Thursday, December 14, 2006

Medical Hold and Reassignment

I walked across the breezeway to the other barracks. No sign but clearly inhabited. Very relaxed recruit types were lounging about, shineing shoes, smoking, drinking sodas, killing time. The guy in charge over here was Doug Dowling. He was a recruit chaser but different. These recruits were not being punished. They were in administrative limbo. This is a not uncommon condition in the Navy, at all levels. Doug was one of those very even tempered Texas boys that it is impossible not to like, very self contained and self confident. He took me around and explained the situation.

It was called Medical Hold and Reassignment. When recruits, for one reason or another were removed from their companies for medical reasons, this is where they went. If they were deemed fit, at some later date, to continue with bootcamp, they were assigned to another company. If not, they would eventually receive a discharge. Some would stay a couple of weeks, some a couple of months. Some longer, much longer, as it turned out. Doug's job was to keep his charges occupied and under control. Out of sight, out of mind. He marched them to chow and made sure they weren't too loud or too long. He made up little work details that were fairly pleasant but kept them busy during the day. A couple of nights a week there were outdoor movies. On Sunday there was church. Once a week a Chief Petty Officer came by and took an informal verbal report of the situation. Doug had been here 8 weeks. His time is up tommorrow. His job will become mine.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The Recruit Brig

I had never been to the other side of the Grinder. NTCSD had been built to supply a much larger Navy with recruits than the one I was in. The buildings over there turned out to be a mirror image of the side where I had been living. A doube row of open bay barracks with a wide concrete breezeway in between. One was clearly being used as an administration center. One I could tell by the sound, was the home of the band. Many looked empty. All of the recruit companies on Worm Island could be housed on the other side and there were empty barracks over there too.

I went to the building indicated by Chief Smith. It did not appear to be in use. Additionally, all of the windows had been painted over in Navy Haze Grey, to match the walls. Above the front door was a small sign, RECRUIT BRIG. I made sure my seabag was balanced securely on my shoulder, stood tall, braced and knocked three times. I heard the word enter, so I did. It didn't look any different from any other navy office. There were a few young enlisted in dungaree uniforms, behind a counter, doing clerical work. The smell of coffee was in the air. Pretty non threatening. I took a chance, I relaxed.

" I'm here to see Master Chief Daggett."
" Down that hall to the end, turn right, first door on the right. You can leave your seabag here, behind the counter. It'll be OK."
" Thanks."

Found it, no problem. Door closed. Loud yelling was going on inside. I waited for it to stop. It didn't stop. I tucked my shirt in as far as it would go, smoothed out my pants. Squared my shoulders and knocked three times loudly. The yelling stopped, then an answering bellow.

" ENTER!"

I opened the door. Marched in two steps, stamping my feet loudly and braced. Indoors, so no salute.

" SEAMAN RECRUIT TOPMAN, SIR, REPORTING AS ORDERED, SIR!"

Behind a steel desk, sat a bulldog of a man, jowls quivering, regarding me with a jaundiced eye. He turned to the three recruits lined up to my right. I could see the large Ps stencelled on the backs of their shirts.

" Do you three worthless, lowlife scumbags see this man?"
" Sir, yes sir!"
" Sir, yes sir!"
" Sir, yes sir!"
" That's what a squared away sailor's supposed to look like. Now get the fuck out of my sight!"

They scuttled to the door, the last two slamming into the first as he fumbled with the door knob. Then they were gone. As they left Master Chief was transformed into a kindly, benevolent, grandfatherly personage. He smiled at me with the warmth of the morning Sun. It was one of the scariest things I had ever seen.

" Welcome to my little establishment. I just want to let you know that you're not in any trouble. We pull some recruits out of their companies to help us here in the brig. I've heard good things about you. Just do what you're told and you'll be fine. If you have any problems, just come and see me. I'll straighten things out. You're now a member of a very special group. Nobody is going to give you any shit, unless it's me and that's the one thing you don't want."

I had no doubt that everything he had said to me was true.

The brig chasers, as we were called, occupied an entire upstairs squad bay, that would normally house up to 60 recruits. There were 5 of them, I made 6. They were a rough and taciturn bunch but accepted me immediately and completely. They were very tight knit. They believed, to a man, that they were an elite group and that being chosen for this duty, was an honor that would be positively reflected in their records. There was no supervision of the chasers, in quarters, and they were much given to gossipy, late night bull sessions. It turned out that all of them had been highly motivated recruits who had been pulled out of their companies after zealously attempting to enforce company discipline, 3 of the 5, with their fists.

For the next couple of days I was busy. I went around taking all the tests, academic and physical that would normally be included in the last 8 weeks of boot camp. I filled out a lot of scantrons, ran the obstacle course and completed the 2 mile run within the required time, barely. At night, I returned to bunk with the chasers. It turned out they really didn't do that much. One of us would always be present during the calisthetics with rifle sessions, that were assigned as punishment for any infraction of the rules, at the rockpile (yes, they actually had a rockpile), during the daily hard labour shifts and at meals. The prisoners walked everywhere in step, they were never allowed to talk, unless addressed by staff, and they were never alone. During these activities, we were superfluous, there were always staff present as well. They only really needed us for 2 things. We escorted prisoners, 1:1, when they left for medical or legal appointments and we watched them while they slept. We sat at a table in their barracks between the bunkroom and the head. We made sure they were in their bunks and no talking. We made sure that only one was up at a time for the toilet. We did not have to punish them, just record the infraction. Two hours of calisthetics with a Springfield rifle, with extended rest periods where you got to hold the rifle out in front of you at arms length, for each infraction, was punishment enough.

I had been with the chasers for only a couple of days and stood only a couple of watches, when I was summoned back to Master Chief Daggett. He was in his kindly grandfather mode.

" You know, Topman, it's important that the chasers do their jobs well and are happy with the work. We both know, you're not the kind of guy that we can use here in the brig. I have a job for you that I think you will be happy with. Pack up your seabag, go across the breezeway and introduce yourself to Dowling. Tell him you're going to be his replacement. He'll show you around and explain what to do."
" Sir, yes sir."

So off I went. I was turning out to have a most unusual bootcamp experiance.

Stay tuned.

The Chief and I

After lights out, I still had a couple of hours work. I would be at the Chief's desk, in his quarters, doing all the company paperwork. The truth be told, I was doing his paperwork as well. I didn't mind. It was informative and gave me many useful insights. I'm not really a details type of guy but the stuff I did was pretty simple. The biggest problem was that most of it had to be in triplicate, with carbon paper and no errors were allowed.

Chief Smith often arrived for the night before I was done. He was a different guy than during the day. For one thing, he was always shit-faced. We didn't so much talk. It was more like he ranted at me. Apparently the man had family and money problems and he had to solve them before he could go back to doing whatever it was he did. While he was overseas, his wife had moved on but not far enough on that she didn't spend every cent he made and run him deeply into debt. That's what he mainly talked about. That and why did his first company have to be so totally worthless and make him look bad. He didn't ever get personal or criticize my work, so I never minded the drunken rants. I didn't mind having to stay up later than I normally would. The Chief had a coffee maker in his office and didn't mind if I had a pot on when he got in. Coffee and the time to drink it, was an unheard of priviledge in bootcamp. I always thought we got along OK, although I was kind of worried about that whole familiarity breeds contempt thing. That is why I was not totally suprised, when, out of the blue one night, he said that I should enjoy my last night as yeoman.

" I'm going to bust you down in the morning,you little cocksucker", were his exact words. He never did tell me what an OST was or what he did in Southeast Asia.

The next morning a little fat kid came over to my bunk and told me he was the new yeoman and he needed my yeoman gear. I gave him the box. I took his place in the squad and marched to breakfast. Marching was awkward, it wasn't the position in ranks I was used to and I made frequent missteps. Everybody was looking at me funny but nobody said anything. After chow, we formed up. When we were all there, Chief Smith showed up.

" Seaman Recruit Topman, fall out!", this from Chief Smith.
I fell out, marched up to him, stamped my foot down while beginning my salute. " Sir! Yes SIR! "
" Go back to the barracks and pack your seabag, Topman"
" Sir, Yes Sir!"

It occured to me on the way back to the barracks, that this was the first time I had been allowed to do anything on my own since I got here. I had no idea what was going on but maybe it wasn't a totally bad thing.

I got my Seabag packed no problem. It had been covered in training. I hated to put the beautifully folded, inspection ready clothes in my locker into the seabag. After a while, Chief Smith showed up.

" Got your seabag packed?"
" Sir, yes sir!"
" See that building at the far end, on the other side of the Grinder? Take your seabag, go to that building and report to Master Chief Daggett."
" Sir, yes sir!"

With that, the fucker winked at me, turned and walked away. I swear to God.

I never met him or any of my recruit company again. I did watch the graduation ceremony fom the reviewing stand, eight weeks later.

They Keep Score

Bootcamp is competitive and a team sport. The companies are judged and graded on every aspect of performance and awarded streamers for their guidon each week. The idea is that the competition makes the troops try harder. As the weeks went by, it became apparent that we were behind. Way behind. The other two companies in our class had several streamers each. We had not one. Chief Smith actually started to whine about what losers we were. He actually started to quote point scores and the fact that we were not only behind the other companies but behind by a factor of multiples. As far as I could determine the actual point scores were never supposed to be quoted to recruits. This had a reverse effect on the company. They understood that we were so far behind in our drill, appearance, physical training, and academics that it was virtually impossible for us to ever win even one pennant.

I suggested a division of labor scheme like the other companies used. The best bed-makers would make all the beds. The best shoe polishers would polish all the shoes. The best clothes folders would fold all the clothes. The best students could tutor the many retards among us. The other companies did it this way and I figured it might at least narrow the gap. The Chief had actually started to threaten that we would be kept back and have to spend more time in bootcamp. Nobody wanted that. Anyway, that was shot down. Chief said everyone had to keep their own kit and a division of labor would be against rules and regs.

It started to dawn on me that this was all a set-up. Since they had put all the bad eggs in one basket, they had to know that we would fail. By putting all the pressure on the bad eggs they could see if any would crack or were rotten. I began to kick back, not worry about it, do my job and enjoy the show. My sunny outlook and easy manner started to make me both friends and enemies. I really didn't care. I almost never got dinged during inspections, the academics were a snap and the yeoman had a very easy time of it in close order drill. In physical training, I was about halfway down the pack, nothing to be concerned about. The company continued to circle the drain but I was at peace. We had been there almost four weeks and were three weeks into the twelve week course. I made my life goal to just make it through the next 9 weeks. I kept saying to my self, you can do anything for 9 weeks. Besides that, I had been hearing that the last 3 or 4 weeks of bootcamp was a snap. I might almost have this thing beat.

Monday, December 4, 2006

P-1 Day, Part 2

The company shambled off, with Senior Chief Smith, in charge, to get the famous boot camp haircuts. I was resigned to it. I had cut my hair a few days before, short, but not a buzz. I had also cut off my beard, leaving a small, well trimmed mustashe. I had decided it would be better not to show up looking like a total freak. After that, we went to a warehouse and were issued a seabag, an issue of clothes and a pair of boondocker boots. The clothes all turned out to be too small and the boots too big. I was able to trade boots with another guy later and they were OK. Foot blisters became a big problem, later on. It was not uncommon for heel blisters to develop into pressure ulcers, all the way to the bone. If you sought medical attention and were sent to the hospital, you had to start boot camp all over again. Not many were willing to risk that. We all became amatuer foot doctors. We all got a BlueJacket Manual, the bootcamp bible. We went to a store where we got an array of toiletry items and stationary. Lest you think the Navy generous with it's resources, we were informed that the cost of every thing we got would be deducted from our pay and that we could forget about our first paycheck. We all signed an itemized contract to that effect. With our seabags on our shoulders, we trudged to several other locations, picking up odds and ends of gear we would need. They fed us and then we were led to our barracks.

The first thing we were instructed on at the barracks, was the stencelling of all our clothing items. Everything had to have your name neatly stenciled on it, with a potentially very messy stencel pen. I got mine done OK and was then put to work doing it for others who were too hopelessly retarded to ever get it right. When the stencelling dried we changed into our new clothes. You weren't allowed to keep any of your old clothes, lest you change back into them and go over the fence to freedom. You could send them home, at your expense, or donate them. I was a little upset. I had worn my best clothes, hoping to have them for liberty, after bootcamp. I threw them in the discard box.

The company organization was announced. There was a recruit company commander, an assistant company commander, who was also the first squad leader. There were four other squad leaders. The company marched five abreast, with the squad leaders in the front row. Their squads lined up behind them. The recruit company commander marched front and center. To the right of the five squad leaders marched the right guard, who held the company guidon. Two paces behind the right guard marched the company yeoman. I was the yeoman. I had a liberal arts degree, which as everyone knows, is totally worthless. That's probably why I got the job.

The yeoman is the scribe and administrator for the recruit company. I made out the watch bills, made sure we adherred to the Plan of the Day, documented musters and inspections, and filled out a shitload of daily forms and reports, in triplicate. Oh Lord, why didn't I ever learn to type? The only advantage was I didn't have to learn the manual of arms. The RCC carried a cutlass, which he learned to twirl and point in a prescribed manner. The ranks carried '03 Springfields, hence the manual of arms. The right guard carried the pennant. The yeoman carried a portable desk, which looked like a large aluminum pencil box. It was full of all the necessary forms and chits to get through the day, and was, infact, mostly filled with cigarettes. Recruits can't carry cigarettes. I was expected to participate in all of the activities of the company and to fill out all of the reports, forms and watchbills as well. I did this after lights out, in the company commander's quarters. Because of this, I got to know Chief Smith better than the other recruits. What an unfortunate fellow.

At chow that evening our company got the first clues that our time in bootcamp was to be less than auspicious. The other two companies were already starting to march in step. The stencelling on their clothing was far less smudged. Their clothes fit noticably better. Once out of ranks they exhibited a good deal of smiling and friendly banter. Worst of all, we could see the way they looked at us. Some with pity, some with disdain.

Boot Camp P-1 Day

I woke up my first morning in boot camp feeling like I had come off a three day drunk. I had no idea why I felt so bad. I was feverish, my brain felt numb, my muscles ached.The inside of my mouth was bone dry. The pain and swelling in my upper arms reminded me about the shots we had recieved last night and it fell in to place. It didn't make me feel any better.

I have no idea what time it is. I never used to wear a watch. Several guys are standing around trash cans in the barracks, beating on them with batons, screaming, " Muster outside in 2 minutes! Muster outside in two minutes! " Feeling the urge, I looked around for a place to shit and soon got my introduction to the typical Navy head. Inside the doorway, on one side, a communal shower room. On the other side, what looked like a long hallway, one wall lined with sinks and mirrors, the other with toilets, about six inches apart, no partitions. I had lived on a commune in Northern Washington, where the sanitary facilities consisted of an open 2 hole privy, in the middle of a pasture. It was co-ed and visible from a busy stretch of two lane blacktop. I had two minutes, no problem.

When I got outside, with time to spare, I was feeling a little better. My face was wet (no towels), and the cool air felt good. The guys who were beating on the trashcans were now getting every one lined up in ranks and teaching everyone the rudiments of formation, dress right dress, etc. They were curt and no-nonsense but not mean. When we were suitably arranged, they herded us off to chow. The food was horrible, I got my introduction to shit on a shingle. At least there was no harrassment. You went through the line, sat down at real tables and chairs, then got a reasonable amount of time to eat. It was not always to be so. After chow we were led into a large adjoining room. A guy at a raised podium made some announcements. Another guy got up and asked everybody that played a musical instrument to raise their hand. First I raised my hand, then pulled it down. He told everybody that had raised their hand to come to the front of the room. I stayed put. They gathered these guys together and began questioning them. A senior petty officer came over to me.

" You raised your hand", he said.
" I played the tenor sax but quit in high school, It's been a pretty long time. I'm not sure I remember much."
"You stupid son of a bitch, you just missed a chance to avoid 90% of the bullshit you're going to go through at boot camp." He did not sound as if he was sorry for me. I realized he was right. I often wonder how different my Navy life would have been, if I had just left my hand up.

They divided us up into 3 companies of between 50 and 60 each. They read off the names in each company and we assembled outside. One hates to admit these things but it was clear immediately that my company were the culls. Too young, too old, too short, too tall, bad teeth, limited language skills, or just a look in their eyes that stated, as plainly as a billboard sign, " I am a retard." I wasn't suprised they had put me in this group. Story of my life. I was disappointed, just the same.

There was a difference, likewise, in our company commanders. The other two were picture book sailors. An E-5 and an E-6. A boatswain'smate and a Radarman. They looked good in their uniforms and knew it. They were smiling, confident and glad to be there. Our CC, when they introduced him, looked 50, although on closer inspection, he might not have been much past his early 30s. His skin was pasty and sallow. His eyes were watery and sunken. There was a fine tracery of broken veins on his cheeks and nose. He was stringy, with short bow legs and a big belly. His glasses were standard Navy issue, with coke bottle lenses. I was suprised they weren't held together with tape. We were told he had recently returned from extended detached duty, in Southeast Asia. I thought it was interesting that nobody mentioned Vietnam. I figured probably Laos. The guy was an E-8 and an OST to boot. We didn't know what an OST was and nobody could tell us. The guy might as well have had "SPOOK" printed on his forehead. He was nervous and stuttered and scratched himself a lot.

I knew we were in for it.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Induction

I arrived at th Navy induction center early on a friday morning. I checked in, was given a meal chit for the cafe across the street and told to wait. Some guys had been waiting a prety long time and had chits for a bed at the fleabag next to the cafe.

Within an hour they opened up and we got processed. We filled out forms, got physical exams and took the GCT and a battery of aptitude tests. At one point a very nice E-6 took me into a room and explained to me that since I was interested n submarines, it was not to late to exercise my option to receive the benefits of the Navy's world class nuclear power training program. I was pretty sure Daryl Ponnicsan would not have advised me to become a Nuc. After a few minutes of my standard, " I'm not that kind of guy speech ", he blew me off. There weren't more than 12 or 15 of us but it proceeded at a fairly stately pace. It was probably 1530 by the time we finished up, were gathered together and took the oath. It was probably another hour before they got us on the bus to the Naval Training Center in San Diego. I never got the feeling, though, that we were running behind schedule. They gave us sandwiches on the bus.

It was dark when we got to NTCSD. A drill instructer came on the bus screaming and got everybody scrambling off the bus and standing on some footprints painted in formation on the pavement out side, then yelled at us some more. They herded us around for awhile, establishing who we were. Our ranks were swelled by other guys from other induction centers. We went to a medical facility and got blood drawn. It was a terrifying experiance. The way they had it set up was you stood in a line outside a door. The door had one of those chain locks on it that allow you to open the door maybe six inches. When you got to the door you had to stick your arm through and wait while the guys on the other side put on a tourniquet and dug around in your arm with a needle. The guys on the other side were Phillipino, laughing and chattering away in Tagalog. You couldn't understand what they were saying. Watching the guys before you get it was much worse than going through it yourself. Whoever thought that gambit up was a genius. The evenings activities concluded after we were run through a long line with our shirts off to recieve injections with air guns. Just before each injection the guy would scream, " Don't flinch ", in your ear. If you didn't flinch you got a painful red welt. If you flinched you got a bleeding gash. They seemed dissapointed if you only got the welt. They finally took us to a large open bay barracks, there was just enough light inside to see. There were bunks inside and each bunk had a blanket in it. Most of the guys just slept in their clothes. Some of them even left their shoes on.

Next up, boot camp adventures.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Prelude to the Nav

In the early 70s, I was enjoying my young adulthood. I worked enough to cover my needs but when I got ahead, I coasted. I traveled, usually by thumb. I hung out with friends. I drank a lot. Getting on with my life was not a big priority. Early in 1975, the well set up uncle of a friend of mine bought an establishment in the Hondo River Valley of New Mexico. It was an old road house, dating from prohibition days. It had a restaurant, bar, dance hall, motel, campground, trailer park and gas station. The guy put $20,000 down and financed the rest. Since they needed to staff it on the cheap, I said count me in.

It was quite a place and things initially went well. Me and a friend did the cooking at the restaurant. He came in early and did the setups and breakfast. I came in at 1100 and did lunch, dinner and pot walloping at the end. I also picked up shifts at the gas station and bartending. I didn't get paid but it was all I could eat and drink and I had a shack to bunk in. I could get gas and oil for the old pickup I was driving from the gas station for free, as long as I didn't overdo it. I thought that valley was the most beautiful and idyllic place I had ever lived.

In the end, it went the way these things usually go. The family members started to divvy up their imagined shares of the enterprise, forcing out the non family members, even though they couldn't run it on their own and had no money to hire local staff. The place was falling apart and needed additional investment to make it profitable. The deathblow came when it was announced that it would be bypassed by the new highway through the valey, something that the previous owner no doubt was aware. I ended up working on a local ranch for a few months and then headed out.

I figured, since I was already out and about, I should take the scenic route home and visit a few people. So I headed up tp Northern Washington, to visit an old girlfriend. I had heard she was going steady with the salmon fleet out of Sedro Wooley. Turns out she had moved on to parts unknown. I visited a friend in Seattle who was doing logistics work for the soon to be built Alaska pipeline and soon to head up there himself. During a memorable lost weekend, I got him kicked out of his apartment and went merrily on my way. I moved on down the coast, visiting a Potter friend in Eugene, and a geological surveyor in Grants Pass. Heading down 101 toward San Francisco, in the marijuana growing country around Willets, my truck experianced an electrical short and fried the whole wire web. Having not the money to get it fixed or the accumen to do it myself, I found myself afoot. I boxed up what few goods I had and sent them on down to SoCal via Greyhound Express. For myself, the thumb would have to suffice.

A day later found me knocking on my parents door, in the high desert community where they had recently moved. One can only imagine the distress they felt at the appearance of a 23 year old street person claiming to be their son, in their midst. No job, no money, homeless, no real ambition, they put up with me for two weeks. I'm surprised they lasted that long. On a wednesday my father pulled me into the garage. He said," I don't know what you're planning on doing but do it by the weekend, you're making you're mother nervous."

In those days there was a popular writer and pundit named Daryl Ponnicson. I was very impressed by his writing. He maintained that th Navy was a good place to " check out " into, if you needed to reassess your life and regroup, as if it was a cheap hotel for life's lost souls. Thursday morning found me at the Navy recruiting office in Santa Ana, California. They gave me a little test, and proceeded to tell me all the lies that navy recruiters have been telling since the oar was invented. I didn't believe the pitch but in my mind, this was the option I felt I had. I got a 3X6 contract. 3 years active, 3 years in the active reserve. I got quartermaster A school and subschool after that. If I completed these satisfactorily, I got a third class crow before going out into the fleet. It sounded OK to me. Friday found me at the induction center in Los Angeles.

Come back later for exiting Navy adventures.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Old Sailor's Home

Welcome to my website. I have been a sailor in my youth. I am no longer young.

I will post my thoughts here from time to time and invite all to comment.

All sailors, in deed or thought, are welcome. Past denizens of the World's Naval services are especially welcome.

Submariners are doubly so.

Ahoy, Shipmate!