At eighteen, I became a sailor. A lot of things could have been different. They could have stationed me far from home. I could have fallen for the girl from Sandusky. Or I might have worked out a way to pay my bill and return to school in time to graduate and never have gone in the service. Preferably that.
But I wound up in Boston for my first year. My ship was in the yards up there having an overhaul. I could walk to South Station and be at the Old Saybrook station in a few hours. In Boston I was a minor and a stranger. Back home, I was almost myself. Except that I was mostly alone. My classmates were in college. My town friends were busy. My family were content to see me, yet I was distant.
But the liquor store still had the sign that read “100 Kinds of Beer” and I’d only gotten through about 20 of them to that point, so I still had a goal to work on. And twice a month I had a little paycheck burning a hole in my pocket.
I quickly learned that I don’t care for most dark beers, stout, or bitters. I found Dinkel Acker and Saint Paulie Girl very palatable. I learned that cigarettes taste better with beer. And when money got low, Michelob was a premium beer.
Generally, I’m a fun drunk. I get silly and bump into things and I’m kinda funny. But a couple of months into the routine of going home every other weekend, I saw the reality of my situation. I had messed up in school, in my career, and in my love life. I had a GED, but no genuine prospects. I was in a Navy billet as a “Data Processing Technician”, but my job for the next year would mostly comprise demolition, washing dishes, carrying a fire extinguisher, and installing insulation.
That’s when I found out that Michelob makes Jack Daniel’s palatable, too. And I don’t know what the lowest point was. Was it sitting on the embankment at the interchange of I-95 and Rt 9 throwing empties at cars at 1 am? Or was it passing out on a rock next to the driveway on the stagger home?
My new career as a drunken sailor didn’t last very long, but the depression was real, and the musty residual soaked into my psyche where it stayed for many years. It reminded me from time to time who I am; a failure in learning, life, and love.
I don’t mean this brief story to be a downer. But, even in our quaint and sometimes idyllic Shoreline towns, good things go bad. In my case, I didn’t spiral any further down. I didn’t become an alcoholic, get bounced from the Navy, or get some silly girl pregnant. I found second chances. At education, at life, and in love.
My later visits home were more constructive. I got my car fixed, so I had wheels in Boston and I could get home more quickly. Later I brought home a girlfriend for visits. I stopped drinking altogether and worked more on my rank and my education to give me direction and a shot at a future without the Navy.
But there are residuals. In some ways I failed myself, my family, and my potential. There is that lingering musty smell of failure in the corners. But I think it gives a depth and a mystery to life that makes it worth reflecting on. What if? What if I had finished up at Hammonasset and gone on to the College of the Atlantic as I planned? What if I had completed the degree in photojournalism and made a career as a creative? What if I had married a local girl and stayed and gone into business as my grandfather did in Old Saybrook?
What if all of my dreams came true like that? Would I be sitting in my little house on the Shoreline, looking back over my life in this quaint little place, complaining about politics and the weather and saying, “What if I had joined the Navy and seen the world?”