“Ten Years”

by Alec Emmert

“All aboard!”

Rick Minetti shuffled his way through the sea of humanity crowding Penn Station’s platform, his head pounding from last night’s boozing session. Men in suits, musicians, women with air buds, and beggars all stood between him and the Northeast Regional train.  He had never seen any of these people before, nor would he ever see them again, but, for this moment, he despised each and every one of them.  His time on a submarine had taught him how to maneuver in confined spaces and he put those skills to use as he ducked through the closing train door. Stumbling to the first available seat, he flopped down wheezing. Gulping for air, he pulled up a paper bag, cracked open a tall boy, and flopped back in his seat.

Taking a sip of beer, he felt the train lurch forward. This was the old, familiar route back to Annapolis he had taken dozens of times a decade ago. Even though it had been over ten years since had last made the trip, Rick realized little had changed as he watched the tunnel give way to Gotham. Catching a glimpse of his sunken eyes and receding hairline in the window, Rick knew the same could not be said for him. Still, here he was, heading back to the Naval Academy for his ten-year reunion where he would watch a football game and have a few beers with his two roommates whom he had not seen in a decade.

His thoughts turned to that beautiful May day when they had all stood together and thrown their hats in the air. They had done it. They had survived Annapolis and the world was their oyster. After having lived together for four years, he, Frank Moreno and Billy McCoy headed their separate ways. He was on his way to nuclear engineering school to become a submarine officer. Frank, the boxer from East Los Angeles, was headed to the Marine Corps Basic School. Billy, the football captain from San Antonio, was on his way to fulfill his destiny at Navy SEAL training. The US had been winning its wars and they were on their way to finish the job and return as heroes.

Rick remembered the look of pride on his father and grandfather’s faces as they’d beamed at him in his dress whites. Each had served as enlisted sailors in the Navy during Vietnam and World War II, respectively. Rick hadn’t become just an officer, but a Naval Academy graduate who had finished at the top of his class and was heading for submarine officer training. The warm May sun had shone on them all that day.

Before they parted ways, Rick, Frank, and Billy had met for one last beer at Shane Duggan’s, their favorite bar in Annapolis. It was a dive for sure, but $1 Budweisers were all they could really afford on their Midshipman salaries. Shane had run the place since the 1980s and he had a soft spot for the three of them since they were such regulars. They adorned it with their initials for posterity using Frank’s Marine Corps K-Bar knife before they stepped out of the bar for the last time. Rick remembered the warm May sun shining on them in their dress uniforms as they parted ways on Main Street and made their way into the world.

Gazing out the window at the New York skyline, Rick finished his beer and reached for another from his bag. Growing up in a lower-middle-class town on Long Island, the city had always seemed like the promised land. As the son of a plumber, the sight of the skyscrapers from the window of the Long Island Railroad gave him the burning desire to be something in this world. Seeing the smoke billowing from this same skyline that September day meant that he would never be happy in a suit had he not worn a uniform first.

He had done everything right from the day he received his Annapolis appointment. He had finished at the top of his class, served for five years as a submarine officer, then earned a place at Harvard Business School. After Harvard he landed the job of all jobs as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. However, after three years of banking, his boss had informed him that he had not made grade and had to find work elsewhere. That left him with a $4,000 a month apartment he was somehow supposed to afford, and a credit card balance he had racked up at bars in the Hamptons and Manhattan. Bottles and models did not come cheap, even on an investment banker’s salary. “Unemployed and daytime drunk at thirty-two, this was not where I saw my life going a decade ago,” he ruminated as he took another swig of beer and rested his forehead on the window.

Rick squared his jaw as his thoughts turned to his former boss, Art Brewster, and the injustice he had suffered being fired after the countless late nights he had spent doing the work that paid for his summer house. Even though they were both Long Islanders, theirs was a different path. A native of Oyster Bay, Art was a product of Deerfield Academy and Princeton Lacrosse. Many of the young bankers in Rick’s group shared Art’s pedigree and soon they would be sitting in his seat. They had all gone to the same prep schools, spent their summers at the same bars on Martha’s Vineyard, and been members of the same frats. Few, if any, had served. None of them knew what the inside of submarine’s engine room smelled like. “What a waste, what a freaking waste,” Rick thought as the Manhattan skyline faded into the distance. “What was it all for?” The decade of work had brought him to this point: sitting broke and unemployed on a train to his ten-year college reunion.

To suppress the anger bubbling inside of him, Rick turned his thoughts to the long-awaited meetup he was about to have with Frank and Billy. They had lived together for four years and spent countless nights out in downtown Annapolis. As naive Plebes they had looked through the windows of the town’s bars and dreamed of the day they could enjoy cold beers themselves and made up for lost times when they did. “Those were the days,” Rick thought as a smile crept across his lips for the first time in weeks. They had not seen each other since graduation and had slowly fallen out of touch as the military had consumed each of their lives. The occasion of their ten-year reunion had spurred Rick to reach out to the other two to see if they wanted to meet back up for a round at Duggan’s before the homecoming game. After three years partying with Wall Street bankers, he could use a day with some old friends.

Rick hoped this reunion would be like old times but knew it wouldn’t. Frank had lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan. Billy had been through multiple combat deployments that had cost him his marriage to Jenny, the former Ms. Maryland he had fallen for while he was at the Naval Academy. “All said and done, my problems really aren’t that bad,” Rick thought. Although he was proud of his service as a submarine office, a big part of him was in awe of Frank and Billy’s experience. While he had served on clandestine missions in hostile waters, they had seen combat in the Middle East that had taken parts of their bodies and lives. Now they were set to meet once again at Shane Duggan’s for some beers before they went to the Academy’s homecoming game.

Looking at his watch, he realized he still had another three hours to go, so he took his last sip of beer, then rested his head against the window, and closed his eyes.

He awoke to see the Maryland countryside rolling by, unchanged. Soon he was at the station. He stumbled off the train, fumbled for his phone, and called the Uber that would take him the short distance up Route 50 to Annapolis.

A few minutes later Dave was there in a Toyota Camry. Rick waved him down and jumped in the back seat. “Where you headed today?” Dave asked good-naturedly.

“Annapolis,” Rick replied flatly. He was not in the mood for idle chit chat.

“Oh yeah!  Are you here for homecoming?!”

“Yeah. Ten-year reunion.” Rick replied, hoping this would be the last question.

“Oh wow! That’s a big one. Thanks for your service. Are you still on active duty?”

“You’re welcome. No.” Dave took the hint and let the rest of the ride pass in silence.

After about twenty minutes they were they were among downtown Annapolis’ cobblestone streets and colonial buildings. The noon sun broke through the grey October clouds and glinted off the immaculate windows of the pastel storefronts and restaurants. Although it was only a three-hour train ride away from Manhattan, Annapolis seemed another world to Rick, a perfect, beautiful town. He had fit in there when he was a top engineering student in a crisp uniform with an au pari on his arm. This was not his world anymore. He belonged in grimy Gotham, the city of crushed dreams, paying twenty-five dollars for some aspiring model’s cosmopolitan.

He knew he would not have to worry about those prices at Duggan’s. Its worn sign and peeling paint showed him that Shane had made no attempt at classing the place up in the past ten years. He wondered if Billy and Frank were waiting behind the doors as they had so many times before. What would they think when they saw him? What would they talk about? Rick took a deep breath and opened the door. The familiar smell of stale beer and damp carpet greeted him as he entered. Surveying the room, he saw the vintage Guinness posters had faded slightly.

He scanned the room to the old table, and there they were, Billy and Frank, sitting there just like had ten years ago. Shane had a pitcher of Budweiser and was pouring it out into their glasses. Staggering forward, Rick yelled: “What is going on boys!?”

“Yo! The trifecta is reunited!” Billy said as he jumped to his feet. He was still the 6’5” Texas farm-boy who had charged into the end zone of Navy-Marine Corps Stadium countless times. However, there was a heaviness in his eyes.

“Slick Rick, how you been brother!?” Frank beamed as he got to his feet. Rick noticed he winced as he stood up. The three embraced.

“It has been too long fellas!”  Rick said as he hugged them. “Time for some beers!” He already felt like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders and, for this instant, New York City disappeared.

“I don’t believe it.  This must be some miracle that you three made it back here today.  It’s so good to see you, boys!” Shane said.

“I know, we were all deployed somewhere,” Billy said. Then he added, “How you been Frank? You look like you’re holding up alright after everything.”

“I am.  I’m doing this motivational speaking thing that I’ve been enjoying. I made it through alive, and I’m happy for it every day.  I don’t want to dwell on it.”  He looked down his glass and took a sip of beer. “What are you up to Rick? I hear you’re making it rain on Wall Street.” Frank said, deflecting the conversation.

“Yeah, I’m doing alright. I just spent the last three years working for Goldman Sachs, got bored of it, so I’m looking for a new place to work. Maybe a start up hedge-fund or something.” Rick was impressed with how smoothly he was able to brush over his situation. “What about you Billy? I hear you started a CrossFit gym?”

“Yup, I did just that, working out for a living. Not bad. Jenny and I split up, but it’s okay. There’s plenty of young tail running around,” Billy said as he scratched the back of his head and sipped a beer.

“Way to go, man! I’m glad you’re making up for lost time.” Rick laughed. He knew these were empty words. Billy had loved Jenny intensely, and Rick knew the divorce must have destroyed him. Any woman Billy met would pale in comparison to his illusion of Jenny.

“The last time we were all together was right here the day we were commissioned. Now here we are, ten years later, back together as civilians. Funny how life works out. Let’s crush some beers,” Rick said, raising his glass.

The next few hours passed in a surreal haze of booze and memories as Shane kept the beer flowing. Frank reminded Rick about the time he had tried to talk the captain of the women’s soccer team into going out on a date with him when he was a Plebe, only to have her arrange a week’s worth of one-on-one workouts with a Gunnery Sergeant for him instead. There was the winter break they had all gone home with Frank to Los Angeles and ended up spending the night in jail in Tijuana. Of course, there was their never-to-be-forgotten road-trip to Florida for spring break during their junior year. For these few hours, reality melted away. It was already too late when they realized they had missed most of the football game.

Soon a few Midshipmen began wandering in. Rick looked over at group drinking at the bar. “Hey fellas, what was the score?”

“Thirty-two to twenty-four Navy, good win,”  one of them called back. “Did you guys skip the game?”

“Yeah, one of the great things about being a civilian is you can ditch a home football game to drink beer with your friends if you feel like it,” Rick replied smiling. “Let me buy you guys a round.”

“Hey Shane, can you put a pitcher of beer on my tab for these upstanding gentlemen?” Rick asked.

“Thanks so much,” the Midshipman replied shaking his hand. “We really appreciate it. We’re running low on cash because it’s the last weekend before payday.”

“No worries, guys. Don’t be shy to ask for another round. There’s more where that came from. I was in your shoes not that long ago. Just make sure you pay it forward when you come back,”  Frank smiled at them.

After the Midshipmen had left earshot, Rick asked, “Remember what it felt like when we used to see grads back in the day? I thought they were all returning conquerors who had made it. I sure don’t feel that way now, but it’s always good to give the kids some hope you know?”

“Yeah, the dream of actually being out there serving overseas was what kept us going, but the hard part happened after we threw our hats in the air. That’s when real life began,” Billy said.

Just then his phone rang. He looked at it and frowned, “Hey guys, sorry, I have to take this. It’s Jenny,” he said dejectedly as he stood up and walked away from the table.

Rick turned to Frank and asked, “So, what have you got planned for the rest of the weekend?”

“Not much, buddy. Crashing here tonight then flying back to LA tomorrow evening. You?” Frank said leaning forward.

“I was planning on seeing where the night led, then grabbing a train back to New York sometime in the early morning if I can’t find some girl to take me home.” Rick laughed and took a sip of beer. He would have loved to have gotten a hotel room but he really couldn’t spare the three-hundred dollars at this point.

“It’s been good catching up again. Let’s not let it go this long again,” Frank said as he patted Rick on the shoulder. Billy walked back in glaring as he slumped into his chair.

“You alright there Billy boy?” Rick asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Billy muttered.

“You sure about that,” Frank asked.

“It’s just that I had wanted to take my kids home to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, and she is just not going to let it happen. So, it looks like they’re going to spend it with her, and I know her new guy will show up. He’s some forty-year-old real estate investor who moved in on her after we split up. It just irks me to think of them sitting together as a family while I’m sitting by myself on the couch with a beer. It’s like she’s forcing me out of their lives.” He took a gulp of beer and slammed the glass onto the table.

“That sucks man. I can’t imagine what you’re going through there. But your kids must look up to you as a hero.”  Rick reassured them.

“They do, but a distant one they see a few times a month. I’m not there raising them. Look I don’t want to bring the mood here down. Let’s get a few more and keep going,” Billy said with a halfhearted smile.

“So, I’ve got an idea,” Rick said. “It’s getting a little crowded here. Let’s get a change of scenery. What do you guys think about going to see the old campus before it gets dark? We could buy a sixer and have it by the sea wall, then head back out for the rest of the night. Sound good?”

“Yeah, sounds like a plan. I love the idea of having a few outsides on campus. It’s not like they can put us on restriction now.”  Billy laughed. “Let’s get the check and head out.” They flagged down Shane.

“Now it’s not going to be another ten years until I see you all again,” Shane said smiling as he brought them the bill. Eyeing the bill, Rick saw they had done some damage. “Split it three ways?” he asked. They agreed and handed them their cards. He returned a minute with the receipts.

“Right,” he said. “Billy and Frank, you’re squared away. Rick, unfortunately, your card came back declined. I’m sure it must be some error in the system.”

“Yeah, it must be. Maybe the bank put a flag on it because they’re not used to seeing it used at dive bars like this,” Rick joked. He knew that was far from the case. It was another credit card maxed out. He had one left, so he reached into his wallet and gave it to Shane.

Minutes later they were heading out into the cool, evening air. After stopping by a liquor store for some National Bohemian for old time’s sake, they walked through the gate of the Academy. They’d once looked at it with dread, as it meant the end of a weekend away from the grind, but now it was warm and welcoming them home.

“I can’t believe it’s been ten years,” Billy said as they strode King George St, which led from the main gate to the Severn River. The setting sun painted the sky a brilliant pink, highlighting the Academy’s stately buildings and monuments. A few Midshipmen passed by in search of an evening’s adventure.

“You know, this place seemed like a prison back in the day, but it’s actually pretty beautiful.” Billy said as they headed to the half-mile stretch of boulders on that formed the boundary between the Academy and College Creek, which flowed to the Severn River, then the Chesapeake, and finally to the ocean. Taking their seats on the rocks, they each grabbed a can.

“Here’s to being a civilian!” Frank said raising his beer. It felt good to drink on campus without the fear of a senior officer putting them on the report.

“Here’s to that,” Rick said. He scratched his chin as the alcohol coursed through his veins. “Fellas, I’ve got a confession…I’m, uh…I’m in bad place. Lost my job. I’m…I’m barely getting by. That card,” he said, gesturing in the direction of the bar, “It’s maxed.” He swallowed another mouthful of beer. It felt good getting that off his chest.

“You’re not the only one having a tough time brother,” Billy said, taking a swig from his can. “The CrossFit gym is going well, but my life is pretty empty. Kids are gone, I’m out of the teams, and the woman I devoted my life to kicked me to the curb.

“Yeah man, as you can probably guess, I’ve got my demons,” Frank volunteered. “My legs hurt every day. Nights…nights are rough. Nightmares, whatever…Kinda hid from you guys,” he said. He took a deep breath. “Just didn’t want you to see me like this.”

“The same man,” Billy said. “I was always Billy Badass back in the day. Now I’m more like Billy Sadass.” They laughed.

Rick shifted on his rock and said, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been down recently. Ten years ago, we were on top of the world. We had sucked it up and dealt with the Naval Academy for four years and were on our way to serve our country and bring freedom and democracy to the world. A decade later we’re looking at the same messes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars cost Frank his legs and Billy his marriage, but America has just written them off as mistakes and moved on. It’s like it chewed us up and spit us out, and the guys who stayed home are sitting in corner offices running the show.” He took a swig of beer and stared out over the water.

“I feel you man. SEAL training was supposed to be the hard part, but it wasn’t. I thought I had it made when I pinned on my Trident. That was just the beginning. The real part was missing my kids’ birthdays, not watching them grow up, coming home angry exhausted, and never being able to share what I had been through with Jenny. In the end, I realized my marriage was over when it was already too late. I did everything I could to save it, but I came up short.  She was already gone. That was the only thing I ever tried and failed.” Billy looked down and took a sip of beer.

Rick reached over and gave him a pat on the back. “Honestly man, I don’t what to say to you guys after all you’ve given. What I’ve realized is the lessons we learned at Annapolis make you a stand-up person that people respect, but they will only get you so far. From day one of Plebe Summer we were taught to work hard, look out for each other, tell the truth, and, if we screwed up, to own up to it. But the reality is, the people who are running the world in everything from business to politics, are the ones who do the wrong thing. They dodge the draft, sell out to the highest bidder, and lawyer up the second they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar. They’re the pricks who start the wars we fight.” Rick took another gulp of beer and looked out over the water.

They sat quietly drinking not looking at each other for a minute until Frank said, “I’ve spent a lot of time on my own over the past few years, and I’ve been able to reflect on the world and my place in it. I don’t disagree with you Rick. We’re hardly the first people who went through it. The guys who fought in the trenches in World War I came home, started families, then watched Wall Street tank the economy and drive the country into a depression. A few years later their children would be drafted to fight another World War in Europe. The ones who made it home after taking down Hitler and liberating the concentration camps watched their kids get sucked up into Vietnam. Then, ten years ago, it was our turn. The whole time, there have been people who have stayed home, made money, and did not hesitate to drag the country into war when they came into power.”

Pausing for a moment, he stared across the horizon, raised his can to his mouth, then continued, “I’ve accepted this reality and am doing what I can to break it for the next generation. The big thing I’ve realized is that we focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do. If you gave me a choice between a billion dollars and my legs, I would take my legs  But I realize how lucky I was to have survived that blast every time I feel the sun on my face or see my family. I choose not to waste my days being unhappy and angry. Life isn’t a video game. You don’t beat the bad guy, rescue the princess, and live happily ever after. It’s a struggle, and all you can do is keep moving from one challenge to the next and be happy to have what you have because you never know how long you’ll have it.” He took another sip of beer, and another as they sat in silence watching the sun set over the horizon.

When the last ray dipped into the sea, Rick stood up and threw his empty can into the Severn. Frank and Billy followed. They watched their cans float along the river until they disappeared on their way to the vast, dark ocean.

“Now what?” Rick asked.