This is a guest series by Phil Cate. If you missed previous chapters, you can read them all by clicking on ‘Phil Cate’ under the Categories heading in the right panel. Watch for new installments every Friday.
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Jack drove me back to Gastonia, North Carolina, to spend more time with my grandparents before I left for the Navy.
I had decided on the Navy because I’d always been interested in aviation; and with my lack of education, my behavioral disposition, and alcohol consumption, they were the only ones that might possibly let me get near an aircraft.
I signed up in Maryland, on the delayed entry program, to go in on January 19, 1981. After boot camp in Waukegan, Illinois, I would go on to air traffic control school in Memphis. They must be kidding, right?
Dad and I were so estranged at this point that he refused to shake my hand as I left that morning.
It was fairly mild for a January day in Maryland, so I showed up lightly attired; it hadn’t occurred to me what kind of weather I’d be dealing with in the Chicago area. I landed at O’Hare International the evening of January 19, and it felt like my skin was going to turn inside out. It might have been ten degrees that day, but at night it was well below zero and the wind was blowing a sustained forty miles per hour. There was snow on the ground, blowing around and hitting my bare arms. I guess the short sleeve shirt was not a great idea after all.
The bus ride to Great Lakes Naval Training Center was long, but not long enough. When I arrived, I realized immediately that no one was at all concerned with my physical comfort or my need to sleep. Nor were they concerned that I was hungry.
I was in a new world now that moved very slowly. It did have some organizational flow, but it was like a handful of cowboys up on horses corralling a large load of cattle. The cowboys were barely able to keep the cattle under control, and it seemed everything could break into pandemonium at any minute. There were hundreds of recruits there, and many more showed up throughout the night.
I had pneumonia within two weeks, due largely to my attire on arrival. I was hospitalized immediately, and then forced into another company that had just starting training. The one-week hospital stay added three weeks to my frigid boot camp experience.
We were allowed maybe one fifteen-minute break per day; and the entire day of eighteen waking hours was filled with physical training, educational training, and testing or drills. This was a far cry from being a derelict and doing little or nothing productive, as I had in the past. The biggest grief I personally experienced was that we could only smoke once per day. Why I didn’t just quit then still perplexes me.
One upside was that I left boot camp in the best physical condition of my life. Another upside was that they taught me that anything celebrated should immediately be celebrated with large quantities of alcohol. Now they’re talking! I was going to fit right in. I might even be Fleet Admiral one day, if celebrating with alcohol was the agenda.
It was off to Memphis to learn air traffic control. Here we go, studying again. What is it with society insisting that we learn things? First high school, now this. At least, it was something I was interested in.
We also had a place to buy incredibly cheap alcohol on base, and a couple of the guys had cars. We’d buy the cheap stuff on base and head off to Beale Street or to Overton Square, drunk and looking for any kind of mischief we could get into. We found plenty of it.
Not surprisingly, I was not a great student in air traffic control school. None the less, they didn’t chuck me out of the Navy. They sent me out to the fleet to be a part of the Naval Aviation fighting force. They must’ve been desperate.
I got my orders and was headed to an air attack squadron in Jacksonville, Florida. I thought, Sunny Florida, beaches, pretty girls, this is going to be great. A lot of guys had been assigned to ships; no booze, no girls, no sunshine. I was one of the lucky ones — or so I thought.
I arrived and this burly, salty Master Chief checked me in and said, “Keep your bags packed; we haven’t been out to sea in a while. We’re headed to the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy in a couple weeks, and we’ll probably be out to sea for most of the next two or three years.” At least, I got good sunburn before we left. We did a little drinking, too; but only while we were awake.
Jacksonville was not far from Adairsville, where my Uncle Jack and Aunt Melissa lived. I had a buddy in the Navy that was from Calhoun, Georgia, and he and I would drive up on weekends sometimes when we were not out at sea. I got to spend more time with all of them.
About this time, Jack and Melissa were separating and moving towards a divorce. Melissa moved to the Atlanta area, and I’d see her there some, too. She was still struggling, trying to “find it”; and in hindsight, she was showing signs of depression.
Oddly enough, I also got a letter from Mom while I was out at sea, telling me she had left my Dad and at first moved in with his folks. Our family was clearly in very deep distress. All the more reason to do a little drinking.
I had always heard the food was quite good on a ship out at sea, and I found it to be quite not good. While first out to sea, I went through the chow line and they were serving something that resembled eggs. This young, smaller sort of guy in front of me looked up at the brawny and salty beast serving whatever he was serving with a large spoon.
The little guy was actually bold enough to say something. He said, “My mama never served me eggs that look like this.”
The beast replied slowly but sharply with, “Boy, that’s because your mama loves you; I don’t.”
With that, he slapped some egg-looking stuff on the metal tray and it splashed a clear liquid up off the tray. Now I’m certainly no egg expert, but I don’t think properly cooked eggs should splash. I just got toast and a drink they called “bug juice”. I think it was Kool-Aid mix without any sugar. It was appropriately named, as it tasted like someone put June bugs in a blender.
I don’t remember much about being in port, as we were either drunk or hung over for a few minutes before getting drunk again. The drinking was off the chart. We’d find large quantities of intoxicating beverages and a hotel room and ice down the bathtub with booze. It was a drinking free for all.
After all, we were out at sea and had nowhere to spend money for a month or so; and then we’d get off the boat determined to be broke in two or three days. I personally never failed.
I don’t remember which ocean I was in when a lieutenant came to me and told me we needed to talk. I still remember the words, “Cate, I’m afraid I have some bad news. Your Dad’s sister has passed away.” It was Melissa. I knew immediately it wasn’t a good situation.
The Navy that I had not been real crazy about was about to be very good to me. The commanding officer of our squadron called me into his office. I feel sure he knew more about the circumstances than he told me. It was not normal for a sailor to be given emergency leave if the emergency did not involve immediate family. He said, “Phil, I’ve arranged for some money to be advanced you. Stop by disbursing and pick up a check, and we’re flying you home to attend the services. No matter what you find when you get there, I’ll be here for you when you get back.” I guess he knew.
When I finally landed in Atlanta, my dad and my sister were at the top of the ramp waiting for me. They were smiling and hugged me, but I could tell it was not going to be good.
The hug from my dad was frankly unexpected. When Melissa passed, my family didn’t even know where I was. They had to contact the Red Cross to find me. Other than a couple of letters I sent to Mom, I had not had any contact with them since leaving for the Navy and my address had changed several times.
I had, though, gotten letters from Melissa while I was out at sea. She told me she was trying to start a business and doing well with it and she sent me a picture of the car she had bought. And of course, she had told me she was living in Marietta, an Atlanta suburb, and was scared. She also mentioned she had been depressed some, but was struggling through it.
On the way to the hotel in Marietta, my father told me that Melissa had taken her own life. He went into graphic detail of how she had done it, that they found the instructions of how to load the pistol lying open in the room, and that she had checked in for two days and put the “Do Not Disturb” sign out. Not that Dad really did anything wrong, but I wanted to go across the seat and hit him; he told me too calmly. I had loved her, and she was gone.
I tried to conceal my pain and tears, as we arrived at the hotel where all the family was staying. My mom pulled up and jumped out and hugged my father, and I was reminded that they had been separated for some time now. My grandmother could only be described as despondent. All of my family on my dad’s side started arriving, and it was most uncomfortable. No one knew what to say or how to feel; we were all shaken to our core.
We went to see Jack and the girls, who had arrived at Melissa’s apartment in Marietta. When Jack saw my grandparents, his in-laws, he exploded into tears and wept uncontrollably. I remember he ran to them and hugged them both and said, “I tried so hard to help her; I just didn’t know what to do.” They hugged him back; we all knew Jack had tried to love her and help her. Melissa had even told me in some of her letters how kind Jack was to her.
It was an awful experience, and when families are under that kind of stress I think it’s impossible for them to act “normal”. My grandmother gave me some money and told me to go get my own room so my parents could be alone together.
My father found that completely objectionable, as he was obviously in shock himself and was not thinking of repairing his marriage at the moment. He gave me a sermon on how grandmother was acting inappropriately, and pled with me to stay in the room with him and Mom. I had no intentions of doing that anyway, as I certainly would need cigarettes and probably alcohol to get through this night.
Some of the family was assigning blame to my dad or my grand-mother for Melissa’s loss. It was awful. I just missed her and worried about my cousins and Jack and all of us.
I wanted someone to stand up and say, “Enough, haven’t we hurt each other enough? Now we’ve lost a precious life; we need to talk about how to be good to each other.”
No one stood up, including me. Maybe it wasn’t the time then; but no one ever stood up, ever. And even if they had, what would they have said and would it have made any difference?
Life had gotten very real for me and very raw and frankly very cruel, and I didn’t know who to blame other than everyone, and certainly most of all myself. I felt that if Melissa had known how much I loved her, she would still be here.
I went back to the fleet a total mess; I was belligerent and drank with a vengeance. I had never been a great sailor, but now I was about to turn into a poor one.
I was written up several times and had to go face the skipper. I would get the normal reprimand and took the consequences, but the skipper also tried to talk to me and get me to tell him what was going on. He knew about Melissa, and he was actually acting as if he wanted to take an interest in me. I declined his offers and stayed very closed off. I got more and more defiant and angry. Yet the skipper still tried to keep dialogue with me and was very kind.
I was on a carrier in the Indian Ocean when it was time to go home. My mom and dad had moved to Boston after I had gone into the service, and I had never been to that city. Then my mom had left Dad and gone to Chattanooga to be near her family.
I told the skipper I’d probably go to Chattanooga upon being discharged; and he smiled and said, “I didn’t know you were from the ‘Choo-choo’. Well, I can’t get you there, but I can get you as far as Jacksonville, Florida.”
It took days of riding planes, flying halfway around the world and stopping in all over Africa and Europe, finally through Norfolk then on to Jacksonville, where I was discharged.
Even though I had been around the world several times and worked in a very dangerous environment on the fight deck of a nuclear combat-ready aircraft carrier, the world got a lot bigger at that moment; and I realized I was really still just a kid.
Next: Back to Chattanooga
Phil Cate is a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area and runs a small medical equipment resale business. He is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at PhilC@ER3.biz or by phone at 678-429-0901
Printed by permission from Phil Cate, Mama told me Jesus saved my soul, but who was gonna save my butt??? Confessions, lessons, and revelations of a born rebel, © 2008.