I was born in Anchorage, Alaska on April 12, 1983, via C-section. I was supposed to be born on April 13, which was a Friday, but when my mom realized this she decided to go get me a day early.
I grew up mostly in Valdez, a quiet little town by the Prince William Sound, about six hours from Anchorage. I was completely penned in by a vast mountain range, a glacier, and the ocean. There’s one road in and one road out. Alaska is beautiful and rugged but very secluded, cut off from society and the rest of the U.S., literally and figuratively. As a young boy I used to look off in the distance at that one road as it twisted and turned through the mountains. I wondered if I’d ever make it out of this town or if I’d be stuck in the middle of nowhere for the rest of my life.
My parents got divorced for the second time when I was a year old. I lived with my mom full-time until I was about four. She worked hard to support us, as a receptionist and also as a bank teller. And then when I was five I was sent to live with my father.
My father worked part-time as a mechanic and full-time as a drug dealer. Before I get carried away with all of this, I want to say that I love my father. We don’t have much of a relationship today, although we probably could if I chose to put forth a bit more effort. My father was strict, and my stepmother was even more strict. I was raised in a time when spanking your kids was acceptable—but my father had a black leather belt with holes in it which was his favorite disciplinary tool. I hated that belt. Then one day I remember coming home from school to find him in the garage building something out of wood, drilling holes in it. You know that gut feeling you get sometimes, when you just know something? Well, I had that, but I asked anyway. What are you making, Dad? And with this crazy look in his eye he told me he was making a paddle. Apparently he had nothing better to do with his time.
My brother always got it worse than me, but then he would turn around and kick my ass, so maybe it evened out. My father was always yelling and cussing, and it seemed like he was always mad. Was it because he was short? Maybe it was because my mother left him when he wouldn’t quit dealing drugs and now he was married to a fat Indian woman who never wanted to sleep with him and made him sleep on the couch. Still, I believe my father had a good heart and meant well. But I also believe it’s your actions that define you.
I know that raising children is not easy and there’s no one right way to do it. You do the best you can, and just try to lead by example and show them the way. I learned from an example of what not to do—but I accept it and am grateful for it. The physical discipline was one thing, but there was also psychological manipulation and damage that’s in an everlasting category of its own. There are situations in life that will affect the ones we love till the end. During the custody battle, my father and stepmother took me and my brother to a counselor to talk about the situation. The mind is a powerful thing, and also extremely fragile. My father always talked about what a horrible person my mom was, calling her every ugly name in the book, and would tell me and my brother to raise hell when we’d see her on the weekends. He even told the counselor that my mom sexually abused me when I was young, which was not true. It was horrible, the way they used me and my brother to hurt my mom. But I was so scared at the time and I didn’t want to get my ass beat. I was brainwashed by the people who were supposed to protect me. So one day I told the counselor some prefabricated story that had been put in my head: I said that my mother and her boyfriend had shown me their private parts and would have sex in front of me. I was seven years old and didn’t even know what sex was. But that was the nail in the coffin, and after that my father and stepmother got full custody. And what was worse for me is how badly I hurt my mother, the woman who brought me into this world, whom I loved so much and who was always there for me. The whole custody battle wasn’t about what was best for us kids; it was a fight that my father wanted to win to hurt my mother because of his own shortcomings.
My brother went with me that day, and his interview process was quite short because he was honest and answered the questions straight. Well, my father and stepmother were pissed; he’d given them nothing to use in their fabricated case against my mother's character. When they dropped us back off at school, my father beat him with his pants down in the school parking lot. I, on the other hand, was praised and told that I’d done a good job. I felt horrible, and I admired my brother for what he’d done and wished I had done the same. I mentioned this day to my brother a while back and he said he didn’t remember it. But I can’t forget it and remember it all quite vividly.
itI was around 11 when my father and stepmother separated. This is when things really started spiraling out of control for him. He was selling weed and methamphetamine and had developed a serious meth addiction. We were renting a house at the time, but he couldn’t keep up with the bills and it was all just too much for him. I remember one time where I watched my father lock up, as if he was having a seizure. Whatever it was, it scared the shit out of me. He had a hard time keeping food in the house; I guessed he was experiencing the effects of malnutrition or sleep deprivation. On one occasion, he said he was going to the store…and didn’t return until the next day. I found out later that he’d been arrested for trying to steal a roast.
Eventually we were evicted, and my father found another job as a mechanic, or so he told us. He made some sort of trade for a 5th-wheel trailer that he put by the shop for us to live in. This thing was a real piece of shit. The rear wall wasn’t even attached to the floor. I was living there with my brother, my father, and whatever crackhead girlfriend he happened to have around. We had an extension cord that supplied us with a little bit of electricity, but we had no toilet or running water. We had to cross the parking lot to use the bathroom at the shop. The trailer was always loud and people were always around doing drugs and talking nonsense. It was so hard to get to sleep at night, and I was always tired in school. One time, I walked into the trailer and there was meth on the coffee table, all divided up into ounces, and cash everywhere that my father and others were trying to count but failing miserably because they were all whacked out of their minds. I couldn't understand why we were always so broke with all that money around, and why—if my father was a mechanic—he had a piece of shit car that barely ran.
That life lasted a couple years, until my father’s place got raided by the police. I was walking home from school and I saw the cops and SWAT team everywhere, searching the shop and the trailer. I decided to turn around and I slept at a friend’s house that night. When I went back in the morning, the place had been destroyed, which wasn’t really that much different from how it was before. My father was arrested and sent to prison, and my brother and I went to live with my mom.
She’d since remarried to a man with two kids of his own. My new stepfather was a decent man who worked for the electric company. He was a positive role model in my life at that time and to this day I am grateful for that. I learned from him a different way of conducting myself. I was somewhat of a problem child at the time, drinking and smoking and fighting, hanging out with a rough crowd. My stepfather told me something once that stuck with me, and was so opposite the message I’d received from my father. He said 'Trenton, I know you think I’m just being a hardass, but you don’t think that I’d like to sit back and smoke a joint and go party? I’d love to do this, but the reality is that I have a good job, a nice car and house, all you kids and your mother to look after. I’ve worked so hard for all this, and for me to lose focus and risk throwing it all away is crazy.' When he put it like that, it made a lot of sense to me.
When I was in 10th grade, my stepfather got a better job and we moved to a little town called Manton, in Northern Michigan. I was the new kid, and I got into a few fights at first but eventually settled in and started playing sports. I wrestled, ran track, and played football. It was a great time in my young life, and it seemed like things were finally beginning to turn around. But my time in Michigan ended at the beginning of my senior year, when my stepfather secured a CEO position at an electric company in Sundance, Wyoming. So we moved again, making this my third high school. Wyoming was difficult for me, but I made it through and graduated with my high school diploma. I was glad to have done it, but the best part was seeing how happy it made my mother. She was so proud of me.
I hadn’t given much thought to life after high school. It had taken so much for me to get to that point, and just graduating was overwhelming enough for me at the time. I ended up getting a job working on a coal bed methane drill rig in Wyoming. It was a tough job, but it was fun, and I was making decent money for an 18-year-old. But it gets cold in Wyoming, just like in Alaska, and the work doesn’t stop. I was working the derricks, which is about 40 feet up in the air. The wind was blowing hard and it was miserably cold, and right before freezing to death one day I quit right there on the job.
Now I was out of a job in Gillete, Wyoming. I’d learned that meth was quite popular in the drilling industry and throughout that small town. I started selling it, and was soon hanging with the wrong crowd again. I was selling the drug I hated the most, mostly for what I saw it do to my father. Was I slowly becoming him? I got myself into lots of fights in that town and beat up a lot of people. I was angry, always looking over my shoulder, increasingly paranoid about being chased by the police. I had to get out of there.
Around this time I thought I was in love with a girl who’d been with me in Wyoming but recently moved home to Oklahoma. I figured maybe I’d join her there. I told a friend one day about my idea and he looked at me sort of crazy, told me he was moving there with his girlfriend in a few days, and said I should go with them and be their roommate. So that’s what I did: I packed up what little I had and moved to Oklahoma in hopes I’d get together with this girl and live happily ever after. Well, it didn’t quite work out like that. I was just 19, young and naive, and wanted to believe in something that could make me happy, even if it could break my heart. The girl I’d been in love with wasn’t interested anymore, wouldn’t return my calls. My friend and his girlfriend decided to move back after a few months, so there I was in a new town again, not knowing a soul. I started working at K-Mart, stocking the shelves. I hated it, so I quit and got a job at Taco Bell. I liked the food, but I didn’t care much for the fast food industry. I was renting a little studio apartment in a sketchy neighborhood, living next to some crack dealers, and thought I’d start selling a little on the side for some extra cash.
It was my father coming out in me again. Things were going alright for a while, until I started using. Never in my life had I experienced something with the ability to take such control of me. I was helpless; it was so fucking bad. I was only strung out for a few months, but in that time I lost my great job at Taco Bell and was evicted from my apartment.
I started breaking into houses and robbing people. I would just kick in the door. Thinking back on it now, I’m really lucky to still be alive. When you break into someone’s home, they have every right to protect themselves and just kill you right there. I’d done it a couple times before I decided to try a house I thought had some dope in it. I talked this kid into going with me. We didn’t know that the dude was home, and after we kicked in the door, he jumped out of bed and tackled my friend, who fell into a glass coffee table, shattering it to pieces. I started fighting the guy, got him off my friend, and we managed to get the fuck out of there. My friend was cut badly and had blood all over him. We hid out in his mom’s apartment across the street. A couple hours later, I looked out the window to see the cops in the parking lot. I was even questioned by an officer who came to the door, but I managed to make up a story and they just left. To this day I don’t get how that worked, how we didn’t get arrested right there. They took our information and said a detective would be in touch with us. Later on in life, I’d hit some lows, but I think this was my rock bottom: I was homeless with a serious crack addiction. I’d tried unsuccessfully to rob a crack dealer, and now both the dealer and the cops were looking for me. I had to do something. I found a free adult rehabilitation program run by the Salvation Army. I forced myself to check in; I needed something to save me before it was too late.
The Salvation Army program was mostly full of homeless drug addicts who had nowhere else to go. I was one of them. At the time, I was still 19, and the youngest person there. I saw a bunch of characters I didn’t want to end up like; a lot of them had been through the program three or four times, in and out of jail and prison, living on the street their whole lives. The rehabilitation program basically consisted of a drug addiction class once a week and working eight to ten hours a day, six days a week. I was also required to go to church and bible study. I was given a bed and paid about $25 per week. I worked in the warehouse, sorting through donations. It gave me a chance to settle down and get my addiction under control, and if it didn’t quite help me figure out what I wanted to do, it definitely helped me figure out what I didn’t want to do. I stuck it out and completed the program nine months later.
I met a girl at an AA meeting. She was a real cool chick, had this fire red hair and was covered in tattoos. She had a little apartment and worked as a waitress. She was going through some legal trouble. She was also getting off a methamphetamine addiction, although I didn’t know it at the time. She was about six years older than I was and we ended up hitting it off and moving in together. I got myself a decent job and we’d been living together for a few months.
What I’m about to say next sounds conceited, shallow and selfish—but it’s the truth. I liked this girl, and part of me loved her. But she started gaining weight very excessively. Part of the reason was that she was getting off drugs and gaining her weight back, and I guess she had always been a big girl. But I really just started losing my attraction to this woman and felt like I didn’t recognize the person I’d met a few months ago. I was only 20 at the time, I couldn’t see myself being with her for the rest of my life and there was no reason to keep dragging it out.
It was right around this time when my mother was going through a divorce from her 11-year marriage to my stepfather. She moved back to her home state of Florida and started a new life. She was living in Tallahassee, which is a huge college town. I’d told her about my situation and she suggested that I come down there; I could go back to school and be around people my own age. She said I’d love it. I was excited and planned to do just that, but first I’d have to break the news to my girlfriend and get out of Oklahoma. I tried telling her that I was just going down for a visit and she freaked out at that. I think she knew I was moving on. So I told her I’d wait and not go without her. But a couple weeks later I got laid off from my job and my girl was at a nursing class, and when I woke up that morning I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but while she was at class I packed my bags in the car and left a goodbye note with my share of the rent and a rose from the gas station. And just like that, I was gone. I knew it wasn’t the most respectable or admirable way to leave someone. But what I learned from this is that sometimes there’s no easy way to say goodbye.
I was off to Florida and I wasn’t looking back. After driving 14 hours straight I arrived in Tallahassee, at my mom’s new town house. She was so happy to see me. She’d been under a lot of stress from her divorce. And she was right: I instantly fell in love with Florida. I found a little job at a local pizza place. I enrolled in the community college and finally felt my age, surrounded by other young people going to school and trying to find their way in life. There were beautiful girls everywhere. It was almost too good to be true, and I was having the time of my life. A couple months into my time there I met an amazing young woman. She was a senior at FSU, and she was so sweet and beautiful and smart. At the time, she was really way out of my league, and unlike any woman I’d ever dated. I was head over heels for this girl. She taught me about courtship, chivalry, etiquette, and just how to be a gentleman in general, which was something I wasn’t accustomed to. After we’d been dating for a year, she graduated from FSU. I was still going to community college and working part time. She ended up moving to Jacksonville for work. I could’ve gone with her—in fact, I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t. Maybe I was scared of commitment. Maybe I felt that I wasn’t good enough for her, intimidated by the fact that she was going places in life. She once told me that it takes a strong man to support a strong woman. Maybe I doubted my own inner strength. Whatever the case, she left for Jacksonville, and I stayed in Tallahassee.
I was now single and rudderless, and after feeling like I’d gotten my life back on track, I’d be consumed by chaos once again. I met a dude who was from South Florida and in Tallahassee to attempt college. We started partying a lot. I lost my student loans due to my bad grades that first year, so I used drug money to pay for school. I started selling so much coke and Xanax that I quit my job, because I was actually losing money at the job by missing potential sales. Things were going great, and these felt like some of the best times of my life. I was selling to college kids in the clubs, and I’d sell to bartenders and doormen so I’d get free drinks and wouldn’t have to wait in line. I knew so many people; I was on cloud nine. I was hooking up with random college girls and I bought myself a Cadillac. There was so much sex, drugs and partying—and I was still going to school that was fully funded by drug money. I didn’t really have a plan for my schooling; I just knew that everyone else there was in school. It was almost like I went to make myself feel better about the lifestyle I was living. It was just so much more glamorous than anything I’d ever experienced before.
But the patterns of my actions were just repeating themselves. I started getting into fights. I was arrested on assault charges, got out on probation and was ordered to pay fines on a $10,000 hospital bill. So I started hustling even harder. I met these two guys on campus who I thought were going to school there, but I soon learned that they were just posing as drug dealers in order to rob college kids. They were shady and didn’t have a lot to lose. People with nothing going for themselves can be very dangerous people. I went to meet one of them one morning to sell him some blow. As soon as I showed him the sack, he grabbed it and took off running like a crackhead. I started chasing him, but this guy was fast. I remember running after him, looking at his Nikes, thinking if only I had shoes on. The sandals I was wearing had come off my feet. He started running from side to side and I gained on him. I finally got close enough to where I thought I could leap and grab him. As anyone who’s ever played football or chased a crackhead knows firsthand, when you’re chasing someone and jump for a tackle, you either get them or you eat it. I went for it, and I ate shit: my knees and elbows hit the pavement before my face did. But somehow I'd gotten ahold of his ankle, and we started fighting in the middle of the street. By this time traffic had stopped in both directions and people were getting out of their cars. I was able to get ahold of the bag of coke, and as I tried to pull it out of his hands the bag ripped open and the coke flew all over the street. This was bad, and so I just got the hell out of there.
There was something extremely wrong with this picture, but this would just be the beginning of an ongoing beef between me and this loser and his associates. My exciting and glamorous life was being consumed by chaos and paranoia once again. I started carrying a gun with me to school. Between me and my friend we had a whole arsenal: AKs, 45s, 22s. We just didn’t always have bullets, because every time we’d buy them we’d get drunk and just go shoot them around town for fun. We were idiots. The only legal gun we had was a 12-gauge Mosberg short barrel with a pistol grip. I loved that gun. I bought it brand new at a gun show for 250 bucks. I walked out of there right past a sheriff and thought to myself I can’t believe you’re letting me leave with this.
We were constantly doing dumb shit that just seemed like fun at the time. One night we were at a club called Mount Zion. The crowd was mostly a bunch of dreadheads with gold teeth. My friend's cousin was with us that night; he was that guy at the party who’s always disappearing to the bathroom to snort coke he hadn’t paid you for and always wanted to borrow 20 bucks. But he was family. Well, after we’d been at the club for a while this guy had disappeared like usual and we ended up just leaving without him. When we got home there was a car in the driveway that we didn’t recognize. Through the window we could see that he had brought two shady characters back to the house to snort up my coke. My friend had an idea: we had a couple pistols stored in a bench on the porch, wrapped in some rags. We would tie the rags on our faces and run up in there like we were going to rob the place. I’m not sure why we thought this was a good idea, but it was probably because we were fucked up. We didn’t even have bullets. My friend was a lot smaller than me; he wanted the .45 Colt and so I got the tiny little .25 pea shooter. We ran up in there and since my gun was so small I felt like I needed to add some dramatization. I jumped up on the table where they were sitting and stuck the gun right in their faces. The dreadheads knew what time it was, and they put their hands up and started emptying their pockets, and it was going so well I figured we might as well go ahead and rob them. So that’s what we did. Thinking back on it now, I realize how stupid it was and how badly it could have ended up. What if they were armed and shot at us? We didn’t even have any damn bullets.
In the midst of this wild time, I met another girl and fell madly in love once again. She was a 21-year-old from Philadelphia, and I thought she was the hottest damn girl I’d ever met. We’d both come from similar dysfunctional childhoods, and maybe that’s why I was so drawn to her. Our relationship would end up being one of the most unhealthy co-dependent experience of my life; misery really does love company. We dated for a few months before we moved into a new townhouse together. And then one day I was driving down the street to a gas station and got pulled over by an unmarked police Camaro. This was weird, since I wasn’t speeding or anything. The officer asked for my identification, which I provided—and then he asked me to step out of the car. He cuffed me as a large white van pulled up. The back doors opened and there was an entire swat team inside. I was fucked. They loaded me into the back of the van and drove to my house. They had a felony warrant for my arrest for sale of cocaine, along with warrants for my house and car. I’d later find out that this was all on account of a sale I'd made to an informant nine months previous. They'd been watching me for almost a year and trying to gather more evidence for a case against me. I'd actually been waiting for a large shipment to arrive that evening, so I got lucky when they came just a few hours early. But I was still off to jail again. They'd taken my money, but I gave my jewelry to my girlfriend to pawn, and then my friend sold the rest of the coke they hadn't found, so I made bail and was out a few days later.
Now I was paranoid about selling drugs and getting another charge against me while I was out on bond. I got a job as an electrical helper, making $8.50 an hour. It wasn't enough money to wipe my ass with. I couldn't pay my bills. My relationship was hell because all my girlfriend and I did was fight about how broke we were. And I was going back to court soon. My first plea was six months jail and two years probation, but I turned it down. Looking back, I wish I'd have taken it; it was actually a good plea for the charges against me. It helped me to learn that sometimes your first plea is your best one.
Then--surprise!--I fucked up again. I got a DUI while on bond, and another charge for possession of a controlled substance. I was back in jail with my bond revoked, and it didn't look like I was going anywhere for a while.
I started working in the kitchen to pass the time. Being in jail is hard enough; waiting there without a sentence and not knowing how much time they're gonna slap you with is mental torture. My girlfriend came a couple times and she wrote me a few letters. And then both the visits and letters stopped. My mother was always coming to see me, though, and putting money on my books. She always had my back, even when I was in the wrong. I could tell she was disappointed in me, and that all she really wanted was for me to get my shit together, do the right thing, and make something of myself in this life.
My public defender didn't even know the charges against me when we got to court. But I got lucky and the judge gave me a five year suspended sentence with three years probation. I served six more months with time served and then got out. Despite attending college for three years, I didn't have a degree; combine this with being a convicted felon with no steady work history and you could say my job prospects weren't the greatest. I still had some connections in town and could get back in the game, but that was dangerous, especially with this suspended sentence. My girlfriend at the time that I got locked up had moved to Jacksonville; I still thought I was in love with her, and I convinced her to move back to Tallahassee to be with me.
I started working for a construction company, installing vinyl siding. The money wasn't very good and I was struggling with rent. I could also feel my relationship falling apart. I felt like she was ashamed of me or embarrassed to be with me, and I didn't understand why; I was just trying to do the right thing. I think she liked the old me better, even though she was always telling me I needed to quit selling drugs and get a real job. Now that I was trying to do it she didn't want to be with me anymore.
I stopped by the bar she worked at one night to say hey. She was like "What are you doing here? Just leave." She worked at a sports bar, why couldn't I come get some wings and a drink? For some reason she started crying, and then the manager came up and told me I had to leave. I probably should have, but now I was pissed. I said "what?"—as if I hadn't heard him—and then I stepped forward and head-butted him. The bouncer instantly had me in a choke hold and dragged me outside, and it became this big brawl. Hell, even the cook came out like he wanted some. My girlfriend was screaming and crying. Amidst the chaos, I had a moment of clarity when I heard the manager say that the cops were coming. I was on a suspended sentence; one violation of my probation would put me away for five years. So I hopped in my car and got the fuck out of there. It was time for me to move on.
I transferred my probation and left Tallahassee. I went to stay with my mom who had moved to a little town 60 miles away. Six months later, I found out that my ex-girlfriend was pregnant by her manager, so that helped to explain a few things. Once again I'd learned that sometimes there's no easy way to say goodbye, and that you can't make someone love you. And to this day I only wish her the best. This whole experience helped me to let go and move on, and was the beginning of real mental and emotional healing in my life.
I got laid off from the vinyl siding job. The only work I could find right away around my Mom's house was at Burger King, and so I did that for a few months. I quit Burger King for a job pouring concrete, and then I got laid off from that, too. I started drawing unemployment, which was only about $160 a week, but it made things less stressful at my Mom's house and looking back I'm glad I got to spend the time with her. I continued looking for work, but I wasn't having much luck.
I knew that they drilled for natural gas and oil in the Gulf of Mexico. I had done similar work on land up in Wyoming; it would pay well and it was something I was interested in. I called around, filling out applications and sending resumes for months. Then one day I saw a classified ad in a newspaper: Offshore Industry: Now Hiring.
I called the number on the ad. It was basically just this place in Panama City that sold a safety course to people trying to get a job offshore. So I went, and 400 bucks later I’d taken the course and been certified and they promised to set me up with a job somewhere. Two months went by; I was calling them every week, and then one day they told me to be in Houma, Louisiana in 24 hours, ready to go to work. I scrambled to get everything together and my probation transferred and just barely made it. I had just enough money left to get there. When I arrived at the address, there was a line around the corner, leading to a small building which housed a catering company. The guy running the show was an ex-cop from Mississippi, and a complete asshole. Most of the people there were under the impression they were getting a job, but this turned out to be an interview for the worst job position offshore, the galley hand, paying $6.55 an hour. After we found that out, there were only three of us left. They chose me, but they said I lived too far away; if I wanted to work, I needed to stay in town. They told me that if I couldn't afford a hotel they would put me up somewhere and take it out of my check when I started working. I'd come here thinking I had a job, and I didn't have enough money to get home. So I went along and agreed to stay in this hotel. When I got there, I couldn't believe it: this place was a straight crack hotel. They put me in a room with an old guy who was living off crackers and baloney from the dollar store. I thought to myself, what the hell did I get myself into? The guy who was doing the hiring made us feel like worthless pieces of shit, and now they weren't even treating us like humans. They were breaking us down and taking advantage in every way possible.
When I finally got to work, I was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. And with all that overtime, after taxes and paying the hiring agency, I was still only clearing $420 a week. It was dirty work, though not particularly complicated; mostly I just washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen. Most guys would work for a month and then take a couple weeks off, staying in that crack hotel to party their money away. I started noticing a pattern, where they were just treading water, and that was right where the company wanted them. While offshore, I didn't have to pay rent or for food, so I decided I would stay out there for long stretches and save as much money as possible. It was the only way I could use this situation to my advantage. On my first job, I stayed out there for four months. I paid off the hiring agency and then got a raise when minimum wage went up to $7.25 an hour, so now I was clearing $600 a week. I paid off probation and was able to get early termination after a year and a half. And because I was off probation, the five year suspended sentence was no longer in effect. Talk about a weight off my shoulders. I felt like I was finally free, and I was now a productive member of society.
When I first got offshore I was working in the kitchen on a derrick barge, which had a crew of 80-100 on board. It was like Water World to me, a strange society out in the middle of the ocean. Oil executives would fly in on helicopters. And on the barge we had all kinds of professionals: the boat crew, catering, electricians, welders, riggers, construction workers, environmentalist, oil reps, safety reps, accountants, and commercial divers.
I worked in the kitchen washing dishes and cleaning up. I was the absolute lowest man on the totem pole; no one really paid attention to me at all unless the silverware was dirty or we were out of milk. It took me a while to figure out what we were even doing out there. I would see all the different crews and occupations eating and conversing in the dining hall or galley. I picked up that people generally had an attitude towards the divers, like they just didn't care much for them. I wasn't even sure what a commercial diver did at the time. I learned that they had tenders, who were like apprentices. I would talk to them and learn about what they did—and it was fascinating to me. You mean there's some guy deep underwater with an astronaut helmet swinging around sledge hammers, rigging up cranes and setting explosives? Then I realized some of these guys were making more in a day than I was in a week. I quickly came to the conclusion that washing dishes was not for me, and decided to work towards becoming a commercial diver.
I realized that divers generally seemed to be very particular about food and were always watching their weight. They seemed to love the salad bar, and if I kept a fresh salad bar with tuna and chicken salad it kept me in their good graces, and they would talk to me. I would ask them all sorts of questions. I learned that to be a commercial diver one had to graduate from commercial dive school. Most of these schools were privately owned and tuition was anywhere from $15-25K. But these guys told me about a program that was run by a technical school in Southern Louisiana that would only cost me about $5K. I did my research and soon I was enrolled and scheduled to start the following January.
In December I went to visit my mom for Christmas. I was getting ready to start Dive school and was very excited, and she was so happy for me. During the visit my mom told me that her cancer had come back. She'd had breast cancer when I was younger, gone through chemotherapy and been in remission for the past 15 years. At the time I just tried to ignore it and told myself she'd be OK. My mother was so strong and positive and never really let you see that she was afraid. She was mostly just concerned about me and my brother; she didn't want us to worry about her and said she wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
January came and I arrived in Morgan City to attend Dive school. Morgan City is a little Cajun town in Southern Louisiana; I was excited and didn't really know what to expect. During orientation I learned I could apply for a Pell Grant. I'd applied for one previously for community college, but now I knew what I wanted and also I could use my own tax return. Ironically, the tax year they requested was the year I was locked up, and because I'd hardly made anything I qualified for the maximum amount and didn't have to pay anything back. It's funny how the system works like that; it was almost like I was being rewarded for breaking the law. Now I was putting my money to good use and basically got to go to dive school for free.
I met a guy in orientation that was looking for a roommate. Chris' parents had rented him a three-bedroom house to live in during Dive school. We were fast friends; he was one of the nicest people I'd ever met, the type of guy who would do anything for anybody if he could. But he was battling a serious drug addiction. Chris came from a well-to-do Texas family and he was the black sheep. He had a four-year-old daughter, but was headed down a path of destruction—headed in the direction I was coming from. His parents paid his share of the rent and even sent him money for groceries, but it mostly went to support his habit. When he'd decided to go to Dive school his family was so proud of him, but now he was struggling to stay in the program and it looked like he was going to give up. I encouraged him to keep at it and helped him study. I was coming from where he was headed, trying to get to where he'd come from, and so we met in the middle. We stuck together and helped each other through, and we both graduated from Dive school.
I was so relieved to have graduated and finished school; it was such an accomplishment for me. Now I had to find a job—and quick, because I was flat broke. Chris returned home to visit his family and look for a job, and we planned to keep each other posted about opportunities and see each other as soon as possible. Our graduation was just a couple months after the BP oil spill, and the dive companies weren't doing too much hiring at the time. But I managed to get hired on with a small company in Louisiana. I felt so fortunate and was excited to begin. And then I got the phone call: Chris had been killed in a car wreck.
I remember the shock and disbelief. I'd never lost a close friend before, and it just didn't seem real to me. I learned there would be a wake the following day, and then the funeral one day later, when I was scheduled to go out on my first job. The company wasn't too sympathetic and strongly advised that I not miss that first day. But I had to go and pay my respects, and so the following morning I borrowed $100 for gas and drove to Texas. The wake was at 5PM; I figured I could make it there for that, stay a few hours, and then drive straight back and make it to the dive shop by 5AM. So I drove eight hours to Texas to say goodbye to my friend and then drove back and went to work.
I held down my job and continued working as a commercial diver. It was challenging and exciting work, and I was able to make a decent living and even save a little, too. When I got time off, I'd go down to south Florida to visit my mom. She was so proud of me, but I could tell that it scared her a little bit, thinking of me down there on the ocean floor. She had a drawing of a guardian angel overlooking a commercial diver that she kept on her refrigerator.
After a few years, the cancer was really taking a toll on her. My mother was always so warm and happy, and she always gave me great hugs and told me how much she loved me. I remember one night when I was getting ready to head back to Louisiana, my mother came in the room while I was getting my things together and gave me one of those hugs. I walked out of my room behind her, and as I was about to walk out the door I watched her take these little baby steps through the kitchen to her room. I could tell she was in pain, and in that moment I realized how sick she actually was. I wished I could've done something, but I felt like I was in shock. And I walked out the door.
That was the last time I'd ever give my mother a real hug. Two months later she cracked her hip in a fall, and needed surgery to repair it. She left me a message on the day of the surgery, sounding very positive and hopeful, but then she started crying at the end of it. I knew I needed to get home to see her.
When I walked in the door she was sitting in her recliner and smiled at me. She had aged 10 years in the past two months. She'd never really looked sick before; now she was heavily medicated and had lost a lot of her awareness. My mother was always a very quick and intelligent woman, and when her mind started to go I could tell it was a great frustration to her. When I tried to give her a hug that first night I returned home, it was hard for her to even sit up. She'd lost so much weight, and I worried my hug would hurt her.
During this time, my mother's brother from Texas was staying at the house with his wife and kid, supposedly to help her out. But he'd recently lost his job and was struggling with addiction. We soon found out that he and his wife had been stealing my mother's pain medication. They had my mother so stressed out at a time when it was the last thing she needed, but that was her, always doing absolutely anything she could to help the people she loved. But I decided I needed to take care of her now, and so I packed them up and drove them 14 hours back to Texas.
I stayed with my mother through that Christmas, taking care of her like she took care of me. I mostly just held her hand while she rested, comforted her, helped her take her medicine at the right times. We went through old boxes of pictures together. She told me the story of when she took my brother and me to a baby pageant and how we won all the prizes because we were so much cuter than all the other babies. I'd heard that story a hundred times but was glad to hear her telling it one last time. She loved telling that story.
And then a few days later, at the age of 56, my mother passed away. I spoke at her wake, and I knew I would carry her with me as I continued on my path.
She left my brother and me some money. I bought a small house in Pensacola, and continued working offshore. I thought frequently about that drawing on my mother's refrigerator, and every time I'm way down there at the bottom of the ocean, I feel her watching over me.
My life has been a wild ride, and I'm sure there's more to come. But I bring my mother's positivity and humor to each day, and I'm staying afloat, one day at a time...
Trenton Grant works as an offshore commercial diver in the southern United States. His autobiography Sink or Swim was published here for the first time by the raffish.