June 20th, 2017

My overdeveloped sense of guilt

When I was young I used to feel guilty going into a bank  It was some personal aberration that I could never nail down.  Some free floating angst.  Maybe in some previous lifetime I robbed banks and as I approached the teller I felt those butterflies of anxiety that would precede my doing something immoral.
Or maybe I was just freakin' weird.
But when I head about Otto Warmbier I got a shiver.  It could have been me.  We were in Hong Kong and although it was when the Brits were in charge in my mind still too close of a call. There was a friend of mine on the ship.  He was enlisted and I was an officer so it was really not kosher for us to fraternize off the ship. At one point he worked directly for me but he requested a transfer to a different position in the ship and I grabbed at the chance so as not not to be writing his evaluations.  Anyway, it was just one of those things.  We were simpatico.  He was a bit more of a risk taker than I was and once ashore in civilian clothes away from anyone on the ship we were two kids on a lark. Shipboard life is so stressful and so totally engaging it was like releasing a cork from a champaign bottle.  We just flew off.
In Hong Kong one late night we were headed back to the ship along a fairly empty stretch of a public bridge leading to the docks when I saw a lovely poster.  It encouraged the public to stop littering.  I remarked on how cool it would look on my wall at home when, before I knew it, Phil (he is long dead now.. another story.. so that was his actual name) had grabbed the poster, rolled it up and handed it to me.  It seemed at the time to be not so very dangerous a thing to do but was a little edgy.  Now, of course, even in the safe environment of Hong Kong at that time it was an insanely dangerous thing to do.
So I feel for Otto.  And in my heart apologize for getting away, as I always have, with doing something that ended up killing him.

The poster hangs outside of my office.  It says, in Chinese, Hong Kong is watching you.  Indeed.

An elegy Phil Doran

I'm not very good with people so my social circle has always been small.  Not complaining, mind you, just the facts.  I've had a handful of male friends in my life.  One of them was Phil.  It was a weird relationship and one that had the potential for disaster on more than one occasion.  Phil was articulate, smart and, when he was with me anyway, always smiling.  Quick witted and self effacing. He was easy to run around with and seemed to like my company.

I have no idea how it started but one day when in port in the Philippines we ended up heading out to 'the barrio', a place where officers such as me did not frequently go. It was maybe five miles from the Subic Naval Base where the ship was parked.  The way there was via jeepney.  I would likely have never done it on my own but Phil was fearless and his enthusiasm was addictive so off we went.  If you've not seen a jeepney, they are wonderful:
It is a circus of people on wheels.  For what amounted to about $.30 we rode to the barrio in style with probably 20 or 30 locals who tolerated us.  I remember hanging off the back a beer in one hand and the rail in my other.  The back of the jeepney hangs out a bit and we were outside so when it would take a bump as it went over the mountain we were nearly airborne.  This was one of many similar trips we took together and a decent example of what we did together.  We did what sailors for eternity have done, ran around and raised hell.  I kept things in check for the most part and, danger of flying off a jeepney aside, we managed to keep mostly under control.  It was just small things such as the Hong Kong adventure I wrote about here.

I was in the operations part of the ship.  My job was to run Combat Information Center and I had maybe 20 Operations Specialists working for me.  Phil was one of them.  He hated the job.  He told me that the first day of OS school he realized he made a mistake but there's not going back for the enlisted. He was great at the job but didn't like it.   Once we became friends, as I said a really bad idea, it should have been awkward but he always did his job and worked hard and got along so there were never any issues.  Halfway through deployment he asked if he could transfer to the Master At Arms group that monitored the mess decks.  I immediately agreed.  Phil was a people person and MAA worked well for him.

The one adventure we did not do together involved getting a tattoo in Hong Kong.  I think this was the second time through on the deployment and my wife had come out with a bunch of other wardroom wives so I had company to hang out with.  Phil was on his own and violated the prohibition against tattoos in this port by getting a lovely green dragon on his chest.  He was one of maybe 15 sailors who reported to medical when they learned that anyone who got a tattoo need a hepatitis shot.  The shot lead to a disciplinary hearing known as Captain's Mast.  The line was way down the passageway and their fate was predictable.  It was something like extra duty and no days off ship in the next port.  I don't remember. But it created an item in his record that would reach out and bite Phil down the road.

Other than the incident with the tattoo the deployment went well.  No other issues.  Once we returned to the states things changed.  I had family and Phil ended up transferring off the ship.  I don't remember saying goodbye but I'm sure we did.  It is the Navy.  Friends come and go every day and I had things on my mind.

Next time I heard from Phil that I remember I was stationed in Florida and he mailed me a letter or called, not sure which.  But he needed a recommendation.  He had gotten out of the Navy but wanted to get into the Air Force in the police rating that they have.  But the tattoo discipline hearing was on his record and the Air Force didn't like that.  I wrote him a glowing recommendation (he really was perfect for the job) but he never got in.  He ended up in central Florida where he grew up as a local cop.  I visited him one time and, of course, it wasn't the same.  Not bad but not edgy as before.  And he had developed a streak of racism he said had grown in him since living in the berthing compartment on the ship.  It really put me off and I'm sure he was sharp enough to pick up on that.

I may have gotten a letter from him once and likely didn't write back.  The Internet was not around.  Email did not exist at that time.  So social connections were maintained by phone and letter or not at all.  I clearly remember getting another letter from the same town in Florida.  I was having a bad day and tossed it in my drawer not wanting to hear from anyone.  It was weeks later I saw it and opened it.  A news article fell out that talked about a brand new husband and wife on their honeymoon who had skidded on ice in Chicago and slid under an 18 wheeler instantly killing them both.

I had not known Phil was getting married.  Too busy with my life.

Every time I see a Philippine beer or the poster outside my door I think of the enthusiasm for life we both had on the back of that jeepney.  Like Robert Earl Keen, Jr. said "The road goes on forever and the party never ends."