Basic training is probably one of the hardest things that most people will ever go through, both physically and emotionally, and so I wanted to write him a few letters that might help him to pass the time. In the end, all I could think of to write to him about was my own experience. and so two or three very long letters were born.
The other day I was looking through my computer looking for things that I can get rid of to clean it out and I came across these letters. The more I looked at the letters, the more that I thought it might be kind of cool to post them here as a blog. And so, here is the first of three or four letters to my son . . .
You have absolutely no idea how proud we are of you that you have chosen to serve your country. There are very things that you will ever say in your life that will make you feel as proud as saying “I defend the United States of America”. One of the very few things that you may one day be able to say that will make you feel that proud would be “My child has chosen to serve his country and defend the United States.” We are so very proud of you . . .
My own trip through basic training was over 27 years ago, and you have no idea how that thought stuns me on so many levels. Considering how poor my memory is, one of the amazing things here is that I remember so much of my Basic training so well. You don’t know it yet, but you are probably already surrounded by guys that will be your best friends for the rest of your life. Bonds that you build going through basic together are like nothing else you have experienced. I am STILL in touch with several of the men I went through basic training with. You are in fact named largely in honor of two of them – William Mozzetti and John Jeffereson.
I know that you will have very little time for reading letters, and even less time for writing them, but I also recall just how very precious a letter was. For the few moments you have while reading letters from home, it takes your mind away from what you are going through, and reminds you that you do have a life that doesn’t revolve around Drill Sergeants, trainees, exercise, and studying. I don’t have much of interest to share with you, but will make it a point to try and write you at least once a week anyway. We would appreciate it if you send us even the shortest of notes as you find time. Even if it is only to say “I’m alive, this sucks, and I’m gonna slug you when I get home for not talking me out of this.” Even a short note would be most welcome.
I have no idea what to write to you that will be of any interest to you. It’s not as if you don’t know what my life consists of these days, so maybe I will write to you about the time in my life when I joined the military. If it bores you, you can rip it up and throw it out. If it interests you and takes your mind away from Basic Training for a few minutes, then I will have succeeded!
My life was in fairly poor shape at the time that I joined the Army at the age of 17. We lived in a one room cabin, about two miles from our nearest neighbor, and twenty miles from the nearest town – Yucca Valley.
I know this sounds like the typical jokes you hear about parents and grand parents telling children about walking miles through the snow, barefoot, and up hill both ways, but it really was a little like that for me. For the first few years that we lived there, my brother and I had to walk three miles just to catch the bus that we then had to ride for another 40 minutes to school. After school, we had to make the same three mile walk back home. Once home, I would drop off my books, IF I’d bothered to bring them home at all. Let’s face it, knowing that I had to carry them six miles round trip, I wasn’t really motivated to bring them home from school. I would then walk three miles the other direction to work on a small ranch where I groomed the horses, cleaned corrals, and that sort of thing. Dirty, nasty, and often disgusting work, and then I had to make the trip home after working. In later years things got a little better when they moved the bus stop closer to home so we only had to walk one mile each way, and I eventually bought a ten speed bike to get me to work and back.
We had very little money and virtually no luxuries. I only had the one pair of shoes and so I often went to school with my shoes reeking of horse, cow, pig, and chicken manure. You can just imagine how very popular this made me at school. In the early years we were so damned poor we couldn’t even afford to get water – a commodity that had to be delivered by truck. I recall my brother and I making treks through the desert to the water tanks at cabins people had for vacations and stealing water that we then had to carry home in washed out milk jugs. Trip after trip after trip carrying jugs of water. I suppose I should feel guilty about it, I mean, it was stealing after all, but I just can’t find it in myself to feel guilty about having been so desperate.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t really the lack of money and luxuries that drove me to want to leave home though, but rather it was a combination of several other things and events that all added up.
Living in a desolate area so far from town, the only way you could possibly socialize with others your age, or even participate in school events, would be if you had access to a car. My mother couldn’t afford drivers training and I understood this. What I couldn’t tolerate though was that I had convinced my school to give me the drivers ed class for free, all it required was my mothers signature. She refused to sign it, fearing that if I had an accident while in the class, she would be responsible and they would take our home as it was the only thing we had of value. Since my mother was in fairly poor physical condition, and quite honestly not the type to go too far out of her way to make it possible for her children to participate in school events or be social, this essentially meant that I was spending the vast majority of my high school experience confined to a cabin in the middle of no where. I don’t know if I was right or wrong, but I never did forgive my mother for this.
The small ranch that I worked at was owned by a popular jazz singer named Nancy Wilson. Nancy was a fine person, but it was really her father Olden or “Butch” that my brother and I came to love. He was in his 60’s, and when he was away from the women, he had one of the dirtiest minds and mouths that I have ever known. The man could make a rough and seasoned sailor blush, and so you can just imagine the effect he had on someone as shy and introverted as I was. Despite his “dirty” mind, he was probably the number one best human being that I have ever known. Within six months of moving to our canyon, he knew far more people than we had met in the years that we had been there. He never once drove past someone walking through the desert without stopping to ask if they needed help. He was always doing something good and decent for us, and for strangers and the other people that he knew. In very short order I think everyone in that canyon, and most in Yucca Valley, loved that man to death.
As I already mentioned, I was a painfully shy teenager. Between my being so shy, living so far from town and the other kids at my school, and having no transportation to get to town for anything social, I had very few friends and no chance in hell of having a girl friend. One evening I was in Nancy’s home, probably playing cards with Butch since that was his favorite thing in the world to do, when I heard someone playing the piano. I’d never actually heard a piano played live and in person before and so this was immensely interesting to me and I made my way to the piano room for a look and listen.
As I entered the room, I saw Nancy’s two young daughters standing around the piano, and a pretty girl about my own age was playing it. She hadn’t noticed me yet and so I had the chance to watch and listen for a while. The music was lovely and unique, often slowing and building the anticipation before it would soar to something intense and moving. I could hear her speaking to the girls as she played, describing the scene of a battle field with God’s Angels on one side, and devils and demons on the other. As they joined to battle, the piano music would soar, becoming immense and filling the room as God’s angels of course prevailed. She was about my own age, had a full head of long and glorious dark hair, and when her looks were combined with her music, she was probably the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She played several more songs that she had written herself, and I sat there listening, absolutely lost in her and in her music. I never had a chance – I instantly fell head over heals in love with her and I even managed to overcome my shyness enough to talk to her quite a bit that night. Her name was Angela and she was there to baby sit Nancy’s daughters. As you may have guessed based on my description of the narration of her song, Angela was a very religious girl. In fact, I had never met or seen her before because she went to a private school at the Baptist Church in town. Since I had not believed at all in God at that point, there was absolutely no chance for us to have ever met before. I spent the next two days obsessed at the very thought of her, and finally I called Butch and asked for her phone number. I stewed over it for a few days, with my stomach twisting, turning, and spinning at the very thought of calling her. She was beautiful, talented, and a three times a week church goer - what did a poor kid like me, with no car, and wearing shoes that reeked of the horse and cow manure I worked in possibly have to offer a girl like her?
Believe it or not, she did indeed agree to meet with me, and even go to a movie with me – I think it was “The Dark Crystal”. I have no idea why, but she eventually did become my girl friend and my very first serious heart throb. It turns out that in addition to the piano, she also played guitar, something that I had always been interested in but never pursued up to that point. Of course she had to drive anytime we got together since she had a car and a drivers license, and you can imagine how embarrassed that made me. I dated her for at least a year, and during most of that time, I went to church with her and her grandparents every week.
I went to a church/school function with her one night and they had some sort of competition on the football field that I joined in on. I can’t even remember what it was, but I remember that no one there could even come close to running as fast as I could. With all of the exercise I got every single day of my life, I was in fairly good shape, and left every one of their best jocks in the dust. Less than a week later, her school contacted my mother and offered me a scholarship to attend their school if I would agree to compete in their athletics program. I was of course thrilled at the very thought! What do you know – someone was impressed with me, actually wanted me, and had gone through effort to get me! I could get a private school education and go to the same school that Angela did! To me, it was like a dream! At least it was until my mother refused to allow it. . .
Inspired by Angela’s talent, I decided that I really wanted a guitar, the problem being of course, that I couldn’t come close to affording one. Remember I told you about Nancy’s father Butch always doing good things for people? Yeah, turns out he knew a guy with an old guitar and amplifier, and I think he twisted the mans arm to sell it to me for something like $150 – far less than it was worth. Butch gave me a ride to the mans home where I was thrilled to take ownership of a beautiful guitar and amplifier. Once again I was obsessed with something – this time the guitar. Other than Angela, it was all I cared about, all I spent time on. I took it to school with me so that I could practice during lunch and during the 80 minutes I spent on the bus every day. I stopped doing homework, I stopped reading books, I stopped going for bike rides and hikes, and instead I spent the time with the guitar, often playing it until three or four in the morning. In about six months I was playing at least as well as Angie and probably better, and it’s been a life long obsession and joy of mine ever since. In less than a year, being self taught and never having had a lesson, I had impressed the band teacher enough that he accepted me in to the high schools stage band. Ultimately though, I had to leave the band because I could not make it to events. I couldn’t get a drivers license and my mother wasn’t about to ferry me back and forth.
Things got complicated when my mother started dating, of all people, my own father. They had separated due to his alcoholism when I was about a year old. The only memories I had of him were from the occasions I had lived with or visited with him since then, and they were all bad. Memories of kicking Coors cans aside walking through the house and yard. Memories of the over powering stench of stale beer everywhere you turned. Memories of his berating, belittling, and beating my half brothers. Memories of his periodically trying to take me away from my mother and family. To this day I couldn’t tell you how they had met again, or what possessed my mother to believe that he had changed, or what she had on her mind when she allowed him to move in to our home, but she did. Anyone who has been around alcoholics could guess what was coming next, because it wasn’t long before he was drinking again and abusing those around him. This man that I had been ashamed of being related to for most of my life, was suddenly living in my house, and in many ways in charge of it. I couldn’t stand this . . .
Through the year or more that I dated Angie, I went to church with her and spent many Sunday afternoons and evenings at her grandparents home. Much to my own surprise, I actually began to question my own beliefs regarding the Universe. Until then, I was a fairly staunch atheist, absolutely convinced that there was no God, and no higher power.
I had started and continued going to church with her simply because it allowed me to be with her, and in her world, it was just something you were expected to do. Regardless of the reasons I had started going to church with her, I had gradually began to doubt my own beliefs. After all, is it really so much harder to believe that God exists than to believe that the matter of the entire universe just magically appeared in a small clump, exploded, and created the universe that we now live in? The world started to look different to me and to this very day I recall a moment when I was riding my bike to the ranch where I was to meet her for a horse ride and I swore I felt the very presence of God. The canyon was beautiful, the sky a dark and beautiful blue, and the air filled with the rich smells that you will only find in the Mojave desert. The world just looked and felt like a different place to me, a nicer place, a place of wonder . . . Of course it wasn’t going to last. About a month after this epiphany of mine, this change in my entire view of the world, Angela kindly and gently told me that she could no longer date me. It seems that she and her grandparents had decided that I was not a good enough Christian. How very ironic that she would give this as the reason for leaving me so soon after I had actually begun to believe what she beleived. I still remember standing in front of my bicycle watching her drive off after she dumped me. To say that my entire world shattered right there just doesn’t do the event justice.
- The only girl that had ever paid the slightest bit of attention to me had just told me that I wasn’t worthy of her.
- There was an abusive alcoholic that I had a lifetime of emotional baggage with living in my home and calling the shots.
- I had been denied the chance for a private and presumably better education because my mother didn’t like the fact that they were Baptists and believed in corporal punishment (as if I was ever in trouble or would have to worry about it).
- Most of the friends I had were gone to college or elsewhere while I still had another year of school to go.
- I was stuck in the middle of no where, with no drivers license, no friends, and a home I now hated going to.
It was time for me to leave . . .