff, you know?  I figured “well, maybe I can save the world by bringing it cinematic joy or the hottest new board game or sensible land management policies.”  That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?  I don’t imagine I’d give all, but darn it, I could give some.

And then this happened:

sneakers-movie-poster 

This is the 1992 not-epic film Sneakers, starring Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, Ben Kingsley and the ghost of River Phoenix.  Oh, never mind, he was still mostly alive at the time.  I was 13 when this came out, at the perfectly young and impressionable age when movies finally made sense to me and I could grasp the deeper meanings behind them.  Or, conversely, fabricate a deeper meaning in my head and just roll with it.

The plot of the movie, if you haven’t seen it, revolves around a bunch of old men who break into banks and steal things to test security systems.  “Barry,” I’m sure you’re saying, “you mean you wanted to break into things and be a thief?”  Gosh no.  Mostly.  The boys get themselves a gig doing a clandestine job for the National Security Agency (cue your boooos now).  There’s an interesting little bit of dialogue that lays out the very basic differences between the NSA, the CIA and the FBI.  At the time, my whole understanding of the intelligence world and espionage was limited to James Bond’s chest hair and a vague recollection of possibly seeing old episodes of Mission:Impossible.  I had no idea what the NSA or the CIA did.  And Sneakers changed all that.

Suddenly I was reminded of that crazy dream I’d had about saving the world.  Suddenly I saw some dudes (yes, fictional characters, I know) who were the antithesis of Rambo and James Bond.  They weren’t using missiles and machine guns to help save the world, they were using math.  Granted, I’m six kinds of horrible at math, but the point hit me like a ton of bricks: sometimes you just have to be smart.  And doggone it, I’m kind of smart.  So I decided that I’d try to save the world after all.  I’d find a way to use my brain, since I couldn’t rely on my stupid legs.  Then when the Navy came calling, I decided to take their silly ASVAB and see what my brain could do.  Turns out, it could do just about everything.  I tested into two different job categories: nuclear technician….or naval intelligence.  Ah! Perfect! I’d be well on my way to accomplishing my goal, all I had to do was……join the Navy forever. 

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now I did not join the Navy.  I don’t regret not joining, but I do often wonder where I’d be if I had joined.  My four year hitch would have run until 2002, and we all know what happened in 2001.  I don’t imagine I’d have been in a hurry to leave.  Instead, I went to college.  Then I stopped going to college.  Then I went back to college.  I studied history and political science, things that would give me the knowledge to apply to saving the world someday.  At the same time, I accidentally earned an undergraduate certificate in Intelligence and National Security Studies.  The undergrad certificate was basically like a minor, but since I double-majored, I didn’t actually have a minor.  Then, an awesome Master’s program got thrown together and I signed up for that too. 

Which brings me to today.  I’m not on the front lines overseas.  I’m not a mile underground in a missile silo.  I’m not driving sports cars, dodging bullets and sipping martinis.  I don’t wear a uniform.  But in my own way, I have no doubt that I’m helping to save the world.  One (thousand) lines of Excel data at a time.  I’d never consider comparing myself to men and women who join the armed forces to defend their countries, family and loved ones.  Their sacrifices make everything that I enjoy possible and I’m eternally humbled and grateful.  The moral of this story is that everybody has unique abilities and skills that they can contribute to the greater good.  Not everyone is cut out for carrying a rifle into combat or flying jets over war zones.  But if I can do one thing that helps them with their work, then I can be proud to tell my son that “I gave some.”

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