The Reluctant Sailor, Chapter I: Soft Mad Children

written August 11, 2004

 

Chapter I: Soft Mad Children                                                                     

September 11, 2001- April 23, 2002
 

The anti-beginning was on a Tuesday, but of course nothing has been the same since then.

An English Lit. class was begining soon, at 9:30, and I was on Western Illinois Universoty’s campus more than an hour early.  It was a habit of mine to steal into the English building’s lounge and read the day’s Chicago Tribune.  The only two items I remember succinctly from that issue are a picture of Britney Spears at the recent MTV awards, perhaps because of my abhorrence with any and all snakes, and the python hoisted on her shoulders.  The other was the review for Bob Dylan’s new album I has been waiting for, Love & Theft, that was being released that very day.  Then I heard it.

Someone was talking, almost casually, on the phone outside the lounge.  He was talking to his roommate, telling him two planes had flown into the World Trade Center.  Almost mechanically, I folded my paper into my bag and left the room.  I went to the closest TV in the lounge of the next door residence hall, Olson. By the time I had arrived, just past nine, both towers were smoldering, with one to fall before I would leave for class.  There was a buzz in the class as I entered.  One girl was saying a plane had also hit the Pentagon, with others offering other places presumably struck; my mind reeled at the possibilities, which seemed to reach into the hundreds of thousands of lives lost.  The professor asked us to vote on remaining for the class, and we all decided to leave.  The university was suspended for the day not much later.  Grabbing some food in Lincoln, I went to their own lounge to take it all in.  Manhattan had disappeared completely, enveloped in a dusty haze.  Shock had worn off the anchors enough to begin to speculate on the culprits, and Bin Laden’s name was already in circulation.  The rest of the day was spent, as so many others’, in front of the TV, until the scene of the planes’ demise had been seen so many times that on any other day it would have been mistaken for an over-hyped action film.  But it was real, and I rationalized that if this didn’t justify an eminent draft, I didn’t know any.  And I didn’t want to be drafted into the military.

Lines for gas wrapped around city blocks that afternoon, the President zig-zagged the nation, and the Vice… well, who really knows.  My sister Nicole actually has an interesting story of that day.  She told me later that after being let go early from high school, she was walking home and saw a plane above..  Now remember, all planes were supposed to be grounded, but Nicole claimed this was Air Force One.  And yes, it is the only plane that it could have been: the President at that time was flying from Omaha, Nebraska to the capital and Elmwood is directly between the two.  That night I called home and Sidney, considered coming home for the night, yet stayed in Macomb.

During the fall of 2001 I had returned to Elmwood every weekend to see my fiancé.  Sidney was now graduated from Knox, feeling the triple strain of no longer being in college, her problems at a center for adults with mental disabilities, and still living at home.  She found her work rewarding, and she was very good (and sincere) about her care for the clients.  Yet she found problems a’plenty, mostly with the other staff.  We talked extensively every night, varying elements of the same themes, and I found myself not feeling very effective at helping her work things through.  I can only guess now she wanted me to listen more than offer solutions.  I myself was wrapping up my own college career, with graduation approaching in December, and my own similar quandaries of the future.  On top of all this we in the midst of a nine month-long engagement, with Sidney beginning to wonder when the organ would finally chime..

A few days went by that mid-September, and I assessed my place in this new world–or, with the new present-day clarity of 2004–perhaps just our realization of the world as it had been.  Whatever the case, the cars streamed by with little American flags, “God Bless America” bumper stickers were everywhere, the country was going to root for the oft-hated Yankees in the World Series simply because they were from they were from New York, and everyone wondered just who and when the hell were we were going to bomb.  Many comparisons were made to Pearl Harbor, for obvious reasons.  My own connection was through Grandpa Connors, who volunteered for the infantry in Galesburg, in March of 1942.  So many had enlisted just because it was the right thing to do–no more, no less.  Was infamy now on the shoulders of my own generation?  I wondered how we would choose to respond.

The dead were being tabulated, donations streamed in, politicians put on their flag pins, a huge hunk of a city was leveled, a plane had gone down by the power its own passengers’ selflessness… and I was in a little Mid-Western city, still waiting for graduation to come.  I don’t know what emotions I felt for the attackers; of course some anger.  Perhaps I was just too numb, sad, or distanced.  I’m usually the guy at the funeral who is very reverently quiet, yet feels terrible next to all those moved through grief to tears.

I had to reaxamined many perceptions that I had long held, since before then I been doing my duty as an American quite nicely to think that we were the apple of the world’s 20th century eye–and everyone else thought so too, darn it.  Yet, to return to Sidney and I, we were two young people in a tenuous stage of growing up–the parachute nearly stripped off–and all this extra tension did not help.  But, to try to get back inside our minds at that time, Sidney wanted me to be her husband, as quickly as it could be arranged; then perhaps, in her mind, a lot of her problems would go away.  She would have the bond which might ease her own insecurities… and at the very least she’d finally be out of her parent’s basement.  But above all, she needed me.  I needed her too, just as much, though her insistence on a guarantee for the guarantee became, sadly, almost a headache over much time.  Since this time I have taken on more and more of the blame, when I still consider it, until I feel now it was mostly me, performing poorly as the months went by, in first long-term relationship.  I had to get a job to be at least a competent co-earner, and boy, that job market wasn’t looking too good, especially with Wall Street closed down at the time.  I needed something that would be definite, yet had a purpose, not just the nine-to-five.  Graduation loomed, I had a future wife to support, and I had nary before cared for a goldfish.

The initial toe in the water I took without telling anyone, visiting a Navy website, and calling the recruiters in Peoria.  Out of any of the four branches, the Navy seemed the most appealing; because I’m just not cut out to be a Marine or soldier.  Sidney was the first I told, and even though I forget the specifics, it would be safe to say she was very put off by the idea, and nervous for it.  Her initial reaction was that I was just trying to get away from her, so I did not have to break up with her directly it would be frequent question to come in the next half year.  This view never really went away. I do remember when I told my parents: we were in the living room, with both of my parents across the room sitting, and Sidney next to me.  Dad’s immediate response was why did we spend money for college if you’re joining the Navy?”   Answers to both questions can be found in the John Lennon line, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Now when I would return to Elmwood for the weekends I also made stop-offs at the recruitment office in Peoria.  The recruiter that handled me most the time was a first class named John Greene.  He was enthusiastic enough about my success in the Navy, but cautioned me on enough issues that I felt I could trust him.  There is one thing, though.  I asked him early on if I could simply join the Naval Reserve (My initial direction, a compromise with myself), and I remember succinctly him telling me only previous enlisted could join the Reserve.  And I took it as fact, because he was recruiter would know something like that.  For the record, you can join the Reserve as a civilian.

Things between Sidney and I grew worse, even if we really didn’t want to sour.  For Halloween we went to Wildlife Prairie Park, and enough though it was a little chilled, she continually asked me to put my hood up.  Many, many times.  Then I didn’t want to simply because I was being bugged.  And there you have it.  In this case she had to press me to see if I would listen to her, and she would gauge to see if I would then take her into account in the future for larger things (something she admitted to on the ride home), and I needed to assert myself that I had something resembling a spine, before all hope of implanting one was gone.  I had been very easy-going with her our entire eight-year relationship, but then, I had never needed to be other wise, or her with me.  In short, it was a mess, and a real shame of a wonderful opportunity with a fantastic person I had always admired deeply.

The one ither major obstacle to joining, beside the obvious, was the old injury to my right leg and foot.  I was told it was doubtful I would be accepted without being cleared medically.  So what did I do?  I went to Galesburg and found the very doctor that had done the procedure, Dr. Staknew, twenty years ago, and a lawnmower accident.  After looked at it, he fully approved me.  Now, there are a few instances, along with the Reserve question, that I realize this path could have closed suddenly to me.  Yet then again, I could have walked away on my own at any time as well.

Graduation came and went, and Petty Officer Greene took me Meps in Chicago to checked out by the Naval staff.  The last step there was to pick a rate, and looking back I should have been more insistent.  After all, I had come to the Navy, and as a volunteer I really could have backed away if I had not gotten what I had wanted.  Yet I was ignorant of my power, and didn’t press to be placed in a field that I could use when I was out (and would actually benefit from my skills), such as Journalism or Yeoman.  The reason is that the Navy handed me their ace card.

The first thing I did upon arriving to Meps was take the ASVAB, which is a computer-aided skills assessment that would give the Navy an idea of a person’s general aptitude.  I scored a 99, the highest possible, with Greene saying he had only seen one other.  Because of this, to return to the picking of a rate, the Navy now had an interest in me.  At first I was offered sonar technician, which seemed appealing.  The only draw back was that I would have to be in five years, instead of only four.  Then I was called into an office, and I was offered the very best: a slot in the Naval Nuclear Power Field.  My first thought was that I was extremely weak in areas like math, but I listened.  This is what I was offered: an eighteen-month school, a $20,000 signing bonus, and the most prestigious job the Navy could offer.  I took their pamphlets and said I would think about it, and signed for the sonar program.  That night, while driving back to Peoria, Petty Officer Greene cautioned me against the Nuke program, saying that if I wasn’t comfortable in the science world it wouldn’t be for me.  And it’s moments like this that I can’t fully understand his statement about the Reserve.  Regardless, that night I thought it over, and possibly discussed it with Sidney

The obligation was growing beyond my original goal, but would I pass it up?

I had wanted to do something important, something of relevance that would make my time in the Navy significant.  The money offered didn’t hurt either, and what I have of an ego would be thrilled to tell people I was a Nuclear Technician, as out of my skin as it made me feel.  Another reason would be that it would put off when I would actually report to a ship, and I still somewhat questioned whether I even belonged in such a place.

The very next day I returned to the recruiters in Peoria, requesting the Nuke program.  What had gone from asking about the Reserve had mutated to a six-year contact.  This remained unsettld in me, even as I agreed.  The next logical question was when would I go?  They had a billet to leave by February 7th, but that was too soon.  What I should have done, if I had to do it all over again, was tell the Navy I wasn’t doing anything or going anywhere until my personal life was in resolve.  Instead, I only postponed my leaving until late April.  Sidney and I had our shouting matches and spats, and while we were still okay at times.  She had recently been hired by a sunglasses company in Peoria.  She enjoyed her new job more than the last, but resented that I wasn’t doing anything at the moment, while waiting for camp.  She too could make a list of legitmate complaints about me.  We had gone to a day retreat for couples at a church, and her emplyer had set us up with several counseling sessions.  The counselor himself was helpful, but at one point doubted there was a real reason we should not be together.  I always remember that clearly, even as many other things fade.  I was cautious; how could two people be planning an entire life together when we were already at each other?  Maybe we were too close to the situation and didn’t have perspective.  Maybe were too caught up in the moment to see each other anymore.

My cousin Ray’s wedding was in mid-March of 2002, and I was in the wedding party.  Sidney attended, of course, but was the face of anxiety during the entire thing.  In the future she would say I had promised that would be us one day.  I feel that I remember it, only after it would be pointed out to me.  We attended our five-year high school reunion together as well.

While waiting to leave for boot camp, the recruiting office held meetings on a semi-regular basis.  Mostly it would constitute going to the Reserve Base on a Saturday morning and, learning a basic drill, and then playing basketball and eating pizza.  One memorable complication came when I had to go to meeting at the recruiting office, and I had promised to meet Sidney before hand at Perkins.  I was nearly half way to Peoria, looking forward to seeing her, when I realized I didn’t have the book I needed for the meeting. We were always being told we always needed to bring it, and of course I didn’t want to not have it and get in trouble.  So yes, I did turn around to retrieve it, which, you can guess, didn’t give me enough time to eat with Sidney.  I called the restaurant to leave a message, and then her house, to my credit, but even this didn’t help. Sidney sat for a long time at the restaurant, when thy didn’t bother to let her know I called, and only found out when returning home.  In essence, and the way she looked at it, I had chosen the Navy over her.

The first several days of April I spent visiting Collinsville at his apartment in Arlington Heights.  Since graduating May 2001, he had moved to the Tampa Area. Not finding it to his liking, had found recently found a place in the Chicago-area, and worked for a corporation.  We went to a Cubs game and spent some time out at night, and caught up on the last year.

When I returned I had little more than two weeks remaining.  I was still overweight, and went to Sidney’s gym every day on a guest pass.  She also ran with me several times on the roads around and outside of Elmwood at night.  We spent all our remaining time together; she took me to a Ray Charles concert, and we went camping my last weekend home.  On the twenty-third of April she arrived at my house early, before she had to be into work, and we went for a run to the far side of town.  We talked a little, and she wished me the best. I remember her walking to her blue Beetle and driving off.  For the next hour or so I was entirely alone in the house, and it was painfully quiet.  Just after ten one of the recruiters pulled up to my door.

 

 

 

Chapter II: Boot Camp                                                                                              April 23, 2002- July 3, 2002

 

The thought of camp scared me.  Now, I understood it wouldn’t be the old-fashioned “Full Metal Jacket” brand of hell, but without question it would be unlike anything I had done before.  Heck, I was usually one of the guys that wanted to go home halfway through summer camp, so let’s be straight.  I am a quiet, reserved guy that speaks in a soft voice with at times an equally soft heart.  I tried to put a bright side to it, and reasoned this could make me more disciplined and do me some good.

 

I left Peoria that Wednesday, on a bus bound again for Meps, with one another person aboard.  Jason Cooper was nineteen and from Chillicothe, joining for something to do after a year at Illinois Central College.  He was also a future Nuke and would go with me to Charleston, South Carolina, so it was good to have someone from the very beginning.  My mind whirled during the trip.  I wondered if I had indeed done the right thing.  I wondered how I would respond to getting yelled at, how lonely I might get, and about Priscilla.

 

The next day, after a final oath of enlistment, getting our orders, and joining a larger group at O’Hare, there was a dark grey, heavy-rained bus ride to the Naval Recruit Training Command outside Waukeegan.  We arrived in a downpour.

 

We made our way single-file to the main building, where inside, along a hallway, we made two ranks and stood at attention.  To show we had arrived, a petty officer adorned with a red rope around his left shoulder commanded us to drop our bags at the same time, and we did it until we got it ‘right.’  After getting our names called individually, we were able to make a quick call home- I talked to Dad, and I think he thought we could have a conversation- we were separated by sex for the issue of underwear, sweat suits, and a sea bag.  The petty officer was now armed with a bullhorn, and we were in rows.  Each row went in turn to get the clothing being offered, as the bullhorn yelled.  We had to go very fast, and it was very confusing, but thankfully after that we were allowed to get some sleep.

 

More people had arrived during the night, we discovered the next morning, and hurried to pack so we could be led to breakfast.  The best thing to do, I immediately found, was keep up with the person ahead of you, don’t look around, and make yourself as small as possible.  After breakfast they began the process of deciding who would go into what divisions.  I had heard about this, and been told I should try to get into something called the ‘900’ division, if at all possible.  During the urinalysis, a chief came up to me and asked what I had gotten on the ASVAB, and if I played a musical instrument.  I replied a 99, and yes, yes I did.

 

I was assigned to division 931, an honors division I found out later, along with Cooper.  Other divisions were told to dislike us, so they did, because supposedly we had it easier, which we didn’t.  (Much much more to write)

 

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