Heading off to boot camp . . . Story 5

On 29 July 1968 I took my first airplane ride. On that day, I boarded a flight from Indianapolis to Chicago O'Hare. I got off of the plane, grabbed my bag, and got on a bus. There's nothing really special about that. But, this bus took me, and maybe about twenty or thirty other guys, to Recruit Training Command (RTC), Great Lakes, Illinois. Otherwise, known as U.S. Navy Boot Camp. It was the beginning of a 23-year journey that would take me to some very interesting, and some not-so interesting, places.

It was a relatively short trip to the base and we were all enjoying the ride. Or, at least, pretending to. We were joking, laughing and secretly wondering what boot camp would be like. A lot of us had seen 'The D.I.', a movie about a U.S. Marine boot camp Drill Instructor - like an all expenses paid vacation to hell!! Could this be what we were heading for? Only time would tell.

It was around midnight when the bus stopped at the security gate. We were allowed to enter. Maybe a minute, or so, later, the driver stopped, opened the door and some guy in a sailor suit bounded up the steps. He was yelling and screaming at us, and calling us several lower forms of life! Oh, crap! What did I do? What was I thinking? There was no doubt that our lives were about to change, dramatically.

Later on, we would realize that this guy in the sailor suit was in boot camp, just like us. Well, sort of like us. He was a little further along and he was known as a 'service week' (explanation later).

That was the beginning of several loooooong weeks of boot camp. I certainly don't remember everything about those weeks, but I do remember some of it. My Company Commander - my CC - was EMC Calvin Lockhart. He was a pretty good guy, as I would find out several weeks after leaving boutcamp, but certainly no pushover, and definitely not during those weeks! I'm guessing boot camp isn't nearly as physical as it was back then. Not nearly as 'hands-on', if you get my drift. While marching, he came up behind me more than once and grabbed me 'securely' by the neck, ensuring that I was aware of his presence. Once he had my undivided attention, he would 'provide the necessary instructions' in a very loud voice, making sure that I was able to hear him. These were teaching methods that I was able to employ later in my civilian life!

Our company consisted of about 80 recruits. We were divided into 6 squads. Each squad had a squad leader. We were also split up into 2 platoons; squads 1-3 in the first platoon and 4-6 in the second platoon. The two platoons each had a platoon leader, also. After about a week Chief Lockhart decided he needed to replace the 5th squad leader and the 2nd platoon leader. He called me and another recruit (his identity is lost forever) into his office. I'm not sure why he asked me first. Maybe, he had assessed my limitless leadership abilities. Maybe, he sensed that I was going to be a 'lifer'. Or, maybe it was simply a flip of a coin in his head. Whichever it was, he asked me if I would rather be the squad leader or the platoon leader. Hmmmmmmm.

Apparently, I had known before going into his office what the 'meeting' was all about. I had evaluated the two positions and realized that a squad leader had far less responsibility than a platoon leader. The 2nd platoon leader, also the company's Gunners Mate, had to be in uniform and go down to the quarterdeck every night to make a 'piece report'. The 5th squad leader, and all the other squad leaders, had no such repsonsibilities.

The quarterdeck, in this case, was the 'official' part of the barracks and would sometimes lend itself to ceremonies. There was a desk where the official log was maintained and the U.S. flag and the Navy flag behind it. It was where the Officer of the Deck, a chief petty officer attached to Recruit Training Command, would stand a 24 hour watch. The Officer of the Deck, in any command, represents the Commanding Officer after normal working hours.

As far as the 'piece report' - a piece, in our case, was an old M-1 rifle that was missing the firing pin. And bullets. It was what we used to practice the '16 Count Manual of Arms' - you know, 'right shoulder arms!', 'left shoulder arms!', 'order arms!'. Ah, the memories! But, it was a piece, not a rifle, and you'd better not call it a rifle. Or, a gun. Or, anything but a piece.

Anyway, back to the company reorganization. So, when he asked which I'd rather be, naturally, I told him I'd rather be the squad leader. Not hesitating a second, he told me that I would be the 2nd platoon leader! OUCH!!! He got me!! Chief Lockhart was no dummy.

We hadn't been there very many days before we got our first haircut. It reminded me of seeing our sheep getting sheared when I was growing up. The sheep didn't like it very much and it was just a job for the guy that did it. My hair wasn't very long, especially for the 60's. But, I remember one guy that had long, curly hair and a beard. After our shearing, we sorta milled around outside the barber shop, waiting for everyone to get done. When the guy that had the long hair came out, it took me a second before I recognized him. He came out, rubbing his head, as we all did. Remembering that we used to have hair. Now, it was barely five-o'clock shadow. It wouldn't be the last boot camp hair cut we would get.

The barracks was longer than it was wide. There were 20+ bunk beds pushed up against opposite walls with maybe 10-12 feet of space in the middle between them. In that space were a few tables that we used for shining our shoes and things like that. We had no television (for a few weeks) or anything to read, so we would sit around the tables and talk in the evening after we had finished all of the fun stuff during the day. We would also sing a little. There was a guy from New York that was a professional singer and he would lead us in some songs. I think our favorite was "See You In September". That was because we would be getting out of boot camp and back home at the end of September. Makes sense, huh?

I don't remember too many more of my fellow recruits and I'm pretty sure I don't remember any of their names. I do remember two bunkmates on the other side of the barracks, almost right across from my rack. One was from Alabama and the other was from, as he pronounced it, 'Lunggisland'. I don't know if you could find two guys that were such complete opposites. And, did they love to argue! About everything! For the rest of us, though, it was entertainment!

Earlier, I mentioned 'service week'. Service week was our seventh week of boot camp. Our regular training was suspended so we could take care of some of the more mundane tasks around the RTC. The majority of the company, as probably all companies, went to the galley to 'mess cook'. 'Mess' refers to our dining room, called the 'mess hall', or onboard ship, the 'mess decks'. However, cooking was not part of their tasks. Whether in boot camp, on a shore station, or onboard ship, (in the words of Jack - jacksjoint.com) "A mess cook serves the food, peels the potatoes, does the dishes & pots and pans, cleans the mess deck(s) and the galley and generally does the dirty work for the cook." That pretty much sums it up. It's not a job one aspires to, if he knows what's good for him.

I got lucky. More or less. I didn't have to work in the galley. I believe it was because I was the 2nd platoon leader, not just a lowly boot. Ha! I don't think the other platoon leader or the RPOC (Recruit Petty Officer Chief) had to mess cook. I'm not too sure about the squad leaders, though.

So, instead of mess cooking, I stood watches every day on the quarterdeck of another barracks on the station. It was a fairly easy job, but I had to stay until 8:00 every evening. Most, if not all, of the other guys were back in the barracks before I was. It was only for a week, but it seemed a lot longer at the time! Another bad part of the job was working for chiefs that felt that part of their job was to bust my balls every chance they got. And, I suppose it was. But, I wasn't the only 'boot' there on the quarterdeck, so I wasn't their only target. Thank God!

I mentioned the RPOC. It was pronounced 'arpock', and he was the 'head boot' in the company. He had no power, but he stood out in front of the company when were in formation and marched ahead of us when we were on the move. He didn't carry a piece like the rest of us. He carried a sword. So when we were practicing our 16 Count Manual of Arms, he just stood there. He never got to play with a gun! Until, one night at happy hour!

Now, before you get the wrong impression, happy hour was not conducted in a bar, nor were there alcoholic drinks to be consumed. Happy hour was held every evening in one of the gyms as an 'attitude adjustment' and it was usually well-attended. If you messed up during the day under the watchful eye of the CC, or was seen by someone else in power and given a 'chit', then you were assigned to happy hour! Happy hour was an hour of playing with your gun! An hour of performing, and perfecting, your 16 Count Manual of Arms! After two or three happy hours, you got pretty good at it. I know I attended once, but it could have been more. I honestly don't remember. Getting back to our RPOC - since he had never performed the manual of arms, he had a pretty hard time at happy hour. He told us that he was ridden extremely hard! I guess he was pretty much the center of attention for the entire hour!

Another facet of boot camp that I remember was the swimming test. Now, you'd probably think that the ability to swim would be an absolute necessity to be a sailor. Well, it's no more a necessity than the ability to fly is to be in the Air Force. Of course, there are jobs in the Navy that being able to swim is quite handy. Such as a rescue swimmer. Or, Navy SEAL! Yeah, those jobs pretty much demand it! But, I'm here to tell you that you can have a career in the Navy and not be able to swim.

It was fairly early in our training cycle that we marched over to the swimming pool. This would turn out to be a fairly daunting, but educational, few days in boot camp for me. That first day was to find out who thought they could swim and who didn't think they could swim. So, when they asked who didn't think they could swim, I shot my hand up. As I remember, there were about six of us non-swimmers. We sat to the side while the swimmers were tested. They had to climb up and jump off of a ten foot tower into the pool, swim around the perimeter of about half of the pool, swim out into the middle of the deep end, and then tread water for several minutes. That sounds easy enough, but while they were treading water, there were two guys on the side of the pool sweeping the pool with fire mains - high pressure water! I kept thinking, "Boy, am I glad I don't have to do that!" Well, it turned out that I wouldn't have to, but my swimming troubles were just beginning.

That sounds pretty dramatic, but in the end, it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. We non-swimmers had a happy hour just like the guys that screwed up. Only, we had to go to the pool and didn't have to carry our piece. Nobobdy tried to teach us to swim. It was all about survival if you happened to end up in the water without a life jacket. More about life jackets, later.

That night, after swim qualifications, I and the other non-swimmers went over to the pool. Like happy hour, this was in the evening, after chow. I remember there were several guys from other companies. We began, standing on the deck at the edge of the pool. One of the instructors was in the pool, explaining what we were going to be doing. All the while, he's treading water, bobbing up and down, going this way and that way. And, this was the shallow end of the pool. Who knows what he could have done at the deep end? I truly believe he had a healthy percentage of fish DNA in his makeup.

After a few minutes, he told us to get in the pool and form a circle. He started out really, really basic. We were standing in waist-deep water and he told us to bend forward, so that our faces were in the water. Okay. That was simple enough. At least, for most of us. A couple of guys in my company, though, had all kinds of trouble with that. After a couple of seconds with their faces in the water, they jerked themselves up out of the water, sputtering and coughing, like they thought they were drowning! Right then and there, I figured these two were gonners!

I don't have any idea what would have happened if they couldn't have passed our version of the swim quals. Would they be kicked out? Stay in boot camp until they could pass? I really don't know.

The next step was floating on your back. I had never done it, so I didn't know how to do it, or how easy it was. WOW!! Keep your head back and float! But, that wasn't all there was to it. Not only did we have to float, but we had to propel ourselves in the water while doing it. Okay. That didn't sound so difficult, either. Hey! I've got this in the bag!

Hold on, big fella! There's a little more. We have to step off the 10 foot tower into the water and THEN float around the perimeter of the pool. Okay! Sure! I can do that! Well, it turned out that I didn't do it the first time. Or, the second time. I stepped off the tower and into the water. That was the easy part. That's gravity. But, coming back up and into the floating position turned out to be a little tricky for me. The first time, I just couldn't get myself in the horizontal, floating position. The second time (third night), I got there, but kept splashing water in my face while trying to paddle with my hands. The third, and final, time I started out, went a few feet and started splashing again. I was sputtering and coughing, like I thought I was drowning! But, I was right below a diving board. And, on this diving board was one of the instructors. He was a few feet above me, but it seemed like he was inches from my nose. He's yelling at me, "Put your f***ing head back. Put your f***ing head back." I'm sure there were a few other expletives in there. That's just the way it was done. Another one of those teaching methods that I could use later on! But, anyway, I layed my f***ing head back, got into position, and was able to motor around the pool and complete my swim quals. Fortunately, we didn't have to tread water and get hosed down like the swimmers. I'm not sure I could have done that.

Going back to the first evening of swim training, I remember seeing a recruit step off the tower, go into the water, and then remain motionless. He wasn't moving a muscle. He was about half-way down, his arms were extended like he was thinking of doing something, but he just couldn't figure out what he should do. The instructors had a couple of poles, about 8-10 feet long, that they used for just something like this. I'd seen them pull guys out of the water when they were foundering/floundering (you make the call). But, when the instructor hit this guy in the chest with the pole, he grabbed onto it like a dying man grabs onto . . . Well, you get the idea. The instructor wasn't too pleased with this guy. He told him to get the hell out of there. If he didn't have enough sense to try to save himself, he didn't want to see him around his pool! That always confused me. I know that as soon as one of my toes touched the water, I was paddling my way to the surface. Why wait?

So, as far as the Navy was concerned, I might survive being in the water. What about those two guys in my company that I mentioned? Lo and behold! Two or three nights later, they came back to the barracks as happy as clams! They had passed their swim quals! I would have bet the farm that they wouldn't have, but somehow, the did!

Like I said, an inability to swim does not hamper a career in the United States Navy. Whenever I was stationed onboard a ship, and we were underway, I always made sure my life jacket was properly maintained and always, always, knew where it was. And, to be on the safe side, I also knew where the life jackets of several of my shipmates were. Fortunately, I never had to use one.