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City man drifts between military and music festivals

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jesse Lewis describes it as "a paradigm shift" in his life.

The shift came in the summer of 2010, when he began helping to clean up the huge mess left behind after the amps go quiet at Bonnaroo and other big festivals.

A buddy offered him a job that summer on a crew working for Clean Vibes, a business that encourages recycling and promotes "responsible waste management" at festivals and other outdoor events.

"I always thought the military was going to be my ticket to traveling the world and meeting people," the 25-year-old Charleston native says.

Instead, in the past three years, he has bounced from festival to festival -- almost 20 in all. They range from Bonnaroo, a four-day tidal wave of music that washes over a 700-acre Tennessee farm, to the Outside Lands and High Sierra festivals in Northern California.

"It was sort of my ticket to leave West Virginia and see what was out there," Lewis says.

For much of his young life, he thought the military would get him out of Dodge. He even studied military science and took Japanese while at Marshall University because that might help him get into an elite military unit, he says. "For special forces, you have to know a foreign language."

The military is a career path he has not altogether abandoned, even if his one shot at the idea of a special-forces career ended rather unceremoniously.

Maybe it was just a shy kid's dream of becoming a warrior, but the urge had been with him forever. While at Herbert Hoover High School, an Air Force colonel directed his attention to "SOCOM Hell Week," a reality show on the Web, shot in San Diego. The show taped young men trying to earn a recommendation toward special forces training, but who were not in the active military.

Lewis gave it a try.

"It was an interesting trip," Lewis says. He lasted until day three of the intense, often sleepless, five-day workout, which featured close-quarter combat training and any dozing off broken by simulated explosions and dunks in the cold ocean. (See videos at http://gamevideos.1up.com/video/id/9787/ and http://gamevideos.1up.com/video/id/9788/.) "You have to watch me go through the Navy SEAL basic training -- it's pretty funny."

His dreams persisted through an Army ROTC stint at Marshall University, where he was on the Ranger Challenge team. Its members might have to haul 70-pound rucksacks on 10-kilometer marches in the Huntington hills or break down and piece together an M-16, training to compete against other university ROTC units.

Then along came the Clean Vibes gig. It loosened up his worldview as he began to festival-hop with cleanup crews.

"The experience of a nomadic music festival life really appealed to me. I think, in a way, those kids taught me to unwind and sort of question my whole approach to life," he says.

Not to mention put him in the midst of a mountain of garbage.

Take Bonnaroo, a major peace, love and music consciousness-raising session which leaves behind a torrent of trash. Clean Vibes' mission is to underscore that you need to walk the talk if you're going to talk about leading a "green" life.

"It's crazy how wasteful people are at these festivals. It's such a green crowd, but when you go to the festival, it's not green at all. It looks like a day's waste from New York."

The work was not for everyone, he says. "You wake up early in the morning and spend a 10- to 14-hour shift in the blistering Tennessee heat, basically diverting as much waste from the landfill as possible."

Sounds clean and clinical: "diverting" waste. What that really meant, Lewis says, "was massive groups of people standing in a huge pile of compost. All the garbage bags have to be ripped open and checked for recyclables."

So, there you are, digging through globs of trash, picking out cans, for instance. "These kids are standing in a two-story mountain of, just, waste. It's really disgusting. Really hard work. A lot of kids can't handle it."

On the other hand, you're doing some really good work, Lewis says. "When you're working hard, it's one thing. But when you're working hard for a goal that benefits everyone on Earth ...

"It's nice to be able to support the community, but also to be able to handle the waste as I think most of the people there would like to see it handled."

He is now back in the Charleston area, pondering whether to step back onto the Clean Vibes heap. "I may hop on the bandwagon again next year," he says.

Meanwhile, he's considering his options, looking for a job, still musing whether to track back toward the military. He hopes to return to Marshall and pick up where he left off after leaving without a degree. "I'm thinking of taking biology. I certainly want to finish Japanese -- I'm really interested in Japanese culture."

He left Marshall the first time in a cloud of trauma, after a close friend committed suicide. "He was one my best friends from my earlier years," he says.

Devastated, he dropped out and had a "crazy couple of years." He doesn't want to go into the details, except to say a retreat at the Bhavana Society Buddhist retreat center in Hampshire County helped him clean up his act and find some equilibrium.

"I'd been meditating on and off before that. Then, I started really getting into the practice," he says.

He has a monk's shaved head, but not by choice or style. He was born with an autoimmune deficiency where his white blood cells attack his hair follicles, he says. "So, basically, I'm bald. Most people who shave their heads, you see the roots dotted across the scalp. Mine is just skin on scalp. So I have a super-shiny head."

As a twentysomething guy, in an era when many young men shave their heads, it's no big deal. But when he was a kid in St. Albans, it was a deal, and sometimes a big one when other kids taunted him.

"Kids are mean. So that might have made me a little less sociable at a young age. All through grade school I wore a wig. Some kids knew it. One day in middle school, I said, 'I can't take it anymore!' I took the wig off and shaved my head. My parents kind of looked at me and said, 'Are you sure?'"

He wonders today if, being a bald kid, he felt he needed to compensate with more bravado in his life choices. "I considered the police. Perhaps I thought I had to fill that sort of role because of the way I looked. I'm not really sure."

These days, what's up top -- or rather what's not -- is no longer an issue. The issue now is determining new directions in his life, of "finding a purpose," he says.

"I'm excited to go back to school. I can't wait. I haven't necessarily decided what I want to be when I grow up. But that puts me in a place where I can learn and grow."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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