I’ve been living on crazy all my life: “la vida loca.”
Too often, I’ve seen my future depend on the flip of a coin, the fall of a card, or where I happen to be standing in line. There I was, sitting behind the Green Door, the most famous tattoo parlor in the Mediterranean, waiting to get a blue star on my ear lobe. My shipmate, Charles, another outlier like me, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I had saved our money in anticipation of this port visit to Valletta, Malta, and we had caught the first boat ashore that morning. We were both 17 and mess cranking, working in the ship’s scullery, washing all the plates and cups, knives and forks, and pots and pans on the light cruiser, Springfield (CLG-7), three times a day, for 1200 men, and doing the food breakouts for the cooks in between. It was thankless and nasty work; Charles and I got into a fistfight at least once a week, but we were friends.
Judging by the mail that neither one of us received, nobody in the world knew or cared that we were alive. We were riders on the storm, orphans in the wind, “juste des enfants fous.” There had been three of us, the “Three Amigos,” or the “Three Bandidos,” take your choice, but Number 3 got killed halfway across the Atlantic when a steel wire snapped during an underway replenishment with a supply ship and the recoil took off most of his head. I saw the whole thing. Not having any morticians onboard and being out of helicopter range to fly his body ashore, our only option was to put him in a body bag and hang him in the walk-in freezer where we kept the beef, pork, and hot dogs served to the crew. Every morning, when Charles and I broke out whatever meat the cooks had ordered for the meals, we would stop and talk to him and tell him how unfair and bogus the whole thing was and promise to go see his mama; but we never did because he never got any letters, either.
We never bonded with his replacement, a graduate of the University of Alabama, who had flunked out of Officer Candidate School and had to serve his draft obligation with the peons. He was a nice enough guy, a fraternity type, but he had no street smarts and a big mouth. More than once, Charles or I had to intervene to keep some boatswain’s mate from taking him out. His father was a judge back in Birmingham, and he must have known a lot of people, because he sure got a lot of mail. Some girl was always sending him cookies. He went back home to law school when his two years were up.
Anyway, we decided that we needed those tattoos to prove that we were “men.” Unlike today, where tattoos are a dime a dozen, in 1959 they were still exclusive to sailors, prisoners, headhunters, and the Yakuza. In our berthing compartment alone, you could see bloody, dagger-pierced roses, Jesus on the Cross, prancing unicorns, coiling cobras, and crossed-out names of ex-girlfriends and runaway wives, not to mention hula girls swaying and eagles flying when shipmates flexed their arm muscles.
The bold, and the brave, and the darling young men, Charles went first, and the owner/artist of the Green Door, a fat man who always wore a trademark straw Panama hat when he worked, set out sketching a dead-on depiction of the famous clipper ship, Cutty Sark, on his arm, complete with storm clouds gathering and seagulls swarming. I’m sitting there watching this: Charles bleeding; the needle buzzing; the fat man sweating, and I began to have second thoughts. If I ever have hopes of spending time in “polite” company, maybe I don’t need this blue star on my ear lobe? I changed my mind: another five minutes, and I would have probably ended up as a Bourbon Street bouncer.
Looking back, my life has been stitched together by a series of similar events, many randomly absurd, and often absurdly random. In “No Exit,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play (1944), the dead in hell are surprised not to see torturers. Hell is organized like a self-service cafeteria. “. . . an economy of man-power or devil-power. The customers serve themselves.” So it has been with my life: making just enough choices to deceive myself into thinking I was the master of my own fate. For example, when terrorists drove a truckful of explosives into our compound on that Sunday morning in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, blew up the barracks, and killed 220 sleeping Marines and a few French Foreign Legionnaires, I had walked out of the building about 15 minutes earlier.
On a pitch-black night in Rome, Italy, I was one step from walking into the path of what must have been the quietest streetcar in the world. I chose to step to the left instead of straight ahead. Otherwise, I would have been just another bug splattered on a mass transit windshield. In Vietnam, a mortar shell exploded about forty feet from me, but the shrapnel which saturated the area where I was lying inextricably missed me. Others weren’t so lucky. To be honest, I was taking a nap. Catching a hop out of Torrejon Air Force Base in Madrid, Spain, to the States on an Air Force C-130, I was the only non-crew member onboard, except for some deceased comrades in flag-draped coffins making their last ride home, and yet I happened to be the first one to notice a gigantic hydraulic leak that, unrepaired, would have disabled the plane’s flight controls before we could have returned to the airfield. Go figure.
When I was enlisted and in the Armed Forces Police in New York City, we were called out one night to break up a riot at the Peppermint Lounge, the one that Chubby Checker made famous doing the “Twist.” A civilian pulled out a gun and shot at me. He was so drunk, he missed. I happened to be in the second carload of shore patrol arriving on the scene. Had I been in the first, he might have been more sober and shot straighter. Even as a civilian, I’ve lived la vida loca. While in college at USM, I was riding a bull named “Try Me” in a rodeo at Wilmer, Alabama, once a feared speed trap just over the Alabama line, but now only a pitstop for boiled peanuts on the way to Orange Beach. When he bucked me off, his back hooves landed about three inches from my head and filled my mouth and left ear full of dirt. Luckily, I had rolled to my right side to keep from getting trampled.
It never got much better. After almost four decades on active duty, things were still crazy. A few months before I was discharged. I was involved with a young chaplain who had been accused of adultery by a woman’s big-shot husband in the city where I was stationed. The local senior officer, a Vice Admiral, called me in and told me, in the presence of the woman’s husband, which I thought was strange, that he was convening a Special Court-Martial to prosecute the chaplain, and that I was to be the senior member. Two other captains, both line officers, would also be members. He also told me that the chaplain was obviously guilty and that it was an “open and shut” case. It was plain to me that he expected no less than a guilty verdict. I had crossed paths with this complete tool before on Guam, and I knew that wearing all that gold, he was dangerous.
When you strip away the hysterics and the politics, here are the facts of the case: a young, single chaplain, never married, age 30, goes into a jewelry store in a mall to get his watch repaired. He strikes up a conversation with the saleswoman, also around 30, who takes in his watch. She is not wearing a wedding ring. A few days later, he returns for his watch; they resume their friendly conversation; it’s time for her break, and he or she suggests that they get a cup of coffee. They so enjoy each other’s company and have so much in common that he or she suggests that they meet the following night at a local restaurant for dinner. This innocent beginning rapidly develops into an intense personal relationship over the next year – to the extent that he purchased an engagement ring in expectation of asking her to marry him when he got his nerve up. Unfortunately, his world literally comes crashing down when, while returning to the naval base after seeing her one night, his car is rammed from behind by a black Mercedes sedan – driven by her husband! And, as it turns out, the husband is the owner of one of the largest employers in town, a member of the influential Naval League, a friend of the mayor, etc.
I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, but I decided I’d rather be a cock-eyed cowboy than let this kid get railroaded. He might have been naïve, maybe a little dumb, but he didn’t deserve to be court-martialed. My problem was that the wife, not wanting a divorce, turned on my guy and blamed everything on him. Her husband, at least publicly, believed her. But it not being a civilian trial, I never got to talk to either of them. I knew I was going to vote “Innocent.” At most, he was guilty of being stupid; my task was to convince at least one of the two other captains, both hard-nosed jet pilots, to vote with me.
So, the trial began; in the JAG office; just like on TV. When the prosecutor, a female lieutenant, finished laying out the charges, you’d have thought my guy was some crazed maniac: Jack the Ripper, preying on poor, defenseless shop girls. I’m sitting there thinking, “Whaaat?” “This is just some dufus who fell in love with a deceitful person, and you want to hang HIM high?” That afternoon, I met with the two other members of the board and, just as I figured, they had their black marbles in their hands and were ready to convict him in a hot minute. My task was to change their minds. It took me two days. I was Clarence Darrow vs. William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial; Perry Mason on his best day; Shoot, I was Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men.” When the dust finally settled, it turned out that these two grizzled old Vietnam veterans had hearts, had been in love a few times, and didn’t like being told to deal from the bottom of a stacked deck. We threw out all the charges, and the kid walked. It was a good thing that I already had my papers in to retire because extreme, heavy-handed heat came down from the tool in the head shed.
You know, I used to feel like Plato but, today, I realize that he was wrong. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human foibles, blood, sweat, and tears; and it is with a great intellectual effort that I try to grasp the true significance of the things I’ve seen and the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met. One day, I intend to write a great, immortal epic that, once and for all, explains this unpredictable, difficult, crazy world – and it will be chiseled out of stone.
Having said all that, I guess the only worthwhile advice I really have to offer is:
Stop rambling and stop gambling,
Quit staying out late at night,
Come home to your wife
and your family,
And sit out by the fireside bright.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.