(Note to readers: My apologies for not posting lately, but I’ve been working on a trip memoir of my recent trip to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. It turned into something of a monster, so I’ve decided to dribble it out in several posts, of which this is the first. It’s pretty raw and real, so far as my feeble memory recalls. I hope you enjoy.)
It was the spring of 1990 when I got orders sending me back to Alabama from my new home in the Pacific Northwest. I had been stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington, just south of Tacoma, since 1987, my first duty station after flight school in Ft. Rucker, Alabama, and they were sending me back to Rucker for the “Advanced Course”, a six-month course for newly-promoted Captains.
A big part of my reason for deciding to go on active-duty in the Army after college was to get away from Alabama. When I had volunteered for flight training, I’d had no idea that the flight training base was in, of all places, Alabama. (Ft. Rucker is in the southeast corner of the state; I had lived almost all my life in the north-central part of the state, apparently with blinders on, oblivious to the flight training post 250 or so miles to the southeast). So I joined the Army and left to see the world outside of Alabama by driving three and a half hours to the southeastern corner of the state.
When finally it came time to graduate flight school and leave Alabama, I made sure I got my preferred duty station by employing a little soft bribery. I painted a rental house owned by a little old lady in tennis shoes who worked in the office that doled out assignments to graduating flight officers. Old women in tennis shoes run the bureaucracies of this world, and particularly those of the US Army. Generals come and go, but little old ladies in tennis shoes are forever. It wasn’t something I was taught in ROTC or in college or anything. It was something I just somehow knew.
I picked Ft. Lewis and the Seattle area because it was as far away as I could go and still be in the continental US. If I was to see the world, I figured it might be a good idea to start with my own country. I had learned about the Seattle area, like I had learned about much else of the world, through an article in a National Geographic magazine. Yeah, I know, what a cornball. I really did ride in on the turnip truck, and hit my head when I fell off. I had read the article in NG along about my junior year in college, just before time to begin thinking about whether to go on active duty. I recalled it when it came time to put in my preferences for duty stations after flight school. My pro bono painting paid off. When assignments were handed out, to Seattle I was bound.
The trip west was an epic journey for me. It was my first time west of the Mississippi. It was my first time to see the Rocky Mountains. It was my first time to see the Grand Canyon. It was my first time for a lot of things. I was by myself, traveling in a beat up old Jeep CJ-7 with a soft top. It only broke down twice. I only once had to fend off a drunk Indian who wanted a ride in Gallup, New Mexico. The doors on a soft-top don’t have locks. I considered myself lucky. I sold the jeep within six months of getting to Ft. Lewis. Soft top jeeps aren’t much fun in cold rain, which, except for a few glorious months in the summer, I figured out rather quickly, is pretty much the norm for Pacific Northwest weather.
But I grew to love the place. Hopefully without sounding too trite in my reminiscing, it was where I finally put aside all my childish thinking and became a man. When my sojourn in the Pacific Northwest drew to a close on orders from the Army to return to Ft. Rucker, I left with no regrets. The last weekend before my trip home, I returned to my beloved Cascades, watching it snow in May in the mountains. I loved those mountains. I had become something of a native. I said goodbye to my mountain god, Father Rainier, and headed back east with a lump of gratitude in my throat for all my time there had meant to me. I didn’t know it then, but it was the last time I would really feel like I had my life more or less under control.
Along the way back to Alabama, I stopped to visit an old girlfriend in Dallas. She had been working for International Paper since getting her MBA, and was in human resources at one of their box plants in the area. We had dated our senior year in high school, and for the first couple of years of college, after which we slowly drifted apart. She was never much interested in being an Army wife or girlfriend. She’d cackled at my shorn locks after I showed up on her doorstep after basic training, which pretty much marked the end of the first round of the relationship. Though the physical part took a while longer to peter out (no, that pun is far too lame for me to have actually intended it).
Even though her dad was a truck driver and her mom a bank branch manager, and my dad was a doctor, she always seemed a bit higher tone than me, which actually sort of made sense. I was one of four children, and was literally, a red-headed step child—though my step dad (the doctor) had adopted me, it never felt like I was anything much more than a foster child, and I had the bright orange locks of what is called a redhead (which confused me when I was little as they clearly were as orange as the fruit that is grown on trees in Florida). And I got plenty of beatings, literal and otherwise. Dad cut me off in college because I had transferred from the school of his choice to go to a much cheaper alternative, but one that taught what I sought to learn. I sold my blood to help make ends meet at my new college (I couldn’t get a loan because I had to use his income to qualify), and eventually joined the Army Reserve and Army ROTC to make some money in a manner that didn’t involve needle sticks, which is how I had ended up in the Army and the Pacific Northwest. All told, getting cut off by “Dad” was the best thing that ever happened to me.
My old girlfriend was the only child of her parents, and her mom, straight off a farm on Sand Mountain in Northeast Alabama, had come to Birmingham to become, ironically, something of a haughty bitch, but one who doted on her daughter, her only child, left and right. The daughter and I had broken up for a time when her mom bought her a diamond-encrusted gold watch for high school graduation. I told her that there was no way I would ever be able to give her anything like that, or for that matter, would ever want to. We got back together, on and off, for another couple of years. But by the time we graduated college, she was seeing some guy several years her elder who was the “Voice of the Crimson Tide” in the broadcast booth at the school, and her mom had paid for her European vacation for college graduation. I had to see the world the hard way—by agreeing to the US Army’s terms. Like the saying goes, service in the Army allowed me to visit interesting places and meet interesting people. And to kill them, of course, if the Army so required.
I had only stopped off in Dallas because she’d called and asked me to. For me, the chance at reconciliation had been forever foreclosed when she’d gone on some sailing vacation with another lover/boyfriend/whatever after we had tried but failed to get together over the holidays. I figured then that it was over for good. It was time to move on, for good. But my clock wasn’t ticking. Looking back, she must have been getting desperate to find someone with whom to settle down. I mean, I’m a good-looking guy and all, but she was good-looking, too. And really, what prospects did a red-headed step-child Army boy really have in this world?
I timed my trip east to arrive on the weekend in Dallas, so we had a couple of days together. There was no sex, but still, I knew, as I was driving the rest of the way to visit my folks in Birmingham before heading on to Rucker, that I had sunk right back into the madness of love from which I had spent several years recovering. I smoked a whole pack of cigarettes on the twelve-hour drive, trying to get her out of my mind. And I didn’t even smoke. And it didn’t work.
A day after arriving at my folk’s house, she called. Would I like to come visit over Memorial Day weekend (a couple of weeks away)? Yes, of course I would. Why fight it? I knew I was going down. What had happened to my kindly Father Rainier keeping watch over me? Had he forsaken me because I had mustered the temerity to escape his sight? But Father, I had no choice! The Army had sent me back to Alabama. He was always there, or seemed to be, in the various Central American locales to which I had been sent while permanently stationed at Lewis. Why now had he abandoned me?
The trip to Dallas from Ft. Rucker, which is in a little town called Daleville, and close by another little town called Enterprise (which has an infamous statue of a boll weevil in its town square), is really not an easy journey to make—there are no good ways to get from Daleville or Enterprise, Alabama to Dallas, Texas. But it sealed the deal. After I arrived on Friday night, we got up Saturday morning, had a couple of bloody Mary’s, and a torrent of pent up sexual tension built by ten or more years of wishing and wanting and never fully giving in finally washed over us and the rest of the weekend was a blur of requiting what had for so long been insufficiently indulged. We basically the rest of the long weekend exploring the sensual side of our relationship. I think there was a Rangers baseball game, and maybe a Mexican restaurant or two thrown in the weekend mix, but basically, it was all sex, all the time. It rocked my world. But it must be pointed out. I was already, again, and before the sex, head over heels for her, almost like I’d been ten years earlier in high school. It wasn’t about the sexual attraction, or at least not solely about the sexual attraction. Or, at least not with me. With no Father Rainier keeping me on an even keel, my heart was doing somersaults in love. Why did’st thou forsake me, dear Father?
About six months later, confused about what, really, I should do about this impulse in my heart (and the heat in my loins), I coughed up the requisite two months salary and bought her a ring. I wasn’t making a lot of money as an Army Captain, but I thought six grand was fairly significant. I bought the ring from a German immigrant jeweler in Daleville—yes there are immigrant German jewelers in one of the most backwater, one-horse towns in Alabama. DeBeers never misses a trick. I promptly took the ring home, got drunk, and threw it against the wall in a gin and tonic induced haze. It bounced back onto the carpet, under the sofa, with only a couple of the tines bent. I fished it out and a couple of weeks later offered it to her as evidence of my eternal love, just as DeBeers had instructed. She accepted. But really, she had to have already known it was coming.
The wedding was to be about a year from the engagement, about the time I had finished my hitch with Uncle Sam. I had been watching the news of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait out of the corner of my eye, not really figuring that it would have much impact on me. Then that warmonger Bush (the elder) decided to show a little American swagger and give our once-ally Hussein the what-for. I got a call about a month after becoming a fiancé, “You are to report to Ft. Riley, Kansas by December 20 for deployment to Southwest Asia”. I called my betrothed and told her the news, and asked her did she want to go ahead and get married at the justice of the peace or something before I left, and do a “real” ceremony when I got back (provided, of course, I got back)? No, she wanted to go ahead and get married in a real ceremony in a week, right before I had to leave for Kansas. Damn. This whole thing was getting way out of control.
In the next week I moved out of my apartment, putting everything (which wasn’t much) in storage. I got a tux and showed up at the church on time. We were married. My gut was roiling so badly, I didn’t have a solid shit for over a month, stretching into Kansas and that god-awful desert in Arabia.
The war finally ended and I returned home. I wasn’t a hero, unless managing hours of endless boredom is heroic. But I was sort of treated like one. A bunch of people cheered when we got off our plane in Atlanta. I just wanted a beer.
I moved with her to El Paso, where IP had sent her after Dallas. Again, I was stuck in a desert with nothing to do. I decided to go to law school. Like so many before me, I did it because I had no better ideas.
I started in Austin at the University of Texas about the same time as she got transferred to Monroe, Louisiana. We would again have a long distance relationship. But this time, she got delirious with jealousy. I tried and tried to convince her she had nothing at all to worry about, which she didn’t, but her dad had stepped out on her mom, leaving both of them in the lurch long ago, so it was all to no avail. Like legions of women before her, to assuage her fears and cement the relational bonds, she had a baby. I was only about half-way through with law school when the son arrived. Now I was really fucked.
I had no real prospects. I hated law school after about three months. It was so banal. I took to calling it the University of Texas School of Sophistry and Rhetoric, because that’s all it was. There was no truth to be discovered or revealed. There were just clever arguments to make. But I stuck with it, because, again, what else was I to do?
And then, I made the very most absolute worst decision of my life. I graduated from law school and told her we were moving home. I was profoundly confused, way more so than the night when I threw the ring at the wall. We went back to Alabama, essentially because of my confusion. I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of providing for a family and raising a child. I wasn’t ready yet. Males mature slower than females. I could have used about five or so more years before starting a family. I would liked to have established a new career outside of the Army before the first child came along. It was not to be.
In my decision to go back home, I also naively figured that the family and society from which I had sought long ago to escape might have improved, maybe becoming a bit less selfish and immature. I quickly discovered how wrong-headed was my thinking.
But things went well for a while. I plowed through a couple of jobs until I was able to open my own real estate closing shop, after which I made more money in a month than I had made in a year in the Army. The wife had produced a daughter by then—it seems my wife’s biological clock was trying to bury me before I’d had a chance to dig my way out of the hole she’d dug for me with the first one. And just as things were really coming together, tragedy struck. My son, at age seven, on the cusp of those wondrous years of childhood, after diapers and temper tantrums but before teenage surliness, was struck with leukemia.
By the time he fell ill, I had just about sworn off my natal family as hopelessly fucked up, just as I’d left them a decade prior, but the kid’s illness put those impulses in abeyance, at least for a while. And it made leaving Alabama to escape that dysfunctional collection of psychopaths nigh well impossible.
After flirting way too closely to death for comfort with his first bone marrow transplant, the kid finally got better, and then started the fat years. Both he and my daughter were thriving. I even coached her soccer team to its one and only championship. I was making piles and piles of money. I paid off our house and cars and put money away for college for both of them, and for retirement. Then, eight years later, it struck again. The son relapsed leukemia. Another bone marrow transplant, and two years of being his primary caregiver after giving up my practice so I could care for him, I found myself trying to recreate a life.
I started with completely forswearing my natal family. A more fucked up, dysfunctional group of people I have never been around. They all hated me, I suppose because I had been what they considered successful, even if I didn’t really agree, but then their metric for success and mine were hardly the same. Their putrid souls never considered anything except material wealth as the proper measure of success. They were so pathetically and profoundly steeped in this fraudulent American culture, they really had no conscious idea of themselves outside of what others thought of them. And in their smallness of mind, redheaded step-children aren’t supposed to be successful. I gradually extricated myself from contact with them. It wasn’t too hard. I just ignored them. But the desire to leave Alabama kept washing over me like breakers in a gale. I desperately wanted out, and this time, to never look back.
The ex-girlfriend, now wife of nearly a quarter century, was not so inclined. She had restarted her career in Alabama, going to work for the same crappy, too-big-to-fail bank where her mother had been a branch manager years before. We had plenty of money that I’d made for us, and could have left Alabama and got a fresh start somewhere else, but no, she dove headlong into building her own life and legacy here. I was none too pleased. And finally, we come to the Seattle trip.
It wasn’t my idea to go to Seattle. The ex-girlfriend/now wife had bugged me for years to take her to Seattle, which would have been a lot easier had she been inclined to visit when I was stationed there. I think her desire to see the place had something to do with it being the one place, outside of the Arabian Desert and a few banana republics in Central America, where I had been and she hadn’t. But then what do I know? I barely know why I do things. How could I possibly deign to understand what it was that motivated her?
To be continued….