I held the book out to Sensei Mike. It was called: To Be a U.S. Air Force Pilot.
Sensei Mike took the book in one hand and glanced down at it.
“What do you think?” I said. “You think I could make it as a fighter pilot in the Air Force?”
Sensei Mike pulled the book close to himself. Leaning back in the chair, swiveling back and forth, he opened it, paged through it.
“Cool,” he murmured. “Cool jets.”
He glanced through a few more pages, then shut the book and held it out to me. I took it and stuffed it back down into my karate bag.
I stood there, nervous, waiting to hear the answer to my question.
“You wanna be an Air Force pilot?” he asked me.
I managed to nod.
“Really tough. Really tough training. Very selective, very elite. A lot of guys don’t make it. Even some of the best. Just not that many slots open.”
I went on nodding. I already knew all that.
Sensei Mike folded his hands on the knot of his black belt. “You know, a lot of guys, teachers and so on—they’d be happy to tell you that you can be anything you want to be, anything you set your mind on. You go to them, they’ll tell you you should feel good about yourself, that you’re special and all that stuff.”
“I know that, Sensei Mike. That’s why I didn’t go to them. I asked you ’cause I want the truth.”
“The truth is: you can’t be anything you want to be. All that talk is garbage. I mean, I could try till my ears smoked, but I couldn’t write a symphony—not a good one, anyway. I couldn’t throw a baseball ninety-five miles an hour or hit one out of a major-league park. I want to do all those things, but it doesn’t matter how hard I try—I just wasn’t given those abilities.” Sensei Mike came forward in his chair, leaned forward, and looked up at me hard. “But this is also the truth: if you try your best and better than your best, and work and push yourself until you think you can’t go on and then push yourself some more—then—then if you have a little bit of luck on your side—then you can be all the good things God made you to be.”
“Well, I’d do that,” I said. “You know I would. You’ve seen me. I’d bust my chops for this.”
“Yeah, you would, that’s true.”
“So what do you think? Could I do it?”
He turned it over in his mind one more second. Then he said, “Absolutely. With your brains, your reflexes, and the way you work . . . assuming you meet the physical requirements, the eyesight and all that . . . I think you got Ace written all over you.” He pointed a finger at me. “You’ll still be a chucklehead—but you’ll be an Ace chucklehead.”
“I don’t know, Mike,” I said. “You gotta get a congressman to nominate you and everything.”
“Don’t sweat it. I know plenty of congressmen. I know some Air Force brass too. Finish your education, pull down the big grades, and you’ll get your shot, I promise you. And hey . . . meanwhile, try to keep your mind on what you’re doing. You can’t fly jets if Lou Wilson splatters your brains all over the dojo.”
When I walked out of the karate studio that day, I felt like I was about ten feet tall, a giant among men looking down at the world from high above. My mind was racing over all kinds of things, over everything that had happened that day. The karate demonstration and the way all the kids shouted and applauded. Beth coming into the cafeteria the way she did, and the way we talked and she wrote on my hand and everything. And now, Sensei Mike: I think you got Ace written all over you . . .
I had this feeling—this incredible feeling—that it was actually possible that I could turn my daydreams into reality.
It was just like Sensei Mike said. My mind was totally in the clouds. I wasn’t paying attention. I was completely unprepared for what happened next.
It was getting toward evening now, around five o’clock or so. On the far side of the mall, in the gap between the Pizza Kitchen and the movie theater—beyond where the movie theater parking was—I could see the sun turning red as it reached the tops of the far hills. I took a deep breath of the cool September air. I wished I could get in my mom’s car and drive out to those hills and look out from the top of them toward the setting sun and see my future out there—see what was going to happen and what it would be like, and end all the suspense I felt inside me.
I guess it’s a good thing I couldn’t do that. If I had seen what my future was really going to be like, I would’ve gone home that night and hidden under the bed.
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