Tuesday, July 21, 2009

In the Wilderness

It's difficult to say exactly why I went down the road of self destruction. It seems, lookin' back, it was a plethora of things that I used at the time to "justify" my behavior and cynical attitude.

Certainly the Navy wasn't what I expected it to be. It appeared as if all of my hard work was noticed no more than the work (or lack thereof) of those who did everything they could to get out of work.
I mean, what was the use in puttin' out 100%?
I wasn't advancing any faster than anyone else. There was no meritorious advancement in my future, no special medals for service above and beyond.
Where in the hell was the glory?

Hey, don't get me wrong, I was no braggert, even at that young age of 18, but if this was a movie I would've been standin' out, maybe gettin' more respect and an opportunity to lead.
Afterall, I had been in the Navy an entire year already!

At any rate it didn't happen overnight, and the short answer as to why? 'Cause I wanted to. Besides, the girls like the bad boys, right? Right? At least, that was my observation at the time...in the dives I frequented.
Yeah. Same as high school.

Why am I so depressed, so pissed off and so...sad? Was it because dad divorced mom and left when I was five, never to visit, call, write or even provide child support again? What had gone wrong? We had such a great time before that, fishing, goin' to the races, playing football. Everything a dad and son did. I only hd fond memories of dad up to that point...the point when I told him about what his friend had done to me.
Soon after that, everything fell apart. Actually, I learned later that everything was falling apart before that happened, but that was several years later.
But damn! Why didn't dad do sdad or mom do something about that guy? I still don't know the answer to that question.

Who could know that a friend had raped their child and do...nothing? I expected dad to beat the crap outta the scumbag, like Popeye puttin' a serious beatin' on Bluto (which is what the pervert looked like. Bluto, that is).
But neither my dad nor my mom bothered to even call the police.

Ugh. Yeah, I have daddy issues, I thought, disgusted with myself. well, f*ck that! I'm over it now. Who needs this sh*t? I had been usin' my altered military ID, compliments of a pal in Personnel. Okay, not really a pal because he charged me fifty bucks. Highway robbery, but where else was I gonna get one at?

I was riding the bus to Long Beach, down to the "Pike" which used to be a hoppin' place, kinda like a small Coney Island I had heard, but was now run down. Only some scattered dives remained among the abandoned businesses that used to light up the place like a gigantic carnival.
Dives with a unique mix of customers such as longshoremen, bikers, shipyard workers, rednecks, and sailors.

It felt good to get off the ship, especially after a long day of grinding, chipping and sanding rust and paint off the weather deck. That wasn't my "normal" job, but when a ship is in the yards for an overhaul no one except maybe the Bos'n mates do their "normal" jobs.
Besides that, virtually everyone had several other jobs to do, such as security alerts (real or drills), fightin' fires (which happened quite a few times in the yards), fire drills, flooding drills, sweepin' and swabbin' the decks, cleanin' the heads, taking out the garbage, cleaning the spaces, maintenance on the WTD's (watertight doors and hatches), maintenance on the electronic equipment we used, updating charts and a gaggle of publications, working parties to resupply the ship's stores and galley, standing watches, duty days, inspections, mooring detail for other ships coming or going, mess detail, general training, and many other duties.

Not to mention the ship was dusty and smelled of paint, paint thinner, turpentine, oil, fuel, sweat, BO, wax, various cleaning agents, grease, the acrid smell of welding and cutting torches, and a long list of other smells depending on where you were at on the ship.
Despite all the cleaning that was done the ship was never really clean in the yards.

Then there was the noise. Sanders, grinders, pneumatic tools, chipping hammers, petty officers and chief's shouting orders, sailors cussin', an occasional junior officer asking questions or tryin' to pretend they knew what to do, slowing work down in the process, sailors arguing, sailors askin' to borrow the tools you were using (there never was enough tools to go around, and if you weren't fast enough to snag the best tools you ended up having to use sand paper and elbow grease), and more sailors swearin'.

The first day I reported to the USS Duluth (LPD-6) I saw, heard and smelled all of this. My first thought at the time? WTF? Oh sh*t! I'm screwed!
Not really what you would call a cheery environment. This only added to the bad attitude I had developed since reporting onboard.

I walked into my favorite dive and ordered a beer. I had onlty been here a few times, but I liked the place. It had a jukebox with classic rock and country on it. There were a few pool tables and I liked to play, although I was inconsistent. Sometimes I made evry shot I wanted, and other imes I couldn't sink anything. There was also a very small dance floor but it was seldom used.
The bar was a horseshoe shape, and there was ten tables or so with chairs. I preferred the barstools.

I looked around and surveyed the bar. It was close to 1900 so the bar was beginning to fill up. I sat down where I could see the two entrances and still keep my eye on the rest on the area. The last time I was here there was a fight between two bikers. I don't know why, but one biker simply walked up and clobbered another biker who proceeded to clobber back. The fight didn't last long before one of them was out cold. A biker chick had smashed a beer bottle over the back of his head. The remaining biker beat feet, bloody nose and all, his drunk girlfriend staggering behind him and cussin' at the unconcious biker.
Needless to say I wanted no one behind me.

"Here ya go," Mitch said, sliding me a frosty mug of budweiser.

"Thanks Mitch," I said.

Mitch owned the place and he had three or four bar maids workin' for him at any one time. I was faily certain Mitch knew I wasn't twentyone by the way he looked at me after checkin' my ID, but he just grinned. He wasn't gonna turn me in.

Three beers later Luca walked in and sat down next to me. I didn't know him very well since he was a Bos'n Mate, but everyone respected him. I had heard he had been in twelve years. Currently he was a petty officer third class, having been busted in rank for fightin' and being UA (unauthorized absence) from the ship due to bein' jailed. Scuttlebutt had it that Luca would've been a chief by now, but he loved to drink and fight, so he got busted a lot.

I only met Luca once when he was in charge of the tool locker, but I saw his hulking form frequently, shoutin' orders at the other bos'n mates and sometimes laughing loudly. He asked me where I was from and I told him California, florida and Oregon, but mostly Oregon. He laughed at that.

"I'm from the Bronx," he had said.

And he sounded like it. He asked for my name and shook my hand, welcoming me aboard the ship.

"Work hard and you'll be okay," Luca said, shaking my hand.

I winced from the vise-like grip of his massive, heavily calloused hand, but I didn't show it. I squeezed back as hard as I could. Luca looked me in the eyes and laughed again.

"You're alright for a RADAR guy," he said, chuckling, finally releasing his grip. "Hey, if you ever have problems with any of my guys when you're gettin' tools just tell 'em Luca sent ya," he concluded, slapping me on the back and almost knocking me down.

Geez, that guy is strong! I had thought, rubbing my right hand. I could tell, just lookin' at him he was a badass, and someone I never wanted to piss off. I could also tell he knew his job well.

"Hey Luca!" I said, raising my mug.

"Ben, right?" Luca replied, holding up two fingers to Mitch.

"Aye," I said, surprised he remembered my name.

Mitch brought a mug of beer and a shot glass of what looked like whiskey. Luca downed the whiskey in one gulp and drained half his mug.

"Ahh! That hits the spot!" He exclaimed. "Nothin' like a good boilermaker, eh? Have you tried one yet?" He asked.

"Not yet," I replied.

"Whattya waitin' for? Mitch, two more shots," Luca said.

Mitch brought another shgot glass and filled both Luca's and mine with whiskey, an amused look on his face.

"To the Duluth!" Luca bellowed, raising his shot glass.

I raised my glass and repeated the toast. I didn't really want any whiskey with my beer but I wasn't gonna tell Luca that. I downed the whiskey and did my best not to cough. I had drank whiskey before with my Grandpa, but only small amounts, and small sips. I never got drunk and neither did Grandpa, but I enjoyed those times, even though I never liked whiskey all that much. At least not as a teenager.

"Now you drink some beer," Luca said, grinning.

"Right," I managed to rasp, drinking a few big gulps of beer.

The beer helped ease the harshness of the whiskey. This whiskey tastes a lot worse than Grandpa's Canadian Mist, I thought.

We had a few more boilermakers and Luca told me some sea stories. After the third one I was getting pretty wasted. Not bad, I thought, but my stomach wasn't too happy with me. At this point I didn't much care.

"Damn it!" Luca exclaimed opening up his wallet. I only gotta fiver left. Would you spot me a twenty?" Luca asked.

I didn't have much money, bein' a seaman and all, but I did have forty bucks left. I gave Luca a twenty, wondering if he would remember borrowing it.

"Thanks Ben," Luca said. "You're a lifesaver, pal!"

"Glad to help," I said, lighting up a smoke.

"What are you looking at, assh*le?!" A guy on the other side of the bar shouted.

It seemed like he was looking at me, but I wasn't sure. I took another drink of beer and continued listening to Luca. None of my business, I thought.

"Hey! I'm talking to you, f*ckface!" The guy shouted.

"Knock it off," Mitch said.

"That guy is eyeballing me!" They guy said, standing up and walking around the bar in my direction.

Another man who had been sitting beside him followed. I watched them both and they were definitely looking at me. Oh sh*t! I thought. When they got close I stood up.

"Hey I don't want any trouble," I said.

"Nobody eyeballs me, boy!" The man in the lead said.

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

The other man was beside him now and both looked dead set on kicking my ass. They appeared to be longshoremen or yard workers. They also both appeared wasted and mean as hell. They wre both bigger than me as well. I knew I should run, but I refused to do so. I quit runnin' from bullies in junior high school, and I wasn't about to start now. I got ready to strike, tryin' to formulate a plan.

When you're outnumbered the best thing to do is look for equalizers. The only equalizer nearby was my mug, so I grabbed it.
That's when I noticed the guy who had been yellin' at me had a knife.

Crap. This just keeps gettin' better and better, I thought.

The guy with the knife lunged and I took a step back as he slashed at me, missing.
Then I saw a chair from one of the tables smash him on the side of the head. He went down like a brick, and I saw it was Luca swinging the chair.
Next he kicked the other guy in the knee and I heard a crack as that guy fell to the floor holding his knee and screamin' in pain. The Luca hit his in the jaw with a haymaker and he was out like a light.

It all happened so fast that neither one of those guys could react. I could barely keep up with what Luca had done. Damn! I thought. Luca is more than a badass!

"Thanks Luca! Man, you really kicked the sh*t outta those guys!" I exclaimed.

"Holy sh*t, Luca! Way to go!" Mitch said, putting his baseball bat away.

"No sweat," Luca said. "F*ckin' pr*cks!" Luca said, kickin' the guy who had the knife in the ribs.

Luca picked up the knife and examined it. It looked like a switchblade. He gave it to Mitch, and sat back down as if nothin' happened. A lot of guys shouted praise or gave a thumbs up, but Luca was nonchalant about it.

"They were p*ssies," Luca said, lighting a smoke and taking a drag.

"That deserves a couple of free drinks," Mitch said, refilling Luca's shot glass and bringing another beer.

"Refill Ben's too," Luca said.

"Sure thing," Mitch replied.

"Listen Ben, don't ever hesitate. Guys like that you gotta take 'em down fast n' hard, y'know?" Luca instructed.

"Thanks Luca. I could use some pointers," I replied, nodding my head.

Luca gave me fighting tips the rest of the night and more sea stories, of course.

On the jukebox I heard one of my favorite songs playing.

Man In The Wilderness, by Styx

Another year has passed me by
Still I look a myself and cry
What kind of man have I become?
All of the years I've spent in search of myself
And I'm still in the dark
'Cause I can't seem to find the light alone

Sometimes I feel like a man in the wilderness
I'm a lonely sailor off to war
Sent away to die - never quite knowing why
Sometimes it makes no sense at all

Ten Thousand people look my way
But they can't see the way that I feel
Nobody even cares to try
I spend my life and sell my soul on the road
And I'm still in the dark
'Cause I can't seem to find the light alone

Sometimes I feel like a man in the wilderness
I'm a lonely sailor lost at sea
Drifting with the tide
Never quite knowing why
Sometimes it makes no sense at all

(I'm alive)
Looking for love I'm a man with emotion
(And my heart's on fire)
I'm dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean
I'm alive

Sometimes I feel like a man in the wilderness
I'm a lonely sailor off to war
Sent away to die - never quite knowing why
Sometimes it makes no sense at all

The song seemed appropiate for my own life at the time. Would I see the light? I thought I did years before but now it didn't seem real.
Would anything ever make sense? I felt a loss I couldn't explain and a sorrow beneath the armor of my humor, riding a wave of cynicism that was growing stronger by the day.

It was glad to have a new friend, but loneliness was always creeping at the edge of my thoughts, often intruding when I allowed myself to think.
I tried to pray but I was beginning to think that God might not exist or...I didn't deserve His attention. Nonetheless, I needed answers, or a few more beers.


USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hi guys,

I'm sorry I haven't finished the kung fu noir story yet. Writers block I reckon. I'll keep workin' on it though. In the meantime it's far easier to coontinue with the sea stories of yesteryear.

walt said...

Yeah: "answers, or a few more beers." Always a question, isn't it?

For awhile there, I thought you morphed back into the kung fu noir thingy -- let's see, Luca as Sensei, Ben as Mack (a younger, fresh, swashbuckling version), and ... -- but I digress.

Life is weird in retrospect, huh? I remember all of mine, and don't repress any of it -- but I don't let myself go there, either.

"So I sez to the barkeep, 'I'll have another, or two or three!' and he sez, 'You mean drinks?' and so I sez, 'No, no ... I mean more sea stories from Ben, you fool!' and he looked at me kinda mean and that's when I knewed it wuz time to shut-up ...."

robinstarfish said...

Sea stories are good fer what ails us. 'Specially with grog.

mushroom said...

Or sea stories about grog.

Always painting. That's how somebody once described life in the Navy.

Good read, Ben. Thanks.

Ricky Raccoon said...

Great True story, Ben.
Luca reminds me of my good friend, Ragman. I miss that guy.

Jimmy J. said...

In another life in another time, long, long ago I knew a sailor like Luca. He was the best Ordnanceman I ever saw load ordnance on A-1s. Strong, tough, smart, and as good a man as lived as long as he didn't drink. He was a First Class when I knew him, but should have been a Master Chief based on his years of service and knowledge. But, after a few drinks, he was fighter and after a few more drinks he often forgot where the ship/base was. He had been busted back several times. He loved being at sea because it kept his snoot out of the booze locker.

That's when I knew him. On a long deployment where he stayed clean and sober. Many's the time I have wondered if he managed to keep it together when he got rotated to shore duty. I hope so. He was a good man.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hi Walt!

That's good advice. Wallowin' in past mistakes is fruitless and unnecesarily painful.
So I'm only goin' there objectively, so to speak, and as a very different person now.

It's amusing in a sense. I can laugh at young Ben without any hurt feelings, ha ha.
Besides, swashbuckling is fun fare for hot summer readings.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hi Dojo!

Thanks! I'm outta grog right now, but I will be happy to help you drink yours. :^)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hi Mushroom!

Thanks! Always painting is right, and and there was some spiritual renovation goin' on as well.
Still is. Lotsa rust to battle. :^)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hey Rick!

Yes, I greatly enjoyed readin' about Ragman. Such an awe-inspiring man that was bigger than life, so to speak. :^)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hi Jim!

Aye. Some guys just seemed to always find trouble (or vice versa) when they drank too much.
Out at sea there were no better men to be working with. No better men you would want watching your back and having your six.
I learned a lot from men like Luca.