Though it was in theaters at the time, the movie Top Gun had nothing to do with my decision to join the Navy. Good thing, for not once did I glimpse Kelly McGills and the one guy they did call ‘Goose’ earned that sobriquet in a gentlemen’s club - not in the backseat of an F-14. No, if there was a theatrical release I’d have to compare my naval stint to, it would be Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, for a sardonic contempt for blustery authority figures permeated every second of my time in uniform. That attitude’s no recipe for advancement, mind you - which may explain why no one in charge ever described me as Officer material. That’s okay. I wasn’t really interested in the admiralty, anyway. I was far too busy drowning my frustrations in self-pity and grog. At least I wasn’t alone.
For some reason, the ship I spent the most time on was filled to the gunwales with young enlisted malcontents. We couldn’t have all seen that silly Tom Cruise movie, right? It’s a question you learned quickly not to ask, which was tough since that maddening Kenny Loggins dirge came on the radio every fourteen minutes. To this day, I can’t hear' Danger Zone' without suffering the kind of flashbacks one usually associate with combat veterans. Which brings me to a very important point. We were NOT combat vets. We weren’t even battle-tested pansies. We were simply young men who missed our girlfriends, our cars, our hometowns and everything we ever hated about them. Worse yet, we all found ourselves scraping paint in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for one unfathomable reason: We’d freakin’ volunteered!
That maddening fact bonded the underclass of the USS Mount Whitney together like glue. At least in my division. ‘Scope Dopes’, they called us - for the primary duty of the Operations Specialist was to operate radar. I can still recall endless hours out to sea, hovering over a green glowing screen and pretending I knew what I was looking at. Luckily I was so junior, it never really mattered. Every other time my Senior Chief noticed me, he’d order me out of his precious Combat Information Center and into a ten man working party. ‘Chief Starr’, his name was - I remember it well, since I used to mutter it under my breath with seething rage as my buddies and I wrestled hundred pound acetylene tanks down endless hatches and ladders. In our shared hatred for this senior enlisted despot, the dregs of the Mount Effin’ Whitney became shipmates to the end.
There was Carter - a Texas smart-ass who would talk shit to the pope - or the Officers Club bouncer, whoever got in his grill first. The last time I saw him, he was moon walking across the messdecks in civilian clothes, celebrating his last day in ‘The Nav’ by paraphrasing an LL Cool J song he’d just heard on the radio. ‘Goin’ back to Dallas, Dallas…‘ I still smirk every time I remember his joy that day. Hope it lasted. And what about Frenchy - the laidback West Virginian with a heart of gold and body odor that would peel six layers of haze gray paint. He actually re-upped, blowing his re-enlistment bonus on a spiffy new car and a weekend road trip I'm still trying to piece together. And who could forget Jobmann - the funniest person I’ve had the pleasure of doing time with. He once made me spit bug juice out of my nose with his Carl Spackler impersonation. Later that night he made me cry with a haunting poem he’d grease penciled onto a glowing green radar scope. Years later, he’d attend my wedding before vanishing into private life...
Funny how time works. What was a seminal part of my early adulthood now feels like a crazy midnight movie that I’ve only seen in parts. The very few shipmates I’ve managed to stay in touch with confess the same. I’ve rendezvoused with a few and it’s a touch awkward - for the insolent pricks we were back then are very often nothing like the middle-aged civilians we’ve become. Thank God. After sharing a few war stories and a few more shots, the conversation grows stilted. I’m proud of all that my ex-squid friends have accomplished, but nothing they can do compares with the sepia-tinged scenes that play in my brain ... Like the night Olt fell off that tugboat. That time we gave the new guy a hook and walkie-talkie and convinced him to stand mail buoy watch all night ... Or how about when Edgerton and Cransky beat the crap out of each other while dressed in their skivvies - after differing sharply on key plot points of the movie ‘Dirty Dancing‘.
Surely, I didn’t dream THAT up ... did I?