Sunday, September 29, 2013

Boot Camp - Learning the Ropes

I want to post the second part of yesterday’s repost about my time in Boot Camp at Great lakes, Illinois. The story of my arrival at the Recruit Training Center would seem incomplete without relating what happened once I was inside the gates. That's me above - second from the foreground, firing in the prone position.

Some people love it, some people hate it. But no-one ever forgets Boot Camp, or their Company Commander. I can still name mine. In my case it was EMC Spencer. He took no guff, but when it came right down to brass tacks he was a really good man and I learned much about what to expect in the fleet from him. Here is the rest of that story;

We were housed in new barracks- which looked more like a school dorm building. I think I had been expecting the old wooden type barracks from World War II. The first few weeks were blisteringly hot in the daytime; especially on the Parade Ground where we practiced our marching and drilling. Some guys would pass out. We also had to do exercises in the morning and afternoons. In between these times we were learning to swim, shoot rifles and fight fires. We were also in the classroom a lot.

We learned Navy History, U.S. History, Maritime Law, Standing Orders, the Uniform Code of Military Justice and knot tying. At night we were confined to our barracks and shined our shoes, folded our laundry and generally studied for the tests that we had each day. Failing a test got you set back a week so no one wanted to fail.

There was also a period of adjustment for many of the recruits who had never been away from home. There were several fights- nothing serious- just attitude adjustment when necessary.

I was one of the older recruits- being over 21. The younger guys were the hardest to deal with. They came from high schools with a Rambo type attitude. Sometimes they needed a reality check.

I had not joined to march and learn tricks so the Company could win "flags." I had joined to go to sea and had no interest in marching. I was also coming off of several years of using barbiturates, so I was a bit restless. This led to my being a less than enthusiastic marcher. When they said left I went right and vice versa.

I was approached concerning this by several of the guys in my squad. It was getting pretty nasty and finally the shit hit the fan. I was approached by the Recruit Petty Officer, which is a make believe rank for a recruit to learn how to lead. This guy was from Philadelphia and a black guy. Race had nothing to do with it. He told me to meet him in the "drying room" where we placed wet clothes to dry after scrubbing them. Never one to back away from a fight I met him there after lights out- the whole company knew what was coming down and waited in their bunks for "Cuffy" to emerge from the drying room after having kicked my ass. They were a little bit disappointed.

Now, you've seen the fights in movies- they go on forever with chairs being busted over someone’s head etc. Real life is much different. Someone has to throw the first punch and take the risk that they may lose. Since I had been invited to this party by Cuffy I figured it was up to him to strike first. Instead he began to talk to me- stuff like- "I don't want to kick your ass but..." I got tired of the bullshit and hit him first. We then struggled a bit with one another but not too many punches got thrown.

Then he wanted to talk about how we should walk out of the drying room and in what order! I said "Fuck you" as I pushed him aside. You could hear the collective gasp from the rest of the company as I walked out first. Cuffy had stayed behind and several guys rushed in to see if he was okay. Several guys walked back past my bunk, kicking it and letting me know that this was not the end. Hell, I didn't know anything had begun!

So we did this 2 more times- like a ritual. The last was the best and put an end to the whole drama- which was like Public School when someone would say- "Meet me after 3 o'clock." This last guy was the company boxer- broad at the shoulders and slim at the waist. He also had those atypical weak knees. So he threw the first punch, which glanced off my forehead. My response was a kick in his knee and a caution that he should stay down. He started to get up so I kicked him just under the chin. That finished it.

The next day I was summoned by the Company Commander- a Chief Petty Officer named Spencer. He asked me what the trouble was and I told him, "I joined to see the world and sail the seas. In 5 weeks the only water I have seen is showers and shitters!" He asked why I wouldn't march. I answered that the Navy was a stepping stone for me to join the Merchant Marines when I got out. I was not interested in Mickey Mouse marching for flags.

So we arrived at a compromise- I would be the Navy's first "non-marcher." Instead of marching I would be the new Company Clerk and take head counts, draw up the watch bill etc. So the rest of boot camp passed pretty easily.

By October it began to snow. I mean snow! And we had "Snow Watches". This was a task no one wanted. 24 hours a day there was someone with a shovel posted outside the barracks. If any snow fell he had to shovel it immediately. So you would hear the scraping of the shovels on the sidewalks all night and day - even when it was a flurry. Going from the summer heat into the fall months really stretched our health thin and we had a bit of flu going around. But mainly we were getting stronger and learning how to deal with the "Chain of Command."

One of the best things that happened to me in Great Lakes was the day we were first allowed to go to the store. We marched there early, before the PX was open for the regular Navy guys. We had lists of what we were permitted to buy, with all the costs deducted from our first paychecks at the end of boot camp. We were allowed soap, shaving cream, razors, toothpaste and floss. I snuck a transistor radio and some batteries in my stack. It seemed an eternity until it was my turn at the checkout. All the while I was afraid that the radio would be discovered and I would be sent back to week one. This was already week 6.

Somehow, somewhere there is a God that watches over fools like me. The woman at the register looked at me, looked around and just tossed the radio and batteries in the bag, saying nothing. She didn't charge me because if she had it would have been a strike against her for not following orders. She knew what we were allowed to buy. So wherever you are, whoever you are, thank you for that kindness.

With my radio concealed in my pillow at night I was able to listen to AM stations from all over. Also FM for a bit of music, but mainly I played that radio on AM using those little pink earphones. I think that radio helped me get through boot camp. It was my little secret.

After about 6 weeks they let us go to Chicago on liberty. I suppose they wanted to see who would get falling down drunk or in a fight etc. But it was great. Everyone got gloriously drunk. Some had to be carried back. But we got a good look at Chicago and the Miracle Mile.

Twice during boot camp my friends sent me a bit of pot to smoke. This is where being the Company Clerk came in handy. At night, before Taps I would write myself a pass and go for a walk by myself. I would smoke a thin joint and then head back to the barracks. I remember one particular evening when I took a guy named Zotosky with me for a walk. It was 10 degrees and snowing lightly. It is one of my favorite memories of boot camp.

After 12 weeks or so we had to put in for duty stations. This was a silly exercise because you only got what they gave you. I really lucked out and was assigned to a fleet oiler. The USS Neosho would be my first ship. And the fact that it was an oil tanker fit right in with my plans to go into the Merchant service after the Navy.

In mid-December we graduated- I did not invite my folks and had myself posted as a volunteer to escort everyone’s relatives from the parking area to the Drill Hall where the ceremony would be held. It was pure heaven to walk and talk with normal people after so many months.

So with boot camp behind me I headed back to New York, this time by plane. We were wearing the new CPO type uniforms which looked kind of like a steward’s outfit. More than once I was approached by someone wanting me to carry their bags. I explained the uniform and accepted the apologies. But the third time I had an inspiration. A woman approached me and handed me her bags saying, "Follow me young man, I'm running late." I kept behind her making a sharp left into the men's room. When I came out I had no bags with me.

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