By Bonnie J. Johnson
On a mid-March afternoon in 1981 a rickety, battleship gray bus arrives at the barracks. Sidney, the sole passenger, is happy the rock-tumbler ride is over despite the destination. Her first taste of Southern California comes as the bus doors open allowing the Santa Ana winds to force-feed her a mouthful of grit. Struggling with a fully packed seabag, one smaller suitcase and her prized pool cue case Sidney exits the bus with a less-than-graceful plunge.
The sun, shining hot and bright, forces a squint as she stands in the parking lot facing the barracks. It’s a three-story, stucco cube fronted by three rows of tilt-out windows. As a typist would strike through errors, the windows are halved by a wide horizontal bar limiting the range of motion. This safety-inspired afterthought eliminates any chance of an aesthetically pleasing exterior. Muttering to herself she quips, “It looks like a mental institution.”
The bus pulls away creating another cloud of exhaust and dust. She spits the grit out of her mouth, picks up her things and plods toward the entrance continuing to entertain herself with semi-audible commentary about her new home.
She climbs the four wide cement steps leading up to the two sets of double doors that open onto the barracks quarterdeck. Per Naval tradition, everything is spotless. The floor is highly buffed, the walls are the brightest white and the brass trim is polished to perfection. The rear exit is directly across from the front doors and two long hallways run off to the left and right. A semi-enclosed square office featuring a wide, rectangular, glassless window facing the front entrance occupies the main part of the quarterdeck. A rather large woman lounges in a straining office chair. Her untidy uniform matches her casual demeanor. Sidney finds her slightly repulsive and somewhat masculine and wonders if she’s gay.
Questioning someone’s sexuality is a new sport for Sidney; one picked up in Memphis. Sid knew about bi- and homosexuality but A-school was her first opportunity to get to know men and women living a life of such forced secrecy. Now that she has a few friends of sexual diversity, she considers herself an expert and thinks she can spot someone who is other than heterosexual within seconds. Regardless of her accuracy rate, she considers herself quite the expert homo-spotter.
The Petty Officer approaches the window and speaks, Hi, I’m Petty officer Hunter your Master at Arms, but everyone calls me Janna or Ma. I assume you are Sidney Caldwell.” Sidney confirms and Janna continues, “I have you assigned to room 303.” With an apologetic look knowing how far away it is she continues, “I’m sorry that’s the best I can do right now” she points up and to her right, "It's all the way up and all the way over."
Sidney picks up her things, adjusts them into a neatly balanced load and heads toward the stairwell. She stops when she hears the familiar crack of a pool cue. A uniquely pretty girl with a crooked smile skillfully clears the balls from the pool table in the barracks lounge. Considering herself a good shot Sidney examines the current play. She concludes that this girl has no suitable competition and decides to remedy that as quickly as possible.
She shifts her bag onto her shoulder, rebalancing her cargo and begins hauling them up the two flights of stairs to the third floor. At the top, she walks through the swinging double doors, stops and looks around. Unlike the spit and polish of the quarterdeck, the upper decks have a more lived-in look. The long hallway runs north and south from the entrance. The walls are dotted with smudges and a few off-shade brush strokes spotlighting damage repair. The heavy brass-adorned doors clash a bit with the well-worn brownish orange carpet. “Lovely, they really went all out on the décor,” She snarks.
The contrast with her previous barracks is unpleasantly surprising to Sid. Since Memphis is a training base, the rules of boot camp cleanliness still apply. Here, at Miramar, the focus is on billeted work versus barracks inspections. There are specified groups of people, such as those on restriction for some legal infringement, who must clean the public areas of the barracks. It’s no longer the responsibility of the barracks inhabitants.
She continues down the long hallway to her room. By this time, her slight 5’4” body is getting tired. Her luggage slips from her shoulders and crashes against the room door. Sidney leans her head on the door for balance and fumbles with her key. Before she can get the key in the lock the door opens wide and she barely escapes a vaudevillian pratfall into the room.
A chipmunk-cheeked, freckle-face redhead with a bright round smile greets Sidney and laughs, "Let me guess, you’re my new roommate, right? I'm Lynn.”
Sidney gives up, lets everything drop to the floor and shakes Lynn's hand. "I'm Sidney, but you can call me Grace," she jokes while dragging her stuff inside.
Lynn grabs a few things and explains that she has the one single cot on the northwest side of the room. “Since it’s just us two you can have any of those,” She points to the two sets of bunk beds at the other end of the room.
The space is surprisingly large housing five cots, five double-sided wooden lockers, a table, and four chairs. The outside wall sports windows on the top half and cement blocks on bottom. The black horizontal bar is as hideous from this side as it is from the other. The windows offer a beautiful view of the Pacific sunset sinking behind a tree-rimmed golf course just on the other side of a small street. There’s a rare patch of grass between that street and the barracks parking lot. Everywhere she looks, there is activity. Not great crowds of people, just one or two golfers swinging clubs, car driving by and a group of friends on their way somewhere laughing and goofing around. She watches the group of friends until they are out of sight.
“Is it a hot guy?” Lynn asks.
Retrieving her focus, “What?” Sid asks.
“What you were staring at, is it a hot guy?” Lynn giggles.
“No, no; just taking it all in.” Sid replies turning into the room.
Sidney moves to the bunk in the corner opposite from Lynn and begins to unpack. First, she opens her locker wide. It’s more like an oversized wardrobe than a military locker. She inspects it as if strategically planning the placement of each item. She’s impressed by it’s volume. She moves to her seabag, dumping the entire contents onto the lower bunk. It always amazes her how much stuff she can fit into one of these things. Her movements are quick and deliberate as if executing a well-rehearsed mission.
Lynn looks up from her book and watches her new roommate moving about the room. Sidney is a natural beauty with a striking figure. Her look is neither glamorous nor wholesome. Somewhat like Marilyn Monroe meets your kid sister. She swims in a pool of devil-may-care punctuated by a highly expressive face. Long dark lashes frame silver blue eyes alive with life and anticipation. Lynn watches as the sunset fills the room with a copper glow. The evening colors reflect in Sid’s long blonde hair as it moves on her shoulders softly from side to side. Lynn’s admiration comes without jealousy, instead she is appreciative, as a museum patron would be viewing a new work of art.
An hour or so later the unpacking is finished. Sidney flops on her bed catching her breath. A moment later she stands and announces, "I need a drink, where’s the E-Club?"
Lynn grins, “Come on, I’ll take you over.”
“Is it open?” Sid asks.
Lynn laughs, "It's almost always open."
Happy to have the company, Lynn bounces off her rack and out the door. Sid follows.