When The Huffington Post announced the launch of a HuffPost Good News section "devoted to positive news, happy stories and uplifting opinion and commentary" and graciously invited me to submit a post, I immediately knew what I would write about.
As an immigrant to the United States in the late 50s and, subsequently, as one who chose to be a citizen of this country, I could write dozens of "uplifting" stories about my life and opportunities in America.
But, if I had to choose a single instance or event that convinced me that I had truly become a citizen of the greatest country in the world and an experience that forever changed my outlook on life for the better, it probably would be one which occurred less than a year after I arrived in America and just after I turned 18.
I had just enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and had been assigned to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, near San Antonio, Texas. I would be less than honest if I said that my only motivation was to serve my newly adopted country. Of course I was proud and eager to serve, but I also -- as probably most young men do -- wanted to "fly."
I had already discovered that to become a pilot one had to -- in addition to other stringent requirements -- be a commissioned officer, and to be an officer one had to be a U.S. citizen. I still had three more years to go before I would be eligible for my U.S. citizenship.
But there were other ways to fly in the Air Force, such as an aircrew member and, as so happened, the Air Force at the time needed airborne radio operators. I could already see myself in a flight suit, sporting a leather aviator jacket stepping off a military aircraft in some exotic country and just charming the heck out of the local young ladies -- little did I know then that something like that would happen.
But, I am getting ahead of myself.
During the first few weeks of basic training, I made my wishes known and passed all aptitude tests and physical exams to become an airborne radio operator, except for one. In those days, the minimum height requirement for a crewmember was 64 inches. I "topped" at 63 ½ inches and, thus, did not qualify. I was devastated.
That night in the barracks after "lights-out," with a flashlight under my blanket, I penned a letter, not to my Technical Instructor (T.I.), not to the base commander, but to the two-star Wing Commander. Being of the lowest possible enlisted rank I might as well write to God...
My letter expressed my deep desire to serve my country as an aircrew member, my view that one half inch in stature should not affect one's performance in that capacity, and the promise to become an airborne radio operator that the General would be proud of.
Lo and behold, a few days later, to my delight and to the surprise of my T.I. and class mates, a shiny, blue staff car pulled up to the barracks and drove me to the hospital for "re-measuring." And, lo and behold -- again -- I had grown another half inch virtually overnight.
The letter I later received from Major General H. L Grills is one of the most treasured documents I have in my possession.
It represents to me the kindheartedness and goodwill of Americans, the trust they place in individuals, and the almost unlimited opportunities that exist for those who are genuinely willing to go after them. The General's letter says in part:
I want to commend you for the intense interest you have shown in your first duty assignment. I hope that you will maintain this interest throughout your entire Air Force career. I want you to do your very best while in school at Keesler Air Force Base.
A Major General in the U.S. Air Force had not only taken the time to read the scribbling of the lowest ranking person in his Command, but had also shown an interest and acted on it -- only in America.
General Grills' words of encouragement and faith in me resulted in my total commitment to the military and to America and compelled me to indeed do my very best in everything I did during the rest of my 20-year Air Force career, as several Air Force Commendation and Meritorious Service Medals would attest to.
As to impressing the young ladies in various exotic countries, well I would not call England exotic, but it was there where I impressed my future bride of 50 years, and not quite when stepping off a military aircraft, but rather over a hamburger and French fries in a military snack bar and, yes, I was wearing my flight suit.
Not as romantic as I had fantasized, but still, only in America -- or at an American air base "over there."