Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Life's First Great Lesson

I was a stalwart young sailor of 18 years. I had joined the US Navy 10 days after I graduated from high school. (It seems that this in its self should have been the first great life lesson, but it wasn't. It wasn't the end of "high" schooling either.) I had spent the summer marching around in great squares, memorizing things that I will probably remember forever, but never use again. I graduated from boot camp in San Diego, and then returned two weeks later to attend "A" school. I was to become a dental technician/field medic. (This was not my choice, and it was my first encounter with my particular "kismet". It has been blatantly making its presence known ever since.)

I had managed to score a ticket for a Janis Joplin concert at the Sports Arena in San Diego. I had taken the bus downtown, and while I was there, I tried to score some dope to smoke at the concert. I guess in the end, it was my Kismet coming back to help me out, because I was unable to cop even a roach. It wasn’t too surprising though, at that time in history, being a sailor in San Diego was more of a negative than it could ever be a positive, I looked too straight to be a hippie and too much like a cop to take a chance with. I did manage to find a friend who was a few years older, and he copped me a bottle of Ten High Bourbon Whiskey. It was a pint. Due to my youth and inexperience and my low tolerance with alcohol, it was way more than enough for my purposes. I had never been very good at drinking, my family didn’t drink all that much, and none ever bothered to teach me how to hold my liquor. What was to ensue however wasn’t going to be any test of that particular skill. I caught a bus from downtown directly out to the Sports Arena.

Only tasting the Ten High before I got to the bus, when I arrived, I wandered around, sneaking behind cars and buildings when I wanted a toot. I was early for the concert; people were all about to start heading towards the Sports Arena. I decided that I’d step into the Chevron Station to take a leak before the concert started. I waited my turn, finally getting in, and locking the door, I took a pretty good swig of the bourbon before relieving myself. I finished up my business, took another drink, stuffed the bottle down my pants, and then opened the door. I was surprised, the person waiting next was a person from my barracks on the Naval Training Center, (NTC), so when he came in, I locked the door and pulled out the bottle. We shared a snort, I stashed the bottle, and the sailor left. “Hell, I thought, I’ll have one more quick one, and then head to the concert.” I neglected to lock the door, and the very next person that made his way into the restroom was a San Diego Police Officer, and he caught me stuffing the bottle back into the trousers.

“Are you twenty-one?” he asked.

“Yep.”, I replied quickly.

Apparently he didn’t believe me because he said “Shit”, and then grabbed me by the arm and took me out to the patrol car. He leaned me against the fender, then went over and spoke to another officer. They conferred for a minute or two, then the first cop came over and told me to turn around. He handcuffed me, and then put me in the back of the patrol car. I was conflicted, I had never been in the back of a patrol car before, and I was curious. Boredom followed soon after, there just isn’t that much to do being handcuffed and stuffed into the back of a patrol car. I was starting to feel the buzz of the bourbon, and I had a real urge to have a cigarette. I was in a fix, the cigarettes and my lighter were in my left front shirt pocket. My hands were behind my back. Since I had no clue as to how to act when handcuffed and stuffed into the back of a patrol car, I thought things over, and being much more flexible in those days, I pulled my heels up over my hands and moved my cuffed wrists to the front where it was much easier to manipulate the cigarette and lighter thing. I fired one up and settled back to watch the people outside heading off to the concert. About halfway through the smoke, I heard a knock on the window. I looked up, and there was my own private police officer staring down at me.

“OK, acrobat, get back the way I had you.”

I tried, I sincerely tried to get my feet up front and my hands back, but I got halfway there and got stuck. “I’m stuck.” I said with the cigarette dangling from my now semi-drunken lips. I heard cursing, and the officer opened the door and told me to stand up. It didn’t work. He muttered some unkind things, and then unlocked me, took the cigarette out of my mouth and pushed me back into the patrol car.

“Now stay that way!” Before he could shut the door I asked him, “Hey, I don’t wanna waste this ticket, would you give it to somebody?” I asked. I guess he saw the logic to that, and he took it and handed it over to some hippies that were standing and watching the spectacle. I made some strange kid happy that night. I hoped that he appreciated my sacrifice.

I sat there watching the people peer in at me, I was getting more bored, and more buzzed as the evening wore on. The police officers were conferring with each other, then the other officer, (not my officer), got on the radio. Very soon, a gray panel truck with “United States Navy NTCSD “, stenciled on the side pulled up. The Shore Patrol had been called. I was guessing at the time that this might be a good thing, if I was turned over to them, I wouldn’t have to go downtown and face the civilian legal half of our justice system.

I was lucky. The San Diego City Police did turn me over to the Shore Patrol. The police officers un-cuffed me, and then the shore patrol grabbed me and then told me to go stand by the panel truck. I did, and I waited while they filled out the paperwork that reassigned me from the San Diego City to the United States Navy. The Shore Patrol came back, unlocked the panel truck, opened it up and put me into the back of panel truck. There were two benches in the truck, running parallel down the sides. There was a drunk sitting near the front on each side. Then I, being drunk number three, sat next to the less greener of the two, I wasn’t ready to be next to some car sick drunken sailor when the truck started bouncing around. I was looking for an easy out in case someone got sick. As it turned out, it didn’t really make any difference; the panel truck was just making the rounds picking up the odd stray drunk, the truck made about 3 more stops before it was full, and drove onto the navy base.

I had never been into the base by the main gate, my first time was when the panel truck pulled through fences, I could only see it through the sliding window between the cab and the back of the truck. I wasn’t really impressed with it, I was too worried about where I was going to be headed next, and the Shore Patrol wasn’t being too informative. I was led from the truck into a door, then down the hall to a cage. I was officially in the Navy Brig.

I had never been locked up before, and it was all new. I was stuck into a square room, alone, with bars on three sides. There was a small stainless steel ledge that ran along two sides and the back, there was no bunk. Since I was the only one in there; they had given me my own private drunk tank. I was having a bunch of first experiences that I would have just as soon not have had. I pulled up the floor, laid down and stared at the ceiling.

The ceiling had some kind of vent above it. It was made of a steel plate with two inch holes drilled in it to let air in and out. For some reason, I still had a piece of chewing gum in my mouth. It was getting pretty stale, so I took it out, rolled it in a little ball and not having anything else to do, I tossed it up at the holes in the steel plate above me. This was more entertaining than doing nothing, and I was at it for about five minutes before it actually went into one of the holes, but the whole exercise was self defeating, I had nothing else to do but wait for what was to happen next.

Finally, around an hour later, an Shore Patrol came in, unlocked the door and took me out to a truck in the parking lot. He let me sit in the front, and he drove me back to my barracks. I didn’t know it until later, but when the Master-at-arms heard that I had been brought in for drinking, he said, “Damn, a drinker, I thought all of these assholes were all dopers!” I didn’t know it then, but I had gotten lucky. The Master-at-arms was a boozer. I was sent back to my barracks for the night.

The next morning, we all had to report to muster or roll call at eight A.M. I was scared to death that I was really going to be raked over the coals. The Master-at-Arms called out, “Who is this Kessler asshole?” I responded with a shaky “That is me, Master-at-arms.”

“OK asshole, go stand by the truck.”

I stepped out of formation and walked over to the barrack’s panel truck. It was very similar to the ones I had ridden in the night before, but it didn’t have bars or heavy screens over the windows. My anxiety increased tremendously as the Master-at Arms passed out jobs. Six men were assigned to carry five gallon buckets of red lead paint up three flights of rickety stairs of one of the buildings. They were to spend the next two weeks painting walls and concrete floors with either gray or red paint. The next six were assigned to carry buckets of clean water up three flights of rickety stairso of another building, mop floors and scrub windows, and then carry the buckets of dirty water back down the three flights of rickety stairs and pour it into drains, and then clean the drains. The next six were assigned to carry rolls of tarpaper up three flights of rickety stairs and then onto a rickety scaffold and up onto the steep roof of one of the barracks to spend the next couple of weeks putting on a new roof.

My prospects were looking dimmer and dimmer. I had no idea of what he was gonna have me doing, but it didn’t look very promising.

“Kessler, go inside the office and bring the three floor buffers out and put them in the back of the truck, then you get in the truck and wait.” I was becoming less anxious and more puzzled as I picked up the three industrial size buffers, rolled them down the stairs and put them into the back of the truck. I sat in the front of the truck, and must have smoked about four cigarettes before the Master-at-Arms finally came out of the building and got behind the wheel. “We gotta go over to the Base District Office and find a barrel.” he told me, and we were on our way.

This was to continue for the next week or so, me, not doing a whole hell of a lot until I had my scheduled “Captain’s Mast”, (non-judicial punishment) basically a low level court appearance where one pleads guilty to a misdemeanor. In my case, it was for drinking as a minor. I was sentenced to 3 weeks restriction to base, 2 weeks extra duty, and a fine that was about a quarter of my income, not a whole lot in those days. The extra duty involved running around the base with the MAA, and base restriction didn’t exclude me from base movies, library or and other base service. (I was even able to get into the Enlisted Men’s club and have dime beer), I didn’t’ have any money to go off base anyway.

The Captain’s Mast concluded, and before I left, the Captain asked me, “Kessler, what did you learn from all of this?”

“Not to drink alcohol until I reach the legal drinking age, sir.” I replied.

“No, Kessler. You have learned that above all, you must not get caught.”

There it was, My first great lesson and my new philosophy on life.

Don’t get caught.

I have done my best.

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65 year old disabled veteran.