A Pilgrim in an Unholy Land
Define irony. Irony is spending a paragraph complaining that you have nothing inspiring to write about, then suddenly you life turns upside-down and you’re so crazy busy that you don’t have time to write. It’s been a busy several weeks down here on the bayou. Actually, I have spent a majority of that time away from the city of swamps and mosquitoes the size of condors. I now have many adventures and characters to regale and mesmerize you for hours. So many, in fact, that I am somewhat overwhelmed and don’t know when or how I’ll ever get it into words. But my wife, who is the more level-headed of the two of us, told me to take it slow.
“One at a time, Ben,” she says in her sweet, childish little voice, “Break them down into shorter, more tolerable stories… besides, you don’t want to scare your readers away with a dissertation.”
More tolerable? So I guess this is the first installment in a series on my March adventures.
In order to truly appreciate this story, we must go all the way back to the fall of 2005. I applied for the advanced education program at the last minute in hopes of obtaining a Master ’s Degree in oceanography compliments of the U.S. Government (read: tax-payers). In reality, I was desperately seeking my career niche after a heartbreaking bout of rejection from the flight school selection panel (this is a story unto its own… ask me about it some other time- this is not the time/place). This particular degree/program would open up some career opportunities that would keep me occupied long enough to bring retirement into the foreseeable future- and after that I could improvise. When the advanced education selection panel released its picks, I was listed as the third alternate. Assignment officers two- Ben nil (if you were to keep score).
For a brief moment, I considered my options if I were to get out, but the thought of civilian life scared me. Living in one place and doing the same thing for too long makes me antsy. After my second crushing defeat, I turned to the last bastion of hope for my military career. The reason I joined in the first place- to be at “the pointy end of the spear”. For me, that meant going back to sea. The wife and I had long thoughtful discussions about this. Being the devoted wife she is (one of the few in a dying breed), my wife would never stand in the way of my career. Being the devoted husband I am, I knew by her reluctance to express her chagrin that we were treading on thin ice. The wife is new to the military and wasn’t excited about the few times I had to travel on business as it is. She especially did like the part where I drag her to a strange place thousands of miles from home then left her for weeks at a time. I approached with caution:
- “It’s only two years… we can do anything for only two years. It will be over before you know it”
- “If we’re going to have kids, I would rather do this now than when they are older”
I was feeling backed into a corner and the only way I could buy more time was to justify one more assignment to the wife and hope she jumped aboard- which, of course, she did (God bless her). …Although, I think I may have promised her my first born.
I carefully crafted my “dream sheet” to inform the assignment officer that I wanted to be assigned to a ship that stayed close to home. Meanwhile…
In January I received a call from an assignment officer who asked me if I was still interested in graduate school.
“Admissions officers two- Ben one,” I thought aloud.
“Oh, nothing… Are you serious? Do you even have to ask?”
Apparently he did, because the two alternates before me turned him down. Two men’s lost opportunity makes a third alternate a lucky bastard. I knew better than to turn this opportunity down. My dad always told me “education is something no one can take away from you” (i.e. you have a chance to earn a free degree- you take it). After a brief conversation with the wife, I accepted that same day and immediately began to research schools.
So I began the long arduous process of applying to schools. The University of Washington, University of Rhode Island and Oregon State were among my top picks. To make it worse, January is late in the game to be applying for graduate school, so I had to call and beg many of them to waive their application deadlines with the assurance that my tuition would not be an issue and rush them my application package. Shortly after I completed the UW application, I received an email saying the admissions staff was “very impressed” by my application and wanted me to visit. Under normal circumstances I don’t think I would have accepted. I lived in Seattle for two years after the Academy and I knew enough about the area that I couldn’t justify the expense of traveling there to “see if it was right for me”. However, they offered to pay to fly me to Seattle for the two day visit and put me up in a European-style hotel near campus. How could I turn them down? At this point, I was confident I would be accepted to UW. After all, who would go through the expense of flying some guy from Houston to Seattle and put him up in a hotel if they weren’t genuinely interested in him. I no longer felt compelled to woo UW with my redeeming qualities and academic excellence. This confidence led me to assume UW would be under the magnifying glass, not me. This brings us to March…
I touched down in Seattle in the afternoon and caught a shuttle to the “European-style hotel” eager to kick off my shoes, recline on my hotel bed and watch some hotel cable TV (I got rid of my cable after marring the wife). The entrance was between a café and a store on the street level and you had to hike up to the fourth floor to check-in (or so the signs indicated).
“That’s funny,” I pondered as I lugged my luggage up four flights of stairs, “I wonder where the elevator or bellhop is? And where is the handicap access?”
It was at this point that I began to realize that “European-style hotel” is Seattle-speak for “youth hostel”. My room consisted of a small-lumpy mattress on a frame, a sink, a cracked oval mirror handing on the wall and a creepy picture of a naked European-style toddler harassing a small dog. I panicked and checked behind the door for the shower, TV and toilet, but there was nothing- just empty space. I spent the next several minutes pacing over a creaky floor trying to compose myself. I glanced repeatedly at my watch. It was only four in the afternoon Pacific Time. What on earth am I supposed to do until bedtime, read a book? If first impressions are everything, UW had a lot of make-up work to do on me.
Later that evening, two drunk girls checked-in to the room next to mine. How do I know? Because the walls in “European-style hotels” are paper-thin and drunk girls are fairly vocal about their current state of mind. Now, I consider myself to be a fairly open-minded guy and ordinarily, I would not be opposed to being in the hostel room next to two drunken girls. However, noises began to come from their room. At first I wondered if one or both of them might be in some form of “distress”. Instead of staring at the walls I debated whether I should seek help or not. The noises emerged as sporadic and periodic “panting” between bouts of mumbled conversation between the two. It occurred to me that one (or both) of them could be seriously ill… but it also occurred to me that they may be engaged in some form of “lesbonic” activity. I resisted the thought, of course. I am a happily married man, after all. But I could only resist thinking what any other warm-blooded male would’ve thought about two drunk girls panting in the room next door at a youth hostel for so long. Regardless, the debate quickly ended a short time later when the police showed up. I heard the two male officers quickly back out of the room and called for a female police officer when they were confronted with two drunk girls, at least one of which was not wearing pants. The female officers arrived and sparred with the belligerent one, who seemed indignant about the implication that she was not handling the situation.
“She just needs to sleep it off!” She repeated.
Meanwhile the paramedics carted the dazed and incapacitated one out to an ambulance on a hotel chair to have her stomached pumped. Who needs TV? And I thought I was going to be bored! After I was sure that there was no chance of lesbians checking into the room next door, I made sure the coast was clear and made my way to the communal shower for a long, cold shower. On my way back to the room I noticed the smell of vomit wafting down the hall. It only became stronger as I approached my room. I locked the door, turned out the lights and crawled into the lumpy bed. In all the excitement, I hadn’t noticed the gentle, rhythmic bass thumping coming from the café/bar below my room… it lasted until 4am.
This is a good place to stop for now. The story continues from there, of course, but my time is short and I suspect there is enough suspense left to keep you coming back for more. I’m sorry I haven’t been more faithful to my writing, but the wife and I have been terribly busy over the past couple months. We are getting ready to make a big move. I promise I will write more, but I just can’t say when. It may be several weeks before you hear from me, but keep checking back from time to time. I'll be here... or maybe there.
And that’s the news as it happens here in Texas... where homosexuality is still queer.