I’m staring at the DejaBlue water bottle. It’s blue tinted plastic wrapped in a darker blue label. The letters of the name are white shadowed in a blue that matches the bottle tint. Above and below the letters two single cycle waves of red shadowed again by the bottle-tint-blue bracket the name. ‘Non-Carbonated’ is printed in the well of the wave above the letters. ‘Purified Drinking water’ is under the dome of the second half of the lower wave. I rotate the bottle and read “CA CASH REFUND” running vertical on the label. Beneath it ‘ME-OR-CT-HI 5¢’ * and I am transported to Connecticut in March of 1984.
I was on temporary duty to Submarine Base, New London for electronics training. I was to take a five week course in how nuclear reactor operators were supposed to trouble shoot the on-board electronics that monitored the reactors. Graduation came with some prestige’ and another set of numbers behind my name and in my personnel file, but no extra pay or benefits. The soldering of discrete components onto circuit boards and the specifications I would learn would pay dividends twenty years later when I went to get hired into the space program, but I couldn’t even conceive of that venture yet. I was a newly minted Second Class Petty Officer with a wife and two kids to take care of. They were in the apartment in Virginia trying to figure out why I wasn’t home when the ship was just down the street.
It’s important to appreciate how personal finances were handled in 1984. We had a joint bank account, as most married couples did, I suppose. Checks were how we avoided carrying a lot of cash and managed our financial wealth. There was no such thing as email. The U.S. Mail system carried checks to the creditors and through that system we would transfer excess amounts of cash. There was Western Union’s help at times and Mindy and I would become familiar with that in short order during this period. Credit cards were for the more well-to-do, but that wasn’t us. We were earning about $18 thousand a year, just below the federal poverty level.
When I checked into the base in New London I presumed I would get a meal pass to the galley near where I was staying. I didn’t bring much cash. Only what I thought I would need for the trip up. I expected to get paid here as well. It was a learning experience. ‘Temporary’ duty meant my pay record and personnel files stayed on the ship. All I had in hand were my orders and my ID card. “Sorry, Petty Officer Zoll. We can’t issue you a chow pass and we won’t be paying you since you didn’t bring those records with you.” I was more than a little concerned and I was very surprised. I didn’t think to ask and they didn’t offer to give me an advance on my pay. Could they have without my record? I don’t think so. I turned and walked away.
With some of the change I had left I called Mindy at home and told her what I was facing. We discussed how I could get some money and we decided on Western Union. I had to find the nearest office and she, bless her soul, had to pack up two little kids into the car, in March, go to the bank, withdraw what little cash we could afford to spare, find the Western Union, and send me the money. I had the easy part. I just had to go hungry for a couple of days while we took time to find the Western Union offices and make the trips back and forth.
And now I have the two thoughts that connected me to the bottle I am holding. I’m not hungry any more. It’s been a long time since I was really hungry. Any more I struggle with blood sugar levels because I didn’t let myself get hungry over the years. But here I am on Fat Tuesday remembering a time when I went hungry for lack of money and no one to borrow from. I was hungry but didn’t know what to do about it. Then I saw another sailor picking up soda cans in the lounge. I looked at one on the table beside me and read the 1984 equivalent of ‘ME-OR-CT-HI 5¢’ and knew how I was going to get meals for the coming days. It seemed this ‘territory’ was spoken for, so I went elsewhere to start collecting. I was reminded by the exercise of a picture my Dad showed us from his photo slides of his Navy time in Morocco. He had taken a photo of a native father and son going through trash cans looking for scraps. Well, I guess I had a lesson to learn. Dumpster diving I didn’t do, but trash can scavenging I did.
So, now it’s Lent and I have been thinking of what to do to challenge my soul as well as my body. What discipline is I lacking that would change me over the next six weeks? Prayer and fasting is not just a cliché. Remembering 5¢ refunds and being hungry, I think I’ll find The Maker’s Diet and improve our eating habits. That means no soda, no artificial sweeteners or other chemical enhancements, minimal salt (hello Mrs. Dash). Lest you think this just another ‘diet’, trust me when I say the withdrawal from the artificial chemicals is not easy. If I organize along the organics as much as possible I should bring up my health; ‘our’ health. Likely Mindy will not object. Since it only takes twenty-one days to form new habits, and Lent is twice that length of time, we should be presenting a ‘better self’ at the altar at Easter Vigil.
Next time you pick up that soda ‘pop’ can or water bottle, take a look at that cash refund notice. Will you remember my story? Will you remember your story? What will you commit to do after?
*Finding the ‘¢’ symbol took a while. ‘$’ is easy, it’s on the keyboard but there must not be much use for ‘¢’. It is character code 00A2 from Unicode (hex) according to Microsoft Word in the ‘Insert Symbols’ menu.