Monday, October 9, 2017

A Peculiar Crime On Government Property

One of my Facebook friends encountered something odd the other day. Waking up that morning, as she described to us, she had discovered that someone had stolen one of her garbage pails during the night! Disturbing, certainly, but at least no burglary was involved. There was no breaking and entering the domicile while she was sleeping. And thank God it was not a robbery! No “force or fear” was involved. It may have belonged to a municipality, which could make the matter better or worse. They might take her word for it that the thing was stolen, or they may accuse her of having sold it go get money for . . . let’s say groceries, okay? But you know what they’d be thinking. It was a violation, though, hopefully it did not grow to include multiple violations. Even life’s smaller violations are annoying.

Annoying, and often somewhat perplexing. I was reminded of the smallest loss of property that I have ever suffered by theft, which coincidentally was also the most perplexing.

I was a guest of the United States Navy when it happened, a guest and a dues-paying member of the club, too. My regular quarters at the time were in the desert outside of Las Vegas, but the Navy had become suspicious of my general demeanor and sent me to a really lovely Naval facility in San Diego, California, to get to the bottom of things. They wished to discover whether my suspicious behavior was due to: 1) malingering; 2) skylarking; 3) a wish to be discharged from my responsibilities without actually having done anything wrong; 4) some kind of mental aberration; or 5) maybe I was just wound too tightly.

For this purpose, I was housed in an unlocked ward in the Babloa Naval Hospital, in the section of the hospital devoted to matters not relating to physical injury or illness. The ward was quite crowded with a diverse group of mostly young men who all fit into one of the above mentioned five categories.

The biggest group were the bad attitudes, the guys who either couldn’t stay out of trouble or who wouldn’t do anything simply because an officer had ordered them to do it. Most of them were easy to get along with. There was one guy about nineteen-years-old whose job, like mine, was to drive a panel truck around the local city accomplishing the errands of the Navy. While I merely took ordinary care not to damage my vehicle while it was in my possession, this young man had gone a bit overboard caring for his truck. He washed and polished it daily, after hours and well into the evening. He made the motor pool guys crazy, and they in turn decided that he was crazy. He was sent to Balboa so that the issue could be decided by professionals. The rest of us in the ward voted for “crazy,” since the guy wouldn’t shut up about his truck and how much he was worried about it. I suppose he could have been acting, but he didn’t seem smart enough to sustain such a perfect act. I’m sure they got rid of him.

There were a couple of guys who had been thrown into the service by their families, thrown to the lions, as it were, in a desperate hope that the service, either the Navy or the Marines, would make a man out of them whereas up to that time they had been hopeless dipshits who could never defend themselves or play games with other boys, guys who had never climbed a tree or had a fight in their lives, guys that cried if you looked at them funny. That effort never works, the military cannot assist with miracles like that. They were pathetic, and we left them as alone as possible.

The Vietnam War was in high gear at the time, and we had a couple of shell-shock victims. Marines, you know, are members of the Navy for purposes of administration and transportation. The “combat fatigue” group were over in the other end of the ward, which was just a matter of turning left instead of right when you walked in. There were a couple of mumblers who wouldn’t look you in the eye. We could kind of talk to them, and we were sure that they’d be okay before long. They walked to the galley for their meals. It’s just that not everyone is cut out for combat. All of that sleep deprivation, coupled with the explosions and the incoming gunfire, gets to many people after a while. There was one very sad case, though. He was a gunnery sergeant, that’s a big deal in the Marine Corps, about forty-years-old. He never said a word, and he never looked at anybody, and evidently, he had not done either thing since he snapped on an afternoon in the combat zone when things got a bit too exciting for him. Snap, just like that, and he stayed snapped for the entire three weeks that I was there. He woke up every morning, made his bed Marine style, showered and shaved, put on his greens (their kind of casual dress uniform), tie and all, with all of the buttons buttoned, including his impossibly shiny shoes, and then sat ramrod straight in the chair next to the bed, staring straight ahead. We gave him room to breathe. I hope that he came out of it okay.  

My friend losing her garbage can caused me to recall something that happened during my San Diego vacation at the Navy’s expense, and set me thinking down these old avenues.

It was an open ward, so one’s private space extended about a foot and a half in every direction from one’s own bed, and no further. New arrivals are advised to place their wallet and wrist watch in the far end of their pillow case and sleep with their heads between the valuables and the open side of the pillow case, with at least one hand grasping the items through the closed end of the pillow case. Anything you don’t want to lose, boys, put your Zippo in there, too. I did that, and the system worked fine.

One morning, I woke up on time and performed my ablutions as usual. I made up my bed and got dressed. I sat on my chair and got my shoes from under the bed and low and behold, ONE OF THE SHOELACES WAS MISSING. Only one of the shoelaces. I think that my first words were, “who steals one fucking shoelace?”

This event was annoying, but it was also unfathomably peculiar, because there were multiple shopping opportunities close at hand, all of which sold shoelaces. I took it as a lesson that some people are just so naturally disposed to the theft of property that it would never occur to them to buy a nineteen-cent item that is readily available nearby when one of that item was even closer and could be stolen with only a slight chance of being found out. I walked slowly to breakfast, and afterwards I stopped off and bought a pair of shoelaces.

At the end of my three weeks, the Navy decided that I was just wound too tightly. They added a finding that I was not attempting to get myself discharged from the Navy, which enabled them to give me an Honorable Discharge with a clear conscience. (“Catch 22” in action.)

The odds are that I knew the guy who took the shoelace, and that we got along fine. I got along with everybody very well in that place, black, white and Hispanic. We’re all closing in on seventy-years-old about now, and wherever you guys are, I wish you all well.

No hard feelings about the shoelace. 

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