Years Ago I discovered something that changed my life…
We were on patrol in the central highlands of South Vietnam. Our job was to flush out North Vietnamese troops who were spotted in the area. Landing in a large clearing, we began our sweep across a field surrounded by dense trees and vegetation. Our M-16s were ready. Choppers flew overhead for reconnaissance.
As I walked past a small copse of trees near the middle of the field, my foot struck an object on the ground. I looked down. It was a human skull. I picked it up. It was clean to the bone like an exhibit in a children’s science museum. But this was real. It had a small gash on the top which was probably what had killed the person.
Some of my buddies came over to look at it, but I didn’t let it go. I was fascinated. A human mind had lived in that skull. A person’s thoughts, dreams, ambitions, desires, and knowledge inhabited that now empty space.
I pretended to be looking for something in the trees as I wondered what thoughts had gone on inside that once living head. My contemplation ended abruptly. Harsh noise came from across the field. One of our troops with a megaphone was shouting in Vietnamese for someone to surrender.
I placed the skull carefully within the confines of the vegetation, hoping I’d get a chance to look at it again.
North Vietnamese troops — about a dozen of them — came slowly out of the surrounding jungle with their hands held high. We kept our M-16s aimed at them in case it was a ruse.
What amazed me about these surrendering troops were their uniforms. They were clean and crisp. I wondered how they kept them so starched looking in the jungle. We, on the other hand, were a motley group with dirty, wrinkled jungle fatigues that we had slept in for many nights.
The prisoners were lined up in a holding area awaiting choppers to take them away for processing. The rest of the perimeter was checked out. No more North Vietnamese troops were discovered. And, fortunately, no Viet Cong.
I didn’t get the chance to go back to the copse of trees. Soon we headed off to our next destination.
That night, as I tried to get comfortable on my bed, a wall of sandbags, I kept thinking about the skull. Of the things I had experienced so far in Vietnam during my short tenure, it made the deepest impression on me.
I still wonder who had inhabited that skull, what their life had been like, and what went on inside that now empty space. Someday someone may wonder the same about each of us.
Meanwhile, the space inside our skulls is occupied. We have functioning minds, with the ability to desire, plan, and take action. We have the gift of life. Let’s use it to achieve the great things you and I seek to achieve during our life span. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Do it now. Take that next step. Go ahead.
Ken West is a former U.S. Army paratrooper and the author of Get What You Want. He is a former President of the New England Chapter of the National Speakers Association. Ken is currently Publishing Program Manager for an international training and management consulting firm.