I have a huge scar on my back. It’s 35 or 36 stitches, I think. I can’t remember the exact number. Let me tell you how I got it. It was my freshman year in college. And this was a long time ago, mind you. I’m talking 1986 here.
I attended college on a Marine Corps NROTC Scholarship. How this works is you have to do some military things while you’re in school during the semester. You take some classes, do military drills, and do a lot of other things related to fitness, physical conditioning, small unit leadership, and things like that. In the summers, you go into the fleet and do different types of deployments. And the Marine officer candidates, between their junior and senior years, attend Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia.
It was a great deal for me, since I wanted to be a Marine officer anyway, and here they were offering to pay for my school tuition. It was a big event in my life. I had always been attracted to hard-core military things and now I had a chance to prove myself. Things like physical hardship, punishment, discipline never bothered me. To be honest–and I have to be honest–I liked it.
I was attending a university in the New England area. But fate has a way of intervening. Fate has a way of not cooperating with how we want things to be. There weren’t many “Marine option” guys in the Naval ROTC program. I’d say there were only about 20 of us at our unit. Anyway, that’s what the background was. A few times per week, we would go for conditioning runs around the Charles River in Boston. Sometimes we’d run through the Boston Commons or on Beacon Hill. Some of my best memories of Boston is running through those narrow streets in the early hours of the morning.
Especially when fall started to turn to winter, and you’d get a slight patina of frost on the ground. On one of these runs–which were always about 3 to 5 miles long–I remember feeling like my lungs were made out of plastic bags. It was a strange, disturbing feeling. I was inhaling, and not enough air was coming into my body. I thought it might just be a cold or something. But the feeling didn’t go away over the next few days. In fact, it got worse.
I visited the school hospital. They then sent me to a local hospital. And the news was not good. The doctor there told me I had suffered something called a “spontaneous pneumothorax.” That is, a collapsed lung. Apparently, some men are born with slight defects–called pulmonary blebs–on the surface of their lungs. And sometimes these blebs can break, causing air to deflate the lung and enter the pleural cavity. And the lung collapses. So there it was. I had a serious medical problem here.
They made me check into the hospital. And the doctors tried to insert tubes in my side to allow the air to escape from the pleural cavity, and see if the lung would reinflate. But it did not reinflate. And then other things happened. The Navy ROTC people (who control the Marine officer candidates) immediately disenrolled me from the scholarship program once they heard about my medical condition. I was out, with blinding speed. No questions, no discussion, nothing. I just got a letter saying I was medically disenrolled for now, and that I could apply for reinstatement at the pleasure of the Department of the Navy. They just booted me out.
Some Navy chief called my parents, acting like the douchebag martinet that he was, and informed them I was disenrolled, without any real explanation. Not only this, but I would have to be in the hospital for a while now. My school was a very intense one, and missing weeks of school could mean that I would have to start all over again in the new semester. And now that I was out of the ROTC program, I would have to pay for everything myself. I did not come from a wealthy family. So this was a big deal for me, too.
But I was not going to allow this to derail my plans. I was not going to let anything stand in the way of my goals. It turned out that I would need to spend eleven days in the hospital. Because I would need to undergo an operation to remove a part of my lung. It was a big deal. And if you are a scrapper and a fighter, you will find allies. My Marine officer instructor, whose name was Capt. M.C. Taylor, was a old-school Marine officer. He fought the Navy and its obtuse bureaucracy for me. He fought for me to get back in the program.
To stay on top of my classes, I studied in my hospital bed. I had to memorize everything. I did not come from a strong background in mathematics or the sciences, and these things were not easy for me. But I had fanatical willpower. That’s when I first learned I had it. I was not going to allow this to defeat me. It was not allowed. Period. It was not permitted. And somehow, it all worked out. I recovered from my operation, which took a long time. They had to sever some muscles, and it took a long time for them to fully recover. And I still have a huge scar on my back, which makes me look like I was bitten by a shark, or something.
I sat for all my exams. I got all my work done, miraculously. From a fucking hospital bed, half in the bag from all the drugs they were giving me. You can see now why I have no sympathy for people who can’t get things done by deadlines, or can’t muster the tenacity to go the distance. It comes down to a failure of will, a failure of nerve. And Capt. Taylor forced the Navy bureaucrats to expedite my paperwork to get me reinstated in the program. If people like you, they will go to bat for you. And he did. But he wouldn’t have done it if he thought I wasn’t deserving.
But he knew I had guts. I wasn’t the best runner. I wasn’t the most glamorous guy. I didn’t come from an environment where I had a lot of good role models, or a lot of support from anyone. But I had guts, and guts was enough. After all these years, I haven’t forgotten Capt. Taylor. I even dedicated my book Stoic Paradoxes to him. You can see the inscription on the dedication page.
I may get a chance to see him this year, for the first time in 26 years. Wouldn’t that be something: 26 fucking years. When I was lying in my hospital bed, and I could barely lift my arms over my head because of the post-operation condition of my body, I would sometimes think of scenes from movies. It’s funny how things like that can motivate you. One scene kept coming into my mind. It was the scene in the film Raging Bull where Robert DeNiro takes a furious beating from Sugar Ray Robinson. He gets pummeled, pounded, beaten, and bashed. But Ray never gets him down. Ray never knocks him down. He takes incredible punishment, but he is still standing.
He says to Sugar Ray, “You never got me down, Ray. You never got me down.”
Life will do to you what Sugar Ray did to Jake LaMotta. It’s not a matter of if, but of when. You will have to go through many trials and difficulties in your life. And everyone will try to tell you this or that about it. I was fortunate enough to have someone help me with the things he could help with. And it was more than most would have done. But I made my own luck. If I didn’t have a good reputation, no one would have cared about me. I would have been consigned to oblivion.
But when all is said and done, you’ll be left to deal with it on your own, lying in your own proverbial hospital bed. It is the way things are. To this day, I can’t stand hospitals. I detest the sight and sound of them. I never want to have to be in one, ever again. And never let circumstances defeat you. Never. It is not permitted. It is not allowed. Look at life squarely in the eye, and spit in its eye. This is how you have to be. This is the attitude you need to have. No matter what happens, absorb the abuse, absorb the pain, and keep on fighting. Tell Life, like Jake LaMotta told Ray, you never got me down.
I’m still standing, Ray. You never got me down.
Read more about ethics and perseverance in my new, original translation of Cicero’s “On Duties”: