A Promise I’ve Kept

I remember, plain as day, the tiredest I’ve ever been.

When I reported to the U.S. Naval Training Center at San Diego, in September 1960, I already had a sea bag full of uniforms because I had joined the U.S. Navy Reserve months earlier, when I was still in high school.

There were a dozen other reservists in my company, but most of the guys were regular Navy —  they had signed up to serve three to four years of active duty; reservists had a two-year active duty obligation.

When you arrive at boot camp you are the lowest of the low -- R&O
When you arrive at the Naval Training Center you go first to Receiving and Outfitting, and become the lowest of the low — other recruits  called  you “R&O!”

The enlisted men in charge of the recruit companies, First Class Petty Officers or Chief Petty Officers, were regular Navy too, of course, and the chief in charge of my company ordered the reservists to carry our sea bags everywhere we went, right up until the regular Navy recruits were issued uniforms.  Then a truck hauled all of our sea bags to our barracks.  

Seaman Recruit Pat Stith, on his first liberty in San Diego.
Seaman Recruit Pat Stith, on his first liberty in San Diego.

We got our heads shaved that day and what seemed like an endless number of shots.  A lot of guys were feverish and all that marching, here, there, and yonder, didn’t help.

After supper we were ordered to stow our gear. Not my way. Not your way, either. The Navy way. When each man finished he was ordered to stand at parade rest at the end of his bunk until everyone finished.

Some of my shipmates needed help, but the ones who had caught on, who had figured out how to do it,  were not allowed to help those who hadn’t. So we stood there, hour after hour, waiting, waiting, waiting.

My company had eaten breakfast shortly after 4 a.m. We ate at that ungodly hour because someone had to in order to get everyone on base fed and, on our first day of training, we were the low man on the totem pole.

Now it was pushing midnight.

The shots, marching all over carrying my sea bag, and 20 hours in the saddle had taken a toll. I promised myself, never, for the rest of my life, would I claim to be tireder than I was right then.

It’s a promise I’ve kept.

NOTE: I have no idea what boot camp is like today, how much it may have changed.   In my day, 1960, the Navy stressed two things: obey orders and stay clean.  Violations were punished on the spot by company commanders.

For example, recruits caught smoking when the smoking lamp was not lighted –that’s a violation of an order– were required to smoke cigarettes with a bucket over their head.

Oh, yea, it made ’em sick as a dog.

If anything, the Navy was even more strict about cleanliness. [Aboard ship sailors were packed into berthing compartments — on my ship our racks were stacked four high — so cleanliness was imperative.]  In boot camp, the smallest infraction,  a shave that wasn’t close enough, a spot on your uniform, boots that did not glisten, was punished, severely sometimes.

I saw this:

One morning two recruits who had failed inspection were ordered to lay down on the grinder and roll over and over shouting at the top of their lungs, “I’m a pig!  I’m a pig! I’m a pig!”  After a few minutes one of them threw up. Both were required to roll through the vomit. I guess that’s why the other one to threw up.  It got to be quite a mess.

Coming Friday: I Doubt That!

The [Sad] Carolers

It was 1961, my first –and only – Christmas away from my family and, surprise, surprise, I was doing just fine. In fact, in some ways it was turning into the best Christmas ever, completely free of stress.

USS Los Angeles (CA-135)
USS Los Angeles (CA-135)

I was in the Navy and my ship, U.S.S. Los Angeles [CA-135], was anchored in Victoria Bay, Hong Kong. I was 8,331 miles from my home in Charlotte, N.C.

Weeks earlier I had mailed Christmas presents to my girlfriend, now my wife, Donna Joy Hyland, including a Percy Faith album titled “Music of Christmas,” music she said she played over and over — still does.

Christmas in Hong Kong was going OK. For one thing, there’s not nearly as much work to be done in port and the crew was getting lots of liberty. I was going ashore almost every day. For another, my shipmates and I were all in the same boat, literally and figuratively – everyone was a long way from home, so why whine about it.

I was still OK on Christmas Eve until word was passed that Christmas carolers were approaching our ship.

Hong Kong, from the harbor . This photo was made by Tony Fleming in 1960.
Hong Kong, from the harbor . This photo was made by Tony Fleming in 1960.

I climbed a ladder to the main deck and saw a gaily lighted tug boat coming toward the L.A. There were a couple of dozen men and women on deck wearing sweaters and scarfs to ward off the chill. Hong Kong was a Crown colony then and these English men and women had come to serenade our ship, to cheer up the American sailors so far from home on Christmas Eve. The tug stopped 20 or 30 yards off our port side, cut its engine, and the carolers began to sing, acapella.

Those old, familiar songs drifting across the water did not cheer me up, quite the opposite. They made me profoundly homesick.

NOTE: Coming one week from today: Lucky’s Best Story.  You can read it, or watch and listen to a video.

Coming Friday: You Think You Can Whip Me?