When I was in U.S. Navy A School, I knew a guy named Walter. In many ways, Walter was an average late-teen-to-early-twenties navy recruit: homesick, restless, impulsive, and far too immature to be taking on any significant responsibility. That was all of us in those days.
Unfortunately, Walter was also prone to getting drunk and inexplicably winding up in his underwear. I’m sure there were a lot of steps between Walter’s descents into drunkenness and the shedding of his outerwear, but none of us knew what they were because we never went out with him. We were young and stupid, and we were known to enjoy a beer or five, but even we had enough self-awareness to realize what madness lay down the Walter path.
Somewhere along the way, after drinking his fill, Walter would always make it back to our barracks. There, he’d spend the late evening harassing the rest of us about everything from politics to the awesomeness of Old Milwaukee to why being from anywhere other than New Jersey was a moral failing deserving of a public shaming. Along about one in the morning, he’d fall asleep in the TV room. Whichever one of us drew the shortest straw would then sacrifice for the greater good, venture in, and throw a blanket over Walter’s shame.
One Friday night, Walter got especially far into his cups and found himself handcuffed to a post just inside the main gate of Great Lakes Naval Station. I know there was a backstory there, and I’m sure it was riveting, but I never got all the details. From what little I heard, it was related to him chasing taxis outside the base and barking like a dog. I’d wager the shore patrol took equal issue with the unholy sight of Walter’s standard issue navy Fruit of the Looms.
That evening, word circulated through the barracks about Walter’s situation, and we decided we had to act. We assumed he was at the gate awaiting arrest by the city police, so we knew our time was short. Being the supportive shipmates the navy had taught us to be, five or six of us beat it out to the gate and gave Walter a supportive heckling. Truthfully, it wasn’t our best moment.
There’s an excellent tune on Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA called “Darlington County” that reminds me of Walter and his escapades. This is especially fitting for two reasons. For one, since Born in the USA came out while I was in boot camp, alongside Van Halen’s 1984, it was pretty much all we listened to during that summer and fall in Great Lakes.
On top of this, Walter was not only a Springsteen fan, but he hailed from Jersey and even claimed on occasion to have hung out with The Boss. In case you’re wondering, yes, Walter was usually tipsy and in his tighty whities when he made that claim.
Here’s the Springsteen lines that remind me of Walter:
Driving out of Darlington County, I seen the glory of the comin of the lord.
Driving out of Darlington County, seen Wayne handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford.
Every time I listen to that song, I think of Walter, shackled to that post, yelling at anyone who happened to walk by about important topics like the supremacy of beer over whiskey and the sheer grandeur of the New Jersey Turnpike. And maybe, just maybe, the glory of the lord.
It’s incredible how music can make you remember things you’d have probably otherwise forgotten. Time passes, creating the illusion that all those unbelievable things happened to another person. And who knows? Maybe those things did happen to someone else. Still, against all odds, I’m the one who remembers them. It’s a little miraculous.
When I hear “Darlington County,” more than anything, I hope Walter got his shit together. Maybe he did well in the navy, moved on, found someone to love, discovered a life’s calling, and finally dialed back the drinking. No one should live life like that, drunk, half-naked, and raving at the world.
Switching to boxers would have also been a solid choice.
Here’s the song. Give it a listen.