Did you hear the one about the deacon, the sailor and the fireman?
Weirdly enough, it’s the three most notable attempts I’ve made at volunteering. All three became abject failures.
I’m a big proponent of volunteering. It is about the finest thing you can do as a citizen and something we as a society really don’t do enough anymore. When I look around at my friends and family who are about my age, I realize that almost none of them volunteer for anything. My sister-in-law and her husband are the exception that proves the rule, they volunteer at the community pool, for South Jersey swimming, at their parish, for fundraisers, sports and Girl Scouts. Damn overachievers.
My parents and the people in their generation and older seem to be big volunteer people. My dad especially was good at volunteering, particularly around church. He’s still a member of the Knights of Columbus and is a trustee of his parish. My aunt was a member of the Jaycees. My grandfather started the ambulance corp in his town, was president of the Republican club, was a charter member of a hunting club, helped build a hospital, etc.
By comparison, I was a long time couch potato. I’ve done some volunteering for the various church parishes I’ve belonged to, but not much more than lectoring, working with the youth group and sitting on the parish council. I can’t say I’ve exactly broken a sweat trying to give back.
But that’s not to say I haven’t tried to make a bigger splash into the volunteering pool.
The first attempt was about 8 years ago, when I was 30. Just to lay some back story, my wife and I have quite a few very orthodox Catholic friends. A handful of priests, a couple former seminarians, a former non-professed nun, and a bunch of very devout laity. I’m pretty sure I come in last in the devout category in that group, but it my defense, they’d give the Pope a run for his money.
Anyway, I became quiet caught up with the notion of become a Catholic deacon. In the Latin rite, a married man after the age of 35 can be ordained a deacon, but you can start classes in your early 30s. I did a ton of research on the subject. I even looked into whether I could become a Jesuit deacon, as I attended a Jesuit university for my undergrad.
But after about two years of research and looking into how much all the vestments would cost, the enterprise just petered out. I still feel the call of the vocation, perhaps I’m just waiting on a bible to the back of the head. Although if history is a guide, it’s usually the subtle inspiration that creates the biggest impact.
A few years after my abbreviated religious epiphany, I as tapped again by the volunteering fairy. This time inspiration came from getting to know my brother-in-law better.
He’s a SEAL, medic and Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy. He is a shining example of what military service can do for people who apply themselves. In so many respects he’s the military version of a self-made man. He decided what he wanted to do and succeeded, more importantly his career has truly been a service to his country and its citizens. Now he’s in a program to become a Navy physician’s assistant, which will take from a Chief Petty Officer to a commissioned Lieutenant. The kid who couldn’t find much focus at a county college in South Jersey is now a world traveler with focus in spades. And he’s a good guy, too.
His service, my father’s service, my uncle’s service, and my grandfathers’ service really got me to thinking. I once again realized just how few people my own age had made the decision to serve their country. I can literally count the number of service members I’m friends with on three fingers. I found this very troubling.
While these thoughts bounced through my mind, and while I was caught up in a sense of regret for never having served now that I was too old, I came across a Monster.com advertisement for a U.S Navy Reserve position for a Public Affairs Officer. This was in 2007 and my wife and I hadn’t yet been blessed with our son. It turns out, the U.S. Navy has something called the Direct Commission Officer Program. Essentially, this is an option for both prior service and non-prior service professionals to become officers in the Navy if they have certain skill sets – engineering, aeronautics, medical, computers, intelligence and yes, us public affairs folks. The U.S. Army and Coast Guard have similar programs.
But for me, the best part is the age limit: 42.
There was one caveat, you don’t just enlist, it’s more like getting accepted to college. There are tests to take, forms to provide, applications to fill out and a background check, as well as a physical fitness test if you passed everything else.
Well it took me two years. In the Public Affairs arena there was only one selection board held annually. I missed the first one and just made it to the second one. I took every test, filled out every form and sent in every application. The result? A very nice letter from Navy letting me know I didn’t pass muster.
But not to worry, I was told that very few people made it in on the first try, especially if they were candidates without prior service. So I wasn’t upset about it. I was hoping to beat the odds, but it just wasn’t to be for that go round. Also, I had a major red flag, a ridiculously low GPA from my undergrad that was far below the Navy’s limits. I had just begun my Master’s program for public relations, which would wipe away the earlier GPA, but nothing would count until I got my degree.
The benefit of the experience was I met some great U.S. Navy officers in the public affairs field. I had some great conversations. Everyone I met was just the kind of person you’d want to work with – intelligent, passionate and intriguing.
So you might be asking, well, why aren’t you Ensign Walsh yet? Well, because simultaneous to my attempts to become an officer in the reserves, I was taking the Master’s classes, I had started a new job that required a lot of travel and… oh yeah, my son was born. Suddenly it seemed like I may have been stretching myself a bit thin and was running the risk of creating a hardship on my hardworking wife. I was spending a lot of time out of the house (while not making a lot of money) and I just couldn’t get comfortable with the notion of adding more stress to our household.
So I decided to back off from the Navy, at lest for a few years, until we were a little more settled. Heck, I have another 4 years to try at this point, right? Because of course the Navy wants 42-year-old ensigns sending out press releases and running their Facebook pages and Twitter updates.
Yeah, still kind of bitter about not joining the military a bit earlier in my career, say between 25 and 35 when I was a couch slob with much less responsibility.
This brings us to my last failed attempt at volunteerism, firefighting. Soon after the Navy thing was put on the back burner, I saw a news report that the Glassboro Fire Department was in need of volunteers. Now, I was never the kid who wanted to grow up and become a firefighter, but I was the kid that responded to requests of need.
I went to the department’s website and filled out the on-line application, met with the Chief, spent three months getting medically permitted to join and even attended their Monday night training meetings. This all took place from mid-Summer 2009 to December 2010. I had just missed out the fall semester of the Fire Academy. I couldn’t officially become a firefighter without taking the intense four-month course – two nights a week and two full weekends a month.
But I was still invested.
Right up until I found out you were allowed to miss a total of two class days.
This is when I compared my work travel schedule and Master’s class schedule against the Fire Academy schedule. And that’s when I found out I’d end up missing almost a third of the fire school classes. To say I was a tad irritated would be putting it mildly.
Another 6 months worth of effort shot to hell.
As it turned out, it was fortunate I didn’t sign up for Fire Academy, my job’s travel schedule and workload ended up being far worse than I thought. There is no way I would have been able to get my work done, kept up the Master’s studies, and got through fire school. Oh… and I’m pretty sure trying to be a good husband and father may have suffered a bit too.
So what does all this mean? Two things. 1) it’s good to volunteer for things. Maybe not with big splashes like I was trying to do, but little things around your community. 2) Try to find some kind of balance. A good volunteer is a someone who’s able to be happy volunteering, but also keep a happy home life. I kept trying do everything. I wasn’t happy just to join the USO or Musicians On Call (as a photographer) or become a Big Brother.
If I were a betting man, I would be willing to bet that I end up becoming a volunteer through my child’s activities – sports coach, scout leader, youth activities. If that’s the role I end up with, I’ll be happy.
But being a father isn’t the reason I’ve put the brakes on (temporarily?) to becoming a deacon, a sailor or a firefighter, in reality, that’s the reason I’m even more intense on volunteering. I want to make sure my son understands the importance of service to one’s community. My son will never know the man who existed before he was born, and I hope my wife will finally be able to reap the benefits of a non-sloth husband. I plan to keep finding ways to set a positive example and do good works. I just don’t know who the fourth guy in that bar joke is going to be yet.