Going Back to Cali

Caleb was pretty stoked when I returned to the states via Gainesville, Florida where he was living. I was planning to buy a car and drive to San Diego by way of Colorado to visit the family I hadn’t seen for a few years. Caleb decided to move with me because Florida sucks and California is awesome. He also had fond memories of the time he spent in San Diego at Hospital Corpsman School despite getting busted down in rank for a reason he can share himself, missing out on BUD/S (SEAL training) and being sent to Hunley as the result. Strange how shitty circumstances inevitably lead to your authentic self.

I flew into Jacksonville Naval Air Station where Caleb was waiting to pick me up. He didn’t have a car, per se, so we set off to find a cabbie who would take us to Gainesville for a reasonable fee. We made it back to his mom’s house eventually and stored my bags in his room before taking off again to hit a house party with Caleb’s cousin Justin. I tried to make myself as comfortable as my friend was with hitting on girls, but I missed the mark as was usually the case when it came to all matters female.

We spent the next couple days looking at used cars before I settled on a fully-loaded 1989 Honda Prelude in midnight blue with low miles and a sleek look. It didn’t leave much room for our stuff, but I had packed light as most of my stuff was being shipped directly to San Diego. Caleb didn’t have much stuff either, just clothes and keepsakes really, so we were loaded and ready to hit the road in short order the morning we left.

We zigzagged our way north toward Memphis and the first stop of the night where we would pick up I-40 west to Amarillo, Texas, where we planned to spend our second night on the road. We arrived in Memphis around dinner and checked into a cheap motel near the famed Beale Street area of town before wandering around looking for barbeque and girls, in that order of preference given the last time we ate it was fast food burgers on the interstate many hours back. The grub was top notch and the dance club we found to groove away the evening had cheap beer, cute girls and good music. We closed it down around two in the morning and walked back to the motel for some much-needed sleep before getting back on the road around ten.

The miles rolled by, turning from vibrant green to dusty brown as we moved into Oklahoma on our way to Texas. I made note of the change as mom’s side of the family tree had started in Oklahoma, moving far and wide from there. I am grateful they were wanderers because it looked like an awful place to grow up and everything I have learned since has done little to change that first impression. The constant wind combined with an annual threat of frequent tornadoes ensured Oklahoma would never be high on the list of places where I would want to live. My wife and I (and our unborn son) drove through the state on the way from Washington DC to Portland in February of 2014. With the possible exception of finally providing cleared roads and sunny skies after a white-knuckled trip through an Arkansas ice storm, my opinion of the state hasn’t shifted.

Five hours later, we were approaching the Texas border and stopped for an early dinner at a place advertising “Steak Dinners for $9.99” with a full parking lot of visitors, so it seemed like a promising selection. I exited the interstate and parked the Prelude at the restaurant after gassing up. It reminded me of Denny’s or a similar establishment with booths and free-standing tables taking up the bulk of the visible floor space with counter seats fronting the serving area and kitchen spaces beyond.

We both ordered steak specials, mine cooked medium-well and Caleb’s “cooked” bloody. Bloody it certainly was, though he dug in like it was his last meal. At one point, I swore I saw him hack through an artery with the dullish steak knives we’d been provided. Iceberg lettuce, rice pilaf, steamed veggies and a roll provided a modicum of additional nutrition and taste variation as Caleb gamely choked down a steak that was only a couple steps removed from mooing on the plate. I enjoyed his discomfort while my own perfectly-charred hunk of beef went down smoothly with my sides.

Back on the road, my friend was looking a bit green and leaned his head on the door for a nap. I pointed the car west and set the cruise control once we were up to speed, keeping it just slightly below ten miles-an-hour above the posted speed limit that kept me mostly invisible to cops. It may seem counterintuitive to break the law in order to keep from running afoul of it, but I have enough anecdotal evidence to make the habit one I follow to this day. The sun had long set behind the Texas bluffs when the bright lights of Amarillo painted the horizon with a warm glow.

Unlike the trip across the country I just took where we made hotel reservations via app and Internet the whole way across, in 1995 we were at the mercy of fate. That weekend in Amarillo, fate was being fickle as some sort of roping event had every single hotel and motel booked to overflowing. At the last place on the way out of town, the latest check-in guy to give us the bad news also provided some intelligence on a small town “just up the way” that routinely had rooms available no matter how full things got in the big city.

After nearly two hours on a narrow, two-lane state highway that curved and meandered through the rough terrain, we ran into a small town that did indeed have rooms available. We were also excited to see a liquor store open nearby to provide a much-needed night cap. It was my first taste of Scotch (Johnny Walker Black Label) as the latest fancy to grab Caleb’s attention in addition to bloody-rare steaks. Caleb was the hipster’s hipster long before such a thing existed. An early adopter of the highest order who derived a particular pleasure, then and now, from trying new things. I was a huge Scotch fan from that moment forward. My friend knew me well.

We rolled into my mom’s cabin in Big Thompson Canyon around four in the afternoon the following day. My step-father had been busy in the two and half years since I had last seen the place. The old garage at the foot of the driveway was replaced by a concrete retaining wall nearly twenty feet high. The empty space between the wall and the house was now filled with dirt and leveled to provide a front yard where none had existed before while the raw materials from the disassembled garage had been used to build a couple sheds, out buildings and a tree house for my little brother Jon. Behind the house, the hillside has been excavated to make room for a huge garage and more house above it all connected by doors and stairs inside, a line of windows peeking above the original roofline the only indication that the house was more than it appeared from the front.

Walking through the front door after a short knock, I immediately saw the inside was every bit as different as the outside. Instead of a small landing to a hallway and the rest of the house, an open space soared to a new second level master suite, the afternoon sun streaming down the carpeted stairs leading to the second story straight ahead and an open kitchen to the left with the living room beyond. A closed door on the right led to the room Chad and I had built when I was home on leave before A School. A new door was straight ahead, the right of the stairs, also closed and leading to an enormous garage that stretched the entire length of the house and had doors leading to the driveway outside.

My family greeted Caleb warmly enough, but they had a low tolerance for bullshit and my friend had more than a full load of it back then. When “Been There, Done That!” was his response to every subject, the clock started ticking loudly for the moment we outlasted our welcome. We were on a tight timeline, so that day didn’t arrive before we left, but my family’s estimation of the man who become my closest friend wasn’t well served by their first impressions. My little brother Jon was more forgiving of such faults and was overjoyed to have the both of us to hang out with on those beautiful summer days in the mountains.

I bought a couple of rock climbing harnesses, some rope and a pair of shoes. Caleb already had a harness and shoes from his training days with the SEALs, so we were all set for some serious, nonstop top-roping at Little Twin Owls state park not far from the cabin. Closer to home, we climbed the rocks and hills around the cabin with and without ropes or shoes or harnesses. One of the free climb days didn’t go as planned when I dropped about ten feet or so into a crevasse. I still have a scar going through the tattoo on my right calf where a rocky spur carved a bloody line in my flesh on the way into the narrow crack where I fell.

The injury ended the climbing activities but our partying continued unabated until it came time to leave. My sister Abby had moved back to Colorado with her new baby Carter and was living just down the canyon in Drake in a small trailer she owned on the north fork of the Big Thompson River. There were perhaps a dozen additional trailers of varying sizes and conditions as well as a handful of small cottages, all managed by a couple of who lived in and operated a small store. Two of Jerry’s kids lived in two of the cottages. Chad was out of the Army now and working construction jobs. My step-sister Amanda was a year older than me and lived in the cabin next door to Chad. It was a fairly cozy arrangement until my dad Gordon talked Abby into selling the trailer and moving with him to Eugene, Oregon, at which point he helped her spend her meager savings until she had no choice but to sell what little remained of her stuff and go scurrying back to Colorado a few months later.

Two days later, we loaded up the Prelude and continued west toward San Diego. Twelve long hours on the road put us into Sin City around eight or nine. We checked into Cesars Palace as the one brand we were both familiar with before arriving and took our stuff up to the room. It was a brand new experience for both of us and we marveled at the grandeur of the room with two queen-sized beds and sweeping views of the Vegas strip. I didn’t have the resources to pay for two guys with large appetites for destruction to hit the town hard. What little we did spend playing (and losing) at quarter poker and blackjack was just enough to get a decent buzz from the “free” drinks and more than I could really afford. I consider it a huge gift that my ATM card had a daily limit of three hundred dollars that we ran up against a few hours later.

We left Las Vegas with our tails between our legs around nine or ten the next morning, the heat already unbearable and still rising in shimmering waves from the blacktop. My ATM card had reset at midnight, thankfully, so we were able to rely on my dwindling supply of cash to finish the trip to California. The shortest leg of the trip put us into San Diego in the early afternoon on Thursday. Caleb had a friend from Hunley who was a diver and was now stationed in the area. He agreed to put us up but wouldn’t be off until five or six. We parked the car in the garage at Horton Plaza, an open-air mall in the middle of the Gas Lamp District downtown.

A few hours later, we met his friend at a bar downtown and followed him out to suburban Chula Vista. I spent the weekend at his house before reporting to the Naval Media Center Fleet Support Detachment for temporary duty while waiting to report for the Level II CAAC (Counseling and Assistance Center) program starting a couple weeks later. One coup in my immediate favor was a barracks full to the brim, so I was placed in temporary civilian housing until I could find an apartment and would receive a couple of pay “stipends” to help make ends meet. While the extra money was almost equal to my base pay, I could still barely afford the one bedroom I rented in a seedy neighborhood east of downtown called Golden Hill.

Caleb lived with his diver buddy out in the sticks until I got  housing sorted out and then moved into the small, unfurnished apartment with me. The complex we found was actually much nicer than its location, though the signs of gentrification that would sweep the neighborhoods near downtown San Diego in the coming years was well underway even in 1995. The gated entrances kept my ride safe while the small pool was mostly clean on the days we used it. We didn’t live there very long, a few months at the most, and never did decorate the place beyond my television from GITMO and a couple of inflatable air mattresses.

Caleb found a gig as a bellman at an up-scale hotel near the airport while I attended alcohol rehab on a Monday through Friday basis from 0700 to 1600. We both left wicked early to get to work. I would drop him at the 7-Eleven down the street from our pad and then head into Naval Station San Diego for my metronomic classes.

The arrangement left me with a lot of free time and very little supervision, never a good combination for someone with my predilections and a friend like Caleb to help find trouble that was never hard to find. I was technically supposed to abstain from drinking and may have even held to that pledge for a couple of days, but it wasn’t long before we were spending what little free time and money we had at the clubs downtown. I managed to keep it to a dull roar and avoided showing up to rehab classes with a hangover for the month they lasted and graduated with flying colors while not really adjusting my core belief structure one iota. I suppose I became more introspective and open to constructive criticism, never a bad thing as a writer, but as a means of inducing substantive changes in my life by forcing me to admit that I was an alcoholic and unable to control my behavior, rehab was now 0 for 2.

That’s not to say I couldn’t tie one on like my “alcoholic” father and grandfather before me, but the broad-brush used by counselors never really fit my genetic inheritance. My dad is a perfect example. By the time he quit drinking as a response to getting a DUI of his own, my old man was drinking like Nick Cage on a Vegas bender more days than not. He had been drinking that way for decades and showed no signs of slowing down. By all outward appearances, he was the classic alcoholic in need of all 12 steps to avoid that last step to the grave. The way his father drank, it was a foregone conclusion that my old man would be unable to harness his demons alone.

Yet, my old man quit cold turkey and never looked back. He was a non-drinker until he died a few years ago from a body he rode hard and put away wet. Facebook is fabulous for image-based marketing pitches with food for thought. I read one recently (a quote attributed to Hunter S. Thompson in most places but who knows who really said it) that reads:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”

That description fits my dad’s life to a T and made me smile the first time I read it. I have modified it to include the caveat of finishing the ride in my 80s while doing my bucket list instead of my 60s from organ failure, but the sentiment is certainly the same and midway through my 40s I can safely report I am still up to the challenge of living life loudly, without apology or complaint most days. I still drink my fair share of the world’s spirits and wines and beers, but the relationship has matured into a more sustainable moderation vice the balls to the wall partying of my youth. Having a wife who barely drinks and a new son who needs to find his own accommodations makes things much easier for me now than in days of yore.

My permanent duty station in San Diego was working for Submarine Development Group 1 (SubDevGru1) on the submarine base at Point Loma, a peninsula across the bay from downtown. My boss was the Operations Officer, a lieutenant commander who filled in as the collateral-duty public affairs officer in addition to his other responsibilities directing the operational efforts of a global submarine search and rescue command. I was the first journalist to fill the newly-created role to provide specialized assistance and was again afforded a level of autonomy that would get me in trouble before too long. I started by visiting the public affairs offices at the various bases in the area to build a network and find an outlet for the stories I would write about the exciting and dynamic command I was assigned to that was still largely unknown in the rest of the fleet due to its more secretive mission parameters carried out on USS Parche.

Back at the apartment I shared with Caleb, things had moved from good to okay to desperate in a few short months. What little money he made in tips was quickly spent going out on the town or on new clothes. My financial picture, never strong to begin with, would worsen considerably when I decided to trade in my perfectly functional Prelude for a brand new black Civic EX, a mirror image of the car I had admired in Cuba that was driven by station manager JO2 Newton. It was the first of more than a few automobile purchases driven by the less than frugal influence of Caleb Wilson. In fact, of all the stupid things I did over the years with regards to money, buying new cars ranks right up there at the top.

I also hadn’t counted on my Basic Allowance for Quarters and Basic Allowance for Subsistence to be yanked when I showed up at Naval Station Point Loma and the policy was all E-5 and below lived and ate on base as long as there was room in barracks or paid their own way in town by choice. There was no way I could afford my car payment and insurance and other assorted credit card bills in addition to carrying the rent on our apartment mostly by myself. It wasn’t long before we came to another crossroads in our friendship that had me moving to the barracks at Point Loma while Caleb went to live with one of his coworkers from the hotel in a much safer neighborhood not far from Chargers stadium in Mission Valley.

I was in the newer, nicer barracks near the base gym and mess hall with killer views of the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay. My room came fully equipped with a mini-fridge, desk, entertainment center and bed as well as its own bathroom and shower. That it didn’t cost me a penny and free food was close at hand was great because I was flailing hard in the deep waters of too much debt.

I was also being held responsible for the apartment lease we had signed because the Status of Forces Agreement with the city only allowed the breaking of leases if one was transferred out of the area on deployment. Once they rented the apartment again my obligation ended, but not before another three months of rent were added to my outstanding tab which was then sent to collections to join a couple of other accounts that had fallen into arrears.

Caleb hung in there for a few more months working at the hotel before moving back to Florida to live with his mom and lick his wounds. Since serendipity is both a generous and fickle mistress, a visit to his hometown in Pennsylvania for the holidays found him at the same bar for New Year’s Eve as his future wife. A few months after that, my elated and desperately-in-love friend called me up to ask if I would be his best man. He flew me out to do the honors. His “bachelor party” in State College on Halloween night included a gay dude and perpetually shy me to join the festivities that included closing down a college bar and ordering Domino’s Pizza in our room when we were done.

My friend would never settle for such a Spartan affair these days.