Saturday, January 27, 2007

My Secret History: 1

Basically, I've steadfastly refused to do anything in a "traditional way." From education to career to domestic bliss and child-rearing, I at some point decided that everyone else was doing things out of sequence and chose, instead, to forge my own back-asswards course.

A good student in high school, in 1985 I left a local university after less than a year. I was bored with classes and anxious to move onto "real life." I'd always loved writing, specifically, and communicating in general, and I wanted to put my meager skills to the test. Having come from a Navy family (father, mother, brother and now -- as it turns out -- sister), I signed up in 1986 as a Navy journalist and spent five years in San Diego, Seattle, and later, in a lovely part of the world during a lovely time.

But, like any veteran knows, the journey begins in bootcamp. As I'd spent the first 20 years of life within 30 minutes of a beach in California, it was only natural that I be handpicked to attend bootcamp in Great Lakes, Ill., forty miles north of Chicago and a quiet, pleasant town during the summer months.

I arrived and had my head shaved in mid-December, and I graduated in mid-February.

At times, it was -60F outside. My military-issue boots never fit correctly, and at night I'd sit on the edge of my bunk and slowly peel the socks from my aching feet, in turn tearing off the scabs of several bleeding, dime-sized sores that had formed after hours of marching. I'd sleep, motionless and near-coma, between a scratchy white cotton sheet and an even-scratchier wool blanket. In the morning, my feet were stuck to both.

And I remember marches to the mess hall, our faces covered in ski masks and supplemented with hand towels wrapped over our noses and mouths and tucked inside the tops of our pea-coats in back. We'd march in lock step for what felt like miles, the cadence called off by the company commander during the early weeks and, later, by one of the recruit leaders, once the government was confident we could count to four. I vividly recall this marching and this counting, moving my eyes but not my head to watch the American flag, brilliantly colored against cold blue sky, bobbing and billowing, carried on a staff by someone in front.

And I remember arriving at the galley, preparing to enter, removing our masks and towels, only to find a six-inch icicle of condensation ran from the tip of my nose to below my chin.

But the biggest thing about Navy boot camp is "attention to detail." When you claim your clothes, it all gets stenciled with name, rank and your last four. Precisely stenciled, in perfect position. A quarter-inch off? You fail. Your folded shirts not perfectly aligned in your locker? You fail. One single missed whisker after a shave? You fail. And the failure usually involves a lot of screaming and hysteria from multiple parties, and this generally happens very close to your face.

I was good at detail. I'm naturally retentive, and the coaching I'd received from family members had prepared me for it. I was, quite humbly, a damn good recruit. I'd been named company yeoman, which basically meant I was in charge of paperwork for around 400 fellow recruits and making sure clean laundry and supplies were ordered and delivered to the barracks on time. The position allowed a certain amount of latitude not afforded anyone else: as the weeks wore on and things became less physically taxing, I could stay up later, in my office, and write a note home or re-read a letter for the thousandth time.

One night, shortly before graduation, I got sloppy and left a picture of a girl -- a dear friend from back home -- on my office desk. During a surprise inspection, it was deemed "gear adrift" -- something not put away properly. I was sentenced to three hours of physical training, the standard punishment for wayward recruits.

So the night before graduation, I reported to a drill hall at about 7 p.m., picked up a heavy rifle, and was told to hold it over my head.

And then I was told to run, the rifle still up over my head.

I ran for hours, my hands numb, my biceps apparently bleeding internally, my back rife with large, hot knives.

The difference was, most everyone received that punishment in the early weeks, when screwing up was almost a given. I, on the other hand, enjoyed the drill hall just hours before graduation. The good recruit was being taught that he wasn't perfect.

I was, yet again, doing things out of sequence.

The girl in the photo on my desk? She would give birth to our daughter nine years later.

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