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The pleasure of being lost

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During the time I was in the Navy I went on two six-month Mediterranean cruises on the USS Saratoga. Whenever we pulled into a port, no matter where it was, Naples or Malaga or Izmir or wherever, most of my shipmates would immediately head for the nearest bar to get drunk, or seek out the local prostitutes, or both. I wanted to fit in and be just “one of the guys” but I couldn’t bring myself to join them in these banal escapades, which seemed dreary and pointless to me. But I didn’t know what else to do so whenever we were in port, so I went out walking by myself, exploring, mostly at random. I found, strangely enough, that the times when I felt most alive and most at peace were the times when I was keenly aware of being all alone in a strange place, in a foreign culture among people who spoke a language incomprehensible to me. At such times the world was beautiful and strange. As for example walking along a seawall late at night in Majorca, looking out into the dark sea and sky and seeing tiny stitches of distant lightning and feeling an extraordinary sense of peacefulness. Or climbing up a high hill on the outskirts of Barcelona and watching the sun go down. Or wandering the back alleys of Split until late into the night, all alone, unafraid, and feeling content to be simply walking with no destination. I relished the strange feeling of being lost in a world that I didn’t understand, of not belonging anywhere in particular. When you are lost the whole world becomes your home.

Onboard

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[1973-1977] The ship was monumentally huge but inside it everything, with the exception of the hangar deck (where they stored the aircraft), seemed crowded and cramped. Most of the passageways were narrow and in many of them you had to duck your head to avoid bumping into pipes and conduits that passed overhead. So as soon as I reported on board I started to feel claustrophobic.

Life on the ship consisted of long, long hours of tedious work and crushing boredom. When I was not working there was really nothing to do so I just worked a lot, sometimes even more than the usual 12-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week at-sea work shift. As a neophyte technician in the ship’s data processing division I started out as a card-punch operator, basically just a tedious data-entry job, but was soon promoted to computer operator. Since there was really nothing else to do besides work, to amuse myself in my spare time I learned programming by reading Navy manuals, first assembler language and then COBOL.

When we were at sea the incoming work load for the data processing division was often more than our little group of technicians could handle, even with the 12-hour shifts. I worked extra hours trying to keep up, especially if there was a particularly urgent job in the works, which was often. I became used to functioning on not quite enough sleep and being chronically fatigued. When we were at sea I lost the sense of being a human. Most of the time I was like a machine, focused only on doing the work and not caring about anything else. I felt completely cut off from the world. I was probably suffering the psychological symptoms of prolonged sensory deprivation from working so many long hours for many days (sometimes weeks) without respite, in cramped and crowded conditions without seeing the sun or the sky. There was nothing to look forward to. For me it was all about just trying to get by from one day to the next. The guys I worked with were a very mixed lot. Some of them were pretty smart guys and some of them were appalling, at least at first. There were men who had spent time in prison for armed robbery, there were drug dealers, pimps, and some who seemed to have some serious mental problems. But in time I ceased to make distinctions among them, because there was simply no point in doing so, and I just accepted everyone for what they were.

I complained a lot about shipboard life, all of us did. But there was another side of it for me. I think that in a way it was what I secretly wanted, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was 19 years old and still suffering from the long-term effects of my father’s bullying and psychological abuse. I was alienated from my father but more importantly I was also alienated from myself. I felt a profound, instinctive urge to try to escape from my own life. Being on the ship was actually an ideal way to do that. I had indeed escaped from my life into something strange and difficult. I was no longer the person I had been, and I wasn’t sure yet who the new person was that I was turning into.

The ship

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After boot camp I went to Navy data processing technician school in San Diego. This was in the summer of 1973. Microcomputers had not yet been invented and computers, even the simplest ones, were huge machines that took up entire rooms. Almost all data processing was done using punched cards. I learned how to operate a card-punch machine to enter data and how to use a card-sorter and a card interpreter (which read the holes in the cards and printed the text meaning of the holes on the cards). I also learned how to operate a primitive shipboard computer called the Univac 1500.

At the end of data processing school we students had the opportunity to request, with no guarantee of our choice being granted, what duty station we’d like to be sent to. My first choice was Naval Air Station, Keflavik, Iceland. I had been thinking that I’d rather not have to go to sea and so shore duty would be preferable if I could get it, although you might very well ask why I had joined the Navy at all if I had an objection to going to sea. I have no answer for that. Apparently at the time I joined up I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. Anyway I thought I was being clever by choosing a place like Keflavik, Iceland because I figured a place like that was probably someplace that NO ONE wanted to go, so if they saw I deliberately chose the place they would certainly pick me to go there, right? I felt confident that they would send me to Keflavik, so much so that I went to the base library and started looking up what information I could find about Iceland, which turned out to be a fascinating country. I even tried to learn a few words of the Icelandic language.

When my orders came I was mightily disappointed to see that I was not going to Iceland after all. I had been assigned to the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier whose home port was Mayport, a small town on the northeast coast of Florida near Jacksonville. Although the ship’s home port was in Florida it was at that time undergoing a long overhaul and was in drydock at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

I reported to the ship on a very hot day in late summer, walking through the grimy, sooty, gray shipyard feeling ridiculous in my bright white dress uniform, with sweat dripping off of me and struggling to carry my seabag containing all my uniform clothes over my shoulder. I found the ship in its drydock berth. I had never seen anything that big before. It was a vast dark gray monster, resting on enormous blocks in the drydock. There were many men working on the hull in various places, accompanied by smoke, steam, the glare of many welding torches and the sounds of loud machinery and grinding tools. I walked along the pier adjoining the ship for a while before I finally found the place where I could come aboard. I climbed up the ramp and stopped and showed my military ID card and my paperwork to the officer of the watch. I knew I was beginning a new phase of my life, probably a very strange and difficult one, and that I was entering a world to which I really did not belong, not at all.

Into the Navy

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I was on active duty in the U. S. Navy from May 1973 to May 1977. I had not originally intended to join the military. In fact when I was young I had always had a great aversion to all kinds of authoritarian institutions, especially the military which I vaguely imagined to be like my father only on a much larger scale. But the real world was not inclined to adapt itself to my personal likes and dislikes. Back then the Vietnam War was still going on and even though the Pentagon had just begun a long, slow process of troop reduction in Vietnam, the fact was that they were still drafting people into the Army. And at that point it was hard to tell how much longer the war might go on. Though the American military forces were supposedly drawing down in Vietnam, it seemed quite possible that the inscrutable, shadowy military leaders in the Pentagon might change their minds and decide to go back full force into the war again. Who could tell what might happen?

I turned 19 in 1972 and became eligible for the draft. At that time they were drafting young men according to a lottery system. A date was picked at random and all the 19 year old men who were born on that date and who eligible to be drafted were called up into the Army. Then a second date was picked at random and all the 19 year-olds born on that date were drafted, and a third date was picked, and the process continued until the Army had acquired its needed quota of new soldiers. They actually picked the dates by drawing little slips of paper out of a rotating drum, and you could watch the process on television.

My birthdate is July 21. When the next draft lottery was held after I turned 19, I was of course keenly interested in the results of this lottery because more than anything I did not want to go into the military, to which I felt a profound antipathy. The lottery was held and my birthdate was the fifth one picked. My heart sank when I learned of this. I knew I was going to be drafted, it was inevitable. I broke the news to my father, who seemed irritated and impatient with me as if it were somehow my fault that my birthdate got picked in the lottery.

I think he didn’t mind so much the idea of me joining the military but he was against me going to war in Vietnam, which he thought was a war that had no purpose. He himself had been in the Navy in the South Pacific in World War Two and was proud of his Navy service. He wasn’t opposed on principle to going into combat but he thought to go into combat and be placed in danger for no good reason, such as in Vietnam, was stupid, which was one of the very few things that he and I agreed on.

I decided to look into alternate types of military service, something not in the Army. Hopefully there would be less, perhaps even NO, chance of going into combat if I joined the Air Force or the Navy. I talked to an Air Force recruiter and a Navy recruiter. I got the impression that the Navy perhaps had better service schools than the Air Force so I picked the Navy, foolishly not stopping to consider that this meant that I would probably have to go to sea. When I signed up the recruiter asked me what type of technical specialty I wanted to go into. At the time I was becoming curious about computers and data processing, having taken just one elementary course in data processing at the local community college, so I chose the Navy Data Processing Technician school. This became the start of my “career,” if you could call it that, in the computer technology industry, from which I finally retired in 2015.

But first I had to go to Navy boot camp, and get through it, a prospect that filled me with dread. I entered Basic Training at the Naval Training Center, San Diego, in May of 1973. I was terrified. I was a severely neurotic kid, so riddled with chronic, generalized anxiety I couldn’t think straight, scared of everything, and with serious psychological issues concerning authority. I didn’t really understand authority, it felt alien and irrational to me and basically antithetical to my nature. I had serious doubts about my ability to function in such a system as the U. S. Navy. Would I have some kind of breakdown, go completely bonkers when subjected to the pressures of living and working within this (to me) strange and illogical authoritarian system? On the surface it would appear to be no big deal. Navy Basic Training consisted of a lot of marching, and going to classes where we learned about how the Navy works, things like military etiquette, conventions of shipboard life, firefighting and damage control, first aid and other practical topics. Of course we also were subjected to a great deal of harassment and verbal abuse from the trainers, especially from the company commander, a petty officer first class, a rednecky kind of guy who spoke with a lisp because he had lost his two front teeth (according to him in a bar fight in Puerto Rico). He was blustery and impulsive and gave off an impression of barely-contained violence. He screamed at us a lot. I was genuinely frightened of him. I thought he might be crazy and that there was a possibility he might actually kill me. I wondered, does the Navy know that they have this crazy nut working as a boot camp company commander? We recruits were screamed at pretty much all the time, and it was difficult for me to deal with it. At one point I even approached the company commander and asked him if I could get put out of the Navy because I was not psychologically fit for it. He declined. I think he actually took pity on me at that point and, uncharacteristically for someone I had taken to be a neanderthal and a savage, took the time to explain to me why it wouldn’t be possible for me to get out of the Navy. At that point he actually seemed, momentarily, like a pretty sensible person.

Much later, after boot camp it was explained to me by other Navy people I met that the kind of psychological tricks and the techniques of intimidation that were practiced on the recruits by the trainers were intended to break down the recruits’ resistance and make them more pliable and obedient, eradicating any tendencies toward individuality that might lead to rebellion. I could understand that from a strategic point of view, although it also seemed obvious to me that some of the trainers got a certain amount of sadistic satisfaction from treating the recruits like shit, and that didn’t really seem like discipline to me. It just looked like sadism under the guise of discipline. Much later in my life I came to see that sadism masquerading as discipline is a common theme throughout our American culture, in fact it seems to be a longstanding American tradition.

Looking back on that boot camp experience after so many years, I see clearly how laughably absurd it was, how very stressed I became over something that was really just a lot of trivialities covered over by a thin facade of bluster and tough talk. I can see that what they actually did to us was not so awful, but they made us think that they were doing something awful, or were about to do something awful. It was mostly about trying to scare us and intimidate us. It was just a game after all.

It took me a few years to realize that there are many similar games going on in various aspects of our society, and that we should try to be alert and recognize them for what they are. Eventually, though it took me quite a while, I learned to stay mentally disconnected from such games and let them go on around me without my participation.

Sailing alone

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[1972]: Right after I graduated from high school my father moved our family from the east coast of Florida to the Florida panhandle. We lived in the little town of Gulf Breeze, a suburb of Pensacola. I enrolled at Pensacola Junior College. I did well enough in my classes when I was able to concentrate on them, but unfortunately my attentions and my focus fluctuated quite a bit. I variously considered majoring in art, philosophy, music, and math. I felt scattered out in all directions and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. Some days I just wanted to sit and read books–nothing that was relevant to the classes I should have been studying for unfortunately–and do nothing else. I spent a lot of time in the college library browsing their collections at random and reading bits and pieces of anything that looked strange and interesting, especially in philosophy, religion, literature, psychology, and art.

My father bought a small sailboat and gave my brother and me some rudimentary instructions on how to sail it. Our house was close to the Santa Rosa Sound, a huge long body of water that is part of a long inland waterway that parallels the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes my brother and I sailed together on the Sound but I preferred sailing by myself. For years I had had an instinctive compulsion for wandering alone, but now it had expanded out onto the water. When I was on the sailboat I was wandering free, still following my old instinct to go farther, to always be trying to escape from wherever I was.

Sometimes when sailing the boat, if conditions were just right, I slipped unexpectedly into a state of mind that I could only describe as a state of extraordinary naturalness. At such a time I felt clearly focused (something indeed unusual for me, a perennial scatterbrain) but relaxed, and at the same time keenly aware of every nuance of the wind and the water’s movement through my contact with the mainsail sheet and the tiller. I felt poised and balanced in the middle of my life, as if I had always been there like that, sitting on the edge of the cockpit with the sheet wrapped around my wrist and my other hand holding the tiller. I felt synchronized with the world around me, instead of my mind either lagging a little behind it or impatiently pushing ahead of it, as was my wont. For this brief time I suffered no anxieties and no self-hatred, and harbored no false ideas about myself. In fact I had no ideas about myself at all.

I would come to remember those moments sometimes much later in my life when I was going through periods of great difficulty and emotional anguish (usually self-inflicted, I admit). I would remember that it was possible to find in myself authentic peace and strength. I knew it, because I had experienced it for myself on that boat. It was a tiny sliver of hope that helped to keep me going during some of the dark times of my life.

Weirdo

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When I was a youngster there were many things about my father that I found difficult to understand and accept. One of the most difficult things about him was his peculiar obsession with the issue of conformism. He frequently lectured me on the importance of conforming to conventional social roles and to the expectations of others, and of avoiding being strange. It was clear that he had a great deal of anxiety about me being insufficiently conformist, though I was mystified as to exactly why he was so concerned about it. Evidently he thought there was something wrong with me, but what, exactly?

“You’ve got to conform, Eric, you’ve got to conform!” he insisted over and over. He seemed to be particularly afraid that I would turn out to be, in his parlance, a “weirdo.” I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant although it was clear from the way he said it that whatever it was, it was something terribly shameful. He also apparently had a lot of concerns about whether my brother and I were sufficiently masculine. I suspected that in his mind he tended to conflate being a “weirdo,” i.e. a noncomformist, with being (at least a latent) homosexual, and of course for him and other heterosexual men of his generation being homosexual was the most shameful thing of all. So I think he had this fear that if I didn’t conform sufficiently to societal norms, that once I was on the path of weirdness there was a danger I would inevitably descend a slippery slope of increasing weirdness until I was finally a total misfit unable to fit into normal society, and perhaps eventually even became gay. This was something he was ever vigilant about, confronting me every time he detected the slightest sign of nonconformist behavior, such as having my hair a little too long or reading a lot of books or showing an interest in intellectual or cultural matters. Why did my father have so much anxiety about this? I still don’t know.

My father’s fears eventually were realized, at least to some extent. I didn’t turn out to be gay, but I did turn out to be a rather strange person in some ways, probably stranger than he could ever have imagined. I’ve always had a great enthusiasm for strange books, strange films, strange art, strange music, and strange ideas. Nowadays I write poems, I play unusual musical instruments, and I like to study odd, arcane things in my spare time just for the fun of it. I’m proud to be a weirdo. I’ve found that my unconventional interests and ways of thinking, far from being debilitating, have in the long run probably been beneficial for me, promoting a kind of inner flexibility and resilience to be able to deal with all kinds of situations and all kinds of people, and the ability to examine my own life critically. Not only that but I now suspect, after many years of observing people, that deep down inside everyone is a something of a weirdo in one way or another. It’s just that most people are afraid to come right out with it and let others know how truly strange they are deep down in their souls. Instead of being afraid we should all be celebrating our strangeness, our natural human diversity that makes life so very interesting.

Discovering poetry

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[1970]: It happened when I was a student at Titusville High School. I was browsing in the school library, and out of curiosity pulling out a random book from the shelves here and there and reading a bit of it and putting it back, just to see if I might find anything particularly interesting this way. By this chance process I happened to come across a thin book of poems called In the Mecca by Gwendolyn Brooks. Perusing this book I was immediately struck by the intensity and liveliness of the author’s language. At the time I knew nothing about Gwendolyn Brooks and knew nothing about poetry other than a few poems that were part of the required readings for English class in school. But this poetry was nothing like that. At the time I was so naïve that I didn’t even realize that the author was black, or that what she was writing about was the culture of poor urban black people. What was important about the book to me was that it had a sense of vitality about it and a feel of inner truth, a recognition of people’s inner humanity. Being a repressed and deeply neurotic kid, to encounter this book was an awakening for me. I began to feel for the first time that literature was alive, that it could illuminate and celebrate the inner lives of human beings. This book was an inspiration, a spark that ignited what was to be my lifelong passion for literature in general and for poetry in particular. Eventually I became a poet myself. I still feel a debt of gratitude to Gwendolyn Brooks. It was she who started me on the practice of poetry, a practice which over the years has helped me to be able to look deeper into my own life, and to expand my sense of my own identity. I wish I could have met Ms. Brooks.

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