July 17, 2018 - I have not posted anything to this journal for a long time. I was taught as a youngster that journals were not to be treated as diaries. They were records of significant events or moments that deserved to be recalled with accurate detail. Sometimes, when they are not properly recorded in the moment, the details fall through the cracks of time. That doesn't mean they were not important, only that a once sharp brain has been beaten and abused by a life full of significant moments and simply can't recall them. Hence, the importance of a journal.
At dawn on this date fifty years ago I paused a moment to enjoy the summer sunrise as first light crept through my east facing window. For several years this had been my daily summer routine - look out to the sun and determine if it would be a lazy day around the house or another opportunity to enjoy the freedom of youth and a life dominated by a large freshwater lake and a few close friends.
The day before, Sunday, I had chosen to stay around the house and spend some time with my mother. Dad was off to work and would not be back for a few days more. Friday and Saturday had been devoted to my friends, neighbors, and the lake. One last chance to impress upon my mind the smiles, the voices, and the shapes of the world that had been my nest for 18 really special years.
The difference this morning was that I would not return to my bed in an old stone house at the end of a dirt street in a small town. I didn't know it, but I wouldn't have the chance to climb into bed until 3 AM the next morning, excuse me - 0300 hours the next morning.
Breakfast was quiet, almost somber. Mom was an hour from being an empty-nester and I was making the jump from teen aged civilian to Seaman Recruit, United States Coast Guard. I remember being surprisingly calm about it. We drove ten miles along rural roads that I knew like the back of my hand to the bus station in the next county. At 7 AM, I was still in civilian mode, I gave Mom a hug goodbye and climbed aboard a southbound Greyhound. I wasn't Joe Buck leaving behind a dusty town in Texas, but I was certainly as ignorant and naive.
Three hours and four or five bus stations later I arrived in Detroit. Not the crime infested, decaying, city of 675,000 residents that are looking for a way to flee, but the exciting city of 1.2 million working Americans that enjoy living at the center of the automobile industry. A country kid could stand on the street to stand, mouth agape, without fear of being pushed down and mugged. It was over 40 years before I returned to Detroit and I still can't believe how quickly that city went to hell, or more correctly became a vision of hell in America.
It took me a moment to figure out how to hail a taxi. I gave him the address I sought and he just smiled and said, "Drafted, eh?" At first I was confused, "Excuse me?" "You have been drafted," the cabbie shouted, "you are going to the induction center, right?" For the first time in my life I had to explain that I was a Coast Guardsman. Yes, it was a military service. Yes, we went to boot camp. Yes, we sometimes carried a rifle, and no, THANKFULLY, I probably wasn't going to end up in VietNam. Whew, that was an exchange I hadn't expected. Two minutes later I'm dropped in the middle of the street, directly across from the induction center. The taxi driver held up a hand to stop traffic in the opposite lane and I walked safely across the busy street.
I walked into the building, went to the second floor, and reported in. The scary part was that it wasn't a Coastie that greeted me. What in the hell is going on here? Was I being taken in by a press gang? I was told to "...stand over there, you are going with those guys." Panic avoided, about 80 young men were being sworn in today at 1300 hours. Six of us were going into the Coast Guard and the rest were draftees and volunteers being sucked into the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.
We Coasties were obvious. We were not mixing with the others because we were all volunteers heading to a far different military career path. In a few moments a Coast Guard Yeoman First Class came up to give us our orders packet, tickets to Philadelphia, and instructions on what to do when we got there.
Moments later we all gathered in rows, oops, we stood at attention in ranks and were told to raise our right hand. I knew the drill, I had already done this at the Navy Reserve Center in Grand Rapids back in November. But this one counted. The recruits recited the Oath of Enlistment in unison, but each of us was making an individual pledge that would guide us from that day till the day were would leave the service.
The rest of that day is almost a total blur. We loaded into two taxis for the ride to the airport, sheepishly reported in at the gate, and quietly answered questions when asked by civilians. Yes, were are together, we are Coast Guardsmen heading for training. No, it isn't a civil service job. Yes, we have men in VietNam and NO, we don't expect to be going there.
I remember the names of only two of the five guys that went with me on that trip. We spent the next nine weeks together as recruits and then dispersed to the fleet. I haven't had contact with any of them since graduation review. Two of the 50 men in my recruit company, "Mike 72", are still friends that remain in contact with me. The others may be dead, oh no, they may have "crossed over the bar." Or they are pausing this morning to reflect upon a day, fifty years ago, when they pledged to support and defend, obey and follow.
I can't determine at the moment if this journal entry is a remembrance of an act of faith and allegiance, a wistful look back to the earliest days of my youth, or just another attempt to justify and quantify a life that took so many unusual twists and unexpected turns. I am proud that I served, and will never be swayed from the devotion I gave to the Oath of Enlistment. But, did I make the proper decision to enlist?
Many veterans that made the decision to serve can't pinpoint an exact moment when their time in uniform was justified. Most Coast Guardsmen can. My moment came in the middle of the night during a January gale in 1975. A voice came over the radio asking for help and it seems I was the only one to hear it. Twenty-seven merchant sailors in the middle of Lake Michigan were aboard a sinking freighter and the Captain's first action was to pick up a radio microphone and say, "Hello, Coast Guard ... "
I would do it again. I wouldn't like the time away from home any better than I did then. I would still bitch and moan as all men and women in service always do. I would still put on my dress uniform with pride. I would still hold on to the belief that serving is better than doing everything possible to avoid service.
I didn't pick up a rifle to fire against an enemy. I never jumped from an aircraft onto a battlefield. I was never spat upon by civilians and labeled as a baby killer - that would have devastated me. I really didn't do anything more than follow the Oath.
Fifty years. That is about 4,700 summer sunrises. I can't remember more than a handful of those other 4,700 mornings. I guess that makes the sunrise of July 15, 1968 a special day worthy of a journal entry.