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The Way We Were

It’s hard to say, exactly, why cities make me nervous. I’d like to think it’s because I spent my first 10 or 11 years in small towns and outlying ranches, but that’s kind of a cop-out because a lot of my peers grew up in that environment and they do just fine in the city. My sister, in fact, moved to Salem, Oregon, early in life and loved it from day one. It’s not that I didn’t try; I got a prized job as a maintenance welder at a paper mill in Antioch, California, in 1966 with thoughts of retiring when I got to be an old geezer. Did pretty well for a couple years and then, um, not. Uneasiness crept in slowly, like a cat burglar, and I tried lots of distracting things like prospecting for gold and flying airplanes and sturgeon fishing, but the only thing that seemed to help was drinking beer, which I actually got pretty good at. I became a regular at the Little Corral, a riverside saloon near the paper mill, and spent several years trying to garner enough money to buy the place, not noticing that my drink tab was soaking up my finances like a bar rag. When that fell through, as was inevitable, I finally moved several hundred miles—and fifty years back in time—to Austin, Nevada. As it turns out that’s where I should have gone in the first place, but if I’d done that I wouldn’t have brought with me a nervous tic tinged with alcoholism, which is absolutely mandatory for any serious eccentric. I often try to figure out how all that happened and it always eludes me. There just doesn’t seem to be any way possible to connect the dots from my birthplace in Torrance—which has long since been absorbed by Los Angeles—to Austin, Nevada, and thence to the environs of Death Valley, California. However, hindsight reveals several puzzling speed bumps that I’m certain at least nudged the direction of my life. The following are things that I felt, at some point, were absolute truths: 1) Girls are icky. It was in first grade, I believe, that I approached an apparently cootieless girl whose name I later learned was Aleta Bugg. When she introduced herself I thought she said “I’ll eat a bug!” and I scuttled away in horror like a multi-legged one. Took years to recover. 2) A foreign language would be helpful. I took German 1 in high school, thinking I might end up in Germany someday, or perhaps I was just thinking the teacher, Miss Wolpe, was most certainly cootieless. A few of us took up kayaking that year and I, demonstrating my new language skills, christened mine ‘Der See Wolfe’, invoking visions of Humphrey Bogart and Atlantic U-boats. I nearly drowned in whitewater, and it wasn’t until later that I found the fierce ‘Der See Wolfe’ translated literally to ‘The Lake Dog’, an image my kayak most certainly reflected. 3) Destinies are carved in stone. From the time my cousin Tommy visited wearing his Navy blues, I knew my destiny was to sail the seas as a sailor in the United States Navy. I grew up with model Navy ships and model Navy planes and Navy books that the Navy recruiter gave me. When a classmate asked me if I knew where the Marine Corps recruiting office was I told him sure, it was right next to my Navy recruiter, and I cheerfully accompanied him. The Marine recruiter asked me, after talking with Ron, if I wanted to join also. I told him no, that I was joining the Navy next door, and he said, “Oh son, you don’t want to join the Navy!” I don’t? Oh. Short story shorter; instead of spending the summer of ’62 at the North Island Naval Training Center in San Diego, I glimpsed it occasionally from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot across the bay. Life is twisty, for sure, and because of Aleta Bugg I married much later in life than my peers, allowing the meander that would eventually lead to Nevada. A well-earned distrust of foreign languages would cause me to zip my lip when being considered for arrest by a Tijuana police officer, which resulted in my being let off the hook with what I’m pretty sure was a very animated warning. And, many years later, an Honorable Discharge from the Marine Corps was the only reason I was hired as an untrained deputy sheriff when an opening came up in Austin. But yet, after all these decades have sped on by, I’m still not at all sure what I want to be when I grow up. I can’t blame that entirely on my being a country boy, but I can’t summarily dismiss it, either.

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