In 1981, I made what I feared was a terrible mistake. I found myself, at age 32, on a plane headed for Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I had enlisted in the Army and was on my way to basic training.

I was married and had a young daughter. Jobs were scarce, and the Army seemed like a better option than picking eggs or pumping gas. I had signed enlistment papers and sworn an oath, but when leaving day came, was wishing that I hadn’t.

Nonetheless, trapped by my decision, I boarded a plane. My stomach was churning and I was filled with misgivings. Would basic training be more than I could handle? Most of the other recruits would be 18 or 19 or 20. What if I couldn’t run fast enough or do enough push-ups or didn’t have what it takes to be a soldier?

I was 32, but an introverted 32 and not very aware of the world at large. The uneasiness I felt –let’s call it what it was, fear – caused me to do something I normally would not: have a conversation with a stranger. Seated next to me on the plane was a young woman.

“Where are you going,” I asked.

“I’m on my way to California to run a marathon.”

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“Oh,” I said. “You run marathons. Are you any good?”

She nodded. “I’m pretty good. Where are you going?”

“Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for Army basic training. My name is John.”

“Hi, John. My name is Joan.”

We chatted a bit until the plane started to move. In Missouri, we deplaned – I for a bus to Fort Leonard Wood, she to a connecting flight.

“Good luck, Joan,” I said.

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She smiled. “Good luck, John.”

At Fort Leonard Wood, basic training didn’t start right away. We were housed in a barracks for a week as we awaited the arrival of more recruits. A sergeant said, “Here’s pens, paper, and envelopes. Write to your mothers. Tell her you’re okay.”

Obediently, we wrote, except instead of writing to my mother, I wrote to my wife. My letter included these words.

“On the plane, I sat next to a young woman from Maine who runs marathons. She was on her way to California to compete in one. Her name is Joan Benoit.”

It was only later, while on leave after weeks of basic and advanced training, that I learned of my blunder. I had sat next to one of the elite runners in the world and said, “Oh. You run marathons. Are you any good?”

To this day, I’m glad she didn’t embarrass me by saying something like, “Am I any good? I won the Boston Marathon two years ago and this year, took third. Don’t you read the papers or watch the news? You live in Maine and you don’t know who I am?”

No, she had simply smiled and said, “I’m pretty good,” then asked me where I was going.

Sorry, Joan. And thank you.

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