Sunday, August 24, 2008

les Rêves

So it happens every few years that I have a vivid dream relating to my experiences at my alma mater, the United States Coast Guard Academy (which, according to surveys, is the most difficult university to enter, and then to graduate from, in the U.S.A.). I had one last night that was so strong that it carried over into wakefulness, cresting my heart rate at something over 120 b.p.m.

The dream was a typical one of anxiety: I was a senior (first classman), second in command of "Alpha" company (The correct spelling, in the phonetic alphabet, is "Alfa", but the company TAC officer put it to a vote and the company decided to change the name because they liked it better that way. I didn't make this up.) The commander was Sue Gregg.

I don't think there was anyone tougher than Sue Gregg in our class. She wasn't "one of the boys"; because she could have taken on any one, or several, for that matter, of us boys and taught us a few things. She was much more an absolutist than (it's shocking, but true) myself. With her it was right and wrong, black and white. For me, I was always breaking the wrong rules and upholding the wrong-er ones.

The year book lists her rank as second, but the year book was wrong, because in the last semester, she set her sights on the number 1 spot, which had been occupied for the last four years by the sweetest girl in our class, Mindy Dalrymple, and she wrested it out of Mindy's hands. Sue also married the most easy-going and friendly guy in our class, Doug Subocz. It was this dream that gave me a realization: I admired Sue. But that didn't help my dream at all: this was the first day of class, we were roommates (no, the Academy definitely did not allow co-ed roommates, but the company commander and XO were usually quartered together), and as we prepared for the ritual of morning formation, Sue calmly prepared her perfect uniform and gave me a disparaging look: I didn't have my name tag; I was missing my ribbons; I couldn't locate my shoulder-boards — and I was the XO: the one standing in front of the entire company (of three platoons) and supposedly setting the example for the rest to follow. It also occurred to me that I had on my summer class-A's, but Sue was correctly dressed, of course, in the fall uniform (SDBs "Standard Dress Blues").

Like I said, an anxiety dream. But the meaning was simple enough — as much as I loved serving in the Guard, and as much as it (still) broke my heart to leave, I was cut from a different cloth than the one that they needed.

The dream resulted in a powerful wave of nostalgia that I still cannot shake. Paging through the yearbook, I've come to realize that these kids were, are, the best of the best, and that my admiration for Sue is also my admiration for them. The ones that made it with a degree in their hands and the ones that didn't. The ones that thrived in the service, and the ones that didn't. I was probably a roommate to about half of the graduating class (we started with 300 kids and ended up with about 150 shaking George Bush, Sr's hand), and each page I turned brought forth both amazement and pain. I don't think I can remember a harder four years of my life. Remember the cloth? I went in as a sociopath, and the Academy beat that out of me, one bloody day at a time. Now I'm merely anti-social. But every single day I reciprocated, mostly taking it out on myself, but definitely my classmates were casualties, as well. Even if I was paid overtime, I don't think I could have worked harder at alienating these companions, these people who were in the same stew I was, these friends.

So, it's with awe, when I meet up with them out in this real world and am greeted not with disdain, but with genuine warmth:
  • Andy "T" Tiogson and his wife Kathy and two sons shouting out "Hey, Hawk!" from his SUV in Old Town, Alexandria as I walked by with my baby Elena Marie in my arms, and then he shot me a friendly email
  • Brian Nelson, the class hard-a$$, comforting me after I got drummed out of flight school. And, when I turned to his yearbook page, there I was looking out along with his other rugby buddies.
  • Eddie Comer warm and friendly on his wedding day
  • Roger "Buoy" Kuhn and Rolando Sandidad hanging out with me at the headquarters "charmingly" situated on Buzzard's Point in D.C.
  • Chris "Ski" Myskowski, that great big football player of a man, always on the "hunt" for the next girl to score at the bar, until he fell head-over-heals in love with Terri, the quite kindergarten teacher that stole his heart, so totally opposite to everything that I was, taking me under his wing as I tried, unsuccessfully to navigate the duties of a junior officer on my first ship tour.

I remember the days in the Academy as I watched with dread my fellow classmates trickle out the exit: Ira Copple, the ex-army guy who chuckled over us unexperienced swabs at the firing range, Elaine Gee, hopelessly ironing her dress pants in a last ditch effort to survive the expulsion board, Nevels Nevels Nevels, never down, even as his grades continued to plummet, Rose Shay, mothering her classmates as they got too drunk to handle themselves, John Klein leaving in the very first summer, despite "T"'s rally from the football stands: "You're stayin' Klein!" Brett Alexander soloing every heart-breaking Journey song at whichever bar we ended up in on summer cruises; Sean Doyle, taking me to his house by the beach in Carolina and surfing those three-footers while listening to the Violent Femmes, Dan Felipe giving the positive peer review that kept me in one more semester.

And then I have other fleeting memories:
  • Wendy "Smurf" Abrisz, always very entertaining after one wine-cooler, giving George Bush a sweet little kiss on the cheek as he shook her hand at graduation
  • Chip Aydlette taking us to his house, Southern mansion, actually, and playing spanish guitar like a mariachi
  • Nick Bartolotta dancing up to the billet board, and triumphantly selecting his preferred billet: Lahng-Gisland
  • Scott "Silver Surfer" Bates, never speaking, and then when he did finally whisper a phrase it always shocked us with his warmth and humor: it was he who intoned to me, as a van full of screaming girls passed us uniformed stalwarts by the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, "Hawk, they are calling for you."
  • Paul Boinay balancing a lead-filled M-1 rifle (our shoulder-torture devices) point down, on his chin
  • JB shouting out from the pyramid of beer cans, "T, I need a head-butt!"
  • Charlie Coiro working his way to becoming the beloved class president, keeping in touch and keeping us informed.
  • Eddie Comer, my old roommate, coming into my office when I was the Regimental Conduct officer (the only time, in my entire four years that I earned the two stars) to straighten me out when I was in the "enforcing the wrong-er rules" spiral
  • Jenn Dunning looking around the room of Admirals and GS-whatevers and volunteering to lead Coast Guard Headquarters Civil Rights branch, and lead it she did.
  • Doug Fears, sailing unpreturbed through the Academy after weathering the storms of prior enlistment, taking me under his wing out of some unfathomable charity to my dad
  • Rob Gandolfo, my roommate, singing, bellowing, along with his walkman during study-hour, blissfully oblivious of the impending demerit storm headed our way.
  • Walt Green, my roommate, and I breaking down to some series rap music 5 minutes before formation, as upperclassmen stormed into our room and told us to cut out the noise; Walt got held back one year (so he graduated in the class of '90), but he was one of many of my classmates who started to dull the sharp edges of my squaritude
  • Pat Gardella finessing an advanced degree in AI earning our stunned admiration
  • Matt Gimple, my old roommate, pissed and cringing with pain in the midst of a really bad charlie horse, unbelieving my kindness as I stretched his leg back into shape.
  • Rob Hoffmann, always leading a Bible study, always looking for the good in a person
  • Scott Malcolm, always a friend, on the bowling alley or off
  • Pat McMahon, along with Scott Rogerson (my best friend in the Academy), helming the Howling Gale through surf and storm, and ... my ever creative and divisive article submissions
  • Pat McMillin, setting his eyes on the prize, and never letting her go
  • Tom Miller holding up the demerits I just gave him, asking: "What's this?" and then shrugging off my explanation with unconcerned ease
  • Jeff "Sweet Pea" Novotny, getting brutally and intensionally kicked by that Conn College punk on the soccer field, and then getting right back up and playing the game more brilliantly than anyone else on the field. And, not shaving for two weeks, but still passing daily inspection
  • Jon Ohta dragging us into the component stereo store with his monthly magazine, rhapsodizing over the Schleep speakers
  • Mike O'Brien, along with Buoy Kuhn running across the football field to confront the brothers of the boys I turned in for underage drinking on our graduation party as they squared off to share their views with me. Oh, yes, I was that bad, and Mike and Buoy where that protective of their friend
  • Ernie Pacheco singing out "A yellow bird, with a yellow bill" for cadence as we marched, never failing to get us into trouble for laughing out loud with his enthusiastic lyrics.
  • Ty Rinoski faking a pass and then running 80 yards to get the touchdown; what a QB! But then the shock that flowed from his unbelieving eyes looking at me as he listened to my father sing his praises will be something I always remember
  • The ever irrepressible Lenny "LT Freshness" Tumbarello, my roommate, who, seizing the opportunity, asked why I was surprised at the sudden squall as I talked in my sleep:
    Me, sleeping:Wow! it's raining!
    LT, craftily: Why is that surprising, Doug?
    Me, annoyed, and returning to a deeper sleep: Because it issszzzzzz.
  • Scott Rogerson, marching tours with me, surviving the storms in front of Captains and Admirals from my anonymous article submissions to the Howling Gale, opening up his home in Carmel by the Sea, driving across the Country, sharing the happiness of his marriage and the first days of Christian's life. Why he put up with me, I don't know, but I'm grateful for his friendship that helped me through the Academy years.
Scientiæ cedet mare — the Academy motto: "The Sea yields to knowledge" ... it should be "The Sea yields knowledge", and I thank this ocean of friends for the gift of help through the storms of my life. Sometime this gift came grudgingly, and most of the time it was not well-received, but you gave the gift of yourselves. Thank you.

1 comment:

pgardella said...

Wow, that's a wave of nostalgia, alright!

Brings back many memories! Thanks man!


P.S. "finessing?" More like stumbling through!