I was born at St Mary's Hospital in Decatur, IL, on January 31, 1964, at 8:05AM. My last name was Wheat then. I didn't change it to Rice until later. Yeah, I know... corny thing to do. Many years later, I learned that Barbara Del Rio, friend and co-worker from Citibank (and sister to the famous Dazza Del Rio) was also born there. I grew up in Illinois, mostly in Decatur, but also in Ivesdale, Monticello, Champaign, Rantoul, and Deland. We did live in Odessa, Texas, for 6 months in 1977, but I don't really remember much about that, except that I spent pretty much the whole time sitting on a scrap of carpet in the corner of our garage listening to my mom's old 45' collection on a portable phonograph. Oh, I also had a beautiful next-door-neighbor who was 1/4 Cherokee Indian and had long, black hair. Her name was Dawn Ottinger but she went by the name Punkin (not pumpkin). On August 16, she walked over to our house and told my mom that Elvis just died. Years later, when I drove across country for my first time, I stopped by to visit her. She hadn't changed a bit, except that she now had a beautiful son (Donny) who was 2 and loved carrots.
Hello Las Vegas! In the summer of 1980, looking for work, we packed up and moved west. We spent a few weeks living with my dad's brother and his family before we found a small apartment. My mom's father, who loved to come to Vegas and play slots AND was very superstitious, almost wouldn't stay with us there because our apartment number was 13-C. I guess he didn't like the letter "C". I got my first job while living there, at Mr. Fish N Chips (a "family owned" Chinese and seafood restaurant). I had been out on my bike all morning putting in aps and stopped in there to get a drink. I hadn't bothered applying there before because, well, I'm not really Chinese. Inside, there was a colored girl (Hazel) at the register, a white guy (a proper Mormon who's name escapes me at the moment - check back with me later) cooking fish, and a skinny white chick (Terry) running around looking busy. Ok, maybe I'm a little Chinese. I asked for an application, and Hazel immediately went in the back & got the owner, Alex Young (a miniature Chinese man). Apparently, they had been waiting for me, because he hired me on the spot. Alex was great. He taught me how to cook fish, shrimp, scallops, oysters, clams, and eggrolls. He said, "Put them in the grease until they turn brown". He also taught me how to cook fried rice on a wok and how to ride a bicycle backwards. In the fall, I started going to Rancho High School where I learned even more cool things. A few years later, when Alex sold the restaurant, Hazel became a Stewardess. A few years after that, all of the stewardesses became Flight Attendants.
Three months after graduating from Rancho HS, I started Navy bootcamp at Great Lakes Recruit Training Command (August 2, 1982, to October 1, 1982). I was in Company 208. Following bootcamp, I took a little leave then reported to BE/E (Basic Electricity and Electronics) school, also at Great Lakes but on the other side, at the Naval Training Center's Service School Command. Following BE/E, I attended ET "A" school. Every few weeks, I would walk over to the SATO (Scheduled Airlines Travel Office) office and book a last-minute $300 round-trip flight to Vegas. Of course, there was some sort of policy about staying within 50 miles of base unless on leave, but I figured I never ACTUALLY traveled very far. The plane did, but I didn't. I finally left Great Lakes in August of 1983, took a little more leave, then headed out to Mare Island, CA, (just outside of Vallejo which is just north of San Francisco) for 6 months of crypto "C" schools. There, I rode my bicycle backwards all over the hospital parking lot (Alex would be proud), ate 33 free pizzas in one month (an Armadillo Pizza record), and danced 5 hours a night 5 nights a week at The Village (thank you Joe Swilley).
In February 1984 I reported to the USS George Philip (FFG-12), a Guided Missile Frigate (not FAST-FRIGATE!) based out of San Diego, CA. Soon after, I made my first "West-Pac". On that cruise, I visited Hawaii, Subic Bay (Philippines), Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang (Malaysia), Bahrain, Al Jubal (Saudi Arabia), and Colombo (Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon). That was also the cruise during which I lost my beard... when a certain IC chief casually decided I needed to shave it off. Of course, a few months later, the entire Navy had to lose them, but at the time, I felt like I had really lost a big part of me. You see, my beard was my security blanket. My magic feather. My Greek fisherman's cap. Oh, I eventually learned to fly without it, but damn, that one hurt. Anyway, a few months after we returned home (on June 1 - Marilyn Monroe's birthday - gee, I wonder WHY I remember that???), we changed home ports to Long Beach, CA. A week later, my best friend Eric Christensen, relying solely on public transportation (he didn't get his 10-speed bike until later), discovers the best Mexican restaurant in the country and takes me there. I wrecked Eric's bike one time, but I don't think he ever knew it. I had borrowed it to go dancing at the Hilltop, and as I was flying down the east side of the bridge, heading into Long Beach, a guy towing a boat turned in front of me and cut me off. I would probably have been able to stop in time, but Eric's bike didn't have the lower brake levers (for when you're bent over, riding fast), just the upper ones (for when you're sitting up straight, coasting). AND THEN, the way he had them mounted, you didn't actually squeeze them... you had to sorta lift them up (bending your wrists backwards). Needless to say, by the time I FOUND the brake levers and then remembered how to USE them, well, All Hands Brace For Shock. The only thing I really remember was turning at the last second and slamming my entire left side into the boat, then pushing the bike away from the boat trailer (so it wouldn't get run over)... which pushed me under the trailer, and directly in front of the wheel! That Christmas, I flew home to Illinois, bought a car, and drove to Lauderdale, MN, to visit with Eric's family, because he couldn't. Later, Eric transferred to the Paul F Foster, then got out and went back home to Lauderdale, because he could. The Navy hasn't been the same since!
In August of 1987, I re-enlisted, then headed back to Great Lakes (for 4 months of Electronics Security Systems "C" school) before reporting for duty at Barber's Point Naval Air Station in Hawaii. It took about 24 hours to get there, and by the time I arrived (at 4:30 on a Sunday morning), I was exhausted. Then, my sponsor wasn't at the airport waiting for me! After looking all over for him, I called him at his barracks... and woke him up! He made good time getting to the airport, and on the ride back to Barber's Point, he told me it was actually a good thing I called (I thought I already knew that), since he had over-slept for a big race he was running in later that morning (The Great Aloha Run - Ke Kukini Me Ke Aloha Pa'u Ole). As we arrived at the barracks, he said I should come run the race with him. I reminded him that I had just spent the last 24 hours flying all over the continental AND non-continental United States followed by a bonus hour of waiting around an international airport and finally a high-speed tour of wonderful Waipahu, Hawaii. I said "Ten minutes?". He said "Sounds good".
We both finished in the top-ten percent.
Many, many years later (like, last year I think), I learned something very funny about the race's slogan. I had originally been told that it meant "The race with compassion and love", or some happy horse shit like that. Later, I learned that a closer translation was "The race with never-ending love". Yeah, ok. However, the literal translation is "The race with love that never ends". Never-ending love, right? Wrong. The joke is that the phrase "that never ends" is actually referring to "The Race", not to "Love". So, it's "The Race That Never Ends (with some love thrown in for good measure)". And that morning back in the fall of 1987, it really did feel like it never ended! Now for the really funny part. My orders weren't even supposed to be for Barber's Point! I was actually supposed to report to Naval Magazine Lualualei, Westloch Branch... just across the road. Oh, fun times! Still, Hawaii was Hawaii. I got re-settled in at Westloch, then bought a Honda Spree and put thousands of miles on it, riding from Ewa (pronounced eh-vuh) side to Waikiki, around Diamond Head, up to Mililani... all over the island. When it finally died, I bought a 1972 Oldsmobile Delta '88 Royale that got about 2 miles to the gallon. Then I got married.
In July of 1990, I re-enlisted one last time and, in November, I started SNAP-II Maintenance "C" school (in San Diego). My follow-up command was to be 3 1/2 years aboard the USS Durham (LKA-114), an Amphibious Cargo Ship out of San Diego, but currently on a West Pac. Right after I started school, I was informed that the Durham would be delayed in returning stateside, so, after I graduated, I would be spending a few weeks T.A.D. (Temporary Active Duty) at the school until it arrived. No problem. In January, 1991, I finished SNAP-II school and headed over to pick up my T.A.D. instructions. Instead, the yeoman handed me my orders, and an airline ticket. Hmmmmm. That's not right. Concerned, I dutifully informed him that I didn't need my orders yet or an airline ticket at all, since I was going to wait safely here in sunny San Diego for the ship to return. Silly man, he was very confused. He thought that I was actually supposed to fly out to the Persian Gulf and meet up with the Durham there. Something about a Storm going on in the Desert...
Well, it took me exactly 30 days to reach the Durham. My trek started out nice enough, aboard a chartered Hawaiian Airlines jumbo jet with friendly Hawaiian flight attendants (none of whom were Hazel) in Hawaiian flowerdy shirts. We went from San Diego to Hawaii, then on to Guam. There, the crew needed to rest, so we spent a night in the barracks before continuing on. Our next stop was Diego Garcia, a wonderful little tropical island in the Indian Ocean with triple-digit temperatures, smothering humidity, and a 97% male population. We were supposed to spend one night there (just like back on Guam), then continue on to the Gulf. However, the next morning, after turning in all of our bedding, loading up all of our baggage, and hiking back to the tarmac (in the triple-digit temperatures, smothering humidity, and a 97% male population), we learned that we were getting bumped. Apparently, the plane that arrived the day before ours did was redirected in the middle of the night (before we had even arrived), and the passengers that came in on it needed OUR plane to continue on. We were told we would simply do the same to the next plane that comes in (due later that evening), bump them, and be on our way. Right. Funny how things work sometimes. The plane that arrived later that evening had some self-important high-ranking officer onboard who simply said, no, he wasn't being bumped; he was leaving on the same plane he arrived in. Furthermore, the self-important high-ranking base commander picked that moment (probably showing off for some other self-important high-ranking officer) to decide that the "bumping" had to stop. From now on, everybody leaves on the same plane they arrived on. So, guess where that left us? Sitting on a wonderful little tropical island in the Indian Ocean with triple-digit temperatures, smothering humidity, and a 97% male population... for 2 weeks! But not all of us. Whenever a plane arrived with an empty seat or 2, one or two of our crew (self-important officers, self-important chiefs, yeomen, etc) would escape. Finally, a plane arrived with room for the rest of us, and after 2 weeks on Footprint Island, I escaped... to the Brown & Root concentration camp in the United Arab Emirates. Barbed-wire fences, guard towers with machine guns, and 220v electricity (lot of good my 14-pound portable laptop computer did me there). I spent 6 days there before they loaded us on a barge and floated us out to some ship that I don't even remember the name. To accommodate us, they set up cots in one of their hangers and hung canvas panels to give us privacy. It looked like the gym in Revenge of the Nerds. After a few days there, we took a Sea Knight helicopter over to the USS Nassau. Huge ship, full of Marines. I slept on the top bunk (4-high) in the Marines berthing space. Again, I don't remember much about that ride... After that long, my mind was starting go. A few more days later, I somehow materialized onboard the USS Durham (I really don't remember how I got there). Four months later, the Durham returned home to San Diego. Odd thing... after a 10-month cruise, there were pregnant wives on the pier. Never did figure that one out. And speaking of divorce, I got one myself about that time. I ended up making one more cruise before cashing in and taking an Early Out bonus ($25,000), and on October 1, 1993, I got civilized!
Back in Las Vegas, I found a studio apartment near UNLV that had a nice pool and a very familiar-looking laundry area. The buildings were quads, with 4 1-person 1-room studios, 2 bathrooms, and a kitchen on each floor. Compared to berthing spaces and barracks, it was a "Suite at the Super-8". Shortly after moving in, my brother Michael and his girlfriend moved in with me. Let me back up a bit. I found a TINY ONE-ROOM STUDIO APARTMENT BIG ENOUGH FOR ONE PERSON TO LIVE IN. Sigh. A few months later, we had outgrown our TINY ONE-ROOM STUDIO APARTMENT... so we found a full-sized 2-bedroom apartment and all moved into it. We were there for 7 months. I was living there when I met Kathy... again.
I still loved to country dance, and Vegas had several great country dance halls. In 1994, the best one (with the biggest dance floor) was at the Gold Coast Casino, and I danced there a lot. One night, there was a big table with a whole bunch of women at it, having way too much fun. It was a bachelorette party. Jackpot! I started at one end and danced my way around the table. But I guess I kept forgetting where I had left off, because I seemed to be dancing with this one particular woman a lot more than the others. For one thing... she could dance! Two-step, waltz, polka, slow dance... you name it, she did it. Her name was Kathy. Apparently, at least one of Kathy's friends thought we looked good together, because she slipped me her phone number and said I should call her. I did, just a few days later, and made arrangements to hook up (dancing again), but ended up cancelling. About a month went by. I started growing my beard again. I thought about Kathy. Finally, I decided to meet up with her. My plan was to show up at her work and take her out to lunch. Now, keep in mind, I hadn't seen her since that night at the Gold Coast (when I was still clean-shaven), and I now had a full beard. So, I walk into the reception area of her office and stopped. At that moment, some cosmic force compelled her to turn away from her computer and look up towards the window to the reception area, and in the faint reflection of the smoked-glass doors on the far wall of the reception area, she saw me, recognized me, knew why I was there, locked her computer, and grabbed her purse. Presumptuous, wasn't she? We ate at Your Place or Mine, a small sandwich shop a block from her office. I held her hand when we crossed the street, and she thought to herself "this one's going to be trouble". In July, I moved in with her. And in November, we got married. Years later, she tells me that the night of the bachelorette party was NOT the first time we had met. Apparently, right before I had gotten out of the Navy, while in Vegas for a weekend, we were both at the Gold Coast and had danced together then. She remembered me, later, when I asked her if she could polka. So it seems Fate had plans for us all along... we just weren't ready for each other the first time around.