Before the uniform went on—

It was late September, 1968. First Class postage was six cents. You could buy two gallons of gasoline for a dollar and expect change back. Plastic miniskirts were still "in," though they were fast being replaced by plain, full-length granny dresses, while bell-bottom trousers that draped the ground were gaining popularity. Psychedelic drugs, posters and black lights were "groovy." Male hair was lengthening, love beads were "hip," beards "cool," the Beatles "far out!" and leading the younger generation like Pied Pipers of Hamlin. Coffee houses were "the thing," while guitars and harmonicas attracted crowds and were often found at "happenings."

It was the Age of Aquarius, a time when love would guide the planet. In the meantime, the Detroit Tigers were heading for the American League pennant and the World Series. Lyndon Johnson was still President of the United States, and the race to replace him in that office was sizzling. Conscription of the nation's youth was a hot issue, and, though politically and philosophically unpopular, the escalating war in Vietnam was still considered winnable.

It was on every young man's mind that Uncle Sam was waiting impatiently for the magic combination of his eighteenth birthday plus graduation from high school. Once he registered for the draft it was just a matter of time before Lyndon sent a greeting.

Fellows had a variety of ways to handle the threat of conscription besides pure surrender. The two most common were to obtain some form of exemption, i.e., a student, medical or psychiatric deferment, or join a branch of service before receiving the draft notice. Volunteering allowed potential leverage as to how and where one would serve. Among more risky ways were to seek the status of conscientious objector (which was difficult, bordering on impossible) or simply light out and disappear, leaving future consequences to their own handling.

After completing a generally unhappy thirteen years of school, I was not interested in obtaining a college deferment even to save my life. I would fool nobody by claiming to be a conscientious objector. Also, concern was too great for what relatives and friends would think to become a draft dodger. For me it came down to either sitting back and being drafted or plunging forward and joining the least objectionable military service.

I was influenced in which branch of service to choose by some exhibits seen at the 1967 Jackson County Fair. One of the "attractions" was a trailer filled with displays of torture and anti-personnel devices used by the Viet Cong. Included in the menagerie were anti-personnel (and anti-morale) mines called "Bouncing Bettys," designed to blow away a person's legs and groin. There was the replica of a foot trap, a mere hole covered with straw and dug just large and deep enough to channel a foot onto a sharp spike contrived to slice through a boot's thick sole. This injury would expose the GI's foot to deadly jungle infections leading to illness, possible amputation, even death. There also were cages in which a prisoner could neither sit nor stand, where someone might be incarcerated for the rest of their life.

Taking all these anti-personnel weapons into account, I decided to join the Navy. Looking on the bright side, the Navy would be a great way to visit other countries and experience the many different and worldly things that may remain forever unavailable in my home town.

The Navy had a plan that caught my interest. It was called the "120 Day Delay" program. A fellow could enlist and use part of his inactive reserve time to finish high school and prepare for going on active duty in the fall. Then if Uncle Sam sent a greeting, like I received just after graduation, all the enlistee had to do was notify their recruiter. A regular enlistment consisted of four years active duty followed by one year active reserve and one year inactive reserve. If someone enlisted in the Reserves, his or her tour began with two years active duty followed by four years active reserve. In active reserves a sailor had to attend regular meetings and spend a certain amount of time each year aboard ship.

I discovered later that the "120 Day Delay" Program was not fool-proof. A sailor I worked with for much of my Navy tour had also joined under this program. However, his recruiter was unable to meet his quota of enlistees one month, so he called up the boys on the delay program and gave them something like twenty-four hours to get ready for shipping out.


[This little incident brings to light two very important axioms that few of us knew during the time it was most needed -- pre-enlistment: NEVER TRUST A RECRUITER and IF IT ISN'T WRITTEN, IT WASN'T SAID.]

I first met Gilson in May of 1968 while we were both waiting for an interview at the Jackson Navy Recruiter's Office. He was there from Lansing and was also joining through the delay program. Over the course of the enlistment and swearing in processes we became fast friends, formalizing a partnership by joining the Navy through the "buddy system." This system guaranteed that we could be in the same boot camp company if we wanted and, if possible, could later serve at the same duty station. In this way we would not be alone as we started our new existence. That summer I was Best Man at his marriage to Rosalee.

I quit my job as appliance store delivery man in early September and readied best I could for the coming, radical change in circumstances. The preparation included the selling of my car, making my peace with girl friend Jeannie, arranging finances and doing whatever I could around Mom's house to leave it in good repair. Then the fateful day arrived.

Gilson and I were chauffeured to Detroit from Jackson, along with a bus load of other noisy recruits, on September 25. We arrived at a downtown hotel a little after 3:00 PM, were issued rooms and treated to dinner, compliments of the Navy, at 6:00 o'clock. After a dinner of chicken, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, rolls and sherbet, Gilson and I walked over to the multistory J. L. Hudson department store and later saw the movie Gone with the Wind. We didn't get back to the hotel until midnight.

The next morning we were up at 4:00 o'clock and bussed off to Fort Wayne in Detroit at 5:00 o'clock. After breakfast began the final process of mustering out of civilian and into Navy. Our papers were rechecked and re-rechecked, duplicates were made, and physical exams regiven, all in Fort Wayne's gymnasium. The lines of men were long, so the process took some hours. Later we assembled in one room, where the official in charge of paperwork read off our names, telling each man whether he would be attending boot camp at Great Lakes or San Diego. I was ecstatic when Gilson and I got San Diego. Ca-li-for-nia here we come! But Gilson was bitterly disappointed. He was hoping for Great Lakes, so his wife could visit him at nearby Niles, Michigan.

I wrote a letter to Mom on Red Cross stationery informing her of our fate and sent it out using Red Cross postage. The humanitarian organization had set up a permanent station in Fort Wayne's gymnasium to assist inductees and enlistees. They were there to monitor and fill any gaps in humane treatment one would expect from a military, assembly line mentality. For a while we boys were neither in the military nor were we civilians, so the Red Cross volunteers provided our only protection against potential wrongs. They helped make our initial transition from civilian to military life as emotionally painless as possible in many little ways, too. They provided coffee, things to munch and kindly smiles.

Our hair and clothes were still civilian when we boarded a civilian jetliner at Detroit's airport around 7:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. The trip had every appearance of preceding a California vacation. We were fed first class meals, including champagne, and were treated like royalty by the plane's attendants. Looking back on that happy time, it was like the last meal to victims before a ceremonial sacrifice.

The plane landed briefly at Chicago's O'Hare Airport before continuing on to San Diego, where it touched down at 1:30 AM Eastern Standard Time. Unfortunately for us it was only 10:30 PM Pacific Standard Time. However, since we had been up since before 5:00 o'clock in the morning Eastern Standard Time, that was still the clock we were honoring.

We exited the plane to be greeted by a chilly ocean breeze resulting in instant goose flesh. The new and strange environment was permeated with an unattractive, acrid, fishy smell. One thing most of us had not expected was unfriendly coldness from Southern California nights. Had the Beach Boys lied? Few of us brought jackets, so the wait for a Navy bus to camp was interminable.

Despite the chill, new environment and strange odor we were hyper with anticipation while awaiting the bus. This enthusiasm, or bravado, continued until the Navy bus arrived. Then we were exposed to the type of attitude we would be getting double-doses of for the next several weeks. We would be looked down upon as worthless rabble acidulously called "squirrels," one of numerous derogatory slang words for recruits. The traditional slang for a Navy man or woman, "squid," was bad enough without being called both a squid and a squirrel.

The serviceman driving the drab gray bus that retrieved us was an unsmiling, unfriendly creature. He was in such foul spirits that it seemed he must have missed a date with his girlfriend or had some other ugly-mood-generating situation happen in his life. The ride to Recruit Training Command was a long, tortuous one, with the champagned and dined "squirrels" doing much less chattering.

Once off the bus we could look forward to more red tape until finally being allowed to hit the rack at 5:00 AM Eastern. We were told that reveille would be at 4:00 AM Pacific. This would give us a chance to catch two hours of shut eye before beginning another full day. Unfortunately, we were too tired and too pumped up to close our eyes.

Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige


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Last modified: Saturday September 25, 1999

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