Fueled by Defiance
Everything I’ve done in this life has been to get ahead. Financially, personally, socially. When I left Louisiana the first time, I had nothing. After a year in Manhattan, I came home with only memories. I failed as a performer and knew it. It was in between this time and the moment I called the recruiter that I was desperately searching for direction.
At this point in my life, I was just turning 27 and didn’t have much to show for it. A terrible relationship with a girlfriend who had stopping loving me, a DUI, and a pension for drinking and partying which was a form of escapism I didn’t understand at the time. I can clearly remember my grandfather telling me that his time in the Navy was the most memorable time of his life. I would look at the tattoo on his leg of a ship at full sail and imagined the journeys he had been a part of. I remembered gazing at the lake I grew up on and pretending it was the ocean. The only sport I ever excelled at was swimming and I loved it. I spent many seasons of my early childhood at the local pool, swimming in competitions, or retrieving quarters my grandfather would throw into the deep end. As a child, swimming down 12 feet with the ability to hold my breath long enough to explore felt like true freedom. My mom spent so many days at the pool, patiently waiting as I competed in my races. She never knew what she was creating.
I knew the military wouldn’t be a cake walk. I was too clever to allow a recruiter to sit me down and tell me what job I wanted, so I spent time reflecting and remembered what I loved the most. What the child in me loved most of all was being submerged in water and swimming. It took me some time to realize what I really wanted to do in the Navy. At the time, I was really into photography, so my first question was if they needed a photographer. Furthermore, despite being raised in the deep south of Louisiana, I was never into guns, or getting shot at for that matter. After a firm “No” for Com cam, I was asked what I was good at. At this point in my life, I hadn’t done much more but waited tables, partied a lot, and worked at some of New Orleans finest restaurants. I could tell by the pictures on the wall of the recruiting office, none of my prior skills were relevant or applicable to anything in the Navy. The fact that I could differentiate a California Chardonnay from a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wouldn’t get me very far in this new world I was stepping into. I sat there in silence for a moment. I had to reach way back to my childhood and to those times in the pool and in the lake.
“I’m a really good swimmer,” is all I had. The recruiter offered something called “Air Rescue Swimmer” to me. The words “rescue” and “swimmer” stuck. I’m a good swimmer and if I’m rescuing people, I’m probably not engaging in any kind of combat situation. It checked all the boxes. They told me it was a “challenge program” and that not everyone who tries makes it. Challenge accepted. Anything was better than my current situation. I could tell this step in my life was bigger than going to a vocational school and learning a trade, or continuing my glowing career in the restaurant biz (sarcasm). This was the United States Navy and I was going to be part of it. My mind was made up. I started subtly mentioning my plan to people I worked with and to the bartenders I frequented. I would hear things like, “You’re a little old for that,” and “Do you really want to work for the federal government?”
This is where the “crabs in a basket” analogy really started to become apparent. The people who told me this and doubted me were revealing who they were, while simultaneously revealing what they thought of me. They had no idea how many wrestling matches I won, how many first place ribbons for freestyle swimming I had collected, or how absolutely fueled by defiance I was. The icing on the cake was being told that I wasn’t smart enough to understand gas laws by my own girlfriend, or when my dad said I couldn’t do it because I smoked too many cigarettes. I stopped smoking that day. I started running up the levee and doing hot yoga daily. I started feeding off of others dismissal of me. My sights were set and I was absolutely determined to defy anyone who doubted me. Little did I know, with one conversation I would go from Air Rescue Swimmer to Navy Diver. To be continued…