Chapter 20: Be AWOL You Can Be
Jobs #48 - 53
Jobs #48 - 53
Job # 48: PFC (continued)
I arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and took the bus into the city and stopped by my old house. Two of my former roommates were still living there, and they let me crash on a couch in a sort of foyer at the top of the stairs. One of my former roomies was living a few blocks away with his new girlfriend.
Basically I just hung out and partied with my old pals for a couple of days. Then it seemed like it was time to move on. I hitchhiked south and stopped in Ashland, Oregon. I’ve always liked Ashland – it’s a beautiful place – but it wasn’t as much fun if you had no place to stay. I was starting to get a little tired of life on the lam, and I figured I would have to deal with the Army at some point, so I decided to try to turn myself in. I wasn’t sure how to go about that, so I flagged down a passing police man and told him that I was away without leave from the Army.
Apparently being AWOL isn’t really a crime anywhere but in the service. The cop told me there wasn’t much he could do for me. He suggested a few things I might try if I wanted to get back to the loving arms of the Army. I thanked him for his time and help, and then I went off to sleep in a park.
I figured I had tried to do the right thing and had been thwarted, so that was the same as a free pass to keep being AWOL. I continued hitchhiking south, with the intention of seeing my dear old friends “J” and Lurleen.
I stayed for a few days with “J”, and this is where I would have to say that my life truly began. Romance blossomed between me and “J”. Even though we’ve now been married almost thirty years, I consider these last almost three decades to be the “modern” portion of my life. Everything before it is ancient history. I’ve been married more than half my life now, which is quite an accomplishment for a guy who hadn’t been able hold a job more than a few months.
Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. No relationship is. And it’s not like marriage and family instantly bestowed stability in employment. And like the dork I am, it took me way longer than the average person to realize when I had it good. But, as usual, I am getting ahead of myself.
After several glorious days with “J”, I had to face the inevitability of getting the whole Army thing out of the way. If I could have afforded it, I would have taken Greyhound back to Fort Gordon, but I was now completely broke. After making some phone calls, I learned that the best thing to do was to contact the local chapter of the Red Cross, which I did. They bought me a bus ticket to the nearest military facility, which was Beale Air Force Base.
I arrived unannounced at Beale and wandered about the base until I found a likely-looking office. The Air Force seemed a lot more relaxed than the Army. I was used to having to stand at attention when meeting anyone who looked higher in rank than me, but no one there seemed to care too much about such formalities. I looked properly military with my short haircut and duffle bag, so the first person I spoke to asked if I was reporting for duty. When I explained why I was there, they were at a loss as to what to do with me. I was expecting to be arrested or something, or at least treated badly for being a deserter. Instead everyone in that office was incredibly nice to me.
If there is some sort of protocol for what to do when an AWOL serviceman returns, those guys didn’t know what it was. It probably would have been simpler if we had all been in the same branch of the service. They discussed my options with me. There were some accommodations available for visiting service members, but there was a nominal charge for them, and I was completely broke. The nice staff briefly considered taking up a collection for me to stay there, to avoid the unpleasantness of my other option, which was to stay at the base’s stockade. They told me I really didn’t want to do that. Soon I was too find out just how right they were.
Eventually it was decided that the stockade was my only option, and someone drove me over there. There were only a couple of young airmen (the Air Force equivalent of a private) on duty at the stockade when I arrived. They were also very nice to me, as well as being not sure how to handle me. I certainly wasn’t guilty of any offenses against the Air Force. They knew I was just trying to get back to my post after a mild indiscretion. They skipped a lot of the usual procedures and put me in a cell with a couple of other mild-mannered prisoners.
The stockade was a fairly low security facility. I guess it’s not hard to control people who are already used to being told what to do. The cells had bars, of course, but the hallway leading to the front offices did not. Instead there were lines painted on the floor in the doorways which prisoners were not allowed to cross without permission. The door to the outside was electronically controlled. The only other rule I was required to follow was to say, “Prisoner Rimpington requests persmission to speak” before saying anything. I kept screwing up and saying “Private Rimpington”, which was a little embarrassing.
A couple of hours later the sergeant in charge of the stockade arrived. I knew this because suddenly there was a bunch of yelling – liberally enhanced with much swearing – by one very loud person. He had just been informed of my presence, and was appalled at his underlings’ failure to follow strict protocol for incoming prisoners. He stormed over to my cell, followed by his now very flustered-looking staffers. I felt badly for them, being screamed at by this maniac just for trying to show kindness to someone.
I soon began feeling sorry for myself, though, because the sadistic son of a bitch seemed to have a real hard-on for me. Maybe he really hated the Army, or deserters in general. Either way, the nice treatment I had received came to an end. I was roughly put through the usual intake procedure for prisoners. The airmen had taken my duffle bag from me, but hadn’t searched it. When the sergeant heard this he really went ballistic. When the sergeant searched it he found a boot knife I had in there. Then I was subjected to a strip search. I had to bend over and spread my butt cheeks while the sergeant peered at my asshole with a flashlight. I didn’t feel sorry for him having to see that.
I was issued a stockade jumpsuit. Then I had to fill out a very long form in which I was expected to write down every address I’d ever lived at – ever. I’d had almost as many residences as I’d had jobs! I couldn’t remember them all, which did not please Sgt. Sadistic one bit. I then had to stand before his desk and answer a bunch of verbal questions. I’ve always talked with my hands, especially when I’m nervous, and I was especially agitated just then. He said that if I didn’t stop moving my hands, he would assume I was trying to grab the stapler on his desk, and he’d slam my head into the concrete floor.
I guess the sergeant was afraid I would be a bad influence on his other prisoners, and I was put in a single cell. Unlike the time I was in the Butt County Jail, I felt rather lonely in my cell. My only entertainment was the sound of jets taking off and landing. I spent a couple of miserable nights in the Beale stockade. The sergeant wasn’t always around, which was a relief, but the airmen were no longer quite as friendly as they had been. They were too afraid of their superior to risk being chummy.
My barracks lung was still afflicting me, and I was coughing so hard that I felt pain right down into the very base of my groin. One day one of the airmen put me in a van and we started driving for an unknown destination. And driving. And driving some more. I thought Army bases were big, but Beale seemed to go on forever. Finally prisoner Rimpington requested permission to speak, and then I said, “Where are we going?” He said he was taking me to the base clinic because of my cough. A nice doctor examined me and prescribed some powerful antibiotics. After that my condition started improving. I thought it odd that I had to be a prisoner of the Air Force before I got treatment for a condition I caught in the Army. It really made me wish that I had qualified for the Air Force when I decided to join the service (as long as I stayed out of the stockade).
I really can’t remember how exactly I got back to Ft. Gordon, but at long last I got to say a fond farewell to Sgt. Dickhead of the Air Force. I’m pretty sure Uncle Sam paid for me to be flown back to Columbia. I was a bit of a celebrity amongst my fellow privates when I got back to my post. They were especially interested in hearing of my adventures in the stockade. Perhaps I was able to serve as an example to them to keep their noses clean.
Ironically, my “less than honorable” discharge had come through shortly after I had rashly jumped on that plane a couple of weeks earlier. My superiors briefly considered tossing me in Ft. Gordon’s stockade, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when they decided that there was no point, since I was essentially now a civilian. So I just hung out for a day or two. It was an odd sensation. My brief escape from the regimen of the service had made me less afraid of higher ranking people (except psychotic stockade sergeants). On my last day on the base, I was standing in line for morning mess. My hair had gotten a bit longer than regulations allowed. A strange sergeant came up to me and told me I needed to get a haircut. I could have told him I was leaving that day, but I knew that sergeants don’t like excuses, so I just lied and told him I would take care of it right after I ate, and he went away happy.
The Army bought me a bus ticket back to Butt County. It was such a good feeling to finally legitimately say “so long” to the job #47. I was heading home, and there was someone who loved me waiting for me there. As I made my way slowly across the country, I had this day dream that at some way stop I would find a little church in which I could offer thanks for my liberation and good fortune. I wasn’t a religious person, but I felt like something that big deserved a big gesture.
Amazingly, exactly that happened. I had a layover in some small town somewhere in the southwest, and just up the road was a beautiful old Catholic church. I didn’t know the proper procedure, but I got on my knees in a pew and gave a silent heartfelt prayer of gratitude.
I also had a layover in Dallas, Texas, so I played tourist. I visited Dealey Plaza and saw the infamous book depository and the mysterious “grassy knoll”. I also cruised through Neiman Marcus in my shabby civilian clothes and looked at things I couldn’t afford in a million years.
Finally I was reunited with my beloved “J”. Now, remember earlier when I said I was too dumb to know when I had it good? Maybe I was afraid of intimacy, or maybe I really am an idiot, but I decided I wanted to go back to Seattle. I had some half-baked notion that I was going to “make my fortune” in the Pacific Northwest, and then I would be worthy of the woman I loved, like a protagonist in an old novel. “J” was upset, but she let me go.
I hitchhiked back to Seattle. I had to sleep in an orchard next to the highway a ways north of College Town on the first night. When I hung my thumb out the next morning, I was picked up by a fellow with whom I was mildly acquainted. Small world.
On the last leg of my journey, on a drizzly night I approached a trucker at a weigh station somewhere in southern Washington. He gave me a ride into Seattle. On the way, he asked me friendly questions about my situation and plans. He couldn’t really understand why I was leaving a good woman behind and taking off to someplace where I didn’t even have a job yet. I had to admit to myself that I didn’t really understand it either.
I got into the city late, and decided to splurge on a dive motel room rather than sleep on the ground again. It was damp out, and my only other option was to sleep inside a jungle gym tube in a school play ground. The motel check-out time was 11 AM, and when I finally awoke, I was dismayed to find I only had about 10 minutes to vamoose. I had been hoping for a shower before I left, but there wasn’t time, because I didn’t want to pay another day’s rent.
Job #49: Telemarketing
I stayed with my former roommate Leo and his girlfriend until I could get on my feet. I quickly got a job at a telemarketing outfit. It was similar to job #38, but instead of delivering the coupon booklets, I was one of the people making the phone calls. I had to read from a script. It felt very stilted and unnatural. On the second day, I finally realized I had made a huge mistake in all ways. I used my employer’s phone to call “J” and tell her I was coming home to her.
I hitchhiked back to O-Town. I had good weather on my trip. I got picked up by an old weirdo who made me uncomfortable with his attitudes toward women. I could have ridden further with him, but I found an excuse to slip away. I then lucked into a ride with a cool guy who was a professional chef. He was on his way south to a new job. He even let me drive his beat-up Pinto while he slept. I made it the rest of the way home in good time. Yes: "home". It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
Job #50: Assistant Landscaper
There was a joyful reunion with my “J”, and I was ready to settle down and be one half of a couple. At last my long-time favorite hobby was replaced by something MUCH better! But where was I going to work? Luckily, Lurleen’s still-estranged-but-not-quite-ex-husband Scoop had recently started his own landscaping and yard maintenance business, and needed help, so I went to work for him. A few days in, Scoop was impressed with the way I whipped the lawn mower neatly around a small tree and gave me a dollar raise.
It’s hard to calculate just how long I worked for Scoop. I worked full-time for quite a while, and he gave me a couple of more raises over the months, because I was a good worker. That made me feel good about myself. I also got pretty buff with all that physical labor. When winter came along, there was less work available, and I began to think that an indoor job sounded nice. I had never worked in an office before, and that became my dream. Even after I realized my new dream, I continued to work for Scoop on Saturdays, and then off and on over the next few years. Being willing to work six days a week prompted Lurleen to tell me I was a good provider, which I thought was one of the nicest things anyone had every said to me. For you see, I was also by now on my way to being a parent. I legally made “J” Mrs. Rimpington. I was already getting some practice at parenting as step-father to “B” (now Step-Rimpyette), but now I was going to have a “biological” child (you know, as opposed to those inorganic ones). A whole new world of amazing and sometimes frightening responsibilities.
Job #51: Office Manager
Somehow I got a job at a new United Way program for homeless mentally-ill people, which went by the imaginative name of Homeless-Mentally Ill Program. It was run by an earnest fellow named Warren, who was impressed with my honesty about my own experience with homelessness. I was one of the first people hired, along with a couple of other young people who had backgrounds in social work and counseling. I wasn’t quite sure what my exact position was called, and to be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought. Then Warren surprised me by saying that I could call myself the office manager. It was the most impressive job title I’d had by that point.
The whole program was a little ill-defined. There was definitely a feeling that we were all making it up as we went along. I certainly felt like I had no idea what I was doing most of the time, but I worked very hard at it none the less. Our office was an old Victorian house near downtown. It had a living room which we used as a sort of lounge area and lobby for the clients. Off of that was a large kitchen. The former bedrooms were used as offices and counseling rooms.
We had quite a few clients, and they were some interesting characters. Basically we tried to help them navigate the often confusing various social services bureaucracies in order to get them some sort of steady income and stable living situations. It wasn’t easy, and often ended in failure. Some people are just too damaged to be stable without constant supervision. Warren and the other workers would also try to counsel the clients on their emotional issues, with variable results. One day, Warren was in a session with a sensitive young gay man. Unfortunately, the old walls and air vents weren’t at all sound proof, and we in the living room could hear the young man talking about how he found himself always being attracted to abusive men who reminded him of his father. I didn’t have exactly that problem, but I could sympathize with his daddy issues.
Suddenly, voices in the other room got raised, and the young man came bursting out and raced into the kitchen. He snatched open the drawer containing the knives and was about to try slashing at his wrists with one of them. I had never witnessed such a thing before, and I was slow to react. Fortunately, Warren –who was a pretty big guy - was right behind him and grabbed him from behind in a bear hug before he could do himself an injury. As it was, he had grabbed a butter knife, so I don’t think there would have been much damage.
Jobs #52 and 53: Clerk-Typist
Soon I transitioned to a job as a clerk-typist at the Butt County Child Protective Services department. Lurleen had been hired there as a social worker, and she gave me a glowing reference. I may not have been an office manager anymore, but the new job offered better pay and benefits. No one tried to kill themselves there, but we did occasionally receive death threats. People don’t like it when the government takes their children away, even if it is in the best interests of the children.
I actually worked for CPS on two different occasions, but I decided to only count it as one job. Rimpy Jr. was born while I worked there the first time. Then, stupidly, I thought I could better myself by returning to school, so I quit CPS. Yeah, that didn’t work out. CPS took me back, but I can’t remember exactly for how long or where precisely that fell in this time line. Even though it was the exact same job for the exact same employer, I'm counting it as two jobs for two reasons: 1) because it had two separate portions, and 2) because I like to inflate my numbers in a desperate attempt to generate interest in this project.
Okay, that’s enough for now. Wow, we’re well past the half-way point on all these jobs. What’s up next in this crazy merry-go-round of employment? Tune in next time to find out.