In “The Road Not Taken,” Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” I would describe my life’s journey as a road less traveled. I am the son of an uneducated, single immigrant mother. She struggled every day in New York City (NYC) to make ends meet, provide for my sister and me, and keep us out of trouble…with varying degrees of success. My paternal grandmother constantly told me I was forced to be a man even as a boy due to our circumstances. Even as a child, I understood that resources were scarce and instinctively decided to enter the labor force as soon as I could.
Because my mother worked two jobs a day, my sister and I spent most of the day unsupervised. That meant there was plenty of time for mischief. Drug use, alcohol, and truancy were commonplace for my friends and me. My childhood does not evoke feelings of happiness in me. I spent most of my time aimlessly running the streets without much thought given to my future. I started to pull myself together only upon joining the Marine Corps just two short weeks after high school. All told, I spent thirty-one years as a Marine. I started my career as a Private and retired a Lieutenant Colonel. Not bad considering where I came from. However, there is no telling where I would be today had I not crossed paths with two Black men.
I must have been ten or eleven years old when I began delivering newspapers. Way back in the 70s people actually bought morning and evening newspapers to keep up with current events. At age twelve, I opened a successful lemonade stand in my neighborhood. It did so well that I opened a second stand one block away and had a couple of friends working for me. I still remember people would walk by and tell me I had competition up the street. I would smile and proudly inform them that it was my second lemonade stand. By thirteen, I was working full-time after school delivering pizza and prep cooking at a local pizzeria. I was also smoking pot and drinking beer daily. Times were certainly different then; kids could buy beer and cigarettes as long as we said they were for our parents.
Just before my fifteenth birthday, I had to escape New York and move in with my father, also an NYC native. He had recently retired from the Air Force and made South Central Los Angeles his home. The alternative of not leaving New York would have meant risking my life and my future due to the almost irresistible pull of delinquent influences all around me. In fact, local gang members were actively hunting for my friend and me after we had stumbled on the gang’s cache of fireworks as we tried to find a secluded place to smoke pot. My friend, who was older and my role model, could not leave NYC like I was lucky enough to do. He was later found dead in the street of a heroin overdose.
So at sixteen, for the first time in my life, I was living with my father in a studio apartment. Prior to moving in with him, I had only met him once when I was nine years old. The last time we actually lived together, I was two, so we barely knew each other. Shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles, my first cousin would join us in our matchbox of a studio home. My father’s lack of parenting skills and my penchant for running the streets made for a volatile combination. Again, I found myself looking for role models in all the wrong places. By seventeen, another older kid I looked up to had introduced me to crack cocaine.
The last time I counted, I had lost thirty childhood friends to gun violence. The crack epidemic in the early ’80s devastated American inner cities with violence, death, and destruction. South Central Los Angeles was no exception. My father knew I was up to no good but did not know how to reach me. He would always tell me that he would rather see me dead than in jail. Those words always weighed heavily on my mind.
One fateful day, I would cross paths with two larger-than-life Black men that would forever change the trajectory of my life. That day, I was hanging out on the streets smoking pot with three friends who sold drugs. When out of nowhere, a police officer appeared, arrested us, and took us to the local police precinct. During the 1980s, a rogue chief led the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). His name was Darryl Gates. He would gain notoriety when a video surfaced of four LAPD police officers savagely beating an unarmed motorist named Rodney King. Under Gates’ leadership, the LAPD was known for their brutal police tactics in the inner cities.
Our arresting officer was known as “Officer Bombay,” a Chief Gates disciple in every sense of the word. He was well-known on the streets as a crooked, no-nonsense officer. Bombay considered things like Miranda rights as inconsequential inconveniences that he could not be bothered with. I will never forget staring down the barrel of his pistol, which he aimed at us, or his threat to shoot us if we didn’t follow his instructions. Something about his calm demeanor and the cruel smile told me he was deadly serious. I remember him forcing handcuffs on me so tight that they cut off the circulation to my arms, and they went numb. He threw three of us in the back seat, and one of us had the luxury of riding shotgun with Bombay.
Officer Bombay was big in every sense of the word. He stood at least six foot one with wide shoulders and massive muscles. His shirt was so tight it appeared one size too small, and the veins on his biceps looked as though they were going to pop at any second. Bombay could have easily been mistaken for an NFL linebacker. He was a menacing character for a skinny seventeen-year-old like myself. As we rode to the police station, my friend, Brad, who would be killed by gunfire a couple of years later, asked Bombay to loosen the cuffs. Bombay appeared shocked at the question and ordered us to at the top of his lungs to “shut the fuck up!”
Brad, who was not easily intimidated, responded with “this is bullshit.” Bombay slammed on the brakes in the middle of traffic; we all went flying around the car because seat belts were, of course, optional for the LAPD. He turned around and punched Brad in the mouth. Blood splattered across Brad’s face, and Bombay asked if anyone else wanted to talk. The rest of the ride was eerily quiet. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would jump out of my chest. All I could think of was my father telling me, “I’d rather see you dead than in jail.”
When we arrived at the police precinct, before taking us out of the car, Bombay matter-of-factly told us, “two of you are going home today and two of you are going to county jail. I don’t care if I have to plant some of these rocks (crack cocaine) that I have in my pocket on two of you.” He then proceeded to remove a few rocks of cocaine out of his pocket and proudly showed them to us with that same scary grin on his face. It was obvious this was his standard modus operandi.
Little did I know that all three of my friends were felons, and two of them had outstanding arrest warrants. Bombay wouldn’t have to plant his evidence on any of us; he could save his rocks for his next phony arrest. I remember the shock on Bombay’s face when he looked my name up in the system and discovered I had never been arrested. He immediately grabbed me by the arm and took me to where the holding cells were.
There were two cells packed with men who looked like they were right out of central casting for a movie about gangs in Los Angeles. In one cell, the color of choice was blue; they represented the Crips. The other cell was occupied by Bloods wearing red. These gangs were sworn enemies and killed each other indiscriminately. Officer Bombay asked me what I thought would happen to me if he placed me in one of those holding cells. I was too full of fear to respond. Bombay walked me outside of the police precinct and threatened to kick my ass, plant rocks on me, and make sure I went to county jail if he ever saw me hanging out with my friends again. His message was received loud and clear. That was enough to scare me straight. I knew my life had to change.
I knew there was a better way. I was a nervous wreck, and my mind and heart were racing a million miles a minute, trying to process what I had just been through. I was at a fork in the road, and it was at this moment when I had an epiphany. Without giving it a second thought, I turned away from the path chosen by so many of my peers and walked to the Marine Corps recruiting station about one mile away from my house.
“What the fuck do you want?” yelled the other larger than life, six foot two menacing Black Marine Corps recruiter. I did my best to disguise my fear as I entered his office. I told him I wanted to join the Marine “Corpse,” pronouncing the word “Corps” incorrectly. “Do I look dead to you?” yelled the recruiter. I told him he looked angry; he then proceeded to give me the first of many Marine Corps lessons I would learn. “The ‘p’ is silent, it’s pronounced “core,” the word you said means a dead body.” He continued, “Do you think you could pass my test, or have you free-based all of your brain cells away like everybody else in this neighborhood?”
Only after I easily passed a practice test did he become somewhat more human. He told me he was closing up for the evening and instructed me to return the next day to see if I was worthy of becoming a Marine. Because my eyes were still bloodshot from the pot I had smoked earlier that day and from crying after I left the police station, he warned me not to return to his office high, or he would “kick my ass.” That is how I met one of my dearest friends, Michael, with whom I credit saving my life.
Thirty-one years later, in 2017, I would honorably retire from the Marine Corps as a Lieutenant Colonel, a far cry from where I came from. Throughout my career, I was entrusted with a top-secret clearance with special access caveats. I served in three U.S. Embassies, became an interrogator-translator, led a scout sniper platoon and a counterintelligence company. I also attended the U.S.’ premier intelligence-gathering school and worked with our nation’s most elite intelligence professionals. Eventually, I would return to that school as an instructor. I served four years at the Marine Corps’ Department of Intelligence in the Pentagon, where I was the program manager for the Marine Corps’ Plans and Policy for all counterintelligence and human intelligence-related matters. I was also the program manager for one of the Marine Corps’ most sensitive intelligence gathering platforms. I deployed to two wars and found myself in harm’s way often.
However, beyond these personal accomplishments, what I am most proud of are the patriotic men and women I was able to lead and mentor. To be among them was a privilege I still find surreal. Also difficult for me to comprehend is that so many of my friends died in service to our country while I am still alive. I am eternally grateful to them and realize I have much more road to travel and must do so in a meaningful way or risk squandering the opportunity given to me and not to them. I often credit the Marine Corps with saving my life. I hope I was, in some way, able to contribute to the growth and maturation of others whose paths I crossed as I took the road less traveled.
About Antonio Waters
I am an NYC native and a first-year Biography and Memoirs student at CUNY. My goal is for my writing to inspire others to live the gift of life to the fullest, regardless of the obstacles that will inevitably present themselves.