My Road to Creativity, 5: The Navy Seabees

My orders were to report to Norfolk Naval Bass in Norfolk, Virginia, a fleet base which was confusing as the two Seabee bases were in Davisville, Rhode Island or Port Hueneme, California. I ran into a number of other Seabee reservists who were as confused as I was. After a month in Norfolk, we all got our orders to report to Gulfport, Mississippi. We had no idea why.

We arrived in the deep south on a balmy soft mid-April night to discover we were the first of sixty personnel to recommission an old World War Two Seabee Base. The Viet Nam War was really now getting into full swing and Senator John Stennis managed to get this base reactivated in his home state.  So there we were.

We were an undisciplined group with not a whole lot to do. With my construction engineering background, I was tapped to work for the senior training officer fo the Twentieth Naval Construction Regiment. I had no idea at that time at how that would impact my two year career in the Navy and it would turn out to be very, very good for me.

It was in Norfolk that I discovered Ian Fleming’s James Bond series and by the time I finished my two year commitment, I had read most of the series. There was a guy I met early on who was reading Fleming’s Bond as well, so we shared books and conversations many times over beers and burgers at the Enlisted Men’s Club.

My two years went well. Being a hard working dependable farm boy, my commanding officer loved me. Also, I knew how to schedule using the Critical Path Method (CPM) system for creating flow charts that involved showing all the inter-dependent aspects of a project, in our case it was scheduling the training for battalion personnel prior to deployment in Viet Nam. I became indispensable. 

I also had to have security clearance as I knew of troop movements, personnel, etc. so I had an FBI background check which rattled my little hometown community when the FBI went around questioning everyone about my history. I found it very amusing when I talked to my parents who were fairly freaked out.

My wife as able to join me and in the process, we had two babies while in Gulfport, born at the Keesler Air Force Base Hospital in Biloxi, about ten miles away. 

I loved the soft south, the Gulf and the  beaches, shrimp boils and beer, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

I basically loved the Navy, the people and the predictability. I went active duty at the rank of an E3 and, in two years I was E5. I was tempted to extend my active duty, but the specter of going to the now raging debacle thartt was Viet Nam dissuaded me, especially now with a new family. I had seen and talked to some of the guys who returned from their eight month tour there and, for basically non-combat personnel, they were pretty messed up. I opted out and was discharged in March 1968. 

We packed up and moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa where I went to work for a consulting engineering company as a land surveyor, engineering inspector, and draftsman.

86,400 Dollars

I recently read an interesting parable in Marc Levy’s first novel, If Only it Were True.

I will paraphrase it here . . . 

Imagine you had won a contest and that each and every day you had $86,400 deposited into your bank account with only two rules:

1) Everything you do not spend will be taken out of your account at the end of the day. You have to spend the entire amount by the end of each day. You cannot cheat or hide the money by moving the funds to another account. But each and every morning there will again be $86,400 in your account.

2) The bank can close this account at any time, without warning. It can tell you that this game is over, it is closing the account and there won’t be another.

The question is, what would you do with this gift? How would you spend this amount of money every day? Think long and hard. Would you sit and worry about how you would spend this great amount of money and by the end of the day it would still be there and you will have lost it all? Or would you get on with the business of spending it in the best possible ways, enjoying it, sharing it, celebrating it?

Every moment we have in this life and is precious. Each day we are given twenty-four hours or . . . 86,400 seconds. Spend your daily gift wisely, especially during these weird and trying times.

Road to Creativity Part 4

Scared to death, I moved to Ames in late August, 1963 to begin a new adventure. I had a full slate of classes plus I got a part time job at the library and worked on Saturdays and some afternoons doing carpenter work for one dollar an hour, a far cry from the five an hour I was used to, but I needed the money. I was self supporting as my parents had no resources to help me out financially. Then I had naval reserve meetings on Wednesday nights. The reserves were great as I earned forty dollars a month.

I didn’t do great in school, but I did well, mainly Cs and Bs with an occasional A. I was inundated with advanced algebra, trigonometry, calculus, drafting, structural engineering, soils mechanics, engineering mechanics like statics, hydraulics, and construction materials. I also had several classes in land surveying.

But the one class that I really liked was Technical Writing. Although it was about how to analyze and communicate something like construction specifications or reports, I learned how to really write. I remember our final test was to write a report, on what, I can’t remember now, but I do remember we were allowed only one spelling or grammatical error in a thousand word paper. Period. More that one, we would have to try again. I aced the course.

There was no time for anything such as reading anything other than working on classwork. As far as creativity, all my energy went into classwork, problem sets, and studying … and some college level partying.

With working part time, I had to lighten my class load. Then I had to do a two week training in February in 1965 which was in the middle of winter quarter and had to drop a particularly difficult class. That, plus, managing to get married in the summer 1965, rather than two years, it took me two extra quarters to graduate which I did in March of 1966 and left for my two years active service with the Navy two weeks later.

More coming . . .

The Anchor

This short story placed second in the Goodreads Support Indie Authors short story contest. I had posted it in three parts previously but am posting it in its entirety here. Enjoy . . .

“Billie, set some damned anchors,” I yelled up at her. She was high up on the near vertical granite wall, much too far above her last rope anchors for the belay rope which I was holding tightly and anxiously with my leather gloved hands. 

Billie and I had taken rented canoes to the far end of a lake in a rugged mountainous area of Montana to do some rock climbing. We could have gotten by with one but, she being the independent woman she was, had to paddle her own. She was always determined to make her own way. I had learned over the eight months we had been together to stay out of her way when she was determined to do something. 

She had heard of this place from a customer at REI in Salt Lake where we both worked. After an early start, it had taken us the better part of the first day of our five days off to drive up here, and paddle across the lake to the landing site by the place we wanted to climb. The alternative would be to have a helicopter take us in, but that was way beyond our budget. 

We off loaded and carried what we could to where we would set up camp. There were six other climbers already there, probably choppered in since we saw no other water craft. We exchanged pleasantries with them and found a spot to set our tent. We went back to the canoes and got out the cooler with food and beer for the next three days. 

I had grown up outside of Santa Fe where I roamed the desert areas from almost as soon as I could walk. I was turned on to rock climbing by one of my friends in high school and was quickly hooked. I earned a degree in education with a minor in literature at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. My goal to be a high school teacher so I would have summers off to play in the desert and rock climb. After graduation, I got a job teaching in Los Lunas, resigning after two years, being disillusioned with the educational system and not quite ready to grow up. I took a road trip that summer exploring and climbing in Colorado and Utah, eventually ending up, out of money, in Salt Lake City. My outdoor experience got me a job at REI where I met Billie. 

We got to know each other and became climbing buddies on our days off. We became close friends, then lovers. She was beautiful with her close cropped dark hair, high cheekbones, finely featured face and soft hazel eyes. She was long, lithe, and an excellent rock climber with long strong arms and legs. She was like watching a spider when she climbed. Her climbing was as beautiful to watch as she was beautiful. 

It was more and more frightening watching her do this pitch. She was now way above where she should have already set several anchors for the belay rope. Right now she was free climbing. Even though she was wearing a harness, it would do her no good if she fell. She looked in complete control, but, this was not a mapped line where she was. Two of the other climbers joined me. 

“Geez Man,” one said, “she needs to set some anchors.” She’s way beyond her last one.” 

“Yeah, I’ve been telling her,” I said, trying not to show the panic I was feeling. 

Billie was raised in Boulder, Colorado along with a younger sister and an older brother. Her parents were both rock climbers and mountaineers and had all three of their children out in the mountains at an early age. Billie took to the mountains like a duck to water, she couldn’t get enough. By the time she was in high school she already had a name for herself amongst the climbers in and around the Boulder area. 

She earned a certificate in Outdoor Recreation Leadership at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. After that she worked at the National Outdoor Leadership School out of Lander, Wyoming for a year, working with young adults. For whatever reason, she left NOLS, moved to Salt Lake and started working for REI. 

Billie was one of the toughest women I had ever met. Her mornings before work were at a nearby cross fit center. I would join her a few times a week and she always showed me up with her strength and stamina. She thought nothing of a ten run mile at five in the morning. Her goal, by her thirtieth birthday, was to solo Everest. She was now twenty-three. I had no doubts she could and would, somehow, manage to do it. At this moment, I was wondering if she would live that long. 

“Billie, dammit, set some damned anchors. You’re scaring me,” I screamed up to her.
She yelled back down to me, “Shut up Ryan. I’ve got this. You’re making me nervous.” 

She reached for her next handhold. Then she stretched out her leg at an impossible angle, found purchase with her toes and swung her body another two feet upward, two feet closer to the top or, possible disaster. She had maybe ten or fifteen more feet to the summit. She now had to be over sixty feet high, her last belay anchors set maybe thirty or thirty-five feet lower. 

Another climber had joined us. “Wow, she’s amazing. That’s a really difficult route, gotta be in the 5.12 to 5.15 range. She’s gotta be one of the best climbers I’ve ever seen.” 

“Yeah, she’s good alright but I wish to hell she’d set herself some anchors.” 

“Oh crap! Yeah! Oh my god, yeah, she hasn’t. That’s no place to be free climbing. That’s a dangerous wall.” 

More panic was building in my chest. My stomach was churning. I took some deep breaths. I wanted to do something, but was helpless. It was up to her. Dammit, Billie set some dammed anchors. I was wishing her to do something. Anything. 

Two more of the climbers had gathered around me, watching, not saying anything. Just when it looked like she had it made, she reached her right hand up with those long arms, feeling around for a handhold, finding it . . . I could almost see her staring in disbelief as I watched her fall, like in slow motion, useless rope coiling in the air above her. She didn’t scream but I saw the look of terror in face, even from so far away, as she clawed to find purchase, but found only air. 

Billie and I were lovers, mostly on her terms. I was enamored with her. I really didn’t know about love or what it was, I only knew I wanted to be with her. I enjoyed her energy, her enthusiasm for life, and the great wild abandoned sex. 

I wanted to move in together, but she said she needed her space. I made the point that she was either at my place or I was at hers every night. Her answer was she didn’t want to commit to anything, she didn’t know much longer she was going to be in Salt Lake, she didn’t want to be tied down, she wanted her freedom; NOLS was asking her to come back; she was considering maybe applying for a position at Outward Bound and several other outdoor schools. All she talked about were all the opportunities she could have here or there or somewhere else. 

All our conversations were either in undertones or overtones, neither of us ever getting said what needed to be said. She would ignore my gestures of love. She was a free spirit. It was becoming clear that I was but a momentary blip on her radar. It hurt, but maybe that was my attraction to her, her remoteness to love and commitment, her focused drive to achieve her goals. Maybe I wanted to be like her and hoped what she had in her singularity and focus would rub off on me. In many ways I was jealous of her. 

The climb was getting more difficult now as the wall was beginning to slope outwards. We watched as she reached up again for a handhold. The group around me gave an auditory gasp as they saw her pause for an instant, reach for something, then began to plunge to the rocks below, her arms flailing trying to grab the rock but finding only air.

Miraculously, her rope, coiling wildly above her, snagged an outcropping of rock after she had plummeted about twenty feet. I braced myself and two other guys, seeing the same thing, quickly grabbed ahold of me and braced themselves. The slack was snapped up a moment later, almost pulling all three of us off our feet, as we watched her fall instantly stopped. The rope had held on the outcropping. Her athleticism showed as she immediately righted herself and had her feet towards the wall to stop her as she swung towards it. 

“God, I hope she’s okay. That was really a hard stop,” somebody muttered. 

“Better than the alternative,” said another. 

We all were watching, now with our mouths open like gaping fools, at what we had just witnessed. Nobody said anything. Every one of was hardly breathing. We saw her moving and grabbing purchase on the rock. Her next move was to grab an anchor off her belt and wedge it in to a crack and tie off. She set yet another anchor and was now doubly secured, then she set a third. Stabilized, she sat there in her harness. I could see her breathing hard, wiping her eyes. 

She called down in a shaky voice, “I need to check the rope and make sure it’s okay.” She found the downside of the rope and did a quick loop hitch in her harness to secure it and then untied it from her harness and pulled it over the out cropping letting the loose end fall. She then pulled it back up and carefully examined it. “It’s pretty frayed. I’m going to cut it and get rid of it,” she called down. 

We watched her as she found her knife and cut the frayed part off, letting it drop. She retied the rope to her harness and threaded it through her anchors. “I’m ready to come down now. With the rope safely in her anchors, I could now belay her down. 

Minutes later she was on the ground and collapsed. I was first to reach her. She was on her hands and knees, crying, shaking, retching. I took her in my arms and held her for a long time until she slowly regained her composure. 

The first thing she said was, “How could I be so stupid? I’m sorry, so sorry. I was in a zone. I didn’t want to stop. Just wanted to keep going. I thought I had it. I know better. It was a stupid, stupid, stupid asinine thing to do. I would’ve died if that rope didn’t catch. Just hold me for a minute. I want to feel alive. I just want to feel alive . . .” 

Always in control, I had never seen her so vulnerable, like a child with a badly skinned knee. I held her, gently but firmly, feeling a lump rise in my throat and tears of relief form in my own eyes. She finally stopped shaking. Then she just went limp and let me hold her. 

“Okay, I think I need a beer,” she muttered.
“I need more than one plus a tequila shot or two,” I said.
“You brought tequila?” That was the last thing she said.
I put away our gear while she slowly sipped on a beer. I prepped some food and we ate. One of the other campers came over and asked if we wanted to join them. I looked at Billie who was now staring off with vacant eyes at the granite wall that almost took her life, and said thanks, but I think we’ll pass. He nodded his head, said good night, and left. 

She said flatly, “I’d like to get out of here tomorrow. I’m finished,” She said no more. 

“Understood. We can pack up and head back early then.” 

She said nothing more, never looking at me. We crawled into the tent and sleeping bags. She turned away from me and feigned sleep. Her night was fitful. She woke me several times calling out, “No! No! I can’t. No! I don’t want to die. I want to be alive. I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry Daddy. I don’t want to. Mommy, Mommy, I’m scared.” 

We were up at dawn. She helped pack up like a robot or a zombie, with mechanical like movements and no words. Gear and supplies loaded in the canoes, we heading back across the lake. There was a blankness about her, she was empty, her eyes were vacant, like all energy, like her very soul had been drained from her, like there was nothing left. 

When we landed , she went to the van and sat still staring, maybe in her mind at that granite wall. I returned the canoes to the rental place, loaded our gear in my van, and headed down the deserted highway bordered by foreboding dark hills. She had lost herself. And I was losing myself as I wondered for her survival and my love for her. We drove on into a gathering storm of thunder and lightening where her dreams would never be the same. 

After high school, I bummed around for four years, working as a gas station attendant, a factory line worker, heavy equipment operator, farm hand, construction laborer, and finally a carpenter’s apprentice. Between recovering from school, working, and hanging out with friends I had hardly seen for four years, my reading had gone on hiatus.

However, I do remember reading J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”, recommended by one of my friends who had gone off to college. I was engrossed with the language, and, as I later found out, many others who were as shocked. But that’s the only book I recall reading during this time of my life. There may have been others that I cannot recall. Those years were spent with late nights and some late mornings in bars or partying somewhere with copious drinking involved.

I found I liked carpentry. Building things was fun and I learned a lot very quickly. My first winter as an apprentice, I was working on a large commercial poured concrete building one winter. Iowa winters can be harsh and this one was particularly brutal. One particularly cloudy, cold, and windy day, while having a morning break to have some coffee and to warm up, an old carpenter (he was old to me, but probably in reality, like 40) said, and I paraphrase, “Son, you’re smart, too smart to be doing this all your life. You can already read blueprints better than most old carpenters. You should go to school and be running jobs like this in a few years. Look at me, I travel to these big jobs, away from my family all week. It’s no life you want.”

I had never thought of college, although my dad tried to get me to go, but who listens to their fathers? However, this old carpenter got me to thinking. I had never thought of myself as smart or capable of being able to go to college. I still didn’t have the confidence that I could do anything like a four year engineering degree so I researched tech schools and found a two year Associate of Civil Engineering program at Iowa State University and applied. Much to my amazement I was accepted for fall term, 1963. Little did I know —

That same spring I received my draft notice. My heart sunk, but I was accepted into college and went to the draft board but was denied a deferment by the nasty woman in charge who felt I had decided to go to college at the old age of twenty three only to avoid the draft. I was not going to go into the army and be sent off to the growing conflict in Viet Nam as a foot soldier, so the very next week I went down to the U. S. Navy Seabee (Construction Battalions) Reserve Center in Des Moines to check it out. I was told that I could join the reserves having to eventually serve a two year active duty commitment, but I could finish my associate degree first and then do my active duty. I signed up on the spot.

Keep checking . . .