Sunday, January 17, 2016

It's Only Me - Chapter 14- In the Navy- Boot Camp

1976 was the 200th Birthday of the Declaration of Independence. The country had begun preparing for it in 1975 with special offers and special packaging of products. You couldn’t escape it. I have often been asked if that is what lead to my joining the Navy in September of 1976. The answer is no.

My motivation for joining the service was simple. I wanted to get out of Brooklyn for good. I wanted to be away from all the drugs and also my parents. Although I had not seen them often during the last 4 years I felt as if they were a threatening presence, always lurking in the background, waiting for me to “see the light.”

In August of 1976 I went to the Recruiting Office located on Flatbush Avenue at the junction of Nostrand Avenue. I took some aptitude tests and then had to sit for an interview. The man interviewing me was black and I think was a Chief Petty Officer.

We started with some routine questions- “Do you do drugs?” was one of the first ones-I thought he was being sociable and so pulled out a baggie of weed and said, “Yeah, wanna smoke?” I thought he was going to pass out! He asked again and I countered with, “What drugs?” I was hustled outside and he explained that I had to answer “No” to the drug question. I said that I was not interested in lying to him. He produced a Drug Waiver which read “ I have experimented with marijuana about 3 or 4 times and found it not to my liking. I have no interest in taking drugs.” I signed it and then got my contract for 4 years Active Duty. At the completion of Boot Camp in Great Lakes, Illinois I would be allowed to choose from 70 different schools. I chose “OJT” which is short for On The Job Training in the fleet. So I chose no school, electing to go straight to the fleet and have a look about me before choosing anything. I have never regretted that choice.

Around this time Iona Derman came by H and A to say goodbye. She had graduated 6 months early from Madison in 1972 and I believe started Brooklyn College. She was now transferring to another school somewhere. She came by in a little green Datsun B-210 and I felt that I was seeing a good friend for the last time. It would be another 31 years until we would be in contact again.

I informed Harry and Al of my decision, which they tried in earnest to talk me out of. But when a person decides to join the service there is virtually no chance of talking them out of it. Usually it is a move made of long planning or else in desperation. Mine was a bit of both.

I had been fascinated by my Dads time in the Navy and had also long dreamt of joining the Merchant Marine- civilians who transport goods by ship. I needed to be in a Union to work as a Merchant and to be in the Union you had to work on the ships you couldn’t work on unless you were in the Union. So you see it was a conundrum. Realizing that my best shot at getting in the Union would be as a Veteran with sea time under my belt I elected to join the Navy. Also I really needed to break the cycle in which I was living.

So, on a balmy September morning, after a raucous night of debauchery I set off to Fort Hamilton and the Armed Forces Induction Station. I was several hours late and my Recruiter was actually riding through the streets of my neighborhood looking for me. He drove me to Ft. Hamilton where I went to sleep on the long bench waiting to be processed.

I was awoken with a kick from an Air Force Sergeant bellowing, “Get up slimeball- your sleeping days are done!” I rose slowly, looked at his uniform and said, “Fuck you- I’m Navy.” And went back to sleep. A few minutes passed and I was again awoken in the same barbaric manner- this time by a Navy Chief Petty Officer. “Get up fuckhead! You’re in the Navy now! And your ass is mine!” Standing up and looking him right in the eye I said- “This is still Brooklyn and I ain’t took the oath yet so my ass is my own!” He was pissed but walked away and I went back to sleep for another hour.

I awoke and began to survey my surroundings and think about what I was actually doing. Before I could think too much I was sworn in with about 50 people and divided into groups. One group was going to Great Lakes and the other to Florida where a new boot camp had just opened. That one had women as well as men. But I was slated for Great Lakes along with a Puerto Rican guy named Orlando Cruz. So I kind of kept an eye on him figuring that if I stayed close to him I wouldn’t have to listen much and still get where I was going.

A little while later we were at JFK and I was wondering what had happened to change our travel from rail to air. I had been looking forward to the 24 hour train ride to Chicago and having one of those sleeper rooms on the train. That’s when I realized that Orlando was where the other boot camp was. Orlando Cruz heard “If you are going to Orlando then line up here.” He had only heard his name “Orlando- here” and lined up with me following him.

What happened next was the fastest car ride I have ever had- from JFK to Grand Central in like 20 minutes in the middle of a weekday. I am sure it was a record.

Boarding the train is still a bit fuzzy but once we were on the way everything is crystal clear. They should never put recruits on a train with decent people. It sullies the image of the Armed Forces. We spent the next 24 hours headed to Chicago from New York by way of Connecticut, picking up more recruits in every town. In between stops we made unwanted advances to every woman on board, smoked pot, drank to excess and had food fights. Going through the late summer/early fall cornfields of Indiana we tossed flaming stacks of the New York Times into the fields. We were uncontrollable and crazed.

We arrived in Chicago the next afternoon about 4 PM. From there we had to catch a commuter train to Great Lakes- about 30 miles or so. Again, we should not have been allowed to mix with normal people.

Arriving at the gates to Great Lakes was everything you have seen in the movies. People scream at you, call you foul names right in your face, spit flying in your eyes.

And this was just the beginning.....

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