The Recurring, Unsettling Dream of Accidental Reenlistment

Most everyone has dreams, some good and some not so much. Every time we drop off to sleep, our hard-worked brains get the chance to screw with us, and who can blame them for exploiting it? The nightmares vary from one person to the next: I’ve known people who routinely dream of being chased by homicidal lunatics, being paralyzed, or reliving childhood trauma, while my wife tells me she has disturbing dreams of driving across bridges covered by water. Everyone has their thing.

Although I’m not prone to nightmares, from time to time I do have disturbing dreams in which I’ve accidentally reenlisted in the navy. Yes, this sounds hilarious—the “accidental” bit in particular—but I do recall a few shipmates from back in the day who could’ve signed up unintentionally. For all I know, those guys may still be sailing the high seas and bumming cigarettes, unsure of how to draw the whole thing to a close.

In these dreams, I’m at my current age, married, living in Colorado, teaching college—all the things, essentially, that I’m doing now—but somehow I’ve happened to scrape a pen across a U.S. Navy enlistment contract and sign away four more years of my life. Sorry, I tell my dear wife, but we can still write each other, and when my ship is in port, I’ll come home as often as I can.

Did I mention I’ve already been assigned to a ship in these dreams? In fact, that’s my first clue that it isn’t real because the navy was never that efficient when I served. When I showed up for scheduled duty on my second ship back in 1987, it had already been out to sea for two weeks, leaving me to spend a good deal of time hanging out at the enlisted club and the base movie theater. Those were some of the best, most unproductive days I ever had.

These unexpected reenlistment dreams are right up there with the ones people talk about in which they’ve forgotten a final exam, or worse, they’ve managed to show up for the exam but neglected to wear clothes. As a college instructor, by the way, I like to think I’d have the presence of mind to confront someone on their nakedness, at least gently, but it’s difficult to say how you’ll react in a situation like that until it happens. We can all agree that incidental nudity has a way of throwing things into disarray.

Getting back to my navy dreams, though, it seems significant that in them I’m at my present age. After all, that’s what makes it inconvenient, right? If I were twenty-two and accidentally reenlisted, that wouldn’t be so bad. Seeing as I’m fifty years old now, with a wife, and with other important non-military things to do, however, it could present a real problem.

Don’t get me wrong. My post-high school stint in the navy was exactly what I needed during that period of my life. For one thing, college would’ve ended in disaster when I was eighteen, so it was a good thing to defer it for a while. For another, as every eighteen-year-old knows, life lasts forever, so what could a measly four years matter? Plus, those just happened to be the days when I could survive on scant hours of sleep, coffee, and the occasional cup of ramen noodles.

The biggest drawback of me re-entering the military now—which is nigh impossible, barring a reinstatement of the military draft due to alien takeover, zombie apocalypse, or robot invasion—is that I know I wouldn’t fare as well. Some guys suffer the illusion that they inhabit the same bodies they did as teenagers, a disorder that causes the people around them lots of stress and inspires questions like “Do you really need to buy another motorcycle?” or “Should you be wearing that thing in public?”

Not me. I’m self-aware enough to admit that the first time I had to stand a six-hours-on-six-hours-off watch schedule for two or three weeks, sleep on a hard surface, work in a boiler room, or drink powdered milk, I’d cry foul with great gusto. At eighteen, I didn’t care about inconvenience. At fifty, I’m a bona fide wimp who loves his comfortable routine. I can live with that. And to be fair, if I were forced to, I could still sleep on a tiled deck floor. It would just take me a lot longer to get up afterwards.

As far as my reenlistment dreams, I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll have them until the day I die, and that’s fine. Things could be a lot worse. At least I’m not dreaming I’m still in high school.

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