“Sometimes when you lose your way in the fog, you end up in a beautiful place. Don’t be afraid to get lost.” ~Mehmet Murat Ildan
I have missed my share of flights. One flight I almost made led to the biggest mistake of my life.
Desperate to get the hell out of Dodge (not my real hometown) I enlisted in the Navy the week of my eighteenth birthday. It was the last year of the Vietnam War.
Family and classmates dished out boatload of crap for my decision to enter military life. Not because of the anti-war movement sweeping the country, but because of the widespread belief that women in the military were on the same level as prostitutes. The boys in my school said, “Join the Navy and ride the WAVES.” They said it a lot. Like it was funnier after the hundredth time.
My parents were convinced I was making a big mistake. Mother discussed her concerns with one of my high school teachers.
The teacher said, “Once she turns eighteen you can’t stop her from enlisting. Her grades are terrible. Any form of college is out of the question. Maybe time in the military will straighten her out and give a little … structure.”
That’s what mom said about juvenile detention. She’d threatened to ship me off daily and now I was shipping myself off. What more could she ask for?!
As it turned out, boot camp was a breeze. All the yelling, cursing and name calling felt like home. The structure was good for me. For the first time I was able to locate clean underwear. A stack of seven pairs of white cotton granny panties were neatly folded and stored in a footlocker. A squad leader actually inspected to make sure undies were organized to military standards. After boot camp my garments were once again stored on the floor.
My chosen field, Communications Technician Operator required a top secret clearance. It took the FBI thirty seconds to figure out that I would not qualify. My checkered past included a charge of minor in possession of alcohol, a former boyfriend serving time in the Nebraska State Penitentiary for selling drugs, and a relative living in communist country.
The powers to be, a yeoman petty officer whose face was covered with acne, gave me a choice. I could go home or I could switch fields and attend an “A” school for Storekeeper in San Diego. At the time women recruits were not integrated into many of the jobs available and certainly not assigned sea duty. I only heard the San Diego part. I was not going back to Dodge.
My first post, Naval Air Station, Lemoore California was a military base of 4,000 men and less than 100 women. There was a saying among the females, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
I found myself working at a supply counter, in a hangar the size of a football field, issuing aircraft parts to mechanics. Think Auto Zone on a grand scale. Boring doesn’t begin to describe the mundane, tedious, Mickey Mouse bullshit I did on a daily basis. Taking inventory consisted of counting hundreds of small metal objects stored in thousands of large bins lined up on metal shelving. I marked each total on index cards with made up numbers.
It wasn’t long before I had moved off base into an apartment with three other sailors. Life in the barracks was too confining.
Growing up in a small Nebraska town that had one lonely stop light, made driving in California traffic a challenge. But for me, driving to work in the winter’s thick tule fog of the San Joaquin Valley could have been a suicide mission.
I had bought my first car. A 1974 Chevy Vega, which was touted to be one of the worst cars to ever roll off an assembly line. Even though the aluminum cylinder on that Chevy could not hold oil, the speedometer worked just fine. However, the car continued to get pulled over. A big bellied California state patrolman murmured, “I didn’t think this piece a-shit could move like that, you’re a real NASCAR driver young lady.” Over time I lost a lot of points from my driver’s license behind the wheel of that car.
California was supposed to be the land of beautiful people. Central California made my nose run constantly. I developed a cough, and began wheezing. Soon a god awful rash covered my face and neck. It required a trip to the Naval Medical Center in Oakland. Not exactly the California lifestyle I was dreaming of.
“You miss the third appointment with the skin specialist and you will have to live with the creeping crud,” a corpsman informed me.
“Creeping crud? Is that an actual diagnosis?”
“That’s what it looks like to me. Be on that damn flight or I’ll write your ass up,” he warned.
“I’ve heard that one before.”
I drove the sixteen miles from my apartment in Hanford to NAS Lemoore through the dense tule soup in record time to catch the military flight to Oakland that should have taken off without me.
My blue wool dress uniform was askew, white gloves were shades of grey, and long hair barely off the collar, stuffed under my little boat shaped WAVE hat. I’d applied mascara while keeping an eye on the white line directly in front of the hood of my car. That’s how I kept it on the road.
I pulled up to the main gate of the base with a screech. The guard rolled his eyes before he glanced at the military sticker and waved me through. I raced to the airfield and veered one handed into a parking space. I ejected from the car like a Duke of Hazzard, and loped across the parking lot toward the hanger in un-shined black leather heels. I burst through the door and was relieved to see a full house waiting for the flight that I should have missed.
The entire place stared a “so what” at me. As a blonde 19-year-old on a base of 4,000 sailors, I usually made some type of entrance, but I was simply embarrassed. I knew that I looked like I had slept in my uniform. No sailor of the month award today. Looking around for a place to slink off and crawl into a hole, I noticed there was one empty chair across the crowded lobby.
I flopped down next to a cute young sailor. He sat at attention. He was squared away. Pressed pleats in his thirteen-buttoned bell bottoms, neckerchief tied just so, Dixie Cup hat perched at the correct angle on his white-wall haircut.
He smiled, “Ya’ll aren’t really late, cause the flight isn’t going ta land today. Not in this fog.”
“Now you tell me.”
“I’ve seen you around. My name is Bob.” He reached over for a hand shake. I dropped my dingy gloves on the floor. He bent down and presented them like they were washed white and he was Prince Charming.
Wow, a Southern boy with manners. Odds are really looking up.
After a couple minutes, a salty chief warrant officer announced that the flight was canceled due to poor visibility. “Nobody can see shit out there today. Go to work,” he grumbled into the static.
“Want to grab breakfast at the mess hall?” my new friend asked. “I caught the shuttle.”
“I drove, I’ll give you a lift.” He’s adorable, and nicer than most of the other swabbies around here.
We stood in line and our ordered omelets. Custom made by the steward. Breakfast at the mess was outstanding. Rich black coffee, eggs anyway imaginable, fried potatoes and bacon, bacon and more bacon. All for free.
“So what do you do for fun?” I asked.
“I don’t have a lot of spare time. I attend classes at Coalinga Community College in the evening, and I need to study. My enlistment is up soon and I’m going to Virginia Tech in the fall.”
This guy actually has a goal. He’s going to start college for real.
“Want to see a movie on Friday?” he asked me as we cleared our trays from the table. Dining in the mess hall reminded me of elementary school lunch.
“I have a date on Friday, but I’m free for Saturday.”
He laughed. “The last four years taught me to stand in line and wait.”
He picked me up at my apartment, and was not flustered by the scruffy guy named Scooby who answered the door or the guys sitting around the living room with a bong. My roommates and their friends were preparing to hit the bars. Living with three guys had its pitfalls. They were messy and mostly high but they thought of me as the little sister. It beat the hell out of living in the rickety barracks with hormonal women. I had been in the service a year and a half and I was still one of the youngest people on base.
“How many people actually live in there?” Bob joked, opening the car door.
“Too many,” was my reply.
We went to see the movie, “Towering Inferno”. It was showing in Fresno, an hour away. We drove through the tule fog to get there. I held my own hand. Hypnotized, I watched the straight white lines on the highway reflect in the low beams. I could not see what lay ahead.
Steve McQueen and Paul Newman led the all-star cast. A helicopter and crew from NAS Lemoore starred in a rescue scene.
Six months later I married Bob.
Looking back, I wonder if the ride through the tule fog to watch a disaster film was a premonition. I followed the white line straight to the altar.
I knew I had made a mistake. At nineteen I had already made plenty of them. A dense haze moved in and hung over us for thirty years.
There were many reasons I continued to live in a fog. The bottom line, I was afraid. Afraid of failure, afraid of being alone, and later… afraid of being a single parent. But most of all, I was afraid of living my own truth.
Once I was married, I immediately “straightened up”. Who the hell was I at nineteen? A wife. It was an identity in a scary world. It just wasn’t my identity.
When I finally decided to take flight, many years and three grown children later, I ended up on Maui. A beautiful place in the sun.
What do I know now?
Failure is a great teacher.
There are worse things than being single and alone.
Children are resilient and perceptive. They recognize fake news when they see it.
Being afraid is exhausting.
It takes courage to live in the light.