A Dedication to Those of Us Who Served: How we Survived Boot Camp

In preparation for Memorial Day this weekend, I was thinking of writing about the 20 years that I served in the military. So, for the next 4 days, I will begin to recount my time in the service. This day will be dedicated to the days that led to my entering the service.

It was a day like any miserable day, July 1976. I was 19 years old, when my girlfriend told me she was pregnant. I was working as a “gofer” at a radio station, and in a pizza joint, making about $7.50 an hour. She didn’t work, my family didn’t like her or her family, but I told myself I loved her. I felt trapped by what we had gotten ourselves into. It was on that day that I decided to call a recruiter. I didn’t want to join just any service. My father had served in the Air Force for about 20 years then, and he really wasn’t happy about the service — in fact, he hated it. Dad hated the “head” games that he felt were constantly played with him. He despised the hours that he worked, and the politics in his squadron. So, the Air Force was out for me…besides, I didn’t think I could pass the examinations required for the Air Force. I didn’t want to go into the Army — too much of a chance that I would find myself on the front lines in some jungle. The Marines was out too, no way would I keep my head shaved, and bark like a dog. The Navy…yes, the Navy was it for me. Every time I had seen a sailor, they always seemed to be relaxed. They had a suave, “kick-back” attitude that I liked. Sailors traveled all over the place, and they held a kind of worldly swagger worthy of Popeye. So, I called the recruiting office for the Department of the Navy.

John Sutton was a good guy. He’d been a Radioman in the service for the past 15 years. He had a beard, and a hearty laugh. Better than the sour faces I saw in the Marine recruiting station next door. His assistant was the same way. I knew that this was the service for me. So, I took the ASVAB test, and waited a week for the results. In the meantime, I told my parents about my decision. They weren’t happy at first, Mom telling me that I was going to get myself killed someplace and Dad telling me that I should have told him first. Mom wanted me to join the Air Force like my father, but I could tell he was relieved. Dad and I never really got along together during my entire childhood. He had told me I would never amount to anything, that I was worthless because I skipped classes in school. Yet, I always seemed to come out smelling like a rose (well sort of). I was a straight “B” student, and to this day, I still don’t know how I managed that trick. I remember cutting class, only to sit out in the commons area, playing blackjack all day. Either that or I was ditching school to walk 3 miles to a shopping mall, spending my time until I was ready to go home. I would only attend class to take tests, and ace them.

My ASVAB scores were high, except for Math, which was mediocre. I could pretty much write my own ticket — I could get whatever I wanted. I wanted to get into radio, I’d been training to be a journalist/disc jockey during my time in high school, and the Navy had a rating called JO (Journalist). That was my ticket. But…there was one catch. I could get the rating, get the school in a year. I would have to be swabbing decks in the meantime, cleaning toilets, showers, serving people food, until I got my school. But, I could be an Operations Specialist. They handled the radar on the ships, controlled jets, even talked on the radio. John told me it was a sea-going rating, that I would be out to sea, but could make a lot of extra money by being on a ship. A Journalist would not get that kind of opportunity. Out of desperation, I took the Operations Specialist position, because I would get a guaranteed school, something I needed at the time, with my future wife and child to think of.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of activity that left my brain struggling to keep up. By August, I had entered the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and after being poked and prodded, was told that I would not be accepted into the military because I had flat feet, and had recently undergone surgery for a thyroid goiter that meant I would need to take medication. I was devastated, that after all the trouble I had gone to in order to get into the military, I was medically not going to be accepted. My father was with me in the MEPS office, and asked to talk to the medical officer. To this day, I don’t know what he said, but suddenly, my authorization was stamped that I was fit to go into the military. Wow, Dad had come through for me. I left for boot camp in San Diego 3 days later.

More to come…

Recruit Training Center, San Diego was not as hot as one might think.  Marines were part of our greeters.  A marine gunnery sergeant was the first in fact, to board our bus.  His words were simple, and he barked out every word.  “Everybody off the bus!”  We all picked up what bags we had.  “I said move out!” he shouted at us again.  “And don’t f***ing fall of the bus on your way out!” There was something about his demeanor that meant we were supposed to get off of the bus quickly.  We had various people, all of them with different colored pieces of rope hanging from an arm to distinguish them from everyone else.  I then noticed that the marine gunnery sergeant had no colored ropes hanging from his arm.  He stood in front of us for a moment to shout, “When you are here, you will face forward!”  He looked over to a couple of men shifting around in line.  “Shut up!” he screamed, lunging to the two.  “When I talk, you listen.  Do you understand?”  Both men had taken a step back, nodding their heads in assent.  “I didn’t say to move maggots, I said to shut up!  Step forward!”  The two men stepped back in line.

The sergeant stepped ahead of our group, positioning himself  ahead of our ragged line.  “You assholes look like shit!” he screamed at our group.  “Follow me!”  He began to march toward a large building, where more people with colored braids, this time in naval uniforms waited patiently for us.  As soon as our line had crossed the threshold of some large doors, they began to yell at our group, hounding and singling some of us out.  I dutifully followed the marin sergeant, who instructed us to wait behind a thick, solid white line painted across the floor.   A wall filled with a line of barred windows stood in front of us.  Workers behind the wall were beckoning to us one at a time.  When my turn came, I dutifully walked quickly to the window.  I had an older woman.  “Name?” she asked.  I gave her my first name and last name. “What city are you from?” the questions droned on, while she typed out 4 or 5 sheets of paper.  One of her last questions was curious, if I sang or played a musical instrument.  I said yes.  I read music; had been singing in choirs all of my childhood life, and had played a flute as well as a clarinet and saxaphone.  She pulled out a very large red stamp, placing all of the sheets she had been typing on inside of a brand new brown record file holder, and used the stamp on the front of my record file, instructing me to walk to a yellow line, about 20 feet away from where we had been.  As I was walking to the area, I noticed that others had started to congregate there.  Two or three red-striped men were standing with them, instructing us to stand on the line, with our bags at our sides.  One of the men looked at the folder that I had tucked under my arm, and motioned for me to surrender it to him.  He looked at the front of the record jacket, and told me to join a small group of men standing at a blue line not far from where everyone else was gathering.  One of them started to talk, when a short, blond man came out of nowhere to tell him to be quiet.  We all waited on the line for what seemed to be hours, until the very last man standing at the white line had been processed.  The large group on the far yellow line was being accosted by several men, all grabbing record files, then having them line up in different lines to march out of the building.  All of the groups, except ours.

The short, blond man standing before us instructed us to stand on the blue line, and stay quiet while he talked to us.  “My name is Petty Officer Estes.  All of you here are with me, because you are a special company.  Your number is 935.  Does everyone understand what I just said?”  We answered with a few mumbles.  Petty Officer Estes stopped what he was doing, we were hanging onto his every word except for a couple of men off to the side.  “When I talk, you listen!” he shouted.  “Now shut up!”  The two men stopped what they were doing, and looked at him.  “Now, I will say this again.  When I tell you something, and wait for an answer from you, all I want to hear is: Yes Sir! Do you understand me?”  We mumbled the words he wanted to hear.  “Damn it!” He yelled, his face suddenly becoming beet red.  “Did you hear me?” “Yes sir!” we all yelled back.  Petty Officer Estes paced across our line.  “Better,” he said.  “Now, as I was saying, you are a Special Company.  Each and every one of you has said that you are able to play a musical instrument of some kind, or you said you can sing.  If you look around you…you’ll notice that there are about 85 of you in this company.  15 of you will be members of the Blue Jacket Choir, you will be part of an elite marching group that will lead this company.  Those of you that can read music, and can play an instrument will be part of the Blue Jacket Band.  And those of you who don’t measure up will be part of the 50-state flag team.  “Do you understand me?”  We all shouted together this time, “Yes sir!”  Petty Officer Estes nodded his head.  “Good, because if any of you screw up, I will personally make sure that you repeat your basic training in one of the Rifle companies that you saw forming back there.  Petty Officer Estes pointed to the now-deserted area where the regular companies had formed up and left to eat.  “Yes sir!” we all replied again.  “Fine!” Petty Officer Estes replied.  “Now, all of you pick up your bags.”  We all picked up our bags.  A younger man with a blue rope stood beside Petty Officer Estes, who moved to the rear of our line.  “Now march!” Petty Officer Estes yelled to us.

It was Petty Officer Estes, who moved us through all 9 weeks of boot camp.  He told us that on occasion, we may be leaving the confines of RTC to come out into the real world to play or sing.  He was correct, we did just that.  I became part of the 15-man elite Bluejact Choir in 1976.  Every Sunday, we sang at church.  We sang at funerals, and we sang for our graduation.  We were a crack marching unit, our arms and gait exaggerated to create a stomping march that kept time with our 20-man band.  Petty Officer Estes was there to get me out of trouble, when I got into trouble.  He was there when I was part of a small group who were robbed at gunpoint on our second liberty.  Petty Officer Estes was there when we fired our first weapons, and led us into our first taste of tear gas.  I don’t think that any of us will forget Petty Officer Estes, and for myself, boot camp was over 30 years ago.

RTC, part of the Naval Training Command (NTC)  was officially closed down in 1997.  I was originally part of a group of perhaps about 150 men from all over the United States who flew in one day to one particular place for 9 weeks — Recruit Training Command, San Diego.  There were maybe 20 from Denver.  We had men from as far as Hawaii, and from San Diego or other parts of California, too.  The youngest of us was 17, the old man of our group was 26.  At the end of our boot camp training, all of us, except for about 10 received orders to commands all over the world.  I, interestingly enough, was part of a smaller group of 30 who were held back for a special school, teaching us how to tie knots, basic seamanship, and navigation.  But what stands out in my mind about RTC, is not so much the men that I stood with, or the trouble we got into, but something insignificant that stayed with me my entire life.  What I remember there was pigeons; pigeons everywhere.  We marched in pigeon crap, we sat in pigeon crap…I wouldn’t be surprised if we were eating pigeons at one time or another.  Pigeons were everywhere, and you could smell where they had been, if it wasn’t urea, it was crap.  To this day, I really can’t stand pigeons, in fact, I really think they’re crap.

More to come…

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