Saturday, January 2, 2010

Boomer Nostalgia: Boot Camp

I was in the United States Navy. The entire tale is beyond the scope of this post, but I can tell you that I was proud to join that great organization. On August 2, 1967 I arrived at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center for basic training, ten weeks of non-stop singing and dancing. I wouldn’t say that it was easy, and it would be wrong to say that it was technically fun, but I didn’t mind any of it at the time, and looking back over the years it has only gotten better.

The best part was that physically it was very demanding and I was gratified to learn that I could do absolutely everything that was asked of me. Among other things, the day that we learned to fold our clothes we all found out that we could do a lot more push ups than we thought we could do. The whole lesson took three or four hours, and by the time it was over we had done over two hundred push ups, more or less, depending on our innate clothes-folding abilities.

Our drill instructor told us at some point: you may not like me, but you will remember my name for the rest of your natural lives. He was right. He was Boson’s Mate First Class Richard Passion. On ships, boson’s mates run work crews and drive the motor launches. The main requirement for the job is that you must be able to kick the living shit out of anybody on the ship if the situation calls for it. Except maybe a couple of the Gunner’s Mates, at the time the war between the bosons and the gunners was the stuff of legend. We were pretty sure that Dick Passion could handle us, any of us, three or four at a time, if the situation called for it.

Oh, the usual stuff, the screamed abuse, the sleep deprivation, the polishing of the insides of the wall heaters, the marching to exhaustion, the standing all the way at attention for long periods of time, the all too realistic fire-fighting training (featuring tear gas! A USN innovation!) We did all the usual stuff.

After two weeks, we were getting into the routine but we were all really run down. Most of us had colds or something, so they scheduled a bi-cillin shot, some kind of double strength penicillin, for all of us. After the shots they marched us out to a field and we learned the “Ninety-Six Count Physical Exercise Drill,” where you kind of hold your old, inoperative M1 Garand (nine and half pounds) in both hands and move it up, down and sideways ninety-six times. We went on for hours, including long periods holding a particular position. I remember it very well, it was my nineteenth birthday, and by the time we were done we were too tired to eat dinner, but our colds were gone.

After five weeks or so we were into the routine, we were all running at peak efficiency and felt like we were doing ok. One weekday afternoon they took us to get Yellow Fever shots at about two or three o’clock. After that we were marched back to our barracks with nothing else on the schedule for that day. We took this as a bad sign, and boy, were we right. Within an hour we all had fevers, we were dizzy, and nauseous, and we were very, very tired, in fact we were all asleep by five pm. They even let us sleep late the next day, until about seven o’clock, out of the kindness of their hearts.

More of the usual stuff, the fighting and getting even in the last week, learning how to swim in water that was covered with burning oil, the weird batteries of military tests, getting our assignments. Did you know that you can take a pair of cotton pants, tie knots in both legs at the ankles, grab them by the waist and slam them into the water, and the air trapped in the legs makes a damn good life preserver? I got through the entire ten weeks without any “chits being pulled” (demerits requiring punishment), I lost some weight, I was in the best shape of my life, and I was insufferably pleased with myself.

For me, it was all downhill after that. The routine existence that followed displayed my tight, tight wiring and brought out my natural hostility to authority, and within another few months it was decided that I had failed to adjust to military life. I got an honorable discharge, no hard feelings, it just didn’t work out. But in a strange way I really did enjoy boot camp.

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