Out on the Lost Coast
Jack Armstrong was a retired Marine Corps Colonel. But he wasn’t what you would think based on your unconscious biases. He had confused and perplexed a lot of folks who came in contact with him for most of his adult and professional life. They often found him to be an enigma.
He was an expert rifle and pistol shot, and he read Shakespeare. He spent years plowing through Ezra Pound’s 800-page epic poem The Cantos, and had surfed the Pipeline on Oahu’s north shore. He had written a groundbreaking policy memo that changed the way American forces conducted special operations against militant groups in sub-Saharan Africa, but he thought American troops should only be deployed on foreign soil on rare occasions. He was a patriot, but he believed our military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies needed to be watched like a hawk by elected civilian leadership. In short, he was a contrast in terms.
He grew up in Texas, went to school in a nearby state, spent over twenty-five years in the military, and in semi-retirement had finally settled along the lost coast of Florida, somewhere north of Miami and south of Jacksonville. He preferred to keep the name of the town to himself when people asked. He’d tell them he lived in St. Augustine or Port St. Lucie instead. He had his reasons.
Jack was a “schooled” man. He had an undergrad degree in political science and history, a law degree, a masters of law degree, and other graduate degrees in things like national security studies, literature, and cultural psychology, all from different schools and universities.
Applying Mark Twain’s maxim that, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education,” Jack was also an educated man, having lived and served in southern California, Virginia, North Carolina, Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe, Florida, still-classified locations in Central Asia, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Hawaii. He’d been to every state except Alaska. But he would get around to it.
Having grown up during the Reagan era, he tended to be personally and politically conservative, though moderately so; as he got older he became more libertarian, and he couldn’t care less what others did with their own lives as long as it didn’t affect him. He hoped everyone else would return him the favor. He was increasingly disturbed by the fringe elements of the traditional political parties. It seemed all the diplomats on either side had long-since vanished, and in his view, this did not bode well for the nation.
Jack had never thought of himself as libertarian, until a friend told him he was more libertarian than conservative. Jack bristled. “Why do you think I am libertarian?” “A libertarian is someone who advocates only minimal government intervention in the free market and the lives of its citizens, is a strong defender of civil liberties, and who believes humans have free will,” the friend had observed. Well shit. If those were libertarian philosophies, then Jack was definitely and without question a libertarian. Live and let live, as long as everyone followed the laws and the laws were enforced the same across the board.
But he kept all of this to himself unless he was with people in his close circle and thought that if other people did the same the world would be a much better place, mainly because he couldn’t care less about your politics and thought you shouldn’t concern yourself with his. After all, the philosophy had worked out very well for him.
He was promoted five times as a military officer by five different presidents from different parties and appointed to federal civilian positions by a Republican and a Democratic Attorney General, while keeping his personal opinions about all of them and their politics to himself. This is what all military officers should do; keep their mouths shut in public about politics. Your job was not to make policy; your job was to execute policy. And as far as things in general, nothing starts an argument like politics or religion. Nobody ever changed anyone’s mind. It was a waste of time to discuss it; or to argue about it.
Jack Armstrong was the kind of guy who could be your best friend or your worst enemy. But the key was, it was your decision. He would give you the shirt off his back and expect nothing in return. Or he could hound you to the gates of hell if you did him or someone he cared about wrong. He had an extremely long memory. It was just how Jack was wired. Take it or leave it.
Jack was an early riser. He always had been. It wasn’t that he couldn’t sleep; he always fell asleep early and easily it seemed; he couldn’t keep his eyes open long after 10. But when the sun was about to come up, his eyes seemed to fly open right on cue, as if his body was in tune with it. It was no different this late September morning.
It was six. He rose slowly out of bed so as to not wake his wife, grabbed his board shorts, and walked out of the bedroom, making sure to shut the door behind him so his movements through the house didn’t wake her. Such was his usual routine on most days now.
He made his first stop in the kitchen, where he brewed the first cup of Illy. There would probably be two more cups depending on how long it took him to get moving into his day. As the cup hissed to a finish, he looked out the nearby window; the sun was still not up, but he could see the predawn half-light on the east horizon, and it was now casting everything into that beautiful ethereal glow his late father had always said was the best part of the day. And his Dad had been right.
Although his father had been gone now for three years, Jack still missed him and often thought about him at this time of day. Although he’d never had any regrets, Jack would always be bothered by the fact that the last half of his father’s life had been stolen from him by an insidious neurological disease that medical researchers had only in the past decade identified and named. There were so many experiences and topics Jack had wanted to share and discuss with his father, but his father simply couldn’t follow or comprehend much of it, and Jack would often find that even one day later, his father had forgotten all of it. And as similar as the first 23 years of each of their lives had been, everything each of them had done after that age couldn’t have been more dramatically different.
The full cup hot and in hand, he walked into what he called the Carolina Room, his favorite room in the house. In the house’s much earlier days, this area had been a screened-in porch. But after several renovations, it was now a room just off the kitchen and the living room, with entrances from both. It had large picture windows on the three sides that didn’t lead back into the house. At present, it contained a standup desk, a Key West easy chair, and several bookshelves filled to the brim. There was no television. From his vantage point at the desk, Jack could check the weather, the swell, and the news — the latter of which was becoming increasingly slanted and unreliable in the year 2022. But he had his methods of corroboration.
As he took the first sip from the MiiR camping mug and savored the vanilla hazelnut flavor, he opened the laptop screen. He couldn’t care less about last night’s football scores. He didn’t even know who had played. Hell, they played every weeknight now, it seemed. In the rare event they even turned on the one TV they owned on a weeknight, they couldn’t escape it. There seemed to be a game on every other channel. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Didn’t these college kids have classes during the week? Did anybody care anymore? Or were colleges just a pipeline now?
In a former life, Jack himself had played on the Division One level. And the games were always on Saturdays. He still had the conference championship ring from the last team at his alma-mater ever to win such a championship in football. That had been 33 years ago now. And the ring had sat untouched in a jewelry box somewhere for 32 of those 33 years.
Sometimes, he thought about hocking it — some virulent fan would probably give him 10,000 dollars for it — or just donating it to one of those gaudy sports museums that had popped up all over the place in recent years— shrines and keepers of all things sporting achievement-wise. The folks who ran those places surely had something better to do with such shiny little amulets. He made a mental note to locate the box that contained the ring so he could get the thing appraised; at the very least he could probably get enough cash for the thing to buy a nice new longboard; maybe two. He had no idea where it was though and had better things to do with his time.
Back when Jack played, colleges and universities were still institutions of higher learning rather than the money-eating monsters they had grotesquely morphed into over the ensuing decades. And the recent pandemic — mostly the government reaction to it — had thrown this current reality into stark repose when colleges faced a true existential crisis because of lost football revenue. But sadly, this was the consequence of universities selling their proverbial souls for cash.
When schools went from institutions of higher learning that placed education above anything else to cash-generating leviathans more eager to make money and build facilities in order to keep up with the rest — and in turn became too dependent on sports played by 17 to 22-year-old student athletes — it was only a matter of time before they would face an existential crisis.
The whole situation was a dysfunctional symptom of a much wider American affliction; obsession with — even addiction to — something the fans would never do themselves and that had no actual impact on their daily lives. It was a weird, tribal thing. Jack never could figure out why people put so much emotional energy into the outcome of a game played by 17 to 22 year-old kids.
When his playing days were done after college, Jack had tried, but never been able, to become a fan himself. When he had been a player it was like a job; it paid his tuition and board. It was a means to an end. There was nothing transcendent or more important to it than that. Jack viewed it as just one of the many steps on the ladder leading from the shackles of youth to freedom and independence: Get your college degree and get a job. It was not the end of the line, it was just a step along the way. And Jack had seen what happened to those who had played the game and viewed those four years as something more than this. They spent the rest of their lives looking back on something they had done at the age of 21 as their greatest accomplishment. Those were the saddest cases.
So Jack could never bring himself to care about the game after he was done. But he quickly learned that to the fans who had never played, it was something completely different. They had made it all out to be much more than what it really was. And at first, he couldn’t understand this uniquely-American affliction. But over time, he did. And now, he understood it perfectly. It was one of the many reasons they were now out here on the edge of America, living in a free state, as far away from the afflicted as they could get.
No he didn’t give a crap about the football scores, or which obscenely overpaid prima donna had pulled a hammy in last night’s game, or the next obligatory brawl that had broken out in the stands between opposing fans, or which coach making 9 million dollars was on the hot seat. But he did want to know how the Astros had done last night.
Baseball was the one spectator sport he still followed. It was still pure, full of tactics and strategy, required better athleticism than any other sport, had owners who kept low profiles and were not greedy egomaniacs, and didn’t damage the brains or slowly kill the people who played it.
He found the box score while taking another piping hot sip of coffee, and saw where the Astros had won again, defeating the Oakland A’s 5–2. They were now 94 and 50, a full thirteen games ahead of the Mariners in the AL West. They had the best record in the American league and second-best in baseball. Maybe Dusty might finally get that elusive World Series championship this year. Who knew? Baker had managed 11 teams to the post season and 2 to the World Series, but had never won it all. Maybe this was the year.
Jack chuckled about the people who still whined about the Astros’ 2017 championship. He laughed because he knew that every team in the league, indeed, every team on the college level, engaged in some form of gaining an edge. The problem that teams had with the 2017 Astros was not that they had gained an edge, it was that they had done it better than everyone else. It was the same with Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong won 7 Tours de France in a row. Jack still considered him to be the 7-time champion. Why? Because everyone else was doing the same thing to get an edge. Armstrong’s team just did it better than everyone else. Same with the Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa home run race in 1998. It had literally saved baseball after the disastrous 1994 strike-shortened season. Everyone was trying to get an edge during the so-called “Steroid Era,” a term coined many years after the 1998 season. But while the 1998 drama was unfolding, not a single person concerned themselves with how McGwire and Sosa were able to pump out a combined 136 homers between them in a single season. Everyone was on the bandwagon. It wasn’t until years later that journalists and observers suddenly found their moral compasses. In Jack’s mind it all boiled down to a single question: If everyone is cheating, all things being equal, is anyone really cheating? The Astros were 2017 world champions, Lance Armstrong won 7 tours, and Mark McGuire hit 70 home runs in 1998. Spare me your sudden epiphany of morality, Jack thought.
Jack briefly perused the “headlines,” shook his head at the spin in each one of them, and then pulled up the surf report. Interesting. It was already five feet up at New Smyrna Beach off the Ponce de Leon Inlet Jetty, and supposedly similar at the Cocoa Beach pier. Both could get crowded though. And New Smyrna Beach could get sharky.
It wasn’t that the sharks were man-eaters; they didn’t hunt humans. They just made mistakes. They tended to hunt in areas with lots of fish, and New Smyrna Beach was known as a great fishing spot as well as a great surfing area. There were high concentrations of fish in the inlet looking for food, and that meant there was also a good chance some sharks were always lurking in the channel. And sharks tended to confuse surfers and surfboards on the surface with the fish. They saw what they thought was a fish above near the surface, and once they attacked, it took their brains several seconds to realize they had not chomped down on a tasty redfish, but on fiberglass, or worse, bony human flesh, before they spit it out and swam off confused. It wasn’t their fault; they just weren’t that smart when it came to correctly identifying a food source. This was occasionally the risk and cost of people and animals coming into direct contact with one another in the same environment.
This all made surfing the inlet at New Smyrna Beach rather dicey, and one had to constantly be on the lookout for a dorsal fin. It could get nerve racking at times, and Jack didn’t enjoy anything nerve racking. He preferred more calm waters; a more backwater spot the crowds didn’t know about. And he had the perfect spot in mind. It was right in his own backyard.
The decision made, he closed the laptop, drained the first cup of Illy, and headed back into the kitchen for the next one. It was shaping up to be a busy day. And he was ready to move out.
Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, the Human Development Project, Amazon, and Audible.