So It Happened Like This
by Mike Durr
In every generation there is a vitality that did not exist in previous generations. This vitality, this burning heart fire is what makes us great or greedy, good or bad. For me the fire in my heart was not realized until I was in the fourth grade. Growing up in Covington, Kentucky in those days was no different than growing up in any other small town along the muddy brown Ohio River. Only a mile across the river, Cincinnati was the home of those fantastic Royals, led by Oscar Robertson. And the home of America’s first professional baseball team, the Redlegs. The tall buildings and bright lights were just over the suspension bridge, which most people pointed to with pride, declaring it was the original model for the Brooklyn Bridge. Covington had then and still does a melancholy feeling. As if leftover ghosts from the Underground Railroad still existed in the damp, dark, hand-burrowed passages of the hidden tunnel—a tunnel dug in a desperate effort to gain freedom from slavery by escaping to the North. It was a secret tunnel dug ages ago, but all of us kids knew where it was and we knew the ghosts were there. The ghosts also walked the alleys and quiet places of the town at night. Sometimes in the heat of summer you could hear calliopes from riverboats and see reflections of spectral images gliding north toward precious freedom.
The summer after my tenth birthday I broke into the tunnel and explored. The cool, dripping, moss-covered passage, blanketed in darkness for nearly a century, called to me with a promise of freedom and I answered the call. I walked where no one had since the Civil War. With the mighty river coursing above, I moved fearlessly through the dark. After awhile I could feel the great desperation and fear of those who had dug the tunnel, and they bore into my spirit and stayed with me long and hard as I grew up. To me they seemed to offer a warning: “Look what had to be done for our freedom. Nothing less. What will you do for your freedom? Stay here, like those who were afraid to cross under the water, and you will never have it.” I was just a kid and the message was not quite clear. I was too simple to understand, too unaffected to know. As the years passed I never went back to the tunnel. But I felt the ghosts and their influence was great within me.
By the time I was nineteen I was desperate to get away. The ghosts of freedom had stoked high the fire in my heart. So on Christmas Eve, just two weeks after my birthday, I joined the Navy. Three days later and for the first time in my life, I was aboard a jet, strapped in, scared and sweating despite the cold December snow outside the window. The plane gathered speed and left the runway, carrying me North above the dirty ice-caked river. Carrying me to freedom? In reality carrying me to the Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois. I still remember the fear on that freezing, dreary gray afternoon. I was more afraid than at any time in my life. Only the ghosts sustained me. “What are you willing to do for your freedom?”
Late December in Illinois was much the same as in Kentucky. Everything was hard frozen, dirty gray and cold. The Naval Training Center was a collection of sooty, peeling, white wooden buildings, leftover from the Second World War. Old steam-heated buildings, well past their prime, with skins of frost on their warped wood-framed windows. Cracked and peeling paint covered the doors and walls like the dermis of an old leper long since resigned to death. No spit- and-polish Navy Pride, just a winter way station on the road to Vietnam. Oddly enough I felt ghosts here also. Not spirits in desperation but of it. They carried a fear and stink of wars long ago fought. Salt spray and fiery North Atlantic combat. These were spirits of unforgiving conflict and loss. I could sense them, hear them in their anguish, but I was unable to understand the message. I couldn’t yet realize what I would do for my freedom. So I trained with 71 others and grieved the absence of my family and friends. I ate, worked, slept and even breathed Navy. If the training center was not a proud place, I was becoming a proud seaman. Like the ghosts of this place, I was headed for war.
My war was not to be a conflict of cruisers and battleships. No destroyers hunting submarines on the high seas of the North Atlantic. No cobalt-blue shipping lanes of the tropical Pacific. No dolphins riding my bow wave through the vast clear sea. I was headed for the dirty brown water and deep green jungles of Indochina. Headed for the sweltering heat where every insect knew the taste of human blood. A place where the desperation of the oppressed was matched by the desperation of the oppressor. A place where every day spent outside a body bag was counted as a good one. A place where every good day meant 24 hours less to spend in hell. But I did not know these things until later. I could not even have guessed what I would do for my freedom.
Mike Durr is originally from Independence, Kentucky. He attended Holmes High School, University of La Verne, and University of Southern Mississippi. A member of the Department of Defense for 21 years, Mike is also a former High School Science teacher and Nuclear Security Training Supervisor. Currently, Mike lives as a pirate in either Florida or Bocas Del Toro, Panama.
Watch for the Honorable Mention stories next week!