Great to get there, even better to get out

What I remember of my basic training is that it was a rewarding time of my life and helped me establish my direction in life. I remember the first day as if it was yesterday—from arriving on the train from downtown Chicago to arriving at the front gates. I was put in charge of the other recruits who were with me on the train, and was responsible for making sure they got to the base. This was the first time I had been on a train and the first time I had been in a big city. When we arrived at the base, I was so worried about getting it right that I left my shaving kit and glasses on the train. I got everyone else there okay, but I forgot about myself in the meantime.

When we arrived at the base, we all went to one room and it seemed we were there for hours before we went to bed for the night. We were assigned to a company commander, and I learned the second day that you don't talk when you are in formation when I ended up doing 20 push-ups in a puddle.

The first week in, we had already gone through our first company commander. We heard he had gone nuts at the swimming pool and hit someone. The next company commander we received was really something. He walked into the barracks and made a real impression. His name was Senior Chief Signalman Zitkus. He treated us like sailors and taught all the 18-year-old kids how to be men. He left such an impression that I have been looking for him for 40 years. I know many kids of that age are easily influenced, but this guy did it right. After my first child was born, he let me go home after graduation for two days to be with her. If she would have been a boy I was going to give him Zitkus' first name; that's how much of an impression he made on me then and even to this day.

I know everyone in the Navy still remembers standing guard at the front of the barracks with an old gun without ammunition, just waiting for someone to come into the barracks and quiz us about the General Orders that we had to know. I remember borrowing someone's glasses to pass the vision test so they wouldn't hold me back a week and worrying about the weekly tests and passing them so I wouldn't get left behind. These were some of the first tests that I did excel at since first grade. It's amazing what the threat of being held back could do. Another recruit and I always studied together, but I only remember his first name, Terry.

The other thing that was very notable was service week. I was assigned to the mess hall, and oh boy, was that great. We had to get up before everyone else and had to work long hours. When I walk up to a restaurant early in the morning even now, I can smell the familiar smell of the mess hall in the morning on a crisp fall day.

The swim test was also interesting. Jumping off that tower even though I could swim was really notable because I had just watched three other people almost drown before I jumped.

Graduation day was a good day, but it meant starting over and making all new friends at my A School and then again on the ship.

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