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  • What to do with my newfound freedom, now that I was a civilian again? I had plans – big plans. One of the things that had happened to me when that switch flipped inside and I’d gone bat-shit crazy on my last ship in the Navy was, I rediscovered my creative side. It was like I’d had to keep it safely locked away and hidden in my “under-the-rack-compartment” for 4 years in the Navy. Maybe I’d occasionally pull it out late at night, dust it off, and tap into it some - write a poem here, read a book there. But my day job was running the mechanical systems of a Nuclear Reactor on a major military fighting vessel, and that required a brain finely focused on complex systems and nuclear physics. There wasn’t much room for creativity in that world.

    A poem I once wrote, in the middle of a cruise best describes what it was like for me then. I’d gone up top-side on the ship after standing a midnight watch down in the hole (theEngine Room), feeling so desperately alone and cut-off from the world I yearned for. I titled it “Thoughts/Rivers”

    Days flip by like pages in a book
    Sleeping heart sighs for a love that’s not around
    Sculptured thoughts form, blunt edges chiseled fine
    In the waking hours of morn, there are no other sounds

    Through forests of my soul, to the water I am drawn
    To watch the river roll, never-ending to the sea
    I see that my own life is somewhat like this river
    Flowing towards the ocean that will set my spirit free… -

    But, that was the world I’d chosen to be a part of, so that was how I rolled – until I could no longer roll there.
  • One of the first things I did when I left the ship, under extreme duress and emotional turmoil, was to begin writing like a fiend, Kerouac-like. I wanted to capture it all, every thought, every conversation, every strange twist and turn of the journey. I had grand illusions of writing and publishing a book about it all. “What a Trip!” might be the title, with the Grateful Dead’s words from “Truckin’” opening it up – “Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me, Other times I can barely see, Lately it occurs to me, What a long, strange trip it’s been.” I’d be a modern day Woodie Guthrie, Bound for Glory. “The story of a young man running to freedom, as he rediscovers his creativity and the beauty of life after 4 years in the mind-crushing world of Naval Nuclear Power!” I’d give anything for all those scrawled notes I kept throughout that journey – there were reams of them by the time I was done - which sadly all got ruined in a basement flood in Maryland in 1983. About 5 boxes full of all my writings and journals, from 1972 to 1983, all gone! What I write about, looking back, are only a few of the minor details that I can still recall from that time.

    By the time of my discharge, my grand plan was to head back east, spend a few weeks patching up some strained relations back there, get my affairs in order, visit my parents and pick up my gear from their attic, then bag the sad old East Coast for the brave new world of the wild West, where my new life could finally begin in earnest. I figured I’d find work on a Merchant ship, spend a year earning enough cash to live on when I went back to college on the G.I. Bill, having by then established residency in California, which would keep tuition costs down to a bare minimum. Back then, tuition for in-state residents was next to nothing in most California state schools. Between my GI Bill money, and the money I’d earned working the seas, I could finally get a righteous education with enough money to live on, so I wouldn’t have to work while I went to school.

    Best laid plans! I would even have the perfect set-up for getting back to the West Coast, but like John Lennon would later sing, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” Life was preparing to knock me right upside the head with a cosmic two-by-four.

    First, I hopped down to San Diego to see my sister Juli. She was right there, and she was one of the strained relationships I needed to try mending. About a month into my epic AWOL journey, when I’d gotten really lonely and scared and needed to connect with my own humanity, talk to someone who actually knew me, I had taken to calling Juli late at night to talk. We really hadn’t had much of a relationship through the years, but she was my creative sibling, the artist, and a musician. I was suddenly tapping into all these creative impulses, and I thought it would be an opportunity to connect with her on that level. So, I would call her – collect – she would take my calls, listen to my tale, and provide an understanding ear. I never thought about the fact that her husband at the time was an officer in the Navy, and I was putting her in a most compromising position. That never even occurred to me. My thinking was, since I was never really in touch with her before, no one would think to check with her about my whereabouts. She never told her husband about our calls (he was away most of the time), but years later, I would come across letters she wrote to my Dad at the time, expressing concern and confusion about what to say to me, and what to do. I’d really put her in an awkward position, then.

    We had a nice visit for a couple of days – I got to meet my 3 year-old nephew, Ian - we went to the San Diego Zoo, and all was right with the world. San Diego was where I’d begun my Navy career, so it was kind of a closure, being back there. Then, I made my journey east, this time in style, by plane!
  • My first stop was my friends in Connecticut. I thought they would treat me like a conquering hero. They had been those friends who were always there while I went through all my trials and struggles in the Navy. I figured if anyone would understand what I had done, they would. But, things were really weird up there. They were all dealing with my best friend Reed’s diagnosis of Hodgkins Disease, which had happened while I was on the lam. Reed’s former fiance Peggy, who had recently taken up with David, was confused about what to do. I’d learn later that she also thought that I had developed a thing for her, which I hadn’t, but which would explain some of the weirdness there. It turned out to be a real letdown of a visit. What had really shaken me was Reed’s pronouncement, as I visited him on the job in the shade-grown tobacco fields of Connecticut’s Tobacco Valley, where he was a field boss, that he was now an Atheist. That just stunned me. While I was no longer, in any way religious, I still believed in God, and in the spiritual life, and I’d always felt this kind of spiritual connection with Reed. I just didn’t know what to do with this new information. I came away from there really kind of shook.

    Next, I visited my family in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. My Mom was cordial, but distant. They really didn’t know how to take me at that point. They had discovered that I was AWOL when they had stopped at my apartment on the beach in Norfolk months before, on their way back north from Florida, only to be met by my roommate, who explained to them what had happened. All he could tell them was that I took off in a greyhound bus for parts unknown. I hadn’t communicated with them the entire time I was AWOL, until I got picked up and sent to Treasure Island. Dad was just his usual pain in the ass self, all self-righteous and “told you so” attitude. I’d always felt like he was just waiting for me to fail, the whole time I was in the Navy. Well, congratulations, Dad – you got it right, again! Aren’t you happy now? He wasn’t. My little sister Mary tried her best to understand what was going on with me – she was always in my corner, always had my back – but even she seemed to be struggling to get what I was now about.

    By the time I got out of there, I couldn’t wait to get down to Norfolk to see my old friends down there, where I knew for sure I’d be received as the conquering hero. I guess I was really looking for that validation. My plan was to spend about a week there, then start making my way back West.

    My old friend Mike from the ship decided that he wanted to do what I had done. He was ready to get off the ship, and out of the Navy. Mike had a Jeep. He was going to drive across the country in it, and turn himself in at Treasure Island, just like I had done, and hope for the best. He asked if I would travel with him. This was perfect! I had my transportation back to my new life on the West Coast! Everything was set, and things were just falling right into place. Despite things not going as I’d planned with my friends and family, I was ready to bag this stuffy-assed East Coast and go to where the sun always shined. I was ready to go West.
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