Samuel E. Lee Jr.
had graduated from Johns Hopkins and was in grad school, studying behavioral studies on his way to a career as a health policy analyst, when he changed his mind.
Growing up in Randallstown, Lee says, his mother kept him on the straight and narrow. "I had never been anywhere," says the man whose grandmother nicknamed him JR.
In the next year Lee would go from a bartending gig in the Inner Harbor to Hawaii. He would meet the woman he would marry and he would change his life in ways he can't tell us.
Seeking adventure and a break from graduate school, JR took a job bartending at Planet Hollywood. "Before that I was shy, but it really helped me open up," he says. After one especially successful evening, he says, he had Kaye Cowher, wife of former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, "sticking dollar bills in my pants."
Then JR went to the Army recruiting office in East Baltimore. He asked to enlist.
"Their jaws dropped," JR says. Even a year after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, recruiters were not used to grad students walking in off the street. "I wanted to get rid of my student loans," JR says. He went in as an enlisted man "because it was a better deal with tuition reimbursement" than starting as an officer.
JR says his grandfather was at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack. "He's why I joined the Army," JR says.
In basic training, JR spied Lara. They didn't have time to socialize, he says, but they got to know each other better during advanced training.
With a top score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, JR could write his own ticket. He chose Hawaii. "If I didn't have to come back, I wouldn't have," JR says over beers at Ryleigh's Oyster Bar in Federal Hill. "I still remember getting off the plane and smelling fumaria." His phone retains the 808 area code.
Lara was stationed abroad. JR says he spent his first 18 months-time on "casual status" as he awaited Army paperwork-scheming up ways to get to her.
"I got a cush job working for the battalion commander," JR says. "We became friends."
Luckily JR's commander was buddies with Jones' commander. Soon, Lara had orders to go to Hawaii, where she and JR were married on the beach. That was on May 6, 2004, he says, drawing from his wallet a photo of the two of them taken later in the Toronto Blue Jays ballpark (she's originally from upstate New York).
After his service, JR took a civilian job doing much the same kind of work he'd done for Uncle Sam. He says he can't say much about the work.
The couple bought a house in Pigtown, a neighborhood that "was up-and-coming-still is," he says. Today it's rented out to UMD medical students; last year he and Lara moved to Linthicum. It shortens both their commutes.
JR bought a Harley Davidson Sportster for Lara. Depending on his mood, JR rides either a Honda CBR 1000 or a Honda VTX. That bike has an 1,800-cubic-centimeter engine, which is bigger than the one in some cars.
"I'm a recruiter," JR says. "I've talked two of my co-workers into getting bikes. I'm creating my own little motorcycle club."
The couple also owns a Grand Cherokee and a Wrangler with 33-inch tires. "It's got good clearance," JR deadpans. He likes to get it muddy at places like Rausch Creek in Pennsylvania.
He and Lara will be there on May 11, he says-a day after they return from their nine-year anniversary trip to Hawaii.