I live in a bubble. I was reminded of that again on our trip to Crystal River, Florida. We were enticed there by the possibility of swimming with manatees, but while in Citrus County we also set off to kayak on the Rainbow River. We did not kayak. I was not sure how my poor ol’ damaged and robotic knees would do in a kayak, so the outfitter’s proprietor suggested that we use a canoe with a kayak paddle.
We had a great couple of hours. We were driven upstream in a decrepit ex-school bus that still bore signs telling students to be silent when approaching a railroad crossing. A couple of the outfitter’s men got us comfortably into the canoe and pushed us out into the stream, which flowed gently. We could paddle, but even when we did not, we drifted softly towards our landing place four miles away. We did not exactly feel like explorers, but the weather was nice, the river beautiful, and we were in a canoe in country not traversed by us before.
Rainbow River is spring-fed and crystal clear. We could see straight through eight or ten feet to the bottom. Strict rules are in place to keep the river pristine. Nothing disposable can be brought onto the river, or as one restriction put it, every container had to be something that could be put into a dishwasher. The strictures were working. We did not see one can or baggie or any other trash on or in the river.
The river is a “no-wake” zone, and the few power boats were compliant. We got close to birds and turtles. The stream was lined with many interesting-looking houses. This was the one place in Citrus County where I did fantasize about buying property. (The spouse spoke to a man at the river’s edge to compliment him on his house with a wrap-around porch. He thanked her and said that the only thing wrong with it is that he had to clear the seaweed that collected around the pilings of his dock. I asked how long he had lived there. He replied, “Twenty years.” I indicated that that was not all that long, and he laughed and said that at his age—he looked younger than me—it was “a blink of an eye.” His pleasantness made the thought of moving nearby even more desirable.) We saw kids playing in the water and the always-enticing rope swing that went out over the water. Peaceful.
After two hours or so, we pulled into the outfitter company’s landing place. The owner was there. And here began the realization of my bubbledom. He helped us out of the canoe, and while doing so indicated that he had lived in many places in Florida and elsewhere. It was because he was an army brat. His father was now retired and living in Key West. A bit later, as I waited for the spouse to complete some ablutions, one of the young members of the outfitter’s staff said to me, “Did you like the trip, sir?” I indicated that I had, and he asked, “Did the kayak paddles work out, sir?” After I answered, he said, “Mention us on Tripadvisor, sir.” I said, “Which branch of the services was your Dad in?” He asked, “How did you know that?” “All the ‘sirs’” I said. “Oh,” he said, “that was drilled into me at an early age.” I asked about the places that he had lived, and he said, “Not many. My father retired shortly after I was born and became a corrections officer.” He named several incarceration facilities that meant nothing to me, but I did think to myself that there was something oxymoronic about a Sunshine State prison.
I then realized that I don’t often speak to children of the military. I have friends and relatives, mostly my age, who have been in the military, but they did not make a career out of it. They put in their two, three, or four years and got on with their life. I have lived in small-town Wisconsin, Brooklyn, and Northeast Pennsylvania, places where the military has little presence. Of course, in some areas of the country and in some social strata, the military and the ex-military are ever-present and an important part of the society and the local economies. I know that these military people have had different experiences from me and others in my circles. I am also aware that they comprise a large chunk of this country, but I seldom interact with them or their children. Without that intercourse, it is easy for me to assume that I know what their attitudes and outlooks will be. For example, I told the young man whose father had become a corrections officer that I had done some work as a Florida public defender. I said that I was not very familiar with the Florida prisons but that I had worked on a capital case where the jury had voted for death, but the judge had overruled the jury. He replied, “Bummer.” This response fit my preconceptions of the son of a military man who went on to become a corrections officer. A couple other interactions on the Florida trip, however, showed me that my snap judgments might not always be right.
An adult brother and sister were with their mother on the swim-with-the-manatees boat. The man, Jim, told me that his “partner was in the Navy.” He and the partner had been together for fifteen years and been married for three. They got hitched when the partner was stationed in North Carolina and soon after single-sex marriage became legal there. I asked if they had had to hide their relationship from the Navy when the two first got together. Jim said that they hadn’t, and the partner’s coworkers had been accepting of their relationship.
Jim and his partner were currently living apart. The partner was stationed in Virginia while Jim was living in Birmingham, but in six months, the Navy partner was going to get a new post in Tampa, and Jim was going to move to Florida to join him. I said, with a smile, that sometimes it was good to be apart, and Jim laughed. He said that he was neat while his partner could not go from the couch to the bathroom “without leaving a trail.”
I asked Jim what he was going to do in Tampa. He had few worries about finding a job. He was a bartender, he said, and experienced bartenders could always find work. Later in the trip, he said that he was comfortable in the water because his mother had been a bartender at a beachfront place in Florida, and he had grown up swimming in the Gulf. His husband was going to retire in two years, after twenty-three years of service, when he would get his next promotion. I asked what the partner was then going to do, and Jim replied that he was going to do the same kind of work as a civilian that he did in the Navy. I asked if the civilians got paid more, and Jim, to my surprise, told me that his partner now made $110,000 and would get $80,000 as a civilian but, of course, the partner would also then be getting a Navy pension.
His sister and mother listened to our conversation, and it was clear that they were completely accepting of Jim and his marriage. I saw that the mother had tattooed on her foot, “Love never fails.” I made a lame joke about the truth of this saying, and she said that she liked the whole passage, which she said came from one of the Corinthians. I did not recognize it, and I assumed that either the slenderness of my biblical knowledge or the increasing fallibility of my memory had let me down. When I checked on the passage after returning to Brooklyn, however, I felt better. “Love never fails” comes from I Corinthians 8, which is part of the famous Corinthian “love” chapter, but in the Bible I was given by my parents to me more than a blink of an eye ago on my tenth birthday (and which the spouse has recently rebound because it was falling apart), the passage is translated slightly differently: “Love never ends.”
When I saw the mother’s tattoo, I wanted to ask her about her religious beliefs and about her reaction to the conservatives who now insist that their constitutional religious liberty allows them to discriminate against her son and his husband, but I decided that a boat trip whose purpose was to go swimming with manatees was not exactly the right time for such a discussion. (I do have SOME sense of decorum.) On the other hand, until I talked by happenstance with Jim, my assumptions were that gay people still had difficulties being in the military. (When I told the NBP about this encounter, they laughed at my naïvete: “Dad, it’s the Navy!”) And I would have assumed that it was the Navy spouse who was the neat one.
Another encounter also taught me to question my unconscious assumptions about military people. The spouse and I had just come from lunch at a funky little tea house with a slight feel of Californian New Age-ism (it was a tea house, after all). On the way to our rental car, we stopped to look at the many decals and stickers on the back of an SUV in the parking lot. A woman behind me said, “It’s like a library.” I soon learned that the attractive woman who owned the SUV was a retired army veteran of over twenty years’ service; her car did sport a veteran’s decal. I saw other ones consistent with my assumptions about a former military person: “Support Your Local Police” and “Protect our Flag.” Others, however, did not necessarily fit my preconceptions of what I might read on a veteran’s car: “Don’t Abuse Animals.” And I would not have assumed that the car belonged to a twenty-year armed services veteran if all I had seen was the decal that indicated the owner was a Sierra Club member. I should learn by now that people are not always so easy to type.
(continued April 12)