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From engine grease to Air Force blues

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jenna K. Caldwell
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
I grew up covered in engine grease. In a dimly lit garage, I watched my grandfather rebuild classic cars. Sitting on the tailgate of his Ford truck, I learned how the world worked. We discussed politics, history, current events and common sense.

I heard stories about his childhood in war-torn England and the hope and despair of the people. He told me how grateful people were to see the British Royal Air Force fly overhead in their defense and how children ran around and played with live grenades they found on the ground. What stood out the most in his stories is that he never buttered over the fact that people then were generally intolerant and resisted change.

Contrasting his generation to mine, I realized I come from a progressive generation, one that questions everything and embraces change, and I’m lucky for all the wonderful things about my generation.

The things that are not so wonderful about it make me a bit cynical about people my age—to the point where I’m ready to put on my robe and slippers, shake my fist and yell at the neighborhood children for being on my lawn—but my time will come for that. I realized some grow up without such a role model, so I wanted to pass along to my generation some insight my grandfather gave me.

The world owes us nothing. If you want something, put in the dedication and effort to earn it. It seems everybody from a young age gets a participation medal, but some expect more. If you want an MVP award, then put in the extra effort, work hard and earn it. The concept of staying humble is lost when they immediately expect praise for everything.

I know some people who joined the military for the glory of wearing the uniform and the incredible places overseas the Air Force was going to station them. They instead find themselves working long hours on the flightline in the boiling heat and freezing cold, or stuck in an office job surrounded by people they butt heads with. All of a sudden, life isn’t the perfect picture they expected.

Some blame others for their misfortune. In reality, they weren’t realistic with themselves when they signed up. Because growing up, they were likely told they were special and that wonderful opportunities would just drop into their laps.

My grandfather was the most patient man I’ve ever met, especially to put up with my stubborn nature and smart mouth. As tough as it was, this is how he got me to learn.

Growing up, I cut and stacked firewood, fed and pestered the animals, climbed trees without supervision and helped my grandfather in the garage. In this day and age, you could say I lived dangerously.

I was fairly cautioned about my actions, but my grandfather wouldn’t stop me from making mistakes. If I didn’t listen and got hurt, he’d simply say, “Well, bet you won’t do that again, will you?” It took me a while, but it finally sunk in that I put myself in that situation and I would have to be the one to get myself out of it.

I come from a generation in a society that pushes the importance of education at the cost of enormous debt. We’ve been taught that from a young age there was a simple, expected progression we were supposed to follow after high school and that was to go directly to college. High schoolers, who know little about operating in the real world, are expected to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives in an instant.

I was no different. I had a substantial academic scholarship to a college I was supposed to attend after high school. Then my grandfather lost his struggle with cancer a few months later. That grief brought the realization that I did not want to follow the same debt-laden path that has become so typical. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I learned to never let formal education interfere with my learning.

From this lesson, I learned a wealth of understanding by simple observation. My grandfather did not just restore classic cars, he hot-rodded them, which means he personalized factory designs. The development of a new generation of Airmen is like rebuilding a car. You take a design and you make it your own, despite criticism. Just as cars get recalled and new parts, a generation develops as well. Like my generation, I am young and imperfect, and I have room for improvement.

My grandfather was an industrial arts teacher, but spent his free time in his garage. He told me that if you love what you do you never work a day in your life. He also said the best way to ruin a hobby is to make it your job. Imagine being a child and trying to comprehend that paradox.

From that puzzling idea, I grasped this lesson: an aspiring mechanic who opens up a business, will no longer enjoy spending his leisure time at home working on his own vehicles anymore. It’s no longer an enjoyable task when time equals money; it’s a sacrifice. This is why I’m writing articles rather than turning wrenches, like I do in my spare time.

Growing up I took a resiliency course and I didn’t even know it. It was a little program my grandfather called, “Keep on trucking,” and he would make the motion of a running man as he said it. From that course, I learned to take punches, and I am grateful that I did. I hope these teachings can help others like they’ve helped me.

My pledge is to adhere to these lessons I was taught and be the person I wanted to be when I was younger and idealistic about the world. I can’t change the world today alone, but I can start with changing myself. We can all start there.