Monday, October 3, 2011

no small resemblance

The plethora of NFL games competed for attention on the myriad of screens that hung above the bar, each boasting waves of highlights, statistics and high definition re-plays of the most important or fascinating moment of the sport.
I walked past the bartender who smiled congenially and welcomed me. Exhausted from my last three weeks of non-stop travel and work with only one day off in the middle, I set my shoulder-bag down and walked to the counter. In one of those stool-chairs that only seem to appear in public and never in the dining room or kitchens of the home sat another person in uniform almost identical to mine. The picture on his collar indicated he was an officer and the figure of the bird notated that he was Colonel. Stitched on the left side of the chest was the label U.S. Air Force and above it were wings. "Ah, a flier" I thought to myself as I greeted him.
"Good afternoon sir." Proper courtesy rendered, he responded with the appropriate respect, nodding, and returning the phrase.
"Good afternoon." We were professionals. Our training was ingrained deeply in our personality. I glanced at the shelf behind the bar and chose a Stella Artois. Light, somewhat hoppy and non-commital, it was my favorite served ice-cold alone and unaccompanied by another at the end of the day.
I reached behind to my back pocket, pulled out my wallet and flipped to the I.D. carrier. I've long since abandoned the need to wait and be asked for proof of my age. I look too young to drink and have nothing to prove any more by inconveniencing those serving me. It isn't cool anymore to rib them for doing their job.
"You can show hand him your I.D. so he can see how old you are, but go ahead and put your credit card away" the Colonel looked at the bartender as he finished his sentence "I'll get his."
I glanced up, surprised. After a brief moment of inward discussion with myself I realized was pointless -- there was only a small chance the Colonel had less than three hundred people under him. He would not give in to a simple argument on the matter.
"Thank you sir."
He waved off the words with his left hand supported in the air by an elbow relaxed on the bar as he sat slightly forward in his seat. "No problem. How are you?"
The bartender glanced at the identification and handed it back to me.
For several minutes we exchanged formal pleasantries that also came from, ironically, training. There was a way to and not to speak with someone of certain rank. We abided by those rules easily, both of us comfortable to interact with one another at the appropriate level. Everything was as it should be.
A minute or two in, he responded to the posed query "no, I'll be here for a while. My flight isn't boarding until 4:05." The same time as mine, only he would fly to Denver on his way home to Las Vegas while mine left for Dallas so I could change planes to one bound for my home in Northwest Arkansas.

The Commander of a squadron that flew A-10's, he had been in the Air Force for 33 years: 10 active duty and the rest Reserves.

An hour and a half before we parted company.
For the next 90 minutes, the Colonel (as the rank was nicknamed) poured as much wisdom and perspective into my life as he could.
"When I was 24 I thought of myself as a failure. I was a Captain in the United States Air Force with a daughter and a divorce, and because I wasn't where I thought I should be, I felt worthless. In most people's eyes I was a huge success. But not in mine. You need to be careful that you don't do that. Don't let yourself do that. Continue to pursue what you're passionate about."
"What would the people that work under me say are my priorities? Well I have 600 people that work under me, and I think they would say the prevailing lead tier of my priorities is education. If you have the desire to pursue more education and better yourself, we will do anything we can to help you. We as an Air Force should do that."
"If there is someone else who can do your job so that you can do something else to better yourself, whether it's training or education, we need to help you do that."
"I'll be honest. I've been married three times. It will always be a battle between what you want and what she wants, now if you can figure that out, great. But it's always about selfishness and the desire to put what you want ahead of her. That's where the problem lies the majority of the time. So never stop fighting that."
"I am very blessed. I have four grown daughters; three with degrees and another one who's just finishing up beauty school."

When our time was up and we'd concluded our conversation so we could make our flights, we again rendered proper courtesies. This time however it was sincere, as only a meaningful, deep conversation could give value.
We talked about a wide variety of topics and covered a huge amount of conversational ground quickly as only two extremely intense personalities can.
What made the experience unique is each time we moved on to a new topic the Colonel found a new way to either affirm or challenge who I was. He relentlessly encouraged me in all manners of ways, daring me to become the height of my potential.
Thank you, Herman Brunke, Sir. Colonel, Commander, and pilot of a group of planes that were my favorite growing up, you gave me an incredible picture of who a leader is, even if only for a moment.

Commander Brunke reminded me so much of my Dad in the way that he so intentionally built into someone he didn't even know.

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