Christy Clothier is one of my former students and a dual-genre graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts in fiction and nonfiction. A small, feisty woman, Christy taught me more about the nature of the military, returned soldiers, trauma and its aftermath and life than perhaps I wanted to know. Her memoir is riddled with sadness, injustice and innocence betrayed. Just to give you a taste: there is an incredibly telling moment in an early chapter when she realizes she feels safe amid the horrors of boot camp because no one is allowed to hit her. The chapter I selected is perhaps one of the most benign. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been published elsewhere (see below) and turned into a play. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor. She writes short stories, research articles and essays that connect childhood abuse with military service and trauma. Christy’s writing has appeared in Inquiry and Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, from which her essay “The Controller” was adapted for the play Coming in Hot, currently touring the United States through 2011. Christy lives in Colorado with her dog, Jauss, named after a famous author.
Excerpt from Trail of Breadcrumbs:
Why I Joined and Left the US Navy
A Memoir by Christy Clothier
From the air, Naval Air Station San Clemente Island resembles a malignant mole on the skin of an ocean freckled with small islands. Twenty-five sinewy miles of salt and rock, San Clemente rose nearly 2000 feet above the sea after tectonic shifts deformed the region. The sea continuously feeds on the island’s borders and leaves behind erosion’s bite marks. Large sections of earth are left to hover over the water like a ship’s plank before breaking off daily into the sea.
A small military community works on top of this unstable foundation. Where untouched sand dunes named Castle Field once lied, the Navy took over. First, they covered the area with white rocks and small shells and used the makeshift airstrip for emergency landings only. Today, the runway sits on land renamed Sherman Field and paved over with a 9,300 foot concrete runway capable of supporting the heaviest warcraft. That was where I was headed.
A one-way flight from the Naval Air Station North Island, Coronado, California, to Naval Air Station San Clemente Island takes approximately 30 minutes. The refitted Orion P-3 levels just above the first cloud layer, skimming the frothy blue-white haze as though it were riding the crest of a wave. I do not peek out the oval windows. I shut the plastic screen. The familiar scent of industrial fabric on the seat back in front of me lulls me into an uncomfortable sleep, until the P-3 plunges into the froth of clouds on final descent. I ride the white rush until I land with a hard screech on the rocky surface below.
On the tarmac, the view gets only flatter. Aluminum buildings still look as they would from the window seat on a plane, all sides and roof. The island is the shape of a landfill. Dust settles in thin coats on the World War II relics, tanks that mark the fields like billboards. Macadam Road snakes six miles along sharp cliffs and deep canyons from the airfield down to the pier at Wilson’s Cove. The remainder of the island is sectioned off, either unused by the military or inaccessible to individuals without prior authorization. The entire island sits beneath an invisible barrier, airspace designated as Warning Area 237. Dangerous flight activity occurs from the surface of San Clemente Island up to 5000 feet in the sky and for 10 nautical miles in every direction. Without authority, no one flies in or out of San Clemente’s airspace.
I had been in the Navy for a year and a half, all of that time spent at Chicago’s boot camp and Pensacola’s Air Traffic Control School. I was an E-1, the lowest rank in the military. I knew my official title was Air Traffic Controller Airman Recruit (ACAR). I knew to dress properly in my uniform, how to pass military inspections and ATC exams. I knew not to do anything without being told. I stood alone outside the airport terminal and waited for someone to claim me.
Near the terminal parking lot, a small tractor pulled a series of low wood carts piled with luggage from the plane. I nervously followed the crowd. Behind me, an E-6 greeted me as my new shipmate.
“I’m AC1 Prince” he said. I turned to see a six-foot-three Air Traffic Control Petty Officer First Class wearing faded dungarees and scuffed flight-line boots. He wore out-of-regulation hair that swept across his tan brow. Three hash marks on his left sleeve indicated the vast difference between our ranks. I had nothing but my estranged husband’s last name stitched onto my uniform. Prince’s black-green eyes reminded me of Jerrod.
Prince pointed toward my sea bag, recognizably new among the other sailors’ Coleman coolers, suitcases and duffle bags. My lumpy Army-green seabag bore Jerrod’s last name and my first initial. K_____, C.
I lingered by the cart, unsure if I was allowed to remove my belongings. Prince walked over, sat on the cart and rested his right arm on my bag. Immediately two women, ten years older and four ranks above me, rushed next to him.
“He’s mine,” one said flatly. The other laughed and raised her chin to push cigarette smoke into a thin, feminine steam above her.
An airport lineman put the tractor into gear and pulled away with the three controllers riding on the back. The dirty blonde smoker with sun-damaged cheeks called over her shoulder that they’d bring my sea bag with them to the Radar room. The other, also a blonde, instructed me to find the duty van. I turned away from them and headed toward rows of identical vehicles, searching until an E-5 poked her head out of the double doors to tell me they had been waiting.
We drove three minutes down a dirt path flanked by chalk-white rocks. An Airman parked the van next to a wood-paneled doublewide trailer, layered with thick coats of khaki paint dried into sharp stucco.
“This is it.” Everyone laughed.
The trailer sat on wood stilts nearly two hundred yards across a barren field from the airport terminal. A metal wall cut the trailer in half.
“Welcome to the ROff,” someone said. I always assumed that “ROff” stood for Radar Office, but I never asked. Everyone shoved their backpacks into small footlockers, which spanned the metal wall that divided the trailer. The back half held the actual Radar Room. Behind a three-inch-thick steel door, round screens appeared to bubble out from their square metal framing. Large ASR-8 screens and smaller PAR screens lined a wall in a dark, windowless corridor. I felt like I was trapped in a submarine trying to see the outside world through underwater glass portals. I stared at the radar screen’s green hyphens and alphanumeric codes moving slowly at a heartbeat’s pace. The radar screens abutted Electronic Technicians’ equipment, metal tape reels dedicated to recording an air traffic controller’s every word.
“You gotta get in good with the ET’s,” Prince pointed to the recorders. “Or just toss a magnet on the tapes.” I learned quickly that with each word recorded, I could easily get in trouble, and Prince had found several ways out.
The back room also held a private ATC phone line and a single bathroom for forty controllers to share. Prince pushed open the metal door, indicating the tour was complete. Once I walked back into the ROff, the Southern California sunlight blinded me.
“You’ll never get used to that.” Petty Officer Velle leaned against the door frame, sunning her face and chatting between quick drags off her Marlboro lights. The wind outside pushed her smoke back into the ROff, where it lingered around the kitchenette, a few chairs and shelves of ATC manuals.
“You smoke?” Velle invited.
“Okay. Then I’ll take you to the tower.” Velle never took the sepia-tinted sunglasses off her face, as though she insisted everything be shaded over with antiquity. She kept her thick snow-white black hair pinned back in a chignon, and despite the denim dungarees she wore, managed to retain a cool sophistication.
Two cigarettes later, Velle and I walked twenty feet from the radar trailer to the control tower, a 300 foot metal rectangle painted a checkered pattern of aviation orange-and white with a glass octagon perched on top of it. Without the runways and taxiways beside it, the control tower could have been mistaken for an aging grain silo with a forest-ranger lookout station affixed to the roof.
Velle opened a heavy door with the words “Authorized Personnel Only” written in red. I felt important. We climbed what seemed like ten flights of stairs before coming to a second door similar to the radar room’s entrance. Velle punched in a cypher code, and I followed her up to the tower cab.
To get to the very top, we had to scale a steep ladder well. The shallow steps were just wide enough for me to push off with my toes. A year later I would rush up the same steps, fall down them, get a concussion and be flown off the island.
“Use the rails.” Velle warned.
The first time I looked through the eight-foot octagon of windows, I was finally able to comprehend where the Navy had stationed me. The control tower’s three-hundred sixty degree view offered endless ocean vistas.
“On a clear day,” the control tower supervisor, Bernadette, told me, “you can see LA” (seventy-five miles away). Thirty nautical miles across the ocean stood Santa Catalina, the west coast’s answer to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
“A few years ago, some people stationed at the pier took out a Z-boat from the SEALS and made it all the way to Catalina. They ran out of gas before they got to the other side where the towns are.” Brittany, the blonde who’d informed me Prince was hers, pointed to Catalina Island’s steep cliffs.
I watched the waves pound San Clemente’s northern tip. Brittany followed my gaze to the off-white rocks jutting out of the sea. “That’s bird-shit Island.”
I scanned the 9,300 foot runway and noticed a sea of blue slate between the airport’s concrete and the Pacific ocean.
“That’s BUDS Camp,” Brittany pointed to the blue rooftops. “You’re not allowed there.” Brittany began talking to herself, or at least that’s how it appeared before I realized that an F-18 had called over the frequency.
“We’re about to get busy.” Bernadette looked at Velle. I wanted to stay and watch the rush of jets I had seen on Top Gun. I loved the tower’s immediacy versus radar’s slower pace.
I followed Velle down the stairwell. She talked over her shoulder. “Brittany’s been training in the tower for a while now.” An unlit cigarette bobbed from her lips. “She better get qualified or she’ll be revocated.”
Revocation was a word passed around daily in Air Traffic Control School. Passing the six-month school’s exams, radar and control-tower simulators was only the beginning of an ACs attempt at retaining their job. A controller had to make rank and qualify on control positions. Otherwise, they risked losing their rating as an air traffic controller and being sent to “the boat.” The boat wasn’t code for sea duty, but for ship duty. Controllers were often stationed on ships, islands or shore duty. But wherever you were, if you couldn’t make it as a controller, the Navy would repurpose you as a Boatswains mate or Military Police.
I promised myself I would study the air traffic controller’s bible, Federal Aviation Administration Manual 7110.65, day and night. But instead of working with the others in the control tower or radar room, I was sent across the field to a single story building with a low roof near the airport terminal.
“Consider yourself lucky,” an E-6 with heavy red lipstick and skin-tight dungaree pants told me. “Most Airman Recruits usually have to serve six months galley duty on a ship.”
The senior enlisted and officer’s office building reminded me of the Louisiana shotgun homes I saw as a twelve-year-old. A shotgun home had a long hallway that stretched the entire length of the building with entry-exit doors on either side. Rooms face each other on either side of the hallway; thus, someone could shoot a shotgun down the length of the home and not hit anyone. On San Clemente, the front and back door remained propped open by a smooth rock shaped like a skull, which allowed for the the few who visited my small wood desk to shoot in and out, checking their messages. The open doors also permitted the mice to scurry from one side of the building to the other.
Aside from the two doors at the end of the building, my office had the only door that remained open. Actually, my office door had been removed from its frame. Behind the few closed doors, the Air Traffic Control Facility Officer, Leading Chief Petty Officer and Division Officer kept their computers and files and conversations locked. Outside, tumbleweeds broke the silence. The leafless carcasses scratched against the cement front step like a carnivorous bird clawing its perch. San Clemente could have been the Wild West except that the wind carried dust coated with JP-5 jet fuel fumes.
I sat at my particle-board desk inside a stale office. The wood paneling reminded me of my grandparents and parents’ living rooms. I listened for my phone to ring and watched for the green button on an electronic panel above my desk to light up, indicating a call from the control tower.
Whenever the green buzzer lit up over my desk it reminded me of the multicolored Christmas lights my adopted stepfather used to string up around the yard. There were always more than a few burnt out. I liked to watch the bulbs struggle to stay lit, flickering on and off. The green buzzer didn’t flicker but hummed, as if saying, Christy, someone wants to talk with you. Of course the conversation wasn’t one at all, just the strict dissemination from a tower controller, Lee, who was also the facility jokester.
Airman Lee seemed to think that the more he talked, the more important he became. Lee was an E-3 and a ground controller, and he made sure I knew both. Lee prided himself on the minute details of his job, such as the ATIS. He recorded pertinent airfield and weather information over a frequency every hour with gusto; his voice was required listening for all pilots entering the airspace. Otherwise, as a ground controller, Lee was a go-between, directing aircraft from the terminal and the runway. Theoretically, Lee had charge of the taxiways and the ramp. But the lineman ruled the ramp out of necessity, a source of contention for Lee who exercised his authority by constantly questioning the lineman’s intentions over the FM radio.
After each plane landed or departed, Lee called down the flight information to me via an intraphone communication system, which lit up the green buzzer above my desk. I penciled in the information onto flight strips, perforated bars of yellow-green paper that fit snugly into plastic unitask holders. I wrote down what Lee had already noted on the tower’s flight strips. That was my job, logging redundant information. Still, Whenever Airman Lee called me over the intracom, he insisted we stick to protocol:
“Flight Planning, Ground.”
“Yeah,” I’d answer.
“That’s not correct!” Lee would yell. “You are to answer back ‘Ground, Flight Planning.’”
I knew the official hey-you-this-is-me technique of identifying both yourself and the person you wish to speak to over a frequency, but Lee had a direct intracom button that sent messages exclusively between his position and mine.
“Honestly Lee! Who else would it be?” I knew I was annoying him. At least once a day Lee called my phone to make sure I answered as Airman Recruit K.____, and not Airman K.____, which was standard practice. We both needed to feel important. Compared to the Local controller who got all the glory and the coveted CTO, or the Tower supervisor, who got the promotions and time to eat their lunch, Lee had a thankless tower job. Still, I hated him. I thought he was an asshole, and everyone else loved him. I hated that a tiny spark on the console above my head justified my constant glancing up at it, waiting for approval or attention.
It was phone calls from the ROff that marked my time. Every morning at 06:50 I heard “Don’t forget to perform Colors.” After I had played the national anthem, rose and saluted the flag, the next call came: “Did you retrieve the logs?” An hour after Colors, I walked between the rows of white rocks that marked a walkway between the offices and the ROff to collect the Radar logs from the night before. The rocks, which I learn have been hand-coated with interior paint, are to prevent us from straying into the fields, where men, alien and protected, wear white-and-grey outfits that resembled a cross between an asbestos suit and an astronaut’s space uniform. They stepped carefully between the cacti and tumbleweeds to collect dirt samples from the opposite side of the whitewashed border. Mice and rats had infested San Clemente with the Hanta virus.
Far on the southern end of the island, a bird sanctuary was set up to protect the endangered San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike, one of the rarest birds in North America. To keep the birds alive, the government employed “Cat Killers” from Predator Research and Management on contract with The Natural Resources Organization, who sent teams of five to ten hunters to fan out all over the island and kill ferrel cats. Young ferrel cats did eat the birds, but they also ate the mice. Once the mice were left without a natural predator, they took over and left the Hanta virus festering in their waste.
After I gathered Radar’s logs, I walked to the bottom of the control tower, where an industrial paint bucket called the Rapunzel hung 100 feet from the tower’s catwalk by a braided manila rope. The Rapunzel contained the previous night’s flight strips and tower logs. The bucket banged against the tower’s metal frame. I chased after the scratchy blonde twine with both hands. Had I bothered to look up, I would have seen Airman Lee standing above me on the catwalk, swinging the rope from side to side. I’d just assumed it was the wind.
Later, Prince would call and tell me to forward Flight Planning’s phone from my desk to the ROff, so I could clean. In addition to my regular chores, I scrubbed the ROff’s fridge, mopped the floors, washed and detailed the vans, collected the cigarette butts environing the Radar trailer and picked up after the mice. The government disallowed the use of any pesticides or poison because whatever would kill the mice and the rats could kill the San Clemente Shrike. Our only solution was to line the floors of our barracks, galley and the ROff with glue traps, one-inch white trays filled with a quarter-inch amber glue. The mice would get trapped in the glue, making for easy disposal–we were told.
The mice stuck in the glue, one after another. A mouse would climb on another’s back in the first trap only to get caught in the second. Eventually the traps filled with layers of mice. Usually the top layer of rodents were caught by a foot or tail and would attempt to eat their way out, gnawing at themselves or another rodent. I had to pick up the quivering trays and place them in a tall kitchen bag. I disposed the bodies in a dumpster. Rats snuck in and ate the mice through the plastic.
Once I removed the rodents, I cleaned their waste. I bleached every surface, sweeping piles of rat and mouse droppings and disinfecting any hard surface they may have crawled across. While I cleaned, controllers congregated outside the Radar room’s front door to smoke.
“You have to wipe everything,” Lee insisted. When he wasn’t in the tower, he’d monitor my progress, having been relieved of such duties since my arrival to the island. “Did you know in the eighties there was a plane crash and wild pigs picked apart the bodies ‘till they couldn’t even tell who the people were anymore?”
“You’re the worst airman I’ve ever seen. Don’t you know you’re the check-in girl?”
“You mean that I just checked in?” I asked, assuming he meant that I was new to the command and therefore a natural target for teasing, which he did, but I was too naive to understand what else he meant.
“You’ll get it before you check out.” He left.
“Asshole,” I breathed.
“That’s what I’m talking about! Do you know how many people get revocated out of this rate and end up on the bottom of a ship?” Lee left again. Twenty minutes later, I sat at my desk and listened to laughter float across the field. A large group of controllers stood around the smoke pit guffawing, taking turns calling Lee an asshole before tossing their cigarette butts onto the ground.
After I filed the flight strips, tower and radar logs, I sat at my desk and waited for the next call: Chow run.
I took nearly two hours to gather the lunch orders controllers scribbled onto the back of flight strips. I prodded each controller to take their time and chose specific wording that would keep me busy. Then I drove the dilapidated van down four miles of steep dirt roads to the galley, which opened early so that I could fill the to-go orders without disrupting the island’s lunch rush. Petty Officer Bernadette wrote Salad: lettuce, 2 cherry tomatoes–not the sliced ones for hamburgers–sunflower seeds, cheddar cheese, boiled eggs, lots of ranch and two cheese cake slices. Brittany wrote “Salad.”
In the galley, civilian contractors grilled burgers and veggie-patties behind a glass partition. They stirred the ubiquitous cream-of-mushroom-soup casserole and folded salty white rice into aluminum trays. Cheesecake slices, bread pudding and chocolate cake spun on a glass carousel. Fresh fruit, bananas, apples and oranges sat next to the beverage dispenser. Underneath the plastic tubes that spit out milk, orange juice and raspberry-flavored iced tea, mice struggled to free themselves from glue traps.
After I delivered the meals to the controllers, I walked the rock-bordered pathway to my desk. Overhead, F-18s circled the airfield in intricate patterns I didn’t yet understand. Across the tarmac, line crewman directed Cessnas to parking locations on the ramp. Helos revved their engines and tested their rutters before departing for restricted flying zones, where they would drop mock bombs into the sea. I ate half my lunch at my desk and stowed the remainder in the office refrigerator.
At 14:30, I packed my lunch and 7110.65 into my backpack and walked over to the ROff. I squinted against the sun reflecting off sand and cement. Twenty additional controllers had arrived in the division’s alternate van. With my eyes barely open they looked like shadows in their denim uniforms and black jackets. The controllers filed into the ROff and tower to work the eve watch and relieve the other controller’s on the day watch. I collected the trash and waited in the van.
Airman Lee drove the day watch van to the barracks. We separated to our individual rooms on one of the three floors in a grey cinderblock building. I took off my uniform blouse and combat boots and sat on my bed in a T shirt and dungaree denims. I propped the 7110.65 on my knees and studied until around 17:00, when the controllers piled back into the van and drove to the galley for dinner.
I heard my coworkers laughing into the van before they drove off. I padded across the third-floor hallway to the community shower stalls. By 18:00, I was relaxing in my pajamas. Walking the steep three-mile route alone under December’s darkness overwhelmed me. I finished the cold remainder of my lunch for dinner. For the rest of the night, the third-floor phone rang against the wall just outside my door. I closed my eyes, certain the calls weren’t for me. No one had the number. No one knew where I was stationed. I took my place in front of the mirror:
You are seventeen. You sit on a used couch in your dark apartment and stare past Christmas tree lights strung around a curtainless picture window to the backlit monuments of Washington DC. You can hear your husband’s steel-toed air-assault combat boots pound down the hallway. You envision their spit-shined toes reflecting the hallway lights leading to Dorchester Towers studio apartment 611.
The stomping pauses outside your front door. Jerrod pops the small tab-lock on the brass door handle with his key. You keep the interior safety-latch unlocked so that he could enter without having to wait for you to fumble with the hotel-style clamp. The front door groans shut behind him. Shirt boxes tumble out of his arms, which he scrambles after, chasing their lids across the hardwood floors.
You turn to see what had gotten him so hurried. Jerrod glances at you over his knees while his hands cover the exposed boxes with their matching lids, and he begins wrapping them in a newspaper he’d tucked under his left arm. You already know the packages aren’t for you. The thin cardboard lids bore the name of a trendy retail store that convinced young shoppers that the 90s grunge look ought to be purchased at a significant markup. Having been raised in Connecticut and then Seattle, Jerrod was their prime marketing audience.
“Did you buy my gifts yet?” You watch him wrap the first box.
“These are for Hayward.” He hurries. With a combined income of his Army E-4 pay and your waitress tips, your money has either already been spent or appropriated to individual activities, beer and strip clubs (his) or grocery shopping (yours). How could he afford to buy people he worked with gifts when you both had set aside only a small amount for each other? You open one of the unwrapped boxes near his feet and pull out an extra-large flannel button-up. Hayward weighs 120 at his heaviest.
“These are for you!” You yell.
Jerrod explains that he went to the mall and spend the cash on himself, but that he had opened a charge account at his favorite store so he could buy your things with that. But it’s the wrapping paper that enrages you. You tear it off the box he had just finished covering.
“Why even wrap them?” You flag a handful of newspaper at him. Jerrod’s hand reaches into the back of your head. His fingers pushed into your scalp and grab a fistful of your waist-long dark auburn hair. He stands up and swings his arms left and right of his 6’3’’ frame. Your body follows like a pendulum with his hand anchored to your head. He yells. His words are noises you cannot make out over your own screams. You are too terrified of what might follow. Sometimes Jerrod’s fingers become specific, selecting a single body part to explore. He grabs a foot; smaller than his hand, it fits easily in his mouth. His lips stopped at the bottom of your toes and he bites down. Hard. Other times he pinches your nipples until they bleed through your shirt. He threatens to tear them off. If you had known that Jerrod only did such things to see how long it would take to make you cry, you would have sobbed in a second. But the more he played with you, the deader you would pose in your cat-and-mouse marriage. After you finally break with tears, Jerrod’s hands, knees and forearms crash onto the floor at the same time, making a huge thud with the sudden drop of his weight. He weeps and begs,“What’s wrong with me?” You rock his head in your lap. Both of you just babies.
But before the Christmas bout could reaches its climax, the phone rings and Jerrod drops you mid swing. Two cops buzz the entry pad in the front lobby. Their voices seep through the answering machine, alerting us to their request for entry into our secured building to discuss our domestic situation.
Jerrod is an MP at the Army’s most prestigious military base. You assure the police everything is fine. No more disturbances will occur. The police officers leave, you lock the interior latch and lay next to Jerrod in your bed. The next morning, his command calls.
Your husband’s Military Police Company Commander orders you to meet him within the hour. Apparently, the CC had been woken up with a phone call from the police who informed him that a domestic disturbance had occurred at the residence of his pet soldier.
In the CC’s office, you sit across three additional senior enlisted MPs next to you husband on a small leather couch.
“This isn’t going to happen again, is it?” The CC asks.
“No Sir!” Jerrod insists.
They waited for you to answer.
“No.” you stare at your feet kicked out in front of you. You are too short to sit properly on the deep, sticky couch cushions, so your feet project directly from your knees, level with the MPs black assault boots. The uniformed men rock their right foot on their left knee to an internal cadence. You see your reflection stretched and distorted in their mirror-shined boots.
“Good.” The CC answers. “That woman who called in the complaint needs to mind her fucking business! It’s women like her that’ll ruin a man’s career.”
“We could just move him into the barracks…” a Master Sergeant offers. “Give him a place to live while you two work things out?” He looks past his chin at you. “Of course you’d have to support your apartment pretty much by yourself…unless you feel that Corporal K.______ needs to attend anger management?”
Two months ago, Sgt. Gantle had been ordered to attend anger management on base after beating his wife’s face with his Army MP study manual. Rumors maintained that no one had seen his wife since. Gantle had to attend classes during his off time and otherwise patrol the dilapidated enlisted apartment housing on “The Army’s Model Installation.” Gantle is still pissed.
“Of course not.” You barely hear yourself answer Jerrod’s Master Sergeant.
Jerrod weaves his arm on the couch back behind your head and props his right foot over his left knee. The bottom of his boot is stuffed with white gravel shards wedged between the 1 inch treads. His sole resembles unflossed asphalt teeth barring at you.
You walk to the car alone. The gravel walkway stabs into the thin soles of your sandals. You drive yourself home and tuck yourself into bed. All you will do is sleep, you decided, and only react in emergencies.