I was heartbroken when my mother divorced my stepfather and hooked up again with my father. They say love is blind and, in Mother’s case, I think it was deaf too. My father wasn’t a particularly nice person, and my standard of living took a huge hit. Instead of a clean aluminum trailer parked in a shady trailer park somewhere on the West Coast, I found myself in a run-down shanty home adjacent to the city dump in Everett, Washington. That was the lowest point of my life. Well, almost. There was that time when my father took me and a friend camping in the Cascade Mountains and dropped us off at the Boy Scout Camp gate near the snow line. After he drove off, we discovered the campout was scheduled for the following week. We were stranded and it was cold.
We had no food, but we were prepared; we were Boy Scouts. We picked berries and, after dickering with the owner of a cabin about a mile from the camp, managed to trade a large coffee can full of berries for a rabbit. I’m not the Naked and Afraid type, but I can attest that a half-cooked rabbit can be a wonderful treat after four days without protein. We survived and made the best of it. By the time the real camp began, we had already broken into one of the campsites and settled in. We were scout heroes for that week.
After my friend’s father picked us up at the end of the campout, I was dropped off at our house next to the dump. That’s when I discovered my parents had moved. We didn’t communicate much about things like that. I didn’t even know my mother had divorced my stepfather until after the fact. I knocked on a few doors until I found a neighbor who knew where my parents had gone. It took a while, but I finally got re-united with my family that evening. That I’d be home again someday apparently slipped their minds. We weren’t your typical close-knit family that talked about things.
My brother and sister had returned from relative exile, and my parents had purchased a small new house in a nice section of town where we could all live in reasonable comfort. The location was a great improvement over our former neighborhood, especially the smell, but it did have some downsides. For one, the home only had one bathroom, and my sister seemed to live in it. Also, there were no rats to shoot, and the kids in that neighborhood didn’t readily accept outsiders. I became a paperboy there, still somewhat an outcast, and I ended up with one of the best routes in town—the one where large homes overlooked Eliot Bay. Those homes were beautiful, and I knew then I wanted to live like they did—life on the edge, but in a good way. That was the last move I made until I left home to join the military.
I also discovered a new friend there, a friend I’d keep most of my life. He was a playful sort, and mischievous in marvelous ways. Despite the opportunities to go astray in my past, I never did. I was the obedient one. I did what I was told and scorned my brother and sister who had very different views of life than me. They grew up to be Democrats, and we still don’t agree on much. Anyway, until I met my new friend, I would NEVER have considered spending a Sunday afternoon in any way except flying model airplanes. He changed all that. He introduced me to girls.
Okay, I admit it, I was a late bloomer. I liked being in the honor society. I delivered papers and saved for college—the University of Washington—the school I selected when I was in the sixth grade. I was Beaver without the Leave it to Beaver family. It was awkward to be born non-union into a union family; even worse, a Republican. Again, I was an outcast.
My new friend did not hold my conservative shortcomings against me. Instead, he encouraged me to explore life from different angles. After he convinced me to trade my motorbike for an automobile, I bought a 1941 Austin for $125. That was a fortune back then, at least to me. The little convertible gave me a significant dose of freedom, and I loved it. I could date, and I loved that too.
I always liked girls. In fact, I had at least one girl for a friend as far back as I can remember, and I mean “friend” in the most sincere way. My new friend encouraged me to view girls differently than I had before. The girls also seemed to change in ways I could not have imagined and, about that time, I began to notice my mild allergic reaction to them. If I was around one for any length of time, my face would break out in pimples. That should have been a warning, but it wasn’t. Years passed before I realized the outbreaks were a reaction to menstrual cycles. Wouldn’t you know, those darn cycles synch up in a confined space…like a house with a wife and two female children. That’s when I knew my allergy was real. I looked terrible as a middle-aged man with monthly zits.
Dating for me didn’t begin in earnest until I was a high school sophomore. I didn’t know a lot of girls, but the ones I dated stayed with me for a long time. I only had two girlfriends from the time I started dating until my junior year, and that’s when I fell head over heels in love for the very first time. My friend led the way in that relationship too, encouraging me to try things I’d never considered before. He was right. More than being attracted to them, I became addicted.
My high school girlfriend and I planned our life together. We were like one person until my senior year at the University of Washington. That was a bad year for me. At the end of my junior year, I went crab fishing in Alaska like I always did, and sometime during that summer, when the float plane landed to deliver food and mail, I was dealt the most devastating blow I have ever experienced. Her letters were sweet and loving right up until the one that said, “I got married today.”
I cursed my friend then, and swore off women. I spent a lonely summer on the back deck of the boat pulling up crab pots. When I returned to school, I dove into my studies like never before. I kept the full beard I always grew during crab season (the one that kept the mosquito netting off my face), and became somewhat of a recluse. In prior years, I had worked during the school year at several jobs. Pulling wet lumber from the “green chain” at a local saw mill and assistant manager of a grocery store were almost full-time work, but my job at the drive-in theater was only part-time. During my senior year, however, I just studied. I had been an “A” student since my freshman year, but this was different. Now, studies were all-consuming; they became everything. My friend would occasionally encourage me to go out to meet people, but I ignored his every suggestion. It takes some time to overcome heartbreak.
I thought I was safe from the draft when I graduated with a draft-deferrable degree, and I intended to seek a cushy job in the nuclear industry. Back then, working in that industry wasn’t considered a bad thing, but the government intervened with a rude change of plans. Three days after I graduated, I received a draft notice from the Marines. Apparently Uncle Sam had not overlooked the little form I filled out in Junior High School asking, if I were ever drafted, what branch of service would I prefer? I must have felt macho that day, or just plain crazy, because I checked the little box labeled “Marine.” Who knew that simple act would return to haunt me so many years later?
The country was in the middle of the Vietnam War and Marines were dropping like prom dresses at an after-graduation party. I really didn’t want to join that group, so I did what any non-macho kid would do—I called around the state until I found an Air Force recruiter who would enlist me IMMEDIATELY. Fortunately for me, recruiters got “enlistment credits” for enlisting people with college degrees. The next day I joined the military, skillfully avoiding the draft, and a day later I stepped off an airplane in San Antonio, TX, on my way to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. My friend stayed in contact, but there wasn’t much time for him during basic training.
I had heard many horror stories about basic training. Most turned out to be false. Two of us in my training flight were older and wiser college guys and, for me, basic was more of a holiday than torture. Yes, we had to march in the blistering sun. Yes, we had to get up way early to exercise. Yes, we had to pick up cigarette butts and clean the dishes at the local military hospital. Yes, we had to clean latrines with toothbrushes. Yes, the drill instructor screamed in our faces and threatened us with violence if we didn’t begin marching on our left foot. There were some downsides, but there were upsides too…like a good night’s sleep and three square meals a day. For a college student who worked his way through that pain with almost no student debt, the military was a Godsend. It’s all about attitude, and I loved the sunshine, food and rest. I was from Washington State—sunshine was new to me.
I never returned to Washington State. Texas became my home. Maybe I could sense the state was turning Republican, and that I would fit in better there. Maybe I just liked the sun.
I applied for Officers Training School during my stint in basic training, passed the tests, and entered “casual status” while I waited for the next OTS class to begin. That was a good time in my life. I was assigned to the computer section where new inductees were processed into the Air Force. It was a great job in an air-conditioned room, and I had a natural affinity for the systems there, even if they were primitive. I did not know I would spend the rest of my productive life designing code and hardware.
Near the end of OTS, my friend showed up in Texas, and we began to hang out together again. Sometime during that period, my old college girlfriend called to tell me how sorry she was for getting married. She said she had made a huge mistake, and she wanted to join me in Texas. My friend intervened—that would only happen over his dead body. I trusted his instincts and, as it turned out, he was right. The last I heard she was married to husband number five; by now it’s probably husband number ten.
OTS was a cake-walk compared to basic training. Mostly we attended classes, learned military rules and laws, studied war strategy, and did physical training. I have never been in such good shape as I was then. For the first time in my life there wasn’t an ounce of fat on me, and I could run like the wind, even turning a mile in 4:55. I was the second fastest runner in that particular OTS class. My friend and I also got to know San Antonio a little. That was an eye opener. I discovered there is a lot of truth to the movie called An Officer and a Gentleman. Going to town was like sending a starving man to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
And then it happened. I met a really pretty Mexican girl at the OTS club. Even my friend loved her. We became so close over the next few weeks that I couldn’t bear to leave her behind when I got orders to leave. I spent every second I could with her, and a full military wedding followed, swords and all. My mother came down from Alaska for the ceremony and party, and the mariachi band played well into the night. The last thing I remember at that party was finding my mother and the maid under a relish table. Both were giggling and toasting with full cups of punch. Mother was a teetotaler, but she seemed to like the punch. I could tell she wasn’t reasoning well when she pulled on my new bride’s arm and elided, “Why do you want to leave this great party so soon?”
My life became routine after I married. I went to war. I went to work. I went to school. In between I traveled a lot. I had the most fascinating jobs imaginable in the Air Force. High-altitude particle sampling downwind of nuclear air bursts for one, part of a study to determine where to move cows in case of a nuclear war. Cows take up strontium 90 in their milk, so you wouldn’t want them grazing under a radioactive cloud. People, apparently, are less of an issue.
In Vietnam I worked in the Southeast Asia Weather Center where the computers were. Most of my career was involved with computers or going to school to learn more about computers and software design. I was a meteorologist, but never made a forecast. Instead, through my Masters and Ph.D. programs, I developed software models and displays used by others. By the time I retired, I had been involved with some of the most advanced atmospheric research hardware and software in the military.
I went to work for Lockheed Martin after leaving the military. I traveled a lot and performed systems/software engineering work. The highlight of my time at Lockheed was winning a Robert E. Gross Award for technical excellence in 1989, an honor awarded to only sixteen people out of around 80,000. The job required considerable time away from home and extreme hours. My wife of 26 years grew tired of the routine…and of me. During a prolonged divorce, my friend introduced me to an ambitious young configuration management engineer on one of my programs. She was very cute.
It was a stressful time. Divorce takes a toll. My oldest daughter moved with me to an apartment, and I began to re-build my life. That was harder than it sounds when most people already consider you over the hill. I was forty-nine. I chased after the cute configuration management engineer and learned a lot about a new kind of female, at least new to me. She wasn’t at all dependent on anyone and didn’t particularly like men. My friend still thought she was too cute to pass up, so I persisted even though she was semi-engaged to another. In my heart, I knew he wasn’t right for her.
My persistence eventually paid off when she told her boyfriend she wanted to try something new. I assumed that meant me, and we soon decided to date exclusively. Three years later, we jointly established a plan to reach retirement while we were still young enough to enjoy it. That was during a trip to Saint Maarten. In the prior three years, I had been to 24 countries and had taken her to 12 of them with me. We both knew there would be sacrifices, like curtailing travel, but we believed following our plan was the right thing to do. We were united in our belief that the only reason to work was to reach a point where we didn’t have to.
When I retired from Lockheed, my fiancé and I started a high-tech meteorological software company. I was president and she was my executive officer. Mostly I hired great people, provided direction, and traveled the world as a sales representative. My fiancé took care of all the routine business details and minded the store while I was out. The company did well and in just seven years we had met all the goals we had laid out in our original plan. By then, we had been dating for eleven years. We decided to marry after we left the company. Our subsequent wedding wasn’t a big affair—just her and her sister, me and the judge. We were married two months after we retired for the final time.
My lifelong friend began to feel poorly sometime around my 60th birthday. He just didn’t have the pep and energy he had as a youth. I began to suspect that this vibrant individual, my lifetime stalwart supporter who had such a strong mind of his own, was beginning to forget how to act, especially in private. As time went on, I began to suspect Alzheimer’s.
Now I write novels, many of which are based on my travels through life…and on memories of my friend’s antics. My young wife still bounces around like a gazelle, and I admire her energy as mine fades. She is an inspiration and seems completely happy in every aspect of her life, as am I.
My lifelong friend continues to fade into oblivion. It is sad to watch; sad to experience. Once he was so vibrant and lustful, so full of life, and now he withers away with little purpose. I am sad for him and will mourn his passing. One of these days, not too far in the future, I fear he will bid his fond farewell. I am comforted, however, by his memories. Having him as part of my life was an enriching experience I will cherish until I take my last breath. I also accept his decline as just another phase of life, like a flower withering after having a glorious bloom.
A good thing about being a retired writer, verses a working writer, is not worrying about the next royalty check, or if one arrives at all. Life is good and, except for the slow passing of my friend, life would be perfect.
Now, about that writer thing. I have discovered within me an alter-ego called Miss Havana. She is the heroine of my four paranormal comedy novels: The Substitute; Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana; The Training Bra; and The Trophy Wife. The stories are risqué and hilarious, but there is more. Like the story of my life presented here, the Miss Havana stories depict a larger concept than the words indicate on the surface. The overarching theme across all four novels is “redemption,” although that will be hard for most people to grasp. Each story also deals with a different aspect of the Bible. That will be even more difficult to pick out. Nevertheless, for those “in the know,” the stories will transcend the jokes, killing, back-stabbing, and hilarity. That’s the fun of being an author. You can hide whatever you want in your words. I’m betting, even at this last sentence of this blog, most readers will believe my life story above, which is true in almost every detail, is centered around a guy I’ve known most of my life…and they would be wrong.
Thanks for reading,
James L. Hatch