I once thought time passed by slowest in my hometown of Saulston, North Carolina. Let me tell you, the hands of time shoot you a big middle figure when you’re twenty years old and indentured out to sea. That’s what it felt like out there. A year earlier I was cruising the bars of Greenville, pretending to be a college student and enjoying more female attention than I’d once even thought possible. Now I spent my hours strapped to a radar screen, an ornery floor buffer or a stack of dirty baking pans. Sure I was building character, but as I moped about the pitching deck of the USS Mount Whitney, my sweat-soaked 'mess-crankin' t-shirt drying in the briny breeze, it was hard not to feel a little sorry for myself. So I did. Certain my high school buddies were clinking beer bottles with buxom co-eds back home, I drank cherry-colored bug juice ten miles off the coast of Cuba. Luckily, there was no war going on. 'Cept the one in my head.
I’d joined on a lark. Out of money, out of a job, out of luck, I’d burned up any good will my parents had to offer through a stunning series of stupid moves. I’ll spare you the ugly details, but lets just say at 19 years old, I felt like a complete wash-up. Too dumb to go to school, but far smarter than the crowd I regularly partied with, I excelled at not excelling. One night a roommate named Don and I knocked back a half gallon of Rum and hatched a feeble plan. Both ourlives had run adrift. College seemed utterly out of reach, working some dead end job felt pointless. Merriment was our only goal - usually the illegal kind. While we were more than happy to chase that score wherever it took us, Don and I both knew we weren’t living right. Downing the ancient sailor's grog, my roommate who couldn’t get out of bed before noon most days laid out his plans for Naval glory.
Seems Don’s Dad had been in ’The Nav’. Or his grandfather, I can’t recall. All I do know is, as the Bacardi vanished, the idea of allowing some faceless entity to sweep me away seemed like the very height of logic. Even when I awoke the next, my head throbbing with residual drink, marching down to the recruiter’s office and saying ’take me away’ seemed like a very sensible idea. So we did. Or should I say, I. Don was there at the beginning - right by my side as we strolled in front of a daydreaming Petty Officer and proclaimed ourselves freebies of the week. Once the P.O. stopped doing back-flips, he scheduled us for an immediate ASVAB. That’s the military entrance exam, a kind of assessment to determine whether you’re leadership material or soggy cannon fodder. I must have scored well, for the recruiters honed in on me like long-lost sailors on one last morsel of hardtack. Six weeks later, I shipped out - while Don scored an eight ball with some new roomies, impressing them with stories of a thwarted Naval career.
Boot camp was surreal. While not exactly Seal Training, it was the toughest thing I ever did physically. Less rigorous were the constant head-games our Company Commanders used to strike dread in the hearts of hapless recruits. Hey, I’m no military strategist, but even I knew when to shut the hell up and do as told. Others’ inability to do so both made me feel both better about my own prospects and deeply worried about my country’s future. Soon a superior noticed my burgeoning competence and anointed me ‘squad leader’. Immediately I found myself in charge of six guys, three toilet stalls and a boatload of crisply folded wash-cloths. Aye Aye Sir, this just may be the life for me. My confidence was really swelling when about halfway through boot camp, an instructor started talking about what life would be like aboard a ship. Aboard a ship? They still do that? I remember looking around the hushed barracks to see if anyone else was shocked at such a notion. They weren’t, but for reasons I can't fully explain, I was blown away. A ship?
(To Eventually Be Continued...)