"Slipping Into Darkness"
by Michael D. Merrett
Chapter One –Chasing a dream
There is definitely something to be said for the innocence and naivety of youth. We are so hopelessly oblivious as children aren’t we? Conflicts that were occurring around the globe while I was still a child seemed so distant they might as well have been taking place in a galaxy far, far away because I was too preoccupied with just being a kid. That was so long ago and the world of my childhood seems so remote, like a veritable alien landscape now that I have reached adulthood. Life as a grownup can be so convoluted that there are moments when I pinch myself and wonder if I was ever really a child at all. I occasionally ask, did that really happen or was it just some strange, magical dream? I remember vaguely that war, poverty and strife seemed a million miles away. In my adolescent mind, genes were something I slid my legs into when I wanted to go out and play. The world was our playground and even though I was forced to wear thick glasses that kept falling off my nose at the most inopportune moments, there always seemed to be a friend around to help me find them and bring my world back into focus. If problems did arise that we kids could not handle, moms and dads would always be there to take care of everything. I was oblivious to whatever potential dilemmas the future might have in store for us. I remained completely unaware of the gathering gloom that would soon swirl around me. If I had to do it all over again, I would have gone the route of Peter Pan in a heartbeat and simply refused to grow up.
The history books recount the 1950’s and 1960’s as being somewhat turbulent decades. I suppose I should consider myself fortunate indeed to have come through them relatively unscathed being a nearsighted lad and all. There were a few exceptions, like that day the older kids in our neighborhood were having difficulty finding an activity to amuse themselves. A few of the more inventive geniuses (who I seriously doubt went on to become members of the Mensa Society) came up with the brilliant idea of perching themselves on top of the garage in our back yard… with a bunch of rocks. While their accomplices below lured unsuspecting younger kids into the garage, the older kids on top would wait for them to walk back out and they would drop their projectiles trying to bonk them on the head. This brilliant scheme probably started out as innocent fun but whoever was assigned the job of collecting the rocks must have been one sadistic son of a bitch. They were not little pebbles like any halfway-sane person would employ and were instead the size of a fist.
Fortunately, the older kids who assumed the duties of dropping the rocks all suffered from “terrible aim syndrome” but as luck would have it, they did manage to hit one unsuspecting fool…and that was me.
It was a glancing blow, but it did draw blood and once everyone saw red they all panicked and the game quickly ceased. I was patched up by my mom and escaped with little more than a slight dent on the hood. While it could be my imagination, I can still feel it to this day depending on the amount of alcohol I consume on a given occasion.
hit on the head by falling rocks aside, childhood was still such a joyous
affair. Frolicking in the snow, endless days at the beach, toys on Christmas
morning…ah the memories are almost too much to endure. Before I could say “I
want a Genie just like Barbara Eden when I grow up” however, it all came to a
crashing conclusion. I found myself at an age where it was too late to worry
about going off to fight in
After college, I found myself working for a bank accounting department and while I cannot remember exactly how I ended up there, I do vividly recall being bored out of my tree. I found working with numbers about as appealing as being hit by fallen rocks and I was going nowhere in that position fast. Even worse, getting up for work everyday was beginning to feel like Chinese water torture. The first few drops seem ridiculously easy to tolerate but it isn’t long before you find yourself begging like a whimpering child for your tormentors to make it stop. Not that I have ever had first hand experience with such matters but I have been told on more than one occasion that I possess an incredibly over-active imagination.
They say when all else fails, “follow your dreams”, and having dreams is what makes life tolerable. I had finished my schooling like a good doobie but choosing the right career path to follow still eluded me. It was time to stop bobbing for apples, so out of sheer desperation, or maybe just for the hell of it, I reverted back to my deepest, darkest desire that had been burning within me since my grammar school days. No, I am not talking about becoming an astronaut. Neil Armstrong had already set his big fat foot on the moon so all of our dreams of becoming astronauts went right out the porthole on that eventful day in 1969. If we cannot be the first, we are not going at all right gang? Nobody ever remembers the astronaut who came in second. Of course even if I wanted to pursue this popular childhood infatuation, it was a tad late in the game for me at that point. No one in their right mind just walks in to NASA Headquarters at the age of 24 with absolutely no previous experience and asks to fly the space shuttle. For that would be utter lunar-cy.
In the spring of 1978, when a golden opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it like King Midas on a pile of nuggets. I had always wanted to be a journalist, perhaps a sports writer like Oscar Madison only cleaner, but I had become sidetracked and never thought my writing skills were up to snuff. There is always the possibility that after reading this, you may find yourself arriving at the same conclusion, but that is a risk I am willing to assume, for I have become a true master at laughing in the face of adversity.
I had bounced around from job to job like an over-inflated ping pong ball, a proverbial rolling stone that gathered no moss, and no position to that point had offered me what I was really looking for which was, in a word, creativity. I learned from a good friend of mine that the military offered careers in many areas so I did some research and learned that in the post Vietnam, no-more-draft U.S. Army, they were actively seeking quality personnel for their new all-volunteer army and sure enough, they offered opportunities in journalism which delighted my sense of curiosity to no end. Hopefully, the phrase “seeking quality individuals” was open to interpretation in my case. After careful deliberation, I shrewdly surmised that the military might represent a viable vehicle I could utilize to bring my life long dream to fruition. I was totally naïve and like most people my age I was hopelessly wandering through life not knowing why the hell I was even put on this Earth and in my small mind, I had nothing to lose. At that point in my existence, I was willing to try just about anything.
If only I had been aware that a time bomb was ticking deep within my genetic makeup that was just waiting for the moment to explode, perhaps I could have prepared for the days ahead with a clearer sense of resolve, but alas, there is that naivety of youth again always getting in the way.
went on yet another woefully under-researched and misguided journey. The U. S.
Army recruiter’s office was located at the Commonwealth Armory in
“Hi there,” said the bushy-haired soldier with glasses. He strongly reminded me of that barber on Andy of Mayberry with his unkempt mustache and the empty stare in his eyes.
“Can we help you?” he asked.
I was a bit nervous but not unusually so.
“I understand this is the place to sign up for the Guards, is that correct?” I asked almost innocently.
The other soldier stood up and extended his hand. “This is the place all right!” he said with enthusiasm.
I shook his hand firmly but apprehensively, as he seemed a bit disingenuous. He sounded phony too.
“I’m Sergeant Thomas and this is Corporal Rivers. What did you have in mind?”
“I am interested in journalism in particular, but I understand you have to pass some sort of tests or something?” I asked, looking around the drab, dingy room. It compelled me to think to myself, “If this place was a bowl of fruit, it would be rotten and covered with mold.”
“That’s right, and we can give you the necessary tests right here right now if you are serious about this,” said Sergeant Thomas.
“Oh, I’m serious all right” I responded. Both of these men had been wearing shit-eating grins since the moment I walked through the door and I suddenly felt like I was being hustled by two used car salesmen rather than dealing with soldiers.
“Why don’t you come right over here, uh, what did you say your name was?” asked the corporal.
“Mike Merrett” I answered.
“Well Mike, why don’t you sit down right here and we can get the written test for you and see how you do.”
I took a seat at a dusty desk against the right-hand wall of the dusty office and inhaled a big lungful of dusty air. I really wasn’t expecting to be sitting down to an in-depth written exam five minutes after I walked in but this seemed to be the procedure so who was I to question the United States Army. I began to sense that the two men seemed unusually excited that someone had actually come to visit them for the morning. “Maybe they didn’t get many visitors and they’re just lonely,” I thought to myself.
“Now,” said Sergeant Thomas, “you have one hour to complete the five part test. This is a standard issue test the army gives to determine what the applicant is qualified for and the results will tell us what fields you are eligible to pursue. Just as an example, if the applicant fails to score sufficiently high enough, he may have no other option but to enter as an infantryman. Do you get my drift?”
“Perfectly sarge,” I answered, somewhat surprised at how comfortable I was at addressing someone as “sarge” for the first time in my life.
“Have you had any high school?” he asked.
“Are you serious?” I answered incredulously.
“Well,” he said uneasily, “you’d be surprised at some of the people we get in here with this all-volunteer army. How about college?”
“Yeah, I’ve been to college,” I answered. I was not about to tell them how much college, where I was an incorrigible under-achiever.
“Great, great!” he gushed. “Well, here is a pencil, just answer the questions to the best of your abilities and we will check back with you in one hour. Are you ready to begin?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I said.
“Ok, begin please,” ordered the Sergeant and he walked back to his desk.
I opened the booklet and looked over the first page of questions not knowing what to expect. Any concerns I had however, were quickly put to rest as I realized this was a test that anyone with an IQ of 70 could pass. An entrance exam to Harvard this was not.
I finished in 40 minutes and announced this to Sergeant Thomas and he came over with that big wide grin of his and said, “Already? You sure now, you still have 20 minutes to look it over if you need the time.”
“No, I’m all set. I’m comfortable with that,” I said, handing him the booklet and pencil.
“O-K,” he said with a puzzled look on his face and he turned to Corporal Rivers and asked for the answers to grade the test.
The two of them looked over the booklet together. After five minutes of “HMMM! and WOW!” and an assortment of other indiscernible observations on their part, I interrupted them out of impatience.
“So what do you think, do I qualify for journalism school or what?” They may have perceived my entire demeanor since first walking through the door as one of impertinence and borderline disrespect but hey, I’m a civilian. We’re supposed to act like that around military personnel aren’t we?
The big smile was back on Sergeant Thomas’s face. “Hell yes boy, you could be a brain surgeon with these test scores.”
“I should have remembered to bring my hip boots,” I thought to myself, “the bullshit is starting to get awful deep around here.”
They shook my hand with glee and had me sign a few documents. Then they called some Captain from an adjoining office to come in and as it turned out, he was the actual recruiter. These two yahoos were just screeners.
“How do you do Mr. Merrett” said Captain Williams, shaking my hand.
fine thank you. So what comes next?” I asked. I cannot exactly say why but
these men just did not impress me at all. This was definitely not what I
expected to see upon my introduction to the United States Military, reputed to
be the finest military in all the world. I had just aced a test written for 3rd
graders, I was being rushed through the initiation process as if they were
afraid that if I thought about it too long, I might change my mind. All of
which had exactly that result as I began seriously second guessing myself. I
genuinely did want to pursue a career in journalism though, so I tried to
restrain my apprehension and not pre-judge them too harshly. In a nutshell, I
“Well, we’ll sign you up for the next scheduled physical which takes place in another part of this building,” said the captain, “and then we’ll make final arrangements to induct you into the Army National Guard.”
“Do you know when that might be?” I asked. I was out of work since I had closed the door on my accounting career, so the sooner the better if I was actually going to go through with this.
“Sergeant,” said the Captain, turning to Thomas, “Could you check the schedule and see when the next day of physical exams are being conducted?”
Thomas picked up a binder and opened it. “Well, Mr. Merrett, it would appear you don’t have long to wait. They are being performed this coming Friday.”
The captain turned back towards me. “Great, then we’ll see you back here Friday morning at 9. Be prepared to be drug tested and perform all the other necessary requirements associated with physical exams. Until then, congratulations and we look forward to seeing you.”
said my goodbye’s to the three men and headed out to my car to return to my
apartment. My increasing sense of apprehension continued to grow as I pondered
what had just transpired. This was no walk in the park, no casual jaunt through
a department store leisurely picking out a comfortable new pair of slacks. This
was a major league life-altering decision, the kind of fork in the road that
does not come along very often in one’s existence. Had I thought this through
clearly enough, I kept asking myself? I
was all of a sudden drowning in self-doubt and uncertainty. It reminded me of
another time in my life I was drowning in something. That was an occasion when
one of my friends had thrown me from a raft at
Friday morning came rather quickly and as I returned to the armory, which was still in need of a good cleaning, I soon discovered that I was not the only one being given a physical that day. There were probably 50 men being tested and there was a complete staff of military personnel conducting the exams. I knew I would have no problem with any aspects of the tests EXCEPT for the eye exam.
I bravely signed in and took my place in line. First, I was given the color blindness test, which involved looking at the pages of a small book containing various color schemes and I had to pick out a number that was hidden in each group of colored dots. I, of course am color blind as many human males are and there was no way I could find the damn numbers, except on certain pages towards the back of the book (I think it was labeled “section for dorks”.) The dots on those pages were so pronounced the numbers practically jumped off the page and assaulted my optical nerve. The man in fatigues sitting behind the desk conducting the test, most likely operating from the standpoint that the recruiters had a quota to meet, picked up on my dismay. He took his pen and began to draw the number right on the page.
“You can’t see that” he said wryly, drawing the number 6 with his pen?
“Oh sure, now I see it. 6!” I felt a bit silly but hey, if they did not have a problem with my inability to differentiate between various colors, why should I? I was not completely colorblind. I only had difficulties with minute differences like navy blue and black, or dark brown and dark green. Under proper lighting situations, I was generally OK with colors. After I guessed at a few more movements of his pen, he said, “Ok, you pass. Go into the next room and see the sergeant.”
I marched dutifully into the next room proud as a peacock, got in line behind two other applicants, and realized I had come to that part of the exam that was causing me the most anxiety since I awoke that morning. The dreaded wall chart. I was wearing my glasses but I still had trouble reading these damned things.
When it was my turn to step up, I took my place at the line and looked over at the chart, which was about ten feet across the room.
“Read line number 3 please” said a rather large-around-the-middle uniformed man behind the counter to my left.
I strained and stared, and tried my hardest but there was no way I could read the third line down. My heart rate quickened and I began to perspire slightly. I glanced around the room nervously looking for a suitable means of escape.
“Hey, the chart’s over there” he said impatiently. “Can you read line 3?”
“That’s a big negatory there guy” I said in a low voice. There were people in line behind me and my face was flushed with embarrassment, which I did not want them to notice.
He walked over to the wall chart and pointed to the second line down.
“How about this line, can you read this line?” he asked, slightly annoyed.
Well pardon me, I thought to myself that I forced you to have to move that hulking body of yours the ten feet from behind the counter over to the wall chart. It was probably the most exercise he had gotten all day.
I could read some of the letters on the second line. “C-R-F-D” I said.
He pointed at the big “E” at the top of the chart. “Can you see the big E?” he asked pointing right at it.
With a prompt like that, what was I going to say, no? In actuality I could see the E clear as a bell, although, why every eye chart has a big E at the top is beyond me because everyone knows it’s always there. You would think they would change the letter occasionally to keep people honest.
Therefore, I went along for the ride. “Oh yeah, I can read the E” I said meekly.
“Alrighty then, pass. Next!” He walked back behind the counter to his extra large coffee and box of donuts, never giving me a second look.
I proceeded through the rest of the physical without incident. When all was said and done, my recruiter friend, Captain Williams was there greeting and congratulating those who made it through, which just happened to be everybody. What a coincidence, I thought to myself. Aren’t we a healthy group of specimens?
Mr. Merrett,” gushed the Captain when he noticed me. “Congratulations. You
passed the physical. It’s off to
I shook his hand and said “Thanks” with reserved enthusiasm. The eye test had really bothered me but I just wrote it off thinking that perhaps they did not require perfect 20/20 vision from applicants who were planning on taking up Journalism. It is not as if I had requested sniper school right? They are the United States Army so they must know what they are doing. I was so naïve.
have a swearing in ceremony Monday morning at which time we’ll give you your
travel documents and all the paperwork you’ll need once you arrive at the
He turned to congratulate another applicant so I walked out of the armory and over to my car in an almost zombie-like state.
had all happened so fast it was almost dizzying. I gripped the steering wheel
in an effort to steady myself. There I was pondering the potentially portentous
reality that my next stop would be
I had already quit my job, which constituted no great loss. I would have to give up my apartment, which I didn’t mind leaving to that nasty little cockroach I had caught having a party in my dishwasher the previous night. I would have to sell my car but the hardest part of all would be saying goodbye to my girlfriend Dyan, whom I had been dating for about 2 years and loved dearly. I would be heading off to boot camp for a duration of 6 long months. What was I thinking! I had never even flown in an airplane before. My inaugural flight would be by my lonesome, leaving every aspect of stability behind to jet off to parts unknown and overwhelming uncertainty. This all added up to one great big emotional quagmire to say the least, if not less. As I started the ignition and threw the shifter into drive, at least half the bones in my body struggled to carry me back inside the building to tear up my test results. That however, would be totally undignified. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in life thus far is that they can take away your car, your house, and your money but they can never take away your dignity and honor.
I had met 6 years earlier when I was 18 and both of us were marching members of
the Immaculate Conception Reveries Drum and Bugle Corps from
She remains to this day one of those “top 10 people in my life” who left an indelible mark on my heart and soul that will remain with me forever. She was a beautiful girl with strawberry blond hair, blue eyes and an endearing smile that could light up a room. It was not going to be easy saying goodbye to her for six months and to make that even more difficult; she had thrown a going away party for me that Saturday night at her house. Many of my friends who I had marched with in drum corps showed up for which I was eternally grateful. There was so much going through my mind but her love and their friendship really moved me beyond words.
I kept telling myself it would only be for 6 months. If we meant that much to each other, our relationship would endure the test of time. At the young age of 24, this was without question the most difficult adventure I had ever embarked upon. All my life up to that point, I had been surrounded by 12 brothers and sisters, a loving mother and father, and too many close friends to count. For the first time in my life, I would be completely alone, cut off from the support group that I was so accustomed to having around me at all times.
Sunday afternoon, I enjoyed a wonderful meal of lasagna and garlic bread prepared especially for me by my mom and dad. It gave me a chance to say goodbye to them and enjoy the company of some of my brothers and sisters who were tremendously supportive as well.
heavy heart, I boarded an American Airlines 727 jet the following Monday
morning and headed for
The flight was uneventful other than a slight movement where the outer wall of the plane to my right met the inner panel in front of me. I was sitting in the very first row and found that to be just a bit unnerving especially as a first time flyer. It was rather slight and probably normal while the plane was in flight so I decided not to make a fuss unless the outer wall actually broke loose from the plane entirely. If that happened I would really raise hell I can tell you. I did not see any gremlins ripping up sections of the wing either so that was a good thing, but that flight still seemed like the longest 3 hours of my life.
“Good morning” she said pleasantly. “Or should I say good afternoon. I lost track of the time. Can I help you?”
supposed to report here for a bus to
I handed her my papers.
No, please don’t say it I thought to myself. It was no use though as her male co-worker chimed in “Park the car at Harvard yard.” He followed it up with a silly-ass grin.
everyone on this planet utter that line every time they meet someone from
“Actually I don’t even own a car, I sold it,” I answered dryly. “But if I did have one, I wouldn’t park it there. It’s too far to walk to my house.”
They both just stared at me blankly for a moment. They had no idea what to think at that point and were obviously unaccustomed to my world-class rapier wit.
“Well, the bus should be here in about fifteen minutes,” said the nice woman. “Have a seat over there with those other misfits and we’ll let you know when it gets here.”
“Thank you ma’am” I said with the utmost sincerity.
I turned to find a seat and looked over the motley looking group of recruits sitting before me. They all appeared to be primates but I could not be absolutely certain as to what degree. One big blonde-haired individual had a box of Twinkies on his lap and was totally immersed in his cream-filled spongy delights. Another was trying to be discreet about picking his nose but we all know that eventually, nose-pickers get caught. A thin man with clothes that looked like they had not seen a washing machine since the last lunar eclipse had his head back and was snoring away. Judging by what I saw, coupled with my experience at Commonwealth Armory, I found it difficult to believe that this all-volunteer army was bearing fruit. If you asked me, we would have trouble fending off an invasion of marauding field mice based on what I had seen so far.
I noticed an African American man sitting by himself reading a paperback off to my left. He looked like the only one who could read out of this bunch so I headed for the chair next to him hoping he could provide me with some stimulating conversation to take my mind off where I was and where I was going. Besides, he was wearing thick glasses just like me. Hey, we’re twins!
“Hey, how’s it going” I said extending my hand.
He was a little unsure of me at first but he shook my hand anyways, not wanting to appear rude most likely.
“Hey, nice to meet you, Victor Church” he said.
“Mike Merrett. Been waiting long?” I asked.
He shifted in his chair as I sat down next to him. “Not that long. My flight got in around 11 so I’ve been here for about an hour. Good thing I brought something to read. It is taking my mind off how nervous I am.”
Honesty and humility. I like that, I thought to myself.
“I know what you mean. We must be out of our minds huh?”
“Where are you from” he asked.
“Hey, Orioles country, good team, how are they expected to do this year?”
“Fairly well I guess but no one is going to beat the Yankees. Ever since Steinbrenner bought the team he has been spending big bucks and loading that team up. They’ve got Reggie Jackson now. They have the best pitcher in the league in Ron Guidry. They’re stacked.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m a Yankee fan,” I said smugly.
thought you said you were from
“I did but I’ve been a Yankee fan all my life. My dad was a Yankee fan so, like-father like-son.”
The woman at the desk interrupted us.
“Gentlemen, the bus is a few minutes early so you can all head out that door to your left and get on board. Good luck to all of you.”
A tentative chorus of "thank-you’s" came from the group as we all grabbed our bags and headed out the door. As we got to the bus, a relatively new Peter Pan tour model, I could see that there were people already on board and seating would be tight but at least we were going in style. I turned to Vic and said, “Do you mind sharing a seat?”
“No problem” he said.
both grabbed the third double-seat on the left and after a few moments, we were
on our way to
“You know the only reason I signed up was so I could find a way on to the base and steal some of that gold,” I said to Vic.
He just smiled. “Yeah right, good luck!”
We pulled onto the base after an unusually quiet 25 minute drive and I was immediately impressed with how vast the place appeared to be. There were barracks spread out in all directions but they were all painted in depressingly drab colors. It gave the place a very pale look as light greens, browns, tans, and grays all blended together to form a truly uncharacteristic landscape that was both uninviting and unappealing even to my less-than-perfect eyes. Hopefully, my experience here was going to be a lot more colorful than this, I thought to myself but I just could not shake the nagging sense of foreboding that was still tugging at my subconscious mind. At that moment, I would have sold my very soul for a crystal ball that actually worked worth a damn.