1985-1991. Navy Memories IV: FAMU NROTC

It was a long drive from Seattle to Newport, Rhode Island and back to Greensboro, NC. Had a good time with old friends. Then south to Tallahassee by way of Jacksonville to visit with aging relatives. Arriving in Tallahassee I checked into a very seedy motel (lots of them in Tallahassee), bought a newspaper, went to the classified ads section and began my apartment search. I found something in the right price range that first day, made the call, met with my prospective landlord the next morning, and inked the deal. Moved in that evening and went shopping for little things for the house. With two weeks my stuff arrived from Bremerton, right in time for the start of classes.

I signed up for 23 hours my first semester. A heavy load but I had a plan. Finish in two years, return to the fleet for the four years I would owe, then resign my commission and get my life back on track. The Navy paid me my E6 salary, as if on shore duty, but tuition and fees were on my own dime. Lucky for me the NROTC provided all textbooks and after the first semester I qualified for tuition scholarships from the University each semester I maintained a 3.8 average. Minimizing the partying life and really buckling down to studying was an integral part of my plan.

There were some side benefits to my NROTC participation. As the ECP (Enlisted Commissioning Program) in the NROTC we were required to wear our khaki officer candidate uniforms to all classes, so clothing and wardrobe costs were minimal. The NROTC had lots of community involvement, like supervising the Special Olympics, JR ROTC trainings, etc. When a Tallahassee native was killed on the USS Stark, we attended the funeral and performed honor guard and 21-gun salute services. And of course, we Coke hawked, selling drinks in racks in the stands at FAMU and Florida State football games, for which the NROTC Unit received a tidy profit to sustain our operations.

Reggie and I met at Naval Science Institute and arrived at FAMU around the same time. Both previously enlisted, we had some things in common. Reggie had been a hospital corpsman. He helped me overcome my fear of the water and get my swimming qualifications done. For that he deserves special and honorable mention. And we had similar right-of-center politics. But Reggie would say, “slow down Ray, and smell the flowers. These are the best years of your life.” And for better or for worse, and I am willing to consider both sides, I was not interested in smelling no flowers. I had study groups in all my economics and business classes, and granted, some of those study sessions ended in overnights, but I remained focused on steering clear of trouble and getting top grades.

But that following summer I had my Waterloo. I met a woman while on a summer internship in Washington, DC who changed the course of the rest of my life. Now, before you go imagining something tawdry and lascivious and maybe even promiscuous, it was none of that, or, it never went that far, but I would never be the same man again. It began with little emails exchanged at work. Emails at work were a new thing in the mid 80’s, full of promise and potential. Marie used email to share with me samples of poems she wrote, mostly sonnets. I hadn’t written a sonnet since my mother’s death, so there was that reawakening. I tried writing sonnets back to her but fell flat on my face. I was not good at it. But I didn’t stop trying to write. The summer ended, I completed my internship and wrote a paper for which I would get academic credit in the fall. We parted ways and I returned to Tallahassee. But it wouldn’t be the end of our poetry interludes.

I was actually a bit crestfallen if not heartbroken that fall but I buried myself in my coursework, venturing over to the business school to take a course that was known as a GPA buster, Corporate Finance. At the foundation of the course, I discovered tons of microeconomic theory, my forte at the time, and very likely the element that most business majors lacked familiarity with and that made the course so difficult for them. Implicit in all that was a longstanding split between the business school, highly recognized and regarded, and the economics program, pushed out in a crazy power struggle between deans and professors, and eventually buried in the College of Arts and Sciences, nestled with history and political science. Ultimately, the business students paid the price, having to take the course over and over again until they got a sympathy pass.

Everybody in my study group got A’s, even the one or two who were taking the course for a second time and hoping for a C. We worked every problem at the end of each chapter, not just the assigned ones. And we found similar problem sets in related textbooks. I developed a “love interest” inside our Corporate Finance study group that lasted for a semester as those things often do. It turned out that a good reputation in the business school was lucrative in a manner of speaking – I attracted perhaps unwanted attention. At the end I was recruited for the MBA program on scholarship, but staying one more year was not a part of my plan. Maybe it should have been and the ROTC commanding officer told me a provision could be made to delay my return to the fleet to complete the MBA since I was finishing way ahead of my allotted time. But I was intent on sticking to MY plan.

Some poetry from the period:

“God ever keep us true to thee;
Thy faith that truth shall make men free,
Shall guide thy loyal sons aright
and fend them thru’ the skeptic night.”
FAMU Alma Mater

“When the dark clouds gather on the horizon
And thunder and lightning pierce the sky:
When faith is but a glint in the eyes of
The fallen Rattler, and hope, a lost friend –
When the sinews in the chest grow weary,
And the muscles in the legs grow tired,
From those hard charging linebackers –
You must always remember:
the Rattler will strike, and strike, and strike again.”  
FAMU Rattler Charge

Elegy for Rhia Walton

(Rhia died way too soon. I miss her, I miss our conversations, the letters we exchanged. I deeply regret not having expressed to her, while she was alive, how much she meant to me. There is an old Portuguese saying which translates “Death has no remediation.”)

Each time I pass through Richmond I feel
your presence more strongly than I ever did
when you were here with us,
Sharing with us our laughter and our fears.

Your departure was so sudden, so unexpected,
So tragic. We miss you terribly and
We’ve exhausted all attempts to fill the vacuum
That your withdrawal has created
In our hearts and in our conversations.

My love for you was a helpless infant
That, orphaned, must now fend for itself.
From time to time I feel the conspicuous
absence of some quality in life.
I know what is missing is you.

May 1986

Poem for Margaret Rose

When I visited Brazil I rented a bicycle
and rode out,
away from the city,
into the countryside,
trying to escape the tourist traps,
the nightclubs,
the crowded beaches,
the shops.
What I discovered convinced me
I had found paradise.

When I invited you to lunch
after calculus class,
your response
(Why do you want to have lunch with me?)
surprised and thrilled me.
I sought your company because you seemed
so pleasant, so unique, so different,
so attractive, yet so unassuming,
and I was so swept away by your charm.

And like the forests and jungles outside Rio,
what I discovered convinced me
I had found paradise.
Your friendship,
your kindness,
your trust are paradise:
all one; all the same.

Why should I draw a boundary
around paradise?

Tallahassee, May 1986

Poem for TFS

watching your unfolding
missing you when you’re absent,
intrigued by you when you’re present,
watching your unfolding …
missing you today in your absence,
burying myself in my studies,
trying to overlook the void
your withdrawal has created.
Anxiously anticipating your re-arrival …

Tallahassee, November 1986

Poem for KC

fascinated by her voice
calling me by the nickname
she invented when our friendship was new.

fascinated by her beauty
and the mysterious charm by which
she keeps me willingly
under her perfect spell.

fascinated by her independence
as she charts her own course
and steers her ship,
forthwith, to its destination.

fascinated by her love,
so elusive, yet so deliberate
and so express, and by the hope
that someday she’ll share that love
with me.

Tallahassee, December 1986

Haiku for CEH

I start and stop and
stop and start staccato-like,
through this night of nights

The songs I sing and
play and live reflects the love
your soul shares with mine.

In my loneliness
I call your name/ask for you
and you re-appear

and surround me with
your hope and strength and joy and
all the love you are.

Tallahassee, November 1987

Prelude

Every decision, it seems,
is a trade-off,
and each choice,
a rejection of all other options.

We oversimplify
to mask our true feelings.
We generalize
to avert the difficult question.

Our friendship,
our love is a complex being,
a life all its own
with wants and needs
that test our resolve.

Is it a mistake, a crime to feed it,
to allow it to blossom and grow?

Addendum

The things that I’ve always wanted,
I’ll always want:
tea for two at bookstore cafes;
chess games and poetry in city parks;
tender kisses at midnight
under summer moonlight;
white wine with honey-roasted almonds…

The things that I’ve laboriously earned,
I’ll laboriously keep:
enduring friendships and trusts;
memories of special moments
when love was sweet;
the deep-seated satisfaction of success;
lessons learned from failure.

November 1987

Sonnet #1

Dear friend, the sonnet seemed to be the best of forms
To test and gauge the status of our friendship born
Those years ago, amid the various interludes of summer’s nights;
Failure to give life to such a sweet creation would be quite
Disarming, and alarming, and a waste of all those precious
Talents, borrowed from the Muse of song and word and deed;
And if by chance our meeting and our wanting were unfounded,
We owe it to ourselves to search and find the function of that need.
Dear friend, though each has walked his separate path
To glory and to honor, let not the fleeting summer’s wrath
Blot out the blessings of the Sun to feed and nourish all we gained
And earned through work and play and love and joy and pain.
If reading sonnets opens up your vision,
Send me one to reveal your heart’s position

Jacksonville, FL March 1989

Sonnet #2

You try to steer me, gently, on a course
avoiding you, then call my love a butterfly’s,
point it to something new. “Take your deep desires
elsewhere” is the song you sing for me.
“Let’s always hold fond memories of the
love that used to be.” Well I’ve been around,
I know this town, I hear all that you say.
You’d rather not get serious, just be
best friends at play.

But my soul’s a mighty hunter
that has locked in on its prey. I will track
it, like the lion, in a very patient way.
And just when you least expect it, I
will be there for your needs.

Jacksonville, FL November, 1989 

Sonnet #3

A wounded beast, I stalk the corridors,
the passageways of my hidden, broken soul –
hungering for freedom from the wretched pain
that hems in, that locks up, and that ties in knots
my twisted thoughts, and renders everything
I touch an ill-begotten, uninspired blotch.
The memories of our June embrace
I struggle to preserve.  The touch, the taste
of love was sweet and tender, not the salt
and rust my present occupation yields to me.
Yet as we speak, I pace the halls, the
closets of our mind, and searching, I uncover
the one I came to know and grew to love
Yet lives, and writes, inspired from above.

Mayport, FL February, 1990

Sonnet #4

Your sonnets reached my mailbox today.
I plunged into them like a dog in heat.
Absorbing them, my hardened soul was moved
to tears of passion, blinding, bittersweet.
The symphony of words you now compose,
Resulting from deep inspirations, pure,
You weave, majestically, as from an ancient source,
And share with me and cause me to conjure
New images. Lines that bear the current and
The voltage of the engine of my soul,
Your whispers loosen knots that bind me,
Your words unwind me, make me whole.
And work I must to now retain
These prayers I send up in your name.

Jacksonville, FL March 1990

Sonnet #5

Dear friend my evening well was spent
Engaged in thoughts’ exchange, review,
Revealing my ill soul’s intent
To heal itself, be born anew.

I love your rhythms, rhymes and notes,
They lift my spirits, higher, ever.
You are the perfect antidote
For poisoned darts and hearts that sever.

Tonight I need a stronger brew,
Poured in a mug, steeped with emotion,
Some blend of herbs my fathers knew,
a wine of sleep, a witches’ potion.

My thirst is far from being quenched.
My heart and soul in pain are drenched.

Mayport, FL March 1990

Sonnet #6

I’m torn between two sinking ships,
Two jealous mistresses who hate.
To choose one is to choose them both:
The choice is clear; I hesitate

Deciding and the moment slips away.
New ships are landing at my pier
From places strange, from shores untold.
They beckon me to come aboard,

I hesitate. Once more events unfold
Revealing feelings that are blue.
My pilot bids me change my course,
Steer clear of danger, shallow shoals.

I navigate the ship through storms
To reach the resting place of souls.

Mayport, FL March 1990

Sonnet #7

Dear faithful friend, the spirit
Of the verses that we write,
Excites us and invites us
To relive that summer’s night.

There are those who do not put stock
In resurrection’s power;
They hem and haw at warnings
Of the coming of the hour.

I too had doubts about beliefs
That dead could come to life,
Then my forgotten love for you
Was resurrected, born anew . . .

A stronger and far deeper love
Is one twice born, sent from above.

Mayport,FL  March 1990

Sonnet #8

Unclothed we come into this world, possession-less, alone,
The odyssey to reach each goal acquaints us with new pain,
Each stumbling block, despite the odds, becomes a stepping stone,
And every loss, a predecessor to a greater gain.

Our meeting was revealed to me when I was but a child:
A revelation of a form, a loveliness, pristine,
Yet planted in my heart was that pure vision, undefiled,
Someday to manifest itself just as it was foreseen.

I found you when I lacked the wherewithal to make you mine,
Distressed, perplexed, I felt compelled to spell my love that June.
That summer’s love was but a glimpse into a world divine,
A harbinger of better days, of times more opportune.

We’ll meet again and then we must decide upon the hour
When we’ll allow our destinies to intertwine and flower.

Mayport, FL March 1990

Sonnet #9

We’ve been delayed from getting underway.
This pause affords me time to write to you
Some thoughtful verse, to contemplate, to pray,
To call my father’s gods, subdue
The passion, pain, excitement of the day.
I read your sonnets, gifts of Spring,
About our love one June.
I miss our chats when I’m away at sea.
Communion with you makes me know I’m blessed.
The poet in me prays you’ll always be
My friend, my lover, object of my quest,
And sonneteer of magic poetry.
March love outlives the summer’s fling,
‘Cause summer ends too soon.

Mayport, FL  March 1990

Sonnet #10

When overburdened with the cares and woes
Of everyday travail, I take a pause
To recollect, arrange my thoughts, compose
Some verse for you, attempting to disclose

A word, a clause, the laws that bind our hearts
Together in a total work of art.
Our love cannot be bound by words and notes,
Though flawed, confined to secrecy, and mute.

We can’t stand on a mountaintop, promote
Abroad this feeling, though it keeps our boat
Afloat amid the sunken wrecks, unmarked,
Unseen by those who fail to read the charts . . .

I love you, yes, I can’t ignore the force
That steers me steady on life’s stormy course.

Mayport, FL March 1990

Sonnet #11

Before I fall asleep each night I read
The poems you’ve sent: they are my prayers, my hope,
My joy, prescription for my timeless need.
I read them twice, I measure every slope

And curve, defining and deriving their
Delights, despite the doom you recommend
Our end would be if we should ever touch
Our lips to lips, our flesh to flesh again.

My compass true, my anchor sound, I’ll find
The key to treasures long forgotten, long
Unrecognized, preserved within the mind
Of poets who still sing the sonnet’s song.

And you, my friend, write on your sullen dirge.
I wager we’ll survive its sterile purge.

Mayport, FL March 1990

Sonnet #12  

One April day the crew got underway,
With Captain’s-gig and hopes and spirits high,
Embarking on a lark to old St. Augustine,
To seek for LUCE the blessing of the fleet.

We passed shacks, mansions, rich and poor that lined
The shore. Along the beach the sand was brown
Like mud; ebb tide exposed the rotted posts
Where fishing boats and captain’s gigs could land.

LUCE led the slow procession past the stands
Where stood the Bishop, color guard, and friends,
He sprinkled us with water from his hands,
And smiled and spoke his blessing for the fleet:

God bless the fleet that shields our shores from harm.
Protect the ships that silence war’s alarm.

Mayport, FL April 1990

Sonnet #13

A young man’s life expired on my ship
Today.  He walked aboard at dawn, intent
(One must assume) to start his day, his life
Anew.  Then suddenly, without consent,
Without the chance to bargain, beg, or plead,
The messenger of death unsheathed his sword,
Cut off the breath, suppressed the beating heart
Of life once vibrant, cocksure, confident.

A young man died, was his the first, the last
To reach the end of dreams, the final breath
To take? When all the storms of life have passed,
And evil’s jurisdiction over souls
Is brought to naught, the truth, once crucified,
Will rise to save the souls of hopes that died.

Mayport, FL April 1990 

Sonnet #14

Dear friend, I listen to your poems of late,
And contemplate the dreaded thought of life
Without the prospect of your fond embrace;
I reminisce about that kiss one June:

Too soon, too late to consummate; too true
To be denied, too pure to not be sure
That God intended for our souls to dwell
As one, exclusive, all-embracing love—

No matter what the future holds in store,
I did, I do I’ll always love you more
And more; though distance separate us far,
I’ll search the constellations for that star

That shines in you. And should I die, too soon,
Apart from you, we’ll meet again one June.

Jacksonville, FL April 1990

Sonnet #15

Dear friend, with pen in hand and feelings true
I sing for you this song. Despite my voice,
Too base in places to be understood,
You’ll sense the message: soothing, moving, light,

Disarming, satisfying. Rendezvous
Tonight with me, take flight, delight, rejoice
In that we share this love, exchange this word
That lives past sunsets, through the darkest night.

I can’t contain the energy this thought
Now generates: it makes me want to dance,
Sing, shout, tell all the worlds, turn somersaults;
It makes me grateful, thankful for romance.

When passing passions blue bid me adieu,
I seek safe harbors, true, kind friend, near you.

Mayport, FL April 1990

Sonnet #16

Today I watched the shuttle launched towards space.
A tail of fire plowed the southern morning sky
Until it disappeared. I thought about
The people there, behind the scenes, who made,
It all occur. There’s someone there whose life
Is less than free from care, a lonely heart,
Dis-eased, distressed, beset by worries, woes,
Who, overcoming all, finds sweet the reaching
Of the goal. There’re happy ones who feel the tinge
Of sadness at the thought of those who’ve missed
By fate the thrill of launch complete, the charm,
The pure romance of making dreams come true.
The shuttle jets toward heaven, far away
From troubles, closer still to hopes ideal.

Mayport, FL April 1990

Sonnet #17

Dear friend I left our poems ashore to gain
A clear and fresh perspective on romance
So new, unfolding through these notes exchanged
By mail. In some respects I’m at a loss
For words that rhyme: these thoughts, sublime, contain
The elements of hope divine, the chance
That you might share, with me, again, unchanged
Thrills sought and found that star-crossed night in June.
It can’t be as it was. It must be less
Or more. Our lust for life has aged, matured,
We’ve wined and dined on bittersweets, endured
The loss and gain of joy’s and pain’s excess.
And yet I can’t forget that night in June,
When we read Shelley, kissed, and touched the moon.

Mayport, FL May 1990

Sonnet #18

The spirit’s come and gone. And yet remains
The hull, the shell wherein no true love thrives
Today. The salvaged traces laugh at me,
At us for make-believing fairy-tales
And happy endings where romance is sweet,
Where love runs deep, where passions overflow,
Eclipsing sun and moon and night and day.
The spirit waves good-bye and with a sigh
I lift my eyes, my chin, my sinking heart
To God, to plead for strength to understand
This plan, this life so fraught with strife, so full
Of chance and happenstance and foiled romance.
The deed is done, its end is near. Revere
The strength that overcomes a darkened year.

Jacksonville, FL May 1990

Sonnet #19

Two months have passed since last I read from you
A poem, wherein you bid your heart awake,
Return again, transcend that hellish gore
Where life and love are but the vapid glow
Which covers, hides and smothers innocence.
I beg to understand, to know the truth
About that grave whereof you speak, where fools
Like me are brought, at last, to dismal ends.
My love of life is greater than my hope
That we might share again the joy we knew
That June. Another spring is come, and June
Will visit soon enough to cast its spell.
My love for poems and poets knows no end—
I can’t be just the object of your pen.

Jacksonville, FL June 1990

Sonnet #20

Dear friend, take up your pen again, compose
Those works of art that live and breathe and sing
The rhapsody of love and hope. Revive
Anew in you the spirit of the Muse
To guide, to entertain, and to enthuse.
Restore the democratic art, the urge
To write, embraceable, attainable
By all. Take up your pen, today, obey
God’s highest call: express the good, the true,
The beautiful. Articulate in verse
Life’s purest, deepest, noblest sentiments;
Preserve in rhyme and rhythm secrets sent.
Take up your pen again, the times demand
Your words be heard, your dreams rise up and stand.

Jacksonville, FL July 1990

Sonnet #21

Remember years ago when we first met?
You selling books, me browsing, reading books
At Brandon’s store? We were so young, and life
So unrevealed, so full of promises
And boundless hopes and dreams, and guarantees
And opportunities. You went away.
I stayed and made mistakes. We met again,
You east, me west, you school, me ships and seas.
Confused, we erred and severed friendship’s bond,
And all seemed lost between us save a thread,
A laser beam of hope that, over time,
Compressed, distilled and purified, survived
Until today. We meet again. What fate
Awaits is ours to plan, to recommend.

Jacksonville, FL July 1990

Sonnet #22

I look back to the time we shared and smile,
And smile and grin and laugh with joy untapped
Before that smile. Our spirits span the miles
That separate our hearts, that keep us trapped
Apart, detached, disjointed from that source
of strength, of love the gods bequeathed to gods
At birth. We rendezvous beyond, outside
The force of chance and fate. Our senses fuse,
United endlessly in time and space;
The spark of life ignites and multiplies,
Acknowledging a power all its own.
Dear friend I can’t ignore the call of June:
In just a few short weeks we’ll meet, we’ll taste
The chilled sweet wine, fermented, aged and pure.

Greensboro, NC May 1991

Sonnet #23

Dear faithful friend I count each passing day,
I pray for time to instantly elapse,
Events to fill the gaps that separate
And isolate my life from thine. Oh fate,
Do draw me nearer, nearer to the heart
That beats in sync, in step with mine– to thee,
To thee, sweet angel of my childhood dreams!

I’ll smile to see you, touch you, taste your smile,
And all the while my soul has longed to lodge
Near yours will seem like but a brief delay,
A short, short stay away from heaven’s bliss.
I fantasize that when we meet we’ll kiss,
And cry, and tears will rinse away, dissolve
The walls we’ve built to hold in check our love.

E. Palo Alto, CA July 1991

Let’s plan a picnic

Let’s plan a picnic, dear, for Saturday,
walk hand in hand through woods
until we find our secret place again.
Then spread the lunch
we packed upon the ground and have a feast:
Ummmmm! Barbecued chicken, coleslaw, string beans
And potatoes, deviled eggs, candied yams;
Two hearts that share a secret sentiment
of June romance;
please pass the deviled eggs,
and let me hold your hand.
I must confess I love you;
yes, my heart and soul have found
their match, their mate in you:
I cannot rest from hoping
that this dream will soon come true.

East Palo Alto, July 1991

Thank you note

Thank you for letting me spend the night.
I was very tired and I went quickly
into a rather deep sleep.
I don’t even remember
when you turned off the TV
and came to bed:
went to bed, I should say.

The singing of the birds
woke me up shortly after dawn.
I listened to their music
for almost an hour.
It was soothing and exhilarating.
I discovered the coffee in the grinder;
thank you for your thoughtfulness.

I peeked in on you
a couple of times.
You look so peaceful
when you sleep,
so innocent and childlike.
I wanted to bend over and kiss your face,
but I didn’t want to startle you
or break your peace.

So I had a cup of coffee instead.

Being here with you is
like a dream come true.
Exactly.  Precisely.

East Palo Alto, July 1991

Sonnet #24

Dear friend, perhaps our paths may cross again:
Perchance, we’ll meet together at the top,
Or down below, beneath the crowds, inside
The underground. Perhaps we’ll be united
By a cause, a hope, a dream, a fantasy . . .
Perhaps we’ll join together out of fear
Or love for something we perceive to be.

It matters not my love, the force, the source
That consecrates the ground on which we’ll meet:
It matters not the season of the year
(Though June is sweet!), nor the place that destiny
Prescribes, we’ll meet! The Muses tell us so!
Though circumstance as yet precludes the fate
The gods have planned, I wait, I wait, I wait…

E. Palo Alto, CA August 1991

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