Just after the holidays, Caleb was released from Hunley’s deck department to live and train with the SEAL teams stationed at the amphibious base in Little Creek, Virginia. He explained the whole routine to me, but it sounded like a lot of jumping and running and swimming and hooyahing, all things that held very little attraction for me. The upshot was his new mentors were all working special forces warriors and took great pride in preparing him in every possible way for BUDS after he reenlisted in the fall. It was the first time I had seen my friend truly happy and at peace with his life.
I was leaving Monday for Defense Information School by way of a flight to Colorado where my car waited for me. Turns out all I needed in order to restore my license was pay the state of Nevada $179. No one thought to tell me at the time, so I drove around on a suspended license for over two years before getting arrested in Missouri. Caleb picked me up at the end of the pier and we embarked on our last weekend together before the seas took us in totally different directions for a couple of years.
We stopped first at his Little Creek barracks room where he was living large with cable television, a mini fridge stocked with beers and his own bathroom. Compared to our digs on the ship, it was a palace of epic proportions. We drank a couple of beers and then spent the next few hours playing around on the base’s obstacle course where Caleb had been getting his ass kicked on a regular basis by his new shipmates. I was able to complete all the obstacles without hurting myself, a successful outing despite the short time we spent on the course. Then it was back to Caleb’s room for a couple more hours of bullshitting and drinking beers before we walked over to the base enlisted club for the Saturday night festivities, such as they were in Little Creek given the preponderance of swinging dicks on base. We played pool and got drunk until the place closed up before stumbling back to Caleb’s room where he passed out in the bed and I rolled up on the floor in a sleeping bag.
We cruised around Sunday doing a whole lot of nothing. We may have seen a movie or hit the beach. Probably both. I do remember where we ended up, however, which was a dark street near a boat ramp in downtown Norfolk. I picked up a four pack of Grolsch from a nearby convenience store. The thick, green flip-top bottles were much heavier than the beer inside warranted, but it was the brand we always bought when we wanted to go up-scale. We sat there for the next few hours and enjoyed a couple of skunky Dutch beers together, planning the coming adventures of pursuing our chosen professions. Despite our respective rough starts, life was looking up considerably for us both.
I left Hunley the next morning with a seabag on my shoulder and a garment bag in one hand. I offered the Officer of the Deck a crisp salute and requested permission to leave the ship for a final time. I called a cab from the bank of payphones at the end of the pier and before I knew it, I was on my way to Denver’s Stapleton International Airport to hook up with my mom and from there up to her cabin in Big Thompson Canyon to retrieve my long, lost 300ZX where it had been sitting since my arrest five months earlier in Columbia, Missouri. A couple days on leave and then it was off to start my next adventure.
I hit the outskirts of Indianapolis on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, not really sure what to expect from this creative adventure in America’s heartland. Since it was my first experience with a beltway, I ended up taking the long way around when I got off at the first I-74 north exit I saw instead of the one the other side of the city. I eventually found Fort Benjamin Harrison, my home for the next nine months while I learned the ins and outs of broadcasting, photojournalism and public relations for military audiences.
The barracks for Defense Information School houses men and women from all four branches of the military and the Coast Guard from every corner of the globe. Each branch had their own floor and student command structure, but we shared the instructors and facilities to learn the specialized tools of our chosen trades. We were following in the heavy footsteps of Casey Kasem and Adrian Cronauer. With that many Type-A, creative types in the same geographical location, the result was equal parts electric and eccentric with a healthy dose of uncontrolled chaos thrown in for good measure.
The first thing I did was report to the Navy Company Commander, Journalist First Class Jacob Mackendrick, and present my orders for A School. To say Jake was wound tight would be an understatement. He almost vibrated with manic energy. The guy took A-J Squared Away to entirely new level. His summer whites were made of tailored polyester rather than cotton for a much more professional cut that took creases capable of slicing the stream of cheese that fell constantly from his lips. A bright red braided rope hung from his left shoulder and signified his position as Company Commander. He would constantly adjust it to fall in a precise manner, almost without thought.
JO1 was excited to have a “fleet returnee” on the floor to provide leadership for the other students, most of whom had come from one of three basic training facilities. The only other Seaman (E-3) from the fleet was training to be a postal clerk, so that didn’t really count as far as Mackendrick was concerned when it came to preparing the next crop of Navy journalists to take the reins. I was noncommittal on the leadership discussion but was happy to do what I could to help. He showed me to my room and said he would see me for quarters at 0630 on Monday morning in the courtyard.
My assigned roommate was out of town for the weekend, so I unpacked my stuff into the empty locker and started wandering around the barracks meeting my fellow students. It was March Madness, so I quickly met a group of students heading to nearby Hooters to watch a game. Nothing better to do, I tagged along and started making friends. In contrast to previous fresh starts, I actually stayed semi-sober and have a series of pictures to prove it. I was probably as obnoxious as I have always been as I lacked the tiniest bit of the control I learned in the coming years.
The following Monday I was officially introduced to my shipmates as we lined up for quarters and marched to class as a group, stopping first at the chow hall for breakfast. My first buddy was Seaman Jeff Jameson as we both failed the English test given as the first step to see if you could make the grade in all the writing exercises we needed to complete. Since we didn’t seem to know a comma splice from a run-on sentence, we gladly spent a month learning grammatical minutia from a nice older woman who made the learning fun and fast and immediately useful. We killed it on most of our writing assignments, so again the military way was extremely effective at crafting the desired outcomes.
If we weren’t in class or physical fitness training, we were getting pounded into the pavement at the local bars and avoiding arrest as we tried to get home. One particular evening after Nickel Beer Night ended at Ike & Jonesies around 2am, I lost the coin-toss on who was sober enough to drive back to base and started south on I-74 in my sleek sports car with way too much power for my current state of inebriation.
During the daytime, construction on numerous overpasses along the route had Jersey walls guiding cars through the narrowing roadways. As I approached a construction zone all buttoned up for the night, one eye closed and aiming for the gap between concrete barriers, the friend who was passed out in the passenger’s seat looked up and calmly grabbed the wheel, steering us safely to the right of the path I had us on and back to the wider road beyond. He went back to sleep as I took our exit with hands shaking from the adrenaline, semi-sober for the rest of the ride.
Looking back from the safety of my basement more than twenty years later, I am amazed anew that I lived to tell this story. This wasn’t the first, and was far from the last, time I would get drunk as hell and climb behind the wheel. I suspect there is a whole new legion of twenty-something guys driving drunk each and every night today, threading the needle between narcissism and tragedy.
I finished Basic Journalism Course just behind the super straight-laced guy I chased throughout the summer but never seriously enough to win honor graduate. We then started the Basic Broadcasting Course to learn everything there was to know about radio and television. I was in hog heaven the entire nine months and faced very little disappointment until we graduated from broadcasting. I was promoted to Journalist Third Class and prepared to leave for my first duty station once the news was delivered the week following graduation.
We were hanging outside the school administrative offices, post-graduation, waiting for the “detailer” to call us in and tell us where we would be heading. My smiling friends would come out of the office with tales of Rota, Spain or Keflavik, Iceland or Tokyo, Japan as their final destinations. The senior chief petty officer in charge of the effort called me in with an odd expression on her face as I closed the door behind me. I didn’t really know how to read it until she informed me of my next duty station – Navy Broadcasting Detachment Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – and why it was actually a blessing in disguise.
With no choice in the matter, I accepted fate while hiding my disappointment and prepared to head for Cuba. I packed my car for the drive to Norfolk where it would be shipped to my next duty station along with any excess personal gear. I first headed from Indianapolis to Altoona in central Pennsylvania to hook up with Caleb, now a civilian and living with his brother in a small house near downtown. His final days in the Navy hadn’t gone according to his well-laid plans.
After killing it for a couple months with the SEALs in Little Creek, Caleb had easily qualified for BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) Training in San Diego. Back on the Hunley, the officer in charge of Deck Department, traditionally called the 1st Lieutenant, decided his short-term need for a rescue swimmer outweighed Caleb’s longtime desire to become a Navy SEAL. He was cut orders for SAR (Search and Rescue Swimmer) school in Florida while attending BUD/S in San Diego became an unrequited dream.
Caleb was sporting a couple of tattoos and a nipple ring to go along with his lengthening hair and bad attitude. We hugged it out and set to partying with similar enthusiasm. He was 21-years-old now, so the first thing we did was hit his favorite nearby bar for a completely legal beer together. Altoona is a sad little berg where the ghosts of Christmas past were evident in the solidly middleclass, blue collar neighborhoods now running to ruin. Since we were perpetually low on funds, we ended the bar hop short and snagged some Zima from a corner store on our way back to the house. The tasty beverage packed a pretty good punch for the price, a perfect complement for the half gallon of tequila waiting for us.
Caleb’s girlfriend Katie had a cute little friend named Jenny who wanted to be my friend so the whole weekend turned out to be very friendly, something that didn’t happen often enough for my tastes. I smoked a little weed and drank a lot of booze before Caleb talked me into joining the pierced titty club. The first step in the process was holding an ice cube to my left nipple until it melted, then repeating for good measure. Next, a one-inch safety pin was passed under a Bic lighter until it glowed red hot, effectively creating a “sterile” utensil.
I took final shot of Jose Cuervo as Caleb grabbed hold and squeezed my pectoral muscle like a water balloon to create a numb, erect target for his assault. I didn’t feel the initial thrust and figured the coast was clear until my friend missed the opposite side of my nipple and started to poke through the much more sensitive areola instead. I screamed involuntarily and smacked his hand away from my chest, the pin halfway done with its gruesome job. I backed the sharp point out a hair and repositioned it to exit on the proper trajectory, driving it through it with a quick poke and a small “pop” of skin giving way. I pinched the safety pin shut and breathed a huge sigh of relief before taking a massive shot of tequila.
Proudly nursing my new bad-boy adornment, we spent the rest of the night partying and getting cozy with the girls. I had a couple days dedicated to spending with my boy before I had to head for Norfolk and ship my car to Cuba. We decided to join Jenny and Katie on their trip to spend the Christmas holiday with Jenny’s upper middleclass family in Paramus, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. We rolled out as soon as we felt up to the task and made our way through the Pennsylvania mountains to the New Jersey border.
A late dinner with the folks was followed by a drive across the George Washington Bridge into New York City for an evening of fun fueled by fake IDs for the girls joining the real IDs Caleb and I possessed. We all packed into Katie’s car this time and away we went. My first glimpse of Gotham was an unexpected flash of massive buildings in the distance as we turned down the Fort Lee street leading to the GW bridge from the New Jersey side of the river. Slowly the skyline grew to dominate the horizon as we existed the bridge and took the West Side Freeway toward Tribeca, our destination for the evening. I forget the name of the place, but it was an Irish bar with a steady supply of Guinness and shots to keep us occupied.
Before we could wind our way back to the freeway and head north, the two girls simply couldn’t hold it any longer and found a dark corner behind a dumpster to tinkle, giggling and gabbing the entire time. We made it back to New Jersey somehow and headed for a coffee shop the girls couldn’t stop raving about and that we had to see. The nondescript building allowed entrance into a waking dream, hence the name Insomnia. Low hanging lights and numerous candles cast wavering shadows, tables and chairs randomly placed. All manner of folk milled about, from suited-up professionals in Hugo-Boss and porcelain smiles to inner-city gangsters, more menace than malice.
We settled into a small four-top carved out of the white plaster wall, a sconce in another niche providing a flickering candle to counter the stark stabs of spotlights picking out nude bodies cast in plaster swimming through the walls in a curiously beautiful ballet, frozen in time and cast in chalk. We sat there for a couple hours, people watching and downing coffee drinks until the sun was coming up on the day I would drive back to Norfolk, Virginia and complete my journey to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.