Return From Okinawa – Finding Donna and The Failure to Commit
While I was in Okinawa, Donna and I wrote each other regularly. I kept telling her I was doing better. But then I'd been telling her I was doing fine when I obviously was not. Of course it had not been quite so obvious to me. Donna's letters were beginning to contain things like how much she believed in me and how I turned out to be tougher than she thought I would be. I was beginning to feel she might be leaving and now that I was more engaged I realized I had been lucky she hadn't left already. We were able to talk on the phone a couple of times. It wasn't a regular phone. It was a line through the base with an operator on with you. It was one way communication. You spoke and when done said “over”. The operator would then cut you off and open it up for the other person to speak. Both of us were rather private people and trying to have an intimate serious conversation with a third party listening did not work well.
The last letter I received was a couple of days before I was scheduled to return. Deep down I knew this letter was Donna saying goodbye. It didn't actually say that but it felt like it. We'd always been very intuitive in regards to each other. I tried to convince myself I was reading too much into it but I was not being successful. To help me along, the radio was playing The Jackson 5's “Never Can Say Goodbye”. When I hear that song it can still bring up those feelings. The only thing I could do now was to get packed up, get on the plane, and hope for the best.
As I boarded the cargo plane for the return flight I was hoping Donna would be there when the plane landed back in California, but in my heart I really kind of knew she wouldn't be. We landed at Beale late in the afternoon. I didn't get up right away, part of me didn't want to get off that plane and have to face that she was actually gone. I finally got up and grabbed my duffle bag. I went to the door and walked down the steps. It was 106 in Marysville that day but it felt pretty good after the 95 with high humidity in Okinawa. I looked around and Donna was nowhere to be found. Even though I expected that would be the case it still hurt and I felt deflated. Everything kind of went blank. As I just stood there a few of the other guys, noticing that there was no one there to pick me up, asked if I needed a ride. I said no. I just needed to be alone by myself. Besides there was no where to go except to the barracks and I was not ready for that. I put my duffle bag down on the tarmac, sat on it, lit up a cigarette, and watched the sun set till it got dark. Even after it got dark I still did not feel like moving. I had a sort of empty feeling and was trying to get my head around Donna was gone.
After awhile one of the guys I knew came by with his car and told me to get in and he drove to the barracks. I sat up all night thinking. The next morning I got myself up, took a shower, and made a decision to track Donna down. I wanted to find her. I needed to see her. I wanted to talk face to face. At the very least I wanted her to see that I really was turning it around and let her know how much I cared. I had the next day off but I went to the shop to request a 10 day leave. Everyone seemed to know what had happened. I was granted the leave time.
Since Donna had our car, I rented one, a Chevy Nova. I drove up to Reno where she had been attending school. I went to her room and as I expected, she had moved out. I found Donna's roommate. She was very sympathetic. She knew Donna left with another guy, knew a bit about him, but unfortunately did not know where they went. I had figured she would have had to leave with someone as she would not have had enough money to leave on her own. One of the problems with having little money is you can't afford to go somewhere else unless you have someone to go to or someone to go with. I knew Donna would never go back to her parents. I checked with her other friends at school and they said they did not know where Donna went either. Perhaps they promised not to tell me but I suspect they really did not know.
Donna's roommate offered to put me up in her room while I was in Reno and I took her up on it. The next day she got me some breakfast and I went to the post office to try to get a forwarding address. Working the counter was a girl about my age. I asked her for Donna's forwarding address and she told me that she was not allowed to give out that kind of information. I hung around the whole day pleading my case in between customers with everyone who worked there without success. I needed to at least find out the town, so I went back the next day. The same girl was working the counter again. I continued to plead my case to her. I couldn't think of anything else I could do and at least she had shown she felt bad for me. We chatted between customers and I told her my story, embellishing it, hoping she would give in. The more I pleaded and talked with her the more sympathetic she seemed and I think she was starting to like me so I kept talking with her every chance I got. She finally told me to buy an envelope from her, put a stamp on it and address it to Donna's Reno address and then add “do not forward” and “address requested”. She said it was what businesses did to get forwarding addresses. So I did and gave it to her. She went to the back. She returned and handed me the envelope. It was stamped “Not at this address” and it had the forwarding address on it. I thanked her profusely and left. I had an address, except it was a P.O. Box address. At least I had a city, San Luis Obispo.
I went back to the dorm room and asked if Donna had left anything behind. She had left a couple of boxes. I looked through them and found a folder of her poetry. She wrote poetry, and I knew she would want this and was surprised she had not taken it with her. I grabbed it and told her roommate to make sure she told Donna I took her poetry folder when she returned for her stuff. I figured that even if I was unable to find her Donna would eventually contact me to get her poetry back.
The next morning I headed out to San Luis. I got there in the afternoon. I proceeded to drive up and down every street looking for our car until it was too dark to really see. I found a place where I could park and sleep in the car. The next day I continued doing the same thing and after driving all the roads in San Luis I extended my search to the surrounding area. I'm not sure if it was the next day or the day after but I finally found our car sitting in a driveway. It was a little outside San Luis Obispo, close to Pismo Beach. I sat there for a moment and then went to the door but there was no answer. I waited there until late that night but no one ever showed up. I checked again the next morning. Still no one home so I left a note as I had to get back to the base and I needed to return the car.
A few days later I got a call, it was Donna. She had been gone for the weekend and she was quite surprised to find my note in her mailbox. We talked a long while. It was strained at first but there were strong feelings still on both sides. Overall it was a bittersweet phone call. She wanted her poetry, was a bit miffed that I'd taken it but conceded it was a smart move on my part. I felt like I could probably talk her into returning if I pushed hard enough but didn't want her to do it just for me. I really needed to see her face to face. We ended the call agreeing that I would come down to Pismo Beach. I rented another Chevy Nova that weekend and, with the poetry, headed back to Pismo Beach.
Donna was someone who came on strong but was not really that tough. She kept people at arm's length. She did that to protect herself. Getting too close to someone scared her. Using a sports analogy Donna used the best defense is a good offense strategy. She was smart and perceptive. She would challenge you and did not suffer fools gladly. Her style both drew people to her and also tended to make people tread lightly. I just saw her as brilliant and interesting. When she tried this stuff with me it made me laugh and I somewhat took it as a sign of acceptance or even a sign of affection. I could tell she liked me right away so perhaps that's why I was able to laugh off that tough talking front she could put up. Early on she would say and do things to back me off. One was she would tell me she shouldn't be with me because I was too young for her. Well she was a year up on me school wise but she was actually six months younger than me. She initially tried to keep me at a distance to keep herself from getting too deep into the relationship but we were drawn to each other. I was totally smitten and I very quickly felt a strong connection between us. We just naturally bonded. As I said in an earlier post we met while standing in line at the University Bookstore. She had initiated the conversation and when we ran into each other a couple of times after that, it was Donna who came over to talk with me. We then started doing things together regularly. We never talked about commitment or being exclusive but that's what we became very quickly.
We both grew up in the NYC suburbs but our families were quite different. Donna saw herself as not quite a legitimate person, a person who did not fit in. She saw herself as sort of damaged goods, someone who did not fit into the mainstream. She was always a little more comfortable when there was trouble or friction than when things went smoothly. In our relationship when everything was going great for awhile, she would manage to sabotage it, create some turmoil. It was like she was afraid that if everything was great and the relationship fell apart, it would confirm to her that she really was the unworthy person she feared she was. As long as she did not reach that level for too long she would never have to find out, a bit like if I didn't get off that plane I'd never have to face that she was actually gone. She believed she would never be fully accepted by my family and often feared that if it came to a choice between her and my family she would eventually lose. It wasn't my family in particular, it was families like mine in general. She was afraid that if I did choose her I would eventually regret it. On some level she feared that I would one day have to leave her.
Well the leaving eventually happened but not as she had feared. It ended up being because I made a decision that I had trouble living with. I made a decision that I failed to commit to and consequently ended up leaving Donna by hiding within myself. I truly believe that part of the reason Donna left me was because she felt she was pulling me down and I would really be better off without her. Everyone else only saw the obvious, that she left me for another guy while I was overseas. That looked bad from the outside. They all thought badly of her and blamed her. I knew better. It made it even harder that so many people thought terrible things about her. They ran down the woman I loved thinking they were supporting me. It was a lonely and terrible time for me. It took me a lot of years before I was able to find another “all-in” relationship.
I got to Donna's place and knocked on the door. Donna opened it and led me into the living room. There was the little TV, the radio, and some other stuff that was ours along with the other guy. It was strange and a bit uncomfortable. We had a friendly, if strained, chat. I still wanted to talk her into coming back but I also needed her to want it or to indicate she wanted me to want her back. I felt convincing her to come back with me doing all the convincing probably would not work long term. I needed there to be more coming from her. She seemed comfortable with this guy but she was more at arm's length with him, the kind of relationship she was more used to. I gave her the folder with the poetry and left.
Donna called me after I got back to the base. We talked for awhile and said our goodbyes. It was a difficult phone call. I would lose track of Donna for quite awhile. We would find each other again a couple of times, but I would only see her two more times. Then we lost track of each other again. I haven't seen or heard from her in over 37 years.
We got married largely so we could be together while I was in the Air Force. We were in love and in a committed relationship but neither of us thought about marriage prior to me entering the military. A Buffy Saint-Marie song “Until It's Time For You To Go” sort of captured how we looked at our relationship. It was always understood that we were in this for as long as it worked for both of us. If it stopped working for one, it would be time to end it. I don't know if it was ever really over for either of us but things got bad enough that the end happened anyway. I did not want it to end but then I had, to a certain degree, pulled out and then I was gone, in Okinawa. Donna could take only so much and ended up moving on. I went overseas at possibly the worst time, but then it was that break from what I had been doing that allowed me to come to my senses and begin to regroup. Looking back maybe it would have been better if I'd done my Okinawa tour 4 or 5 months earlier. I have no regrets about the relationship or the marriage other than I feel I let Donna and subsequently myself down which ended up bringing about the end. I emotionally left. I became disinterested. I even stopped having sex because I just couldn't even though I never stopped loving her. I remember thinking what's wrong, what's happening to me. Donna tried to help me and tried to get me help but I wouldn't take it. I should have opened up more and I probably should have seen someone. I'm not trying to justify either of our actions. I'm not trying to absolve or place blame. What I am saying is that there were a number of things going on, we were young with not much of a support system. We each had our issues, and we both might have made better choices. We were deeply in love and we never stopped caring about each other. Neither of us was to blame and both of us were to blame, but blame is inconsequential. Though I know this, I somehow fail to keep from feeling some guilt for my part. I've always felt I gained so much from knowing Donna, she helped me to realize who I really was but I question whether she gained much from knowing me. I think that's the part that bothers me most, the feeling that ultimately I feel I received more than I gave.
I was 19 and pretty naive when we met. Looking back I see how I made the military so much harder than it needed to be. I see how I just got stuck in the middle. I did not go to Canada, which was what I really wanted to do and would have made me feel good about myself. I also did not fully commit to my decision. The decision I made resulted in me feeling like a failure. I needed to have fully accepted my decision and commit to doing my military service the best I could. I failed to follow my father's simple mantra he drummed into me when I was growing up (“Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.”), and I ended up losing Donna and a piece of myself.
I safeguard the memories, the pain and sorrow bundled with the joy and love I experienced with Donna. I hold dear the closeness and intensity we once shared. Donna was an important part of my life.