Freedom and Championship
As a history-minded person, dates are meaningful to me. When anniversaries of significant events in my life roll around, I like to take a moment to reflect on the event. Today, there’s two such events I get to remember associated with July 12th.
The one, I wouldn’t have remembered the date, but facebook reminded me of it — one of the things I do love about facebook. The other, I always just remember it when this date rolls around. It’s a hard date to forget — it was a major life-changing event.
That was the day I got my honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy, July 12th, 1977. I’d been in for 4 years and 42 days at that point, although my record only shows that I served for 3 years, 11 months, and 18 days. I spent 60 days of my time officially AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave). I still managed to get an Honorable Discharge, despite the fact that I was getting out 2 years before my 6-year enlistment was slated to expire.
Timing was everything
I had picked the perfect time in history and my career to get lost for 60 days, and to wash up on Treasure Island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. There, a maverick former pilot was the captain commanding the base. His job was to boot as many sailors who’d washed up onto his shores out of the Navy as possible, in the most expedient manner.
The Navy, along with the rest of the military, was winding down from a war-time capacity, to a much smaller peace-time size, a couple years after we’d left Viet Nam forever. He was an important instrument in the Navy’s down-sizing. He was good at his job!
I had been tipped off by a legal officer on my ship, prior to going AWOL, that Treasure Island was the place to go if I wanted to get a fair shake. The reason I went AWOL was to get transferred off my ship, to another ship. That officer had planted the seed, when I’d asked him how I could get off the ship when the captain was not approving any transfers.
I desperately needed to get away from the captain, for a number of very good reasons. Going AWOL was the only way of doing that. If I stayed gone at least 30 days, the Navy could not return me to the same ship. So I doubled-down and went for 60 — not my plan, just the way it shook out.
An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse
I’d had an excellent record up to that point — after a few early-on problems on my first ship, I’d straightened up and flown right the rest of my career. The captain at Treasure Island said I qualified for an honorable discharge, which he offered in lieu of a transfer to another ship, which is what I was expecting. I asked him if I could think about it! He looked at me like I was nuts, then gave me 48 hours to decide.
It took me less than a day to say, “Okay, I’m outtahere — give me the damn discharge!” It was the only choice that made sense. I would have been sent to a conventional ship, as opposed to a nuclear ship, which I’d been on.I wanted nothing to do with a conventional ship. While I had issues with nuclear power in general, at that point, I’d almost died in an engine room fire on a conventional Destroyer, and still had haunting memories from that. So, I picked Door #1, and got the hell out.
I had spent 2 months on the island awaiting my discharge to come through, with lots of time to think about what I would do when I got out. I’d managed to get a great job as the Chaplains’ Assistant there, handling all of their correspondence and managing their schedules. They turned out to be the best friends a crazy sailor like myself could have on a base. They bailed me out of more than one jam, and they helped me figure out what I would do as a civilian. They were great.
Freedom Came My Way One Day, But…
So, armed with a plan, and filled with hope, I savored the first tastes of sweet freedom as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge one last time, entering back into the world as a civilian again.
It didn’t take long — less than two months — before I watched all those plans and hopes go up in smoke. I found myself staring into the abyss of alcoholism and drug addiction, back in Norfolk, Virginia, where I simply couldn’t stop using, was suddenly unemployable, and completely strung out.
It was exactly two months later that I drank the last drink that would ever cross my lips, September 12th, 1977. I was done. It took me another couple of years to be able to say the same about other substances, but the booze was what almost killed me, so it was appropriate that it was the first to go.
None of it would have happened, had I stayed in the Navy and finished out my hitch. In fact, before I felt the need to run from that captain on my ship, I had been seriously considering a career in the Navy. When I came face to face with the stark reality that, on a ship, the captain is higher up the chain of command than God, my naval career aspirations quickly evaporated. All it took was that one captain to convince me.
I never wrote to thank him. He, and the maverick captain at Treasure Island, both did me a huge favor, helping me to find my way out of a place that would have continued to support my active addiction. I am fairly certain that if I hadn’t stopped when I did, I probably wouldn’t have lived much past age 30. 42 years ago today, my road to true freedom began in earnest, with that discharge. Thanks, oh captains my captains!
Champions at Last!
The other memory associated with this date? My first ever softball championship — actually, my first championship of any kind, in my life, at age 55, 9 years ago. It was the glorious fulfillment of a lifelong dream. That, too, happened on July 12th.
Today, I truly savor the taste of freedom, and I know what it feels like to be a champion. This is a good day!