I’m fortunate in having had the opportunity to live in the four corners of North America (excluding Mexico). I spent several months observing migrating whales from the edge of the Arctic Ocean near Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost community in the United States. But the United States Navy took me to the other three corners — San Diego, California; Key West, Florida and the island of Newfoundland, canada.
After graduating from high school, I continued working at a gas station for another year before joining the Navy in 1974. It was my understanding that, as an Ocean Systems Technician, I would be studying oceanography. Instead, I was locked into a top secret submarine surveillance program code-named SOSUS. In other words, the Navy lied to me — and to many others.
The Navy was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it gave me my first taste of bureaucracy and corruption. I learned that various corporations exploited military secrecy in bilking taxpayers out of vast sums of money.
On the other hand, the military introduced me to the world outside West Dakota. I attended boot camp in San Diego, where I saw my first palms and was first exposed to minorities other than Native Americans. (Before I joined the Navy, I had only seen a handful of black and Asian people, invariably just passing through.)
I was sent to school in Key West, Florida, another beautiful place. (I came to appreciate the symbolism of the “Conch Republic” long after I was finished with the Navy.)
From Key West, I was sent to Argentia, Newfoundland, where I spent a year and a half. We worked in windowless buildings, and the work was tedious at best. Outside, it was often foggy. Yet I loved Newfoundland, with its bleak yet spectacular landscapes and seascapes.
Argentia was the site of a huge military base during World War II. When I was stationed there, I lived on one of the upper floors of “The Q,” a building that housed only officers during World War II. In 1974, the Q was virtually a city inside a building. From my window, I had spectacular views of sunsets and winter blizzards.
The isolation and harsh working and living conditions nurtured a camaraderie that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. I had more friends at “Arg” than I ever had in high school or college or any time since.
Newfoundland is surprisingly similar to West Dakota. It’s remote, isolated and distinctive, with no really big cities and little industry. The people were close to the land (or water) and often had hard lives. But Newfies, as the locals are nicknamed, are among the nicest people in the world. Like West Dakota, Like West Dakota, Newfoundland has some awesome blizzards.
West Dakota and “The Rock,” as Newfoundland is nicknamed, are both in transition. The depletion of cod torpedoed the latter’s main industry, while much of the Great Plains region is losing people as farmers’ children shun an often hard lifestyle in favor of the big city.
My next and last duty station was Pacific Beach, a very tiny community near Ocean Shores on the coast of Washington State. It wasn’t as isolated as Newfoundland and didn’t share the same camaraderie. But it is a beautiful area, and it was a choice place to end my military career, as I felt my future was in the Pacific Northwest or Alaska.
While stationed at Pac Beach, I went on my first backpacking trip (in Olympic National Park), climbed my first mountain (Mt. Rainier, at 14,410 feet Washington’s highest peak) and saw my first rock concert (the Doobie Brothers, in Seattle).