Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Smiths - The World Won't Listen

Weekend before last, I made the trek back to Annapolis, MD for my Naval Academy class reunion. I hadn't been to Annapolis in many years; as I approached the city from the west on Rt. 50, I could almost feel the time slipping backwards, as I closed in on my past. Annapolis holds a lot of my personal history; not only did I attend the Academy, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, I also spent part of my childhood there, living in the military housing across from the Academy gates.

The rain was hammering down on the city, and water was literally running like rivers in the streets as I arrived early that Friday to check in at the hotel that served as alumni headquarters and pick up my credentials for the upcoming events of Homecoming weekend. It seemed like the torrential downpour would last all day, but by the time I checked in and said hello to a few old classmates, the deluge had ended, and to my amazement, the sun could be seen breaking through; it was actually going to turn out to be a nice day. Instead of heading towards the Academy Yard to participate in the morning meetings and events of that first day, I turned my steps in the opposite direction, towards the locales I knew when I was a kid. I spent the morning revisiting my old neighborhood and elementary school, gazing once more over playgrounds and swimming pools and the old homes of long-lost friends and playmates - places now altered in several different ways with the passing of years, but with many old landmarks still recognizable.

I eventually made my way back to the Academy grounds that afternoon, wandering around the brick walks and immaculately tended lawns and flower beds of the Yard for a while, taking in the sights of my alma mater. I visited the Academy Chapel, the first time I've set foot in that building in more than two decades, then walked across the street to the Herndon Monument, the successful assault of this 20-foot tall stone obelisk, covered with grease and topped with a combination cap, serving as the annual culmination and symbolic rite of passage out of plebe (freshman) year. I guess I didn't realize it as much when I was there, but the Naval Academy Yard (campus) is actually pretty beautiful, and fairly dripping with history and symbolism - like most things, I suppose you don't really think about such things until you've been away from them for a while.

I strolled down Stribling Walk, the central brick walkway, towards Bancroft Hall (the midshipman dormitory and my home for four years), and entered through the huge iron doors into the Rotunda area. When I went to school there, I was always a little bit in awe of this part of the building; it seemed even more awe-inspiring now, twenty-plus years on, with its imposing marble floors and walls, and murals depicting key events in American naval history.

The most hallowed part of the Rotunda was up a wide set of well-worn stone stairs directly opposite the entrance; these led to Memorial Hall, where the names of Academy Medal of Honor winners and graduates who died in the line of duty (almost 1,000) are enshrined, by graduating class, in stone tablets on the wall. I went up and made my way over to the plaque for the class ahead of mine, the Class of 1986, and for the first time in a long while stopped to say "Hi" to my old friend Greg, while once more reflecting on the past . . .

In the summer of 1981, I entered the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. Now I'm sure that the term "prep school" conjures up for some of you images of leafy campuses, ivy-covered halls full of tweedy professors, varsity sweaters and snobby guys with names like Chas and Biff playing squash or lacrosse. But this place was far removed from the likes of real prep schools like Choate or Phillips Andover.

The school, known as NAPS, has its origins at the tail end of the First World War. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy at the time, Josephus Daniels, established a program that would make up to 100 regular sailors from the fleet eligible to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. In those days, all Naval Academy candidates had to take an entrance exam, and by all accounts the test was a bear, with only a small fraction of applicants passing and gaining entrance to the service academy. The first couple of groups of sailors to take the exam got their asses kicked by it, so NAPS was established in 1920 by the then-Undersecretary of the Navy to help prepare the sailors for this rigorous test. That official's name? Franklin D. Roosevelt.

NAPS was exclusively a training facility for enlisted men (one infamous attendee was former Marine and University of Texas Tower sniper Charles Whitman) until the late '60s/early '70s, when they began admitting civilians as well. I was selected for NAPS, instead of going straight into the Naval Academy, because I was two weeks too young to enter Annapolis directly (I graduated from high school when I was sixteen).

So in late July, I travelled alone 3,000 miles across the country to attend this faraway school - a scrawny, geeky-looking kid at least a year younger than most of my classmates. I arrived that evening at my new home for the next year - Nimitz Hall, a drab-looking brick-and-concrete dormitory with six dreary-looking wings of industrial beige-painted cinder block and dull green-tiled halls, located on a windy point of land between Coddington Cove and Coasters Harbor Island. On the first full day there, the other attendees ("Napsters") and I (about 200 in all) were organized alphabetically by last name into companies and then into platoons, with each platoon occupying a wing.

The next few weeks were full of heavy indoctrination, with the aim of quickly acclimatizing a bunch of high school kids into the ways, wherefores and rigors of military life. The days were full of early morning wakeups, physical exertion, five-mile runs, instruction on military history and tradition, uniform inspections, room inspections; rules on how to make a bed, fold your socks, clean your rifle; address an officer; and marching - always marching and drilling, on the hot tarmac behind the building. As one of our early memory exercises, we were required to learn the names and hometowns of everyone in our platoon. I found that we were from all over the country and from various walks of life. Some members were former military, but most of us were just out of high school.

One platoon-mate who stood out was Greg. Greg was a short, stocky, powerfully-built black dude straight outta Brooklyn, NY (he graduated from the renowned Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where he was a star wrestler). At that point in my life, I'd never known anyone who was actually from New York (much less Brooklyn), and as such I always assumed (misguidedly) that anyone from there must be a gang member or some sort of badass. Greg WAS a badass, but in a different way. He carried himself with calm dignity and good humor, and while he wasn't an academic genius per se, he had an innate sense of intelligence that surpassed even the smartest students there.

He did something that first week in Newport that impressed the hell out of me and many others, officers and peers alike. On the morning of our third day there, we were marched over to the nearby indoor pool for a swim test, to see who the 'dolphins' and who the 'rocks' were. The test included a leap from a platform suspended 7 meters above the deep end of the pool. Now, I wasn't a strong swimmer, but I could swim - still, I was plenty nervous when I got up on that platform and saw how high it really was over the water. Greg, on the other hand, couldn't swim a stroke. But without a moment's hesitation or the slightest quaver of fear, that guy climbed up the ladder and jumped right in! They had to fish him out of the water, but still . . . I still consider that to be one of the bravest things I ever saw anyone do in my life, and from that point onward Greg earned my everlasting respect.

At NAPS, Greg was paired up with a roommate named Dave, a corn-fed straight-arrow out of B*mf*ck, Iowa, seemingly as naive and salt-of-the-earth as they come. You'd be hard-pressed to come up with two people more dissimilar than Greg and Dave . . . but they became inseparable friends there in school, and on weekends could always be found out in town together, chasing the Salve Regina College girls and making liberal use of Newport's many bars (Dave might have seemed like a Midwestern square, but he had a taste for the booze just as powerful as Greg's, if not moreso). Many of their escapades became part of the school lore of that time - bar fights, road trips and hookups with the local chicks. With all of that, both Greg and Dave still managed to get high marks academically, and both were selected for leadership positions within the NAPS Battalion.

Greg and Dave moved on to the Naval Academy; I followed the next year. Although I was a year behind my old NAPS classmates, I still saw a lot of them at school and out in town. At Annapolis, just as in Newport, Greg excelled, eventually reaching the position of regimental commander, one of the top three posts at Navy. He busted his ass there, and finished his years at the Academy with a class ranking high enough to allow him to choose whatever speciality he wanted to pursue. Greg had long had his sights set on becoming a jet pilot, so it was no surprise when he chose Navy Air. I saw him one last time on his final day at Annapolis, in the King Hall mess hall, just before he headed down to Pensacola to begin flight school. I congratulated him on his graduation, and we spent a few minutes reminiscing fondly over the past five years, the places we'd been and all the folks we'd known during that time, many of whom had long ago fallen by the wayside on that long journey. We had a laugh or two, then he had to go. We shook hands and wished one another luck, and that was that. He was off to Florida, while I remained to complete my senior year.

That last year at Navy, and the mid-80s in particular, was a transitional period for me, musically. All of the bands I'd grown up with and loved - Devo, The B-52's, The Clash, The Police,
The Specials, Talking Heads, Madness - had either collapsed, disbanded, or were reaching what appeared to be the ends of their creative peaks. I'd been such a hardcore New Wave fan for so long, that as that genre was winding to a close and/or evolving into the alternative music of the late Eighties, I was sort of set adrift. Instead of getting fully into some of the new music coming out of England and the U.S. underground, I spent a great part of that period following/chasing after the tattered remnants of the bands I used to love: General Public and Fine Young Cannibals (ex-English Beat); Andy Summers, Stuart Copeland and Sting (ex-Police); Stan Ridgway (ex-Wall Of Voodoo); Jane Wiedlin (ex-Go-Go's) - I bought all of the releases (of varying quality) by these artists during that period.

As such, I was late getting into The Smiths. I'm sort of ashamed to admit this - I like to think that I am usually ahead of the curve when it comes to musical trends and movements, but not in this case. I don't know why it took me so long to get into them; in hindsight, their music was right in my wheelhouse. But I guess I was still too locked in to the bands of my past to concentrate on the future of music that The Smiths represented. One of my biggest music regrets is that I didn't absorb The Smiths in real time, instead coming to them just as the band was on the brink of permanently falling apart.

As I recall, the song that piqued my interest in this band was "How Soon Is Now?", played on local alternative station WHFS one evening in the late fall of 1986. I started asking around among my musically-like-minded friends, and found that, to a man, they were all big Smiths fans. I borrowed their albums to begin my education, and by the spring of 1987 I was such a fan myself that when I found a cassette copy of the compilation The World Won't Listen in the import bins at Tower Records in DC, I quickly snapped it up. I enjoyed the album immensely, especially songs like "Panic" ("Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ!"), "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and "Rubber Ring". But throughout the disc, there's an air of melancholy and resignation inherent in many of the songs - "Unloveable" and "Half A Person" are prime examples. For me, this atmosphere of sadness and depression made the album a lot more 'real' than a disc full of "good time music". But it kept me from fully absorbing the entire record for quite a while - you can only take so much melancholy in a sitting.

The end of my final year at Annapolis was fast approaching, with Final Exam Week in May almost at an end. Late one afternoon, I was walking back to Bancroft Hall from my Economics class final, using the corridor beneath Michelson and Chauvenet Halls hard by the Ingram Field track, when a classmate caught up with me to tell me the news of the death of a prior year graduate during a training flight down in Pensacola, Florida earlier that day. I asked him if he knew the grad's name, and when he said it was Greg, I stopped cold in my tracks. It felt like my entire body went . . . numb. I pressed the classmate for more information, but there wasn't much. It seemed that Greg and his instructor were in a jet trainer, practicing touch-and-goes (takeoffs and landings without stopping) at the flight school there, when something apparently went wrong during a landing approach and the plane plunged to the ground. The instuctor survived, but Greg was killed instantly.

It was jolting news, hard to believe.

I stumbled back to my room in a semi-daze, and sat at my desk in silence for what seemed like eons, thinking about everything, while at the same time thinking about nothing. For a good man, a friend, to die just like that, in the twinkling of an instant . . . it was just unfathomable. After a while the silence got to be interminable and oppressive, so I reached over and switched on the boombox at the corner of my desk, the one I purchased a couple of years early during my Youngster YP cruise. The World Won't Listen began playing in the cassette player - which seemed appropriate, given the circumstances. The music played on softly in the background, and I listened distractedly as I sat there thinking of my old friend . . .

I was suddenly roused from my contemplation and lethargy when I heard these words coming out of the speakers:
". . . Don't feel bad for me
I want you to know . . ."
The song was "Asleep", one of the quieter, more reflective songs on The World Won't Listen, a song I'd never paid much attention to before (truth be told: I usually just fast-forwarded past this song to get to "Half A Person"). The song consisted of Morrissey singing over a gentle piano ballad, with sound effects resembling wind blowing in the background. In the state of mind I was in at that point, the wind sound could be construed as the sound of someone flying through the air . . . like a pilot doing his flight training. I continued listening, and heard these lyrics near the end:
"There is another world
There is a better world
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Bye, Bye . . .
Bye, Bye . . ."
I'm not much for "messages from beyond the grave" . . . Still, in its own odd way, hearing those lyrics at that time, sounding like a farewell from the dead or dying, was somewhat comforting to me. I was sad that Greg was gone, but maybe he was in a better place . . . It didn't make everything OK, but still. I played The World Won't Listen and "Asleep" especially several times over those next few days, and in its own small way it helped me come to terms with what had transpired . . .

All of those thoughts and memories came flooding back, as I stood there that afternoon staring at my friend's name on the wall. Greg has been gone for more than twenty-five years now, asleep under green grass in a quiet corner of Long Island . . . forgotten by nearly all except for his family and his closest friends, who at gatherings still swap stories about his antics from long ago. He was one of the best of us, and would have gone far in the Navy, had he chosen to stay with it all these years. I could have easily seen him rising to flag rank (Rear Admiral and above) - he was that good, that well-respected, and that driven. I feel that it was a tragedy for the naval service, and possibly the nation, that his life was cut short at such a young age.

But mostly it was a tragedy for his loved ones and for those of us who knew him well. Dave, Greg's best friend, was devastated by his death. He spoke at Greg's funeral, and for a while there I heard that he was sort of drifting through his military career, burdened by grief and loss. But with the passing of time and the support of those close to him, Dave bounced back, and became a successful and high-ranking helicopter pilot. However, he never forgot his old friend and drinking buddy; a couple of years later, when Dave and his wife had their first child, a son, they named him Gregory.

Greg probably never knew how much I looked up to him - shoot, nobody talked about stuff like that, especially in their late teens and twenties; it would have seemed sort of weird. And besides, back then, it didn't need to be said - we were young, and were going to live forever, so there was plenty of time for that later. And now, it's far too late to tell him so. To me, he's not just a name on a plaque on a wall, but someone I knew and admired, and will always remember. And every time I listen to this album, and hear "Asleep", I think of him.

R.I.P., man.

Here's The Smiths' The World Won't Listen, released February 23rd, 1987 on Rough Trade Records. As always, let me know what you think.

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1 comment:

  1. Great blog post and really touching - love the story to go with the song, which is definitely a great one. Cheers for the link!