During late 1963, I chose to enlist in the Navy, although I had seldom ventured past the Texas state line near Amarillo. I'd never even seen the Gulf of Mexico, let alone an ocean. I badgered my parents until they signed the necessary papers for me to drop out of my senior year of high school and enlist in what the Navy termed a "minority cruise." Colloquially called a “kiddy cruise,” it was a program for individuals who were 17 years old to enlist and be discharged the day before their 21st birthday.
Along with other enlistees, I boarded an old twin-engine tail-dragger at Amarillo and headed west. That old plane climbed for a long time; then the engines began to slow and I heard them backfire a few times. One of the flight crew said they were “just cutting in the superchargers.” It felt like we were sliding backward to me, but the engines smoothed out; we reached Albuquerque and checked into a hotel for the night. After swearing the Oath of Allegiance the next day, we boarded another plane and again nosed into the clouds toward San Diego.
A bus painted battleship gray waited as we filed off the plane, and it was the first real sign of the Navy. It even had "U.S. NAVY" and numbers stenciled on each side of the hood. Some of the recruits started singing "Anchors Aweigh" during the ride, but that activity was instantly discouraged by the petty officer who had taken charge of us. Echoes of that song were still in my head when the bus growled through the gates of U.S. Naval Recruit Training Center in San Diego. I imagined the sound of gates crashing closed and locking behind us. I also began to wonder if I"d made a mistake.
That began 16 weeks of learning foreign-sounding words for familiar objects, how to perform odd tasks and most of all, a feverish anticipation of the next chow and rack time. I was mostly bewildered, sleepy and hungry. We marched everywhere, waited in line and had no privacy.
The base was a landscape of gray. There were concrete block buildings, concrete parade grounds, paved roads and small patches of green grass with a palm tree or two poking out of them. Signs prohibiting trespass upon the tiny grass areas were prominent. Overhead, seagulls sailed leisurely and dropped shellfish and excrement indiscriminately upon the would-be sailors below.
Sweep, swab, shower, shave and do laundry were orders of the day. The slightest hint of dirt resulted in immediate and unpleasant repercussions. One of the more serious offenses was having a “Lazy Man’s Ring” discovered at inspection. Those were the grey lines around the white uniform collar and inside the white hat. They were caused by the garment rubbing against skin and the resultant transfer of skin oil, sweat and dirt. We used detergent, stiff brushes and lots of scrubbing on concrete tables to remove all traces of the rings each evening.
One recruit who was consistently deficient in this duty spent one entire day crawling around the inside of a dumpster and was required to recite "oink, oink, I'm a pig" when someone opened the dumpster to deposit trash or garbage.
The recruit master at arms was responsible for ensuring the barracks were cleaned properly when the company commander was not present. An unclean garbage can resulted in his being required to sleep in his rack with head and shoulders in the offending metal G.I. can. The fire watch was ordered to strike the garbage can twice each hour of the night with a nightstick. We all paid for that dirty trash can.
My stepfather, a World War II Marine, had warned me not to attract attention in basic training.
"Do what you have to well, but not too well," he said. "Don't talk back and you'll get out of the service what you put into it."
I tried to follow his advice to the letter. I never had problems at inspection and sometimes smugly hid a grin while others were doing push-ups for some infraction. Toward the end of basic training, I was confidently standing at attention when the company commander came directly to me and ordered me to turn out my jacket pockets. To my surprise, I turned out two cigarette butts. I have never smoked, but I did 50 push-ups while imagining that my fellow recruits were each smugly hiding a grin.
My son is a vet, a U.S. Army grunt, and we share stories of our respective basic trainings. I had a lot more fun than he did, but I'd resist having to do it again, even if I was 17. Especially if I was 17.