A week ago I was in Montana helping my 84 year old mother move. One of the boxes was labeled “Francis’s Stuff”. It dated back to 1971, the year I was drafted and subsequently joined the U.S. Navy Seabees. After combat training at Camp Pendleton with the Marine Corps we were scheduled for deployment and were given Christmas leave. While home I had boxed up my personal stuff and then headed back to Port Hueneme.
I suspect many of us have a box of personal effects left over from our childhood or an earlier time. These are largely mementos: a baseball glove, barbie doll, photos of prom night or some such thing. My box contained a cherished die cast model Army Jeep.
In 1957, my father and an buddy from the refinery bought an old Army jeep out of WWII surplus. They also got a couple of rifles and some other gear. Every weekend during the hunting season they were off in pursuit of the proverbial “big buck”. I was too young to go along but romanticized their trips, imagining them crawling over the terrain in that Jeep.
The Jeep is an icon that belongs right up there with the invention of ice cream, hotdogs and baseball. Its civilian counterpart has survived to this day. You can buy conversion vehicles with diesel or Hemi engines.
In 1957, my father and his buddy Louie, shot a big buck in the Paradise Valley, south of Livingston, MT. My dad was in pursuit of the Boone & Crockett record. This was an atypical buck with Christmas tree antlers.
The guys headed to Livingston and put the deer in a locker and proceeded to get shit-faced drunk. They were running late and headed back to Billings to work. When my dad went up to Livingston the following weekend, the deer was long gone. He blamed Louie and the friendship was over. The Jeep was sold.
I think owning a Jeep was the only vehicle I ever dreamed about. I didn’t buy a car until college and opted for more practical transportation.
While on leave that Christmas, 1971, I opened my present and thought it over. But, my parents said, no, there was one more present and it was something I would like. Hanging from the tree like an ornament was a small box. When I opened it it was a die cast model jeep. I was too polite to say that I really wanted a life-sized one. I knew it was the thought that counted. Unfortunately, my thoughts back then were occupied by the impending deployment.
It was odd when I turned that Jeep over in my hands last week. My sister had obviously replaced the original Jeep to make up for the fact that she had allowed my nephew to play with mine. He had lost it and she was horrified. No big deal. But it did cause me to remember another Jeep incident in my life.
By 1973, the Vietnam War was pretty much over. I had a six year hitch and they threw me over into the reserves. The reserves were a bullshit operation and were terribly under-funded. I was an equipment operator and wanted to drive dozers, scrapers and backhoes around on weekends. Expensive toys to be sure. No matter they simply wouldn’t let me out.
In 1977, I was on my last cruise in Gulfport, Mississippi. We flew in early and did the celebratory run to Pensacola, FL and got hammered. (Seabees did that when there weren’t any girls around to keep us human).
When I returned for the swamp training they marched us into a big auditorium and the Commodore got up to give a speech. There aren’t a lot of Commodore’s around, they are an anachronism. This guy was a VP at GM’s Delco Division. He wondered why everyone was bailing out after their enlistment was up. As he talked I noticed people were turning their heads and looking at me. It was one of those, “Ok Miller, you have been shooting your mouth off, here’s your chance!” I stood up and started talking. To this day, I have no idea what I said. It was a total stream of consciousness. What I do know is that the next day, when we were being inspected, the ole Commodore took an extra thirty seconds looking me over. Then, at the end, the P.A. system dismissed everyone and ordered me to report to HQ.
It was all pretty surreal. The Commodore wanted to know about my education and professional career. After the obligatory 5 minute introduction he ordered his JG to bring me a typewriter and a ream of paper. He then gave me the keys to his Jeep. My orders were to spend the next two weeks interviewing everyone on the base and write a report about why the U.S. Navy was so screwed up and what should be done about it.
Now,you might think this an opportunity. Actually it was a curse. I knew that if I didn’t do a good job I would come off like some idiot. So, I probably worked as hard on that assignment as any one I have ever done. Too bad I didn’t have white out of carbon paper. The typewriter was a field grade and manual. I wrote out my drafts and typed up the final. Remember, this was long before the personal computer had been invented. In 1977 Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were in garages and skunkworks. The Google/Facebook/Ebay people were still eggs ala semen.
I have to admit driving that Jeep was pure bliss. My love affair with the Jeep far exceeds that with any woman. Women are organic and Jeeps are inorganic. They’ll never let you down. At least you can reinflate the tires faster than your ego. The only thing better than a Jeep is a Jeep with a dog riding in the shotgun seat.
PostScript: When I awoke from my dream I realized the Jeep was crying. It wanted to be back in the Army. The Navy was too wet and salty and causing it to rust and corrode. My last act was to repatriate it to its original home.