Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Wrong Wall -- Wrong Ladder

by Ray Blunt

Many years ago now, I knew a young man who had quickly worked his way up in the world, but then he arrived at an unexpected fork in the road: one he never thought he would come to. This was not the way it was supposed to be. If I could only have talked to him then with the wisdom I now have, I might have been able to help him. As it was, he was on his own to figure it out, and it almost unhinged him. It all happened like this. 

He was on his way to what in Washington was deemed an important meeting—one in which important people talk about important things they think will change the course of civilization. It was early and the sun was just making its grand entrance over the Potomac River. To the east he could see the Washington Monument rising above the fray of politics and the cherry blossoms were still hanging on for their last hurrah of spring. To the north lay the spires of Georgetown University and beyond that the National Cathedral, the nation’s go-to church when mourning the great and the dead and when national tragedy strikes. Further north he could almost see the worn down mountains, at least in his mind’s eye, that rise above Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, where the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers shake hands before they run together to the Chesapeake Bay. 

He felt a yearning, a pull then as he described it, to be back on that pinnacle with his strong, young son with nothing but a backpack, alone and looking forward to a fire, a tent, and a wee dram of single malt shared together: no phones, no e-mail, and no tie. And especially no need to look over his shoulder for the political and personal enemies that he had accumulated in the bureaucracy wars of the last ten years. As he came to the turn east across the River and over the 14th Street Bridge, he said a strange thing happened, unlike anything he had experienced in his short, responsible life on his way up. He didn’t turn; he didn’t feel the tug of duty; he just kept driving north, climbing higher above the rapids and the kayakers below, simply enjoying the light and the water as they played together on a spring day. He was free! 

After a few minutes, he decided to pull off on what he knew was one of the last overlooks on the parkway, just simply to enjoy the view. The next few minutes he describes as his personal epiphany, the moment when the well worn path and the road less traveled both loomed before him. As he looked to his left there lay the promise of an uplanned day hiking and thinking--maybe even more than a day. How long had it been since he last had time to think, really think? To his right, stretched out in a long seam of great, marble buildings and monuments lay the life he had built, rebuilt really, after leaving his military career behind. He had made it. The way he describes it now it was somewhat akin to that old saw about having reached the top of the ladder only to find that it was up against the wrong wall. It hurt. He had been a fool. That day he did head back, quite late for the important meeting, but it also began his descent off the ladder—and far more than he realized. 

Yes, I do think I could have saved him. But maybe it’s best I didn’t share my hard won wisdom then—me or anyone else for that matter. Because then he wouldn’t have learned the hard lessons God had only begun to teach him. You see, that young man, all alone with his dilemma, was me. I had so much to learn. 

Almost two dozen years out of the Air Force Academy, I began to gain something that years of advanced schooling, long days—and nights—of labor, and great mounds of accumulated knowledge of everything from Plato to the Bible had failed to get into my pea brain. Like I think a lot of young men that were nurtured in the quaint time of the 50s, I was to be the family “messiah,” the one designated for great things: to get the college education that World War II interrupted; to embark on the career that the Great Depression and poverty had derailed; to achieve the spiritual temperament and wisdom that alcohol erased. And so I was driven by my own choices and by the tenor of the times and the culture I was raised in on the gritty South Side of Chicago to get up on the ladder. To a competitive young man from the Sputnik era, a guy who loved all sports, had a drive for leadership of everything, and spent many hours in church and Boy Scouts, the shiny new space age Air Force Academy with its “whole man concept” seemed perfect. And I think it was, or could have been had I been wiser. But then this old man wasn’t around to advise that young fellow. 

In lots of ways I know that readers of this can only nod their heads in recognition. The competitive atmosphere of hundreds of other guys who were competitors and achievers themselves only fed my desire to keep going up whatever ladder was before me. My middling Academy career only served to stoke the fires, but then when I flunked the flight physical, I began to wonder. Weird as it sounds, I had only the foggiest idea what officers did if they didn’t fly. Certainly anything less than a fighter pilot was second class, or that’s the way I read the messages I was receiving. So despite what would have been viewed as a successful stint in missile operations, I felt I’d fallen short. Even a one-year spotlight tour at the Pentagon where some exceptional mentors tried to persuade me to keep to my calling in the Air Force, (three were future three or four star generals) left me feeling hollow and still missing something. For lack of a direction upward, I decided to respond to a request to teach at Squadron Officer School (SOS in those days) and it was there, if I had listened, I might have heard a still, small voice. I didn’t. Yes, teaching was something I gravitated to. Research, learning, distilling ideas into bite sized learning opportunities, teaching strategic thinking—all that I loved. And I was home on time every day for the first time in our marriage finding myself happy, really more happy than in many years. We started going to church as a family and really enjoying the pace of life and our focus and priorities. That should have been a clue, but clues for the clueless don’t stick for long. So after four years, the Pentagon called again, and despite a great opportunity as a general’s aide and an early promotion, all I could see was that non-rated guys were not eligible for the highest rungs of the ladder. So I decided to take the search elsewhere. 

Looking back, it was either the biggest mistake I ever made or the only thing that saved me. I have often pondered that question through a few times of deep depression and also times of great happiness since. But, as Aslan says to Lucy in the Chronicles of Narnia, “To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told me that.” I only know what did happen. 

The bloody details are unimportant. The easiest way to describe it is I did have the insight, after some unwise decisions, that my calling was still public service. I was wired that way. So despite a recession in the mid 70s, I landed a mid level job at the Department of Veterans Affairs where I had two totally contrary reactions: a sense of meaning and purpose around our mission—“To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan”—and a deep sense of failure that I was relegated to a moribund, civilian bureaucracy that was worse, if possible, than any tales I had heard. It was a love-hate relationship for certain. Here was the second largest agency in the entire Federal Government with over a quarter million employees, hundreds of hospitals and clinics and offices in every state, and we seemed paralyzed to carry out what was owed our nation’s wounded warriors, some my classmates. We were led, it seemed to me when I got my bearings, primarily by sleepy, older, white men who had a cozy relationship with a few Hill staffers and veterans organizations to keep things humming along at a pedestrian speed. It was an incestuous relationship designed to thwart any outside Secretary who wanted to change things for the better. Or any still idealistic public servant. What was needed was a sense of urgency in the aftermath of Vietnam as its broken in body and spirit soldiers returned. What was there was business as usual—or so it seemed to me. 

But then came Max Cleland only six months after I had begun, and the place hummed with energy and passion that only an impatient triple amputee who had not been well served could bring. With that focus came a desire to turn the Department upside down, get new, younger blood into leadership, and start carrying out what it was designed to do--all with caring and compassion. “VA, may I help you,” became a mantra. He shook me out of my ennui and self pity and within the short space of six years I found myself promoted six times. I could go no further. At the age of 37, I had reached the last rung. This is where life would now begin to have full meaning I thought. Sure, I wasn’t a fighter pilot and, yes, I would never reach my secret goal of pinning on stars, but I did the next best thing—or so I thought. It took me seven more years to get to that fateful overlook. 

What has happened in the ensuing years is what I wished I could have told that young man that day by the River, but those lessons only came by experience. In a real way, I “lived into” what I now believe I was called to do—I sure did not plan my way into it. Indeed, that is one of my life lessons: we are taught by our cause, by our purpose, by our calling—and by our Caller. I was wired for leadership, but when a good thing becomes an end unto itself, it becomes your god, your place of meaning, your “never enough.” I doubt I am the first one to discover that. 

In a spate of exhaustion, disappointment at the top rung, an almost busted marriage, and lots of parenting and personal regrets, God had me right where he wanted me. Time to shut up and listen. And so, taking advantage of a little known provision for Senior Executives, I embarked on a year’s sabbatical from public service to do nothing but work with people who had nothing in life, learn the non-profit business from the ground up, and simply spend some good time with my ever patient and grace-giving wife, B.J. That and think, pray, and take walks. I wasn’t sure if I’d retire early or just fade away. I only knew I needed to disengage entirely. B.J. thought the rest saved my life; I think it likely saved my soul or, more precisely, saved me from myself and my accomplishments as my god. Bird watching and hiking became our hours of true grace. Heck, I even began to learn that my so-called religion was nothing much more than another chance to look good in the eyes of others and get God to smile at me once in a while. So we took a sabbatical from church, too. Yes, and I learned a lot about the difference of law and grace in the bargain. And slowly, imperceptibly, I came down off the ladder and got my feet on the ground. 

I did return to public service after a year only to find that my job had been abolished, my title removed, the good people we had recruited over the years were scattered about with many leaving government in disgust. And the earth was salted for good measure. The 400 square foot office overlooking the Capitol and the White House became an interior cubicle. And, surprise, the next six years would be the best, most satisfying of my entire 35-year public service career. Everything I had learned over the years came to bear and though the politics remained, without power I found service and humility were far more effective in getting real things done for real people. Despite myself I had discovered in true fashion what servant leadership was all about. But then I had a pretty good Teacher. 

It’s been almost 15 years since I retired, years in which I have come to realize I was being prepared to live by my failures and by my experiences going back to Academy days--if I had been paying attention then as a callow youth. My mission in life now is to help grow the next generation of servant leaders. Whether teaching or consulting, speaking or writing, I have a lot of lessons I always honestly say come mostly from my screw ups—those which I want others to avoid if they have ears to hear sharper than mine were. The planning and strategic thinking I learned at the Pentagon have prepared me to work with all kinds of organizations. The teaching techniques I learned and loved at SOS I now have the opportunity to use with doctoral students and high school students alike. (My best students, or at least the ones I hope pay the most attention, are my kids and grandkids—they know my warts anyway.) All the writing of memos and white papers and doing briefings prepared me to write and speak on a regular basis now to very different audiences. And there are a lot of young folks B.J. and I mentor now who are just starting to climb the ladder like we did and we have a few words to say about that. If they don’t believe us we show them the scars. It’s not so easy getting off the last few rungs but I am so thankful we did when we did. 

If I have any useful way to wrap this up it would be to conclude where I have arrived at in my own story—thus far at least. I find life to be purposeful still; it’s the best time of my life in fact. And I do hope to finish it well. But what gives it an abiding purpose now is finding my chief end in life was never anchored in myself and, unlike what many might mistakenly conclude from this reflection, it was not even found in service to others, certainly not in the main. My lesson that began at the overlook so long ago was yes, I had put my ladder up against the wrong wall, but more so I found that it was the wrong ladder. 

Life is paradox. To rise up one descends. Check it out in Philippians 2:5-10. I did twenty years ago, and finally it began to make sense even though I’d heard it many times: descent and death lead to real power and lasting accolades. We either seek to be served by God’s blessings or people’s affirmation or we serve God’s purposes and others’ needs. That’s the way life works when it’s really humming on all eight cylinders. It certainly does not rest on my accomplishments. I can relax. Knowing that my God not only descended the ladder to this earth but lived the life I could not live and then died the death I could not die has made all the difference for me. In fact, without descent there would be no resurrection. And I’m counting on that to be true. All of it. I’m in the last chapter. SDG 
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