I made the best friends I ever had in the whole world in the Navy.
When I was stationed in San Diego I made my first good friend in my roommate Kelly. One night we decided to make a visit over to wet side to hang out at Club Metro. When we got there we soon found out why everyone called it “Club Ghetto” – it was a dirty smoke-filled shithole filled to the brim with lewd leering pushy guys. We also realized we were a commodity as these pushy guys tried to knock each over to buy us drinks.
When a drunk guy got rude with me at the bar a big guy who looked like the wild man of Borneo stepped in between us and asked “Is there a problem?”
The guy stopped to look up, startled at him. “Uh, shit, no. I was just, well, just….” “Leaving! You were just leaving! ‘Cause this is my girlfriend mother fucker!”
I hand the wild man of Borneo a beer, my best way of saying thanks. “Hey, here’s for saving me the trouble of beating his ass!” I said as I grabbed my beer and paid for both of them.
“Yeah, no problem.” He said. “My name’s Sage. Hey, we’re over there playing pool if you want to join.”
And so I followed him over and Kelly soon joined us after she got a new round of beers.
We had a fun night and Sage was one of the funniest guys I’d ever met. He was a really tall, strong man, with dark tan skin, and jet black hair; a handsome guy, kind of a cross between Burt Reynolds and Benicio De Toro, with a warm Texas drawl that accentuated every story he told. He also had a kick-ass sense of comedic humor that made him especially magnetic and fun to be around.
As the warmer days near the middle of May came upon San Diego I began to hang out with Sage, who was had many other facets to him.
We became best friends, he and I, and when Kelly was off with a guy she had started dating, or having a private moment with him in our room, I would be off with Sage riding around on his gorgeous orange 1200cc Sportster he called Sara to just enjoying the world at large. We fell in love with Ocean Beach and use to go there and hang out in the biker bar in Ocean Beach so much I suggested we get our mail changed.
We found we definitely had the upper hand in San Diego with a motorcycle as cut through the lines of traffic at a standstill trying to get into OB.
We’d play countless games of pool and take a break once in a while to go walk the long pier and just relax in the warm sunshine. During the warm sunny weekends we ride all over God’s green Earth, then we’d find our favorite biker bar in OB and plop down and have rounds of shots and beers for several hours until the sun crashed into the ocean, and we were sober enough to go ride around again. We opened up and began to tell each other the stories of who we were.
Sage told me he was off the USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3) which is what is called a “Gator Freighter” in the Fleet due to the fact that it is basically a down-scaled aircraft carrier for Marines.
Being he constantly referred to his ship as the “Block of Wood” I finally had to ask why.
“It’s because the thing just completely shut down a couple times in the middle of the ocean while we were bringing her in from Sasebo. It was a fucking nightmare. So everyone just started calling her that, and it stuck.”
What he was saying was so “Navy” it made me crack up laughing. Almost every ship has a nickname of some sort; some are cute nicknames like the Ike, or the Connie, but others are darker, denoting possible bad conditions, like one guy calling his ship the Hue City the “Way Shitty”, or another Machinist Mate I heard who called his ship the Cochran the “Cockroach”.
Sage went on to explain that the reason they had that ship was because of a huge chaotic crew-swap with the USS Essex (LHD-2).
“Don’t let anyone tell you anything good about this crew-swap shit. Morale tanked when we realized we were trading a well-taken care of boat for this beat up piece of shit.”
Turns out the ship, like most forward-deployed ships, was in pretty bad shape when they picked the thing up.
I was happy and curious when he finally brought me onboard, and showed me one of his spaces deep inside the ship. Looking down that very long ladder climb was daunting, and so was the climb. If you slipped, like I almost did, you really were screwed because no one could hear you, that is, if you lived through the fall. But down at the bottom it was apparent from all the new purple paint on the pipes that it all had shortly undergone a complete make-over. I was totally in awe that anyone could ever fix a nasty space like this.
After that he took me through the mess lines and I got to see a little of what life aboard a “Gator Freighter” was like. The food was what he called a “mystery meat” and I could see how people got so skinny eating ship-food – it’s not the greatest quality.
After work one weekend we changed things up. Sage took me out into the Gas Lamp District where we watched dueling baby grand pianos; afterward he took me to a Japanese restaurant for my first ever try of sushi.
“OK, see that green lump of stuff right there?” He asked.
I nodded my head.
“Try that first,” he said.
I scooped up a small amount on the tip of a spoon.
“No, grab more than that,” he laughed.
So I scooped up more green stuff. And just as I was about to put it in my mouth he grabbed my hand and stopped me.
“No, I am just kidding!” He said. “That’s wasabi! Don’t do that!”
“What’s wasabi?” I asked.
“It’s Japanese horseradish. Trust me it’s strong. Our friendship would be over after that! But your sinus passages would be clean.” And he laughed while I tried a smaller sample, which indeed cleaned out my head.
“Wow that’s awesome stuff! Damn, thanks for curing what ails me!”
“No problem. “
And after we ate a good meal, we took off, destination wherever; we just drove until we felt like stopping.
Most days we would go hang out in the biker bar in Ocean Beach where we would sip beers while playing endless games of pool, feeling the arms of the warm salty scented air all around us as the night came upon us.
This one time it was my turn to rack and start another game of pool, and as I hit the cue ball it struck the rack in such a manner as to send the eight-ball straight into one of the pockets; no other balls went in. We just stopped, as well the whole bar stopped, and while we were staring at this oddity so was everyone else. “OK” Sage hooted. “Let’s start over! You won!” And we just laughed it off.
We had so much fun, playing pool, walking around on the beach in the sweet sunshine, and blowing all our money on Jello shots and Jagermeister. We would joke about “payday” and “broke day”, two bittersweet days twice a month in our Navy life.
One night I get back to my room, and as I opened the door my phone rang. I picked it up and heard Sage on the other end, happy about getting off early. Chattering excitedly he said “Hey Pop Tart! Let’s go get a beer in San Dog, huh?!”
He came by on his bike and picked me up. We ended up eating and drinking the night away at this bar called Dick’s Last Resort.
Sage had started calling me “Wild Berry Pop-Tart” for whatever reason and I accepted it, no questions asked. So while I was pretty drunk I carved it into the graffiti scarred bar top with my Gerber pocket knife to distract myself. I wanted to put the next day at work out of my mind. I had always been pretty easy-going and eager to work but now all the headgames at my command was starting to completely change me. I had no voice, and I had so much pressure bottled up; it was just a matter of time before the wrong thing shook me and I exploded.
As if on cue, Sage gently nudged me and said “A penny for your thoughts, and 5 bucks for another round of drinks! HEY! Can we get some Jell-O shots over here?!” Sage knew what I was thinking about, hell he hated his command the same as I did. But I didn’t want to talk about it. To name the problem was to summon the demon. I quickly changed my thoughts and gave him a big hug as thanks. He hugged me back, and we moved on.
One night Sage and I went out to Balboa Park, where the zoo was, and here it was 2 am, and we could hear all the animals making a lot of noise, roaring, barking, heehawing and squealing and bellowing in the night as our antics woke them up.
We busied ourselves drinking out of a flask of whiskey and wondering around through this really bushy area before climbing up into this huge Banyan tree to sit on and drink away the rest of the night, telling stories from our childhoods, and occasionally spitting whiskey out our noses when one of us told a particularly hilarious one. I loved hearing him talk about growing up in Texas; and at one point he asked me about myself. I told him I had a story to top all Yankee stories he’d ever heard. “OK you got my attention.” He said in a slow drawl.
“Ok,” I said, clearing my throat, preparing to begin my long story, “I went down to Mobile, Alabama for missionary work after school. The very first day showed me, right off the bat, I did not fit in. I came out to eat breakfast, and saw there was what looked like Cream of Wheat on the stove. “Great,” I thought, and I grabbed a bowl and began scooping white lumps into it, on which I piled sugar, and then poured milk over the top. Happy, I walked out and sat down with everyone else.
“Everyone took one polite look at me and everything locked up and stopped like rush hour traffic in L.A. I finally realized something was amiss, and I looked up to see all eyes on me, waiting for something.
““What?!” I asked, incredulous that something was wrong already.
““Wayyyyy-ell,” answered one mannerly older lady with short graying hair and a soothing soft deep Southern drawl, ‘We just ain’t neva evah seen anyone evah eat gree-its like thayat befo-wah.’ At which point I looked around at everyone’s plates and I saw that next to their orderly piles of eggs, bacon, and biscuits and gravy, was a small pile of white lumps with salt and butter on top. I apologized profusely while they watched me finish my breakfast in amusement, but it was very much a large sign screaming “Yankee” to them. I love the South, but grits, fire ants, and hurricanes aren’t my deal.”
His booming laugh filled the park, with the startled laughing brays of zebras in the distance as he took a deep swig of whiskey. “You’re alright Pop Tart,” he said, as we climbed out of the tree, not worried about going anywhere, just being in the moment.
This other weekend Sage borrowed a friend’s truck, and after driving us all over Ocean Beach, we headed to Sea World. There we drove endless donuts in the sandy dirt, with Drowning Pool’s “Let the bodies hit the floor” blasting on the radio, laughing as we threw dust everywhere. When we got too dizzy we stopped and just walked around aimlessly through the tracks in the dirt, giggling like kids as we chased each other. We talked about everything, about how he hated his command, and how much I hated mine too. Then we’d distract the other when the conversation started getting too heavy. We were the best of friends, and we had an understanding.
One night we were hanging out on the rock wall by the dog beach in Ocean Beach, and I spotted this large rodent jumping around getting close to us. I was pretty drunk so I jumped up and began to freak out. Sage calmed me down by tossing rocks at it, but we both ended up falling over laughing. By then the sun was busy going down and it was getting dark and cold quickly. We wandered back to the old biker bar, where we had some more drinks and began to get really sleepy all of a sudden.
We knew we were way too toasted to go anywhere, so we asked the bartender where we could squat for the night. She tells us about the nearby park, that we could “camp out” there more or less. We drifted over there and found a huge wide bushy palm tree that concealed both us and Sara from the eyes of anyone going past. But, it didn’t block out the cold as we soon found out.
Damn was it cold, too. We fell asleep a few inches from each other, but woke shivering, curled up next to each other, looking around only to see the cops on patrol driving by a couple times, and then pass back out. At one point I curled myself up on his chest with my leather jacket and layers of clothes on like I was a big cat; we were so frigid and numb that it was anything we could do to stay warm. Before too long the sun was coming up and we found ourselves thawing. It really wasn’t pleasant and now that I knew how it felt I didn’t want to feel it again.
But after we munched on a meager breakfast of Starburst we found ourselves filthy, but renewed.
We went over to the Sunset Hill Cliffs, which I felt was more beautiful in the dawn then the sunset they are famous for, and there we ran all over to the many caves on the beach while the tide was out. We chased each other around in the soft brown dirt, until we were so tired we couldn’t stand anymore.
Then we passed out on the cliffs for a nap and it was just peaceful, the sound of the waves and the smell of the salt. It was beyond comforting to me. I had never felt freer in my life. It was nice to be alone yet have a companion in this solitude. And it was wonderful to just have a man who liked me for me and we could platonically remain friends.
We finally woke up around noon, and after smacking the caked dirt and sand off of us we meandered back to the biker bar, spending a good part of the day there.
After we thought we had enough to eat and drink, we wondered down the street to this Palm Reader who was named Tim. I was pretty loaded, so I called him “Tim the Enchanter” after the guy from Monty Python. He read my palm, and told me I would be headed east, and that it would not be well; very bad things were going to happen, which made the hair on my neck stand up. He said a bunch of other stuff I vaguely recall and afterwards I was like “Did I get my money’s worth?” Sage assured me I heard all I needed.
To hear negative news coming my way should have freaked me out; I should have steered clear of the soothsayer as I had been taught in my childhood. His words held nothing but pure evil and it would come to pass as he said it would, hair-raisingly, to the letter. I put it out of my mind as I wondered down the sunny streets, feeling thousands of miles from any kind of trouble.
Looking back I am grateful to the Navy for the friends I made. I have made the best friends who have stuck with me through thick and thin and are still my friends to this day. All the ugly moments lose their strength and fade into the background when I remember the warm times and awesome friends I made back then that I still have to this day.