Inking up the blogosphere. And no, I don't glow in the dark. But thanks for asking.

September 16, 2009

An Unlikely Sailor

There’s no feeling quite like having your voice heard when you’ve got something to say. A couple weeks ago, I had sent an email to my state Representative about a matter affecting the company I work for. When I saw a reply from his office, I expected it to be the standard form letter—you know, “Thank you for your email, we appreciate your concern….” etc. I was surprised then when I opened it and read it. The man himself had replied to me, saying thank you and that he would like to speak to me about my concerns personally and requesting my phone number. Later that evening he indeed called me, straight out of a legislative session, and he spoke to me at length. I have to say I was really impressed that he took the time to hear me. It was the first time since I was old enough to vote that I really felt a connection to the civic process.

Recently, I also was browsing the US Coast Guard’s website, looking through their history section. My maternal grandmother was a SPAR (the Coast Guard’s version of a WAVE) during WWII, serving as a Corpsman. I have a copy of a newspaper article about her receiving the Congressional Silver Lifesaving Medal, presented to her by Capt. Dorothea Stratton. It states in the article that my grandmother was the first SPAR to ever receive this medal. So as I was reading through the list of Coast Guard firsts, I noticed she wasn’t listed there. I sent an email to the site webmaster, telling them about her and the newspaper article I have. Well today, I went back to the site and she was on the list. What a great feeling! Our family (and me in particular) are really proud of her service and achievement, and I am tickled to see her honored in this way.

So my thoughts today are reflective of my grandmother, my family in general, and the origins of my own service. If looked at superficially, the fact that I ended up in the Navy is actually a little odd. I spent much of my formative years in what was essentially a very hippie existence. My Mom hit her prime in the 1960’s, and she never really lost that culture. My childhood was set to the soundtracks of Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. We lived way out in the middle of nowhere in northern California, in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We shopped mostly at the local natural foods store, and I remember eating a lot of vegetables, grainy bread, and brown rice. Where most kids spent their allowance on toys or something, I bought sugary cereal (to my mother’s everlasting chagrin). We attended fringe gatherings and festivals, where it seemed to me like there were a lot of people wearing not a lot of clothes; though there was usually some really good live music. My brother and I were little wild animals in the summer—swimming like fish in the river, adept at picking blackberries and climbing trees for crabapples. We ran around barefoot and turned brown as nuts. I guess that explains the freckles I have now (curses!).

We took a gazillion road trips and camped all year round, snow, rain or shine. We skied, snowshoed, hiked, climbed, paddled, spelunked, foraged, explored. Each activity was accompanied by some kind of lesson from my mother. We were taught how to be safe, how to make a fire, how to find clean drinking water. We learned what we could and couldn’t eat, what to do if we thought we were lost, how to make a splint from our surroundings, how to treat rattlesnake bites, how to rappel, to traverse. We learned the necessity of caloric intake and the value of carrying GORP, how to MacGuyver a fishing rig and catch hellgrammites or minnows for bait. When I expressed interest in buying a gun when I was 14, she made sure I was taught proper gun safety and marksmanship by the local cops at their indoor range. The culmination of all this knowledge was that, by the time I was a teenager, it wasn’t unusual for me to head out for the weekend by myself armed with a pack, tent, groundpad, mummy bag, compass, topo map, and a fishing pole; all the makings of a great weekend. As an adult, I can see what great value there was in the lessons my Mom imparted: how to respect but not fear your environment, and how personal limitations can always be pushed and exceeded, and the importance of strength and self reliance.

Though my mother’s political and social leanings were decidedly and sometimes radically liberal (when I was 5, I remember her shouting that if Regan was elected, we were going to camp out on the White House lawn in protest—the thought of which still mortifies me), she was always very pro-military. We have strong service threads running through our family that we take great pride in: my mother was an Air Force brat, one grandfather Army, the other Air Force, grandmother Coast Guard, brother Army. She used to tell us over and over again that Americans focus too much on their rights and not enough on their responsibilities as citizens. You have to give yourself in service of some sort before you can partake of the rights bestowed upon you by the Constitution. That may not necessarily mean military service (though she still believes to this day that we should have a minimum 2 year mandatory military service for all citizens), there are any number of ways that you could serve your country to ensure its betterment. The idea was the same though, your responsibility to others starts at home, and expands with a ripple effect to your neighbors and on and on to all Americans. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—my mother’s prime cardinal rule.

So when I found myself at age 21, directionally and financially challenged in college, it was her that suggested I look to the military. Though at the time it felt like a spur of the moment decision and an abrupt right turn, I am and always will be grateful to her for pointing out the obvious open door to me. She is loud and proud of my time in the Navy, as is all my family. If I have any one regret in my life, it is not fully appreciating the meaning and impact of what I was doing in the Navy at the time I was doing it. If I did, perhaps I would be writing this while still wearing a uniform. However, hindsight being what it is, I can still carry pride in knowing I participated in something very special. The people I served with will be my brothers and sisters forever. And I am forever thankful to my mother for shaping me into who I am today, though she’d probably faint dead away to hear me admit that although I can eat my way through a bowl of rice and veggies, I still prefer a fat greasy cheeseburger or chili dog any day. Love you Mom!