I’m never really sure why I find myself telling a story again that I’ve previously told, but it seems that as I pull the layers back, and look deeply into a memory of a time, more details come to the surface. Like when I shared the first 3 parts of this multi-part journey with my buddy Mike, who is featured in this part of the story, he remembered coming over to my old apartment and asking my old roommate, Dave, if he’d seen me – and there I was, all sacked out on the sofa, right there! I hadn’t even remembered if Dave still had the apartment at that point!
Telling the story again always seems to uncover more details, maybe some lesson that I missed at the time, that I kept missing as the fading memory carried forward with whatever myth I got comfortable telling myself for all these years about that memory. Now, I’m looking back to uncover whatever truths there are back there to enlighten my present. Whatever it is that takes me back there, when I find myself there again, the only thing to do is to write my way out of there. So, here goes.
Mike was ready to get off the ship, and out of the Navy. There was a real buzz on the ship, especially among many of my old mates in the forward Engine Room, about my journey and its eventual result – an honorable discharge, and freedom. They all, like I had been, were in the middle of 6 year enlistments, which had been required because of all of the education and training we needed to get to be qualified to run a reactor on a ship. It was nearly the equivalent of a degree in Nuclear Physics – years later, in fact, I received 52 college credits towards just such a degree, based solely on my Navy training.
It was never my intention, however, to lead a “mutiny” of sorts, to be a Pied Piper leading guys off that ship to freedom. I hadn’t done it trying to get out of the Navy – I’d simply done it to get off that ship, and away from that lunatic Captain. Mike, whose memory of that time is much sharper than mine; he was straight as an arrow, didn’t even drink, let alone use drugs - recently shared this recollection of when he wound up at Treasure Island, after his cross-country journey: “I saw at least one former SOCAR sailor (our old ship, the South Carolina, SOCAR for short) at TI when I was there. I also remember telling that Commander, who was letting sailors go, about our ship’s captain, and how Queeg-like he was. I gave him details of the meeting he had when he called all his senior nuc NCOs (nuclear non-commissioned officers) together and told them how vindictive he was, saying ‘If you try to fuck me over, I'll see to it you get fucked over twice as bad.’ I'd like to think that we helped to keep him from making admiral.”
So, it did kind of bother me that suddenly, what I did for one reason, was leading others to do the same thing for totally different reasons. But, I guess life is like that. Mike and I had each read a ton of books on the 7 month Mediterranean Cruise we’d recently been on. We would always talk about the books we were reading as we stood the late night watches down in the Engine Room. Often, one of us would crawl off behind a switchboard or big pump with a book, while the other kept an eye out for officers. One of the books we’d both read and discussed was Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley”, where he’d embarked on a cross-country journey with his dog and a little pickup camper, in 1960, taking all the back roads, and writing about the changing America he’d encountered on that journey. Mike and I decided we would do a 1977 version of “Travels With Charley”, taking as many back-roads as we could as we made our trek from Norfolk to San Francisco. I’d do the writing while he did most of the driving. I’d call it “Travels With Mikey.”
We started out heading north instead of west, though. We planned to take our time, as Mike knew the drill- you had to be gone for at least 30 days, else they’d just send you back to your ship when you turned yourself in. 30 days was the magic number, past which they couldn’t send you back. Our old buddy, George, lived in Kennebunkport, Maine, so we decided to go see him on the first leg of the journey. George had gotten out of the Navy, then come back in when he saw how lax the civilian nuclear power plants were about safety in their operations. He predicted there would be major problems out there – when the partial reactor meltdown atThree Mile Island happened a couple years later, I remembered George’s prediction. However, he’d found the craziness on the ship to be too much, and when his enlistment time was up, he’d gotten out again.
So there I was, I had my transportation back to the West Coast all arranged, I had a grand plan to write a book about it all, everything was falling into place…but, I had one small problem. My dependence on alcohol and drugs had suddenly escalated out of control. I wasn’t even sure when it happened. Most of the time I was AWOL, I wasn’t using any kind of drugs, and drinking only occasionally. I was too focused on merely surviving during that time, working and keeping myself busy as I traveled around. My drinking had picked up some at Treasure Island, but it was just an occasional thing there, as I was too busy to be wasted all the time. I had gotten pretty wasted on my visit with my friends in Connecticut, as things there were so strange, that was all I’d wanted to do there. Once I’d gotten back to Norfolk, my using had quickly escalated. A lot of my old friends wanted to celebrate my freedom, and there were parties, and bar-hopping, and drugs – plenty of drugs.
Now, as Mike and I made our way up north, I found myself needing to get high a lot. This made things pretty strange and uncomfortable between Mike and I, since he was straight, and didn’t understand what was going on with me. In that state, I was growing more and more irritable. I began to worry that I was losing my mind. This growing sense of impending doom began to come over me, as I experienced anxiety attacks with increasing regularity. We’d made a stop in Connecticut to visit my friends there – things had gotten even stranger there for me, and I couldn’t wait to get back on the road again, the whole time we were there. We spent a couple days with George and his family up in Maine – the whole time, I was wanting to crawl right out of my skin, as I’d forced myself to stay straight and not get high while we were there with him and his family, and just couldn’t wait to get my next load on.
By the time we left Maine and began our way south towards Massachussetts, where we would turn the Jeep west and begin our westward journey, I was simply out of my mind. Mike was being very cool about things, but I was finding him harder and harder to take. I finally decided that I couldn’t do this trip, this journey. I wasn’t ready to go back out to the “wild West”. There was something wrong with me, and I wanted to figure out what it was, and get right before I went out there. I had Mike drop me off at a juncture where one road went south, and another went West. He took the westbound road, while I headed south. I’ve never seen him, since (although we’ve stayed in touch through the years, and e-mail each other all the time, now).
I wound up back down in Norfolk, where things did indeed “go South” for me, in a hell of a hurry. I didn’t think such a rapid deterioration was even possible, but within a month, I found myself living in an apartment with a bunch of people I barely knew, all my dreams and hopes seemingly vanished, and all I could think about, or cared about, was where my next “high” was going to come from. I was collecting unemployment and looking for work, but at that point, I really didn’t want to find a job. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do. I was completely lost. I just went through the motions, and each day got harder to get through. When the unemployment money was running out before the next check came, I began to sell my plasma for $15 a shot. You could do that 3 times a week, and I did. Extra beer and cigarette money. I was barely eating. All I wanted to do was get high.
In a moment of sanity, I saw very clearly where it all was heading. I stared into the abyss of complete insanity. I already felt like I was losing my mind. I could no longer focus on anything for any period of time. I needed to be high just to function – and my functioning wasn’t very functional. The guy I was living with was trying to start his own business, and had been counting on me to help him. I knew I was in no condition to help anyone. I was certain that I was very close to going completely insane. One morning, I decided there was only one thing left to do. “Go home.” I had no idea if they would even take me back, at this point. There was no reason, that I could think of, that they would. I had been so arrogant towards both of my parents, and I felt for sure that I’d burned those bridges forever - but I just couldn’t think of what else to do.
I tried sneaking out of the apartment, but Harry stopped me and asked what I was doing. “I’m going home, man.” “You can’t leave, now. You promised you’d help me with my business!” “Wake up, Harry! Look at me! I’m fucking wasted. I can’t even help myself, let alone anyone else. I’m done!” And, I walked out.
Where, just weeks earlier, I’d had high hopes and golden dreams, now I only had one thought in mind – “I need to stop drinking and getting high”. I thought it might be too late – I was really concerned that I had caused too much damage, and my brain was fried beyond repair. But, I had to find out. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was scared to death of losing my mind, and never getting it back. I needed to talk to Mom – Mom would know what to do .