By Jon F. Merz
Today is my 43rd birthday. Sometimes that number seems far too high to be real. Sometimes, it seems far too low.
I’m sometimes asked about what the best birthday present I ever received was. It’s a tough question, because I’ve certainly gotten some enjoyable things over the years. But there is one time that stands out a bit more than the others, and I’d like to share that with you all today.
October has always been special to me. Not just because it’s my birthday month. I’ve loved Halloween and the crisp Fall days for as long as I can remember. Growing up, we always celebrated my father’s birthday (on the 21st) with mine over a nice small family dinner. Growing up I used to enjoy this because it felt like it brought my father and I closer together. We were the two last remaining Merz men – there was no one else. And, as my father often reminded me (usually when I’d just been shot down for a date, lol), “It’s all on you. If you don’t have a son, then our name dies with you.” Nice pressure for a fourteen year old who couldn’t score a date!
But it did feel like we were closer during October. Growing up, I was always in his shadow, until I learned how to step out from behind it and create my own path. There were times in my young life when my father felt like my biggest enemy in the world and his ideal felt impossible to live up to. He was both a superhero to me and at times impossible for me to understand. But no matter our differences, each October seemed to bring us back together. And I’m thankful that our birthdays were close together – I think it helped me understand the man he was as I grew up, and I hope it helped him understand the man I was becoming.
There was one October when I wasn’t home. I was in Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in lovely San Antonio, Texas. I’d left in late-August (I think – it’s been well over twenty years since those days) and I was scheduled to be at Lackland for a while still. Being in Basic meant that communication with home was severely limited. But as August and September fell by the wayside and October rolled in, with it came the usual feeling of happiness and excitement I always felt around that time of year.
But this October was also very different. This particular October was the first where I’d been away from home for a long time. I didn’t have my father or mother around as a base of support. I couldn’t simply go home. I was off on my own, in the care of my ever-lovin’ Uncle Sam. It was a scary, exciting time for me to be off spreading my wings and engaged in the challenge that is Basic Training.
And on one particular day that October – this particular day, in fact – I graduated Basic Training. October 24th, the United States Air Force deemed me worthy of graduating Basic Training and I pinned on my Airman First Class stripes and felt like I’d just completed a marathon. I remember walking to the pay phones near the dorms and making a phone call to my father. At that time of day, he was just starting his 4pm-12am shift at the hospital where he worked as the lab supervisor. And I will never forget the pride in my voice when I told him that I had just completed Basic Training. Nor will I ever forget the pride in his voice when he told me how very proud he was of me.
Something changed that day.
Perhaps for the first time, my father recognized that I was growing up. He’d been in the Air Force as well, and I think that the test of Basic Training was one he knew intimately well. Before I left, our relationship had been somewhat strained. When I returned home for the first time around Christmas that year, the hug he gave me was different. I wasn’t his little boy coming home from camp. I was his son, the one he’d tried to raise as best he could having lost his own father early in life, coming back a man.
In the years after, my father and I grew much closer than we had been. I have incredibly fond memories of sitting up late at night with him, drinking and laughing as we related stories of our own experiences. There weren’t many of those nights, because only a few short years after he would pass on. But there were enough. And they remain some of my most deeply-treasured memories.
The day I graduated Basic Training is still one the most precious gifts I’ve ever earned because with it came a newfound respect from my father. And that is something very special, indeed.