Untimely Enlistment

I Never Wanted to Go

Never. Seems odd to say it now. I remember looking at the catalog, remember choosing my preference. I remember visiting the recruiter and going with the recruiter to Rhode Island to take the GED. I remember being proud of my ASVAB scores that qualified me for any program in the book. And I remember the fateful day, my mother’s birthday, when I signed up.

The first mistake that day was being talked into signing up before they recorded my GED into my record. That meant I couldn’t get the school I preferred. Bad idea. Every lying bastard I talked to said I could switch over once the GED went into my file. Patently false.

The second mistake was putting off my entry until November. I could have left that very day in March. Would have served them all right. And I would have avoided being in Great Lake, Illinois for the coldest day on record. Not to mention Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. And I would have been home before my class graduated.

But the big mistake was raising my right hand. The military was never for me, nor I for the military. It was an end, not a beginning. It didn’t open doors; it boxed me up and shipped me off. The Navy doesn’t make boys into men, it just makes them into sailors, an excuse to stay a child.

It all started when I got kicked out of school. Being intelligent didn’t give me wisdom. Test scores don’t matter if you can’t pay the bill. I blew my chance at one too many jobs and lost the chance to finish with my class. After Thanksgiving of my senior year, I went to work full-time nights in a nursing home. But I couldn’t even hold on to that stupid job.

My pink slip said they let me go because I didn’t have a woman’s touch. When Ronald Reagan was being sworn in, I was being sworn out. Before I lost that job, I was still hoping to get back into school and finish with my class. Without it, I lost everything that mattered.

Once I left school, my step-father insisted I had to pay to live at home. Once I lost the job I couldn’t pay, so I worked for my board by getting my sister off to school and watching my brother during the day. Meanwhile, my mother had a customer at her store who was the Navy recruiter. His office was right next door. She started getting ideas.

My mother was running the Cumberland Farms on Main Street. She was in the planning stages of divorcing her husband. It was a very hard decision for her. She saw herself as a two-time loser in marriage. But she also had another problem. Her husband was vehemently against the idea. He was also a cop in town and had a nasty streak. She feared his spite would turn on me.

She began urging me to consider visiting with the recruiter. I looked at the catalog, but I wasn’t the military type. I was more like my father, the quiet artist. It wasn’t a good match, even though they offered computer training. But my mother wanted me out of the way before she filed for divorce, so it looked like a great option to her.

At the end of February, I turned 18, which was the legal drinking age in 1981. I didn’t have any money to go out, so I partied at home. It was bad enough that I was three sheets to the wind, but my step-brother had been following me around slurping the drops out of my empties and was a little green around the gills.

He said he should have hauled me in for a night in the drunk tank. Instead, he gave me an ultimatum. Join the service or move out right then. I couldn’t think of any way to support myself, so within three weeks I signed up. It bought me a little time, but it was a desperate move.

In retrospect, there were likely other things I could have done. Either of my grandmothers might have taken me in. My father’s mother lived alone in a big house, but she had refused to help me stay in school, so I didn’t expect her to dig me out of this hole. My mother’s mother lived in a tiny apartment in town. It just wasn’t a good time to get kicked out of the house.

Writing this is hard. I can see so many ways I messed up. I was rash, and I was angry. Losing the opportunity to graduate with my class hurt. Doing what my mother asked was a mistake. For her it was a short-term solution, but I had to live with it forever.

The military changed my understanding of myself. As a child, I had dreams and ideas and amazing creativity. Suddenly, I was an adult operating under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I quickly learned to keep my head down and my ideas to myself. Enlisted sailors are pegs, all interchangeable. And if you stick up you get pounded down. Externally, you comply or they chisel off your rough edges. Inside, you either swallow your dreams or self-medicate. I tried both.

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