Monday, September 01, 2008

My Month--September...


If there was a way I could include a streaming link to Earth, Wind and Fire's hit "September", and not run afoul of the RIAA, I would do so, because my favorite month of the year has arriv-ed!! Yes kiddies, I'm a September baby, and September is here! Oh joy, Oh rapture!!!

If it hasn't been made abundantly clear, yes, September is a very important month for me. Many significant events, all of which life changing to one degree or another occurred during the 9th month of the year. Almost all of those events occurred during the period of September 10th to the 20th. Chronologically, let's go through them one at a time.

September 10th is important because that was the day that I went into the service. Those who know me know that I was not the best student in high school. Despite attending what was traditionally considered the best high school in the City of Pittsburgh, Taylor Allderdice, I was woefully immature, spectacularly unprepared for college life and even if I had all my shit in one sock, my folks didn't have the cash to fork over to send my lazy ass on to college, which had this happened would have been one of the greatest wastes of time and money since Prohibition.

So unlike a lot of my college bound schoolmates who were putting out college applications left and right and hoping to get into the school of their choice, and knowing that my attempt to do the college thing would end in a disaster of biblical proportions, I enlisted in the Navy under the Navy's Delayed Entry Program. This program allowed eligible people to enlist in the Navy 12 months prior to going off to boot camp. I was in non-paid status of the Naval Reserve during my senior year in high school and that year would count for pay purposes once I started boot camp. That meant that I had a few more bucks in the paycheck from the get-go, which given my proclivity to spend like a...wait for it...drunken sailor, was a small godsend.

I had no regrets about doing this because frankly, going into the service was my best and only viable option. Even back in the '70s, the prospects for young black males weren't all that good and not being ready for any type of post high school education meant that would have had to find a job, so I figured, why don't I join the Navy, get some education, toughen myself up and get out of the ghetto for a while, so three months to the day after the graduation at 6:30am, the morning of Wednesday September 10, 1980, the recruiter came to my house to pick me up and start me on my first major life adventure. I was driven down to the Federal Building downtown and spent about 11 hours being hustled from room to room, signing a small mountain of paperwork, being poked, prodded, told to bend over and cough numerous times and then I was shuffled into a room with about a dozen other guys. I was told to raise my right hand and swear that I would support and defend the constitution of the United States. At that point, I was a sailor.

I and my induction group were then put on a bus, schlepped out to the airport, and put on a flight to Chicago. An couple hours later, we landed at O'Hare, were put on another bus and sent 35 miles north to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. I can remember everyone laughing, and talking crap and joking around on the way up to the base, but once we saw those high barb-wired topped fences with the "Property of the US Government" signs on them, you could hear a pin drop. We entered through the gate and then a couple of guys wearing dungarees, guard belts, and dark blue shirts with funny looking insignia on the collars came on the bus and in no uncertain terms told us to get of their bus quick, fast and in a hurry. We clambered off the bus and lined up on the footprints painted on the asphalt, and marched looking like a bunch of Soviet-era dissidents condemned to the gulag, to what was called "Receiving Division"

There we were issued raincoats, ditty bags full of cleaning supplies, and some other stuff and made to sit a large room, until everyone else that was expected to be arriving showed up. I was assigned a seven digit number that I remember to this day: 056-09-10. I was told never to forget that number and to spit it out on command. A few hours later some petty officers came in, screamed at us for a while, told us what to expect, collected all our UA or unauthorized gear from us, and marched us to a small barracks with a couple dozen bunk beds. It was about 1 am when we finally turned in, and just as we had finally got to sleep, the lights came on, a garbage can was thrown down the middle of the bunkroom and we were woken up rather roughly and told to get our asses down to the grinder(parade ground) as soon as possible. What followed was a blur as within the space of a few hours we had been: fed; given haircuts; told to write a letter home saying that we had arrived safely; finished more paperwork; been issued ID cards and dogtags; and marched all over the base at least a couple times. Those first few days left little time to rest or reflect on why the hell we decided to put ourselves through this crap. There was always someplace to go, something to do, stuff being constantly drilled into our heads. But to be honest, I didn't mind it. I actually felt quite alive. This was something I wanted to do.

Eventually, we got our uniforms issued, were assigned into a company and a barracks and settled down into the regular routine. Lots of running around, marching, schoolwork to master, PT to sweat through. It was a big head game, but I didn't mind it. I felt like I was doing something productive. Boot camp challenged me in ways that high school never could. It was not always easy. I ralphed more than a few times after some of the PT runs. I had problems getting my bunk and lockers ready for inspections, and I did miss home, but I was proud of what I had done, and I knew there was a change in me when I passed in review for graduation eight weeks later. I was in the best shape of my life, I looked good in the uniform, and I thought I was going places.

My post-boot camp career had its ups and downs. I didn't get into the Data Systems Technician school that I was assigned to attend because I could not make it through the preliminary Basic Electricity and Electronics course. I always did better in a traditonal instructor/student environment, and I could not adjust to the self-taught system BE&E used. I ended up having to be reassigned to Mess Management School in San Diego. It wasn't what I wanted to do, being a cook and the parents weren't too thrilled, but better to go to the fleet with an A school diploma in my pocket rather than as an undesignated striker having to earn a rating the hard way. Besides, six weeks in San Diego after freezing my ass off in Great Lakes, plus the fact that there were women on base in San Diego??? What's not to love about that???

To compress it all, in summer of 1981, I graduated from MS school, volunteered for service on the USS Carl Vinson, which was being built in Newport News, VA. After she made her maiden World Cruise in 1983, I left that ship and literally walked across the pier to my new ship, the USS California. The California was not nearly as great an adventure as the Carl Vinson. I clashed with a lot of my crewmates, didn't quite fit in, and on September 9, 1986, I walked out of the East Gate of NAS Alameda, with honorable discharge in hand, happy to be done with that ship, but still wishing that I could have stayed in the Navy. I wanted to stay in 20 years. But the crap I had to put up with on the California, while much of it was self-imposed, had soured me on a naval career. Now thinking about it in hindsight, I could have done much more to improve my lot on the ship and in the Navy. I had a lot of issues that affected my ability to fully succeed. Most of those problems, I still have today. But I look and think often upon those days with a certain fond rememberance. Even the bad times, weren't really so bad, and they served to play a major part in making me what I am today. I made new friends, seen places most people couldn't find on a map. Had a lot of fun and learned a lot about myself. And so, September 10th will always be an important day for me.

September 13th of course is my birthday. I actually wished that I was born in 1963 instead of 1962, because that would insured that I would have been born on Friday the 13th. Now that's a conversation starter. This year I'll be 46 years old. I've seen a lot over the years. Most of it good, but a few potholes in the road to keep me honest. I cried in my bunk my first birthday in boot camp, but I've never been a big birthday party guy. I've only had a couple parties in my life, and would rather spend my birthday either by myself or with my friend Denise.

Speaking of Denise, September 20th is significant for me because that is her birthday.
 Denise ( see the picture above) is an important figure in my life. The first person in general and woman in particular I was ever able to get really close to. We met when I was going to CCAC in 1994. I was the president of the local honor society and she was one of my inductees. We hit it off and we've been close ever since. There's no romance or sex involved. We're just two screwed up human beings who can relate to each other and care about each other very deeply. We've helped each other through undergrad, and in her case, law school. We've experienced every emotion known to man, and we have been there for each other through personal tragedies, deaths of loved ones, sickness and in health. She'd is my best friend, and although she is actively dating, I know that I occupy a special place in her heart.

Finally, September is most well known for the my second major life changing experience...my return to school or The Relentless Pursuit of Higher Education.
In 1992 after six years out of the service, basically knocking around doing dead end chimp work, I got it into my head that I finally needed to go back to school. As a Christian who occasionally feels that God is talking to him, I felt that He was telling me that he wanted me to continue my education. Through a tenant of mine, I got the name of one George Carter who was a counselor at the Community College of Allegheny County. Little did I know how much of an influence this man would be in my college years.

I made an appointment to see Mr. Carter at his office in Boyce Campus in Monroeville. I walked into his cramped little rabbit hutch office overflowing with books, papers, and other bric-a-brac. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, and after a minute of small talk, he pulled out a application for admission and said to me in a voice that would leave no uncertainty of his position, "Now we have the small talk out of the way, let's get down to business." He wasn't forcing me, but something told me that I wasn't leaving this man's office without signing that application. I had only come in to ask some questions, and maybe to set my mind at ease. Mr. Carter had other things in mind. He was one who had a burning desire to see that any student especially black males in particular got a chance to succeed, and would do anything to make sure that would happen. After about an hour in his office, I had filled out the app for admission, and for financial aid, and had registered for my first two summer classes.  I owe a great debt to Mr. Carter.  He did a lot for me while I was in school. He encouraged me when the pressure tried to get to me.  When I wasn't able to pay for my books at the time I needed them, he pulled strings with the bookstore to get me the books I needed for class until my grant money came in to pay him back.  He even showed up when I graduated from Robert Morris in 2000. 

I have to admit, that I wasn't sure that I was ready to get back into school. I was 30 years old at the time, and going to school with kids a dozen years younger. Would I be able to keep up? Well, after those first two classes in the summer, I found that the answer to that question was an unqualified YES!!! I took to it like a fish to water. My mind was totally and completely re-energized. It felt like the switch connected to my brain that somehow got turned off in middle and high school was found once again and snapped back on. I was absorbing this stuff like a sponge. I had discovered a gift for writing that had never manifested itself before. Other than the service, I had never felt so alive. I looked forward to going to class. I wanted to get the whole college experience. I felt almost like an 18 year old again. I signed up to join clubs, I got involved in the intramural sports and the collegiate bowling team. When I fulfilled the academic requirement after 12 credits, I joined the local Phi Theta Kappa chapter and threw myself into their activities, racking up all sorts of awards and honors and eventually becoming chapter president. In 1995, I graduated from CCAC with the Male Student of the Year Award for 94-95.

I was published in the National Dean's List; Who's Who Amongst Students in American Junior Colleges; more certificates of merit and honors than I knew what to do with. Those were great years. But because like I always did, I planned things as I went along instead of making a plan on paper and sticking to it, I ended up with an associate's degree that wasn't strong enough to transfer to any of the major colleges in Pittsburgh. So I had to decide whether I should try to get enough credits to at least transfer one year at Pitt, until I had come across the counselor types from then-Robert Morris College occupying a table in Boyce's front hall and trying desperately to get someone to notice them. Something told me to talk to them and see what they had to offer. I went to the registrar and requested a copy of my transcript which by then had close to 80 credits on it. I gave it to the RMC people and my jaw hit the carpet when they looked it over and started checking off course after eligible course of study. After they were done, they told me that could take the maximum number of 69 credits from my transcript. I then asked them about tuition, which at the time was extremely reasonable, and then the clincher was that they had transportation between downtown and the Moon campus free for students and I asked them "Where do I sign up???" The application and admission process could not have been smoother, I was admitted within three days of submitting the application and began classes in September of '97. Once there, I did the same routine I did at CCAC. I jumped into my classwork, joined clubs, got as involved on campus as a commuter student could and got involved in the local Phi Beta Lambda chapter. I chose a major that interested me more than one that was marketable (notice a trend here???) and in 2000 finished up my studies with a 3.07 GPA, and a degree that I enjoyed studying for, but would not get me a decent job. And as a result, I'm doing the same shit work I was doing before I started the 7 and a half year ordeal. But you know what, I still learned a hell of a lot about myself, and my capabilities. Yes, the whole thing ended up being a paper chase. I could have done things better, and emerged with a marketable degree that would have gotten me a decent job. But I have found that my education did help me in my outside interests. Working as my church's treasurer for four years for example. Rebuilding my American Legion Post's management system. Stuff that I could not have done if I hadn't gone back to school. And I would not have been able to succeed at school had I not learned about myself in the Navy. And it all happened in the month of September--My month.
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