The Connie

JO2 Kent Dupree had showed up a couple months earlier to serve aboard the USS Constellation in San Diego. He described the plight of the JO2 in charge of their broadcasting operations who had recently welcomed a new son to world. Shipping out for a six-month cruise is something many young moms and dads had done before him, but swapping duty with me to stay behind in San Diego with his family doing my job while I went to sea as broadcast manager in his place was also a perfectly acceptable out if the replacement was of equal rank and rate.

Since Megan #2 and her roommate decided to move to San Diego when they graduated in the spring, it seemed an opportune time to rediscover a love of life at sea, something I had never really done in my career to date despite two years on the Hunley and our short trip to Miami. Though I had reenlisted the year before, I was still on the fence as to whether or not I wanted to make a career out of the Navy. I knew that part of a successful career means extended service on a ship, so my decision had the outward appearance of being a necessary opportunity to test my sea legs. I probably wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but I knew taking the duty would effectively kill my new relationship.

The temporary transfer was approved and I moved aboard the ship the day before we pulled out for a six month cruise.

My bunk was in the X Division birthing on the third level, just below the mechanisms that powered the massive catapults that launched Navy fighter jets and other planes into the sky at hundreds of miles an hour. I got used to the freight-train explosion during nighttime flight operations or I wouldn’t have slept, though the hearing loss from that adaptive behavior was permanent and remains a source of irritation for my wife who believes the loss to be more of a selective nature. There may be a certain amount of truth to that charge at times as well.

My main duty was to make sure the ship’s close circuit television system was running 24-7, providing news and entertainment to more than 3,000 crewmembers, but I also contributed photos and stories to the award-winning weekly newspaper called Starscope. Life underway is a monotonous series of General Quarters drills punctuated with four meals a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner and midrats or midnight rations) and as much sleep as you can find between duty or training. To break things up, I started lifting weights with Dupree on a regular basis in whichever of the ship’s three gyms was emptiest when we had time to spare.

The first port of call was Sydney, Australia. While the dense neighborhoods close to the ship provided entertainment as we had to stand duty for one of our four days in port and had to stay sharp, but Dupree and I would venture much further afield on our last day of liberty. We learned locals like to party in Manly Beach, which could be reached by a ferry located near the famed Sydney Opera House, so we took off in that direction first thing in the morning via one of the taxis that lined up on the pier waiting for fares.

The trip across the harbor offered a uniquely gorgeous view of the city’s sweeping skyline and bridge.

We stepped off the boat a couple of blocks from the beach-front bars and shopping. It was lunch, so the first thing we did was grab some chow to soak up the prodigious amounts of beer and shots we were likely imbibe in the hours to come. Dupree bought a picture of some sort at one of the shops we browsed and carried it from pub to pub for the rest of the evening. I even have a picture of him taking a leak later that same evening, the brown-paper wrapped whatever it was blocking his Johnson from view of the camera’s lens.

We hit a small pub not far from the beach and started downing large quantities of Kent and Australia’s favorite lager, Victoria Bitter, chased with the occasional shot of something or other. We ended up hanging out with a raucous group of twenty-something girls on holiday from the Gold Coast. The funny thing about Australia is that even with English as the official language, their version of English is next to impossible for Americans to understand both the idiom and the emphasis required for understanding when spoken at speed. I remember laughing a lot and buying a lot of rounds or “shouts” as the Aussies called the practice. “My shout, mate!” was a common cry during our travels Down Under.

At some point, we said goodbye to the girls and made our way toward the pier to catch the last ferry back to the main part of the city where the ship was moored. We had an hour or two to kill, so we popped into another bar before calling it a night and heading home. A rugby team was holding court after a successful match, so the place had an energy that was a magnitude higher than the pub we just left. It wasn’t long before we lost track of time and didn’t realize we had missed the ferry until the bartender turned up the house lights and declared last call.

Manly Beach was closed up tight when we stumbled out into the crisp night air and started looking for the next place to party away the waning hours of liberty. Thankfully, there was no place for us to go and would be forced to head back to the ship before finding any trouble. The one club we could find still letting people in the doors required a membership card and was strictly a locals-only event to meet zoning requirements. We turned away from the large bouncer who had informed us of the rules and why they would never be bent. It was around three in the morning and taxis were scarce, and the few we did see were already filled with passengers.

We eventually found cabby who was both available and willing to drive us the hour and a half it would take to get back to the area of town near King’s Crossing and the piers where the ship was tied up. I remember paying the man a premium and then promptly passing out next to Kent who was in the same zombied state. It would have been worth twice that amount because missing ship’s movement was a sin that brought massive pain to a sailor in both the short and long term.

Being nine-lives lucky is something Dupree and I continue to share. We made it back in time to get in uniform and grab a quick breakfast to soak up some of the remaining booze before scrambling to shoot photos and video of the ship pulling out and heading toward our next port of call on the other side of Australia in Perth.

* * *

If I knew my one and only threesome would take place later that evening, I probably would have stopped drinking Jack and Cokes a lot sooner to ensure peak performance. It was our third day of liberty out of four and I was on my own in a bar full of Marines since Dupree was standing duty on the ship and no one else had any cash left to join me. I assumed I’d be heading back to my hotel room alone, so my only goal was to down enough booze to loosen up the dance shoes but not so much that I was incoherent on the off chance I met a girl. Suitably lubricated, I danced solo for much of the next few hours. I saw a gorgeous blonde fending off the drunken advances of my countrymen, but she held her own with ease, rebuffing all comers with a smile or a frown depending on the approach. I noticed her noticing me as I danced by myself and tried to hide a smile.

She nodded me over after vanquishing her final, buzz-headed suitor and introduced herself as Daisy. She was indeed.

We spent the next few hours dancing and hanging with her small group of friends, consisting mostly of tough-looking Aussie guys just off the rugby pitch. I was genuinely surprised I made the cut for the Exodus to an after-hours place when the house lights came up and the bartender shouted last call. I stayed close to Daisy as the group filed outside and piled into a couple of taxis. I wasn’t sure where things were headed just yet but none of her male companions took more than an instinctive interest in her. Maybe they had the “friend-zone” conversation already.

I was an experienced traveler in that land but wasn’t concerned that it was our destination that evening. One way or the other, I was getting lucky. I could feel it.

A half hour later, we got out of the cabs at a small bar on the outskirts of Perth. In contrast to the last after-hours establishment I tried to get into with Dupree in Sydney, I was admitted without an ID check of any sort this time. I switched to New Castle Brown Ale in deference to how the night was shaping up, but it was much too late for that move to have a noticeable effect. I was far too loaded for what happened an hour later when one of Daisy’s guy friends sidled up next to me and said, “Better keep it dry, mate. Daisy’s been wanting to get with a red head for years.”

He nodded across the bar where our blonde friend was indeed chatting with a stunning red head near the pool table wearing Doc Marten boots, a short skirt and Sex Pistols concert T-shirt with the sleeves and neck ripped off. The girls made their way back to the group after a short time playing pool. Daisy said her goodbyes and grabbed my hand, leading me outside with our new companion in tow to find a cab. We headed back to Perth’s city center and the modern hotel where I secured a room for the night to avoid going back to the ship, more than an hour away near Fremantle via a train that stopped running at midnight.

I must have passed out during the ride, because the next thing I remember clearly is digging through my room’s mini-bar to find something for us to drink while the girls stripped and climbed into the shower, all giggles and tickles. I popped three cold cans of Foster’s before stripping out of my clothes to join them in the over-sized shower. Opening the wet, steamy glass door was like stepping into a live-action porno where I played a mostly secondary role to the main plot of two gorgeous women having their way with each other.

Blonde and ginger were gloriously naked and blissfully indifferent to my presence. They would notice my erect penis from time to time and give it a quick soapy tug before getting back to exploring the soft, warm curves of the reason each was there in the first place. I blacked out again at some point and came to with the three of us naked in one of the two queen-sized beds, the red head riding me vigorously while the blonde played with her small, upturned breasts and herself simultaneously.

I was happy to note they put a condom on me before commencing the activities. It wasn’t long before my conscious participation led to disappointment and the redhead climbed off me to retrieve the laces from her Doc Martens. These were used to gently bind Daisy’s slender wrists before she bent to the long, languorous task of bringing her to climax. I laid down on the empty bed opposite and watched the red head’s technique with interest before passing out for a final time.

I woke up a several hours later, the sun just over the horizon and shining through the now open curtains. Daisy was on the phone calling a taxi. She hung up and smiled, asking how I had slept. Our mutual friend had left a few minutes earlier and Daisy had to get to work. I was happy to give her a couple bucks for the fare because she was broke. I had a disposable camera sitting on the table that she picked up and used to take a couple selfies. She handed it to me and we snapped one of the two of us before she gave me a lingering kiss and disappeared into yesterday.

When I developed the film later that morning at a One-Hour Photo booth in the mall, the pictures hadn’t been recorded since I was actually out of film and the mechanism had simply advanced on empty frames. The photographic evidence was now non-existent, so I was left with only my memories of a missed opportunity to have sex with two gorgeous Australian women, an unusual feat I would performed at the highest levels given a substantially lower blood alcohol content. I spent my last day in Perth washing clothes at a Laundromat near the docks and eating my final civilian meals at the excellent local restaurants before heading back to the ship in preparation for getting underway the next morning bright and early.

* * *

The ship’s next destination was the Persian Gulf to take over as the carrier on station for the summer months in support of Operation Southern Watch, enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq  that had been in place since Gulf War I ended six years earlier when American forces withdrew beyond the country’s borders as a challenge way  beyond the capabilities of a ground invasion force.

Life at sea is mind-numbingly dull between ports of call unless you are a pilot flying sorties over hostile territory or the flight deck crew who make their jobs as safe as possible when coming and going. Once the planes are off the deck, our lives devolve into General Quarters drills, hitting the gym or visiting the mess decks when it was time to eat. In between those planned events, what was playing on CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) competed with countless books, board games and completing qualifications manuals while waiting for mail drops or the intermittent email from home. My shop was a great place to ride out a West Pac with an extensive movie library and air conditioning that never went down to protect the sensitive electronics. The latter was especially important given the flight deck overhead and the 120-degree heat of a Persian Gulf summer pounding the blacktop each day.

We pulled into the port of Jebel Ali on the outskirts of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the first of three port visits during our time in the Gulf. We had three days of liberty scheduled while the ship resupplied. The port was designated an “international free zone” and many of the stricter requirements of being in a Muslim country were relaxed to accommodate the more cosmopolitan nature of doing business. This meant we could get drinks at will and the girls didn’t need to wear headscarves when they left the ship.

The pier where we tied up quickly became something of an open-air bizarre as local vendors set up food and knick-knack stalls to part us from our hard-earned paychecks. We also enjoyed a lack of federal income tax while being deployed to an on-going military operation, so our typical compensation was quite a bit more than we were used to getting back home and went twice as far as well.

Our Jebel Ali port visits included day trips sponsored by the ship’s Morale, Welfare & Recreation department that took us into the host country to partake more fully of the culture.

Dupree and I, along with our leading petty officer JO1 Joe Calley, signed up for a trip on our final port visit that sounded like it would lead to good stories to tell at the very least. We left the ship bright and early one morning to climb aboard a small bus owned by the tour operators waiting on the pier for our arrival. The three of us packed inside along with a dozen or so shipmates and settled in for the ride, not knowing how long it would take to get to our first stop at a Bedouin village to ride camels and eat a traditional Middle Eastern lunch. I am glad the outing was in that order since I am pretty sure the food would have made a repeat appearance given the lurching and uncomfortable ride on camelback, an experience I hope to never repeat. The view of the horizon limited to maybe hundred feet by the sand dunes, so when we reached the trip’s starting point thirty or forty minutes later it felt like the middle of nowhere.

There was no village, but a long line of camels was waiting alongside a couple of ragged four-wheel drive vehicles packed with locals. We climbed aboard our trusty steeds and lumbered off into the desert along a well-worn path through the shifting sands. It was a mode of transportation I was happy to never use again once I climbed down from the hump to stretch my legs an hour later. We emerged from behind a dune to find a small grouping of tents with the sides tied up. Colorful rugs on the sand and pillows created a comfortable lounging area. Low tables held a variety of tasty treats most of us had never had before, so we loaded plates with grilled goat, pita bread, hummus, and assorted fruits and veggies before sitting down gratefully to eat and chat with the handful of locals who spoke English, mostly the younger guys who helped with the camel trek.

The bus we left behind earlier pulled up at the tents just as lunch was winding down.

We piled aboard and settled in for the next leg of the journey, a swimming hole some undefined distance away in a desert canyon. We pulled away from the tents, our hosts waving enthusiastically, and wound through two turns of massive dunes on a packed dirt road before stopping and then turning onto the pristine blacktop of the highway, not more than a couple hundred yards from where we had been eating. I was really glad to have a book for the ride because the next stage was long and cramped and dusty. The shifting dunes surrounding Dubai transformed after forty-five minutes into a mountainous desert terrain dotted the occasional oasis of foliage. Small towns and isolated villas dotted the empty countryside as we wound our way toward one of the most beautiful places I have seen on this Earth.

I glanced up from my book as the bus started to downshift again and then pulled to a stop on a turnout that was seemingly indistinguishable from the miles and miles of desert road surrounding it. We emerged from the bus blinking and squinting and stretching like a group of bears just up from a long winter’s nap. We followed the guide in a single-file line down winding gravel path toward what looked like large crack in the ground maybe sixty feet from us. As we got closer, we realized it was actually the narrow end of a small canyon that opened up beyond the crack and dropped down a hundred feet into a series of deep, cool pools a pure crystalline blue and bordered by steep rock walls.

With a renewed vigor in our steps, we descended the steep path down to the water’s edge and found spots in the rocks to stash our personal belongings not left behind on the locked bus, shoes and towels and T-shirts for the most part. I also had a waterproof disposable camera that I carried with me into the cold water and captured the unique moment in 24 frames that were mostly in focus. I am not sure how much time we spent exploring the nooks and crannies of the caves and canyons, the sun mercifully hidden beyond the strips of brilliant azure marking the edges of the canyon walls above.

The swimming portion of the outing ended much too soon for our liking, despite massive raisining of our fingers and toes, and we reluctantly climbed from the cool water to dry off and hike back up to the bus. With very few exceptions, the group promptly passed out in their cramped seats while the driver returned us to the port of Jebel Ali and the floating city that would carry us back out to sea the next day for the final weeks of our time in the Persian Gulf.  

Megan 2 had moved to San Diego earlier in the summer and would send the occasional email report about her adventures with her roommate Jessica in their new city. I intuited the presence of new guy in between the innocuous lines about everything except that development, and our perpetually chronic relationship was moved to the life support unit. We loved each other in some not-quite-platonic way, but it was clear our time in the sun had ended when I decided to run off to sea.

I never missed an opportunity to play the aggrieved soul and put pen to paper, so I took her “betrayal” personally enough to write a dozen or so mediocre poems that are still tucked away in one of my boxes. I neglected my own substantial breach of ethics in Perth, of course. Introspection was not a strong suit in 1997, so playing the victim was really the only available cover for my own lack of guilt as the villain of this particular tale, and I leaned into my perceived grief with a selfishness bordering on the narcissistic.

By the time the ship left the Gulf for the trip home, we had agreed to be friends and actually stuck to it.

Halfway to our first port of call in Singapore, the public affairs officer came into the television space for the first time since we getting underway. The unusual visit, concerned frown and sheet of white paper in his hand had my heart rate rising before I knew what was wrong. It was a Red Cross message regarding my father falling ill while on a trip to visit my sister Abby and her son in Colorado. The PAO needed to discuss my options with regards to the remainder of the cruise since it was generally accepted practice for a sailor to be allowed to fly home to deal with these types of emergencies.

All I knew was my dad had passed out at a family gathering at my mom’s cabin before being taken by ambulance to a hospital in Loveland, where he was still in intensive care with his doctors scratching their heads at the reason why. No one could tell me when he might wake up or if he would actually recover when he did. No one knew those answers and Gordon had already been a week in a coma. With the myriad of health problems my dad had already had been that point in my life, I erred on the side of caution and cashed my winning lottery ticket to get the fuck off the ship and fly home. I had done the hardest part of the cruise already. More than enough to know that I would never do it again, thus setting the stage for my departure from the Navy when my last enlistment ended in April of 2001.

Leaving a Navy ship that is underway is no small feat, though immeasurably easier when the ship in question is an aircraft carrier. The C-2 Greyhound is specifically designed to takeoff from and land back on carriers for regular mail and supply deliveries during deployments. It also had rows of seats for the passengers that were often coming or going for various and sundry reasons. Though we were still a week outside of our next port of call in Singapore, the daily Greyhound flight could make it in a couple of hours. I joined a couple of other guys making the trip the same morning I left the Connie for the last time as a member of the crew.

Until you have been launched off of the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier at hundreds of miles an hour, it is really hard to understand the forces involved. The passenger seats on a C-2 are near the rear of the plane where the cargo platform drops down to create a ramp and facing backwards to protect the neck and spine during a landing when the tail-hook snags the trap wire and jerks the plan to an abrupt halt. On takeoff, the only thing keeping you in your seat is the four-point harness as your arms and legs shoot straight out behind you as the catapult takes the aircraft from standing still to airborne in a few short seconds.   The camera bag I had stashed between my legs for safe keeping actually launched across the cargo ramp to smash against the rear wall of the plane. I was glad nothing broke once I was able to move around and gather up the fragile equipment when we reached our cruising altitude.

Touching down in Singapore was anticlimactic. Since I was still technically on Temporary Assigned Duty to the Constellation until my Emergency Leave ended in two weeks, the Navy prepared the itinerary and picked up the tab for getting me back to United States in the quickest manner possible, in my case, a flight to Los Angeles the next morning. From that point, it would be up to me to get the rest of the way home to Colorado. The handful of sailors who were also heading home climbed into a white van supplied by the forward-deployed unit preparing for the ship’s arrival.

We were dropped off at a modest motel not far from downtown and were told a shuttle would pick us up 4:30 for the long drive out to the international airport in the Singapore suburbs. The van pulled away from the portico and disappeared into the busy city streets beyond the entrance.

* * *

I cleared customs in Los Angeles with a minimum of delay due to my military-issued passport. Megan #2 was waiting to give me a ride back to San Diego and a place to crash until my flight to Denver left the next morning and I had no bed while technically assigned to the Constellation. The ride back in her Toyota pickup was mostly silent as I recall. Not terribly surprising how we had ended up in a tentative friendship rather than a serious relationship. Megan and Jessica found a cute, two-bedroom apartment in Ocean Beach that was affordable on their housing budget despite modest salaries as new social workers.

The visit remained superficial through dinner and an evening spent catching up over beers. Pete Carroll was also on hand to welcome me back to the States and to get reacquainted with Jessica whom he hadn’t known was in town. They rekindled just fine and disappeared into her room when the evening wound down around midnight. I joined Megan in her bed, though it was a chaste arrangement mostly driven by the fact that their couch wasn’t nearly long enough to sleep on. Awkward doesn’t begin to describe the emotional sensation as I drifted off to sleep with my usual precision.

Pete drove me to the airport in the morning and it was off to see how my dad was faring.   It was my first time in the newly completed and hugely over-budget Denver International Airport. My stepfather Jerry actually ran the crew responsible for the gleaming stainless steel accents throughout the massive facility. My mom, Abby and my nephew Carter were waiting at the gate as I came off the plane with a bag in each hand. It was one of the last times I remember it being possible for non-ticketed airport visitors to be allowed beyond the security gates that had long been ubiquitous with flying.

Hugging family or friends as you step off a flight is one of those special, bygone moments I doubt we’ll see again.

During 45-minute drive north to Loveland, I learned my dad had mostly snapped back from his episode. The doctors were keeping him for a couple more days, but it looked as though he would make a full recovery with the caveat that he couldn’t drive until the source of the seizures were discovered by his doctors back in Oregon. That prohibition lasted just long enough for me to guide my dad’s black Mazda pickup to nearest store for a pack of smokes and insist “I’m fine, kiddo. I drank for the first time in years and had too much. Now get me the pipe out of the glove box…” as he grabbed the keys from my hand and slid behind the wheel.

A tattoo parlor caught the old man’s eye as we drove out of Loveland on the way to the mountains. He pulled off the road and parked in the dirt lot in front of the small white house. We examined the available designs thoroughly before we each found something we each would want on our bodies for the rest of our lives. We must have hit them at a quiet time, because we were both in our respective chairs with our respective artists two second after signing the waiver. I had a number of homemade “prison” tattoos I wanted to cover and went with the small greenish-black cross on my right bicep that matched one I had already covered on my right calf. I selected a “midnight sun” in deference to my place of birth and the solid coverage of a black circle in the center of the piece with a corona fading from purple to blue around the outside. My dad added a realistic gray wolf’s head to his right shoulder. He had wanted a tattoo for decades and was quite proud of it, almost as proud as the nipple ring he added to his third nipple a few years later.

A couple of hours later, we were at my sister’s trailer where the bulk of dad’s stuff was waiting for his return. We parked and got out of the truck. What dad didn’t know was my Uncle Roy was in town on a road trip of his own and had a surprise planned for dad’s return that morning. I held the door for my old man and followed him inside where Abby was waiting with Carter while a man dug around under the kitchen sink with his back toward us. Of course, Gordon the plumber who was the son of a plumber had to go take a look at what the guy was doing, exhorting Abby for paying to get the sink fixed. My uncle muttered and murmured, barely audible with his head all the way in the cabinet under the sink, while my pops tried to see what he was doing by peeking over his shoulder.

All of a sudden, Roy whipped around to answer my dad’s increasingly persistent questions face-to-face. Dad jumped back, shocked, before deducing the presence of his little brother under his daughter’s sink and the joke he had just been hit with, countless in number over the years. Roy was laughing so hard he couldn’t get off the floor, but eventually my uncle recovered enough to wipe the tears from his eyes, climb to his feet and give his older brother a “Welcome back to the land of the living” hug.

It was usually a more unique sentiment they had shared many times before.

We hung out for another day reminiscing with the family while barbequing at my mom’s place before we got on the road to drive dad’s truck back to Eugene, Oregon. Since I was on a tight timeline, we pushed hard and our first stop was in Twin Falls, Idaho, near an amazing bridge across the echoing depths of the Snake River gorge. I tried and failed to resist the allure of smoking a bit of weed while we drove as was usually the case anytime I had more than two weeks of leave. I faced random piss tests the entire ten years I was in the Navy but had rarely had to actually tinkle in a cup, so I was pretty sure I was as  bulletproof as I appeared to be. Looking back from this temporal vantage point, my glass bong smoking next to me, I’m not really shocked by how fast and loose I played it with the rules. What I do find surprising is the fact that I never got busted as hard as I should have and failed upward at every turn of the screws. I was blessed at birth with ninety-nine lives rather than the standard nine.

We pulled into Eugene the next day around four or five after the long, dusty drive through eastern Oregon. Having just completed the same drive in 2014 when we moved from Washington DC to Portland, I had forgotten the Beaver State boasts high desert where its eastern flank stretches from the Cascade Mountains to the Idaho border. My pregnant wife and I even saw tumbleweeds crossing the highway at regular intervals as we traversed the same route I had taken 17 years earlier with my father behind the wheel.

Gordon was staying in my Uncle Travis’ garage not far from the University of Oregon campus. He had long since returned to Oregon from Colorado and was now a carpet installer, having learned the trade from Roy. My dad was oblivious to the irony of his little brother being responsible for his basic wellbeing at this advanced stage of his life. That said, it didn’t strike me as strange, really, as I had long seen my dad in all kinds of odd living situations, though Travis always had a steady supply of killer weed, so his choice made a lot of sense from that particular perspective.

I spent the next few days hanging out in Eugene and getting my Oregon driver’s license in preparation for buying a new car to drive home to San Diego. Dad took me up to Portland the day before I was to head home to shop for a used truck. I had fallen in love with Megan #2’s four-wheel drive Toyota and wanted something just like it. I picked out a forest green 1991 Nissan 4×4 king-cab from a used car lot along I-5. I secured financing ahead of time from my new credit union, and not much more than a year after filing bankruptcy, I drove off the lot in a new used pickup purchased on credit. I have always appreciated not paying too substantially for my actions, though it wasn’t the best thing for me in the long run given the deepening financial holes I would dig in the years to come.