As I drove down the county road this morning I saw a bright glint of metal where the county road grader had just finished scraping. I was in a little bit of a hurry and decided to drive on by. Completely ignoring the well-reasoned decision of my brain, my feet quickly pressed brake and clutch pedals, bringing the pickup to a halt.
I stepped out and took a closer look at the shiny object. Who doesn’t like shiny stuff? My brain granted the point and said it wasn’t really in that big a hurry anyway. As I got closer I realized that it wasn’t a wrench or pair of pliers, but a bright, shiny, stainless steel fork.I did not see that one coming. The middle of a county road is about the last place I’d ever expect to find a fork.
Finding that fork put a big smile on my face and made me think of Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame catcher renowned as much for his witticisms as for his tremendous baseball career. One of his more famous sayings, which he later used as a book title, was this:
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
So I did.
Yogi Berra was a sailor, you know.
And not just any sailor, either. He was a Gunner's Mate in Rocket Boats in World War II. He was part of a six-man crew on one of 24 36-foot Rocket Boats that bombarded Utah and Omaha Beaches on D-Day.
You can always spot a sailor.
One bright January day in the late 1970’s, I was in navy boot camp at San Diego, Calif. This was a remarkable time in my life. Although I’d decided to join the navy at the tender age of seven, to be a rescue swimmer and jump out of helicopters like I’d seen on television, most of my friends and family thought my plan was a fad or a passing fancy.
And they were almost right. But in 1976 the navy came to town. Some of you may be old enough to remember the Bicentennial Year, and that a squadron (probably many squadrons, actually) of military representatives took to the highways, traveling from town to town in a fleet of tractor-trailer rigs – one for each service – tricked out to showcase the history and traditions of our military. And to plant the seed of service, of course.
I took that military effort for granted, as any self-absorbed teenager will take most anything for granted. In retrospect, though, this was a military still healing from the ugly scars of Vietnam. The nation was beginning a presidential race pitting the man who’d brought the POW’s home (anyone remember them?) against a peanut farmer whose plan was to turn inward and let America slowly fade into obscurity. That our nation, prompted in no little part by a grievously wounded military, decided to celebrate its 200th birthday, is nothing short of remarkable. And kind of a fork in the eye to the carters and obamas of the world. Butt I digress.
I visited the military trailers in turn, hurrying through the Army, Air Force and Marine displays, before slowing down, taking a deep breath, and stepping into the Navy trailer. I don’t remember much about that visit, except that I somehow mustered up the courage to ask a single question. The answer came from a sharp sailor dressed in crisp whites, his uniform adorned with aircrew wings and a lot of ribbons. He listened patiently, then assured me that I could most certainly become an aircrewman and rescue swimmer, as long as I was willing to work hard and keep my nose clean.
Which I proceeded to do, more or less. A little less than more, perhaps, but close enough for government work.
When it came time for college placement exams, I stood apart from my crowding peers, arms folded and with stubborn truculence writ large across my mug. I turned down the guidance counselor’s direction (phrased as a direct order) and deeply worried my parents by eschewing the mind-rotting angst of the SAT to take the lowly ASVAB examination. It was one of the first times I’d made a truly independent decision. It made me feel pretty grown up. Damme the torpedoes! I scored very high on the test, too, which was a rather unusual thing for me.
Flash forward to boot camp in San Diego in January. San Diego in January is wonderful. Boot camp – not so much. Boot camp is not band camp, and there’s no way you can understand it unless you experience it. Let’s just say that it’s extremely physically and mentally challenging. But it’s neither punishment nor purgatory. It’s a learning, growing, maturing experience. In boot camp you can shed your lonely individualism to become part of something greater than yourself. You can leave at any time. That's right. They don't (or didn't at the time) advertise this fact, but if you really want to bale, they'll shake your hand and send you home with best wishes. Makes sense if you think about it. Or you can stick it out, get a glimpse of previously unimagined possibilities, and emerge as winner, a warrior, a vital player in the defense of our nation.
On the day in question, I’d been running in formation with my recruit company. The company was about half way through the 16-week course, and we’d just graduated from “mob” runs to “team” runs. As I recall, the run was a five-mile timed event, and the passing time seemed awfully quick, though it was probably no faster than an ten-minute-per-mile pace.
My position in the formation was right in the middle of the pack, and after the first three miles disaster struck. Ahead of me a few runners’ legs got tangled and they began to tumble. I tried to leap over the carnage but didn’t make it. To make matters worse, I twisted my knee in the process. By the time I’d regained my feet, my right knee was swollen like a balloon, and try as I might, I couldn’t walk on it.
To make a long story short, I’d suffered an ACL strain. According to the medical staff, I’d have to be on crutches and limited duty for a month. This would set me back in training, adding an extra four weeks (horror!) to my boot camp experience. Worse yet, I’d lose my slot in Hospital Corps school, as well as subsequent slots in Aircrew/Rescue Swimmer school. The navy would do what it could to get me what I’d contracted for, but the needs of the navy come first. I could conceivably end up specializing in mail-buoy maintenance.
I begged and pleaded (to the extent a recruit can beg and plead) to make up the run and stay with my company and on my timeline. The Physician's Assistant was adamant, and quickly grew frustrated with my hard-headedness. Later my company commander stopped by to find out if I was being “rolled back.” More piteous begging and pleading. Finally an officer showed up. A Lieutenant Commander. Other than the frustrated PA, who was a warrant officer, I’d never even seen an officer before. It was an awe-inspiring, frightening experience.
He asked me a few rather strange questions. If I was physically unfit, he said, my contract could be voided and I could go home – today. Was that something I wanted? “No Sir!” Well, he said, your choices are to go home or roll back. Do you really want to roll back? I thought about it for a moment, then said, “If I have to roll back, sir, then I have to roll back, but couldn’t I make up the run with the company in the morning and stay on track?”
“Why do you want to do this the hard way?” he asked. “The doc here says you need to be on sticks for a month.” I told him that I wasn’t about to quit, and I didn’t want to wait for a “maybe” slot. He left the exam room and I never saw him again.
Within an hour and a bus ride, though, I was being examined by an orthopedist at the naval hospital. He pronounced it a mild strain, prescribed an ace wrap and some motrin, and cleared me to participate in the makeup run. I was elated. After picking up my prescription I was told to wait at the bus stop for transportation back to my recruit barracks. As I waited, I noticed a Baskin Robbins across the street. I began to do some serious plotting.
I realized that I wasn’t expected back on the recruit side of the base at any particular time. The bus schedule said that transportation departed every hour, on the hour, until 2000 hours – 8 p.m. It was presently 1350 – nearly 2 p.m. If I let the next bus pass and no one wrestled me on board, I could catch the 1500 bus and no one would be the wiser. And I could have an ice cream. Ice cream, particularly Baskin Robbins ice cream, had been conspicuously absent from the recruit mess hall menu. And I’d just had a run of unexpectedly good luck, so maybe I could ride it a bit farther…
I quickly slipped out of my duty belt (the sure identifier of recruit status), folded it and hid it in a low hedge near the bus stop. If the worst happened, and the belt disappeared, I could claim it was taken and not returned by the hospital staff. My mind was alive with possible excuses and arguments.
The recruit bus pulled up with a hiss of air brakes and the door swung wide. The driver eyed me and sweat began trickling down my neck. Then he closed the door and drove on. I limped across the street and entered the ice cream store where I ordered a cone with a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of chocolate chip. Heaven! After finishing my treat I returned to the bus stop, reclaimed and donned my duty belt, and waited in the pleasant sunshine for the bus to return.
The next day I ran the makeup with my company, and we passed. My knee was sore and slightly swollen, but it healed over the next few weeks until it was good as new. I went on to my schools, the fleet, and many adventures.
But it was a close run thing that January day in San Diego. I almost got busted down to civilian. I didn’t though, and I got a sneaky bonus ice cream out of the deal.
You’ll have to decide what that January day meant in the big picture of things. I have no idea. But to paraphrase Robert (did anyone ever call him Bobby?) Frost:
I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Ages and ages hence,
two paths diverged on a naval base, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Take the path with the ice cream.