I could barely contain my longing anticipation as I rode the U.S.S. Ticonderoga into San Diego Harbor. The sailors, airmen, and marines of the aircraft carrier were completing a six month, 26,000-mile voyage across the Pacific Ocean, having also sailed through the Philippine and South China Seas, with forays into the Indian Ocean and the Bering Sea.
As we completed the bend in the channel, the North Island Naval Air Station pier came into view. Like the foamy head of a perfectly poured beer, it almost overflowed with the families of my shipmates. Most of their fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers were soon to join them and go on leave. My seabag was packed; I was eager to be going home for good.
Just the day before, I had been issued the coveted pink military I.D. of reserve status, replacing my green active-duty card. These I.D. cards are critical to one’s ability to come and go in the armed services. I discovered the harshness of this requirement after forgetting my wallet in a Yamato grocery store.
Getting hassled and detained for that sort of thing was just one of the many indignities a regimented system dumped on the troops, enlisted and officers alike. Sometimes I thought a long-forgotten planner engineered the entire military for irritation. Everybody I met who intended to serve only one hitch endlessly complained about it. To no avail; the Navy didn’t care. As one of my chief’s said: “A bitching sailor is a happy sailor.”
Those few moments not consumed by useless carping were spent imagining idyllic civilian life. After years of carping and dreaming, the end of one’s enlistment would draw near. Then, the one-hitcher entered a state of being “short.” This period was a psychologically fragile time when, every day, the short-timer wound a little tighter, and tighter, hoping that it all wouldn’t go wrong.
But, ah, such sweet relief when it’s over! For me, that moment of freedom had arrived.
A sudden ruckus in the shop pulled me from my reverie at the porthole. A posse of master-at-arms wearing sidearms were taking I.D. cards from one and then another of the men in my division. I knew one of the M.A.A.’s, but he was curt when he asked for mine. I handed it over while my immediate boss, Chief Roney, loudly demanded an explanation. “It’s an investigation” was all they would say.
I started slipping into shock but was still aware that most of the men in our unit were trying to console the detained while a few raged at the M.A.A.’s. This panoply of concern and righteous anger demonstrated the loyalty and affection a bonded military unit displays when their brothers are under threat. I felt honored but guilty that I was leaving them, even if there was now some question about how I would be going.
Of all the detainees, the guys in our division were notably conciliatory towards me. They knew that the anticipation of slow-coming freedom was hard enough for a short-timer without some petty convolution of fate. We suspected that this as yet mysterious occurrence was one of those convolutions.
The M.A.A.’s vacated our shop as the gangplank swung out to the pier. The other detainees and I wished our shipmates a pleasant leave, and I said my last goodbyes to close friends as they left to join their loved ones. Among the hardest to part with was Chief Roney. We got along well; simpatico. I admired the chief for his gentle humor and calming presence in stressful situations. He became my father at sea. Bald like my real father, too.
Although I was trying not to show it, he felt my turmoil. He even volunteered to stay aboard with me. His wife and daughter, who I knew almost intimately from his stories, were on the pier. There was no question about where the chief needed to be. I thanked him and wished him well.
Soon, most everyone was ashore while I just sat stunned. Silent. Stewing.
My subconscious dredged up and started dwelling on the memory of another short-timer. Killer was an aviation electrician in my department crushed by a falling ten-ton hatch a few months earlier. At the time of the accident, he only had four days left before the end of a six-year tour of duty.
The grating persistence of that memory added an extra layer of anxiety on top of my gloom.
A short time later the M.A.A.’s came again. They led the detainees ashore and marched us across the base to a small building. Once inside, we were ushered one at a time into an interrogation room. When it was my turn, I sat at a table in front of two men wearing civilian clothes and the practiced, icy façades of professional lawmen. On the table was an open, small, screw-top jar with some black goo inside.
Only one of the men spoke to me. He asked me about my jobs and duty stations. I told him.
Next, he asked, “Do you know what’s in the jar?”
We had just been to the Far East. Remembering the Opium Wars in China from my high school history class, I guessed: “Opium?”
It turned out I was a little naive and more than a hundred years out of date. After news reports on the subject years later, I realized it must have been black tar heroin.
The investigator pressed on: “Do you have access to the utility space just forward of your shop?
“No,” I replied.
“Do you know an Airman Neale?”
“Yes. He and I spent a few months together with VRC-50’s detachment in Vietnam.”
Neale and I had shared the occasional joint out on the Da Nang Air Base ramp at night. There was no reason to bring that up. I did tell them that we had taken refuge face down in the same sandy ditch near our hangar during a rocket attack. I added how he cracked me up with exaggerated mock fear. “These buttons are too thick!” he yelled as he hugged the ground. I did not mention that the ditch incident followed one of our smoke breaks, which I’m sure made his antics seem funnier than they were.
That was it. When the investigators completed all the interviews, we were marched back to the ship and ordered to stay there until further notice. At least now we knew what the stir was all about.
Late that afternoon, I had resumed fuming at my desk on the semi-deserted ship. I don’t know why I was still packed and ready to go, nobody was coming to rescue me from this nightmare. Even though I had nothing to do with the black goo, I was plenty aware of how potentially ponderous and capricious military justice could be.
Feeling myself beginning to succumb to the cool weight of helplessness, I suddenly remembered who I was and what I had learned about how the military works.
“I am a Third Class Petty Officer in the world’s largest nuclear navy!” I said out loud. Then louder: “I am a veteran of a foreign war, and I don’t have to take this crap!”
Grabbing my gear, I walked across the hangar deck to the master-at-arms office. A bored seaman behind the counter was reading a paperback while reclined to an impossible degree in a taped-up office chair.
The seaman looked up from his book as I approached. My dress white uniform made my rank easily visible. More important, he would immediately notice my brightly-colored service ribbons. These ribbons tell other members of the armed services where you’ve been and hint at what you’ve experienced.
Not wanting to give him time to think, I barked: ”You’re supposed to give me my I.D.”
“Uh,” he replied, not getting up. He looked a little confused.
I leaned over the counter and glared at him with stony, unforgiving eyes. “S. M. I. T. H. Daniel B.”
“Ah, OK,” he said, rising.
He looked around, thought about it, and unlocked a steel cabinet. After checking a couple of folders, he opened a small, oily box. A little shuffling through its contents produced my precious, pink I.D. card. He checked my face with its picture.
“This you, Smith?” he asked, placing it on the counter.
I slid the card into my chest pocket as casually as I could and hoisted the sea bag onto my shoulder. Feeling wildly over-caffeinated, I wanted to run, to get off the ship and off the base before someone figured out that I was officially in custody. Instead, I calmed myself and answered, “Yes. It’s me.”
Proud of my ruse, but with a substantial knot in my gut, I approached the Officer of the Deck. As required, I saluted and requested permission to leave the ship. He inspected my I.D. and returned the salute.
Having passed a formidable gauntlet, I traversed the gangplank and strode down the pier to the launch that took me across the bay. From there I grabbed a bus downtown and then to the airport. After booking a plane home, I called my parents. I didn’t explain the delay.
A pair of shore patrolmen passed through the terminal while I waited for my flight. Their presence seemed odd, and a jolt of fear raced through my body. I held my breath as they came near. One of them nodded at me as they passed. I froze mid-sigh, afraid that my obvious relief would tip them off.
My folks met me at Love Field in Dallas around one thirty or two in the morning. It was good to be home, but the cold fear of imminent arrest haunted me.
Two tense weeks later, I received a letter from Chief Roney. Inside was a piece of note paper wrapped around my last paycheck. I had left it in my desk’s top drawer. The note contained a short message from the chief. In it, he ribbed me about being so wealthy that I could walk off without it.
He also filled me in on the convolution. He said there had been some static from the investigators about my disappearance, but that the division and department heads argued on my behalf that I had just misunderstood the directive to stay aboard the ship.
“I think they like you just because you worked hard and set a positive example for the younger men,” he wrote. “Maybe they had you confused with someone else! (haha) Have a nice life, Smitty. — your friend, Chief J.P. Roney.”
At that moment, I couldn’t remember why I had been in such a hurry to get out.