It was early May, 1987 and the 747 I’d hitched a ride home on from Okinawa, Japan skidded to a stop on the scorching tarmac at Washington National Airport. No longer attached to a Marine unit, I’d had to beg, plead, and threaten my way home. But I’d finally made it back.
A month prior, my plans had been well-laid and seemingly perfect. Gracefully exit the USMC, apply for veterinary school, talk the girl of my dreams into marrying me, and commence happily-ever-after. But a near-death experience and 60 days of surgeries, recovery, and drug-induced haze had blurred the lines of that roadmap considerably. Somewhere in the fog of those months, I’d apparently agreed to continue my Marine Corps career as an officer. I’d get a brief 30 day hiatus at home before having to head to San Diego for the summer to attend a Marine preparatory program, designed to ensure as one of the USMC’s prime investments, I didn’t flunk out of school when I got there.
I was to return to the scene of previous academic crimes, the University of Virginia. My experience there 5 years before had left scars. Unlike seemingly everyone around me, I had felt lost, rudderless, and frightened. I’d had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I had never had to study and frankly, didn’t really know how to study. I did enough to get by while comforting myself with a hundred friendships and plenty of partying. Finally, after 2 and ½ years of floundering, the pressure of trying to preserve a scholarship, being a disappointment to my parents and myself, and just plain depression over my poor performance was too much. Instead of going home for Christmas my 3rd year, I stayed in Charlottesville, hiked to the Marine Recruiting Office downtown, and enlisted.
The Marine Corps saved my life. The ultimate meritocracy, all the Marine Corps asked of you was 100% commitment and your absolute best performance. You didn’t have to worry about direction, the Corps provided that for you. You just had to perform. So I performed. I dove into every training course I could gain entry to. When I was sent to a school, I finished first, whether there were 20 course members, or 200. I’d been failing for so long, excelling felt like salvation. There was no pressure. I was a US Marine infantryman. I belonged to the United States government, and believe me, in their eyes I was expendable. What I did with the opportunity mattered little to anyone except myself.
In a year I was a corporal. In 3 years, I was a sergeant running a mortar platoon. And now, I was about to come full circle, completing the circuitous journey back to where I’d started – back to the University of Virginia enroute to becoming a demi-god, an officer in the United States Marine Corps.
But first, I had some loose ends to wrap up.
In the Marine Corps, trust me – there’s no ‘woman in every port’. It’s lonely as hell. Even though I was involved in a serious relationship, I knew it would be tough if not impossible to sustain when you’re gone more than you’re ‘there’. During what I thought was to be my last deployment, things between her and I began to unravel. We’d barely held it together before my deployment. She’d written often, sent packages, all the usual expected stuff. We told each other we loved each other and would start over when I got back.
Now I was back. Back, but a mess. I’d lost 25 lbs. I had an incision from the middle of my back running to the edge of my sternum, and four healing garden-sized holes where chest tubes had been a month prior. And I had 30 days to get myself mentally and physically together before I’d be off to California and back in the Marine Corps fold.
I arrived home from the airport, greeted my family, and tried to relax. I knew I had to call her. She’d be home for the summer. After working up some courage, I made the call. She came over. She was as lovely as ever. We went out on the deck to talk in private. The one thing that has stuck with me all these years is that through the whole conversation, she never took off her sunglasses. She cried some, told me how much she had missed me, and asked me if I could have breakfast with her that Saturday so we could really talk.
I already knew what was coming. Joedy was his name. ‘Ain’t no use in looking back, Joedy’s got your Cadillac, ain’t no use in lookin’ down, Joedy’s got your girl and gone’. That’s the bastard’s name, and for 200 years he’s been swooping down in our absence and making our girl back home forget all about us. It’s what he does. And you know what? We never blame her. Who’d want to sit around waiting for a Marine to come home, knowing it’s only a brief respite from another long wait to come?
So Friday came, and sensing the train wreck of love barreling down upon me at high speed, hearing the tumultuous roar of a breakup’s approach, and almost feeling the excruciating agony of the collision, I made a decision. I packed up my Honda Civic that morning, kissed my folks goodbye for the summer, and drove west. It hurt like hell to leave, but I knew there was more distance between us now than perseverance or passion could bridge. By the time I got to Oklahoma, my heart was just a little less heavy. As I rolled into San Diego, I vowed I wouldn’t look back.
I’ve heard people say a thousand times ‘things happen for a reason’. I think it just as likely we’re at the mercy of dumb, blind luck. Or maybe, once in a rare while, God just throws us a karmic bone. The greatest gift I’ve ever received was about to be bestowed upon me. 6 months before, blind to its value, I might have given it back. I’d thought I’d found true love. But here I was, absolutely alone, without a friend within 1000 miles, and only the slightest of ideas how I’d gotten here or where I’d be in 10 years.
Then it happened.
I was 3 week’s early for my report date for prep school in San Diego. For lack of a better idea, I shacked up at an Econolodge and watched bad daytime TV, read books, and ate delivery pizza. After a couple days of that wholesome regimen, I felt stir crazy and decided to do some exploring. I took a taxi downtown, and headed out on foot to get the lay of the land. After a stop at a bookstore, and an hour sitting in a coffee shop reading, I decided to head back. As I turned a corner looking for a taxi, I ran right into a couple going the other way. I’d nearly knocked the gentleman over. As I looked up and prepared to apologize for not watching where I was going, I was suddenly speechless.
The guy I’d run into was Pete Reddy. Pete had been my roommate at Virginia and one of the best friends I’d ever find. He’d made it successfully through the UVa Marine ROTC program and was now an Air Defense officer stationed at 29 Palms, California. He and his wife had made a quick jaunt to San Diego to do a little shopping. And I had almost knocked him on his ass.
We chatted for an hour and caught up on each other’s lives. Then I remembered something I’d nearly forgotten over the past year – that Pete’s wife Lisa had roomed with a girl at Virginia who I’d always been very interested in. Her name was Valerie Hall. Valerie was a tall, slender brunette from South Carolina. She had the unforgettable slow southern drawl of a real South Carolinian, piercing brown eyes, and a smile that could light up a room and never seemed to leave her face. I’d approached her intermittently throughout my college days, but she was entrenched in a long-term relationship. Almost as soon as the thought crossed my mind, Lisa said ‘You should look up Valerie when you get back to school! She’s living in Richmond now and she’s single. I’m going to tell her to call you!’
Running into dear friends out of the blue like that, in such an unlikely place, made the whole encounter seem surreal. I filed away the information about Valerie, but the thought of entering into another ‘relationship’ was the farthest thing from my mind. The summer moved on, I got through the Marine prep course, and before I knew it, it was fall and I was back in beautiful Charlottesville. Finishing up the move into my new apartment, I decided to give my sister Anne a call from a local payphone. Anne lived nearby at the time and worked at UVa’s hospital. We chatted for awhile and agreed to get together for dinner soon. As I was about to hang up, she informed me she’d had a strange phone call from a girl named Valerie who claimed to know me – did I want her phone number?
I wanted it.
I called. And a few days later, she was knocking on the door of my apartment. From the minute she walked in and we started talking, it felt like we’d known each other our whole lives. A year later we were engaged, and 2 years later, in a snow-covered church in Richmond, I married my best friend, the sweetest, kindest human being I’ve ever known. We’ve been together for 19 years this 9th of December. We have 2 of the most wonderful kids in America, and every day of my life I am thankful for the drunken idiot Marine who tackled me to the ground that night in 1987, sent me to the hospital, and almost cost me my life.
Were it not for the Fickle Finger of Fate, I never would have gone to that hospital. Had my drunken friend decided to target one of the other 5 Marines I was with, instead of me, I never would’ve stayed in the Marine Corps. I wouldn’t have had a reason to be in San Diego, wouldn’t have decided on a whim to take a tour of downtown, and wouldn’t have had a chance meeting with dear friends. I would never have known what happened to the girl I admired from afar in college, found out where she was, or reconnected with her. I wouldn’t have a beautiful marriage to a wonderful woman, or 2 amazing kids who bring me incredible joy and pride every day. I don’t know where I’d be, but I wouldn’t be here, where I most want to be.
I don’t know if I believe ‘everything happens for a reason’, or that some deity oversees our lives and steers us to the course meant just for us.
But I think I may believe in Fate…
How could I not? 🙂