I finished up my enlistment in the fall of 1981, but I think my service years all started long before in the stacks of the children’s room at the Santa Ana Public Library. I was a nut for history, for books on war, but I really loved stories of derring-do on the high seas. It was a long boyhood filled with tales of Barbary pirates, of dreadnoughts and wooden decked aircraft carriers. Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, and Kon Tiki were side-by-side on my bookshelf with stories of the Battle of Midway, the War of 1812, and Civil War ironclads. It wasn’t long in the course of my high school years that I became restless and wanted to go off and see the world. By my senior year I was raring to go.
I volunteered and joined the US Navy not long after the glow of my graduation passed. In truth, I was ready to go in November of 1975, but my mother was not going to sign me over early. The government didn’t want a boy without a high school diploma and my grandparents, who had been ushering me along through Catholic school, would have hounded me for life if I had dropped out of school early. It wasn’t that life at home was intolerable, but it was more the case, like with every young man steeped in romantic literature and old Hollywood film, of having a burning desire to see faraway lands, of having a girl in every port, and a chance to wear those cool indigo thirteen-button, bell bottom blues.
Well, the joke was on me. I went into a military beat to death over the Vietnam War. It strove, at the time of my enlistment, to make everyone an equal. So instead of the iconic uniform with the cocky white Dixie Cup hat and the bibbed top with the white piping on it, I got a uniform that was all business, no pleasure. A coat and tie, a cheap white shirt, trousers like I wore in private school, shoes that required constant upkeep, and a brimmed hat I would have willingly had the winds carry away if it hadn’t been so expensive to replace.
The rest of the experience was great, though. I was tossed into a pool in boot camp and taught how to float. There I was tasked with handing out our mail, ate like there was no tomorrow, and did well enough with my tests to become a Company Honor Man. I went on to become a data processor on the USS Blueridge, worked in the shipboard library, toured Southeast Asia, lived for a spell in Yokosuka, Japan, and came away with an honorable discharge and the GI Bill. After all that adventure I did what many young men do: I put it all away. I did a short stint as a Reservist when I got to missing it, used my time overseas for anecdotes at parties, and quietly took pride in my community volunteerism. For the most part, my service years were invisible to the world at large, and visible only to my fellow vets, my family, and me.
One thing I have learned in this life is that there is safety in numbers. It is a good thing to have people in your life that share the same feelings, sentiments, and values that you do. One thing I didn’t seem to share with anyone, though, was insight about or even reflections on my service years. I was part of a big fraternity, but I never celebrated it. I saw how veterans were treated on the streets, how they were viewed in films and the press, how young folks, who never felt the same patriotic fervor I did, looked down on the men and women who served their country. Then things began to change around the country after 9/11, and then they did for me, in 2016.
For a spell, I lived in Colorado. When I looked into getting my new state identification card I was told to bring my end of enlistment papers if I had them. I brought them along with a rental agreement and my California drivers license, took my test, got a new photo taken, and then proffered up copies of my DD-214. With that, I was given a notation on the corner of my new license, one that spelled out to the world every time I presented it that I was a veteran of the US military.
Henceforth, my life was not the same. Everywhere I went after that, every time I pulled out and presented my ID card, I was thanked for my service. At the beginning I was completely blown away by it all. How did they know? Oh, yeah, it was on my card! After a while, I had to let folks know how great it felt to be recognized and to be thanked for something I had left behind so long before. As the years went by, I once again began to take pride in my service years, to look back on them affectionately, to view my time – all of five years and change – as something that was good, honorable, and just.
Those years I spent in the service of my country have spilled over into my work life. I got out of the Navy and almost immediately went into library work, back to those same stacks that I wandered around in as a boy. And what I couldn’t do in a paid capacity I did as a volunteer. You see, since my fleet years I have always fallen back on that one foundational, underlying value of mine: to serve others, to give back to my community. My years as a sailor turned into years as a public servant. Those feelings of goodness and transformation that come from giving back to the town you live in never away. And while I have not yet found my volunteering chops here in the Valley in this time of Covid, I am in total support of those who do give back. I am happy to be part of a community that feels so proud of where they live and of the people who live here that they endlessly support, honor, and appreciate the communities that they live in.
I am a veteran and I am proud of my service. Even more, I am proud of being a librarian here for Jackson County Library Services because I know how hard we all work to better the lives of our patrons here in Jackson County. Thank you, all of you, who have reached out to me to thank me for my service. I am thankful and pleased that you care enough to let me know that it matters to you. So, let me thank you for allowing me to indulge in my passion for public service here in Jackson County and for allowing me to serve you as your Children’s Librarian at the Medford Library. Happy Veterans Day.
Anchors aweigh! Check out these books on ships, naval history, and other seafaring tales of daring do!