11 November 2016

Veterans' Day: A Remembrance

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 drop-outs. 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 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". 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 boots, and so were called "boots" while in training. Weeks of classroom study, practical application, physical training, shooting, running, working out ... and 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 asked 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 he 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 very limited 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 sudden, dawning realization that we couldn't go home again, that the life we'd known was truly over, and that things 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 (for most of us) 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?


Guffaw in AZ said...

Thank you for your service, my friend!


threecollie said...

Thank you for undergoing what you did for the benefit of those of us who didn't.

Rev. Paul said...

Guffaw - thank you for remembering us.

threecollie - it was my honor.

kymber said...

reading this post brought the memories back big time. my basic training base has since been closed - so sad. i was one of the first females in my trade...women weren't allowed in my trade until 1986 and i did my basic in the first part of 98. even the toughest guys broke down at least once...they told us it would happen to all of us and to just ride it through...it would build us up. i remember my 13 weeks in boot camp with a sense of camaraderie...and the memories are tinged with a sweetness that i most certainly didn't feel when we were being yelled at and cursed at while doing the obstacle course for the millionth time. but when i look back, i am reminded of some of the most excellent soldiers i ever trained with. and yes, we were young. i was the youngest, only just turned 17. most everyone else was 18-20. but we were all so young then. and nothing could stop us. and i don't think anything ever did.

thank you for your service Rev. Paul.

Rev. Paul said...

kymber, thank you for sharing your experiences with us, and thank you for serving, too.

Constitutional Insurgent said...

Well said, and thank you for serving.

Rev. Paul said...

Thank you as well, CI. Which reminds me ... I wish I still had my jump boots. :)

Rob said...

Padre, I know of the Navy Training Central in Orlando right across tradeport blvd from McCoy AFB which is now Orlando International airport. While most of the base is now gone the bunkers are still there.
There is a Boeing B 52 located in a corner of the old base, N NE. in a park as a memorial to those who served. My boys and I spent time walking around the plane and talking about what it was like flying that plane. I saw B-52 take off from Grand Forks AFB during encampment with CAP in the 1980's speechless.

I spent time in Navy JROTC and did a few one day cruises out of San Diego, USS Hepburn, USS John Paul Jones, and walked on and toured USS Constellation in dry dock Long Beach ship yard.

Rev. Paul said...

Rob, we visited Orlando in '08, but there was nothing recognizable (to me) in the area where the "A" school command was located. Kind of sad, that, but my school had relocated to Mississippi while I was still on active duty. Times change, life goes on ...

My cruise was 18 months in the Med. :)

Terry said...

God Bless our veterans.

Rev. Paul said...

Thank you, Terry, and amen!

Old NFO said...

Yep, we came out changed, no question... 4 years, 6 years or a career, each of us made our own choices, and I don't know anyone that regretted it. I've heard many say their only regret was not doing a career...

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Thank you for your service Reverend.

Ed Bonderenka said...

I must have enlisted the same year you did.
Lackland AFB.
I remember leaving the NCO Club on Camp Lejeune with a friend of mine, Wayne.
We talked about our enlistments. Wayne mentioned that he had been in the army, prior enlistment. He was a big bruiser of a guy.
I said I would have found Army Basic tough.
Wayne said Army Basic was a breeze, Air Force Basic was tough.
I said it was like Boy Scout Summer Camp.
Wayne said all that classroom and bookwork almost killed him.

Chickenmom said...

Those who serve are very special. Thank you, Rev. Paul.

Rev. Paul said...

NFO - in my case, I prayed long & hard for guidance and wisdom before I enlisted, and was (and am) convinced that I was only to do the four-year hitch. But there's always that little voice asking, "What if ..?" in the back of my mind. I do admit to a certain envy when I talk to retirees. :)

TB - it was my honor.

Ed - that's a funny story. We always thought the AF basic was like the Boy Scouts, apart from the heat of Texas ... which would have been tough for me.

Chickenmom - I was just a sailor, but I had the privilege of meeting some real heroes.

Sandy said...

Rev Paul,

I'm moving slowly on responding to posts, sorry.
Thank you Paul for your service!!!

Rev. Paul said...

No worries, Sandy. Sometimes it's nice to hear a "thank you" more than once a year. :)