I have been melancholy the last several days. Trips down Memory Lane, morose commentary on Justice, even a poor attempt at humor sounded angry. And then the Sad (bad) News of my friend. Well, I have to try to change that. Get more upbeat. Perk up! After all, my sister-in-law brought home oatmeal raisin cookies for me the other night. And how can you remain melancholy when there are oatmeal raisin cookies in the house?
I'd like to take you back to a simpler time. I didn't think it was simpler, not then, it's only in hindsight that we see things clearly. It's that first day in Boot Camp. A day of apprehension, humiliation, shots, depersonalization, and resignation.
It was November 5th of 1965. I woke up on the top bunk in a WWII era wood frame barracks. It was chilly for this Florida boy, as anything under 70 degrees (Fahrenheit) is. Probably in the low 50s. I don't think there was any heat in those barracks. I am sure, now, they didn't think any was needed.
I say I woke up but that wasn't exactly true. Somebody, loud and obnoxious, came through and banged on the metal bunks and the trash can and shouted something about dropping a certain body part and grabbing your socks. It was effective. We were, collectively, awake and moving within 30 seconds. A trip to the "head" for a quick shower (at least the water was hot), a shave, brush your teeth, and scramble outside to the area we had congregated in the night before (see "An Interesting Day"). We had 10 minutes and I made it easily. It was still dark.
I looked around and recognized a few of the faces in the crowd of forty from the previous night. In a couple of hours, I would recognize no one. We double-timed (that is "jogged") to the mess hall for breakfast. We were segregated from those in uniform in a corner of the hall after getting our trays filled with what appeared to be scrambled eggs, bacon, and hashbrowns (all slightly undercooked), and coffee in mugs. Within 15 minutes we were back outside, formed up loosely, and double-timed over to another non-descript wooden building.
Let me take a moment to describe the scene. The dawn had broken while we were in the mess hall so I could now see a bit more. All the buildings seemed to be made of wood, all about the same size, and all about the same color; a sort of dull, pale, yellowish hue. The sky was overcast, gray, dreary. It would seem to stay that way the entire time I was in Boot Camp. There were a few sunny days but they seemed colder, crisper, than the more common gray ones. I could see hillside lining the base on what I thought was the north side. There were houses all over those hills. Nice houses, built on the hillside.
We were sent inside this new building in a line, peeling off jackets inside (as ordered), while men in dungarees and blue shirts sized us up. They asked us only our shoe size, wrapped a tape measure quickly around our waist and shouted the number to the next man. He handed us some dungarees, then some shirts and T-shirts, then 2 pair of shoes (dress and "boondockers") and socks. Three sets of each piece of clothing and pairs of socks, one blue "ballcap", three "white hats", and one "bluejacket" (a medium weight cotton jacket), . These were just piled in our arms. At the end of the line, we were given seabags. Heavy, canvas, olive drab, seabags. We were told to, and did, strip off our civvies, socks and shoes, and put them in the overnight totes we had arrived with. Then we stuffed the shoes, socks, shirts we had been given into the seabags, clipped on the strap, dressed in dungarees, blue chambray shirts over white T-shirts, boondockers over thin dark blue socks, and bluejackets. And went back outside through another door.
Assembly lines came to mind. Everything was done on an assembly line. We were being stripped down and rebuilt as sailors. But we still had a long way to go.
Once outside, the first thing we were told was, "Do not put your hands in your pockets!" "At no time will you put anything in any pockets!"
We then were marched over to another non-descript building where we went in like before. The barber shop. Four chairs, short wait. No smart ass remarks, no talking at all was tolerated. You went in, stood in front of a chair until the man in the chair was shorn, and then you took his place.
In about 15 minutes, we were all back outside. The only man recognizable was the guy from Puerto Rico. We all looked pretty much alike. Brown hair, blond hair, red hair, all gone. Nothing but stubble on the top of our heads which were were told to immediately cover with the now loose fitting ball caps.
We were not done yet.
We marched to another non-descript wood framed building where we formed up into four rows outside. We were told to remove our jackets, tie the arms around our waists. Then to unbutton our shirts, pull them down and off our arms, letting the shirts hang from our waists. Then to roll up the short sleeves of the T-shirts onto the shoulders. Again, we peeled off to enter. This time were were told to:
"Step inside the door and halt. Do not move once you do, look straight ahead, do not jerk away. You will then move to your left and come out the other door."
So, I stepped inside the door, and got the inoculation gun jammed into each upper arm. Bzzzt! No pain. Released, I moved to the left, to a table where I was given a small medicine cup with some orange tasting liquid to drink. Then out the other door to re-form up with the others. Once we were all out, we were told to put our shirts back on, and then our jackets.
At that point, the pain hit. Both shoulders. Pure agony. A lot of groaning from everyone. It is at this point that I became acutely aware of Shipfitter 1st Class Mullen, our Company Commander. He had introduced himself when we first formed up outside the barracks we had slept in that first night. He had been ordering us around all morning. But my focus was on other things, he was just background noise.
Until then. Until he laughed at our pain. Until he made fun of it. Until he ordered us to do 25 four count jumping jacks. Together. In unison. Which meant, we restarted if we got out of sync. It took a little while. It seemed like a long while. It seemed like a lot of jumping jacks.
And it was. The day had just started.
A Night Unremembered
7 years ago