The First of the Lasts

Moments of Transition

I first wanted to join the Navy when I was six years old. It was 1978 and we were visiting my pop’s family in his home state of Hawai’i. I had traveled to Oahu at least twice before, but the first time I was about one foot long and my observational prowess consisted of alerting the entire world whenever bodily functions needed to be carried out. We traveled again in 1976 during the Bicentennial year, and I have some vague memories of place all decked out in red, white, and blue.

But 1978 is the first one I remember. This was back before every major flight had jetways; we just walked across the tarmac to climb the ladder into the plane. The stewardesses (the term “flight attendant” was still two decades away) gave us kids little plastic Continental flight wings with pins on them to attach to our shirts. Today no such horror exists; the airlines, terrified of lawsuits, are frightened of the money they might shell out for the crime of stabbing a child to death with such a weapon as a pin on the back of plastic wings, so today’s wings are adhesive tape (I’m sure there’s a lawsuit just waiting there for an adhesive allergy). The planes had smoking and non-smoking sections. There were not screens built into the seats; there was one screen at the front of the cabin and only one in-flight movie was shown at a time…if at all.

And I remember my parents letting me sit on the lap of a very kind gentleman in the window seat so I could watch the islands slide below us, occasional clouds sliding between us and obscuring them, lending an air of mystery.

That afternoon was the moment I discovered the world was big. Really big. That was the afternoon I discovered I wanted to travel everywhere and see everything. That was the trip on which I realized I was totally in love with aviation and flying and airports.

That was the year I first visited the USS Arizona Memorial.

Blown to smithereens during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Arizona even then was the Navy’s most hallowed site. The Navy most sacred grave and site of the greatest single loss of life on one vessel my predecessors in the naval service ever suffered.

I was hooked.

Being that close to ship in the first place was intoxicating. Trying to peer through the harbor’s waters to see the ship itself was like peering through a veil to another universe. Looking at the parts of the ship still sticking above the surface was just eerie. Ghost. Corpse. Memorial. Gravestone…the Arizona is today all of these.

Somehow I also understood what it all meant. Now remember, I was only six, so I was completely unable to articulate even to myself what the emotions impacting me were. Looking back with the milage of 45 years on me, I can see what I was feeling and instinctively understanding—loss, tragedy, treachery, grief, rage, and the call of memory. I can see and write all that now. But in 1978 at six years old, I was just…sad. Disturbed.

My parents were a bit worried about me because they couldn’t get out of me what was wrong. My dad did succeed in cheering me up later that day at the Pearl Harbor NEX when he bought me a postcard of dolphin that I had seen and smiled at. I still have that postcard today.

I became fascinated with tragedy that day too. As I got older I read everything I could on great disasters like Pearl Harbor. The Titanic, the Hindenburg, Mt. St. Helens (when it erupted in 1980), etc. At the time it must have seemed like an unhealthy fascination with death, but at the time I was just fascinated with discovering knowledge and with the sheer, incalculable force with which such events impacted history like a bomb.

That was the year I decided, somewhere deep down within my being where my very center self lives, that I wanted to join the Navy.

I took me awhile to get there, but I got there. I was 25 when I enlisted in 1997 (I turned 26 in boot camp; that was a depressing birthday!).

My first command was not a ship like I tried so hard to get. I begged for sea duty orders. I wanted to get underway and see the world and be the Sailor I had spent my life reading about.

I got shore duty. In Spain. At a EP-3E ARIES II patrol squadron, VQ-2.

But…I was seeing the world. And I was an accidental airdale. I had actually joined to be an Aviation Electronics Technician, but failed out of that “A” school (basic tech school) in one week. I’m a great test take, so my test sores are high on everything. In reality, I suck at electronics. I got sent to Yeoman school (admin clerk), and was glad of it because at least “YNs” went everywhere, which mean I could go to nearly any ship in the fleet and look around and see if there was a career path I really wanted.

I ended up in Spain on shore duty in a squadron—very accidentally back in aviation. So I have always called myself an accidental airdale. But my outlook worked; not only did I see Europe I found a career field in naval photography that landed me on a flight deck as part of an F-14 squadron maintaining and launching jets and, eventually, to become a Chief Mass Communication Specialist helping run a world-wide operation in which I was responsible for training, then later deploying and supporting over 50 Sailors (officer and enlisted) to (at one point) three carrier strike groups, two amphibious ready groups, one surface action group, Romania, South America, and various points around the United States. I’ve set foot in 22 countries and 3 U.S. territories. I’ve been to war and supported other operations. I’ve been to sea and been to far-flung islands.

And today it all ended in the the First of the Lasts. Today was my last day on regular duty. At midnight tonight I go on 20 days’ “permissive” temporary duty for house and job hunting. Those orders end August. 31, and then on September 1 I go on “terminal leave,” burning up my last 30 days’ regular leave over my last 30 days in the Navy. This will permit me to really focus hard on job hunting and (I hope!) land something to move into in October. I will be in uniform here now and then over the next seven weeks as I go to various offices during the separation process and all. And, of course, I’ll be in dress blues for my retirement ceremony on Sept. 22.

But today was the final day of regular duty. Today, as a matter of daily routine, I took the uniform off for the last time. I wanted to join the Navy since I was 6; that dream filtered and defined much of my thinking and identity for 19 years until I did enlist. And then I spent 20 years in the Navy. That’s 39 years of identifying with the Navy. 39 years out of the 45 years I’ve been alive. Out of my entire life span so far that’s 4/5 of it spent with the Navy as a centerpoint to who I am, what I want, and where I was going.

Everything ends, every story is different. In 2001, after 9/11 changed the world during my first deployment at sea, I fully expected to do 30 years and retire as a Master Chief, much as my pop did 30 and retired as a Chief Master Sergeant from the Air Force. But my story is not my pop’s story. It’s mine and has to run its own natural course.

Now, as I move full-time into transition and military retirement, my sense of defining who I am, what I want, and where I’m going will change, drastically in some ways and very little in others. I truly am more “me” now than at any time in the past because I’m not only free to be “me,” I’m also confident in myself to be me. I know who I am even as who I am gets set to change and mold itself to fit my new future.

As to what I want…that remains the same. Family. A companion to share the journey with. And a good paycheck that will let me keep traveling even as I earn it through work I find meaningful, work that allows me to make a difference.

Finally…now I do know where I’m going. I’ve been running every minute of every day of my life since that day in 1978. Running and running and running hard to keep from being left behind, to see the world and experience it all before I couldn’t anymore. I ran away from home in a way when I was six and never looked back. And yet, for all that running I really didn’t know where I was going. I was just running.

I know where I’m going. Where I’ve always been going.

I’m going home. I just took the long way around.

This doesn’t mean I won’t travel or explore or thrive anymore. Far from it. But it’s time to go home and have a home. I might achieve this by October; it may take me a few more years to get home. But I’m going home to Florida. It has been a long journey from Pearl Harbor to Florida, and the journey might not yet be quite over, but now, for the first time ever, I know the answer to all three questions.

I know who I am. I know what I want. I know where I’m going.

I have no idea how I’ll get there…but I’ll get there.

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