Forty Years Down the Road
“Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again?”
— Bob Dylan
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The other day, July 12, marked the 40th anniversary of my honorable discharge from the United States Navy. It was the end of a significant period of my life, one that had a profound impact on who I am and how I live. I grew up a lot in the Navy, but I also learned a lot about what I didn’t want to be when I grew up.
That was also the beginning of the end of a chaotic journey I had been on, one that would culminate in my taking my very last drink, exactly two months later, on September 12th of that year. It’s hard to believe that all was forty years ago. In some ways, it still seems like yesterday.
That last drink wasn’t a decision that I just made one day, i.e., “You know — maybe I’ll quit drinking.” It was more like, “Oh shit, I am losing my mental grip on reality — I might never make it back. God help me!” That was the best prayer I could come up with at the time — but, it apparently was good enough, to at least get me to stop drinking.
For me, insanity was a fate worse than death — and, by then, I was staring deeply into the abyss of it. I was damn near gone, and I knew it. I couldn’t look in the mirror in the morning, because I could no longer recognize the shadow of a man that stared back at me, so vacant-eyed and lost that man was.
The two month downhill spiral from the day of my discharge to the day of my last drink was sudden and unexpected, and completely devestating. I went from having high hopes and big dreams for my post-Navy life, to being stuck inside of Norfolk, Virginia, with those West Coast blues again.
I got released from the Navy on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay, where my grand plan was to sign on for merchant marine duty aboard a merchant steamer for six months to a year, establishing California residency while I was at it.
After a year, I would go back to college on the GI Bill, studying literature at Berkeley. I would absorb the spirit of Kerouac and Kesey, living in that area, while I wrote my epic tale about criss-crossing the country on the lam, a fugitive from the law, and all of the great and tragic things that happened out there in the heartland, the people that I met, the renewal of my belief in the American spirit, the freedom from the soul-crushing world of Naval Nuclear Power.
“Well the danger on the rocks has surely passed
Still I remain tied to the mast
Could it be that I have found my home at last?
Home at last!”
— Steely Dan
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It took a lot more years until I felt like I had found my home at last, from the time I took that last drink, until I finally felt comfortable in my own skin without some substance, alcohol or otherwise, helping me to catch that feeling, however fleetingly.
It’s hard to believe how comfortable I am today, in situations that used to baffle me. I didn’t know how people managed to navigate through life with such seeming ease. I had no idea how to do that.
Today, my life is hard to believe. I still feel like the same person I was then — I just don’t have that need to take something in order to feel okay. I can just live my life, each day, do what’s in front of me, and enjoy each moment, be in this moment, and appreciate what I have.
After a long, hard journey, once the miracle of recovery began for me, six and a half years after that last drink, life has taken on such a deep and fulfilling meaning for me. I don’t experience that feeling of despair that used to be my constant companion. I still stumble and make mistakes, occasionally — I’m not perfect yet — but, I have the capacity to learn from those mistakes, today, and I understand that I’m not done, yet. I still have so much to learn.
That’s what I’m on this journey to do — to keep learning, keep growing, and to do what I can to pass along what I learn to the next person who might be stuck where I was once stuck, feeling hopeless and full of despair.
There is a way out of that. And the beauty of it is, I eventually was able to realize all of my dreams. I didn’t go back to school at Berkeley, but I did go back to school. I’ve had the opportunity to write about my travels, to tell all of those stories from the road, and I had a lot of people following my journey, every step of the way, as I wrote about it. That was quite a journey, in itself!
The rest has been gravy. Somehow, I am in this great position with a dynamic organization that serves the American public, and I am able to make some kind of a difference there. Me — that same kid who didn’t think he’d ever make it back from the insanity he faced nearly 40 years ago in Norfolk, Virginia.
I’m a pretty lucky guy. I just hope I don’t blow it. It’s true — there’s still a part of me that wonders when I will manage to bring it all down on my head. I used to be so good at doing that. Anytime I experienced any success, I would have to blow it up, bring it down, find a way to screw it all up. There’s still that part of me that wonders when I’m going to do that, again.
I just don’t pay attention to that part. I keep doing what I know to be the right thing, and keep moving forward.