Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Earning My Stripes

This is a continuation of a series of posts I've been adding to about my early years, post high school and entering the Navy. The first of those entries can be found here. The most recent is here.

Shipboard life in port in San Diego was probably as good a duty as I could've hoped for. I was the junior sailor in our division for my first several months on-board which meant that I was the go-to guy for whatever working parties there may have been. A working party is where each division sends one man (the junior guy) to help out with whatever grunt work needs to be done. It's typically an hour or two detail but sometimes it can be one which lasts for days.

One of the first times I was assigned to a detail I was part of a painting crew. We spray painted several compartments throughout the ship and I'm quite certain we took very few precautions to protect ourselves from paint fumes. They gave us surgical masks which were pretty much useless. It was miserable duty that took the better part of a week.

I got along with everyone except for one other Radarman, Pete Alford. Pete was a 3rd class who had maybe 12-18 months more time in the Navy than I did. Pete was black and I was the privileged white kid; or so I felt he looked at me that way. He was quite proud of his crow and his perceived power over me. Maybe it was just a hazing Pete was subjecting me to. If it was he was the only one participating. It would take time but I'd eventually gain his respect...or maybe he simply got bored messing with me.

It was Pete's negligee he'd bought for his wife that I wore as part of the beauty contest crossing the equator.

I located Pete years later in Plano, TX and gave him a call to see how his life was going. He told me how he'd recently worked for Senator Alan Cranston and that he was studying for his law degree. That was the last time we spoke, some 25 years ago. Pete; if you're out there, drop me a line...it's all good.

I used to get my paycheck and turn around and send most of it home in the form of a money order to be deposited into my savings account. I suppose I figured that if I had easy access to the account I'd be too tempted to use it. I had no bills; no car payment, insurance, fuel or rent to pay. Even my meals were covered as long as I ate on the ship. The only expenses I had were my bike, doing laundry out in the city, fast food and an occasional cassette of some new music. Without question those were the most care-free days of my life and I understood that and enjoyed the contentment of knowing it.

I had my head on straight and I was embracing my healthier focus toward life. I remember riding my bike off the base one morning past one of the bars just outside the gate, the Westerner. There was a sailor half laying on the sidewalk and leaning up against the brick wall looking like he'd just woken up from having been passed out. I thought to myself, 'what a waste'. I was thankful it wasn't me. I was thankful for my bike and for the day ahead of me not knowing where my ride would take me. I was thankful for the 2nd or 3rd or however many extra chances I'd been given.

Living in such close quarters as we did you'd like to think that you could trust those you shared space with. I think for the most part we could but not fully. I came back to the ship one afternoon after having been out in the city purchasing a $140 money order to send home. I laid down on my rack for half an hour and when I woke up I noticed that my pants with my wallet in the back pocket had been moved from where I'd left them. I checked the pocket for my wallet but it was gone. I searched everywhere thinking it had to have fallen out not accepting that one of my shipmates had taken it. I never found it.

In addition to the $140 money order there was also $60 in cash that was taken. It was a lot of money 30 years ago, at least to me. I had my hunches about who took it based on who was hanging around that afternoon but there was no way to prove it. The guy I still suspect was one of my better friends which made the whole experience tough to understand.

Before I could write a letter or call home to tell my parents what happened I got a letter from my mom. She wrote about a dream she'd had where a guy on my ship had stolen my wallet. His last name was Cohen and he was in the process of trying to get a transfer off the ship. The letter floored me because across from my rack was Steve Cohan's bunk. All week long Steve had been talking about trying to get a transfer off the ship to submarine duty. To this day I still can't believe it was Steve who stole from me. I'm certain who it was but my mother's letter has always cast a shadow of doubt on that certainty. I still have the letter my mother wrote me detailing the dream she had but for the life of me I can't find it. I figured that two hours of looking tonight was long enough. It'll show up some day and I'll then scan it to post here.

I was able to recover the amount of the money order but the $60, my license and photos from my wallet would be the price of a lesson learned.

I came onto the ship a few months earlier as a wide-eyed, trusting kid who mostly saw the best in people. I'd learn a lot over the next few years.

To be continued...


Pdog said...

Is that a marijuana leaf tattooed on that sailors arm?

Kevin said...

No, I think it's a Peony leaf or possibly that of a Tulip.

Pdog said...

I guess it doesn't surprise me that a thailor would put a tattoo of a flower leaf on his arm.

Kevin said...

You want the truth? You can't handle the truth! Yes, it was a marijuana leaf! The men in our division were under tremendous stress fighting the Cold War and if they found comfort in a marijuana cigarette from time to time so be it. We were out there doing what we had to so guys like you could live in peace and comfort in your college dorms and have frat parties.

Pdog said...

I think I was 5 when you were in the service, old man!