Rabid Dogs…6

…I came back for the medical in about a week’s time. This was serious stuff. A full blown medical. Every orifice looked at and probed. This was not the two minute makeover that one sees in the movies.

“Is he breathing? Yes? Approved! Next!

I was a little bit worried about my eye test as I had had a lazy eye when I was a child. It cured itself but left some visual acuity issues in my right eye. I remember my dad telling me how he got through his eye exam in the Army during the war. He held his hand over his bad eye, read the scale then returned his arm to his side. When the doctor asked him to cover his other eye he placed his hand over his bad eye a second time, read the chart and got through the exam with a 20/20 result. I tried the same thing and it worked, primarily because the doctor was focused on the chart and not the patient.

I do remember a story from a naval friend of mine about his experience with his medical on joining. It kind of reflects some of the old military schooled attitudes of the times. My friend had had a severe case of acne when he was young. It left his face hideously pockmarked – had been for all of his life. He did his joining medical only to find out that he failed. He wasn’t told why although he suspected the reason. He left, forgot about the military, and went on his way. About 6 months later he was asked to return to the recruiting centre only to be told that they made a mistake in his medical assessment and would dearly love to have him return. He did. Apparently, the doctor, on examination of my friend, felt that his pockmarked face would not look good on parade and would reflect poorly on the military ethos. He wanted to protect the “Colonel.” So he failed him. Imagine the outcry if that happened today?

Finally finished, then in for another interview. This one was all encompassing but in generalities: the process, basic training expectations, career progression, military life, its rewards and sacrifices, security, threats and on and on he went. This would be the last interview and on receipt of a successful medical examination an offer to join would be given. The candidate, me, would have a few days to think about the decision to join prior to an invite for the swearing in ceremony and “Oath of Allegiance” to Queen and Country. Where was God in all of this? Swear on the bible of course!

In a weeks time I was sworn in. I told my mother, she was thrilled. I told my friends, they thought I was nuts. I also had a few months time before I had to report for Basic Training in August. Not too sure if I liked that break as it provided too much free time to think about my decision. But it also gave me the opportunity to get into physical shape, which I did….

Rabid Dogs…4

…I thought of my options. Why not join the Navy?  Why not indeed. But the military life seemed to be an anathema to my easy going ways. Yes, I was intrigued by the stories my father told me of his military life. The fun he had although he never ever parlayed his combat experiences to me or anyone else in the family. His friends, the sports, the overt camaraderie he seemed to enjoy were interesting but I always sensed that he despised the discipline, arrogance and bullshit of the Army. It was no wonder, or joke, that we never ever went camping as a family. Holed up in a tent for weeks at a time: cold, dirty miserable English weather or the heat and humidity of a European summer all the while scared out of your ever loving mind.  No, I think for me I was scared of the discipline and uncertainty of the military life. Especially the Army. All that salutin; yes sir, no sir, your shit lockers full sir etc. On top of that, the only insight I had of the Navy arose from the serious and dark images of Jack Hawkins in “The Cruel Sea;” or the fanaticism, madness of Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in “Run Silent Run Deep;” or conversely “McHale’s Navy.” What should I do? Yes or no?

I decided to check it out as I didn’t have to commit right away. I didn’t tell a soul what I was doing.  Down I went to the recruiting centre, taking the metro then bus to an imposing but stark and sombre looking building downtown. I hesitated. Should I or shouldn’t I? Yet the unknown always appears worse than it really is. Just go for it and see what happens. It may turn out that they “DON’T WANT YOU.”

In I went, to reception. Everyone here, except us snot nosed delinquents, was in uniform of some sorts. But I didn’t really know one from the other.

“Can I help you” a uniformed man asked.

“Um ah, yes Sir. I think I, well what I mean is, I would like to or perhaps – do you have any openings for a Boatswain’s Mate?” Not cool!

The guy looked at me like the dork that I was. He chuckled somewhat, gave me a book of forms and asked me, politely but assertively, to fill them out in the “fill out the book of forms” room.

I complied. It took me about an hour to complete the application, as best I could. Of some concern was the part about a criminal record, trouble with the law etc and my mind came back to that time with Timmy and the Great Record Robbery. I felt I had better be honest here and not lie for I had seen the movie and knew what happens to guys who lie in the military – Firing Squad – just like that anti-war movie “Paths of Glory” with Kirk Douglas. “Nothing glorious in being dead” I shivered to think of it myself. Then again this was the Navy. What then? Oh damn, the gangplank, as in walk it, as in how long can you tread water? As in how far can you swim? As in keel hauling, just like Jack London’s “Sea Wolf” with Edward G Robinson and John Garfield! Cookie and the shark! Good gawd man I thought to myself, stop with the movie fantasy, this is real life.

I handed the application back to the nice man in the uniform. He shuffled them into a file folder. Oh yeah, the infamous file folder. If you want to look good in the military and not be a target for some stupid duty, like KP, you walk around looking important, and busy, with a file folder in you hands – just like Phil Silvers as the Master Sergeant con man in “Sgt Bilko.” But I digress.

“Thanks John” the recruiter said, then adding “Now I have here a battery of aptitude tests for you to take: basic math, algebra, general knowledge, things of that nature. If you would be so kind as to go over to the “take the battery of aptitude tests” room and I’ll be right with you.”

In I went into the “take the battery of aptitude tests” room and sat down. I was the only dork there. The recruiter came in and told me that these tests were time sensitive in that I had a certain amount of time to complete them. Fine I thought but somewhat nervous.

“Try not to be nervous,” he reassured me. He was a nice guy actually. But then again they are all nice guys and gals until they have you dead to right or lost to your rights, right? No left!

First math – 20 minutes, done. Then some geometry, algebra – 30 minutes, done. Then general knowledge – 30 minutes – done admiralty, er admirably. Finally history – 20 minutes, done. Whew, finished, tough go for sure.

“Okay John, thanks. You can go back to reception, or go out for a smoke, or whatever. We should have the results in about 30 minutes.”

Whew, that was tough I thought. Almost two hours of this. I was a tad drained of energy.

Rabid Dogs…3

….It wasn’t long before I was out of that place. Appendicitis will do that to someone. Yet I almost died from that infection.  I was laid up in the hospital for over a week.  Lots of time to think about my future under the cloudy haziness of morphine. Weird but oh so wonderful dreams. Suddenly I could relate to my hippy brethren and their Last Chance Saloon.

Then out of the blue my sister from the wet coast called me. Seems that her husband had bought a 35 foot sailboat with the intent or dream of sailing it to Japan, his homeland. Indeed he had already made plans and departed with a Brit companion, who was a professional sailor. Together with George, his girlfriend, frigate birds and flying fish Sid made it to Hawaii in 19 days. Unfortunately this trip was a wake-up call to reality for Sid in that his dreams of maritime lore, Pacific blue and Japanese pride came crashing down on him drowning him like an emotional tsunami on his psyche, his self confidence and his personal well being.

Sid realized that he did not like open ocean sailing. He was seasick most of the time during the crossing from the west coast to Hawaii. He missed his wife as well as their first newborn child. Consequently he decided to pack it all in in Hawaii but still wanted George, the Brit, to sail the boat to Nagoya Japan, a Pacific port town that was close to Sid’s birthplace. George needed some help to achieve this as his girlfriend had split. Thus the phone call to me.

Sail to Japan? You bet. I quit my job, said goodbye to family and friends off I went to Honolulu. The Ala Wei Harbour and Ala Moana Yacht club near Waikiki would be my home for the next 6 months, then off into the wide Pacific expanse to Japan via Micronesia: the Marshall, Caroline, Gilbert and Marianas island archipelago was beckoning.

That excellent adventure is the subject of another story. Suffice to say we only made it as far as Saipan in the Marianas as the boat was taking on water as its seams were opening up under the strain of pounding seas and surf. There was no way on earth that we could sail her from Saipan to Japan as it was a “beat” all of the way up to Nagoya. Sadly I said goodbye to George, who would end up sailing the boat south from Saipan to Guam to sell her to some American sailor.  I flew to Tokyo where I proceeded to my sister’s place in a section of Yokohama called Totsuka. That was the end of this journey. Ever try speaking or learning Japanese? No wonder “hara-kiri or seppuku” was so popular. I returned home to my shit city of a city by plane about a month later.

I really enjoyed that experience and found that I was drawn to the maritime life.  By hook or by Captain Crook I had to find a way to continue on this path. Without a hesitant breath I began surveying the quays, the berths, and the jetties of the waterfront area of my home town within a nano second of arriving home. I read the local maritime shipping newspapers to see if I could some how worm my way into this profession. No luck. A longshoreman perhaps, or a deckhand, a boatswain, maybe a third mate, whatever, anything at all to belong to the maritime brotherhood. No luck. The maritime employment doors in this city at least were slammed shut on me like some battened down hatch on a ship in a storm. The union was as tight as a dolphin’s ass and was, in the vernacular, a closed shop. Unless someone died of nepotism, not likely, my chances for employment in this profession were about as slim and as ornery as a sailor’s fart upwind…

Rabid Dogs…2

….That particular trip to the wet coast was a bust. Don’t really know why I went. We stayed with Timmy at Mrs Redfern for a while but I soon left, never to return to that abode ever again. I do know that I decided to drive back by myself, late September. O’Grunts stayed out there for a short while returning on his own at a later date.  It was raining hard, of course. The rain then turned into snow, which morphed into a blizzard just as I was heading into the mountain passes. Surviving on nicotine I drove for hours through that blinding blizzard. Finally, after what seemed an eternity I could take no more. I had to stop so I parked the car outside of a flop house on the main drag of a small mountain town where I stayed the night. In the morning I couldn’t find my car as it was under about 6 feet of snow. Finding it then digging out, I headed east through the foothills and into the western prairie landscape where my car broke down just outside of a small prairie town due to a faulty voltage regulator. It was about 20 below zero. First week of October! Yikes.

It took about five days to fix that car as they had to order the part from back east. On my way again I picked up a hitchhiker on the outskirts of another prairie town who I had hoped would be able to share in the driving. That was fine except he didn’t quite grasp the finer points of driving, no licence per se, as I found out the hard way in a multi-circular spinout while he was driving that almost killed us. Shaken and stirred but recovering from the shock I drove the rest of the way dropping this lad off somewhere in the northern expanses of the wilderness at a highway crossroad. It was in the same area of trees and lakes, and trees and lakes with more trees and more lakes. Finally, I arrived home and back to the normal grind of a normal living with a normal career and a resume worthy job cleaning out subway cars in the subway yard at night, which was located just down the road from a local Subway sandwich shop. Serendipity do dah!

We cleaned these cars at night, 11 pm till 7am. Four cars from top to bottom. Four, as it took almost the entire shift for two of us to make these cars shine. Four per day, 20 per week, 80 plus cars per month. Funny what goes through one’s mind when employed in such a mind numbing career enhancing occupation such as this. But the pay was good for the time.

My partner in this endeavour was a young man from India. He was probably in his mid to late twenties, and considered himself upper class within the stringency of the Indian caste system. Why he stooped so low as to work here, or live here, was beyond my comprehension given his arrogance and holier than thou attitude and superiority complex. Yet he conveyed to me a disclosure that I would not soon forget. In my mindless Catholic indoctrinated but naive mind I perceived India, Pakistan, Bangladesh as extreme poverty stricken nations. They needed our help, our financial largess and our compassion.  Yes, he agreed, they had their social ills and problems that were for the most part insurmountable. But he and his kind couldn’t have cared less. The Indian aristocracy, middle classes, governing cadre, the caste system couldn’t give a rat’s ass as to the societal plight of the majority of their countrymen. The peasants were just that, peasants; peons who were lower than the lowest on their social ladder. They were for the most part dirt, vermin, scum, societal scabs, the great Indian unwashed, to be avoided at all costs.

Worse than the Catholics in this shit city of ours? I thought to myself

I was shocked at this admission. But he just laughed it off and told me that western countries such as mine and other western nations were being duped by the rhetoric of the United Nations. For the most part they were ill informed, idiotic, and delusional to think that our collective good will was being directed to where it was needed the most. All of that money and foreign aid coming into the country to help the poor was being siphoned off for other things. It had to be that way because the biggest threat to the survival and longevity of the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladesh caste system was compassion.

“Yeah, but what about that lady on TV?” I asked him. “You know the one wearing the brown army uniform, Unitarian Church of Canada I believe, asking, no pleading, for donations to alleviate the wretchedness of the slums in Calcutta”

“A huge scam.” he said “But keep on giving because we sure as hell won’t! In fact our government doesn’t have to do anything but keep the illusion alive in countries such as yours.” It’s a business this poverty thing.

That was that. Wow. All that talk about the poor over in India! Just talk? Or the starving people of Bangladesh? Just talk? Was I growing up or was I being conned by this disgruntled immigrant of Indian migration? Was this the beginning of my indoctrination to adulthood, real life and all the cynicism that goes with it? Or was this the slow but steadfast erosion of my innocence? The end of my sunny ways? Don’t know but a scary, uncomfortable feeling nevertheless.

Rabid Dogs

Returning home I took stock of myself. Almost 21 years of age with no real prospects, no real future. I had been out of school now for 5 years and was no further ahead than that first day after graduation. My parents and most of my associates thought of me as some sort of restless loser: an undergraduate of the University of Hard Knocks and Bad Experiences. Nonetheless, I never regretted anything that I had done thus far and was quite defensive when vocational criticism was thrown my way. I just didn’t have a clue at the time and lacked direction in this very adult course called living 101.

I returned to the normal everyday grind. Jimmymum has established himself in corporate finance and accounting. Good for him. He was steady, mature and had good prospects. In that regard it seemed as if life was programmed for him. Graduate high school. Check. Now what? Get a job for life. Check. Now what? Get married. Check. Now what? Get a house. Check. Now what? Have some kids. Check. Now what? Slit my wrists. No, not Jimmymum. Me!

O’Grunts was still living the hippy life without regrets; at least he couldn’t remember any in that fogged out mind of his.  Bruce, our lead guitarist, was still caught up in self discovery only this time in Nepal, trying to find himself among the Himalayan Mountains.  Unfortunately, they had to call out the Sherpas to find him. Timmy was still asleep out west and me? Well, I found employment with a national railroad and spent the next year or so unloading freight from an endless line of box cars only to reload said freight into an endless line of local delivery trucks. Great job! And, horror of horrors, I didn’t quit right away.

The sickness returned, eventually. Believe it or not O’Grunts convinced me to head back west yet a third time.  Only this time in my own car – a 64 Chevy Impala. I loved that car and it survived that west coast excursion returning safely to this shit city of a city only to be impaled by another good friend of mine on a brick wall.  I needed some money so I sold it to him for a song. Shortly thereafter he came by my place in my old ride, which now resembled an accordion, as the back end of the car was thrust up and back in mangled folds almost to the back seat. “What happened” says I, incredulous? Seems he drove home in the early hours quite inebriated from a night a drinking and debauchery, parked the car in the lane beside his flat, turned off the engine, managed to find his bed, passed out with sweet alcoholic dreams to a reality of a throbbing headache and jungle mouth a few hours later. He desperately required some hair of the dog and with cupboards bare he decided to head to his local for the requisite nourishment. Going down to his car he found to his astonishment that the car wouldn’t start. Being the industrious lad that he was he popped the hood and seeing nothing really amiss decided to jump – start the car. Now those cars may have been ancient relics of a distant past and different era but they reflected mechanical simplicity, technical beauty and dependability through their classic, masterful and graceful lines and design.

The car came to life, jerked momentarily, and then thrust itself in a backward motion, reverse as it turned out. That beautiful Impala took on a mind of its own. Technically challenged as it hightailed itself out of the laneway in full reverse, where it crossed the adjoining roadway before becoming impaled into the brick wall of a building that was across the road, all the while with my friend in hot but panicked pursuit. Fortunately for him, unfortunately for the car, the brick wall won the day. Luckily, except for his wounded pride, no one was hurt. It was a miracle that the car still ran. Turned out that when my friend arrived home, pissed to the gills, he didn’t realize that he shifted the car into reverse and not all the way into park. Of course it wouldn’t start in reverse and being heavily hung over he didn’t realize this simple fact of car life at the time. He just instinctively opened the hood and crossed the ignition wires at the starter. The car came to life immediately and the rest as they say was automotive history. Imagine my dismay as he came by to pick me up a few days later in that accordion styled sedan. Sadly my friend had to put that car down and take it to the car cemetery….