Dante’s Inferno in Reverse describes my descent into a different Hell. My cold Inferno included separation from my wife, persistent gray skies, and intermittent rain and snow. A rainforest climate with no trees or warmth, thousands of miles north of the tropics.
Like Dante I went willingly, though I had no choice. After months of cautious elation and uncertainty when the Seabee bureaucrats in Washington cancelled my orders to Da Nang, Vietnam, I abruptly received new orders. No time to spare, a flight the next morning to Adak, Alaska.
Given such short notice, I failed to return my copy of Dante’s Inferno to the Ventura Community College Library. It seems fitting that Dante shared my exile to Adak. For political reasons, the poet himself was exiled from the republic of Florence in the early fourteenth century.
The book became a symbol for all I endured in those years. Every time I felt a rash of guilt for keeping the book and confining Dante to my barracks locker, I reminded myself of everything the government stole from me. A few years of my life for starters. I fanned a bad attitude and anger enough to fight my way back to the surface. A man performs his duty to his country the best way he can.
Yet Another Inferno
After boot camp, my wife and I had scraped together our meager savings and drove out to California, my next Navy assignment. The Seabees had this odd rule that they would not ship you to Vietnam until you had served six months in the states. To use up the time they sent junior Seabees out on make-work jobs, like surveying the rattlesnake infested desert for buildings they never intended to build. They broke the monotony for one week of military training, chasing Marines around the parched hills of Camp Pendelton. They said the maneuver prepared us for Vietnam.
Other than the heat, the desert hardly resembled a tropical jungle unless you had premonitions of strip logging and global warming. Or Dante’s vision of Hell. The evenings at least felt like California. During the weeks I was not confined to military training, I basked in the ocean breeze near our cheap apartment. The air carried a balsam scent tinged with brine. I waited patiently for my orders to Vietnam, hoping the Navy might lose them somewhere in the Pentagon.
All this time I wished I was back in college. I had no financial choice but to drop out and confront the draft, but I missed the immersion in heady ideas and culture. I preached Bob Dylan and Noah Chomsky, and I drank deeply of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg. Even if my education came more from enlightened students and scholars than my classes, I was the perfect foil for an opportunistic salesman.
When he appeared at our apartment door with his friendly manner, my first thought was to shut him out like a Jehovah’s Witness. But he kept talking and we had nothing better to do than listen. We had no TV, just the same stack of scratched records cycling on the portable stereo. Quickly grokking our situation and my desire to get back to college, he unfolded a color brochure with a historical map of culture emanating from the Greek epicenter. A famous author marked each node.
Our unfurnished living room became an interactive seminar, a literary salon. We shared our weed and jasmine tea while he talked about Plato and Aristotle as if they were personal friends. Then doing me a favor to save my life, he pitched a lifetime of learning via a set of Great Books, including Dante and everyone else. He left with a deposit against my next paycheck.
By the time the cartons of Great Books arrived two days later I had realized my mistake. Even if I read the whole set as the salesman assured me I would, I had no way to transport the heavy boxes. Dante carried nothing into Hell and I was only allowed a sea bag. Fortunately, the legal officer at the base took great joy in cancelling the sale. The Navy even shipped the books back and told me to keep the bookcase.
Surviving the Inferno
A few weeks later I signed up for a philosophy course at Ventura Community College and checked out the Dante volume from the library. Although I happily took advantage of free tuition for servicemen, I only attended two classes before my fateful flight north.
For now I’ll forgo describing more of my tour on Adak, Dante’s Inferno in Reverse, and the circles of Hell other than the ones I’ve sketched already. I endured the crowded barracks and eventually achieved my redeeming plane ticket home.
Despite the weather and separation from family and most other healthy pursuits, my year on Adak wasn’t all bad. I made some lifelong friends and I sometimes consider returning there for the unique tundra-cloaked volcanos, bald eagles, dolly varden trout, otters, and salmon. Never again as a Seabee, of course, not that it’s possible with the Navy base decommissioned and abandoned.
I eventually read Dante’s Inferno, a tough path but rewarding. His allegorical vision resonates with the dark passages of my life and our country’s history during the Vietnam war years. Ever timely, his images still incite metaphors of our current politics and environmental challenges. Most nights the network news sounds like a Divine Comedy, though not so divine.
A print of Domenico di Michelino’s painting of Dante and the Divine Comedy from the Florence Duomo graces my mouse pad. But I confess I never returned the book. My current and future wife, the career librarian, insists that I do, even though the Ventura Community College Library could build another wing with my accumulated fines. I’ll send the book back anonymous.
An e-version of the Divine Comedy: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8800/8800-h/8800-h.htm
Some background on Adak: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adak_Island
Here is the previous post in this series: https://terrytierney.com/2020/01/28/the-poets-garage-workbench-saving-shelleys-skylark/