The story of a boy, who enlisted in the Navy, who became a man, who still retained the emotional maturity of that boy, yet convinced a woman to marry him.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

1976 Part VI: The Chief

In our last episode, a cackling conductor took great delight in dropping us off at Hell.  On the bright side, we got off the train...

31 AUG
Recruit Training Command
Great Lakes, Illinois
All Navy signal flags mean something.
I think these mean "Up Yours."
    Like a herd of scraggly, long-haired sheep, the two dozen of us followed our trip leaders to the main administration building across the street.  I didn’t know about the other guys, but Jimmy had taken to the leadership role with a vengeance.  Only last night, he rationed the dinner rolls like we were on a bakery lifeboat.
Pretty much how it was.
Only without screaming.
And liberal uses of the word 'fuck.'
Okay, it was nothing like this.

    Like a goggle-eyed tourist, I took in the sight of the pristine Navy base.  Two guards, dressed in blindingly white uniforms, flanked the main entrance like a couple of starched deaf-mutes.  Their eyes focused straight ahead, M-14 carbines held stiffly at their sides (I was to learn later that these rifles were completely empty.  They would only make for good weapons if the sentries clubbed you with them like you were a baby seal). 

    Two brass torpedoes, polished to blinding effect, rested on stanchions in front of two flagpoles holding aloft the Stars and Stripes and the Navy flag.  An empty gun turret stood off to one side.  As immaculate as everything else, it looked ready for action.

    Even though it was as empty as those M-14s, I wistfully imagined it discharging a shell at the now-leaving train.  I’ll bet that conductor would be shocked to have a shell lodged in his smirking kisser.

    Not knowing what else to do, we began to file like lemmings through the double-doors of the admin building.

John Paul Jones
Look familiar, anyone?
Yeah, I'm mischievous that way.
    In stark contrast to the outside, the inside was dark, cool, and deathly quiet.  I gawked at the many portraits hanging from the walls:  John Paul Jones, Chester Nimitz, and some guy with his pants on backwards and his head buried in the massive belly of another guy dressed only in a sheet.

    What the...?

    Suddenly, a huge man filled the hallway.  In addition to a scowl, he wore a short-sleeve khaki uniform with a braided red aiguillette (snooty French term for “cord”) looped around his left shoulder.  He was older than most of the Navy people with whom we’d dealt and sported a bushy, black moustache which curled around the corners of his mouth.  A faint aroma of cigarettes enveloped him like a cloud and the tattoo of a dragon (or some hideous lizard woman) crawled up his left forearm. 

    His black eyes glared at us from underneath a pair of unruly, equally black, eyebrows.

    “Get against that fucking bulkhead!  You’re in my Navy now, shitbirds!”

    Welcome to Hell, indeed.


    Company 269’s Company Commander wasn’t a bad sort, I suppose.

    Despite his gruff exterior and predilection to inject the word “fuck” (or a derivative thereof) into almost everything he said (“You shitbirds better get the fuck moving or you’re gonna be late for fuckin’ church.”), he really was a warm guy.

Yeah, see if we could get away
with our hands in our pockets
    “My name is Chief Gunner’s Mate John Hoffman and I am the Company Commander.  I have been in the Navy since before the best part of you dripped down your mother’s leg in the back seat of your father's car at the East Shithole Drive-In movie theater.  You sacks of shit will always refer to me as ‘sir’ or ‘Lord Almighty.’  When I speak to you, if you are lucky enough that I even recognize your pitiful existence, you will stand at attention, with your arms at your side, your eyes straight ahead, and your mouth shut.  I am not your friend, your buddy, or your shipmate.  For the next eight weeks, I will be your teacher, your coach, your counselor, your father, and your goddamn mother.  And, if I think you are worthy, I will grant you the opportunity in November of joining my beloved Navy.  But, until that day, it will be my sole mission in life to make you as miserable as I possibly can.”   


    In a “rip your head off and crap in the fuckin’ hole” kinda way.

  Sadly, this brings us to the end of It's Not Just a Job.  As I explained at Penwasser Place (oh, come now, does anyone NOT know I'm Al Penwasser and Al Penwasser is me?), I'm going to take a sabbatical.  
  Oh, wait, I never said 'sabbatical."  I did say 'epiphany,' though, which isn't exactly the same thing.  Because epiphany has Three Wise Men.  One of whom is black.  And I may be racist for pointing that out.
  I've been looking at the page views for this blog and they, quite frankly, aren't where I'd like them to be.  And, since there are some people from Russia who read this, I figure I'll just lay low.  Those people scare me.  And not just because their women are hairy and could crush me like a grape.
  So, until the book is finished, I shall bid you a fond adieu.
See, now there's a word you didn't see at Penwasser Place.
  But, it's French.  So...

You did see this picture though.
What a difference from the young dude at the top, huh?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

1976 Part V: Next Time Take the Bus

In our last episode, we bid farewell to our families, our friends, and, soon, our hair....

30-31 AUG
Somewhere between New Haven and Great Lakes

    “Welcome to Hell!”

    I suspected this wasn’t the first time the conductor had escorted a group from Chicago to the Great Lakes Recruit Training Center.

    And, from the grin crossing his face as he slid open the door, it wouldn’t be his last.  It looked like he was having too much fun.

Naw, this is much
better than flying.
The ride across country wasn’t too bad, actually.  Since virtually no one rode trains anymore, there were plenty of open seats to be had.  Which meant I had a window on parts of the country I had never seen.

    Growing up, a big trip for my family was
He may have smelled like low tide,
but he said he knew where
we could get lap dances.
Whatever they were.
taking the train to Manhattan.  There we would aimlessly wander around, gawk at skyscrapers, munch on roasted chestnuts, and badger our father to explain why that man was pushing that shopping cart full of cans.

    Occasionally, Dad would live life on the edge and take us to see his brother in Poughkeepsie, New York.  Usually that resulted in hours spent plopped in front of a black and white TV while staring at westerns through blizzards of static.  Or listening to both sides of my cousin’s one Doors record. 
"The sign said
'Deer Crossing,' dumbass!
And, seriously, was the
graffiti really necessary?"
Sometimes we got lucky and scored some custard ice cream or spotted a deer.  A slow deer. 
One not fast enough to cross Route 9 without holding on to its head.

    So, you see, I wasn’t exactly a seasoned traveler.

    NOTE:  Dear Poughkeepsie Chamber of Commerce, 
    The preceding is not meant as a slur to your delightful city, which I’m sure is a wonderful place.  I’ve no doubt you’re much more than ice cream shops, cow pastures, and roadkill.  For instance, there’s that place which sells wicker chairs and plywood cutouts of ladies bending over in their garden.
"Hey, at least we're not Wappingers Falls.
Wappingers Falls sucks."
    It was during our trip from New Haven that I first met people who weren’t from Connecticut.  From Massachusetts to Illinois, our train took on new passengers like it was the Pied Piper.  Well, that’s an unfortunate comparison.  They weren’t rats.  Unless you count that guy from Indiana.  He kinda looked like one.

    I welcomed the chance to better know this diverse collection of humanity.  From the Maine lobsterman’s son who was allergic to seafood to that Ohio farm boy who once urinated on an electric fence, I marveled at the rich diversity which is America. 

"Be honest.
Do these tattoos make my boobs look big?"
    Heck, even that guy from Bridgeport had something to offer.  I’m sure that knowing how to hotwire a car or self-tattoo with a Zippo, clothes hanger, and ballpoint pen would come in handy one day.

    My two day trip had other benefits, as
"Hey, is that
the railbed?"
well.  For instance, I learned that it’s never a good idea to stick your head out of the window of a moving train.  Because, when I saw the moving rail bed through the toilet in the lavatory, I realized I wasn’t getting hit in the face with water vapor.

    Not water you could drink, anyway.

    It’s also not a very good idea to change your underwear in front of an unshuttered window in your berth.  Especially as you’re coasting to a stop at the Cleveland train station.

    I just hope those poor people waiting on the platform were able to get that image out of their minds without too much therapy.

    “I’m tellin’ ya, officer, it was a white, pimply, hairy monster with no eyes and a shriveled nose!”    

    However, as much fun as public
And people wonder
why train travel is down.
transportation can be, our trip had to end eventually.  As the conductor’s mad cackles followed us onto the platform, we were buoyed by an optimism sure to carry us into our new adventures.  That, and excitement we could finally shower.

    Traveling grime and face piss can make a body feel grungy, after all.

NEXT:  The Chief....    

Sunday, March 16, 2014

1976 Part IV: Rock, Paper, Scissors, and a Train

In our last episode, Mom dropped me off at AFEES.  And headed to breakfast.
WARNING:  The following contains what is commonly referred to as “salty” language.  Get used to it, because that’s pretty much how it will be from here on out.  Or did you think someone just made up the expression “swear like a sailor”?

August 30
Part III
New Haven, Connecticut
"With liberty and fraternity for all.
No shit."
In a ceremony remarkable similar to what we did in January, the station officer in charge charged us to once more support and defend the Constitution.

    Only this time I knew to keep an eye out
Hey, good luck with that Navy thing.
And hygiene."
for hippies. 

    Instead of heading back to class, Bill Metzler, Buddy Fulton, Paul Arnold, and I were finally on our way to the Midwest.  Joined by two others from Guilford and Derby, we knew the biggest difference between this morning and January was that now we’d get jail instead of detention if we decided to just go home.

    We were ordered to pick a group leader who’d be responsible for carrying our orders, transportation tickets, and meal vouchers.  Realizing this was a position of limited responsibility, zero privilege, and even less prestige, nobody was eager for the job.  We mostly stared at each other, hoping someone would be stupid enough to volunteer.

    Finally, after being told to “get our candy asses moving,” we opted for a thoroughly democratic round of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”  Luckily for us, five of us threw “rock” while Jimmy Banfield from Guilford unwisely elected to go with “scissors.”

"Shoulda thrown paper.
And shaved."
   I didn’t understand why he was so upset.  Sure, “paper” would have covered “rock,” thus nullifying its powers (exactly why never made sense to me).  But, then again, if someone threw “scissors,” he would have had his “paper” sliced in two.

    So, who knows?  Far be it from me to dispute the indiscriminate randomness inherent in “RPS.”

    In any case, Jimmy now had to lug six large manila envelopes to Illinois.

    Within the hour, we were on a train headed to Springfield, Massachusetts.  Once there, we’d get on a second train which would take us to Chicago.  Upon arrival in the Windy City, we were to board a third train for the final leg to boot camp.

    All told, this little trip would take a
"All aboard!!"
day and a half.  On technology invented in the 19th century.

    When I mentioned to the processing petty officer (the same one from January-except this time he wasn’t wearing dirty scrubs) that, since the airplane had been around since 1903, the Navy might want to take advantage of that technological innovation.

    He stared at me like I had two heads.  Thinking briefly (briefly is actually all he was capable of), he barked,

Like this.
But not in camouflage.
And with more spittle.
And he wasn't black.
    “Quitcher yer fucking bitchin’ and moanin’, ya fucking piece a shit!  I’ll put ya on a goddamn fucking donkey if I fucking feel like it!  Now, get’cher sorry ass on the fucking goddamn train with the rest of those pussies before I lose my fucking temper, ya whinin’ douchebag!”

    I learned two things that morning: 

    1.  Navy petty officers aren’t warm and cuddly like my recruiter.

    2.  Apparently, “fuck” is a pretty popular word.  

    No shit.

NEXT:  Hell is in session.....
"Yer not in gym class, anymore."

Sunday, March 9, 2014

1976 Part III-Tomorrow Comes

In our last episode, I had a breather before tomorrow.  Which finally comes...

August 30
Part III
New Haven, Connecticut

"C'mon, back that car
down the driveway already!
I've had two cups of coffee
and I can't hold it forever!"
    The first, tentative rays of the late summer sun burned through drooping treetops as morning slowly shook off the lethargic shadows of night.  Birdsong intermingled with the harsh whirring of cicadas and the daily symphony of nature once more commenced.  Commuters, faced with the prospect of another work week, inhaled a quick sip of coffee before slipping behind the wheels of their cars.

    The process I’d begun as the first leaves were falling was finally about to begin.

    I stood before my dresser mirror for the last time as a child.  My anxiety grew as I realized there was no coming back from the journey I was about to commence.  Luckily, it was offset by the pride I felt that I was doing the right thing for myself and my country.

    And the knowledge that I only had five dollars left in my savings account.

    Needless to say, it was a fun summer.

    I bent down to retrieve the small bag I’d packed for the trip.  A shadow spilled into the room.  I looked at my sister standing in the doorway.

    “So, this is it,” she said.


    “All right, then,” she answered as she pulled a measuring tape from her back pocket.  

    To my dumbfounded look, “Well, I gotta measure the windows before I buy new curtains.”

    I shook my head as I pushed past her.

    As we backed down the driveway, I closed my eyes and slunk deeply in the backseat.  Hoping to calm the butterflies I was starting to feel, I closed my eyes for the twenty minute trip to New Haven.  It would probably be a wasted effort, I knew.  I was fairly certain I would be a bundle of nerves the entire way.

    “Kenny, look at that,” my mother said from the front seat.

Much cooler than Mom's Canary Yellow
Ford LTD Country Squire Station Wagon
with faux Wood Side Paneling.
I poked my head between the bucket seats of my stepfather’s Pontiac.  While in the coming weeks I would learn their technique wasn’t perfect, my sister and three brothers stood at the top of the driveway, hands touching their foreheads in a salute.

    Yeah.  I’m gonna miss you, too.

Like this.
But worse.
The blubbering and sloppy mess at the New Haven processing station was embarrassing.  The raw outpouring of emotion got so bad that people began to stare.  It was pitiful.

    But, my mother finally told me to suck it up, grab my stuff, and head on out.  She had places to go and things to do.  Besides, breakfast at Mister Donut was on my stepfather.

    Minutes after Mom squealed out of the
"Salt and Pepper" uniform.
Picture obviously staged.
Because everybody's smiling.
parking lot, I sat across a desk from my transfer coordinator.  The slight petty officer, dressed in an immaculate white shirt and black trousers called “Salt and Peppers,” flipped through paperwork which would follow me to Illinois.  He ran his pencil over each entry, nodding his head as he went along.  Suddenly, he stopped.

    “Uh, oh.”

    “Uh, oh?”

    “Looks like we have a small problem.”

    Ooh, didn’t like where this was heading.


    “Well, you see here,” he gestured at Guaranteed Training, “after Recruit Training, you’re due to report to AX ‘A’ School.”

    “Yeah?  So?”

   “There is no AX ‘A’ School.”
What I thought I'd be.

    “There isn’t?”

    “No.  But, there is AV ‘A’ School.  They teach Aviation Electronics for several jobs similar to yours.”

    “And AXs go there?”


    “So, it’s the same thing?”


    “Well, uh, okay.  I guess.”
What they made me.
Hang tight, I'll explain later.
    “Great,” he said as he removed a black pen from his shirt pocket.  He drew a line through AX ‘A’ School and replaced it with AV ‘A’ School, initialed the change, and smiled.
What I became ten years later.
Just hold on to your britches, we'll get there.
    “Looks like you’re good to go.”

    Well, I figured, if I'm good to go...
Next:  West Bound and Hell...