Swan Song

Thanksgiving holiday is a four-day event for most of the military if you don’t have to stand duty. I was hanging with IC3 Justin Scott, the guy who went to SERE school with me and was one of the few single sailors at Combat Camera who would party without apology. Wednesday night before Thanksgiving might as well as been a Friday night, so we found the Gas Lamp District hopping when we arrived around ten. I didn’t know it at the time, but I have a one martini limit that I enthusiastically and repeatedly violated before midnight.

Tsunami Beach Club was the standard downtown destination once we were liquored up enough to attempt dancing. Justin and I were in just such a state, so the hours that followed until last call were a blur of girls and hip hop. The main house lights came up, signaling that it was time to find some grub at any one of a dozen restaurants sure to be open. We picked a Mexican joint we had both frequented in the past and walked the block and a half from the bar. It was as packed as it usually was, so we added our name to the list and waited. Maybe twenty or thirty minutes later, we had a two-seat table near the wall of windows at the front of the establishment.

It was half an hour after that when we realized we still hadn’t seen a waiter. I tried to flag down one of the half-dozen guys in black slacks, white shirts and black aprons who were passing by in a hurry and was given the “I’ll be right back” hand wave by one of them. He returned ten minutes later with two menus that he threw at us from a couple feet away as he hurried by to deliver the margarita, chips and salsa in his opposite hand on a tray. Fair enough.

Twenty minutes after that, I was done being fair and suggested to Justin we find someplace else to eat. He concurred and we got up to leave the restaurant. On the way out the front door, the waiter who had tossed menus at us and disappeared was coming in at the same time. I told him this was the worst service I had ever had at that restaurant and I wouldn’t be returning. The waiter didn’t say anything, though he clearly understood me. With my fairly polite piece having been said, we turned to leave when the guy hit me square in the face, turning me right back around in surprise. Before I could get so much as a “What the fuck!?” out of my gaping maw, he hit me again in the same spot, breaking my left cheekbone in three places and knocking me to the concrete sidewalk.

Justin, a couple inches taller than I am and thirty pounds heavier, backed the guy up at that point while the rest of the wait staff suddenly appeared to whisk their companion away as my shipmate flagged down a couple of San Diego’s finest who were always patrolling the city’s hottest tourist spot. The police waded into the situation, but the Mexican waiter who knocked me out had vanished into thin air. As my attorney would find out a few weeks later, the vanishing act was permanent. It was like the man never existed, which he really didn’t being in the country illegally and living in the shadows of society. The cops called an ambulance to come and take me to the hospital and then gathered statements from the numerous witnesses to the assault.

My lids cracked painfully open the next morning, blurry from a lack of glasses though an expected state since I went out with contacts on. My lenses were resting in two shallow dishes on the table next to my hospital bed, being kept moist presumably by the same saline solution dripping into my arm via the IV bag feeding a spike in my right forearm. It took a long minute for me to figure out exactly what happened. I slowly recalled being punched by a waiter after partying last night downtown with my friend Justin. We had gone to eat after dancing at Tsunami, but beyond that was a grayish hole of trying to get served at our favorite Mexican joint and then nothing.

I put my contacts into my eyes painfully once the doctor cleared me for discharge. He told me to take ibuprofen for the pain and to stay off my feet. If I fainted or felt dizzy, I should get in touch with Navy medical. Have a great day. I hadn’t planned on walking home in the bright sunshine, and my cupped hand provided little relief as I walked home from the large urban hospital in the Hillcrest neighborhood where I woke up, about two miles from my apartment. I spent the rest of the holiday weekend in bed, nursing a wicked hangover, a concussion and a broken cheekbone.

I sought out a lawyer on Monday to file a lawsuit against the restaurant for employing crazy-ass waiters who punch their customers for complaining politely. I picked a personal injury attorney at random from the yellow pages and called to make an appointment. In the months to come, my lawyer Chip Barrett sparred with the restaurant’s insurance company and tried to schedule a deposition for my friend who remained inexplicably unavailable despite repeated attempts. It came down to my word against theirs without Justin’s testimony, so the case ground to a standstill when my “shipmate” left me high and dry.

I decided to leave the Navy in March 2001 to start a digital marketing firm with Caleb Wilson in Washington DC called HC2 or Human Capital Squared. Our core services would focus on helping high-tech recruiting companies find more capable and bankable talent using tried and true marketing techniques and strategies. Caleb is the same kind of Change The World dreamer as I am, so our brainstorming sessions centered on how our entrepreneurial ventures could transform the future we saw developing online and beyond.

The military is pretty good about prepping sailors for transition back to civilian life, so I was scheduled for two weeks in a classroom before my thirty days “terminal” leave used the last of my saved vacation. Each step was plotted out months ahead of time according to a process that repeated thousands of times each week. One thing I miss about being in the Navy is everyone around me playing from the same sheet of music at all times. Life is so much easier to mold and manage than the chaotic mess that defines most civilian companies where politics and personalities rule the roost with obvious detriment to the organization as a whole. It’s a vicious cycle we find ourselves in here at the rough edge of the 21st Century. No one in America is having the right conversation about how to solve the problems that continue to metastasize into something far worse.

I find it fitting that my last weekend in the Navy found me at a house party being hosted by CCG’s resident stripper magnet before he left on his Det Alpha deployment. To say it was Romanesque would be an understatement. I selected as wingman the consummate ladies’ man who lived in the same building as Kent and Dakota Dupree. JD was a law student and trust fund baby who used his good looks along with an ability to play guitar and sing to date a succession of women while his dad sent him to the one law school on the west coast that let him in with his LSAT scores being fairly low. None of that mattered. As soon as he finished school and passed the Arizona bar, he would take his place as heir apparent to his father’s expansive firm. JD was one of the happiest cats I had ever met, though he left no small amount of sadness in his wake.

The party was on the eastern edge of San Diego where the suburbs ended and desert mountains began. I drove because JD’s perpetually finicky Jeep was on the fritz. I also didn’t plan on driving home drunk and didn’t want to be screwed on finding a ride back from the boonies when morning came. The house was a 1980s cookie-cutter, two-story family home with a driveway and garage in front and a small back yard that wrapped around each side with about two feet between my friend’s house and the next door neighbor.

A keg sat in a garbage can in kitchen and a panoply of sailors and strippers and other assorted civilians milled around drinking from red cups. The persistent hum of music and conversation was a comfortable distraction from my impending life storm.

Around midnight, the strippers decided they would hold a contest for the men in attendance who had the balls to drop their drawers for money. That was just my sort of game, so I lined up with a handful of other guys who considered their junk worthy of monetary compensation. The judges were a half dozen scantily clad hotties from one of San Diego’s nicest strip clubs. We stood in the back yard facing the sliding glass doors leading to the living room where the rest of the party was watching the event. The girls counted to three and ordered us to drop our shorts.

I gladly complied and tried not to smile as my bright yellow surf shorts pooled at my ankles.

They walked slowly up and down the line of maybe eight uncomfortable guys. First from the front and then from behind, we were each judged in turn and told to pull up our shorts before they moved to the next man. Examination complete, they gathered on the other side of the yard to compare notes and then returned to contestants. The girls walked up to me and one of them handed me five twenties, declaring me the winner and pulling me inside for congratulatory shots.

Many hours later, the party ended and the place emptied of people. Those who were invited to stay were staying. I was invited to leave by the person who had been promised the couch I had fallen asleep on. I noticed JD being similarly roused on the lounge chair opposite. Both of us were hammered into delicate shapes devoid of function, so the best we could manage was to stumble out to my truck and climb inside to sleep. I had a king cab, so the bucket seats leaned back more than enough to make drunken slumber not only possible but almost pleasurable.

The sun woke us around seven as we started sweating out the alcohol we had consumed the previous evening. I won’t claim perfect sobriety that morning, but I was in much better shape than I would have been just a few hours earlier and drove home without incident. The following week I procured an eight-by-ten U-Haul trailer to transport my worldly goods to the east coast with plenty of room leftover for the vintage Drexel bedroom set my mom was giving me as well as a few boxes of my stuff she had been storing for years.

Leaving San Diego after six years was oddly anticlimactic given the pivotal role it had played in my development as both a man and a writer. I had slinked into town with my tail between my legs after an epic tailspin and flameout in Guantanamo Bay only to find myself on the way back up almost immediately when I landed at one of the most interesting and least known commands on the west coast with a mandate to talk about all the cool shit they had been doing for decades. From there to Combat Camera was almost comically awesome and provided a launching pad for what could have been a brilliant last half of my career before retiring years younger than I am today. Instead, I left the Navy after ten exciting years to start life as a civilian at the bottom of the ladder.

Cesar left for work before I hit the road, so we said good bye with a bro hug and promises to stay in touch. My stuff had been loaded into the trailer the day before and secured with a large, hack-proof Masterlock. I had never driven a truck pulling a trailer before, but I proved to be good at the task with a bit of trial and error. It only took three attempts to back out of my former apartment’s parking area, but we had great freeway access in numerous directions. I was on I-15 in short order and making my way north toward my first stop in Mesquite, Nevada.

It was slow going with the trailer and the traffic, so it was after eight when I pulled off the freeway for the night. The motel where I found a room had a casino as well, so it was with great relief that I maneuvered the trailer into a brightly-lit corner of the parking lot with enough room to back my truck right up against the door for an additional layer of security for all my stuff. Mind put to rest, I grabbed my overnight bag and checked into my room. A late dinner was followed by some “free” drinks while I dropped quarters into a video poker machine for a couple hours.

I was up with the dawn and heading east once again. Caleb and I had done the same drive in reverse six years earlier, so I was familiar with the sweeping bluffs and haunting vistas of northern Arizona and southern Utah. I picked up I-70 heading toward Grand Junction as I-15 continued north to its demise in Salt Lake City. I was aiming to make my mom’s place that same day and was so far on track, but March in the Rocky Mountains is rarely predictable. This was also before the Internet was available via my mobile phone, so I wasn’t really sure what I was driving into up ahead.

Turns out I was heading into a massive snowstorm on both sides of the range. Did I mention my lack of experience towing a trailer behind my truck? To make matters worse, my four cylinder Nissan barely had enough oomph to reach the Eisenhower Tunnel without chains. I might have hit thirty miles-an-hour on the west side of the pass, four-wheel drive engaged and hugging the right lane along with the semi-trucks struggling up the mountain with me. I reached the summit and started down the opposite side of the pass in the aftermath of the hell I had just driven through, sun shining down from a blue sky on the many cars and trucks that had skidded off the road during the storm.

I made it to my mom’s new house on the outskirts of Loveland without major mishap. The place was under construction as my step father started to transform it into the vision his mind’s eye had supplied when they decided to move out of the mountains and closer to town. My little brother Jon had moved to Washington DC in December to live with Caleb and help us get HC2 off the ground. He was our first intern, though we did try to pay him something besides room and board and beer.

Like I had done so many times before, the day came to say goodbye to my mom and head out for my next adventure.