Reflecting I joined the Navy not really by choice but merely by chance.
A day after turning 17 and newly-minted from a backroads Georgia high school in a debt-ridden one-stop, #boonietown named Darien, where the biggest industry was shrimping and crabbing and even that had passed its heyday.
Within a year of coming to Coastal Georgia arriving from the cultural metropolis known as the Lion city of the Southeast, my family and I were rudely confronted to the civil dissent and racial resent that was so pervasive in the backwater lowlands.
In 1981, I was shocked to come face-to-face with a dozen hooded racists, wearing conical-shaped hats, eyes that implied a face of hate. Mysterious men with thick biceps welding pick-axe bats villified, the throng terrified as the hooded beasts pushed through downtown Darien to protest a bitter feud between the only two (equally-represented) social classes that existed within the four corners of our classrooms, snugly, albeit tumultously like thundercloud and sky.
That’s why I was nary surprised when Praying for Sheetrock“, the 1991 epic story of the tribulations this backwoods County faced under the tyranny and uninpuned felony of the ominipotent Sheriff Tom Poppell became its most identifiable symbol of depravity of days gone past.
I wanted to join the Navy because it was my only recourse and this quest became instinctual, rather natural, after being raised along the high seas and growing up deck and dawn onboard a 40-foot yawl for most of my childhood existence, I was naturally drawn to the sanctuary of the ocean and its calmy balm, eerie solitude.
Born in Hong Kong in ’67, while the war in Vietnam was still brewing and napalm incendiary violently burning, I knew all along I was destined to roam free. When I was four-years old and having a ball in this bustling urbanity, I remember vividly the night my mother woke me and my sister as if our lives were suddenly on the brink. Our bags were already packed and we sneaked out of the flat that we knew as home. My father was somewhere around, sound asleep, unbeknownst of our clever escape strategy as we were also unaware of the fuzzy horizons that lay eerily ahead.
For the first time, I had got to know an American, who became my Dad and we pulled anchor at the wink of dawn. Our first destination to be followed by a string of remote, exotic locations was Manilla and this is the city where I thrilled the shores and chased the gulls and was graciously presented a name that stuck with me to this day. After sailing vicariously throughout Southeast Asia to the likes of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, to the most remote reaches and white crystal beaches in the Asiatic Archipelagos, we finally set anchor in the port that would become our home for five endless years — the Lion City of Singapura.
Then when I was 12, a waderlust pre-teen, spoiled by the unstructured, unschooled lifestyle within a global classroom, my family decided we had reached our fill with our lifebound-journey–we shipped the boat to the mother land and purchased a one-way ticket to our new-found home, reaching foreign shores with fresh perspectives, new hopes abound.
But we were sad to let go — we loved this city, the food, the friends, the culture — every single and social bit of it. And we were sad, outrightly downtrodden, when we had to reluctantly wave goodbye to the only thing that I clinged in my life.
With all the excitement and adventure, you would think we would settle down in a major metropolis with beaucoup culture and high societies somewhere along the eastern seaboard or California shoreline.
To my dismay, we rested our travel-weary bones in a quaint, backyard town of Darien, population 2,500, where we learned to live slow and enjoy the tranquil Golden Isles sunset slipping away along the saltwater marshline, and we sadly vowed never to sail the high seas by line or lever ever again.
We loved our country and my mother, my sister and I became proud, naturalized citizens and upon graduation from high school, I decided to break our family promise of dismissing the seas so that I could give something back for the country that gave me some hope.
My first duty station after boot camp in frigid Great Lakes where the snow rose over our knee caps and our uniforms froze to our bellies.
Then on to initial specialty training school in Virginia Beach to become an Operations Specialist (radar operator) and excitedly to my first ship berthed in Yokosuka Japan, the defiantly sleek fast Knox-class frigate, USS Francis Hammond (FF-1067). We were a small crew, barely over 200, and we were one, tight family who embraced our new culture and traditions of this amazing land, the country of the samurai, origami and the most celebrated rituals in all the world.
My first duty station was also the one I got to rediscover my core family — to get to intimately know my other sister who resided with her grandma her entire life and my mother’s family who resided in Kobe, Japan. They had not gotten to spend much time with my mother since she left Kobe to Hong Kong in the early 1960s to be with this charming, seductive man who would become my father.
And it was from an opportune port visit in December 1986 in Hong Kong that I got to visit my father for the very first time since I was four. We embraced as if it was our very first time and talked as if it would be our last conversation that we would know. We bawled our eyes out and cried like doom and death looming, and he asked me about the night that we slipped away never to be seen or heard again for a seeming eternity.
It was a tear-jerker and too emotional for the likes of a budding, 18-year old Sailor who wanted to spread out and stretch his wings. We said our hurried good-byes as the ship was preparing to weigh anchor hoping to unite again, and not having to wait another 14 years to do so, but knowing deep inside that the days were numbered and there would be more port visits in other distant lands between here and now.
I did return to Hong Kong later, much later in my career, when I was already a commissioned officer, this time aboard a sprawling aircraft carrier of 5,000 Sailors Strong (USS John C. Stennis), but it didn’t matter much anymore — my father died just a year after I visited him, I always pondered whether he had waited for this time to cherish memories and to bury the past before he had to depart — his soft, tender ashes scattered like seed somewhere along the South China Sea and my memories clung on distant and long hoping never to fade.