An Old Memory

Navy, Day 1

Wife Kate and I were watching something on tv which triggered an old memory about my first full day in the Navy, all those years ago.  I paused our show and told her what I remembered, then she suggested I write it down so I could pass it along as a small part of my personal history.  It’s not anything of earth-shaking importance, it was just something that made indelible memories for me.  Those of you who served in the armed forces may have similar strong memories of your very first day – we were strangers in a strange land, yes?

– – –

It was the summer of 1963, and I was living in Borger, Texas, sharing rooms with a high school buddy, Byron Cox.  We were working for his dad on an informal basis, helping with repairing home appliances.  By then I was done with college – I had attended college in Emporia, Kansas for about a year and a half, and then dropped out.  I have wished many times I had stayed in college, but that’s a story for another time.
So, you might say I was just drifting, and I decided it was time to do something with my life, so I went down to talk to the Navy recruiter.  He had me take the basic set of entrance tests, then called me in a couple of days and said I had done well and could sign up if I was ready.  What he actually said was, “Hey, you dummy! You missed 2 questions!”  Wodda kidder!  🙂
It was necessary to drive over to Amarillo, 50 miles away, for my physical.  I had one worry about the physical, and that was my history of childhood asthma.  I decided *not* to tell them about that, so I’d have a better chance of getting in.  I carried a pocket inhaler for ‘just in case’, because although I had outgrown my major symptoms it still troubled me that I might be somewhere and start wheezing, so I had it with me all the time.  Just before I went inside to start my physical, I used the inhaler to make sure I didn’t have any problems with congestion, but that apparently raised my blood pressure a little bit.  The doctor remarked on my higher readings but dismissed it because it could have been stress-related.  I passed the physical exam and was ready to be a sailor!
It wasn’t long before I was on the bus, headed for the regional recruiting center in Albuquerque, NM.  A few hours after arrival, I was shown into a room with a group of other guys who were getting signed up and we were sworn in as a group.  Just afterwards, one of the recruiting guys came over to me and handed me a large packet of manila envelopes, saying, “Since you did so well on your entrance tests, you’ll be in charge of this group, and here are their orders.  Just turn these in when you arrive in San Diego.”  Just in the short time I had been there I had befriended some of the Hispanic guys from New Mexico who were to be in my group, and when they heard about my “hugely important” envelope-carrying assignment, they started calling me “Chief”, a nickname that stayed with me through boot camp, at least within our little group.
From Albuquerque we went by puddle-jumper plane to Phoenix, where I saw my first actual PALM TREE! Wow!  Well, it was impressive to me!  🙂  At Phoenix we boarded a big turboprop jet (the kind that had jet engines with propellors on them).  When we started rolling down the runway, gathering speed for takeoff, I still remember the sensation of being pressed back hard into my seat.  At the time I remember thinking that  “this must be what it’s like being in a slingshot dragster”.  A terrific sensation of power and speed, all new to me.
We arrived in San Diego very late that night, where we were shepherded onto one of those blue Navy buses for the trip to the base.  That was probably the last of my ‘casual time’ as a new recruit, looking out the windows at all the lights of the big city by the sea, with lots more palm trees.
Before too long we arrived at the naval base and disembarked from the bus.  We milled around the parking lot for a few minutes, then some guy in uniform was shouting at us to go line up at the long row of stand-up writing benches.  They were made of long planks of lumber under a small continuous roof, and were maybe 40 – 50 feet long, with provision for a row of people on each side of the plank, rows standing face to face. They had painted squares on the writing surface, delineating positions where we were to stand.  We managed to get in position, each recruit lined up with a painted square.  Lying there on each square was a ballpoint pen.  The guy was shouting again, “The number you see painted there on that square in front of you is your BILLET NUMBER! Pick up the pen and write that number on the palm of your HAND!  When you get inside the sleeping quarters, you will locate your bed by using that number!  Write that number on your HAND, then QUICKLY go through that yellow door, then find your rack where you will sleep tonight.  Hurry, hurry, HURRY!”   Pandemonium reigned.
We surged inside and found where we’d be sleeping, then started to take off our clothes.  They were announcing, “Lights out in THREE MINUTES! Hurry!”  I got my clothes off just about the time they killed the lights.  There was some light coming in through the transom windows along the upper wall, right at the ceiling, so we were not in pitch darkness.  I stood there for a minute or two, just taking it all in, then remembered what I had to do next.  I picked up my jeans and got the inhaler out of my pocket, looked at it one last time, then tossed it up and over, out one of the transom windows.  It had been something of a crutch for me for the last few years, and I had been afraid to go anywhere without it, but now I had to ditch it and try not to think about it.  As it turned out, I never had any wheezing episodes in boot camp (much to my relief), so it was time to just look ahead and not worry about it.
Next morning, EARLY, we were rousted out of bed and told to quickly dress so we could march over to the mess hall for breakfast.  I still remember standing there in line outside the mess hall that foggy morning, filling my lungs with the smell of the sea.  It was that ‘salt sea smell’ in the tv show that triggered the whole boot camp Day 1 memory.  It was 49 years ago, but it could have been yesterday, in one part of my mind.

What are your strong memories of life-changing events?  Leave a comment if you want.

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3 responses to “An Old Memory

  1. Dad, thanks for writing down these memories. Please keep it up. Thank Kate for prodding you.

  2. Wow. You sure do bring back memories and how sharp they are after all these 14 years. I was on my way to basic training (at age 32) and also got that big envelope – I thought I was leaving motherhood behind for 3 months but turns out, I was EVERYONE’S mom during basic.
    My last taste of “freedom” was the 2 hour bus ride from St. Louis to Ft. Leonardwood and the bus driver was playing my favorite singer “Sade” – the much younger recruits were pissed and saying “What king of s… is this?!”. I just kept smiling and was in bliss.

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