I entered the United States Navy in August of 1967, two weeks before my nineteenth birthday. Why would anyone do such a thing? The short answer is that I was sick of school, and afraid of getting drafted into the Army after I dropped out.
A longer answer would include the fact that I had always been favorably disposed to the Navy. As a boy I loved to read books about the Navy, from Steven Decatur up to World War II. I’d read about Butch O’Hare, and his nephew was, in fact, a friend of mine. I had a cousin and an uncle in the Merchant Marine. I thought it would be a fine adventure, and a great way to avoid having to sleep in the dirt and get shot at. Three hots and a spot! On a warship! Maybe I hadn’t really thought it through. Honestly, if I had it to do over again I’d just wait for my draft notice, go to the physical, and tell them I was gay or something. I knew they didn’t check any of that, they just took you at your word and stamped you “4F.” With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that no harm ever came to anyone who used that tactic, no repercussions at all. But I joined.
So, the Navy. Boot camp was very interesting, but then I find almost everything interesting. At the time I would not have described the Great Lakes Naval Training Center as a great place, and I would still not say that it was fun. Even at the time though, after the ten weeks of training was over, I would have admitted that they sure knew what they were doing, and that they had made a very good job of it as far as I could tell. From this perspective I would go further and say that they had a deep understanding of their raw material, and the task at hand, that they went about their work with outstanding efficiency, and that they got good results. Top marks, really.
Part of the program was to get us in shape, physically. A big part of it was to teach us to do what we were told, almost instantly, without giving it a moment’s thought, simply because we had been told to do it. They drilled a love of spic-and-span cleanliness into us, because who wants to sail on a stinky ship? They wanted to instill some pride in us too, and some confidence in ourselves. Almost every aspect of the training was designed to help us survive the situations in which we might find ourselves before too long. They wanted to save lives.
This was not an idle fear on their part, this fear that we might come to harm. Think about it, a ship at sea, everything is made of metal, everything is wet, half the time the sea is throwing the boat around like somebody making a cocktail, and everything is run by electricity. There are explosives all around, and flammable materials, and the outside chance, even in the Vietnam era, that somebody might shoot at you. The electricity scared them the most. “Over the next four years, statistically speaking,” our company commander told us, “one of you assholes will electrocute himself.”
The Company Commander
We didn’t have “drill instructors,” we had a company commander. He told us we’d never forget him, and as it turns out he wasn’t bragging or blowing smoke. He was a first class petty officer, a Bosun’s Mate. They and the Gunner’s Mates are the top sergeants of the Navy. He was a trim, fit man who made average height and weight look powerful and menacing. Maybe it was his hands, which were oversized and looked like they could drive nails. He spent the first six weeks yelling at us and calling us terrible things, waking us up at three a.m. by banging on trash can lids, marching us around in the rain until we were ready to drop, and then a little more. This was the break-down phase of training, that’s when you learn to suspend judgment and just do what you’re told. He was good at it.
This was followed by two weeks or so of him beginning to grudgingly give us some credit for being slightly better recruits than he had initially thought. For the last two weeks he treated us like his children, children that he actually liked. You may recall this pattern from the movie, “Full Metal Jacket.” It’s the way they do it.
The Trials Of Hercules
We did some crazy stuff, you know, when we weren’t just marching around or furiously cleaning our spaces. Stuff like running what is commonly called “the obstacle course.” They don’t really call them that, not when they’re talking together or writing about the program. Officially, I suppose it’s the obstacle course, but really they call if a “confidence course.” It’s full of stuff that you think is impossible when you first see it. A few minutes later you’re standing at the other end, quite satisfied with your heroic performance of every bit of it.
Right at the beginning is a seven foot high wooden wall, which you are intended to simply jump over. Not on the fly or anything, you can grab it and pull yourself up. The first great amazement is watching your asshole friends just run up to it and disappear over the top. The whole course goes that way.
We had something called “firefighting day.” The idea was that the first time you find yourself in a closed space packed with other men, a space that is full of smoke, or tear gas or something, well it shouldn’t be the time that your life is actually on the line. Same with operating a fire hose, the first time shouldn’t be when you are faced with a huge, life threatening fire. The first time you turn on a fire hose shouldn’t be a surprise, those things will kill you and your friends PDQ if there’s not a half dozen of you holding on for dear life before you turn it on.
Ever consider the problem of swimming in fire? They taught us how to handle that eventuality. We had a swimming day. They got us all into this huge pool, all eighty of us in the company, and they put us through our paces. They’d taught us some of the principles in classrooms beforehand. They stood around with clipboards like it was the first day of baseball tryouts, making notes about who was good at what and who was hopeless. You swim in fire about six feet under the surface, but what about when you need to breathe? Simple, you come up and brush your hands around to make a hole in the fire. Then you come up in the hole and do a quick surface dive, taking a deep breath and pushing yourself back to swimming depth. You’d probably get burned a little bit each time, but you’d probably get better at it in a hurry too, in a real flaming water situation. I’d hate to try it, but they convinced me that it would work, and they made me practice the drill without the fire part.
We also jumped from a ten meter platform, and here it gets interesting. I’m pretty sure that it was not everybody that jumped. I don’t quite remember, but it might have been that they asked us if we’d do it. You jump wrong from a height of thirty three feet or so and land wrong and you can paralyze yourself. Maybe they just pulled out some of the weak swimmers from their note taking and said, “sit this one out, dufus.” I jumped, myself, without any problem. It was, confidence building!
The Assholes Themselves
Taking irresponsible young men from all over the country and throwing them into a stressful situation together is challenging. There was no cable TV at the time, so regional accents were stronger. Regional cultural differences stood out in stronger relief too. What to do?
My company consisted of about half guys from New York and Philadelphia, that whole area. The other half came from the Old South, and not just the southern states but from small towns in the south. We could hardly understand each other’s speech, and it was like we were from different planets as far as preferences for food and music were concerned. Better we got a chance to get used to each other in the closely observed environment of boot camp than out on a ship somewhere.
There were “scrounges” in the mix, guys for whom cleanliness was a new and unpleasant concept. They got peeled out and gathered into “Mickey Mouse companies.” Those poor souls had three sets of clothes: one on their backs; one drying on the clothes line; and one buried in the ground. Every day they washed the clothes that had been buried, buried the clothes they had on, and the next day they’d wear the clothes from the line. They scrubbed their barracks with such a terrible intensity that the color was washed out of every surface. Most of us were within a certain range of body type. I was in fairly good shape, but I was slightly overweight. I just went to a normal company, and was issued clothes that would become a little big on me. Not a problem, I lost a few pounds and got in better shape. Guys that were actually fat, too fat to keep up, physically, they went to “Elephant companies.” While the rest of us could eat as much as we wanted, those guys were fed a controlled diet and marched relentlessly. They performed the “Ninety-Six Count Physical Exercise Drill” even more than the rest of us did, way more. They lost weight, and snappy.
The Real Credit
The amazing thing to me now is that they were so very, very tuned in to what we were experiencing, and how we were feeling at the time. They know which parts of the training would be most stressful for us, and they knew exactly when we needed a morning to sleep “late,” like getting up at seven or so. They knew at what point we’d all have developed a cold from exposure and lack of sleep. Every company took a turn working in the huge galley (the cafeteria). They place this task right in the middle of the training. It was a break of sorts, we had to get up much earlier than usual but there was no marching to speak of and they laid off on the inspections for a week. We still had to shave, but not like we were digging for gold. In between meals and polishing every surface at the galley, we had an hour or so twice a day to just sit around, smoke cigarettes, shoot the shit and listen to the radio.
In no way were they coddling us, but we were, after all, their sailors. We were going to operate their precious warships. We had joined their outfit; we were in the club (at least the enlisted men’s end of that pool). I think that they did a great job of training us.
No Credit For Me, Please
I will tell you that I joined the Navy of my own free will. I joined the military during a war. I’ll accept a little credit for that, but only a little. I did fine at boot camp, no problems at all, no demerits, no punishments. After that I did my job. My service was characterized as “honorable,” and at the end of it I was given an Honorable Discharge. I will tell you, though, that beyond that, well, the less said the better. I was not one of their shining stars.
There’s still the matter of a flag for my coffin.