My first year of college was spent at the California Maritime Academy – a paramilitary school for merchant marines (the military’s FedEx) – and it was paid for by the United States Navy. The plan: major in mechanical engineering, get college paid for in exchange for becoming a Naval Officer, then join Special Operations.
Though the campus was gorgeous and overlooked the San Francisco Bay (that was the view from my dorm room up there), I couldn’t bring myself to be okay with a student body of 850. My graduating class in high school had 800, and that’s not including the 400 kids in my year that didn’t pass, so I had grown accustomed to a certain level of anonymity. Also, it was about 80% men, and I like the ladies too much for that ratio.
Again, I loved and excelled in ROTC. My unit was composed of students from Cal Maritime, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and Stanford, and we met in Berkeley for classes, drill, and Physical Training (PT) once a week. I loved my unit, and I maintained relationships with many of the people in it for many years.
I traveled with them to Reno to judge NJROTC units from Nevada. I traveled with them to Memphis to participate in an armed drill competition. I participated in field exercises throughout Northern California. I loved all of it, despite my characteristic comical whining.
Simultaneously, my roommate for my first semester away from home happened to be the coke dealer for the school. A conservative estimate would be about $10,000 of product in and out of that room while I was in it. Self restraint has never been my strong suit, so I took full advantage of its availability. On any given day, you could scrape about a half gram off the mirror on his desk for free, but with the Navy’s stipend and money from my parents, I was able to afford a fair amount. I’d snort as much as my funds and nepotism would allow, then I’d take six Advil PM or freebase Oxycontin to come back down far enough to sleep.
I was chasing highs in whatever directions I could at that point. I tried acid for the first time that year. I also bought about 25 pills of MDMA in one go, and did it with such regularity that I started to have bouts of inexplicable blindness where my vision would go completely black during physical exertion (not ideal if you’re training to be in the military). The only thing that limited usage was the weekly potential for randomized drug tests, and by some miracle I always passed when I was tested.
One night, my coke-laden prattling worried my step aunt who was the same age as me, and she told my parents. I was livid with her, but in retrospect it was the right call, as it allowed me the degree of separation I needed to survive my first year of college.
During the summer, I went down to San Diego to spend a month learning about the many things the Navy has to offer an aspiring officer. I spent one week learning about surface warfare that included a night on a ship, shooting guns off the side into the ocean, seeing a shell as big as my leg fired over the horizon, and watching a helicopter land on the deck. Then I spent a week learning about submarine warfare, and spent a night under the Pacific. Then I spent a week with the aviators and got to fly in an F-18 Fighter Jet with a pilot that had just been selected for the Blue Angels. Then I spent a week with the Marines shooting guns and physically exhausting myself in the most rewarding ways.
I loved each and every step of that journey, but I loved my artsy girlfriend and the allure of a debaucherous life more. I transferred to UC Davis, and opted out of ROTC. I abandoned the dream I had had for the better part of five years for something that I’m sure seemed very enticing at the time. I can’t recall my reasoning, but I can say assuredly that once I’ve decided something, I power forward.
I gotta say, that’s a much easier way to live when you don’t spend any time looking back. Damn pursuit of writing in my later years…