When I look back on my Navy career and my life in general, sometimes I wonder just what in the Sam Hill I was thinking during the second quarter of my life. You see, I’ve broken my life down into 4 quarters just like a football game. Unless technology extends my life, I believe I’ll live till around 80 years old, give or take a few years and barring any unforeseen problems. If I live till 80 I can break my life down into 4 quarters and right now I’m just starting the 4th quarter of my life, just hoping I can take it way into overtime. Sometimes it’s like I’m reminiscing about a whole other person when I think back to some of the stupid things I did during my time in the Navy and essentially a good portion of the whole second quarter of my life.
I wholeheartedly believe that some brains never fully develop until that person is well into their adult years and I’m one of them for sure. Dr. Phil actually said it on his show a few hundred times while dealing with young adults and problematic behaviors. That was me, I had problematic behaviors shortly after I joined the Navy. It wasn’t anything serious like bank robbery, it was mainly uniform type regulation infractions and a few alcohol related incidents and it was just that I did not agree with some of the petty regulations the Navy had to offer so I was on a quest to bend or break a few. Unfortunately for me, the Navy has been in the business of dealing with hard cases like me for a few hundred years and they have it down to a science. If you screw up, you pay the price and if you continue to screw up they usually up the ante every time. For instance, the first time, you may get a pass, the second time they start to limit your freedom, give you some crappy jobs and maybe take a little money from you. After that if you continue to screw up they start taking your stripes or they drop you in rank. After they have taken all your stripes and you still want to screw up, they either discharge you back to where you came from or they send you to a “Correctional Custody Unit” or CCU for 30 days of rehabilitation Navy style. On the west coast, the Navy CCU was on a small island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, not too far from Alcatraz, called “Treasure Island”.
I was a hard case for sure but I was also a hard worker and the Navy had invested a bunch of money training me to work on jets. I can remember standing in my Master Chief’s office and him asking me if I wanted a discharge. It was kinda like that scene in the movie ‘Officer and a Gentlemen’ when Richard Gere looks up at Louis Gossett Jr. who is standing over him just after Gere got his butt beat down and a crying Gere says “I got nowhere else to go!!”. I wasn’t crying or anything like Gere in that scene but I told him I did not want to go back to Kansas and he told me I was going to go to CCU for 30 days so pack my bags. He said that if I ever screwed up again after CCU they were done with me and I would be thrown out of the Navy so this was my last chance. They had taken everything they could from me and now the rubber had met the road; either I straightened up or it was back to Kansas with my clown act. At the time I was young and single so heading off to the Bay area for 30 days and a wake up behind bars didn’t really rattle my cage too much so I was kinda looking forward to the change of scenery.
At the time I was stationed just outside of Fresno at a big Naval Airbase called Naval Air Station Lemoore. The ride to Treasure Island was about 4 hours and myself plus 3 other individuals were taken by the Navy’s Military police or MP’s in an enclosed van. The van was basically a cage on wheels with 2 long bench seats in the back. In addition to CCU on the island they also had a Navy Brig. The Navy brig is the equivalent of jail or prison and usually the hard cases waiting to get kicked out of the Navy or they were doing some time for crimes wound up in the brig. It was more like an extended stay for hardened criminals and Navy misfits. There were three guys in the back of our van besides me and they were all going to the brig to do hard time. They were shackled and chained to the metal benches we were sitting on but I was not handcuffed and I could move about freely. In the 4 hours we were riding together I got to know the guys in the back of the van with me and they were doing time for crimes like assault or robbery type stuff and one guy nicknamed “Ice Mike” was an acquaintance I had run across before while up to no good. Ice Mike was really a nice guy, he just had an anger management problem and at well over 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, when Ice Mike got mad someone was going to have a bad day. He was my friend by the end of the ride and we promised to keep in touch….LOL Not really, I just made that part up but we did cut up and laugh the whole way to Treasure Island in the back of the van with the other guys.
I was the first to be dropped off at the CCU building once we got onto the island. When we pulled up to the CCU building I was greeted by a “Master At Arms” First Class Petty Officer. A “Master at Arms” is like a specialized Navy police officer and the ‘First Class Petty Officer’ part is a rank of E-6. Their whole job in the military is that of a police officer. There were about 5-6 Master at Arms personnel serving as our hosts for the next 30 days while I was to be rehabilitated on Treasure Island. I can remember being told to stand at attention in a small foyer just inside the main entrance. I was standing with my toes touching a taped line on the floor and my nose was just a few inches from an American flag on a pedestal stand. Things were pretty quiet as I had arrived while everyone was at the chow hall for the evening meal. After 5 minutes or so the “Awardee’s started filing back into the building single file. (The “Awardee” tag is what we all were called while in CCU). They had to pass by me just to my left and I was able to sneak a peek through the corner of my eyes at my roommates as they filed back into the building. I’ll never forget the first Awardee I saw walk by me; his name was Patchen and he had just returned from some kind of sinus surgery and he had a gauzed up nose with two black, purple and blue eyes. At the time I didn’t know Patchen had just had sinus surgery and I thought maybe that was how they rolled around here and I was going to be in for a rough stay. After the dozen or so awardees filed in I was directed to the head Master at Arms office and I had a sit down chat with a Navy Chief about what was expected of me during my stay. Basically he told me that they were going to help me understand the difference between right and wrong in the Navy and how to be a better, more productive sailor.
My stay started with not being able to speak to anyone for the first 24 hours and I was also given a blue colored Dyno name badge. After the 24 hour no speaking period, since I was still a blue badge for the first 7 days, I could not watch tv in the evening, in the tv room or work out with gym equipment. Once I completed my 7 day period without causing any trouble I would be rewarded a green name badge and I would be authorized to watch tv in the evening for 2 hours as well as gym privilege’s. We ate 3 times a day and marched to the chow hall for our meals. We were spread eagle and searched for weapons every time we left the chow hall after a meal. The one story brick build we stayed in was essentially a few offices in the front of the building and a open barracks in the back with about 2 dozen beds with bars on every window. There were about 12 beds on each side of the room and a giant picnic type table that ran the length of the room where we could site and do book work. In the back of the room was an enclosed tv room and a small gym area with weights, a speed bag and a full size punching bag for us to take out our aggressions. One thing I did like about my stay was that we exercised twice a day and since I was a distance runner they would let me run around the island which was a 3 mile out and back, plus they would let me run twice a day. One of the Master at Arms guys was a tall, thin black guy by the name of Owens. He was a distance runner too and the only one that could half way keep up with me and since I always needed an escort we started running together. I don’t care who you are, when you run mile after mile with someone you get to know that person pretty well and Owens and I got to be good friends.
Owens had been in the Navy for over 16 years and was in great physical shape as well as a martial arts expert. More than once I watched him bounce a volleyball into the air about 7 feet and then deliver a flying roundhouse kick to the ball with the force of Pele. I made a deal with Owens and I helped him get faster at running by pushing his pace beyond what he had ever run before and he helped me learn to defend myself by teaching me some fly martial arts moves. We had a good time when we were running around the island and generally there was a beautiful view of Alcatraz as well as San Fran and Oakland while we ran. CCU itself was all about learning a different lifestyle and coping with the Navy in a more productive way. We would work on career development and positive motivation every day for hours on end. We spent hours sitting in a classroom listening to cassette tapes with motivational speakers like Gordon Graham and Earl Nightingale. Those are two names I’ll never forget because it was like we were being brainwashed by cassette tape in a semi-dark room and in complete silence except for the speaker on the tapes. We were constantly monitored to keep us from falling asleep and I’m mildly surprised they didn’t Scotch tape our eyes open and shine bright lights at us while playing the tapes. These sessions were mandatory and about the only thing I learned from that experience was to never listen to those two monotoned speakers ever again in my life no matter how long it lasts.
When I think back to my time on Treasure Island I believe that the most productive time I spent there was running with Owens because he was someone I could relate to and I respected Owens. He was able to convince me that life is a lot easier when you do the right thing in the Navy because he was living proof. One of his biggest goals while he was working at the CCU unit was to change people like me into sailors more like him. He also told me that there were a lot of people back at my squadron that were just waiting for me to screw up one more time so they could say “I told you so” and throw me out of the Navy. He told me if I learned nothing else from my experience at CCU, learn how to prove those “I told you so” people wrong. He said that if I did the right thing every day, day after day and went above and beyond, I could prove all of those naysayers wrong and so that’s what I did. I cleaned up my act and I did it for Owens, not for Earl Nightingale or Gordon Graham but Owens was the one person that got through to me so I did it for Owens. I returned to my squadron and cleaned up my act and was rewarded with our squadron’s Sailor of the Quarter award for my first Navy award ever just a few months after my return. I have received a ton of awards since but this one was special and still hangs on my wall of Navy memories.
Treasure Island is mostly closed down now and I’m not sure that CCU or the brig even exists anymore in the Navy but I got to see some pretty cool things while I was there too. It just so happened that while I was on Treasure Island it was Fleet Week in San Francisco and we got to sit along the waters edge and watch the Blue Angels perform over the Bay one Saturday afternoon during my stay. The Navy Blue Angels were flying the old A-4 Skyhawk at the time and I got to see one of the A-4’s ripping through the bay and right by us just feet above the water. The view of Alcatraz through the bars of my window for 30 nights was pretty profound and sent a message to me. It was an awesome site and the whole experience kinda changed the way I viewed the Navy.
More than likely if it hadn’t been for those long runs and long conversations with a First Class Master at Arms named Owens I probably wouldn’t of continued my career in the Navy but that 30 day trip to Treasure Island did what it was designed to do and I continued my Navy career.
As I reflect on my time at Treasure Island, I can’t help but to think it was just another fork in the road for me and I happened to choose the right path. My life has been filled with forks in the road and split second decisions that may have saved my life and I believe that I’ve had help because of my faith. I don’t quote scripture often but there is a passage in the Bible, Jeremiah 1:5 and it is a scripture that I ponder often.
“I chose you before I formed you in the womb; I set you apart before you were born. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”