When Anything Can Happen
I had abandoned the safety and security of the same ship I had called home for 2 years, with a steady paycheck that I could do with what I wanted to, since I didn’t have to worry about a place to sleep or what to eat — the navy had provided all those things for me. Now, I found myself out on my own, with no income and at least 30 days to kill before turning myself in to the authorities on the other side of the country, at Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay, with no idea how I would get there, nor how I would live between here and there.
Yet, none of that bothered me at the time. All I knew was, from the moment that thought came to me to “just walk away” from my ship, I had given myself over to an adventure beyond anything I had ever imagined. I was just going with it. Now I was on some kind of a ride that I felt compelled to take to the end — I had gone well past the point of no return. I’d fully embraced the sense of adventure this brought with it. It felt terribly exciting to me. I was not a stranger to new adventures.
I had reached my senior year in high school without having given much thought to what I would do after graduation — I was having too much fun partying the previous two years to be concerned with any of that — when one day, my buddy Cy and I had a serious discussion about our futures while ditching class and smoking cigarettes down by the football field at South Hills High School on Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh.
“We’re going to be done with all of this in a few months, Pete — what are we going to do then? What will we do with our lives?” Neither one of us felt like we were college material, and neither could afford that, anyway. “I have no idea, Cy. None at all. I guess I’ll keep working at the Red Bull Inn and figure it out from there.” I was a busboy at that restaurant. I liked working there.
We had decided to go talk to some military recruiters to explore our options in the service. We both felt like we might be able to learn a skill and/or a trade in one the services, that we could then find work in after we got out. The Viet Nam war was still going on at the time — it was the fall of 1971 — but we felt like it would probably be over by the time we graduated. It seemed to be winding down, anyway.
Neither the Army nor the Marines had any good training programs for new recruits that we felt would help us get good jobs after our service time — plus, the odds of winding up in a paddy-field in Viet Nam were much greater with those outfits — but the Air Force and the Navy had some great sounding programs, and would keep us further away from the action, if the war persisted ’til then.
We spent a lot of time with recruiters from both of those services. We both decided that between the two, the Navy had the cooler uniforms. They had bell-bottoms! Bell-bottoms were very much “in” in 1971. The chicks dug them. Plus, my friend and fellow busboy Gordy had gone into the Navy. While he claimed to hate it, I felt like he secretly loved it — it just wasn’t his style to let on that he did. I’d seen what boot camp did for him — he came back all buff and full of piss and vinegar. I thought it might do the same for me. I was just a skinny punk with very little self-confidence.
We decided to go in to the Navy after we graduated, under the “buddy” program. That would assure we got stationed together, so we would always have at least one person we knew wherever we got sent. It made a lot of sense at the time. Once we had a plan, I no longer worried about my future. I went back to enjoying the partying life, no longer concerned with such problems as what I would be when I grew up.
That period of my life came to a spectacular end when Cy and I, along with a couple of our buddies, decided to throw a big keg party — in my family’s home. We thought maybe 25 or 30 kids would show up, but it seemed like the whole school decided to come. We stopped counting heads at the door at something like 125. We’d made a killing, charging $5 a head, $3 for girls, as that party became the biggest hit of the winter season at South Hills High School. It raised my social stock in the school to near-rockstar status! I was a bona-fide legend!
However, that status would be short-lived, as that stunt also landed me an all-expenses paid trip to Connecticut with my family, when they moved there the next month. I would finish out my senior year in a new school, in a strange, new place. Mom had proposed it to me as an adventure, and I’d embraced it as such. It truly was an adventure — in many more ways than one! Moving to Connecticut was a game-changer for me.
A lot happened in Connecticut, including an intellectual awakening late in my senior year, there — I met the first teacher to inspire me in my entire 12 years of education, late in the 11th hour of that education. Because of his inspiration, I was actually able to graduate with the rest of my class. I had really buckled down and pulled a failing high school career out of the crapper at the last possible moment. It was nearly a miracle that I did.
I’d even decided to give college a try, after all, and enrolled in Greater Hartford Community College that fall, instead of joining the Navy with Cy. Cy went ahead with Plan A, and got into the navy’s nuclear power program, as planned. He reported to hate it just as much as Gordy had reported to hate the Navy, but I didn’t believe him, either. I saw what it did for him — he showed much more self-confidence than ever before when I saw him back home on leave.
Meanwhile, college didn’t turn out like I’d planned, so after two very rough semesters, I was ready to go back to Plan A, myself. I went to a recruiter in Windsor Locks and told him to skip the sales pitch — “just sign me up for the navy’s nuclear power program”, which I knew would be a 6-year enlistment. Two weeks later, I was on a plane to the Recruit Training Center in San Deigo, California. Unlike many of my other fellow sailors, I could never blame my recruiter for selling me a bill of goods. I’d made his job ridiculously easy.
Boot Camp was the highlight of my navy career, until my last two months on Treasure Island, four years later. I came out of there all buff and full of piss and vinegar, just like my old pal Gordy had, ready to take on the world. I’ve never had as much confidence as I felt then. I felt invincible.
My first ship was an unmitigated disaster, then I was sent to Nuke school. There, I made a decision to do everything I could to never get sent back to a ship like that first one was. They’d told me I lacked the aptitude in Physics to make it there, but I’d said, “Hold my beer”, then proceeded to kill it. I loved that school!
By the time I’d reached my second ship a year later, my head was full of all I’d learned in school. I was eager to apply it on the job to be a top-notch “Nuke” operator. I’d then succeeded to do just that — but found I couldn’t stand the work, itself. It was devastatingly boring to me. After two years on the ship, I felt like I was trapped on a floating prison, with two more years of that prison to face. My psychological “break”, when I’d nearly murdered an officer then had some kind of an epiphany that told me to just “walk away”, had led me to that moment on the beach where I’d met Jeannie, my new traveling companion. This adventure had just turned romantic — I’d hoped.
“’Kathy’, I said, as we boarded the greyhound in Pittsburgh
‘Michigan seems like a dream to me now,
‘It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw,
I’ve come to look for America’.
“Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, ‘be careful his bow-tie is really a camera’…
‘Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat’
‘We smoked the last one an hour ago’.
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field…
‘Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping,
‘I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why!’
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America — Simon & Garfunkel, “America”
I’d gotten my friend Harry to drive us down to the bus depot in Norfolk the next day, where we boarded a bus bound for Portland, Oregon. Jeannie was very friendly and trusting, and though she claimed to have a boyfriend back in Portland, I felt like I had a shot with her, if I played my cards right. She was very physical and liked to touch, so I went along for the ride, and hoped it would lead somewhere good.
We had a great time the first couple days, and found a number of like-minded kids in the back of the bus, so the ride was a lot of fun at first. We didn’t do anything illegal or illicit on the bus itself — we only got high during the stops, outside the bus — but we did carry on and made more than our fair share of noise and commotion back there as we did. One driver in particular seemed to find us most annoying. He’d grown more and more agitated as the miles rolled away and we’d entered the state of Nebraska in the early morning hours.
Back then, you could smoke on a bus. One guy was smoking a French cigarette, Gauloise, that smelled much different than American cigarettes. The driver became convinced that it was marijuana, and began demanding over the P.A. system that “whoever’s smoking that funny-smelling cigarette needs to stop.”
In a spirit of helpfulness, I borrowed the guy’s cigarette pack and took it up to show the driver, “He’s just smoking these French cigarettes — that’s what you’re smelling.” Well, that driver had just about had all he was willing to take of my loud mouth, and immediately jerked the steering wheel to the right, pulled the bus onto the shoulder of the interstate highway, and shouted, “That’s it! I’m done with you — get out! Get the hell off my bus!”
Jeannie had been asleep — the sudden bus maneuver and the shouting had woken her out of her dreams, and she came running up the aisle, saying, “Pete, what’s going on? What happened?”
“I’m getting thrown off the bus. I have to go.”
“I’m coming with you!”
“No, no, you stay on, and just wait for me at a stop down the road. I’ll catch up with you. I’ll get the next bus coming through.”
Of course, we didn’t have cell phones back then, in fact, I didn’t even know her last name, nor where we were supposed to be staying in Portland. I never saw nor heard from her again after that, though my friend Harry reported to me, months later, that she had come back to Norfolk looking for me. Apparently, the feelings I was beginning to have for her were mutual. She felt the same way about me. But, fate sent us both in different directions.
I found myself on the side of the highway, in the middle of America, with nothing but my backpack full of all my earthly belongings, and an adventure that I’d thought had turned romantic, suddenly feeling like the loneliest adventure in the world. I was all alone in the world, more than a thousand miles from anything, or anyone, that I knew.
“Miles from nowhere, guess I’ll take my time,
Oh, yeah — to reach there”. Cat Stevens
“Tonight I feel so far away from home.” — Steve Forbert