Coming of Age In The Navy

Coming of Age In The Navy

By Paul Gleason

It all seemed so glamorous and romantic, back then. We were so young and mostly naive. Most of us wanted to be part of something big and important … something we could be proud of. A few were there under threat of “enlist or go to jail” for some infraction or other.

We came from all over … small-town boys, big-city boys, country boys, hippies, high school kids, a few farmers, a construction worker, college dropouts. Heads and straights, some so straight that they squeaked when they walked. The long hair, mutton chops, beards, mustaches, tie-dyed shirts, bell-bottom jeans, all formed the unofficial uniform of the lingering fringe of the hippie movement.

One or two were married; most were not. Many left girlfriends, and all left family behind. But everyone there that morning in Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes Naval Training Center in July 1973 had sworn an oath in the days or months before: a solemn oath to commit all we were or were to become to the U.S. Navy … to be obedient to orders, to be good sailors, and so wrote a blank check to “Uncle Sam”.

Whether in time or war or in peace, every enlistee knows deep inside that things could go sideways at any time. There could be a bullet, rocket, grenade, bomb, faulty equipment, accident … any number of things. Yes, we knew that blank check could include our lives, but everyone who’s 18 years old is convinced of their own immortality. Other people die, but not us.

Isn’t that the way it works?

And thus began weeks of basic training – “boot camp,” so named because a few decades earlier, naval recruits wore leggings that resembled knee-high boots, and were called “boots” while in training. Weeks of classroom study, practical application, physical training, shooting, running, working out … learning to fold our clothes.

Don’t laugh. Learning the optimal way to fold your uniforms ensured that all those items would fit in the 1′ x 2′ x 2′ locker that each would be allotted on shipboard. We joked that, somewhere in the darkest recesses of the bowels of the Pentagon, some old admiral designed new ways to fold our skivvies. And you know what? Someone did just that, but for the reason given above. In those short weeks of basic training, we still had no idea what life in the fleet would be like.

After basic, each received orders to their next station: some to ships, and most to schools to learn the trades that we’d either requested or those which the Navy in its infinite and inscrutable wisdom had chosen for us.

I was offered the opportunity to go into nuclear propulsion, but turned it down because they wanted me to extend my four-year enlistment to six years … and frankly, at the age of 18 with just two months of training, I had no idea what I was getting into. So I stuck with the field I’d originally requested: personnel. It’s called “human resources” now, but I fail to see the difference.

Training school was in Orlando, Florida. That entire base has been gone for years, long since converted to a “planned unit development” with neighborhoods, malls, gas stations, and so on. Nothing makes a veteran feel over-the-hill as quickly as discovering that even the base where you trained no longer exists.

But we were young, and life was still ahead of us. The war in Viet Nam was just winding down, although it would go on for another two years. President Nixon announced in March ’73 that no one else would be sent there unless they volunteered. I enlisted the next day, still not sure whether I’d volunteer for ‘Nam or choose another path.

We were young … and we made choices based on advice, family stories, our insufficient experience, and often mere whimsy. We were so very, very young.

Everyone went through a progression from boyhood to manhood during those few, short weeks of basic training. Somewhere around the third week, for most, every single man jack of us spent one night crying ourselves to sleep, in the dawning realization that we couldn’t go home again, that boyhood was truly over, and life would never be the same. The next morning was the same as all the others … but we weren’t: we were a bit more somber with the realization achieved the night before, and in the knowledge, that we were doing something important with our lives, and a new-found confidence that what we were doing was the right thing.

I’ve made a lot of choices since, and have regretted some, as has everyone else. But I’ve never regretted the decision to enlist.

It was the right thing to do. Yes, we were very young … but who says wisdom is the exclusive province of the elders?


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