Your Force, My force, the Air Force: Chapter 1
As a teenager, I sat alone in the living room, on the carpet, in front of the television that had no remote control watching Operation Desert Storm unfold. My friends and family were worried because I had already enlisted and was due to report to BMTS (basic military training school / “boot camp”) in just a few months. I didn’t feel scared. I didn’t worry. I was fascinated by war. Was my fate to be like all those soldiers I’d seen in the movies? Would I die a hero? Would I come home from the war with a purple heart like my mother’s father did? Would it make me an alcoholic like he was before he died right in front of me on the sidewalk when I was seven? Would I see exotic places and travel the world and defend my country? Hindsight. Some “no”. Some “yes”. But how did I get to that moment, my young eyes staring at the news, glued to it for days?
Amarillo is a small town. In many ways. I think there was about 150,000 people there when I graduated. I could be wrong. I usually am. Four-ish main high schools that mattered when talking about my peers. I grew up on the Hispanic side of town and learned all the Spanish cuss words early on. The guys had me go up to a girl I was infatuated with and say, “Tú quieras mi verga.” She was beautiful. Stunning, long black hair, big rosy cheeks, beautiful eyes and red lips and a smile that made my breath stop. The guys told me it was a way of telling her I liked her in Spanish. I summoned up all the courage I ever had, after a shitty childhood, and put on my bravest face. She’d hinted at liking me over the years. This was my chance to finally have a girlfriend. I repeated the line in my head over and over as my heart pounded in my chest. My cheeks were red with emotion, she turned to look at me and smiled. That smile.
It was the last time I would ever see it. I spoke. She slapped me. HARD. I couldn’t move. I didn’t understand. I heard the guys laughing and falling all over themselves. A piece of my childhood died in that moment. I walked out of the classroom and cried silently as I walked home.
When I got home my Aunt JoAnn and mom were sitting at the kitchen table getting high and having a drink. No, I never got picked up from school. JoAnn wasn’t really my aunt but her and my mom grew up together and I called her that. She was half Mexican and half Native American. Very pretty long, straight hair down to her waist and both her and my mom had been girlfriends of my real father, I learned later in life. She spoke Spanish. Enough, at least. I asked her what the guys had told me to say, quietly embarrassed. She laughed a big laugh and told me they’d told me to tell Leticia (her name was just as beautiful to me) to “Suck my dick.”
I went to my room and cried. I never spoke to Leticia again. Aunt JoAnn died from AIDS and a crack addiction later in life. She was a beautiful, hippy, witchy soul that deserved better. I was glad she knew my father that I never met because she was a second mom to me. I’m crying again now, while writing this memory.
I wanted out of Amarillo. Fuck that small town. No cool jobs. I wanted to escape. So I talked to a Marine recruiter, thinking my 6’1″, 135 pound self that couldn’t do one pull up was going to grow up to be a badass. The Marine recruiter promised I would become military police and work in an embassy in a beautiful foreign country and do great things. He was strong and badass and I believed every word he said. I was only 17 and my mom had to sign away her son to the government. After spending an afternoon with the recruiter one weekend, he took me to get my social security card and some other documentation and got me lunch at McDonald’s, I came home and excitedly told my mom of all the adventures I was going to go on.
She said no. She dropped me like she had kicked me in the balls right there in the kitchen. She said she’d agree to the Air Force but not the Marines. I was confused. Angry. Frustrated. I went to my room. Laid down on my waterbed. Stuck a cassette tape of Iron Maiden in and listened LOUDLY so she’d hear the metal coming from my angry heart. I went back to the recruiter and told him what she said. I had already taken the ASVAB military career testing through him and scored very high in electronics. My only experience in electronics was in my high school computer-aided drafting classes where I also dreamed of becoming an architect. I really, really wanted to build homes and make people’s dreams come true of the perfect spaces to live in.
The Marine recruiter was pissed. Visibly. He told me it would be less than a year until I turned 18 so I should just stop speaking to mom until I turned 18 or she gave in to my demands. I walked out quietly after we were done talking and felt sick to my stomach at the thought of treating my mom that way. The next door over in that small shopping strip mall was the Air Force recruiting office. I looked back at the Marines sign. Then turned and looked at the Air Force sign. I walked in, nervously, like I was cheating on an exam, and sat down to talk to a very laid-back, casual, matter-of-fact AF recruiter.
We talked for a good while and I explained that I had taken the ASVAB and was ready to go after I graduated and about what the Marines had promised. I saw a look on his face. An honest look of disappointment.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I can’t promise you an exotic job or dreams of traveling the world. But I can promise a good career and money for college and a great experience for your life.” Years later I blew through the college money, stupidly, and never forgot how refreshing his words were. He took me out to lunch and we talked for a while. I agreed to come back the next Saturday and do practice marching drills in the parking lot and meet some other recruits. I did. It was fun. Went home and told mom I’d agree to her terms. She probably hugged me. I don’t remember her reaction.
When I had recently totaled my first car in a t-bone accident because I ran a red light flipping over a Foreigner cassette tape and not looking where I was going, a cop brought me home in a police car, my face cut up from the shattered glass and she turned as he explained, walked away to her bathroom and puked and cried. And I still enjoy run-on sentences if they’re in a single train of thought. To this day.
The Air Force recruiter gave me a “not guaranteed” career as security police, told me to gain 10 pounds with some beer and pasta over the next few months. So I sat there on the living room floor carpet, eating, watching the Gulf War unfold, thinking about all the things I was about to experience. Almost fucking drooling at the thought of adventure. He was right. Nothing is guaranteed in life. We can hope. We can plan. We can do. But what happens is what happens. I didn’t understand that at 17. But I was about to get a hard lesson. Very hard. My mom came in and met him and signed her son away. I graduated in June of 1991 and weeks later I was on an airplane to San Antonio, Texas. On July 30th, 1991. In the fucking heat of south Texas. But that next morning, 17 years old, on my own for the first time in my life, is another chapter.
Yesterday I watched my 17 year old son drive off with his prom date and I think back to when I was his age. Full of wonder and hope and excitement. I was, indeed.