For the past few weeks, I have been in a combination of feeling morose, no, strike that, reflective and elated. You see, having been through many life’s experiences, a person needs to sit back and take account. Maybe not a full accounting but one that takes measure of their life. The people, the places, and of course, the events.
I look back over the years, now spanning into decades, and in that reflection, I realize that I have been most fortunate. I spent 6 years in the Marines, some of which, I have a dubious accounting of. I make jest of most of it, some funny, some making light of some very shitty circumstances, but for me, overall, it was something that I needed.
Most of my life I have had a pretty lousy opinion of most authoritative figures, some conscious, some unconscious, but all in all, a pretty lousy opinion all the same. I had run ins (multiple) with an assistant principal in which I lost the battle,
It began with witnessing the aftermath of a school mate who had committed suicide in his backyard using his dad’s .300 savage at point blank range through his mouth. The sight stays with me to this day. This was a moment that stuck.
I arrived at school that morning after seeing that bloody wad against a wall, who had been someone I knew. The principal felt obliged to explain to me and a few of my compatriots that suicide was a one way ticket on the express elevator to hell. I felt obliged to tell him where he could place his holy book and I left his office. Two days before the semester was out, he summarily dismissed me from school for a day I had missed without an excuse a few weeks earlier. It never got any better, so I finally decided that my ticket out was the armed forces, and more specifically the US Marines.
In the first four years of my six year tour in the Marines, I made some serious mistakes, and had some epic adventures. I flew for the first time in my life to San Diego, CA where I attended boot camp. I traveled to Okinawa Japan, where I spent 14 months and 29 days of some of the screwiest times I had ever had. I fell in love, tried to make that a permanent situation and it blew up in my face. I ran with some great guys and laugh heartily at the temporary insanity that we all experienced over there. I had yet another run in with an authoritative figure which I handled well, in my opinion.
I returned to California where I spent time in 29 Palms California. That was epic. We were assigned to go out into the field in the “Stumps” and inventory all the gear that Supply had out in the storage vans and 50 cubic inch boxes that they had scattered through the area they called “Supply”. When we arrived, we got off the “Deuce and a half” (two ton large truck), and were summarily marched to the large 20 man GP tents that were waiting for us. First thing you noticed was the heat. it was around 114 degrees Fahrenheit, and not a cloud in the sky, much less shade. The first thing they told us was at NO time were we to try to get shade in the tent, or sleep in it. It could kill you. and within the first week, one guy tried, and almost succeeded… in dying. The tent amplified the heat, it didn’t reduce it.
We had been there for two nights, where the temps dropped to about 20 degrees at night, so you bundled up in your sleeping bag on your cot and get the best sleep you could. On the second night I woke to a rumbling sound. In the haze of a good sleep I kept trying to figure out what I was hearing, and it just didn’t compute. I got up, and looked down and noted that there was running water on the ground. I kept thinking “what the fuck” did someone take a leak in the tent? Then two things happened. I realized that the folks that originally setup the entire supply camp had placed it in a very old dry river bed. and that we had a 3 or 4 foot wall of water coming at us.
The mad scramble to get our shit out of the tents, up the sides of the river bank was something you would see in the three stooges movie clips. We had our cots and gear floating downriver, the tent collapsing, and the water was rising. After a few minutes the water was from bank to bank and flowing furiously. a couple of guys went downstream a bit before they came out spitting muddy water and cussing like only a Marine can.
When first light came around the water was almost gone but with that? so were the big wooden boxes with a LOT of our supplies in them. Everything from tires to electronic chips to starters to repair parts for just about everything. and as we looked down the creek bed we saw tires sticking up out of the dirt, boxes buried by dirt, and all we could say was “HOLY SHIT”… So we spent the next three months sifting through and digging supplies out of the dirt all down the creek bed. Needless to say we were cussing the folks who initially planted our Supply depot in the middle of a creek bed. In seven different languages.
So after weeks in the heat, freezing at night, and living in the desert, it was getting old. I started walking to the concrete head (showers and bathroom) that they had in this camp. I was walking in the required red shorts, white t shirt, and either boots or shower shoes, carrying my shit shower and shave bag along with towel, pretty much on autopilot just slogging through another day. I look to my left, and I see a naked woman. running. I rubbed my eyes, shook my head, opened my eyes as she went right past me. naked as a jaybird.
It was a woman Marine, who had started out from the Women Marines tent, that was surrounded by concertina wire to keep the males out. (believe it or not) and she was scootin down the dirt road heading for the other end of the camp. I looked down the road and saw what appeared to be either a Colonel or Lt Colonel just chewing the shit out of a very young Marine who had obviously done something he didn’t like while on guard duty. This was the entrance to the camp, and the guard was required to stop every vehicle and ask them some kind of asinine question… anyhow, they both stopped, mid sentence and watched the gal sprint on by, laughing her ass off.
The officer then shouted at the guard to go catch her. He ran after her asking, no PLEADING for her to stop and she just kept trucking, dodging this way and that, laughing the whole time. He finally tackled her, and quickly covered her in his jacket and she kept laughing. I found out later that the gals had a connection with Motor T, and got a bottle of tequila brought in.. The gals proceeded to get pretty shit faced, and they bet her five bucks she wouldn’t streak through the camp. and off she went.
Later, a group of us were talking about it, and they went on and on about how stupid it was to do, funny, but just stupid.. Then I popped up, and said, well, while we are here in the “Stumps” baking every day, she is back in the BEQs in Pendleton, 3 people per room and has AC.. not sure how stupid that is.. they stopped, and agreed. Fast times in 29 Palms.
I also got to spend time in San Luis Obispo, and of course the fun loving town of Oceanside. All this, and more, courtesy of the USMC. I decided to get out in 1985 and go home via a road trip that I had planned for months. I rode my motorcycle from San Diego, to Kings Canyon, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, and made a grand tour of freedom after my first tour in the Corp.
I spent a few days in Kings Canyon, then made my way to Yosemite National Park. I was told there were no camping spots available, and that I could ask the local ranger if they had a spot at each campground. I found a ranger who looked at me, then at my gear, then asked, “You in the Marines”? I said that I had just got out. He smiled, put his hand out, and replied “Semper Fi”. He too had been in. He pointed up a gully and said that I could camp there, but watch out for the mosquitoes. He wasn’t kidding. My helmet stayed on, as did my clothing while I put up my tent. Once inside, I had all I needed, a six pack of beer and a smile that wouldn’t quit. This was one of those moments that stick. Lying in a tent, in Yosemite National Park, a beer in hand and nothing but time… It was glorious
When you find yourself actually in a dream that you had been working on for months? It feels good, in fact, beyond measure. Happiness doesn’t begin to describe the elation of that experience. I can’t recommend it enough to anyone. Over the next few days, I went from California to New Mexico where I prepared to leave for Alaska.
You see, I had also bought a ticket to visit my older brother in Alaska. While I was enlisted in the Corps, my brother left Texas and New Mexico and went to Alaska. Over the next four years, I received these wild letters and pictures of my brother and some of his adventures in AK.
I was truly impressed and felt I had to go explore Alaska. I spent a few weeks there, did a 10 day kayak trip into Prince William Sound, and fell in love with AK. I watched Orcas by the kayak, spent nights in a tent on the shore of a glacier and listened to it growl. The feeling of complete freedom, and a respect for nature and all she had? this was another one of those moments that sticks
I returned to New Mexico and found myself exactly where I had left. Lousy no pay job, no education, and heading nowhere fast. I reminisced about the Corps and talked myself into re-enlisting, and with that? I was sent to North Carolina, and shortly after that, to the Mediterranean, where I got to explore Europe which I also fell in love with. The people were welcoming once they got past the “you are a rude American” opinion. and I explored with gusto. On board ship, I got to experience what the first navigators of the ocean must have had. The stars were from horizon to horizon and there were so many! The sky was packed with stars, and finally I could understand how you could navigate by them, and fall in love with crossing the ocean. We would lay out on the flight deck and just watch the sky, another moment that sticks.
My Lt who was in charge of Supply had decided that the warehouse would be on the LKA while he and the office staff were on the LST, a flat bottomed “Gator Freighter” where the brass of our MAU (Marine Amphibious Unit) were going to be. He was a fantastic brown noser, but not much more when it came to planning. That left us on a ship that never pulled into the same port they did. Which meant we were on our own as long as we kept our heads down, and after a rather terse discussion with the other Corporal, we all decided to stay quiet. We ducked our heads, stayed low key, and we “skated” while we were in the Med… We didn’t pull duty, we didn’t pull guard watch, my troops didn’t have to pull mess duty, this was golden.
We were able to go out on liberty every night, go on every tour that the ship offered, and had no one to answer to. No duty, no watch, no responsibility other than to ourselves. Marines NEVER get it that good, but by god we did. And we went from one end of Europe to the other, and saw as much of it as we could. Another moment that sticks
My plan, while being in the Corps, was to save my money, and each year, take my leave and return to Alaska with the hope of buying land and a home. And by the time I retired? I would have a place I loved and it would be bought and paid for. Have you ever heard of “better laid plans of mice and men”? I spent endless hours buying books from our catalog and from mail order companies, then studying in great detail my routes to Alaska and places I wanted to see. I bought my backpacking gear with every intent on using it as often as I could just to prep for AK. I fantasized, I planned, I dreamed. On the mess deck I was living the dream of returning to Alaska.
Eventually I was medically discharged, so my retirement plans vanished, but my plans of being in AK did not. And this is one of the most exciting memories of those days. I bought a small RAM D50 pickup truck, and with my dad’s help, put a small camper shell on it, built some small cabinets over each wheel well, and laid a foam crate type layer in the bed where I would sleep for the next two years. My father, who had divorced my mom when I was 12, and left us cold? Well, after years of being pissed off to no end, I had finally made peace with. and his helping me with that truck was a moment that stuck.
The adventure of going back up to Alaska was a dream reborn. I drove from New Mexico, visited some friends in Oceanside on my way up to Cordova, AK. We had all got out of the Corps about the same time, and they were all just hanging out in a 2 bedroom apt on the beach. about 6 or 8 guys sharing an apartment, but free of the suffocation of the military and the freedom to do as we pleased. Most had jobs that barely paid the bills, but it was freedom, that is much maligned by my civilian friends that have no understanding what freedom truly is. Let me repeat that. Civilians, never having served in the military have NO idea. This was a moment that stuck.
For about a week, I just relaxed with some great guys, and enjoyed Southern California. But eventually I had to pack and go. I was heading to Alaska. I loaded up and moved on. One of my regrets was not getting everyone’s full names and phones, as last name basis doesn’t go far in white pages. Sometimes even both names don’t work in looking up old friends.
I got to Oregon, and while there I stayed on the beach in a campground for a day. It was raining so I got my fishing gear on, and went for a walk down the beach. I can remember feeling incredible, I was, after all, a free man. I am sure the people who saw me out dancing a jig in yellow rain gear during a downpour on the beach was an odd sight indeed, but I cared not. The sheer overwhelming emotional overload of no longer having anyone to answer to was a joy. Those that have never served in the military will never understand what I am talking about. This was again, a moment that stuck.
Over the years, I have had so many moments like these, moments that have been my candle in the dark, or the impetus to plan yet another adventure that would make this life just that much sweeter. Since then, I have been blessed with the company of my wife, who was also my high school sweetheart. Lynda of whom I have multiplied those moments that stick by a factor of thousands.
I hope, no, strike that, I would ask, that each of you who read this? follow Mark Twains suggestion, and join me in those “moments that stick”.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.
So throw off the bowlines.
Sail away from the safe harbor.
Catch the trade winds in your sails.
– Mark Twain