In the Navy

The beginning of the end in Reno started with getting laid off from the middle school job. Once again, all that remained was the fine finish work to be handled by the journeymen and master carpenters, so the apprentices were let go and I started looking for a new gig. Union construction jobs were in short supply moving into the summer of 1990, so I was left supplementing my income by cleaning carpets with Jude and doing as many odd jobs during the day that I could find to make ends meet. That usually meant landscaping, which was ridiculously hard in the blistering sun but paid almost as much being a carpenter apprentice. That being the case, showing up for classes when I wasn’t able to find a construction job led me to quit the union in favor of doing my own thing on a more permanent basis.

The landscaping work ended as soon as summer did and I was left to rely on my friend’s carpet-cleaning business to provide for my living expenses. I fell behind almost immediately and by November, I was a month behind on my rent and utilities and fading fast. I called my mom, frantic for suggestions since Jude was moving back to his hometown to raise his new baby and the carpenters union wouldn’t take me back. Mom told me to check out the military. My stepbrother had recently departed for Army basic training and was excited for the opportunity. The thought hadn’t occurred to me, so I thanked her for the advice and called a Navy recruiter to figure out my next steps.

I’m not sure why the Navy is where I ended up, but I never even considered the other services when I decided to join. I went to the recruiter’s office in the southern suburbs the next day to take a pretest and answer some basic questions about my past, lying instinctively when he came to drug use and other assorted misdeeds. The effusive Machinist’s Mate First Class tried to talk me into joining the nuclear tech program after I demolished the sample test, but I had already settled on being a journalist or maybe a photographer. I was told Defense Information School (DINFOS) was tough to get into, but we could reevaluate once I had taken the official Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) the following week at the local Military Entrance Processing Station. MEPS was what the man called it. I quickly realized my life would soon revolve around series of acronyms.

I scored some killer skunk bud the night before my scheduled test, so I was pretty baked when I showed up. I still scored in the top five percentile and was offered any school, except for the creative ones I wanted. The recruiter also served up another bad piece of news. Since I had gained the bulk of my credits via the GED test at Job Corps, the Navy didn’t consider it a real high school diploma. Their recruiting district had used up their allotment of GED slots, so while he would love to put me in the Navy, there wasn’t anything he could do. Defeated, I thanked him for his help and went back to my apartment to see if an eviction notice had been taped to the door yet. It hadn’t, but I was still at my wit’s end, so I called Mom again for advice.

As it turned out they had a friend who was a Navy recruiter in Loveland and could get me into the service using one of their GED slots. Before I knew it, the day came to pack my meager collection of clothes and papers and books, all of which fit easily into Jude’s sleek sport sedan, and head for the Amtrak station in downtown Reno for a quick Bro Hug goodbye with my best friend. The last I saw of Jude was his car pulling away toward the glimmering lights of the strip and taking a quick right out of sight. I suspect his life is progressing nicely these days as well.

My first train ride waited inside a plain white concrete building with floor to ceiling windows looking out on a small parking lot fronting a dirty downtown street. I kept a small backpack with my notebook of poems, various writing utensils and other important stuff while two boxes and a suitcase were shuffled off to wherever the bulk cargo was stored. I was confused by the fact that no one was there to check my ticket, so I climbed aboard and made my way to the lounge car, the one place where you could smoke cigarettes. The tracks that wind their way through the Nevada high desert and into the barren wilds of Utah before climbing the lush western slopes of the Colorado Rockies carried so many vivid and varied views that my pen rarely stopped moving, though the first leg of the trip was made in complete darkness. I still have those poems somewhere.

 The sun spilled liquid fire across soaring rock faces in shades of umber and gold and brown. This view of Utah was easily the most amazing thing I had seen in a life already filled with a good bit of travel by that point. It would be six years later while stationed aboard the USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf that I would catch my next glimpse of Mother Nature in all her unsullied glory and beauty. A series of crystal blue swimming holes tucked inside steep fissures in the rocky hills appeared as if by magic after driving for endless hours in an oversized van through the desert of Dubai. The ship’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department kept us entertained in a variety of ways when we pulled into port for liberty.

The trip proceeded without incident through the snow-covered backside of the Rockies and down the eastern foothills to Denver. Mom was waiting for me with my stepfather and little brother when I arrived. After a round of heartfelt hugs, we packed my meager collection of stuff into the hatchback of her Honda Civic and started the long drive back up the foothills above Loveland to their house in Big Thompson Canyon. The cabin was already taking shape under the talented hands of my stepfather, a man who transformed every house he had ever owned into a work of art. The bulk of my things went into the crawlspace, while my clothes and a couple books joined me in the living room where I slept on the couch for the next few weeks while their friend worked on getting me into the Navy. The man couldn’t promise me journalism school, but I only had to sign-up for an initial two-year commitment and could “strike” for journalism school once I got to my first ship.

Before I knew it, I was off to the local MEPS facility to start processing into the next ten years of my life. I was weighed and measured and tested against the baseline. Five foot, ten inches tall at a solid one hundred and twenty pounds. Blind as a bat but good enough with corrective lenses. No other major defects to speak of besides exceptionally high arches that would lead to wicked shin splints in a few short weeks when I was required to jog for the first time since my season as a long distance runner in seventh grade.I was eventually led into a room with fifty or so other worthy applicants and ordered to raise my right hand to take the Oath of Enlistment. We all complied as the man started off with the phrase, “I, state your name, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic….”

We headed back via bus to the motel we had been housed in since the previous evening to wait for our flights the next day to various corners of the country depending on the service we had joined and the location of our assigned boot camp. Mine was in Orlando, Florida, one of three Navy facilities at the time that have since been winnowed down to a single recruit training center just outside of Chicago. I was delivered with my one bag of clothes and assorted belongings to catch a plane at Stapleton International Airport near downtown Denver. Four hours after that I touched down in Orlando and joined a couple of forlorn recruits waiting at the USO to be picked up, smoking cigarettes and trying to convince ourselves that shit wasn’t about to hit the fan from several different directions.

The white Navy school bus drove through the main gates of Recruit Training Center Orlando and parked outside a well-kept cinderblock building. We were instructed to line up with our toes on a crack in the sidewalk that wasn’t easy to make out in the dim light. Stragglers got their first taste of what boot camp was all about as the formerly polite introduction turned into shouted commands to get there quicker. We then learned our right from our left “face” before being marched into the building in a single file line, the first man instructed to hold the door for the rest of us as we filed past with as much military bearing as we could muster.

 We were each given dark blue sweatpants and sweatshirts emblazoned with “US Navy” in white along with white t-shirts with blue at the sleeves and neck. We were told to change and came back from the restrooms to pack most of our belongings into boxes and ship them back to friends or family. This included cold turkey quitting for the smokers, though the shock of the situation ensured cigarettes were far from our minds. With the exception of identification cards, cash, a few photos and the running shoes we were told to bring with us, we would be issued everything needed to survive the next 12 weeks. A number of guys didn’t bring running shoes, so they stayed in their boots or loafers or whatever they had showed up with and would be able to purchase new shoes (on credit from their first pay check) the next day after meeting our fine Navy barbers to get our heads shaved down to a sixteenth of an inch off our skulls.

     By the time the initial intake was finished, the clock was pushing midnight. They led us to a huge room packed with rows of light gray metal bunk-beds. Each had a flat pillow, dark gray wool blankets at the foot and crisp white sheets between. We bedded down according to our preference with dozens of beds left empty once the shuffle was complete. There wasn’t much talking that first night. We were exhausted and anxious, so conversation was sacrificed in favor of introspection and fear. I was fast asleep a few minutes after I closed my eyes.

It seemed only a few minutes after that when our Company Commanders came roaring into the room to claim their charges at the top of their lungs. I shot from my bunk and rushed to gather my things as instructed. I forget their exact names, but one was a white chief petty officer who smelled of last night’s whiskey until noon and the other a black machinist’s mate first class (“Call me M-M-1. Sir is for officers.”) who said next to nothing while scaring us shitless with his withering glares. They would be our mommy and our daddy and our everything until they deemed us worthy of moving on to our next level of training. We had to be broken down to our basic components first, and Navy Company Commanders are uniquely trained for that task.

They eventually gathered us into two equal columns and marched us toward the barracks where we would live while under their care. Calls of “left, right, left” by MM1 kept our feet basically in sync, though turning was a bigger problem. Knowing which way was which seems too much to handle when being instructed to turn in time with the recruit by your side without either of you tripping in the process. Our journey ended at a tan cinderblock building with twin three-story wings connected by a hallway that served as the “Quarterdeck” were each company provided sentries to stand watch with metronomic certainty, 24-hours a day.

Our company, C090, occupied the bottom floor of one wing that included a long room with a row of bunk-beds on each side and gleaming tiles stretching down the middle. The Company Commanders’ office was at the end opposite the outside door with a small room beside it where physical punishments in the form of pushups and crunches and mountain climbers would literally make the roof drip with sweat and adrenalin and fear. The door leading to the toilets and showers (called the “head” in the Navy) lay beyond with the company’s quarterdeck at the end of a long hallway leading to the rest of the building.

We each took a bunk, though I don’t recall exactly how the selection was made. We ended up forming into sections with recruit leadership selected to make sure business was handled and we all moved to bunk with our respective groups. The senior recruit leadership – including the Recruit Chief Petty Officer, Recruit Leading Petty Office and Recruit Master at Arms – each took bunks near the end where the Company Commanders spent much of their time once we learned the basics. I tried to land a senior leadership role, but wound up a section leader in charge of four or five guys instead. Looking back on it, falling into middle management was a great way to stay under the radar while my mouth was in the mood to cooperate.

Once we stored our gear in the tiny locker designated for personal items, we formed into sections in front of the barracks in preparation for marching to breakfast. It was still dark as we finally got our shit together and our newly selected cadence caller started to guide our steps while section leaders took charge of their guys individually. My first Navy meal was an experience in and of itself. I had been living on microwave burritos and fast food for years, so a scratch-made breakfast in staggering amounts ensured my eyes would be bigger than my stomach.

“Clean those plates, boys!” was MM1’s repeated command as we tore into our food under his watchful eye. I didn’t account for having to finish all my food in five minutes, and my distended stomach provided additional discomfort that first morning as a Navy recruit. We stood out like sore thumbs in our sweatpants, sweatshirts and running shoes. The more seasoned recruits around us looked identical in their pressed and creased blue chambray long-sleeve shirts, denim dungarees and shiny boots, white sailor caps folded and tucked into their belts.

Five minutes and thirty seconds later, we formed up in front of the chow hall to march to the barbershop and the first of many indignities to come. We lined up outside a complex of shops to get our heads shaved in groups of four. Those with long hair looked sick as their companions came stumbling into the rising sun, rubbing their heads with their palms in shock. I liked the feeling of having all my hair gone, so it was less of a shock for me. What was almost too much to bear was unrelenting standards for the tiniest of acts with harsh and immediate consequences for the slightest failure.

There was a right way and a wrong way. A black and white world devoid of any gray that didn’t involve a paint brush. I’m not ashamed to admit that the call home that evening featured blubbering and crying about leaving immediately if not sooner please. Mom and Jerry confirmed that wouldn’t be happening, so suck it up and make it work. The lost, angry feeling continued throughout the next few days as we marched around base learning how to subsume our ego to the interests of the group, something none of us took to naturally or we wouldn’t be there. It’s amazing how the military can take a diverse and disparate group of young men and mold them into a unified group capable of achieving a common mission.

We only lost a couple guys those first few weeks, one leaving in the middle of the night and dragged back from the Greyhound Bus depot the next day to be processed out as a dishonorable discharge. The rest of us took our lumps and learned the game of keeping our shit wired tight without sacrificing our identities to the herd. I learned how to iron and fold my uniforms in a way that didn’t make sense until I reported to my first ship and saw the lack of space available in the standard issue “coffin” bunk where we slept.

Graduation was an anticlimactic affair that entailed marching around in circles then standing at attention on the scorching hot parade ground while the base commander looked on from a covered pavilion and guests cheered from the temporary bleachers brought in for the event. No one in our company fell out from the heat, but the corpsmen trotted out more than once to carry a recruit to the shade.

Two hours later and we were officially welcomed into the United States Navy.