Today is the 46th anniversary of my entry into the US Navy.
Long Story Short
It was the middle of the night – on Worm Island – when a group of officers burst into our barracks – and soon had 75 young men doing jumping jacks in their bare feet – while interrogating the Company Officers – wanting to know why some of us were in bed but most of us were sleeping on the floor.
When one pretend officer answered “Yes, he did, sir” to a real officer, I, another pretend officer had to rebut that with “No sir, he did not, sir.”
Me at the end of boot camp – Spring of 1973
Long Story Long
Our boot camp company commander was preparing us for a BIG DEAL inspection that would happen the next day. 75 of us tried to follow his instructions in laying out our locker items in a precise manner on our racks (beds). We had yet to leave Worm Island for the other side of boot camp at the NTC – Naval Training Command – in San Diego. This must have been in late January or early February, 1973.
As you might guess – if you thought about it for a moment – some of my fellow campers struggled to follow the directions provided – not knowing their left from right, or up from down. Ah, humanity. 75 in this particular test group. As I do believe in my reflections that it was indeed a test, everyday, for our Company Commander, Hicks. And for the rest of us too.
At the end of that long day – when Commander Hicks had squared away each of us, in turn, he directed us to put everything back in our lockers and be ready to get it all out first thing the next morning and lay everything out just as it was, currently, on our racks.
Groans followed by those who had struggled.
Then came THE QUESTION. “Sir, could we just leave everything on our racks until the morning, and just sleep on the deck (floor)?”
His ANSWER followed, “I did not tell you to do that. Did I?”
Cheers erupted from some, those who “got it.” Mostly from those who had struggled – as some who struggled with that chore of laying our their gear with GREAT PRECISION also struggled with his answer. Once it was explained to them, they smiled. For they feared the consequences, known to every last man in the barracks, of what would befall all of us, if they themselves failed in laying out all their clothes and gear, quite properly, with great precision, that next morning. Early.
That’s team building USN Boot Camp style.
Then Commander Hicks turned on his heels and headed for the door. It was dark out already and he had stayed with us longer than typical. This was a BIG DEAL inspection. He headed to wherever home was for him. With a family waiting on him, or not. We had no clue.
All but 5, or so, of us, took their pillows off of the rack and settled down on the hard tiled deck (floor) to catch some Zzzzzzzzzzzzs. Mornings came early at NTC on Worm Island. Very. Early. I and those 4 or so others, cleared our racks, restowed our gear, and went to sleep, in the racks. In the morning we would lay out our gear, with great precision, just as we had been instructed to do.
I’m at the bottom right.
Worm Island is where Navy Recruits, worms, spent the first half of their stay at their temporary home-away-from-home, at NTC San Diego. Think of it as the OnBoarding experience. Acculturation. And Culture Shock. Same diff.
It’s not just a job. It’s an adventure.
As we were told when we first arrived at Boot Camp – NTC San Diego – in the middle of the night – that we could try to escape one way to the local airport where you might get chopped into little pieces crossing a busy runway and/or airport security would pick you up, whole or in pieces, as our mentor pointed out the way in the total darkness. Another way out was to the ocean, he pointed, where the tide and currents would likely drown your “sorry ass” (a technical term). Or you might try that way, he pointed, to 75 disoriented, tired young souls, in the “other” direction, to the Marine Boot Camp, where they’d likely keep you for just a few weeks before returning your “sorry ass” to the NTC, where you’d simply get to start all over again. Helpful guidance from our first OnBoarding Mentor.
Most decided then and there that the ocean might be their best bet.
Hmm. Only 63 of the 75 are here in Our Company 025 Photo.
I recall waiting in line, at the front of the line that first hour in San Diego – I had been made responsible for EVERYONE flying from Kansas City to San Diego – and given everyone’s paperwork – and overhearing 3 sailors talking before they began to process us recruit in to the system. One was relating to the other two, how a recent recruit had shown up … with his surf board.
The other two laughed so loud. Roared. For a long, deep laugh. Doubling over even.
I grimaced, I guess. Because, I “got it.”
For my girlfriend’s oldest brother had taken the time, after Christmas Eve dinner 3 days earlier, to share with me exactly, moment by moment, what would happen from the time I entered the AFEES in KC – the Armed Forces Entrance & Examination Station – until the last day of boot camp – and he had nailed every step I had taken so far, since 5 am the day before.
It was as if a familiar movie was playing out before my very eyes and I was able to describe exactly what was going to happen next. From the examples made, at about 2 minutes after 5 am that first day, when a couple of would be service members didn’t line up quickly enough, and they were ordered with, “JUMPING JACKS. READY. BEGIN.” They jumped those jacks for about 5 minutes while the rest of us waited in a perfect line, formation, watching the scowl on the uniformed order barker’s face – out of the corner of our eyes when he wasn’t looking at us. Otherwise it was “eyes forward” as we soon learned the meaning of that, with our steady and still posture. Assume the position.
I had been forewarned. And I was armed with that knowledge of what was to come. But I wasn’t going to sleep on the deck.
So I should have thought of it beforehand, but I didn’t. And I was awakened by the beating on the metal garbage can with a wooded baton, as we were all rousted, from our racks or the deck, and ordered, “JUMPING JACKS. READY. BEGIN.”
75 pairs of feet jumped to.
After a minute or two, we were asked who the Company Petty Officers were. I was the Master-at-Arms.
So I was taken into the Company Commander’s office with my fellow Petty Officers, and grilled. Seems having most everyone but a few of us sleeping on the deck was a concern. It actually seemed as if the concern was that some of us were in our racks and most were on the floor. But it was the middle of the night.
One of the real officers, as we Boot Camp Company Petty Officers were not real officers, we were pretending, so as to learn about chain of command and to bring order to the chaos that would be natural – but much more quickly – as I learned later as “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing” – barked out The QUESTION.
“Did your Company Commander tell you to sleep on the deck?”
“And why were some of you in your racks!?!”
One of my fellow pretend Petty Officers answered, “Yes, he did, sir.”
Alarm bells went off in my head when I heard that answer – louder than the Klaxon that drove us, once we were shipboard, to General Quarters – Battle Stations for you landlubbers – loud enough to wake the freaking dead.
Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo, I screamed to myself, before rebutting that answer out loud, and with emphasis. He had, but he also didn’t. It was tricky. I boldly asserted, even though I had not been asked directly.
“No sir, he did not, sir.”
I was then grilled about what was said.
I then related the sequence of Q&A.
“Sir, could we just leave everything on our racks until the morning, and just sleep on the deck (floor)?”
“I did not tell you to do that. Did I?”
The next morning we all got up as if nothing had happened. I got up early when the Watch – the man on watch – woke me and the 15 others who would shower, dress and rush off to chow so as to quickly return and clean the barracks while the others were off to chow.
Then I would “stand the barracks watch” waiting for the inspectors to come and hand out demerits for “not clean enough” while the rest of my Company was off doing Navy Boot Camp things, learning sailor things, like “hoisting up landlubbers and battening down hatches” (as Jamie Brockett would later sing).
When the Inspection was over, and the rest of the Company returned, and I then joined them as I always did, to attend the afternoon’s training schedule, Commander Hicks approached me and said, “Wallace, you saved my ass (a technical phrase). Thanks.”
And that was it.
Decades later, I was exchanging some information with Bill Brandon, Managing Editor, Learning Solutions e-Magazine (The eLearning Guild).
Somehow we got to know that each other served in the USN. And that I did Boot Camp in San Diego. And that he was there, on staff, when I was there on Worm Island – for that first half of the OnBoarding Learning Experience – back in the day – as some might say today. And that he was one of those real officers who found one company sleeping on the deck, while a few were in their racks – and questioned the pretend Petty Officers to find out what the %#@!! was going on.
And that’s how and when we first met, Bill Brandon and I.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Unless Bill can correct some error that I have made in my telling of it. Bill – use the Comments section below if you will. It’s been nearly 46 years since that day (night). And we should all know how memories work.
The world is indeed, sometimes, a very small place.
Take care of it. It’s the only one we’ve got.
Take care of each other. We are all we’ve got.
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