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(1997) by Sid Harrison ETCM(SS) USN(Ret)

Impressions and memories often come to the surface in bits and pieces. These are remembered fragments of thoughts by an eighteen year old who was on the edge when the Navy brought order and purpose to a life that at the time seemed to be on the road to nowhere.

The following are some of those recollections jotted down years ago in my notebook on a ship somewhere - long after the boy was left behind.

I suppose that many veterans have made a similar journey into manhood when things needed to be set right...

...and the Navy was the first part of the trip.

Having the wanderlust. To thrill at the sight of a train.

"Swing aboard 'er son", says an old man, "Goin down to Davenport myself. Ain't been home in five years."

Lean back. Put your face against the linen on the seat back.

Feel that engine pulling you west.
Goin' down the mountain. Here we go boy.
Nothing outside but black reflection.
Train smells. Smell of luggage. Smells of baby milk. Smell of newspapers and hair tonic.

Through the American night: the salesman, the tourist, the sailor.

Voices on a train.
Woman with child, "Goin to Denver to visit my sister".
Baby crying. "What's the matter darlin'? Mommy's here".
"Oh isn't she a doll?"
"Might I hold her? There now, look, why I do believe she's hungry. You little pig. And I just fed her".
The voices fade and he sleeps.

Morning train - bad taste in the mouth of cigarettes and coffee.

Cold. Cramped. Sky all gray.
There's a mist along the ground. Must be into Oklahoma by now.
There's a windmill. Saw a windmill once. Can't remember where.
When I was a kid I guess. When I was a kid...I was a boy...I was...
Now...goin' west.
A man now. Headin' west.
Train on a foggy morning in Oklahoma and I'm a man.
Sounds strange. So used to being a boy. Don't feel different.

Have to get some of those postcards from Arizona or New Mexico.
Here I am going west and the folks never been in more than three states.
Couldn't stand that.
Going to see this old world boy.
Yessir, goin' to see the world. See her. Feel her. Make love to her.

"Is the dining car open? No? Guess I'll clean up before breakfast."

This is the life.

He's heading west. Going with the prairie schooners. Past the bleached bones in the sand. Past small towns of low adobe buildings with souvenir signs on station platforms. He buys postcards at a small town somewhere in New Mexico.

All around him he sees America.

To the north are the mountains whence the silver ribbon wound it's way through deep gorges past racing waters braking on the down grades cars slamming together, swaying around the bends, racing with the ocher colored cliffs as the cold foaming mountain stream set the pace 15 feet to the left of the tracks.

Dust whirls across the land as he stands on the station platform surveying mountains and blue sky. The mountains barren, their jagged cliffs softened in the white hot afternoon light. Cactus and mesquite grow at their base and he could see distant shacks in the valleys. He saw the Indians in their faded levies and plaid shirts, sweat stained straw hats pulled low over alert black eyes. He felt and saw. He smelled the sky, the mountains, the silver tracks, the hot dust and train grease.

In his mind's eye he sees a wagon train driven by tired sunburned men, scouted by other lean hard men on dusty horses. Their children peeking shyly from canvas covered wagons. He breathes deeply, feeling more alive than he had ever felt and knowing that everything will somehow be all right and that he will live forever - he reboards the train.

Blue Navy jumper tossed in the rack above - the heat pressed in on him and wrung rivulets of sweat that quickly evaporated from his tee shirt in the dry air. The train leaned and jiggled through the turns alongside empty beer can lined roads. Newspapers, water stained and brown, lay discarded among the brush in deep ditches.

They wind their way to California.
"California here I come...gonna strike it rich in dee-light-ful, sunny Southern Cal."

"What are you going to do little boy when you grow up?"
"Why ma'am I'm goin to California to be a sailor."

San Diego....and the sky is punctured with jet trails. The ocean, sliced by men-of-war.

Boot leave is now over. The journey awaits.....That sure is one big f**king ocean.

All secure.