All this talk of invading Iraq has me thinking of my friend and neighbor Chris Atencio. Chris just joined the U.S. Army. They swore him in a couple of weeks ago. He leaves for Fort Benning, Georgia, for Basic Training at 5 a.m. on Jan. 2, 2003.
He’ll be 31 years old. It took him three months to get a special waiver since the usual cut-off age for officer applications is 26. He has at least three years of active duty and another five in the reserve ahead of him.
“Tell him to keep his mouth shut,” advised my father, who spent three years in the Air Force in the early 1960s.
To be honest, I never thought Chris was the soldier type. I’ve known him for two years, and he always struck me as a free spirit—an easy-going surfer who has spent the past decade traveling the world.
He lived and worked for a few months on an Israeli Kibbutz; surfed numerous islands in the Philippines and Indonesia; tended bar in a London pub; studied massage in Thailand and Kendo in Japan; spent a few months riding a train across China, Mongolia, Siberia, Russia and into Europe.
Growing up on Balboa Island, Chris spent a few years in the Newport Beach Police Explorers program and as a Newport Beach lifeguard. He is actually depicted on a colorful mural on the side of the Balboa Bakery on the Peninsula, sitting on the edge of Tower 32 and chatting with a couple of bikini girls.
He recently got his private pilot’s license. I flew with him once, on a clear spring day when we chartered a Cessna and headed out to Catalina, flying over the island at 6,000 feet.
But the past few years have been just scattered odd jobs. He has worked at three different bars in the past two years. He tutors a couple of Japanese girls in English. He checks IDs outside a Newport Beach sushi bar. He’s a clerk at the North Face in Triangle Square.
Now Chris wants to be an Army intelligence officer. He has a good shot. Chris speaks French, Spanish, German and Japanese and knows American Sign Language. He loves language. It’s entirely possible the Army will assign Chris to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, teach him Arabic and then ship him off to Afghanistan. Then again, the Army could also put Chris in charge of a motor pool in Germany. Or a recruiting post in Toledo, Ohio. The Army’s funny about these things. There’s really no way to know where he’s going until he gets his assignment.
Of course, Chris has to get commissioned first. And that means passing Basic Training. For nine weeks, he will have to run a lot, do thousands of push-ups, run some more and do thousands more push-ups, all while some big, tough sergeant yells at him.
“Just keep your mouth shut,” my friend Frankie, who spent eight years in the Army Reserve, told Chris the other night at the sushi bar.
When Chris finishes Basic Training, he heads off to Officer Candidate School. That’s another 13 weeks of running, push-ups, spot inspections, square meals—where all movements during mealtime have to be at right angles—and classroom instruction.
Should Chris fail OCS, he’ll revert to the Specialist Fourth Class rank—one step shy of sergeant—and serve out his enlistment with the grunts. But Chris is smart, physically fit and earnest. Of course, he also has a low tolerance for bullshit and incompetence.
“You will run into such dumbshits when you get there,” Frankie told Chris. “Oh, and get people to write to you. You will be so lonely when you get to Basic. Just keep your mouth shut.”
NOTE: In January 2014, six months after Chris Atencio’s honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, he killed himself. Click here for my story on that.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.