It was sometime in the first week of August of 1990, and I was a guest of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, on a small island off the coast of South Carolina for what they euphemistically called “Recruit Training”, and what the rest of the world called Boot Camp.
It was a hot and muggy day and the combination of the physical exertion and the extreme heat and the overwhelming humidity left your uniform soaking wet all the time. Then you would get chaffing on your inner thighs from the wet uniform always rubbing, and if you were not careful, you could end up with an, um, inner-thigh infection. I went through baby powder like it was water in the desert.
After a long day of classes and physical activities and then marching hither and yon and the evening meal, we came back to the barracks and took a super-fast shower, and then enjoyed our daily hour of “free time”. The name “free time” might conjure up images of playing poker and telling jokes, but alas, we were not the Air Force. Instead, we were to speak in low tones, write letters home, study our sacred texts, or polish our boots. And during the midst of all of this, we got mail call.
Mail call was the best. Dad had been in the service, and he knew. So my parents took it as their mission to write to me every day and to get as many people as they could to write to me. Dad used his new (remember, this is 1990) PC to make labels with my address that he blanketed our hometown with. I got a lot of kidding because I always had so many letters at mail call, but that was just jealousy.
It turns out there’s a little bit of jealousy in the best of us.
Anyway, I know it was 1990 because that is when I was at Boot Camp. And I know it was the first week of August because that was the week before we went to the rifle range, and I remember this happened right before we went. And I remember it was hot and muggy because it was always hot and muggy.
And so, this particular day, I am sitting on my footlocker at the end of my bed, in my underwear and t-shirt, polishing my boots when my name is called out and I run “with a sense of purpose” in my flip flops to the front of the squad bay and get my four letters. One of them was from Dad.
Mom would always handwrite her letters, but Dad’s were always written on his dot matrix printer. And on that night, I read the words he had never said out loud:
“I have all the confidence in the world in you. I know you can handle it. Sometimes I have not told you how proud of you I am of you. I really am. I know that sounds mushy, especially in a letter, but take it any way you want.”
I quietly got up and walked to the bathroom, where I sat in a stall and cried and cried. Because in 18 years I had never been the sort of person anyone had confidence in, and he had never told me he was proud of me.
I mean, I knew he was. He told other people he was proud of me, and they would tell me how proud of me he was. But he never told me. In later years, that changed. He told adult me any number of times, and not in a letter, but face to face.
But that was the first time. The first week of August 1990, when I was 18 years old, far from home and sent to learn how to kill people in the Marine Corps Approved Manner.
I don’t take praise well, and sometimes I wonder if it’s because it was so rare growing up. I was always the kid who had amazing grades except for the C or D in math class or the kid who read a lot but had terrible hand-to-eye coordination. Any accomplishment I had came with a caveat – always.
And so last night when my friend Amy complimented me on my writing in front of other people, my first instinct was to minimize it. To downplay it. All my old fears about imposter syndrome kick in, and I feel like any praise I am getting will inevitably come with a caveat, with an asterisk beside it, will somehow be less than genuine, or at least not the whole story.
I don’t hold it against my Dad that he didn’t know to tell me he was proud of me. He had been left fatherless in a man’s world at 7 years old, and when I was born he was but 20 himself, and children raising children is never a good recipe. They did the best they could with what they had, and again, to his credit, he worked hard to make up for it late in life.
When he knew better, he did better.
But there are some cycles it is up to us to break, so I try hard to accept praise when it’s handed out to me, hard as it is for me to believe.
But more than that, I hand out praise like it’s cotton candy at the carnival. Yes, I want to see your poems and artwork. Yes, I want to hear your dreams. Yes, I want to know what you’re working on. Yes, I want to know what your big scary plans are, how you want to change the world, or at least how you want to change your world. Even if I barely know you, I want to be your biggest fan. I see you doing hard things, and I’m damned proud of you for making it this far.
I have all the confidence in the world in you.