Roberto (l) from La Alameda de Hercules and his army buddies (and my wine drinking and flamenco buddies) on the train from Sevilla to El Puerto de Santa Maria (my stop) and San Fernando (their stop). Photo by Gerry Dawes 1969.
One night under Monterey’s decaying old wharf, I helped two others polish off a gallon jug of Mountain Red—with miserable results. And once in a while on a payday weekend, I would splurge on abalone and a bottle of Almaden Emerald Riesling or some such at a restaurant on Monterey’s then-not-so-touristy Fisherman’s Wharf or have spaghetti and a wicker-wrapped, aptly-named fiasco of Chianti on Cannery Row, which at that time still had vestiges and whiffs of John Steinbeck’s time.
At Southern Illinois University I had sporadically pursued a journalism major until 1965, when the Lyndon Baines Johnson-led United States government—opting first, or course, for those “who had not worked continuously towards a degree”— decided that they needed even more carrion candidates for Vietnam. I volunteered for the Navy as soon as I felt the hot breath of my local draft board breathing down my neck. To avoid the possibility of two years of infantry duty and possible death (certain in my mind), I enlisted for four years of life in the Navy, astutely calculating that aircraft carriers didn’t normally invade Vietnamese rice paddies.
Ironically, I damned near died from a bout with spinal meningitis that I contracted during basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station, where recruits were allowed some four hours sleep a night, which greatly contributed to a meningitis epidemic among them during that epoch. (In the middle of the night, we took turns guarding a laundry room, just in case, we surmised, the Viet Cong somehow managed to penetrate the heartland in the dead of a Lake Michigan winter to stage a surprise laundry raid).
After graduation, we were transferred for several months to Defense Department’s Top Secret Security School in San Angelo, Texas, a training assignment made memorable by a monumentally ignorant Chief Botswain’s Mate, who lined up a mostly college-educated crew of linguists and threatened to charge us for mutiny for failing to show up for a useless meeting after an all-night class. He punctuated his blustering by proclaiming the “ignorance in Botswain’s Mates went out with the sailing ships,” which caused the incredulous officers watching this absurd, worthy-of-a-M.A.S.H.- episode performance to stifle guffaws. The mutiny squelched, we survived to graduate.
Just before we graduated, one day in class when my field assignment was announced as Spain, someone blurted, “You lucky bastard!” As it turned out, life’s lottery had handed me a winning ticket. As soon as class was over, I went straight to the base library and checked out the few books I could find on Spain.
Because of the military’s infinite wisdom and logic-defying precision, I, as a Russian linguist, was assigned for two years to the Rota Naval Base in Andalucía, from which periodically I was sent out riding the plane captain’s seat of antiquated, 1950s’ vintage, un-armed airplanes, including the great swept-wing hog, the A-3 Skywarrior, a converted fighter-bomber. Staging out of Greece and West Germany, we flew on electronic eavesdropping missions off the coasts of Egypt, Libya, East Germany, Poland, and Russia. It was my job to listen on a radio receiver and tape Russian military conversations. The first time I heard a MIG on our tail pretending to lock on with a missile, which would have turned us to toast in just a few seconds, I momentarily longed even for a rice paddy. Nevertheless, during my two-year tour of duty in Rota, between flying missions, I had time to begin discovering Spain and I began to develop an afición, a passion, for the country that has continued to grow for more than 50 years.
During the summer of 1968, I nearly mastered the art of hitting my mouth with a stream of red wine while standing in the passageway at the end of the swaying train car, through whose open doors warm air gushed, considerably increasing the degree of difficulty.
Each week, when we arrived in Sevilla, Roberto and his friends told me which train they would be taking back to their base in San Fernando. No matter what shape we were in after drinking multiple bottles of wine on the two-hour train ride, my new amigos always made sure I got off at El Puerto de Santa María, the great sherry town on the bay of Cádiz, where I would catch the shiny little local train to nearby Rota. There were big abrazos (embraces), waves, and good wishes from my new-found friends as I dis-embarked, then they were back to clapping and singing flamenco as their train creaked to life and rolled on to San Fernando, two stops down the line.