On the Proper Way to Pronounce New Orleans, and the Delights of Seafood Gumbo

My father’s second wife brought a wealth of new culinary adventures to our table. I’ve previously blogged about “Tricking kids into eating,” the story about my step-mother trying to pass off chicken liver as steak. Other notable favorites she introduced me to include salmon patties–imagine salmon chopped to the consistency of shredded tuna, mixed with mayo and onions, and then pan fried. It’s actually better than it sounds. She introduced yet another fried fish meal, previously frozen flounder. It’s exactly what it sounds like. I add the “previously frozen” part because, while I admittedly loved this dish, doused liberally with red-wine vinegar, there was that one unfortunate time where, as she was cooking it, it turned to complete mush. Literally, it went from “frozen” to “mush” right there in the pan in a matter of seconds. After that, it sort of dropped off our regular menu.

My step-mom was a good cook, but her mother, my step-grandmother, was an excellent cook, though she tended to more veggies than I would have preferred then. “Granny,” as we called her, honed her craft daily in what I felt was a strange relationship with her sister whereas my grandmother acted as her sister’s maid. Each week my grandmother dutifully washed and ironed her sister’s laundry and most every night my grandmother cooked her sister dinner, usually “To Go.” Having an older brother myself, albeit briefly, I could never shake the feeling that it probably galled my grandmother having to act as her sister’s caretaker. But maybe it wasn’t like that.

Now, you may have noted a trend in the types of foods my step-mother introduced me to. Prior to her, I’d never had most types of seafood, certainly nothing as exotic (to me at least at the time) as shrimp! I like shrimp now, although for my taste, it’s very bland unless you really spice it up with 3x the amount of crab boil as the box tells you, and a ton of horseradish in the cocktail sauce.

But, as much as anything, shrimp has become a nostalgia food, no doubt partly thanks to the events that transpired during one of our first “step-family” get-togethers. These tended to happen in the fall and winter, what with Alabama summers being intolerably hot. No one wants to stand around mingling when it’s 95 degrees and 97% humidity, unless you’re at the pool, which only one family had, but it didn’t have a gathering space for more than a few, so it was rarely used by anyone outside of their immediate family.

It all happened at our annual Christmas party, which culminated in a gift-exchange. Unlike “white elephant” we kept it simple and just drew names to decide who was buying for whom. So, you were never really sure what you  were going to get. Sometimes you’d get something great, because they asked your mom what you wanted, and sometimes you’d get something not so great because they simply didn’t want to spend much money on you. But, as these things go, I didn’t hate it.

We almost always had the party  at my aunt’s house, probably because my grandmother did most of the cooking and she lived just a bit down the road from my aunt, making it easy to transport all of her casseroles and pies. My aunt, Shirley (not her real name), was a quiet woman. She was a gifted hair dresser, a craft she practiced in a building her husband bought for her out back behind their house. Usually, my step-mom cut my hair, but whenever aunt Shirley did it, I was in heaven.

Aunt Shirley had an eye for decorating and her home was exactly what Southern Living magazine would be like if they based their decorating on reality, which is usually the budget of a single, working-class income, and little more than a Michaels store for inspiration (hey, it was the country). However, it was a decided step-up from our own home, which was sparsely furnished and had very little by way of knick-knacks or art.

The highlight of the evening for me wasn’t mingling with the family; I couldn’t have cared less about that. No, what made the evening special was all the delicious foods and desserts I never got to eat at home. My step-mother kept a copy of “Sugar Blues” on her nightstand, which tells you all you need to know about eating at my house. But at these family gatherings, it was all there–pies, cookies, fudge even–just laying out on the table with no one to tell me “stop” or “that’s enough.” It was glorious!

For the main course that year, my step-mother volunteered to make gumbo, a southern main course-slash-soup that, to this day,  is one my Top 5 Favorite Meals. Now, there are as many variations on Gumbo as there are pronunciations of the great city of “New Orleans” with the only acceptable pronunciation being, “New Orlens” spoken quickly and with an emphasis on the “Or”. Anyone who doesn’t live there and tries to say it like “Nahlens” as if they DO live there, is just an idiot.

Back to gumbo; some of the differences you’ll find from one gumbo recipe to another comes mainly from the addition of different proteins. At its most basic, gumbo is a chicken-stock soup made from boiling a whole chicken until the meat literally falls off the bone. From there, you’ll find all sorts of seafood additions ranging from shrimp, to oysters, to scallops and crab. Usually, the “crab” wasn’t real crab, what with how expensive it is. Usually, the “crab” was artificially substituted with sweetened pollock. I’m not gonna lie; it tastes pretty good to me.

Now, there are two ingredients in gumbo that are non-negotiable. The first is the roux, a flour and fat concoction that sounds as delicious as it tastes in your final dish. To make a proper roux, mix equal parts flour and fat (preferably a flavorful fat like lard). I prefer good old bacon fat with the chunks filtered out. Mix the fat and flour in a hot pan or under the broiler in your oven until it is a rich golden brown. My step-mother made her roux in a pan in the broiler, but I find that too difficult to control. You can easily catch the flour on fire and that is not a mess you want to deal with. I prefer a heavy, cast-iron pan, on medium-high heat to start. Once it starts browning, you have to keep it moving, else it burns and then you have to start over.

My step-mother had a saying, “The darker the roux, the better the brew” and while I’m not sure I’d call gumbo a “brew,” a good dark roux will elevate your gumbo to a whole ‘nuther level.

The one other absolute must-have ingredient is okra. I hate okra. I hate picking it and I hate eating it, fried or otherwise. But okra is essential to gumbo both as a thickening agent and for its flavor. It’s as essential as “Gumbo File,” a fancy name for dried sassafras, which is nearly impossible to find in my area outside of Amazon.com. With the okra, put it in a blender until it’s gooey and then mix it with your gumbo base just before it all cooks together. You won’t even notice the gooey consistency as you’re eating, but anyone who has had real gumbo will immediately know if it’s NOT there.

Back at the party, with the socializing over, we all gathered together in the dining room for grace, which was usually led by my grandmother, a prayer-warrior of a woman. Despite her religious fervor, she said the fastest blessings you ever heard, which always struck me as hilariously funny for someone who began and ended every day reading her Bible and praying. With the Lord having blessed it all, we kids went to our small table in the breakfast nook while the adults gathered together at the big table in the formal dining room.

Within minutes, a steaming bowl of gumbo was delivered to me, along with a tall, cold glass of sweet tea and a small-stack of Saltine crackers. My cousin, who had grown up eating all the foods I was only just becoming acquainted with, instructed me to crumble up my crackers and mix them into my gumbo and when I did, I found another surprise. A ball of sticky white rice resting just under the surface of my gumbo. Yum!

Knowing the gumbo was right off the stove, I blew on it before venturing a taste. I tentatively put it in my mouth. As I did, my eyes widened and my mouth watered. It was delicious! I had another spoonful, and then another. But then, I stopped. Something strange was in my gumbo.

Let’s step back for a moment: while this was my first time eating gumbo, it wasn’t my first time eating shrimp. In fact, I had helped clean shrimp on a few occasions prior. For the uninitiated, when you get fresh shrimp, like right off the boat at the docks, you get the whole shrimp; head, whiskers, shells and all. The first thing most people do when preparing shrimp, is remove the head. But you have to be careful, particularly if you’re pulling them from a bag. Shrimp heads are like little nightmares, full of spikey  protrusions, all designed to protect their eyes and whiskers. If you’re not careful, you’ll catch one under your cuticle, or under your fingernail and that is a pain you do not want to deal with.

shrimp eyes

That night, as I stared at my bowl, I noticed something familiar floating around in the gumbo. A LOT of somethings in fact. What are those THINGS floating around in my bowl? Those small, round, pale gray orbs? And then it hit me: they look like shrimp eyeballs!

Well, you can imagine how that affected me. I put down my spoon and stopped eating immediately. A few minutes later from across the room my step-mother saw me sitting stock still and, knowing I was usually a quick eater, called out, “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you eating?” I mumbled something about my gumbo being weird and with a concerned look she told me to bring it over to her.

The twenty or so steps it took to reach the dining room, me carrying my bowl full of shrimp eyeballs, felt like an eternity.  When I got there, my step-mother peered over into my bowl and after a quick glance said, “What’s wrong with it? I don’t see anything.

I looked up at her, everyone at the table staring expectantly, and I said in a quiet voice, “It’s got shrimp eyeballs in it.

Have you ever really watched someone’s face when they’re reacting to bad news? Particularly when they’re having a good time and they see or hear something that immediately shuts them down? That was my step-mother’s face in that instant. She went from smiling to glaring in a micro-second and that’s when I knew I was in deep.

In a calm, measured voice, the one she reserved for when I was REALLY in trouble, she said, “Those aren’t eyeballs, they are okra seeds.

Despite the raging war clearly going on in her head, with one side telling her to do one thing and the other side reminding her where she was, in a measured voice she instructed me to return to the table and finish eating. I wish I could say I completely believed her and was able to set my doubt aside and eat my okra seeds, but I can’t. Okra was not a vegetable I was acquainted with and so there was no “A-ha!” moment for me. Rather, I ate my bowl of maybe-shrimp-eyeballs in silence, catching increasingly angry glares from the dining room.

That little episode cost me at least two days of the silent treatment, more on that in another blog. I never did understand why she got so triggered at such a simple misunderstanding. But, that was true of so many things with her. You never could tell if she was going to react with staggering ferocity, or if she’d just laugh it off and tell you go back out and play. In her later years, that duality become more pronounced, to the point where I have wondered if she is bipolar. I’ve never asked.

To this day, I can’t eat gumbo without reliving that night and without feeling that “pit of my gut” feeling under her withering gaze. Years later, we would laugh about it, or at least she would. Like so many things from my youth that she considered “no big deal,” the shrimp-eyeball-episode was a watershed event that left an indelible mark on my psyche.

But it also made me more attuned to my own kids’ eating habits and now, anytime I introduce something new to them, I’m careful to make sure they know what it is. And I never lie to them!

But then, I’ve never tried to trick them with liver-steak either.

On People Who Change Your Life Without You Ever Realizing It

House in Semmes

When my family moved out to the “suburbs” of Mobile, AL, I spent a lot of time by myself. Most afternoons, as soon as my dad got home, I was expected to work with him in the yard, or help him with some never-ending project on the house, until dinner or dark-thirty, whichever came first.

We bought our five acres, which to this day still sits in the middle of a large wood, from a family member whose first name was simply, “Joe.” By the time I met him, Joe was already an older gentleman, complete with a ruddy complexion and an impressively portly belly. He was also the father of my step-mother’s brother’s wife, making us distantly related by marriage. Joe owned a huge swath of land around our property, which included what I called a lake, but which was really just a large pond. A poorly maintained dirt road connected the end of our county-maintained dirt road at the end of our neighborhood to the lake about 3/10 of a mile back in the woods. From there, the road continued on around Joe’s expansive property. As I got older, that property line became my dirt-bike trail, with the added benefit of providing a fire-break in case something sparked in the middle of a long, hot Alabama summer (it never did).

I really didn’t know Joe all that well, nor he me. My step-mother and I spent a few summer days as guests at his home, by invite of his daughter (my step-mother’s brother’s wife) swimming in his pool. I can only guess that’s how he got to know that I even existed.

One day Joe asked my step-mother if I would be willing to work for him cleaning out the logs and other debris that floated up from the bottom of the lake, which tended to be a lot. When the lake was built, they roughly scooped out the hole, leaving a great many exposed tree roots that rotted away from the bottom of the lake as the years passed. He offered to pay me what I considered an obscene amount of money at the time, $50. All I had to do was pull the logs out of the lake and pile them up in one spot off to the side. Of course, I had to get my father’s permission to do this since my working for Joe meant I wasn’t available to help him. When my father agreed to let me work for Joe, it was an “Aha!” moment for me. For the first time in my life someone was willing to pay me to do something I would probably have been just told to do by my father if Joe had asked.

The days turned into weeks and over time, after school, a few hours here and there on the weekend, I did the work. I must have done a good job because Joe also invited me to come to his house and do other various jobs–scrubbing the accumulated grime from his pool walls and cleaning up his own lake. Again, for an obscene amount of money–$100.

Then, I didn’t see Joe for a while until one day he drove up late in the afternoon. Now, I had been told that Joe was a wealthy man and in retrospect, I believe that was likely true. Also likely true, most of his wealth was tied up in real-estate. Joe lived well, but not THAT well. I met his wife all of twice, and neither time did I get a feeling of warmth from her. What I did get, was a sense based on her appearance, her sparing glance at me, and barely a murmur of pleasantries, that she had expectations for how she lived and presented herself to others, which her husband, Joe, did not share.

Despite his presumed wealth, Joe drove an older model, light green, generic Chevrolet car. Most of the time he had the windows down even in the heat of summer, from which out peeked a couple of fly rods. He dressed like a man who had departed years ago for a laid-back African safari wearing khaki shorts, a light-colored short-sleeved button-up shirt, and work boots, having only lately returned wearing the exact same clothes, only very much the worse for the wear. Oh, and a straw hat. That was Joe.

This particular day I heard Joe pull into our driveway even before I saw his car, the limestone rocks my dad had deposited and I had raked out smooth, making a satisfying crunching sound under his tires. I had evolved a sort of sixth-sense and could detect the sounds and vibrations of vehicles coming down our long driveway well before you could see anything through the trees. It was a talent I put to good use whenever I heard my father’s truck come home of an afternoon. At which point, I’d quickly turn off the TV, throw away the detritus of my abundant snacks and run to the kitchen table pretending like I had been studying.

That day, my father was already home, and having heard/felt the car coming, I’d gone outside to see who it was. As soon as I saw the car, I knew who it was, which only served to pique my curiosity. Joe and my father were never friendly, despite our having purchased our land from him. I heard someone offhandedly comment once that the general feeling was, since we were charitably considered “family”,  we should have gotten a better deal than we did on the land. But, as a kid none of that mattered to me.

I figured Joe wasn’t there to chat up my father, so I cautiously stayed in the confines of our screened-in porch while Joe extracted himself, oh so slowly, from his car. Part of me was a little fearful I’d done something wrong down at the lake and that Joe was there to revoke my fishing privileges, which at the time consisted of me and a basic rod and reel and whatever earthworms I could dig up. But, as Joe exited his car, he reached into the back through one of the open windows and pulled something out and brought it over to the door where I was standing just inside.

Joe had brought me a fly rod and was inviting me to come fishing with him. I was speechless. This older man I hardly knew was showing me a kindness I’d never really experienced from anyone outside my immediate family and for a moment, I honestly didn’t know what to say. I did know that a fly rod was something sacred to Joe. I had seen him rhythmically casting out on the lake in his little green Jon-boat and I knew that fly fishing was, to him, something of a religion, complete with rules on the kinds of fish you should and shouldn’t take from the lake in order to maintain the delicate eco-balance.

Joe invited me to come learn how to fly fish and after incredulously getting  approval from my dad to “take the day off” we hopped in Joe’s car and headed back to the lake. Between the two of us, we dragged his boat down to the water, launched it and paddled out to the middle of the lake; a safe place where a novice fly-fisherman was unlikely to snag anything he couldn’t easily un-snag. All the while, only exchanging a handful of words. That was also “Joe’s Way.”

That day, Joe taught me how to tie a hook on a line and he taught me the basics of fly-fishing; how to hold the rod, how far back to take my wrist before whipping it forward in that rhythmic hallmark of fly fishermen everywhere. I didn’t catch anything, but that day I discovered my love for fishing. I also learned you don’t talk much when you’re fishing. It’s a very serious endeavor.

Joe and I only fished together a few times, but we did other things together. Joe knew all about maintaining the right balance between the types of fish and other aquatic animals and Joe assured me of two things: 1. If you catch too many bass out of the lake, the brim will overpopulate and then nothing ever reaches a size worth catching, and 2. Turtle are the bane of any lake’s existence.

Joe hated turtles. But since there aren’t many natural predators for turtles in Alabama, Joe made himself into a predator. He would bring his 22-rifle and together we would sit on the far side of the lake, aiming towards the woods and away from anything within miles that might catch a bullet. There, together we would scan the lake, patiently waiting for that tell-tale tiny turtle head to come up out of the water and when it did…POW! We missed more often than not, but we had some help from the resident alligator (which someone shot and killed years later), and together we maintained that critical balance. By the time I left home, there were easily seven-pound bass in the lake.

Once I turned sixteen, I never saw Joe again. Either my schedule or his conflicted, or maybe I just hit an age where he lost interest in trying to be friends. The marriage tie that bound us also deteriorated into a divorce, so perhaps that was the true cause of the dissolution.

Joe has surely passed away by now, and I don’t have any contact with his family, although I could probably find one of his grandsons if I tried hard enough. I wish I could tell Joe how much of an impact his simple kindness had on a lonely kid who felt overworked and under-loved. Thinking back, at the time Joe didn’t have any grandchildren, so maybe I filled that gap in his life, however small and for however brief a time. If so, I’m hopeful he derived some small pleasure from spending time with me.

Joe made an indelible mark on my life, in more ways than one. I think that’s one thing about getting older; you tend you think back and look deeper into the motivations of people, their actions, and the consequences of those actions. Whatever Joe’s were, it meant a lot to me then, and now. Rest in peace Joe. You did well.

The Joys of Butter and Crackers in 1978

I have a very strong “emotional brain”; that memory-jogging sensation you get from smells, which I’ve always thought was odd considering my penchant for sinus infections. I also put on weight like a sumo wrestler on a fast-food diet and so for the past few years, I have practiced–with varying levels of success–not eating lunch. Overall, it works. I’ve managed to lose, and keep off, about 5-7 pounds simply by skipping a meal. And no, it never gets easier.

By around 4pm, however, my will power has crumbled and though I tell myself I’m only going to the kitchen to refill my water glass, inevitably I end up with a snack. Having three kids, whatever snack I end up with is usually less about cravings and more about efficiency; what can I grab quickly and quietly before anyone else in the house hears me and comes down to the kitchen to stand and stare. Because I don’t eat during the day, having breakfast before the kids are usually up, I cherish the moments when I do eat and the last thing I want is to share–no, belay that, the LAST thing I want is to be judged for grabbing an Oreo by a 13-year-old.

The other day, as I came down for my usual “glass of water” I grabbed the pack of Saltines and went to make an old standby, “Saltines with Peanut Butter and Raisins” when, as I grabbed the jar of peanut butter, I found it nearly empty. Time being of the essence, I didn’t feel like scraping out the nearly empty jar with a silicone spatula, my usual cheap-skate dad-move, and then losing precious seconds getting another jar and having to remove the safety seal. So, instead, I quickly popped off the top of the butter dish and, using a Saltine, sliced off a slab of butter and stuck it in my mouth as I headed for the stairs.

I was immediately taken back to 1978. I was five. My parents had divorced the year earlier and since my dad, who we lived with, didn’t exactly cook, we were having dinner at a local favorite restaurant, LUMS. I knew nothing of LUMS’ history then, established in Florida initially as a hot dog shack specializing in beer-grilled dawgs. All I knew of LUMS was that they had the best hamburgers and fries; the burgers served up on thick buns that had been buttered and left to sizzle until golden brown on the grill.

But even before the hamburger came, there were packs of crackers and little foil-sealed packages of butter in plastic-wicker containers on each table, presumably as snacks while you waited. And I can remember opening those plastic cracker packages, usually with my teeth because I couldn’t quite tear them with my little pudgy fingers, and spreading some of the room-temperature butter (or Marjorine more likely) on the cracker and sticking in my mouth. Oh, the sweetness of those green-labeled Keebler Club  Crackers combined with the saltiness of the butter–heaven!

I processed all of this in a micro-second as I took the first step up the stairs, heading back to my office. But then I stopped, turned back, grabbed a paper towel and a butter knife, and made myself just a few more. Along with my glass of water, of course. It also occurred to me that, by eating nearly a third of a stick of butter, I completely negated my afternoon of fasting, but some things are worth it. Not the butter and crackers I had that day in my own house, but the memory of the butter and crackers I shared as a 5-year-old boy with my brother and my dad.

As I consider it now, it feels like it was probably one of the last, truly good memories we all shared together before the life we knew it changed completely and before “things” began the slow, inexorable slide to complete shit. And I realize that it was one of the few times I can remember living in the moment. Truly enjoying an experience while it was happening without worrying about next week, or tomorrow, or even five minutes from now. That person packed up and left a long time ago, but I liked him a lot.

From the Pentagon to Japan, and Back Again, Without Ever Leaving

During the second year of my Air Force enlistment, having long-since tired of the drudgery of the Pentagon, I put in a request for a transfer somewhere, anywhere. The request was borne out of desperation for something other than the secretive dreariness of our basement facility, or if I was lucky, the solitary 8-hour shifts locked behind a foot-thick steel door in a metal box on the third floor of the world’s largest office building. My request, and the subsequent reassignment, was a mistake, or so I thought at the time.

I grew up hearing, briefly now and again, stories of my father’s time in the military. He too was in the electronics field in the Air Force. All told, he spent seven years in, only leaving it to care for his dying father, though he didn’t know at the time his father was beyond saving. But my dad was stationed in western Europe–Germany and Italy primarily–though he traveled all over during his free time.

When you join the military, enlisted personnel first go to boot camp and it is there you select your “preferred” job and where you would like to be located for the next two years. You select jobs based on your test scores and based on the open jobs available on that particular day, which may not be the same jobs available tomorrow or the day after. So what you end up doing in the military is very often, directed randomness. Directed in the sense that if you score highly in mechanics, you probably won’t be offered janitorial jobs, and random because the types of jobs available change regularly.

I scored very well in all four testing areas so I had a variety of jobs to choose from. However, because my father was also in electronics, I gravitated towards that field. I don’t remember all of my options that day, but I do remember that as I looked over my choices, I couldn’t help but glance over at my friend “Price.”

Jason Price and I joined up in Alabama together and were shipped to Boot Camp together. We hit it off immediately. Airman Price always looked as if he was waiting to see if you were going to eat the bug he hid in your sandwich. If you’ve seen the movie “Full Metal Jacket,” Price looked like a thinner version of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle, but with the personality of Matthew Modine’s character “Joker.”

I glanced over at Price and we had both come to the same conclusion, “Pick jobs with really heavy security clearances. Those are cool!” And that’s what we did. We picked very technical-sounding jobs requiring a TS/SCI clearance. From the job descriptions we had very little understanding of what we’d actually be doing, but it didn’t matter. We thought then that having a high security clearance was reward enough in itself. After all, girls love mysterious guys, especially those in uniform!

After selecting your job, you are also allowed to select several potential permanent duty locations. I don’t remember exactly where I picked, but they were places I can remember my father talking about, so likely Italy, Germany, etc.

The thing about picking your job and permanent duty location in the military is that nothing is guaranteed. You are oft reminded of the motto, “Air Force Needs Come First.” Meaning, you can pick whatever you like, but if your government needs you in Ohio, that’s where you’re going. During the selection process, they do not tell you that “Job A is open in location A.” So you don’t know that if you select Job A, you’ll get to go where you want. Far more likely, the job you want to do is not even something that’s done where you want to go. So, for instance, if you select some niche job requiring a high-security clearance, but you want to go to a very popular place like Hickam AFB in Hawaii, well, good luck.

"Air Force Needs Come First"

Turns out Price and I both got our first picks, and after Boot Camp we were both sent to Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS for training. Being assigned to different dorms in Keesler, we drifted apart, but we remained friends for many years. Just before graduation from Technical School, we received our permanent duty assignments. I got the Pentagon and he got the Azores (I think). At the time, I thought he got the short end of the stick. I would later realize it was the other way around.

Two years later, when my initial time at the Pentagon came up, I was eagerly awaiting word of my next duty station. I hoped that having put in my time at the Pentagon, the Air Force would take pity on me and send me somewhere exotic and far away. By then, my parents had divorced (only months after I left home) and had moved to completely different places. I’d broken up with my girlfriend, and frankly, there just wasn’t anything keeping me stateside.

I’d heard stories from the older people I worked with, stories of places in Germany and Austria, and I longed to go and explore the mountains and open spaces, or really anything that wasn’t the confines of Washington DC and the ever-oppressive Pentagon.

As I came to work one afternoon (I worked Swing shift from 3pm – 11pm), I found an official-looking form in my box. With eager hands, I broke open the seal and with a flutter in my stomach, began reading about my next, wonderful duty station.

It said, “Pentagon, Washington D.C.”  I wasn’t going anywhere. I would fulfill my last two years in the Same. Damn. Place.

And so there I was two days later, standing in the Air Force administrative office filling out the form titled, “Permanent-duty, Voluntary Worldwide Overseas Transfer Request.” I had been told of this chance by a fellow I worked with, after lamenting my luck. This special form basically allowed you to appeal to a higher power in requesting a transfer. It was no guarantee, but from the Air Force’s standpoint, it was an opportunity to send some poor schmuck wherever the hell they needed him or her and there wasn’t a damn thing that person could do about it because they had asked for it.

And that’s exactly what my friend warned me about. He said, “Look, if you do this, you don’t have a choice at all of where they send you. It’s a complete dice roll.

I rolled the dice and a month later, I found another letter in my inbox. With similar excitement and more than a little trepidation, I opened the letter and read aloud my fate, “Camp Zama, Japan.”

Japan? WOW! I didn’t know anything about Japan at the time, but I knew it wasn’t here. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends, which I did that evening on shift.

Turns out, I was in trouble, or not, depending on who you ask. For starters, I currently had to live on an Army base because I was single and worked in the DoD. At the time, if you worked in the DoD and weren’t married (meaning you could live off base), you HAD to live on Ft. Myer (an Army base, which sucks) because it had a bus running to and from the Pentagon. The military had to provide you a way to get to work if you didn’t have a car, which I didn’t. So, I was now destined to move from one Army base to another. And this Army base in Japan, had even fewer  Air Force members, meaning I would be mostly working and living with Army people. Which, if you’ve ever been in the military, you know of the rivalry, and if you’ve not been in the military then just trust me when I say each branch thinks the other branches are morons.

Adding to my woes, Camp Zama was apparently out in the middle of nowhere Japan (two hours to Tokyo by train) and it was a pain in the ass to get anywhere; it was (and still is) a terribly ugly and squat little bit of a base with almost nothing to do, and you can forget about having your own transportation. All in all, I had gotten myself out of the frying pan and into the fire.

After chewing on my predicament a few days, I made an appointment to speak with my Colonel, a quiet but sharp woman of Asian descent. I presented myself in her office and explained what I had done and why, and respectfully asked her to try and nullify the request, something else I had been told was possible by my fellow Airmen. Again, no guarantees. With a knowing smile and a little nod, she agreed and a few days later she filed a counter-form stating that I had special training that benefitted the DoD facility in particular (which was true) and that my transfer would basically put her facility at a disadvantage for months until someone else could be found and trained to replace me (slightly exaggerated, but also basically true).

Her request was accepted and my transfer countermanded. I was back in the Basement.

I did spend my remaining time in the Pentagon. Nothing really changed. I turned 21, which helped me get out and enjoy the DC metro area more. I made friends with a similarly introverted loner, also afflicted with little tolerance for idiots, and he took pity on me and often invited me to spend the weekends with him and his folks out in Virginia Beach. I also got into fitness and spent most of my time running along the Potomac and pretending I wasn’t single and bored.

Near the end of my four years, I received my second “end of tour” transfer notice. The military assumes you’re staying in and so they go ahead and assign your next tour even before they know whether or not you are. This time, the letter said, “Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.” The advanced computer systems a few of us had been trained on in the Pentagon were now being installed in the highly-secure underground Cheyenne Mountain facility and since many of us in the DoD already had the requisite clearances, we were naturally good fits to move to Cheyenne, and a couple of my friends had.

But, the thought of moving from the basement and locked doors of the Pentagon, to a half-mile underground facility in Colorado, a place that was also a #1 target in a nuclear engagement,  was enough to send me running for the hills, or the foothills of Atlanta as it would turn out.

I have always regretted my decision of not going to Zama and I often wonder how my life would have changed had I gone. Certainly, I wouldn’t have ended up working with the well-paid civilians I worked with at the DoD, many who had the exact same training as me and were making six figures, something that would weigh very heavily on my choice to leave the military.

But from the outside, I can also see how the Pentagon was, in itself, a special place. It is a microcosm of military irony, where the kinds of things that happen there simply don’t happen anywhere else in the military, and where the expectations for how the “Chain of Command” works everywhere else, is turned on its head. In the Pentagon, you can find Generals filling coffee pots with water in the hallway; at any other base a Captain is revered as the Second Coming. At the Pentagon, an E-3 Airmen with authority issues, who would be a lowly nobody anywhere else, is treated like a real person and respected for his work ethic if he knows his stuff.

Looking back, it was possibly the best years of my life, or at least the most memorable and formative. All in all, it was good for me. Maybe not as good as Italy would have been if the pictures of my father with his arms around two girls leaning on his baby-blue Porsche are any indication, but still not bad.