Saturday, August 16, 2014

No Obstacles But What We Make

Blog Post by Walt Powell:  Walt has served as a school security officer for 17 years, the last 7 year at Bettendorf High School.  We honor him for his service to our country, school community and students.

As the late, great Robin Williams once sang, "Let me entertain you; let me make you smile.....".  For those of you who normally read these blogs as you would watch 'The Learning Channel', pretend you sat on the remote and unintentionally tuned in to 'The History Channel' (though, I daresay that, by the end of my humble submission, many of you will come away absolutely sure that it MUST have been the 'SciFi Channel').

This past Monday,when Mr. Casas paid me the complement that I was a "wonderful writer", I knew the other shoe was about to drop.  He then remarked that I had an "interesting story to tell".  It took a while, but I finally realized the method to his madness.  He wanted me to tell my life's story as an inspiration to all of you.  But, I'm wise to him.  I refuse to relinquish the rights to all those royalties that the movie will bring.  He'll just have to get in line like everyone else and buy the book!  However, for those with inquiring minds, here's a brief sample of that upcoming masterpiece:

Unlike many of you who grew up dreaming of being the next Plato or Aristotle, a small boy...sitting in the sandbox...dirty diaper and all...smashing Matchbox cars with his Dad's hammer...had but two career ambitions: to be a soldier or a police officer.  Diaper aside (and whatever image that may have conjured up for you) I HAVE truly always wanted to be do only those two things.  And, in the end, I hope my epitaph reads: "His life's ambition was to 'Protect and Serve' his fellow Americans.  Mike Alpha. Mission Accomplished."

As a 7 year-old I spent three months in the Cleveland Clinic with what would later be diagnosed as acute asthma.  At times, outlook for a normal life, let alone either of those careers, seemed bleak.  But, with a maternal grandmother who was both a nurse and a woman of great spiritual strength, I eventually got better.  Health aside, or perhaps because of it, I became a pretty tough kid.  In fact, by the age of ten, I was part of an inner city gang.  I won't get into what I did, but (suffice to say) I would later arrest people for doing much less.  My Mom (a peaceful, loving woman who never uttered a discouraging word...God rest her soul) and Dad (a tough steel worker who used the belt to speak when verbal discipline failed) pulled up stakes and moved out of the big city to a rural community.  Perhaps we all can look to one or more events and say, "That changed my path in life."  Well, this was the first of many for me.

In this new setting, I found sports as an outlet for all that anger that had gone into knife fights and gang rumbles.  Grandma continued to work on getting me healthy.  In fact, she was probably the most rigorous and demanding drill sergeant I ever met!  But the rewards were high school success in football, track and baseball.  As a senior, I played cornerback against a team with a junior running back by the name of Anthony Dorsett (before he gave it the French pronunciation).  Sound awesome? He ran around my end for two TDs.  I was an All-County First Team selection that year.  Tony went on to fame with the Dallas Cowboys.  Hey, wouldn't YOU rather be All County??

The problem was...I did just enough in school to stay eligible for sports.  And, had my head football coach not taken me under his wing and got me math credits in his Review Math class, I may not have graduated with my class of 1973.  I made it, but only by the skin of my teeth.  I had no ambition to continue my schooling.  In fact, I vowed then and there that I would NEVER set foot in another high school.  (Stop laughing!  Sooo.....God has an interesting sense of humor.)  Dad had always told me "Do something more with your life than working as a laborer in a steel mill."  I did.  I got promoted to the blast furnace in record time.  Ever watch "The Deer Hunter"?  Those guys in asbestos from head to toe, tapping ingots of molten steel from a giant ladle?  Kinda makes ya realize, "Hey, Dad was right!"  I'm a learner; albeit a veerrryyy slow one.

I had made enough money in a year to start taking some college classes; first at Penn State (prerequisites and entry requirements were much easier in the early '70s), then Youngstown State University.  At YSU, the ROTC Professor of Military Science (Colonel Longacre) was impressed by this raw kid with calluses on the palms of his hands as well as his brain.  I guess he figured the ones on the hands indicated work ethic and the ones on the brain....well, he could train those out of him.  Somehow, I turned out to be a pretty good student when I was motivated to do so.  Imagine that?!  In fact, I graduated in the top 5% of all ROTC cadets and, in 1978, was honored with a Regular Army commission; the same as those who put in four years at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Low and behold: I was a soldier!  And an officer to boot.  Whadda ya know.

Always striving for more challenges, I went to Airborne (paratroops) school, then Ranger training; quickly climbing the promotion ladder.  As a young Captain, while serving as part of the Rapid Deployment Force (no, not "rabbit deployment force"....I see you have mental images of me throwing bunnies out of a low-flying Blackhawk helicopter), I took a company of Rangers to a little island in the Caribbean with the mission of stopping soviet incursions (ok, my boys later rescued a few pretty pre-med students in the bargain).  My radio operator was right next to me in the initial assault on the Salinas airstrip.  Taking most of the shrapnel that would have ended my life, he lost his.  On the coming days when I would tire of the way things were, I reminded myself that I was lliving for two of us now....and that made the happy difference.  My two or three minutes of combat led to a year in a military hospital.  As a final insult, the asthma returned and my military career was at an end.  I was heartbroken.

 However, a final assignment in 1985 to the Rock Island Arsenal would prove once again that "When God closes a door, He opens a window."  Chief Gil Hansen came to my door in Eldridge one night because a neighbor had complained that my dog was barking.  We got to chatting and Gil asked about my military experiences.  I mentioned that my bachelor's degree was in Criminal Justice and he responded with, "You want a job?"  And, with those four words, my police career began.  Dirty diapers or not, I was two-for-two.  I worked hard to get fit....and beat asthma again.

It wasn't long before Gil talked me into putting in for a bigger department and, in 1987, I was hired as the First Candidate by the City of Davenport.  I loved police work with all my heart; as I had the military.  But, the one thing that irked me to the bone was the lack of time to truly make a difference in the lives of the troubled young people that I often came across in the line of duty.  At the time, the DPD was just attempting to field a SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) Team.  I was elected by my peers as a Team Leader while still a probationary officer.  As always, I gave it all I had.  One of the jokes my fellow operators had was that we "aren't having fun unless Walt is bleeding".  More often than not, we had a great time.  But, while on a raid of a crack house, I was injured one time too many (I know...I know.  You're thinking, "Hell, why doesn't he duck??") and, once again, my career was at a conclusion.  If I was heartbroken the first time, I was devastated now.  And the asthma returned.

I was a train wreck.  I kicked around in a number of jobs.  I worked for the postal service for a time (fortunately, never "going postal"), selling guns in the hunting department of a local outdoor store; even selling used video games for a while.  But, I was bound and determined to get healthy again; working out six to eight hours a day...and I beat back the asthma again.  Then, in 1995, a Sheriff's Deputy buddy asked if I would be interested in a new position that they were trying to fill at Davenport's Alternative High School; also known as 'The Kimberly Center' or simply, "2001".  Seems it was a bit of a rough crowd.  No one wanted the job; too many gang-bangers; too much drugs and violence; not enough discipline.  Hmmm....a challenge.....and a chance to work with those same kids that I had seen on the streets.  Ya know, some people say "God works in mysterious ways".  I, for one, have never found anything about His ways mysterious.  In fact (chuckle), He's been pretty direct and to the point in my life.

With a short break to do some work for the government during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I'm now in my 17th year of school security.  I've been at Bettendorf High School for the last 7 years.  Among my countless blessings, I have been here to hug two sons as they walked across our stage at graduation.  My youngest is a freshman this year.  Despite my recent bouts with cancer and heart surgery, I promised him that I would be here for him as well.  When he goes, I go....(no.....No! Just into retirement! lol)  But, in a larger sense, I hope I have been here for all of you: students, staff and faculty.  My life has been a blessing; not the least of which is each and every one of you.   And, at this point, I know you're wondering:  how much of this is 'The History Channel' and how much is 'SciFi'?  After all, how could someone so buff, healthy and handsome have gone through all of this, right?  That's why you'll have to buy the book!

If you're still reading my ramblings, you deserve a moral, or at least a message, from my story. 
To the students first:  if I have been a "hard ass", and especially tough on the "hard cores", it is because I am all too familiar with the dark path that the young could choose.  And, no, I haven't always done as I was told.  But that doesn't stop me from wanting better for you. 

To the teachers (and as I was once told by a former Principal and boss, "We are ALL teachers.") :  Don't ever give up on any student!  Perhaps they don't look like they can be  But, down the road....who knows.  They just might turn it around.  And your determination to open their eyes (thanks Coach Cebula) might just be the key to that change.  Once in a while, a light goes on in their heads...and their hearts; and they make something of themselves. 

Finally, to all of you:  Don't EVER give up on yourselves!  Life can be a test; in oh so many  But, I'm here to tell ya: there's only one person who can do what you do.  Do it the best you can!  And never, ever give up.  As Jimmy Valvano also once said, "If you love, you think, and you cry, that's a full day.  That's a heck of a day.  You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."

And now you know the rest of my story..........

"We must live as if the world were what it should be in order to show it what it can be."  -Unknown

No comments:

Post a Comment