Thursday, January 20, 2011

Anniversary Day

Today is a big anniversary day. January 20th. Inauguration Day in certain years. This year marks the second anniversary of President Barack Obama's inauguration. The tenth anniversary of George W. Bush's Supreme Court mandated installment in office. The thirtieth anniversary of President Ronald Reagan's inauguration. And most importantly of all, the FIFTIETH anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, who will be remembered for three things: his brilliant handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, his tragic assassination in Dallas, and his beautiful and inspiring inauguration speech. I have a copy on parchment paper and framed. This inaugural address is among the top three best ever (Lincoln's second inaugural address and one of FDR's are the other two). The document still inspires idealists to this day. Someday when people in the future compare the two party dynasties, one might say that while Kennedy inspired people to serve, dream big, and have an idealistic view of the world, Bush only inspired cynicism, distrust, and opposition worldwide. Which person would you rather be when facing God for judgment at the end of your life on earth?

If that weren't enough, Sargent Shriver passed away this week. He is the father of Maria Shriver (and father-in-law to Ah-nuld Schwarzenegger). His wife Eunice was one of John F. Kennedy's sisters and founded the Special Olympics. Shriver was asked by President Kennedy to be the first director of the Peace Corps, another Kennedy legacy. In 1972, Shriver was asked to replace Thomas Eagleton as the Vice Presidential candidate to George McGovern after the press revealled that Eagleton had undergone shock treatment for some psychological disorder. Shriver picked an interesting time to return to the spiritual realm. I guess he wanted to congratulate JFK on the 50th anniversary as well as to reunite with his wife Eunice, who had died shortly before her brother Ted passed away. The old generation of Kennedys are disappearing.

Also on this day are two personal anniversaries of my own. Fifteen years ago, it was my last day in the Navy. The photo above was taken on that final morning. I had changed into my uniform and crawled back into my rack so that a shipmate could take my picture to mark the occasion. My last few weeks in the Navy were very busy because the ship was being deployed on its second 6-months duty at sea (the whole Med Cruise and Persian Gulf thing). I was the supply petty officer for Admin Department. The Admin Officer wanted new chairs for all the offices in Admin Department. It must have been around fifty chairs or so. Strangely enough, he wanted chairs with wheels on them. I asked if he was certain about it because this is not a good chair to have on a ship. Once, I was in the office when a computer slid straight off the desk and I was unable to catch it in time before it hit the deck. But, if the Admin Officer wanted chairs with wheels, then dammit, we were getting chairs with wheels!

One day, I was called to sign for the chairs, which came in boxes. I signed for them and when I opened one of the boxes, I was stunned to see that the chair had pink cloth, instead of the black that I ordered. The plastic parts of the chair were black, but the cloth parts were pink. I panicked. I called the company but they refused to except returns. We were stuck with it. I checked the numbers and realized that I had gotten one of the numbers wrong on a multi-digit code. Because of one little mistake, Admin Department of the USS George Washington ended up with pink chairs! It became a joke in Admin. Guys thought I did it on purpose as a big "fuck you!" to the Navy. Yeah, I hated the Navy at that point and was glad to get out, but I'm big on competence and doing a great job no matter my personal feelings. It bothered me to make this uncorrectable mistake. To this day, I check and double check and sometimes triple check my numbers (which is why my current place of employment are liking me).

On the last full working day in the Navy, I had to make a supply run in my own car (a two door Geo Metro hatchback). I wonder how many people would do such a thing on their last day. Yet, I did. I had a small working party to unload my car of the supplies Admin Department needed for deployment. It was a bittersweet moment. The last thing I did for the ship. On the last day, it was purely check-out processing, picking up the final checks (I sold back my unused leave, which allowed me to make the final payment on my car and the rest I had planned to use for a trip to Australia), turning over my ID card, and driving away. It was sad to turn in my ID card as I left the ship for the last time. I did my proper salute to the flag and walked down the plank to the pier. The day I had long looked for had finally arrived. Into a new freedom.

Had I known the difficult road the next fifteen years would be, would I have made the same choice? If I had reenlisted, I would've gotten a shore assignment and I wanted to work in Washington, D.C. The Pentagon was a likely choice, but I made my demands for reenlistment unrealistic because I didn't want to be tempted to reenlist. I had wanted to be assigned to the White House. My goal was to work for Vice President Gore. I had no idea at the time that I would intern in the White House four years later and end up being one of Gore's intern. Interesting how things worked out.

In March, I will celebrate my 20th anniversary of entering the Navy, which means that had I stayed Navy, I could've retired this year! One of the biggest reasons why I wanted to get out was that I wanted to go to college and then get a job in the Gore Administration. I also wanted my Navy novel written and published. Had I known that all I would experience was a four month internship, I might not have made the choice to get out. If heaven allows the option of seeing how the other choices might have panned out, I plan to see what might have happened if I had stayed Navy (the other path not taken that I'm interested in seeing would be what might have happened if I had stayed in D.C. in 2000).

On that last day, I took my checks to the bank and deposited the money as well as make the last payment on my car. I now owned it...and when a careless driver totalled my car in an accident four months later, I would unravel into one of the most depressing moment of my life (I laugh now when I think about how devastated I was to lose that car). I spent a few days staying with a church family (the ones who introduced me to one of my best friends, Nathan) and made final visits to various friends as well as a quick trip to Williamsburg before driving back to Atlanta to begin my new life. 1996 began with so much promise, but by year's end, it had become the worst year of my life (it still holds that record). Ironically, I still consider 1991 to be the greatest year of my life and that was the year I entered the Navy. I love that juxtaposition.

So, fifteen years ago, I made the choice to give up the safe security of the Navy for the unknown civilian world. The Admin Officer (who I thought was a major asshole) tried to scare me into reenlisting. He knew that I loved to travel, so he told me that I would likely not travel as much outside of the Navy. He was wrong on that account. In 1997 alone, I had travelled through 12 timezones (half the distance around the world!)...from Berlin to Honolulu. I've been to many places in the fifteen years since, though I have not seen Australia or New Zealand like I had intended for myself. Still on my list.

The other thing the Admin Officer said to me was that the only jobs out there was flipping burgers at McDonalds. I had to laugh. I have never worked at a fast food restaurant. Not ever. Not during my teen years. Not now. Though I still haven't been making the income I desire (I can't seem to break out of a certain amount, which frustrates me because a college degree was supposed to put me into a higher income bracket), I have not had to work at the truly low wage nightmare jobs. True, I probably would have been better off financially had I stayed Navy, but it would mean giving up every friendship I had made since this day in 1996. Would I trade my friends and experiences for a Navy career?

Had I stayed Navy, I'm sure a part of me would have wondered what being a full time college student would've been like, or if I had written and published my Navy novel. Still waiting on my dream career, that pays the wages I deserve. Life is a series of trade-offs, but I think leaving the Navy when I did, though difficult my life has been since, was the right decision. My only goals for myself in the Navy was to experience life on an aircraft carrier, getting an honorable discharge, and making it to E-5 (Petty Officer Second Class). As George W. Bush likes to say: "Mission accomplished!" There was nothing else for me to really experience in the Navy. I had done everything I wanted to do and then some. Onto the next set of experiences.

The other anniversary of this day is not a good one. Five years ago, I came home from work planning to mark the ten year anniversary of getting out of the Navy with a private ritual (involving candles, a journal, and meditation) when my mother called with some bad news. I had feared that another family member had passed away (we had a string of them in the past decade, after my having lived more than 30 years without a death in the family). I figured that it was one of the older family members, but it was actually my 20 year old cousin, Michael. He had killed himself. I was stunned, because I was planning to call him the next day. I had felt an urge to call him a few days previously, but I couldn't find his cell phone number so I planned to look over the weekend to give him a call. Was that urge a spiritual prompting? I believe it was. Especially when I learned later that Michael had desperately called a few people at church for advice or help and he was ignored. Would my phone call have made a difference? Maybe.

Michael is one of the most popular members of the family. He has a lovable personality that everyone adores. He's just a sweet kid (though with a temper). What prompted him to take his own life? Well, its complicated and we'll never really get closure on it. The events that pushed him into taking his own life were minor. He certainly could have endured it and his family would not have loved him any less. We figure that there might have been shame involved, because he might have felt that he let the people he loved down. It is the worst news anyone can get, especially his parents.

In the years since, though, I have seen his father change in ways I didn't think possible. His father is the youngest of five boys (my dad is son #2) that my grandparents had. My uncle is ten years and ten days older than me, so he was kind of like an older brother to me. In the aftermath of Michael's death, my uncle and aunt adopted a baby from Guatemala, who has become the light of the family. She even brought much joy into my grandfather's life during his last years (after his wife had passed away in 2005). My uncle and aunt have been to Guatemala countless times, doing missionary work. I never would have pegged my uncle as a traveler to the developing world. He has lived in Atchison, Kansas all of his life (the only one of the five boys who has done so). Its amazing to see what grief can do to those left behind. No matter what, though, the pain never heals. The sadness never goes away. No parent wants to lose a child. It seems to be the cruelest pain of all.

So, on this day, I'm always feeling a mix of emotions. It was meant to be a happy anniversary, as I reflect on my decision to leave the Navy and what I've done in the years since, but my cousin made it also a day of sadness and reflection on the loss of a great family member who I was looking forward to see how his life would turn out. We'll never know, of course. But had he stuck through his personal crisis, we wouldn't have little Marisol in our family now. Strange that joy can emerge from great sorrow. Rest in Peace, sweet Michael. You are not forgotten!

1 comment:

Julie said...

I too was thinking of Sargent Shriver being reunited w/ Eunice.
Sorry to hear about the anniversary of your cousin's death. Sometimes i think suicide is the saddest kind of death there is. I had a friend who committed suicide the year before last, and it haunts me.