Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The time I went AWOL in Benidorm, Spain

Veteran's Day always makes me remember my brief U.S. Navy days.

I was one of those poor kids who joined the service to pay for my college education. I spent a summer in boot camp, a year in Navy ROTC at Boston University, a summer on a helo carrier (the USS Saipan, since decomissioned), and then quit the program and ditched my scholarship without incurring any obligation to further serve in the Navy.

I wrote about my ROTC days and summer at sea on the Saipan in a music memoir I wrote when I was living in New York. Music is the focus of the memoir, which is why the musical elements of my experiences are foregrounded here.

And Let Him Ply His Music:
Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore

By Chris King

Chapter 4.
A Squid in Boston

My scholarship came with a rather nasty asterisk — I had to join the United States Navy to accept it. I was in the Navy now, an ROTC cadet who had to hit boot camp before I checked into my dorm.

Boston University, or B.U., is a university in search of a campus. It's a litter of classroom buildings and dormitories blown up along the gutters of Commonwealth Avenue, or Comm. Ave. (I quickly noticed Northeasterners shorten everything before they say it). I had picked the place out of a book, blind, applying only to one other institution, Harvard, which rejected my application when I failed to produce any SAT scores.

That was because I didn’t have any SAT scores. Alcohol is wasted on the young. My buddy Skoob and I had gone on a bender the night before the exam, and slept right through it.

Boston was where I found myself at eighteen, cropped close courtesy of the United States Navy and overloaded with an all-new vocabulary. As an ROTC midshipman, I was now a “squid”. Squids came in varieties. The military being what it is, these distinctions were rather blunt and crude and difficult to mistake.

“A.J. Squared Away” was a squid who loved the Navy more than his mother, who obsessed over the shine on his Navy shoes the way I worried over segues on mix tapes, whose salute was crisp as October in Marblehead.

The Goofus squid to this Gallant was known as “Joe Shit the Rag Man”. His “eagles were always drunk” (that is, the eagle-festooned buttons on his officer’s hat were never poised so the birds stood perfectly erect). His pleats were not immaculately pressed. The mix tapes he made for his buddies may have included precisely ninety minutes of new Boston rock (thanks to precision planning and laborious re-taping of the last song on each side, restlessly searching for a snippet that was just the right length), but the shine on his shoes looked like Mississippi mud.

I was Joe Shit the Rag Man at muster and drill. But I wasn’t going AWOL, and I wasn’t angling for a “less than honorable discharge,” either. This meant there was rocking on the streets and in the clubs of Boston — Mission of Burma, the Lyres, the Neighborhoods, all the Throbbing Lobster bands — but I, for the most part, wasn’t there to hear it. I was cramming for an exam, memorizing the names of aircraft carriers, or trying to rub some river mud off my God damn Navy shoes.

I did make one big show: Let’s Active at the Paradise, right around the corner from my dorm. A band named after a goofy locution in a Japanese book of English phrases, Let’s Active was led by Mitch Easter, the godfather of jangly pop. Punk had missed Granite City, but Skoob and I caught what came next, post-punk and new wave, which would eventually be lumped unhelpfully together as “alternative music” (until grunge came along).

Mitch Easter had co-produced Murmur, the REM record that dominated my mix tapes (and the imagination of all would-be rock musicians) in 1984. Now, here he was taking my picture at the Paradise! After shyly admitting he liked snapshots of his audiences, Mitch aimed the camera front and center — the only place you would find me at a Let’s Active gig — and clicked. I might have been Joe Shit the Rag Man to Uncle Sam, but as a fan of all this new, inspired rock music, I was A.J. Squared Away all the way.

The one thing I could never screw up, besides a mix tape, was schoolwork. Grades mattered to the Navy far more than drunken eagles or Joe Shit shoe shines. I had the pick of summer training cruises, and landed in the Mediterranean aboard the USS Saipan, a helo carrier ferrying Marines with resumes long on Ronnie Reagan’s dirty work.

A Navy ship at sea is a terribly unmusical place. The funky muzak used to score cheap porn films followed me from deck to deck. At every port of call, the cafes blared the same silly song —“I Just Called to Say I Love You”. The last port us squids visited, Benidorm, came hyped as the Palm Springs of Spain by the Marines who taught us poker and showed us their personal pornography portfolios.

I had seen enough of the Saipan by the time we pulled into Benidorm. So a buddy and I booked a hotel room in secret and stayed off-ship all night without telling anybody.

We woke to an empty bay. The Saipan had slipped away in the night. TWA Flight 847 had been hijacked by Hezbollah and landed in Beirut. Our ship, full of squared away Marines and medics, was now nosing closer to Beirut in case it could be of use. I had “missed ship’s movement”. That really is AWOL — absent without leave.

The executive commander of our Navy unit started reading me the riot act back in Boston, until I invited him to save his breath. ROTC scholarships had once been “two and screw” — two years of free college before any commitment to repay your education through active duty. Now, it was “one and run,” and I informed him that, after my one year in the program, I would be running.

His tune changed; instantly, he went from chastising father to commiserating pal. I was a good student, after all, and they had invested a chunk of change (and a plum cruise) in me. It was his job to salvage all that and get me to commit.

“Tell me: why do you want to leave the Navy?” he asked.

I thought about it. I decided to be honest. What did I have to lose? “Because there are too many assholes in the military,” I said.

A warm smile spread across his face.

“Mr. King,” he said, “as a career Navy man, I can assure you, you are absolutely correct. The military is full of assholes.”

If I had known it would so easy, I might have made this point long ago, perhaps on the first day of boot camp, when it first became evident to a painful degree.

“Let me ask,” he continued, “what career do you plan to pursue?”

“I want to be a psychiatrist,” I answered.

The warm smile flushed his face, again, as he stood to conclude the exit interview.

“Mr. King,” he said, “I think you will find there are plenty of assholes in the medical establishment. In fact, Mr. King, I think you will find there are enough assholes to go around. Thank you very much.”

I would never make it far in the study of medicine. But in English departments and music scenes, in newsrooms and roadhouses, in juke joints and at hippie communes, in the library and on the road, I would often reflect upon the one unmistakable truth that I took home from the United States Navy.


The image is of the Saipan.


Tony Renner said...

did you know that chuck warner of throbbing lobster used to live in st. louis...? on flora near the garden, to be precise....

-- tony

Confluence City said...

That's funny Tony, he told me as much tonight in an email. I was on the road in the years (1995-2000) he was here and we never met. Just as aggravating, I've long since lost my very rare Throbbing lobster LPs ....

Mark said...

I have no idea how I came across your blog (actually I do, but I'm not saying, and it's irrelevant to my comments), but have enjoyed reading it. I will say that this particular post amused me greatly. I'm not sure what years you were in Boston, but I was a big Let's Active fan back in the day (sadly I missed seeing MOB by a few years, but did see a few Birdsongs shows at the Channel)and do remember seeing them around town quite a bit in the 80s, at TT's, the Paradise, and a few other venues. If your post was referring to the show they played with Rain Parade (1987 I think?), I have a recording of the show. Good times.

Confluence City said...

Mark, I hope you come back, because I'd love a copy of that recording! Thanks for reading and confirming that it was real, these things really happened.