From Government Property to Freedom
Port Lyautey Kenitra, Morocco, 1963
In my mind, I was already packed. I was practically back home in Bristol, Connecticut, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbons with my buds at The Rustic Cameo Inn, checking out the new talents fresh from their high school graduations.
However, I wasn’t there yet. Even the famed Escape Artist had to wait in line and go through the protocols in order to get home. After all, Uncle Sam had gone to lengths to get me to the Mediterranean, so he wasn’t going to just let me wander off.
During the wait, I was seeing out my last few weeks in Morocco, doing my duty, having the last bit of free fun I was going to get on the Navy’s dime. I enjoyed my last tastes of the exotic foods and drink, savoring a chicken tagine, a steamy bowl of harira soup, and an iced-cold Casablanca at the Blue Parrot Cafe.
“Hey, short timer,” a buddy said as he swaggered up beside me. Barry Goldwater Gold, a petty officer, required me to stand and salute. Instead, he smiled and waved me off, “At ease, Anthony. Enjoy it while you can. If you start doing that that back home all you will wind up with is a mouthful of Chicklets.”
We shared a little chuckle. Goldwater turned to the beer and raised his hand, snapping his fingers. “Two more beers here!” He turned back to me.
“Not hungry?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said with a little sneer, “had chow back at the mess. I still don’t see why you pay to eat this slop.”
“I love it, and you know I’ll never get grub like this back home.” I answered.
“That’s for sure, just about the best reason to go back.” Goldwater replied.
A crowd shuffled into the cafe, looking around in wonder as if they’d just stepped into a movie set. They took pictures of everything and everyone, pointing and clicking and muttering to one another. By their Bermuda shorts and flowered shirts, both Goldwater and I took them to be tourists. He said, “One of the few reasons, maybe.”
We ended up finding out they were Scots. They showered us with that heavy brogue and the best cocktails in the place, flattering us and thanking us for our service. There was a lot of talk about the Big One, World War II, although neither Goldwater nor myself had served. Back then, we had been playing with plastic toys and chewing on our picture books, but we were still part of a proud and noble tradition, one which had changed the course of history and helped to save the world from the clutches of tyranny. It was no small thing, even twenty years later and with the Cold War looming, danger continued to prowl the corners of the free world. However, not all faith was lost since the pieces on the Cold War board were already moving.
After all the free fun, food and drink that we could handle, Goldwater and I made it back to the base.
“Still on your way out?” Goldwater asked.
“Pretty sure,” I answered. “I mean, it’s a big step, y’know?”
“Sure do, s’why I re-upped myself. Too sweet a deal to walk away from, far as I’m concerned.” Golwater looked around and gulped down a few hearty swallows. “I mean, it’s like a … an amusement park for adults. You can do and see things here, up north, even down south, that you just can’t do or see anywhere back home, man.”
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me,” I said. “They don’t call me the Escape Artist for nothing. I’ve been all over this part of the world … and back again.”
“Back again, that’s the rub.” After a few drunken hiccups, Goldwater blurted out, “You really ready to give all this up?”
“What, Morocco?” I answered sarcastically.
“Morocco, Europe, the whole thing. I tell ya, shorty, you’re walking away from a gold mine and a great time.” Goldwater said with conviction.
I knew Goldwater was up to more than just free trips and good times. He’d been known to pull a shady deal or two, skim a buck and then pass another, getting away with more than just the occasional thrill. But I’d kept out of anything like that, black markets and back doors, and in fact it was just one more reason I was ready to get home.
“Maybe this time,” he went on, “you won’t want to escape.”
“It’s been great,” I said, as the Jeep bumpied down the road beneath us. “Don’t get me wrong.”
I knew what I was walking away from, though it became less and less important the closer I got to my discharge. Nevertheless, when my mind wandered back to my recent adventures, it was hard to deny a certain doubt lingering in the back of my mind. I was at a crossroads in my life and once I made my decision, I knew I could only go forward.
Making a decision wasn’t an easy task, especially since three weeks before I’d been offered a re-enlistment; to re-enlist for another two years with a promotion to petty officer, a pay raise and two more years of gallivanting around Europe. They wanted to move me to the base at Rota, Spain. I’d been issued the very high security clearance known as Crypto Clearance. That made my pay raise even higher, my benefits even more far-reaching, and the experience ultimately profitable. All in all, it would make my additional two years more exciting and worth doing. It also made my future in the Navy more promising. As far as my employers go, if I hadn’t made this clear by now, the U.S. Armed Services benefits, respect, measure of fairness, and opportunity for advancement had no comparison.
In the Armed Services, if you worked hard and showed courage you would be rewarded. Progress was merit-based. It was in its way a true democracy – I knew that no corporation back home was going to be as forthright, as even handed, as righteous a business partner than the Navy. I could trust the Navy. From what I knew of the corporate world back home, or the entertainment business for that matter, trust was a premium that wasn’t easy to find.
Staying another two years was a tempting offer.
I paused a moment to reminisce… The Alps and points all over Italy, France, Spain, and Germany were gorgeous. Europe had been my playground and their women my playmates. It had all come as courtesy of the United States Navy while we were there to protect democracy all over the world and to curb the scourge of communism. We’d earned our rest and recreation, we’d earned the generosity of the people and of the Navy itself, always nearby with free air travel, free lodgings, free chow, free civilian clothes… Free just about everything!
However, it wasn’t just that. I was a sailor in the United States Navy. That meant something. I wasn’t some student backpacking across Europe on his daddy’s dime or rebelling against society on some existential journey. I was representing freedom and democracy in foreign lands, keeping the peace, doing what my country promised it would do, and standing up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. There was a real satisfaction in that, a pride that I can’t describe, a pride which you may not ever truly know unless you’ve been there or felt it.
I was also concerned about moving backward. The United States Armed Forces, whatever the branch, weren’t (and still are not) trained nor accustomed to moving backward. We move forward, with unstoppable force. That’s why something in the back of my mind told me that my destiny lay ahead of me and not behind.
There were reasons I’d left Connecticut. I wanted to have a more fulfilling life, to reach out beyond the small-town borders of where I’d grown up. I made friends that I might not ever see again, I was in a corner of the world I might not be able to make it back to. I was still very young, with a lot of future ahead of me. I wanted to make the most of it. I could still hear the call of the wild, and feel the allure of distant lands, exotic foods, beautiful women. I wanted to stretch out my wings and fly, but I knew that if I walked out of the Navy, in a lot of ways, my wings would be clipped anyway.
The Navy, like any of the armed forces, is like being a priest or a cop. It was no less important and held a position of no less respect. Society couldn’t function without any of us and it probably wouldn’t want to. But everybody who commits their life to such service knows this: once you’re done, you’re done. There was no revolving door. So, if I chose to walk away, I knew there was no going back. All I knew for sure was that, besides my choice of who to marry and the decision to join the Navy in the first place, this was the biggest decision of my life!
Furthermore, the choice of simply taking an extended vacation wasn’t going to fly with the brass either. It was either stay put or go home, sit down or shut up, shit or get off the pot. Plus, there was a lot to be said about the timing of leaving the Navy and going home when I did. Two years later, or even two months later, would make a significant difference.
Then, there was the allure of going home too. My brother Virgil’s wedding was coming up and I was slated to be the best man, a once-in-a-lifetime event I didn’t want to miss. Thinking of my brother put me in mind of my other old friends. My mind kept drifting back to Marion, whether she was still single, whether she missed or even gave me a passing thought. I began to hope that she had and only then did I realize that I’d given her more than a few passing thoughts myself since I’d been away.
There was also the pull of civilian life, all my time once again my own. I could choose a different trade, to live in any state I chose, or to go back home to Bristol, Connecticut. I couldn’t clear my mind of images from our glory days; kissing Betty Ann in the backseat of my father’s Studebaker, drinking beer with my buddies.
Time was moving quickly. President John F. Kennedy was leading the United States into an incredible new era and I wanted to be a part of it. The two years between ’63 and ’65 were going to be big ones, we could all feel it. I didn’t want to sit it out in some base in the Mediterranean, where in a lot of ways things were as they’d been for centuries. In the U.S. there was change, there was novelty. The Mediterranean held on to the past, but America could be my future.
Illustrating the point, Elvis himself had joined the services too. But everybody was already done talking about how he’d left active duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey back in 1960, and if the U.S. was even good enough for The King.
I slept on it that night and on it again over several more nights with no answer coming to me. Goldwater had already re-upped and so had Mac and a few other guys, but every time I thought about pulling the trigger I just couldn’t do it.
Finally, that made my decision for me. “If I have that much doubt about staying,” I told myself, “then I should listen to myself, pay attention to my instincts. Maybe I’ve been the Escape Artist long enough, or maybe it’s time for just one last escape. Who knows what kind of thing may happen if I stay too long? What if somebody back home needs me? Whatever I’ve come here for, haven’t I found it? How much more do I need? What am I missing out on back home? I wonder how Marion is doing…”
One morning that week I woke up determined to fill out my papers and move ahead with my discharge. It had been great, but all good things must come to any end. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became and the more certain I was that it was the right choice.
I flew out on the same B-59 that brought me in, making the circle complete in my mind more clearly than ever. At the Norfolk, Virginia Naval command station, I got my thirty-day pass and grabbed a round-trip Amtrak train ticket to and from Bristol, Connecticut, back home.
I was thrush with a nostalgic warmth and an urgency to see my old friends, and revisit my old haunts. I sensed an encroaching deja vu, a sense that I was stepping back in time to a place I knew well and yet felt somehow separated from, as if I’d never been there at all.
My family was overjoyed to see me, even more than I’d expected. Virgil was especially excited that I’d returned. I couldn’t count how many times he told me his wedding just wouldn’t have been the same without me.
As much as I’d enjoyed all the attention and fine treatment I’d gotten overseas, I was getting just as much at home. Every old person wanted to pinch my cheeks, every girl wanted to pinch my ass! Old men came up and shook my hand, thanking me for my service. Men I’d known my whole life, who’d watched me grow up, treated me with a new respect, slapping my upper arm and preventing me from buying even a single round of drinks.
I wore my uniform with pride for a few days, enjoying the elevated status it granted me. I looked good; dapper, professional, a man with a past and a future. Everybody sensed it, too!
“Anthony!” I turned to see my old girlfriend Marion, arms stretched out as she threw herself into my arms. All the unpleasantness of our parting, of the little fights which had prevented us from walking down the altar years before, seemed wiped away. Her lithe arms wrapped around my broad shoulders as she buried her face in my neck. I leaned back, lifting her up off the ground, her legs kicking up behind her.
It was good to be home.
We talked about what was going on at home and abroad. Nobody else had showed that much interest in my adventures overseas and I almost got the feeling that they were a little jealous. Like they’d wished they’d done what I had done, seen what I had seen, gone where I had gone. Meanwhile, I sensed they felt trapped in Bristol and locked in their dreary lives.
I could see it. Life was smaller back home somehow and less exciting by a long shot. There weren’t any bullfights or Fantasia festivals in Bristol, no exotic foods, even imported beer was hard to find. It was charming and beautiful as ever, but to call it the hub of civilization would be a stretch, to say the least.
But thanks to the changing times, things couldn’t possibly be too dreary! It was the dawn of 1963 and everybody was waiting for the next big thing. Elvis still hadn’t come back and the old rock’n’rollers of his era were long gone. Everybody was talking about music coming from Great Britain, how it was going to be the next big thing, but I just couldn’t see it. I’d been to the clubs in Germany and seen a popular band of British kids some of the sailors liked. However, they were basically just playing American rock’n’roll songs, years after they’d faded from popularity in the States.
“They were called the Beatniks …” I said, giving it some thought, “no, the Beetles. Can you believe that, the Beetles? Like that’s ever gonna be a hit in the States!”
Well, I’d been wrong before and I’d be wrong again.
The days went on and the conversations turned upon themselves. We retold the same old stories we’d told hundreds of times. Marion filled me in on what she’d been doing, that she was single and that she was glad I was back.
We all fell back into the small-town rhythms of life, unchanged after all that time; work all day, home for dinner, the bar on the weekends. They had the same fights with their parents and coworkers they’d always had and always will have. They had the same financial concerns, same passions for the football team and the bowling league.
Ah, Bristol! Called “the land of the great white oaks” by the local indigenous population at the time of its founding. That bucolic little town was warming and refreshing. Streams, ponds and parks, the little town hall, the Veteran’s Memorial Park… It all brought me back to small-town America, the life I was fighting to defend, protect and preserve. I knew upon coming home that I would go out and fight for her again if I had to, but, of course, we all hope to never have to do that.
Virgil, Marion, a few of the others in our crew, and I took a hike up to Short Mountain with a few bottles of beer and wine. It was cluttered with oak and hickory trees and dotted with glades. It was like reliving our high school years, but not necessarily in a good way.
“I got a novel in me,” Roger said, staggering around with half a bottle of Thunderbird. “It’s gonna be great!”
He’d been talking about that novel for years, since he was a kid.
Marion leaned over my shoulder, wrapping her arms around me. “Why not write a kid’s book? We’ll buy two copies, one for each.” She gave me a little kiss on the cheek. I knew what she was hinting at.
Virgil was gushing about getting married as he always had. “That’s what’s important,” he said, swaying and chugging from his own bottle, “Family! Children, love, heart and hearth!” He pointed a drunken finger at me. “That’s what you gotta do, bro, I’m … I’m tellin’ ya.”
I was almost afraid he was going to illustrate the point by throwing up all over me.
I couldn’t help but take a drink from my own bottle and wonder, “Is this what I really want for my life? I spent the first seventeen years of my life with these guys, and they’re great. But …”
It was true! After a flight out of Chicago, time in Europe, everything I had done and seen, the people I had met, it just seemed disappointing to be back home.
Then it hit me! Even though they hadn’t changed, I had. I had changed in ways that I couldn’t explain to any of them. It was then that I realized I had left Bristol for a reason: because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life reliving the same week over and over again. I’d craved adventure and I’d gotten it. I’d wanted to see the world and I’d seen a good deal of it. I’d risked my life, I’d served with men who’d lost comrades in battle. I’d had near-death experiences on the streets of Morrocco and Pamplona, I’d seen men gutted and women cowering with their children.
I realized the old saying was true: Service changes you. I’d evolved above the petty concerns of their small-town life, their dreary little lives. I’d seen things most of them would never see. I’d been to the far corners of the globe and a lot of my old crew would live and die in the same little town.
Looking at my old friends, who I loved and had missed, revisiting my old haunts, I knew them to be just that – old.
They were like dogs chasing their own tails, locked up in cycles of wasted energy, running faster and faster and simply getting nowhere. Johnny was going to take over his dad’s coin-operated laundromat, Sally was well on her way to becoming an alcoholic, Marty was still trying to get her to fall in love with him and still failing miserably.
They hadn’t changed, they hadn’t grown or developed or evolved at all. They hadn’t done so in the previous three years and not really in most of their lives before that. It seemed clear to me that they’d never change, not two years from then, not twenty, not ever. Marty was going to die chasing Sally’s heart and she would die at the bottom of a bottle. Both of them were perfectly decent, loving people, like millions of other worthy people all over the world. They would have unhappy fates. They would live and die, be happy at times, sad at others.
They just would never change.
Although I still loved them, I felt more and more that they were not my destiny. I already knew that I’d have to keep moving forward and that sooner or later I’d be moving on.
Marion wanted me to settle down in Bristol, marry her and raise a brood just like the rest of our friends. I knew I wasn’t ready to settle down, certainly not in Bristol, Connecticut. I wasn’t sure if it was Bristol itself, or if it was just a fact of the small-town American life, that could pull you down into a rut that would wear you down, hold you back and crush your soul.
I just wasn’t about to suffer that fate. I knew two things above any other; one, if I stayed in Bristol, I was going to be doomed to the same fate and, two, I wasn’t going to let that happen. I couldn’t. The man I’d become wouldn’t let it happen.
Honestly, why should it? The United States had New York, where the sophisticates romped, the bluesy swank of Chicago, where deals were made and secrets kept. There was Las Vegas, quickly becoming popular not only as a vacation spot, but as an actual city where people lived full-time. The casino business was a guaranteed success, one way in which the United States was lagging behind Europe. I could make a future there, I could make one anywhere … anywhere but Bristol, Connecticut.
There were greener pastures, there were higher climbs. I knew that because I’d been there, I’d seen that rarefied view; and while I didn’t feel the need to go back to Morocco, back to the Navy, I knew I’d have to move forward … or die.
My brother’s wedding went off without a hitch (except his to her, I suppose). I gave a speech I can’t recall and drank too much wine, like a lot of people at a lot of weddings. Still, I was very glad to be there and wouldn’t have missed it for anything. My thirty days in Bristol passed and I went back to Norfolk, Virginia, to serve out the rest of my time in the Navy. I’d been to Paris, I’d been to Rome, I’d been to the highest peaks of the Western World and seen things that would make grown men cower and women swoon, but nothing I’d seen or experienced could have prepared me for Norfolk, Virginia.
Norfolk, Virginia, was (and likely remains) the most boring town on the face of the Earth. There was no possibility of any real romance anywhere! In fact, the entire notion of possibility seemed to be an illusion in Norfolk.
So, it was just a matter of whiling away the time, of waiting out the clock until I could end this chapter of my life and move on to my next adventures; new places, new experiences. I had been so spoiled to end up settling down in little hometowns. I deserved more. I needed more and was going to have more.
Finally, the day came and I got my discharge papers. It was autumn in 1963, almost the entire year had passed. The Beatles, as I learned they were properly called, had a minor hit with a redundant song called, Love Me Do. President Kennedy was on a tour in the United States, uniting an increasingly divided country. He’d made amazing strides against organized crime and communism. We all knew he had an incredible future in store and I was eager to get to my part of it.
They released me with an honorable discharge, some civilian clothes, and a check for $286 dollars. Then, they put me on a bus from the base to the Norfolk YMCA, where I’d register as a tax-paying citizen, no longer property of the United States government.
I didn’t know where I’d be headed after that. All I knew was that the Navy had well prepared me for anything I might come across. It was then time to turn all that energy experience loose on the United States, the land of my birth. My country was the reason I went away, the reason I was there, and the reason I came back. I couldn’t wait to get reacquainted, to reignite our love affair, to give all I had to give and take all it had to offer.
I was home, I was free, I was young. Europe had been my playground and now all the United States was my backyard. It was mine for the taking. The only real question, though it was no mere trifle, was this: Where do I begin?