Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Way Home, a DLI adventure

I’m not sure exactly what is wrong with me, but after the most monumental life achievements, have always been followed by a hallow feeling. This was never truer than when I finally graduated from the Russian basic course at the Defense Language Institute. The battle was won, honor regained, but now the question loomed. What next? This was especially true because the outcome had been so unsure. I didn’t expect to graduate any more than I expected to fail. I knew I had to try and I hoped I would succeed, but I was realistic enough to know that the odds were against me. I knew going in that it would be hard, though even then, I underestimated the difficulty.

Just to be clear, I didn't dominate at Russian language school. I scrapped by in the lower third of my class, my fate in question every one of the 52 weeks including the last. I am not a gifted linguist. In fact, my learning disability inhibits my language abilities, specifically in the case of rules. Grammar rules as well as mathematic rules that are required to solve equations starting in algebra. My specific disability is that the neural pathways that people build up over time through rote memorization in the area of mathematics and language simply don't hold for me. If I manage to keep at something like language, where it’s an immersion course as the one at the Defense Language Institute, I have a chance. I can maintain the pathways with daily work. Once abandoned, even for a short length of time, and they degrade.

I knew this going in, though I didn’t fully understand it the first time I went to DLI in 1984. Even with this obstacle, I managed to survive for 5 months. The second time, in 1991-92, I crossed the finish line just before they took down the tape. Was it vanity that drove me to try again? I've asked myself why many times, before, during and after. The answer that I came up with was this. I felt as if I needed to correct a mistake. I wasn't prepared the first time to meet the challenge. This was my fault alone. I screwed off in high school and failed to learn English grammar because it was hard for me. Before I returned in 1991, I’d finished two years of college and learned what I needed to know. I went back, prepared. I needed to right a wrong I had done to myself. I’d damaged my confidence in myself and needed to get it back. Not to feel as if I had gained or accomplished something great, not to boost my ego, but simply to get back to a state of even. To be able to start fresh without the shame I felt for the initial failure.

After walking across the stage in Monterey in the spring of 1992, I drove back home to finish my Bachelors degree in Russian Area Studies and hopefully move on to a rewarding career. Two things about my trip home were very different than my trip out a year earlier. First, I decided to take the safer southern route as to not temp fate in the mountains again, and second, I wasn't alone. A good friend of mine had been to DLI a few years before and a friend of his had road tripped back to Minnesota with him. He wanted to pay that favor forward by traveling with me. He had friends and family in California so he got a one way ticket and after his visit, I picked him up and we headed home via the southern states.

This trip was going to be different. No blown tires, no deadly mountain passes, no 1,000 mile days, just a leisurely cruise home with a stop off to see the Grand Canyon. The Camaro of Death had a sweet sound system to entertain us on our journey. I had an Alpine tape deck/radio with one of the first 6 disc CD changers in the trunk, 6x9's in the back and an amp under the passenger seat. The sucker would shake the whole car and couldn't be played at full volume without ear protection. Mark had come prepared. He brought a lot of great tunes that I’d never heard before, my favorite being "Jesus Built my Hotrod" by Ministry. We stopped when we wanted to and did take a side trip to see the Grand Canyon. It was a canyon and I guess it was grand, but without the time to really explore, it only added to the anticlimactic funk I was in. Only seeing home again would buoy my spirits, so even though I had the time, I picked up my pace and focused on eating away the miles.

We followed a simple path, staying on I40 until we hit Oklahoma City, then we swung north on I35 all the way home. After our side trip to the Canyon, we spent the night in a cheap motel in Flagstaff, under the names Harry Canyon and Peter Schlen. Schlen being Russian slang for penis and Harry Canyon was a character with a funny sounding name from the movie Heavy Metal. We left the following morning after a greasy truck stop breakfast, and it wasn't until that night when I popped out my contacts that I realized I’d left my glasses at that motel.

Somewhere between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, I got caught behind a convoy of truckers. After watching Burt Reynolds movies, I thought truckers pushed the speed limit, but these boys seemed hell bent on going about five miles under the limit in multiple lanes. When I got an opening, I moved to pass the flat bed. Just as I got close, a large chunk of 2x4 came loose and landed right in front of me, too close to avoid. I could see the nails that decorated the wood and prayed my tires would miss them.

No such luck. I guess I should be grateful that it wasn't a blow out like my trip to California the year before. My rear tire was punctured, but managed to stay inflated as long as I was moving. We pulled off at the next exit. Luck was with us, since not all exits are equal. We pulled into the first store, one of the many variations of Gas and Go's that peppered the landscape. I could just make out the sign of a real garage a few blocks away and went to work jacking up the car to remove the tire. Mark went in for some pop, or soda as it's known in other parts of the country. He came back and it was my turn to use the restroom and clean up a little.

Halfway to the door, I was blocked by a group of five Native Americans. They seemed friendly enough and asked if I had any spare cash. They said they needed some gas money to get back to the reservation. I didn’t hesitate or even give it much though, I just reached in my pocket and pulled out a five dollar bill that was left over from my last purchase and handed it to man that spoke for the group. I went inside, cleaned up, grabbed some road food and went back to the car. I caught the last part of the conversation where Mark was informing them that he was sorry, but he didn't have any cash. It was true and for that matter, I had just barely enough to make it home and cover gas and cheap motels. The group voiced their disbelief and unhappiness with Mark for not donating. The mood was getting ugly until I came up to stand next to him. I hoped the fact I had given them some cash and Mark and I were riding together would be enough to take away their steam. It didn't. They started to get very aggressive and began to threaten us with bodily harm. The trunk was still open and I reached in and pulled out my S&W model 645 and handed the .454 casull revolver to Mark. That was enough to make them leave, but we were pretty sure they would be back.

I got the flat off, tucked my auto in my waistband and rolled the tire down to the garage. It was a sidewall leak and the mechanic didn’t want to patch it, but I begged him. He told me it wouldn’t last for the life of the tire and there was a danger of a blow out. I assured him it would be fine and he did the job in about ten minutes. I could just make out Mark keeping watch at the car. He was still alone when I rolled the repaired tire back as fast as I could and pulled pit crew record time getting that sucker back on the Camaro. I started her it up and aimed for the highway entrance ramp.

Just as we left the quickie mart parking lot, we spotted two pickups approaching fast on a dirt back road that ran behind the main drag of the exit.  Each truck was loaded with at least five shooters in the back, all carrying rifles. Our welcome had expired and I leaned on the small block 350 and launched onto the highway. I exceeded posted speed limits and didn’t let off until a hundred miles later when I was sure the two trucks were no longer in pursuit.

The rest of the trip was uneventful with the exception of some negative physical reactions to truck stop chili. A week later I got a small package in the mail. It was addressed to Peter Schlen and contained my lost glasses from the motel we'd stayed at in Flagstaff. I was home, and I was whole again. 


  1. If it wasn't for bad luck, you'd have no luck at all. Damn, what a trip. Glad y'all didn't get shot up.

  2. Thanks, so were we. There's no mystery as to why I avoided road trips for a few years after that.