Long Way Home

Christmas turns stateside Navy installations into ghost towns as mass leave sends sailors home for long family visits. To prepare for my 3,500 mile round-trip drive, I took my burgundy 300ZX to the base automotive shop for new tires and a tune-up. My sea-bag was stored in the hatchback with a bunch of boxes I was leaving at my mom’s house to avoid hauling them with me to journalism school in the spring. I agreed to re-enlist for a seat at the Defense Information School in Indianapolis, Indiana, so my fate was decided for the next four years at this point.

It was nearly noon when my name was called. I paid for the service, eager to get on the road and conquer the 25-hours of driving ahead of me. I drove out the main gate and turned toward the freeway beyond. As I accelerated around the tight curve of the onramp, the right rear tire fell off. Fortunately, a tire fell off my car on a highway in Reno a few years earlier, so I rather than panicking like a novice, I took my foot off the gas and eased the sports car to the edge of the road. I snapped on the emergency blinkers and beeped the alarm to life before jogging back to base where an embarrassed automotive manager sent a tow truck to retrieve my car.

The tire rim sheared the bolts off when it departed from my vehicle and replacements had to be ordered from an auto supply company that couldn’t have them there for hours, so I didn’t get on the road until almost two. It was my first visit home since leaving Orlando more than a year and half earlier and the first of many long-distance drives moving from east to west and back again, though off to a rougher start than the others. This trip took me from Norfolk through the edges of Washington DC and into West Virginia, Kentucky and then Indiana where I got my first ticket since my DUI years earlier. The cop took pity on me and deducted ten-miles an hour off the charge, lowering the payment by over a hundred bucks and sending me on my way with a warning to slow down to make it home safe. Little did I know I was even luckier than that bit of luck. I holed up in a Motel 6 parking lot around 2am for a chilly and uncomfortable night’s sleep in the hatchback, the bulk of my stuff thrown in the two front seats to make room for stretching out.

The early morning sun woke me around seven. I peeled off the sleeping bag I was rolled into, reached forward to pop the hatchback and climbed outside. I cleared the stuff out of the front seats, started the car and set to scraping the windows clean of frost while it warmed up. I topped off the gas tank and hit McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin, hash-browns and a coffee to fill my own tank. Back on the road, I cycled up to fifth gear and set the cruise control to nine miles an hour over the posted speed limit. One of my hands was now free to eat my food while the other casually kept the Nissan in its own lane.

For the next 14 hours, I travelled west to the sounds of my eclectic CD collection and my own voice singing along. Guns-n-Roses, Led Zeppelin and Metallica joined Michael Jackson, PM Dawn and Steely Dan to speed me on my way, stopping briefly for gas and food and bathroom breaks. Not long after Missouri turned into Kansas, a nasty ice storm roared out of the north. Halfway through the white-knuckle ordeal, my left headlight went dark and the ride took on a hypnotic quality with white streaks sweeping across my windshield while the wipers struggled to keep the ice at bay.

Seven hours later and a few miles shy of the Colorado border, the wind-driven sleet stopped abruptly at the storm line to reveal stars twinkling overhead like a negative reflection of the brilliant white plains dotted with dark structures and lone trees. I found a second wind only to realize an hour later I was still four hours from my mom’s house in Big Thompson Canyon, halfway between Loveland and Estes Park. I stopped for a piss at the next rest stop and stretched my legs in the crisp evening air to enjoy a smoke. The night sky stretches forever when city lights aren’t constantly competing for your attention. Standing under the dark expanse, I was reminded of being on watch at sea and imagining alien ships watching us back from overhead. The rhythm of stars as they dance against blackest night look alive, winking out and reappearing without warning. Who says someone or something doesn’t watch in eternal amusement over our scattered and chaotic lives on Earth?

I called my mom at the next gas station for directions to their new home. We arranged to have my step brother meet me in Loveland and lead me up since I would likely get lost. As I followed Chad’s taillights through the narrow canyons, I was glad for both the guidance as well as the challenge to my nimble little car’s abilities. We chased each other up the mountain as fast as we dared. Twenty-five minutes after leaving the gas station where we met, the Honda CRX turned off the highway, over a small bridge and up a gravel road threading its way through trees and homes of varying sizes. We turned up a steep driveway and parked our cars in front of the small cabin above.

My mom greeted me with a fierce hug and surprised mention of the weight I had gained under the single-minded attention of best friend, the would-be SEAL, and three high-calorie meals a day provided by the ship’s cooks. Mom directed me to the small bedroom near the center of the house where I would be staying and gave me a quick tour of their new digs. True to my step-father’s unique design genius, the first thing he did was create a co-living space for his sons still at home. The cabin’s garage was called into service and was transformed into an enormous platform bed they all shared with space underneath for dressers and desks and hanging clothes.

The next two weeks was spent helping Jerry accomplish various tasks as he set out to transform the humble two bedroom house into an unexpected warren of useful rooms, tucked into the available space with the skill of a Tetris master. Mom was the chef who made sure we had plenty to eat when she wasn’t driving with her husband down the mountain for their well-paid jobs in the Denver suburbs. Chad and I were left behind with a series of duties to be completed for a nice stipend to compensate for the time, though room and board was more than enough.

Our first task was to turn the unused space near the front door into a bedroom for Steve, the oldest of the two brothers living at home, including the youngest Jon. In contrast to the platform room we disassembled, the mattress was set in the floor near the window with a two-by-eight platform covered in plywood to create a raised floor where he had a dresser, a desk and a closet. We left a hole in the wall near the front door and hung a door as the final step in turning the unused entry space into a functional bedroom. The old platform bedroom was only accessible through the closet of Craig’s new room, becoming a storage room hidden behind the walls we had built.

We enjoyed a day on the slopes skiing on my step-father’s dime and before we knew it, Christmas leave was over and it was time to say goodbye for a while. Chad’s duty station was much more dangerous than mine as a door gunner in a Black Hawk squadron stationed in central America, one of the few truly hot zones in Clinton’s peacetime military. I was driving back to Norfolk to finish out my last few months on a pier-side ship and to reenlist in advance of going to journalism A-School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana.

I pointed my tires east after a tearful farewell with my mom and made my way down the mountain toward I-25. A turn south took me to I-70 and then it was another 25 hours back to Norfolk and my last three months on the Hunley. Kansas was mostly a boring event this time of year under brittle blue skies. I tried not to zone out completely as mile after mile of prairie rolled by outside my windows. I crossed into Missouri as the sun set in a golden blaze behind me and turned on my lights, the left now fixed and shining bright. What I didn’t know was the tail light had burned out as well. I never thought to check when I was buying a new headlight and installing it with Jerry’s tools.

The cop who pulled me over didn’t miss it. Nor did the dispatcher he sent my info to miss that my license had never been reinstated when I lost it in Reno for six months when I plead guilty to Driving Under the Influence. Driving on a suspended license in Missouri led to immediate incarceration and a hefty fine to be paid before release. Though I wasn’t cuffed or placed in the back of his cruiser, I was relieved of my shoelaces before being placed in a single cell in the tiny town of nearby Columbia. The most criminal I had felt until that moment in time. They let me make a panicked phone call to my mom on a payphone hanging in a cinderblock hallway. This was the second time in my adult life I needed mom’s help without question and one just as readily responded to. She told me to get some sleep and they would figure something out.

And figure something out they did. When the administrative office opened at nine, mom was on the phone providing a credit card number for the fine, towing and overnight storage. One piece of luck was the towing and storing company also performed automotive repairs. They fixed the electrical issues while a friend of Jerry’s flew to Saint Louis and took a cab to Columbia to retrieve me and my car, the latter to be released only to someone with a valid license.

Larry was a laid back old dude who was very sympathetic to my plight. He took care of paying for the repairs and backed my car out of the garage as the sun was starting to set on me for a second time in the show me state. We shared a meal, some drinks and a hotel room not far Scott Air Force base where I would be catching a military transport back to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia where Caleb would give me a ride back to the ship in time for quarters on Monday when my leave ended. Living to fight another day is my stock in trade.