The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Archive for October, 2013

How on earth”, people have been asking me for years, “did you wind up on submarines?”

Well, lads and lasses, I’m glad you asked. Pull alongside, and I’ll tell you the tale. Parts have been bandied about, heard, repeated, and re-heard by friends, family, birds of the field and fish of the Sea. But few, if any, have heard the whole story.

Early fall of ’83, I was driving north along McLoughlin Blvd through Portland, Oregon. It was a typical October day in the Pacific Northwest – crisp, clear – the kind of autumn day one basks in, as the summer bustle comes to a close and winter starts to hint that it has designs on your well-tended garden. But I was not in a basking mood. Oh, I was in a mood, but it was the kind of mood that you only describe by saying, simply, “I’m in a mood”, and people instantly know what you mean.

And step back a pace or two.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself already.

I was only a few short weeks past the point where I couldn’t just couldn’t work as a CNA in a nursing home one more day. I had seen an ad in the newspaper for people to sell vacuum cleaners, and I had signed myself right up for that, expecting to be raking in the dough any time now. On my first day, we sat in training, learning how to demonstrate the equipment. On the second day, we sat in the basement of the shop, and sang rousing sales songs, which I could only mumble through in shamed sub-audible mortification. On the third day, after singing/mumbling songs, I and my trainer visited homes, and he showed me how “easy it was”. The man was smooth. I’d have bought two bags of ice from him to cool down my igloo. For the 4th through 10th day, I attempted to sell vacuum cleaners.

Let me reiterate that: Attempted…to sell.

On “The Fateful Day Minus One” day, I finally sold my first vacuum cleaner – to a young woman in North Portland who, for reasons beyond my naiveté of the time had a huge round bed with a red crushed velvet cover on it in the front room of her 1930’s house. She had wanted to buy the machine on credit. I helped her fill out the paperwork, and left the vacuum cleaner in an outburst of wanton optimism.

On the Fateful Day, the first call I got was from my boss, wanting to know why the heck I’d left the vacuum cleaner with a Woman of Ill-Repute(not his exact words, but you get the idea) having received no cash, and whose credit was no good and who would undoubtedly never pay for the machine. I had no idea what he was talking about. So stunned was I that it was another month, in a quiet moment of hard, sober reflection after another cold, arduous day of boot camp in the sub-arctic midwest, that I realized that for every one of those 30 days I had subconsciously carried with me a vision of him frothing at the mouth, as he told me to go pick the dang thing up and come in to the shop. It wasn’t until I could see it in humour that I could let it go. But I digress and once again am ahead of myself.

So it came to be that I found myself traveling along McLoughlin Blvd on a crisp, clear October morning, beauty that was completely lost to me. I got about halfway across the city; peeved, un-caffeinated, depressed, vociferously berating myself for dropping out of college, for taking this job, and for just about everything I’d ever done in my short span upon this earth. I was half-way through muttering a freshly-turned phrase under my breath when I passed a military recruiter’s station.

The U-turn was abrupt, fast, noisy, and undoubtedly illegal, though I couldn’t have cared less at the moment. I still don’t. Best use of unsafe and illegal street driving ever.

I entered the building, and saw four areas, one each for the 4 branches of the military. I knew virtually nothing about any branch of the service, except that my dad had been in the Air Force. I stepped up to that window.

The blue-uniformed Air Force recruiter nearly took his feet off his civilian desk, but…not quite. He was smug, smirky, and a little too nonchalant. He told me that to enter the Air Force, I had to choose a rate, and then wait for an opening in that rate. I didn’t even know what a rate was, let alone what I wanted. This would take patience. I had a wife, new baby, and no job. Patience was not on the menu.

The Marine almost spoke an intelligible word of English. Whatever it was he said, he was very, very enthusiastic about. To be honest, I had no idea what language he was speaking, but he spoke with the clarity of a door-gunner, which meant you didn’t have to understand a single word to know you had to hurry up and/or get down. I like words. I don’t think the Marines would have appreciated my dedication to enunciation.

The army guy asked me a few oddly specific questions, and then all but had me signed up to become a helicopter pilot. Heck, it sounded fun, and he was excited to get me, I was excited to get paid…

Oh yeah, about that. All of the sudden we were back to the “wait a couple years to get into that program” thing. Apparently it’s a popular modality in the military. In the meantime I saw myself living on an army base in some godfersaken land that not even the natives want, doing virtually nothing, expending a lot of sweat doing it – waiting, hoping, sweating…suddenly this guy’s enthusiasm seemed a little needy.

And so finally I came to the last office, the Navy.

The Navy guy…offered me a cup of coffee, had me take a quick version of the ASVAB test, and said that if I could pass the real ASVAB half as well as that one I could be employed by my government and on my way to an exotic land (Great Lakes, Illinois) next week.

As long as being a submariner was what I wanted.

I looked at him funny. He reclined in his steel folding chair, gestured towards me magnanimously with his cup and said, “it pays more”, reached behind him for the pot, and refilled my coffee. I asked him how he knew about subs, he pointed at his chest, at a marine-gargoyle-looking insignia he wore on his chest. He told me that out of everything he wore on his chest he was – and would always be – most proud of that pin, the submarine insignia.

Dolphins. That was the moment. Right there, while he talked of being a submariner, I knew what I had been looking for all along. Something kindled inside me. I slowly began to feel like I was on fire. I was going to wear those fish. I was going to wear them well.

He refilled my coffee cup. We talked some more. We drank more coffee. The fire in me warmed. My blood flowed faster. Or maybe it was the caffeine, I’m not sure.

“You’re sure you want to leave now? There are programs I think you’d do well…”

I interrupted, “I have a daughter to feed, a wife to shelter, and a vacuum cleaner hell-hound on my trail. I haven’t got time to be that special.”

Ok then. You leave in two weeks.”

Two weeks later, a jet-plane carried me aloft from Portland in the late afternoon, and flew into the deepening gloom towards Chicago. The blanket of darkness rolled in from the eastern horizon, like a doom coming to pass. I stared hard at the approaching darkness, and something in me awoke.

I feared no darkness.

That hell-hound Kirby Classic would never track me here, and if it did… I‘d be ready.

I never heard what became of the vacuum cleaner.