Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Illustrious Navy Career

(Please read after first reading "Veterans Day, 2009," below)

Someone, an old friend by all the evidence, asked me in a comment about the circumstances that led to my early discharge from military service. He mentions a letter that I wrote, which may have played a small part. Here, in brief, are the players and the action:

The Personnel Officer

Every base and ship has a personnel officer. The job was held on my base by a nice young Navy Reserve lieutenant from Connecticut. He was cool, we could talk, and sometimes I’d stop in to say hi. My base was considered easy duty, and most of the sailors and marines stationed there had already done hard time somewhere else. At some point I noticed that guys from my base who had been assigned right out of boot camp, guys like me, guys who had two years to go after an eighteen month gig on that base, were being assigned to Vietnam for very disagreeable things, including gunboats on the Mekong River. Remember “Apocalypse Now?” As in, “shithead’s dead! Ceely, man the fifty!”

Well I stopped in to share my feelings on the subject with Mr., I forget his name now, let’s say Mr. Williams. “Mr. Williams,” I explained, “I see that this shit is happening, and I just want you to know that if I get orders for Vietnam after this, all the Navy will ever see of me again is my ass, going out that door.” This is a direct quote, I remember it like it was yesterday, I can remember the light in the room, and the old manual typewriters. “Are you sure that you want to be telling me this?” Mr. Williams was trying to protect me from myself, a very nice guy. “I just don’t want any surprises,” I explained, “the Navy should know how I feel.”

The Lutheran Chaplin

My job was very easy, and I often had a couple of hours to kill in the afternoon. Sometimes I’d head over to the Chaplin’s office for a chat about comparative religion, or Christian theology. I avoided the Catholic Chaplin, I’d had enough of those people. I liked the Lutheran Chaplin, though, he was cool, we could talk.

Actually, I think he was the one who first suggested to the base commander that this kid has no business being in the service.

The Base Doctor

Also for want of things to occupy the day, I often went to morning sick call. My appetite was bad, and I alternately had trouble sleeping or slept too much. They, the service in general, so failed to appreciate the situation in those days that when I told them I was having trouble sleeping the doctor gave me a nice bottle of Seconal. I don’t really remember the base doctor, but somehow that office too discovered that I was not a good candidate for success in the military.

The Troubles

Most of the personnel on my base, maybe in the service in general, were country boys, lots of Southerners, and at the time I was a wildly chauvinistic, slightly nutsy New York City wisenheimer. There was a small Black contingent, sailors and marines, and I got along with them just fine. With the White guys, not so much.

I was in the library one time, listening to records by myself, they had a great listening room with a really great stereo, and a couple of hayseeds came in. I gave them a friendly greeting and bade them sit and listen, the first Jimi Hendrix album was on. After a minute the one guy asks me, so, what’s that he’s playing? I told him it was all guitars. He looked at me with real venom and said, “Don’t fuck with me boy, I know what guitars sound like.” I tried to be patient, oh, I said, it’s an electric guitar. They left, angry.

But the Black guys, I got along great with them. So much so that it led to really violent fights on a couple of occasions, with the Good Old Boys threatening me and one or two Black guys coming to my defense.

That whole thing marked my days as a sailor, I can tell you.

The Base Security Officer

This was a civilian employee of a Federal agency that shall remain nameless. My base was very sensitive, not the usual Navy base, or a normal military base at all. Everyone who was stationed on the base had to have a Top Secret Clearance, Federal, from this spook security officer. (Not spook as in Black.)

I’d been writing letters to other guys in the service that I’d seen in letters columns in underground newspapers, and the term “Military Underground” was in circulation. There was nothing subversive about it, not really, mostly it was stuff like, “wow, I’m on the Bon Homme Richard and aircraft carriers are so happening, we got grass and everything!”

So the spook called me in for a chat about this. We talked mostly about what cameras we liked, what film had the color we liked. He was cool, we could talk. But I was way off the program that they were looking for, that’s for certain.

Finally I wrote a letter to the East Village Other. I was feeling sorry for myself, the holidays were approaching, and I vented in a four or five page letter. It was all very juvenile. The famous line was, “my mind is slipping down my spine and when it reaches my ass I’ll die.” An oddly inspired bit, that. So the spook called me back in and showed me the letter in the paper, he had a copy. “Yeah,” I told him, “that’s me.” It wasn’t long after that till I became Navy history.

So the whole thing sums up: I had no military bearing; I was hostile to authority; and I failed to adjust to military life. And the Navy, having experience with such things, figured it all out pretty damn quick. It’s not such a terrible condemnation, I can live with it. If I’d been smart I’d have gotten out of the whole thing in the first place.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like it would be fun to talk to the Chaplin, especially if it was Charlie Chaplin.

Anonymous said...

Seems we remember the trying times best aye Freddie boy. That said, seems like you got a lot of heavy memories comparatively speaking. Maybe it's the Irish thing . . . I got it, too. I have to remind my friends that I'm happy, really, and I push out a smile for effect. Steve Harvey's nervous ass jokes about getting drafted at his age, today. He says, "I'm shootin everybody, soon as I step off the plane . . . don't look at me wrong! Kakow!", seems like an immature approach but I know I'd be the same way even being much younger than him. I'm no Winston Churchill but I do have a very real idea of what happens during war.

Anonymous said...

oh I just got the Charlie Chaplin joke haha.

fred c said...

I knew something about what was really going on over there. I mentioned that most of the sailors and marines on my base had already been to Vietnam. They let us drink beer if we were eighteen at the EM club, and my thing was to go and get a pitcher of beer, look for a table of Marines, and say, hey guys, mind if I join you? With the pitcher, they said sure! every time. After a few "squid" jokes, I was one of the guys.

Boy, did I get some great stories that way. Drunk, and among friends who had shared their experiences, they spoke freely. I read somewhere, there's nothing more frightening than a nineteen year old American boy who has see some of his friends horribly killed. Some of those Marines were really frightening, mostly the banality of it all.

Oliver said...

Banality meaning they seemed to be too familiar with the killing?

fred c said...

Yeah, banality, like it was such everyday stuff, nothing remarkable at all. It was the world they found, and they did what they were told, and the souvenier ears and scalps were like morale builders or something.

They couldn't see the horror of it. To me, that was the really bone chilling part of it.

Bob K. said...

I went in army the same time as our old friend Eddie L. He went from boot camp (he did not finish boot camp) to cooking my (Royal my)breakfast, lunch and diner.
I wonder where he's at.

fred c said...

Hey, Bob. I'm pretty sure that Eddie finished his hitch cooking over in Germany. I saw him once after the Army. Much later I heard that he was driving a truck and battling alcoholism.

I sometimes wonder what could have been if he could have harnessed that wild excess of energy. He was a great drummer too, our friends were lucky to find him.