By Jason Keidel
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One sweaty summer night in South Carolina, I darted out of Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in my new, blue, Pontiac Sunbird, well lubed by my boys in the barracks, who an hour earlier poured a rainbow of liquors into a red cup, which I guzzled gleefully.
It was 1989. I was 19. I felt infinite.
I cruised down The Strand – an famous strip of road just off the beach where pretty young men and women drift past each other, many jumping in and out of strange cars, no doubt fueled by booze. It was a confluence of cultures and hormones that only the very young and dumb could love, where everyone who is drunk isn’t old enough to drink.
The night – as most do for young men – took me to the local strip club. A gal named Nikki always danced to “Hotel California” for me before the club closed. My best friend was dating her best friend and I was making moves.
Next thing I knew I was surrounded by military police. Swords of flashlight cut through my car and beamed into my squinting, bloodshot eyes. There was a curling right turn into the base that I didn’t quite finish, and my car was resting against the barbed wire fence surrounding the post. I was given a field sobriety test, which I tanked. Then they snapped on the cuffs and pushed me into their jeep.
I mumbled and moaned for a lawyer every time they asked me to blow into some apparatus to ascertain my blood-alcohol content. I refused. They called the base commander, a bird Colonel, to authorize them to draw blood. All of this was video recorded.
I returned to the barracks a few hours later, where my bunkmate, John from Pittsburgh (can’t make that up) rolled over, looked at my dumbfounded expression. “What happened?”
“I f—– up,” I responded solemnly.
In the military there are no rights as you understand them, no legal hoops or hurdles around which a lawyer can lead the legal hounds. The UCMJ is a draconian facsimile of the constitution. I was government property.
That morning I had to see The Man. I stood tall before a Major, my squadron commander, the stench of vodka mixed with the starch of my pressed uniform wafting through his office. I stood at attention so hard I thought I’d snap.
No doubt you’ve heard the military maxim, “We take care of our own.” It cuts both ways, as they also punish their own. It was time to see how hard I’d get whacked.
“Who gave you the alcohol, Jason?” he asked. I paused, thinking he really didn’t want the answer. Even in something as FUBAR as this no one wants a rat, and he knew I’d never be able to return to the barracks after diming on one of the guys.
I paused, as if to seriously ponder the question and answer. “I can’t recall, sir,” I said. “I blacked out.” Which was somewhat accurate. The fact that he didn’t press the issue told me I said the right thing.
“Please, sir,” I said, “don’t put me in correctional custody.” “CC” as we called it, was a Cool Hand Luke kind of deal, your head shaved while you’re led around the base doing all manner of humiliating things, kept in a cell, and treated like a raccoon.
And while the good Major spared me CC he hit me with more than enough, bumping me down in rank, fining me, and wiping all days off from my calendar for countless months. I was picking weeds around the barracks, mowing lawns, opening doors, and kissing the brass’s behind ad infinitum in the satanic heat of the south. And I was not allowed to operate a motor vehicle for six months.
It was the most miserable time of my life. I had no money, no rank, no car, no girl, and no life. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s been 23 years and I haven’t had a driven a vehicle under the influence since. I’m one of the lucky ones.
It’s time to end the euphemisms. No more retreats to teen mantras and cliches about youthful ignorance and life lessons. You die from this crap.
During the overnight, WFAN’s Tony Paige said that crime doesn’t pay unless you’re an athlete. His point is well taken. The inequity between the haves and have-nots is eternal. Who cares about Jason Kidd allegedly crashing into a telephone pole if he keeps bagging game-winning three-pointers? Braylon Edwards was so loathed after his early-morning interlude with police in Manhattan that the Jets just picked him up. There are at least ten examples I can cite sans Google.
But you do have just as much to lose as they do; it just won’t appear in the paper. Tell your wife or kids or folks that you don’t matter, that no one will miss you, that everyone has a pop or two and drives during December.
A member of the Dallas Cowboys, Josh Brent, recently flipped his car and killed a teammate, charged with intoxication manslaughter. But we know the deceased was more than a football player, or just the sum of the numbers on his back or his paycheck. He’s a son. And now his parents must bury him. It’s always abstract until it happens to you. Make this the one time in life you don’t learn from experience.
Perhaps I’ve breached a level of honesty that borders on idiocy. There’s no record of my malfeasance. The U.S. Air Force handled all of it internally. I have no criminal history and I was honorably discharged. So no employer, past, present or future needed to know. But if this stops one of you from drinking and driving this holiday season, then my stupidity is validated.
Myrtle Beach AFB doesn’t exist anymore, but the place and the summer of ’89 linger like an apparition. I am grateful to both, for the pain, and the gain.
Today is my birthday. The only reason I’ve seen 40 is because I almost missed 20. Drinking and driving should never enter the same sentence, unless you want a prison or death sentence.
There’s always some parable shoved down our throats in December, a month that frames the famed holidays. And maybe mine is no different. But too many mangled men in burning cars and women with dead babies in back litter our highways for no reason. They make body bags for infants, even prenatal. I’ve seen them while driving a tractor-trailer across the country, all the wreckage spawned by drunken hubris.
And 100 percent of these deaths are preventable. One phone call, no matter the time, can save several lives. Better to be a fool at 3 a.m. than in a funeral at 3 p.m.
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