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.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

1976 Part I

In our last episode, I found myself medically cleared for military service.  And I missed a math test.
So, I had that going for me...


“This is just a four-year camping trip to you, isn’t it?”
-Tom Spagnoula

January 25
Bridgeport, Connecticut

    “So, you’re going though with it, huh?”

    I regarded Tom Spagnoula, the friend I had known since second grade, with puzzlement.

    “It’s not like I’m taking off for boot camp tomorrow, ya know.  We still have six months of school left.”

    “True,” he said, “but once you swear in Wednesday, they’ve got you.  It’s called Delayed Entry for a reason.  You’re going to go eventually.”

    He looked on the floorboard between his feet.

    “Hey, beer’s gone.”

NOTE:  The drinking age in Connecticut in 1976 was 18.  It’s now 21.  So, you see, it was our generation which screwed it up for everyone else.  Of course, Tom and I were only 17 when this took place so...forget I ever said this.    
19 years old
Possibly one of the reasons the drinking age was raised.

    I had driven the 45 minutes from Wallingford to Stratford to visit a few friends in my mom’s canary yellow Ford LTD Country Squire Station Wagon with faux wood paneling.  

I know what you're thinking.
Chick magnet.
You mean it's not?
    Even though I liked my new home and school in the center of the state, I still enjoyed visiting the town in which I grew up.  It may have been a little on the shabby side, but Stratford felt more like home.

    And not just because Tom said he’d boost a couple six-packs of Carling’s Black Label from his dad’s stash in the basement.

    “Let me ask you something,” he said as I pulled in front of the newly-renovated fast food joint featuring eat-in dining (Stratford didn’t have a McDonald’s back then).  “This is just a four-year camping trip to you, isn’t it?”

    I had spent six years with Tom in the Boy Scouts.  While there, we learned how to pitch a tent in a blizzard, build a fire with only one can of gasoline, and amputate limbs with a jackknife.

    Sometimes even on people who needed it. 

Strangely, we never understood why
girls didn't find this look sexy.
    Still, I understood what he was getting at.  Going into the Navy did seem like an adventure.  Like the Scouts, I could hang around with friends, do a lot of interesting things, and sport a cool uniform.

    Except I was banking heavily on that whole “girl in every port” thing.

Carling Black Label
Favored by Dads, old ladies,
and teenagers who are too young
to buy good stuff on their own.
    “Look on the bright side,” I said, “I’ll be getting paid, so we can afford to buy better beer than Black Label.”

    He shrugged.

    “Two cans of which rolled under your seat.”

    Probably not a good idea to mention that we were drinking and driving.


    My bad.
January 28
Part II
New Haven, Connecticut

    Today I swore (or affirmed, whatever that is) that I would support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

    The foreign part I got.  That would be
"Oh, zat Jerry Lewis!
He ees-how you say?-
le comic genius, non?"
anyone who viewed Jerry Lewis as a comic genius, quoted Marx (Karl, not Groucho), didn’t shave (especially women), wore dress shoes with blue jeans, wore dishtowels on their heads, wore Speedos at the beach, wore Speedos anywhere, thought cologne was as good as soap, drove on the wrong side of the road, believed dental hygiene was a fad, humped anything that moved (French only), humped anything that didn’t move (French again), loved the Beatles/hated the Monkees (oh, wait, that’s everybody), or were tired, huddled masses yearning to be free.

    As far as who was or wasn’t a domestic enemy?

    According to one of the noted philosophers of the 20th Century, my father, that was simple:


    Make no mistake.  Even though I agreed to surrender four years of my life to the U.S. military in exchange for a mop and a chance to be shot at, I wasn’t due to “shove off” (not as dirty as it sounds) for another seven months.   

    Leaving today was for those poor souls surrounded by wailing girlfriends.  Even though I was going to go through the same thing that summer, I felt sorry for them.  They were given a set of orders, vouchers for two packets of Saltines, and directions to the train station.

    I had enlisted in the Delayed Entry program.  The Navy’s version of people lay-a-way, “Delayed Entry” enabled recruiters to boost their numbers during traditionally slow parts of the year-you know, like from January to December (after all, it hadn’t been that long ago when we said “good luck with that” to Saigon).  That way, they didn’t need to worry about a troublesome “quota” system or press gangs in front of strip clubs.

    Prospective recruits, on the other hand, were “locked-in” to a specific recruit training center.  Unlike today, the Navy had three boot camps in 1976-Great Lakes, Illinois, San Diego, California, and Orlando, Florida (although recruits in Orlando were required to wear mouse ears). 

    Since I could not abide the heat, Florida
Plus, I didn't think I
could take Orlando seriously.
was out.  I considered San Diego, as well, but was convinced (wrongly, it turned out) that Southern California is an inferno in the summer.  I figured that boot camp in Illinois, while it could turn chilly, would be the most comfortable.

    “Great Lakes, please,” I said.

    As it turned out...on the day I arrived in northern Illinois it was 98 degrees with humidity at “swamp.”  The night before I left, we had to assign several people to prepare to dig us out from an approaching blizzard.  Which never came, thank God.

    But we had to go scurrying about to chase our balls when they froze off.

    Mouse ears would have been preferable.  

    Further incentive to enlist early was guaranteed schooling, gift coupons to the New Haven “Army & Navy” store, and a nifty patch.

Go ahead, Google it.
I'm not making it up.
    Plus, we were issued a handbook which listed all the phrases used solely by the seagoing service, some of which weren’t even dirty.  Like “cuntline.”  Yeah...believe it or not.  Go ahead, look it up.

    But the best part about signing on the dotted line with a promise to return in August was that it gave us a chance to get back to school in time for gym.  Where we were going to play Dodge Ball against the guys who were going into the Air Force.

    In any case, I was looking forward to being Big Man on Campus.

    I had a patch, after all.
Which proved about as successful
with the ladies as that Boy Scout get-up.

To be continued..... 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

1975 Part II

When last we met...I had just entered the Navy Recruiting Station...

November 19
Navy Recruiting Station
Meriden, Connecticut

    Quickly darting past a lonely-looking Marine Staff Sergeant (Vietnam hadn’t been good for business), I slid into the chair opposite my radioman recruiter, who insisted I call him “Tom” (I would learn all too soon that Navy petty officers weren’t usually cuddly, first-name types).  Politely refusing his offer of coffee (I couldn’t imagine anyone drinking the nasty stuff), I firmly stated that I wanted to be an ‘AX.’

I wanted this
    Not ‘Aviation Antisubmarine Warfare Technician,’ but ‘AX.’

    “Okay, then,” he said, “let’s get things rolling.  Do you use drugs?”


    “Are you a practicing homosexual?”


    His stricken look told me that he didn’t think my joke was all that funny.

    “Oh, God, no,” I hurriedly said.

Or this.
    Letting out a long sigh of relief, he continued, “All right, then.  Oh, before we get started, I need to inform you of the pay rate you'll be enlisting for.”

    "Excuse me, the what?"

    "Your paygrade."

    "My pay?"

    He looked at me like I had a couple of horns.  "Uh...yeah.  Your starting pay will be $361.20 a month."

    "Wow.  You're going to pay me?"

    Horns again.  "Why sure.  What'd you think?"

    "Well, food, clothing, shelter are free.  I didn't know you guys were going to pay me, too."

    Probably thinking I had completely slipped off the rails, Tom didn't answer.  Instead, he just made a strange face and pushed a stack of paper towards me.

    "Well...yeah.  So, shall we get started?"

Hell, I would've even settled for this.
    Three hours later, I’d filled out a forest worth of papers, had my fingerprints taken, and learned that the Navy called the “bathroom” a “head.” 

    It’s like those guys had a different word for everything.

    I also learned they had a different acronym for everything, too.  For, when I got back to my car and reviewed the aforementioned colorful brochure, I saw that I hadn’t wanted to be an ‘AX,’ after all. 

    What I really wanted to be was an ‘Aviation Antisubmarine Warfare Operator or ‘AW.’  Too embarrassed to admit I had fucked up (another common Navy colloquialism), I frantically flipped through the pamphlet to see if ‘AXs’ flew, as well.

    Luckily, the job description read, “AXs fly as crewmen aboard Navy patrol and other aircraft.”

    Whew!  So I could fly, after all.
    If I had only known then that one letter would have kept me on the ground for twelve years, I would have visited the head again.

Yeah.  I ended up with this.
NOTE:  Asian used for entertainment purposes only.
Besides, my rubber gloves were black.
And were missing half the fingers.

December 3
Part I
New Haven, Connecticut

    It was my first experience with “hurry up and wait.”

    It wouldn’t be my last.

    Me and three other members of the high school soccer team were driven before the sun came up to the New Haven AFEES (Armed Forces Entrance and Examining Station).  Yet another example of the military’s love for acronyms, AFEES was replaced by MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) when it was decided that it would be cost-efficient to eliminate one letter.  Plus, they ran out of stationery with the AFEES letterhead. 

    As the gloom of night gave way to the gloom of dawn, we wondered why in the world we needed an entire day for just a physical.

    After all, it only took our family doctors less than an hour to thump our chests like cantaloupes, jam their fingers in our innards like an Aztec high priest, jiggle the “boys” like castanets, and ask us to cough.  How much more detailed could the military get?

    But, as we looked at a line which stretched around the lobby like the waiting list for Frampton tickets, we knew we were in for a long day.

    Greeted gruffly by a pot-bellied man in dirty scrubs, we were ordered to strip down to our underwear (also known as ‘skivvies.’ Another new word!).  Then, we needed to fill out the form attached to the clipboard being passed around the room. 
Kinda like this.
Note to Penwasser Place followers:  yep, you've seen this before.
That which is seen can never be unseen.
    For the life of me, I didn’t understand why we needed to get half-naked just to fill out a data card asking for our address, phone number, religious affiliation, tobacco/alcohol usage, and whether we were allergic to poultry, fish, animal dander, latex, ragweed, ragtime, Raggedy Ann, clowns, dust mites, dust busters, dust bunnies, shellfish, peanuts, horses, lions, tigers, bears, oh my, saltwater, coffee, Dudley Moore, eggs, black ink, black licorice, MSG, saccharine, hippies, and rice.

    Once we filled out the necessary paperwork and began to turn blue (it was December in New England), we formed a line for the removal of bodily fluids.  Both red and yellow.

    Although I thought Timmy Donnelly from North Haven was going to faint when Bill Metzler, captain of the soccer team, told him he was going to have to “provide a sample” in a Dixie cup.

    “You know there’s seamen in the Navy, right?” he said.
"OMIGOD, OMIGOD, OMIGOD! Did someone say seamen?"
NOTE:  Yep, this is a repeat picture, too.
    Somehow, I don’t think the guy in the dirty scrubs was amused when Timmy dropped his skivvies to his ankles.

    After Dracula got his fill of my precious A+ and I had to perform target practice into a test tube, six of us were shut into a soundproof booth for our hearing test.

    Seated on tiny black stools with headsets over our ears and little cords in our hands, we waited for instructions.

    “If everyone can hear me, give me a thumbs up,” squeaked a tinny, disembodied voice.

    Five of us jabbed our thumbs in the air.  Within seconds, the door flew open and the guy with the headset wrapped around his neck was whisked away.

    And sent to the Marines.

    “All right,” tinny voice man continued, “you’re going to hear a series of three beeps.  After the third beep, press down on the button.”

    I wondered.  Why did we need to wait until the third beep?  If we could hear the first beep, wouldn’t that mean our hearing was great?

    “If you press on the first beep, we won’t be able to build an accurate baseline for your hearing.”


    Luckily, I passed my hearing test.  While not nearly as good as the guy who could hear dog whistles, it was where it needed to be.  I felt confident that I’d be able to hear “Abandon ship!”, “Battle Stations!” or “Last Call!” plenty good enough.

Did not pass hearing test.

    The rest of the day featured a litany of physical gymnastics and bodily contortions that would either qualify us for service in the Navy or the circus.

    Although, I had to admit that I was a little spooked when I stood in line to see an actual doctor.  The back of the guy in front of me was covered in multiple rings of scar tissue.  He looked like he had a fleshy connect-the dots crawling from his shoulder blades to the small of his back.

    When I asked what they were, he casually said over his shoulder, “That’s where Charlie got me.”

    Not realizing he meant Vietnam, I steered well clear of anyone named ‘Charlie.’

Wrong Charlie.
But not a bad idea to steer clear of him while you're at it.

To be continued..... 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

1975 Part I

It was more than disco. 
There was Gerald Ford, too.

    The eighth decade of the 20th century began with our nation in turmoil. American troops were embroiled in the quagmire of Vietnam, Richard Nixon was president, and the Jeffersons moved next door to the Bunkers.
    WACKY MATH FACT:  1971-1980 was actually the eighth decade, since 1901-1910 was the first decade.  Of the 20th Century.   Because 1-100 was the first century, that’s why.  No, there was no year “0,” wiseguy.  But, since this is called the 1970’s, I’ll save anything which happened in 1980 for the chapter on the “1980’s.” 
    Confused?  Oh, we’re just getting started.         
    Closer to home, cracks were starting to develop in the sheetrock of my parents’ marriage, great-grandma (financier of our Catholic school tuition) finally succumbed to her 30 year illness and departed for that great Bingo Night in the sky, and my body was sprouting hair in places where none had previously existed.
    As 1979 came to a close, my parents were divorced, Jimmy Carter was president, “Babu” was still dead, but I still couldn’t grow a beard.
    Oh, yeah, and I had been in the Navy for 3 years.



“In the Navy, we call it a ‘head.’”
-RM2 Thomas Paul

October 24
Wallingford, Connecticut
Easter 1976
Yeah, we had it goin' on in the 70's.
I'll have you know that suit was 100% polyester
    I didn’t give much thought to my future until the middle of the decade because the first few years of the 1970s were pretty much a blur.  Family disasters, fashion dysfunction, teenage angst, an international oil crisis, and inconvenient boners combined to form a rich tapestry of polyester amnesia.

    I’m not going to count those years.  Although, it was 1971 when I first mastu.....oh, let’s not go there.

    Let’s just put it this way:  the Sears Roebuck catalogue can get mighty racy.

    So, it wasn’t until the fall of 1975 that the question of life after home first arose.

    Mom, newly divorced and newly remarried, was faced with the challenge of how to pay for her first-born’s college education.  Together, we carefully examined each school’s program of studies.  We evaluated every one’s strengths versus that of comparable out-of-state institutes of higher learning.    

    As a direct result of our exhaustive research and painstaking cost benefit analysis, my mother came to a solid conclusion.

    One night after a sumptuous meal of Salisbury Steak, Hungry Jack mashed potatoes, and chocolate chip Snackin’ Cake, she fixed me with a serious look.

    “So, have you given any more thought to that Navy thing?”
Yeah, that's right.
I wrote in my own yearbook.
You think I've only recently become a screwball?
November 19
Navy Recruiting Station
Meriden, Connecticut

    Having successfully completed the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) during 9th period Study Hall, I was assured by my recruiter that I qualified for any job the Navy had to offer.

    As long as I didn’t do drugs or was a homosexual.  Or could successfully lie about either.

    My verbal aptitude, math analysis skills, and ability to completely shade in ovals with a #2 pencil clearly demonstrated my unlimited potential.  Whether processing critical intelligence data, assisting in the development of innovative war fighting doctrine, or drawing moustaches and buck teeth on pictures of communists, I had what it took to be a sailor in the post-Vietnam American military.

    However, it was my uncanny knowledge of how many batteries go into a flashlight-and how to turn it on-that set me apart from the rest.  Apparently, I was born to be an electronics technician.

    That, combined with the fact that I wanted to “Fly Navy” (I had the bumper sticker) sold me on the job I wanted.  Armed with the confidence borne of reading a colorful brochure, I strode purposefully (as opposed to “ambled sheepishly”-aren’t adverbs fun?) into the Navy/Marine Corps recruiting station.

To be continued.....