The Game of Life

From South African safaris to U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, one supply chain director’s career and life have taken many turns

Frank Tarpley’s life has been the essential “road less traveled.” Yet in terms of the number of miles he’s logged in his 61 years, it has been a road well-traveled indeed.

That road took him to Mexico with his parents as a 2-year-old, where he lived through high school. Then it led to a 28-year career in the Navy, where he literally traveled around the world a few times, married an Australian girl he met in Spain, drove cross-country from San Diego to Newport, R.I., and spent 54 days sailing from New York to Puerto Rico.

His career in healthcare supply chain management might sound a bit more prosaic, until one considers that he got his training for the job as the Services Officer aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier; or that he and his wife, Kaye, live in a dun barn on 160 acres of land in San Luis Obispo County in central California, and that on some weekends you’ll find him in the desolate Carrizo Plain National Monument, looking for poachers or working on water reclamation projects for quail.

The final clue that Tarpley has chosen the road less traveled are the mounted animal heads – two springbucks, a kudu and a red hartebeest – in a special room in the barn. Those would be game he hunted in South Africa five years ago.

Guaymas, Mexico
It’s no surprise Tarpley – who is the director of materials at Sierra Vista Regional Medical in San Luis Obispo – is the way he is. Around 1950, at the age of 47, his father, Jim Tarpley, decided to retire. He and his wife, Evelyn, sold property they owned in Glendale, Calif., and moved to Guaymas, Mexico, a fishing village on the Pacific coast in the Mexican state of Sonora. “He was into hunting and fishing, and had been to Guaymas,” explains Tarpley. The elder Tarpleys lived there until their deaths in 1981 and 1982.

The hunting season in Guaymas was not long, and father and son hunted mostly ducks, doves and quail. But there was fishing to be done every day. Tarpley’s dad would go out at 4:30 a.m. and come back in the early afternoon, depending on how good the fishing was. He’d clean the fish and donate most of it to local orphanages. Evelyn was a good cook who loved visiting her neighbors in the trailer park in which they lived (prior to buying a house on the ocean). “If someone would ask where my mom was, my dad would say, ‘She’s trailer-hopping,’” says Tarpley.

After attending a year of college in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, Tarpley decided he wanted to see more of the world. So he did something that other Tarpleys had done before him: He enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

See the world
The year was 1967. Vietnam was heating up. He started on a base for river patrol boats – small boats with a captain, forward gunner and side gunner. The boats formed a vital part of the U.S. war effort, given the thousands of miles of inland waterways that crisscrossed South Vietnam. But Tarpley didn’t spend much time on the boats themselves. “They were looking for supply people on the base. I volunteered to do that, so I could stay in an air-conditioned place. And you weren’t getting shot at, except at night.”

After his tour was over in Vietnam, he went to Rota, Spain, site of a naval base and a port of call for U.S. naval vessels entering the Mediterranean. He worked in a galley there. It was during this tour that he met his wife-to-be. He met her in a small town called Torremolinos on the southern coast of Spain. Kaye, a nurse, was on a six-month overseas trip, something not uncommon for adventurous Australians.

After a year and a half in Rota, Tarpley received orders to go to Naples, Italy, to work as a cook in a small hospital there. He wrote Kaye and asked her to join him. She did.

With four years of the Navy under his belt, Tarpley wanted more training in food preparation. So he entered cooks and bakers school in San Diego. From there, he was assigned to the USS Myles C. Fox, which was docked in Newport, R.I. He and Kaye bought a car and drove cross-country to Newport. It was something you could do in the early 1970s, when gas was 29 cents a gallon.

Once again, Tarpley was destined to travel. The Myles C. Fox went on a round-the-world cruise. For several months, the ship was docked off the coast of Vietnam, in Haiphong Harbor, where it provided cover for those who were mining the harbor. Ultimately, the ship returned to Newport.

Having read some books on sailing, Tarpley wanted to get a sailboat and go somewhere. Through contacts at the Bureau of Naval Personnel, he secured an assignment to Puerto Rico, as part of the Naval Gunfire Support, which was engaged in supporting the Navy’s practice-bombing maneuvers on the island of Vieques. (The bombing of the Vieques became mired in controversy, and the Navy ceased the bombing in 2003.) He and Kaye chose an unorthodox method to get there. They bought a 27-foot sailboat and sailed out of New York to Puerto Rico.

“The trip took 54 days,” he says. “If I had known what I was doing, it would have taken less time.” The two traveled down the Intracoastal Waterway, eating clams, dining on hushpuppies in local restaurants, trading shrimpers a six-pack of beer for some fresh shrimp. Once in Puerto Rico, the couple lived in the boat. “That was a test of marriage,” he says. “It says 27 feet, but the actual living area is about 6-by-6.” But there were benefits to being stationed in Puerto Rico. Frequently, on Fridays, the Tarpleys would stop at the grocery store, stock up on food and drink, then sail to St. Thomas or St. Croix for the weekend.

After three years in Puerto Rico, Tarpley was transferred to San Diego once again, where he was assigned to a destroyer tender, a ship that provides maintenance to destroyers. “It was the first job I had that I was in charge,” he says. “That’s when I started drinking coffee.”

He stayed in the Navy, assuming positions of greater and greater responsibility, ultimately becoming a supply officer. Then an opportunity opened up that would set a course for his future. In 1990, he was appointed Services Officer on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt in Norfolk, Va. With close to 400 people and five department directors reporting to him, Tarpley, now a lieutenant commander, had ultimate responsibility for serving approximately 20,000 meals a day, running the laundry and dry cleaning operations for the entire ship, as well as the ship’s stores. “I was probably the most popular guy there,” he says. “Whenever anyone would see me, they’d ask, ‘What’s for breakfast?’ or ‘What’s new in the store?’ It was rewarding.” He worked on the Theodore Roosevelt for four years, and in 1995, retired from the Navy.

Talking to rabbits
Tarpley and his brother, Tom, had bought the 160-acre parcel of land near Santa Margarita, Calif., back in 1979. (He bought out Tom’s half later on.) And it was to that land, with the barn, that he retired to in 1995.

“I had been retired from the service about two weeks,” he recalls. “I was out on the property talking to rabbits and birds, and I realized I needed to do something else.” He had dreams of becoming a backhoe operator, but without any experience, found it impossible to get a job. But he did find warehouse work and, several years later, got a job in plant operations at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, where his wife was working as employee health manager. Shortly afterward, he was hired as director of materials at the hospital. (In January 2009, Sierra Vista – a Tenet facility – outsourced its materials operations to Broadlane. So even though the medical center’s employees stay put, their paycheck now comes from Broadlane.)

Although Tarpley took a conventional job, by most people’s standards, he’s still on that road less traveled. After retiring from the Navy, for example, he rekindled his interest in hunting, a sport that he hadn’t engaged in seriously since he was a kid in Mexico. “In the service, working 12-hour days was nothing. That’s what you did.” In fact, he and his colleagues used to joke about working half days – 6 in the morning to 6 at night. “So for 28 years, my focus was on my job.”

Looking for poachers
He joined a local chapter of the California Deer Association, a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization whose principal goal is to improve the state’s deer herds and other wildlife through habitat improvement and research projects. Tarpley became involved in water reclamation projects in the Carrizo Plain National Monument, which, though a dry and tough environment, is a refuge for many kinds of animals and a home for varied plant life. A large salt lake called Soda Lake provides a popular stopping-off place for migratory birds.

“It’s like a desert,” says Tarpley, speaking of Carizzo Plain. “I don’t know why animals would go out there.” But they do, and the California Deer Association has taken it upon itself to dig out ponds and wells for the wildlife.

Tarpley also got involved in quail projects – fencing off land from bobcats and coyotes, and building mounds of dirt, twigs and brush to provide cover for the skittish quail as they make their way to water. “By providing sanctuaries for them, we help increase their numbers,” he says. He was asked to be a patrolman, which means going out on weekends to make sure the area is clean and to deter poachers from hunting illegally.

African hunt
It was through the California Deer Association that Tarpley got involved in one of his more audacious adventures – a game hunting expedition in South Africa. The 12-day trip was auctioned off at the Association’s annual banquet. “I was bidding to drive up the price,” he says. “Then I realized I was the only one bidding.” So in September 2004, he and his son, Benjamin Frankin Tarpley, flew into Johannesburg, then traveled to Baltimore, South Africa, where game ranches provide a livelihood for many.

As hunting trips go, this one was first class, says Tarpley. Animals are bred in pens, then released into the wild. The hunters stay in comfortable ranch houses, select the kinds of animals they would like to hunt, pay the fee associated with each one, then go out for the hunt. “I wanted a kudu and an impala, because they are representative of Africa,” he says. For the hunt, Tarpley used the .375 H&H, a powerful rifle round necessary for African game.

Tarpley and his son ultimately bagged 27 animals, 10 of which were shot as part of a scheduled culling of a herd on the ranch of retired golfer Gary Player. (Culling, which is conducted at regular intervals, involves weeding out the older and weaker animals in a herd. The meat is disseminated to local ranch workers; it is not sold commercially.)

Mouth-watering impala
“We ate quite a bit too,” says Tarpley enthusiastically. “The first night we had springbuck pie. Then we had spaghetti with ground blue wildebeest meat. We had roasted warthog; they take the loin and smoke it. That was delicious. And we barbecued an impala loin that would melt in your mouth. It was great.”

The whole experience was in marked contrast to hunting in the States. “My experience here is, you go to Colorado, pitch a tent; it’s colder than hell. You hang the meat, you skin it, you wrap it, and after a couple of days, you take it into town to process. In Africa, you shoot the animal, bring it back; the skinners skin it; they hang it up, save all the meat. You don’t have to do anything. The problem is, everything costs money.”

Though the trip ended after 12 days, Tarpley was able to relive the adventure about nine months later, when the heads of four of the animals he and his son had shot – two springbucks, a kudu and a red hartebeest – were delivered in a large wooden crate. Though the trophies can be delivered to one’s house, Tarpley didn’t want to take any chances, so he drove to San Francisco to pick them up. Now they are mounted in his pool room.

If Tarpley’s plans play out, more trophies will hang from those walls in the future. “Kaye doesn’t hunt, but we’re planning on going back,” he says, speaking of South Africa.

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