Tuesday, May 5, 2015

In the Footsteps of Cabrillo

San Diego Harbor

I’ve lived in some cramped quarters in my younger years. There were studio apartments around the University of Minnesota that stretched the definition of small and compact. Micro apartments were going macro and closets became weekend accommodations. In some cities space-wise living hasn’t changed a lot since them.

Recently my wife and I stayed in just such a condo in San Diego. We were there for the weekend at the invitation of friend from the desert. Our unit was next to theirs. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say it was like an expanded closet or even rivaled our walk-in back home. Despite the cozy quarters, their building was right on a bay full of sailboats and wonderful harbor sights. There was nothing to complain about.

We spent our first afternoon walking along the harbor with great views of downtown San Diego.

Then we drove up through the Point Loma Ecological Reserve to the Cabrillo National Monument. There we learned about the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who became the first European to set foot on land that later became the west coast of the United States. The lookout there had a great view of San Diego bay and Coronado Island.

We had lunch at the Hotel Coronado as all the tourists do and strolled the beaches there. It was your typical weekend get-away until my wife went shopping. From that point on what I remembered most about our trip would be a lost memory to my host’s husband… even if I was a better man for it.

The next afternoon our host announced that she wanted to go shopping with Sharon. She suggested her husband and I could entertain ourselves. I’d seen her husband on several occasions and even been partnered with him during social events at our house. Somehow I’d gotten a reputation for being nice to him and he liked me although he thought my name was Michael and couldn’t remember where we first met.

Our host’s husband is a little different. In social settings he can make some folks uncomfortable. Not that long ago he was diagnosed with the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s slowly losing his mind…and he knows it. “Can’t remember’ has become an all too familiar refrain coming from him.

For some reason he and I clicked; go figure. I somehow found a connection with him that had eluded all the others. I called it banter and bullshit.

It was a deliberate effort in our conversations to interject more bantering back and forth. What others might describe as nonsensical sayings, phrases and mind-games that we didn’t mind playing with each other. It was totally devoid of posturing and positioning. But the ring of honesty settled well with him and he enjoyed the journey of a wordsmith.

We found a place along the bay to sit and watch sailboats at play and skateboarders sail by. But our bantering lasted only so long and silence began to creep in between us. Then almost by accident I mentioned my time in the service and the proverbial light bulb went on.

He’d enlisted in the Army about the same time as I was getting discharged. But for two service-men reliving the life of olive drab and khaki little had changed. Remarkably his memories of that period were quite lucid.

We spoke in acronyms and chopped jargon-laced sentences. I knew that strange lingo from my own time in the service as well as the research I’d done for my novel “Love in the A Shau.” Turns out, it was a language he remembered well and the memories came tumbling forth.

I asked if he remembered his bag drag (his last day in country-Vietnam) when he dragged his duffel bag of junk and memorabilia toward that waiting airplane? He certainly did.

When did the eagle shit? At the end of each month. Some of his pay went directly home and the rest ended up in his pockets for beer and cigarettes.

Was he a grunt? Damn straight he was and proud of it.

Did he encounter any Donut Dollys? (American Red Cross Volunteers) Not where he was stationed…just care packages in the mail.

I asked about his hooch (living accommodations). He swore a bit and described six cots in a stifling, smelly, moldy old tent. He was never sure if it was the accommodations or his bunk mates that smelled the worse.

Did he experience the pucker factor? In a firefight once but that was all he would say.

He said he flew in Spooky once (a C-47 with 7.62 mini guns mounted in the side windows.) But even with ear plugs he was nearly deaf for a day afterwards.

What about Puff the Magic Dragon? (An Air Force AC-47 aircraft with side-firing mini-guns and flares to support night operations.) He wanted to experience puff but he never did.

What was his happiest day in the Nam? When he became a single-digit midget because he only had single digit days before he shipped out for home.

We exchanged war stories and bravado-laced adventures for a long time. I had my tall (slight exaggerated) tales to tell and he had his. It was a curious combination of straight talk, bullshit, embellishment and exaggeration shared between two old work horses put out to pasture.

When he finally got tired, we went back to the condo for some beer until the ladies returned. But for that brief moment in time he was back ‘in country.’ The memories flowed and painted delicious portraits in his minds-eye. Once again he was young and brash and full of piss and vinegar. And scared…like the rest of us. But it was all good.

Turns out he gave me a wonderful gift that weekend by the bay. A trip back in time when we were both carefree and oblivious to life outside of our own. Before reality and responsibilities dragged us back to the real world. He was alive once again that afternoon if only in his mind.

And I was a better man for taking him back to that Big PX in the Sky.

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