It is a memorable time of year isn’t it. I was just thinking about when I was discharged from the Navy. It was nineteen ninety just days before the Gulf war started. There had been tension on base as the pacific fleet was readying to leave San Diego harbor. SIMA naval station had been prepping the ships for deployment. I had worked along side others in those preparations and then on the morning of December twenty I was given my discharge papers and found myself on the base standing outside in the rain. It was a disorienting feeling being part of the military so long and then knowing you were no longer allowed anywhere on the base except where you were standing. It was raining and cool. Being from the Midwest the weather in San Diego had been like a time warp with no real seasons that I could tell. Dry or dryer, sun or smog and rarely a day when it rained like that day. Once you had your discharge papers I was learning your privileges return to zero. I was a second class petty officer who was winding down five years of service. My last stop to get my final paycheck was in line outside of a small shack like structure with a window like a ticket booth. It took an hour before I was handed the envelope without any farewell words. It felt shitty. With the Gulf turmoil on the horizon there had been decisions to make. The Navy had been keeping some of the sailors extending their discharge date to an open ended need from the government preparing for wartime. My rate was not considered critical for the events at hand so I was allowed to end my service or stay on by choice. It’s not an easy decision for anyone in service. You feel a loyalty to the military and a longing for home. I had concerns for my future and for my parents who were getting older and still working the family farm. I chose to go home. December twenty I figured I could drive from San Diego to northern Minnesota in four days and be home on Christmas eve.
I walked out of the harbor side of the base to a small building I knew had a restroom unpacked my civilian clothes and changed out of my denim dungarees for the last time. Was I AWOL? No, just free and not comfortable with it. Crossing the pedestrian bridge over the highway I found my car. It was a t-top Nissan Pulsar, red. The love of my life but that’s for another time. In North Park I stopped at my apartment picked up my cat and left the city headed east. There was no one I would miss. I wasn’t well liked in the service. My artistic personality never fit in and it would take years before I understood more about that. The adventure before me was a great unknown. I had no job lined up and a small savings. In those years you could get a long ways on a little money. I drove to Tucson and stopped for the night. It was raining hard and I figured in the morning it would be clear and so would my head. My cat was new to travel and spent the night under the enclosed frame of my motel bed. I hoped I would get him out in the morning without disassembling the frame. Instead of better weather I woke to snow and what I would learn was a half day of mountain driving. Somehow I was the lead car and I focused on anything I could use to gage where I was on the highway. It was white and unmarked by traffic in the dark of morning. My stomach stayed tight with concentration on the road. Then suddenly I was on clear road flat desert and headed toward El Paso. The route I took had been planned after hearing about serious weather issues north. I hadn’t wanted to face Colorado in the winter and had already been snowed in Lone Pine Wyoming back in eighties. I made good time and stopped after I had turned north for the straight as I could make it route to Minnesota. The Texas cactus were frost covered that day and its one of my better memories. Everything was diamonds and seemed so incongruous to all I knew about deserts which was nothing.
The winds were fierce. I pulled over at a rest stop. It was one of those pavilion style stops with the large buildings and parking areas. I made haste to the building for shelter from the what felt about minus twenty degrees. Texas builds strong facilities. The stalls were stainless steel as was the toilet. The only design error that I could see was the whole structure was open to the wind. It’s the only time I sat on a stainless steel seat at twenty below. I don’t remember how the water worked but I do remember hearing on local radio the number of water pipes that were damaged in the area due to the unnaturally cold weather. Outside was the phone booth. By then I was chattering my teeth but I needed to let my parents know I was doing well and on route. Oh, the days before cell phones were more challenging. I had the first calling card I ever owned and used it to call home. I managed to say I was ok enough so they understood then ran to my car.
I made it home that year on Christmas eve at six o’clock. Seeing my folks open the door to welcome me gave me the kind of peace I only ever had in this world when I was with them. After big deep bear hugs from my dad and a cling from my mother I had made it home. Merry Christmas everyone.