From civilian slime to military acceptability—

Friday, September 27, was our first day of undiluted hell. Very few days would be allotted for changing us from spoiled, civilian incorrigibles with overblown concepts of self-importance into humbled and regulation Navy men. On this first full day of boot camp ("boot" was another name for a recruit in addition to squirrel, etc.), we continued to receive object lessons in the old military adage "hurry up and wait." In illustration, you had one minute to get to the line of men awaiting their ration of regulation Navy issue clothes (which we now had to call "gear"). However, once in line you might have to wait an hour before time came to receive yours. Then you would have a couple of minutes to stencil your name on each and every piece of gear (including the sea bag) and get to the next line, and so on. [The sea bag was an army- green, cylindrical, canvas sack, openable at one end, with partially detachable carrying strap, that was used for storing ones gear. Empty, it was foldable down to a very small size.]

Everything was designed to disorient a fellow, wrench him out of his old way of thinking, acting, responding to external stimuli, and force him, by way of abusive derision, physical discomfort and fatigue, harsh orders and extreme insecurity, to realize the need for conforming to the new way of life being offered. Everything we had, that was not Navy issue, was taken from us, including our social security cards. And the only time we sat down was during the breakfast, lunch and dinner breaks just long enough to eat, while some chief or petty officer barked at us to hurry up, shove the food down and leave so the next fellow could eat. This, after having been up for twenty-two hours the day before and then having two hours of "sleep," sped my humbling process right along. Finally, the last of our individuality was removed with a few swipes from electronic "sheep shears." Biblical Delilah knew what she was doing. At least we had Navy issue, blue "ball caps" to help hide our shame. Did we look ugly! A mirror was our mortal foe.

The next day wasn't quite as bad, since "lights out," or taps, had been at 9:00 o'clock the night before, and reveille wasn't until 5:00 o'clock in the morning. So at least we were well rested. This day we were first introduced to The Bluejackets' Manual, a boot's bible. We each had been issued a copy of the eighteenth edition, published by the United States Naval Institute in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1968 (first edition—1938). Now it was up to the Company Commander to make us aware of its contents. The Manual was crammed from page 1 to the end with most of what a person needed to groove into Navy life, including the Navy's history and mission, terminology, ships, types of uniforms and insignia found in each branch of the Armed Services, career opportunities/categories, marlinespike seamanship, weaponry, etc. The Bluejackets' Manual would be heavily referred to by our forthcoming classes. "Bluejacket" was another nickname for a sailor, undoubtedly in honor of the omnipresent blue work jacket worn by sailors as part of their dungaree work uniform.

The Manual also told us how to make our beds ("bunks") the Navy way as well as how to fold our gear and exactly where to place it inside our locker. The lockers were tiny, open-faced storage bins (except for two drawers, the one storing personal gear being locked by our regulation Navy padlock) next to our bunks. The lockers held the entire content of one sea bag, including the bag, itself, if everything was folded perfectly and stowed according to the Manual. The purchase of additional gear from the Navy Exchange was inadvisable, since most likely it wouldn't fit into the cramped area. And it had better not be found adrift or tucked under a mattress during any one of the many inspections. After leaving Recruit Training Command I discovered that most Navy lockers were much larger than those found at Recruit Training Command. Apparently, the extremely cramped recruit lockers were simply another manifestation of the Navy's tacit "mission" to instill discipline into the human (pre-military) vessels entrusted to its operation.

Our barrack was on the upper deck of a relatively new, twin decked, "H" shaped building overlooking a boat channel used by small, usually sailing, vessels. The channel emptied into a bay on which floated Naval ships and boats including destroyers, aircraft carriers and submarines. There were lines of these two decked buildings, each of which housed four barracks—one up and one down in each wing—attached by a cross-over area which housed the Company Commanders' offices, ladders (stairs) between decks, and the head facilities which were separate for each barrack. We were not to enter another barrack by way of the cross-over part of the structure. The area behind the barracks (and between barrack rows) was used for laundering gear, hanging it to dry, forming into columns and marching.

Camp Nimitz, where we would be staying until moving to the other side of the channel later in our training, was on a peninsula. In the east was a range of mountains in the distance which was only visible on the clearest days. Squat palm trees were everywhere, and there was little to remind me of Michigan. Though the scenery was breathtaking, I began to get homesick for people, things and places that had been part of my life for nineteen years. Homesickness was soon replaced by a head cold that came and went throughout my time at RTC [Recruit Training Command].

"These boots are made for walkin'" was not the case during recruit training. We marched in formation, "double timed" if going somewhere alone, but never walked. If ill, a temporary walking chit could be obtained from the camp doctor, but to get the chit you'd have to double time to sick bay during sick call hours, and this chit would have to be presented to anybody questioning why you weren't double timing to your destination. Ex-boots often had fun by terrorizing new recruits, since the new Navy men didn't know yet that a seaman apprentice was just one notch up from seaman recruit. An ex-boot could easily extract a "yes, sir" or "no, sir" from a squirrel when he needed his ego bolstered. Nobody bolstered a squirrel's ego.

The most-used vehicle for going anyplace on base was the marching formation. I wish I knew how many miles we traveled in that manner. It seemed like every place we had to go was on the opposite side of base from where we were. En route, every intersection had an invisible stop sign requiring the columns halt, post road guards in the intersection on either side of the columns' route, and then the columns would proceed, calling in the guards when the entire body was clear of the intersection. By the third or fourth week my instep angles had so increased from the almost constant marching that I underwent a great deal of pain from sores caused by the insteps rubbing against the tongues of my shoes.

When we marched to chow, all the other recruit companies would be heading there, also, or had already arrived. A newly arriving company had to arrange itself behind those who had come first, so it paid to get there as early as possible. Once in line, the men had to stand around on their aching feet and shaking legs while still in formation. Sometimes, especially during breakfast, the weather was cold and clammy from ocean fog. Other times the sun might broil us alive, searing as we helplessly awaited our turn to force feed. The rainy autumn and winter brought another dimension to our misery.

In the first letter Mom sent me, she inquired as to whether the Navy had issued me long johns. The weather was turning cool back in Michigan. I thought this concern was unfounded and assured her in a letter that, though they may need long underwear at the Great Lakes boot camp, here in sunny California there was absolutely no need. However, my glib assurance turned out to be empty, wishful thinking as time passed and the temperature dipped.

We had to get used to the Navy's discipline called "Uniform of the Day," by which a uniform was specified for all possible tasks on a particular day. A typical Uniform of the Day might specify dungarees for boot camp training, scraping and painting ships, etc., dress whites for summer liberty uniform, dress blues for winter uniform, and so on. If rain was thought to be in the offing, raincoats (or "foul weather gear") would be mandatory. Then, if the sun came out and the temperature soared, each recruit would still be required to carry a raincoat. The Uniform of the Day, for any one day, was chiseled in stone. Luckily, the Navy had a way of getting around itself. There was a way of folding the coat so that a fellow could wear it attached to his belt in back. It looked very much like a woman's bustle. And so we would march, with our hair replaced by itchy peach fuzz and ball cap, while tacky, foul weather bustles bounced up and down on our buttocks.

Despite everything, we still had hope. In the back of each of our minds was the longing for the day when we'd look like "old salts," sailors who could "roll" their white hats and get up in their Cracker JackTM-style, tapered dress blues or dress whites. If that day ever came, we would flip back the cuffs of our uniform when on liberty to reveal fashionable insignias of various design sewn on the underside of the cuffs at places like the store Seven Seas in San Diego. Stores like Seven Seas catered almost exclusively to servicemen. We boots would see these old salts at the Service School Command walking everywhere, and we'd turn green with envy. But for now, we just had to live with looking like squirrels.

- - - - - -

Things were not all that great those days in civilian life. There were anti-war demonstrations with increasing frequency and severity, and assassinations like that earlier in the year of Martin Luther King Jr., which resulted in riots, burning and looting in several US cities; and Senator Robert Kennedy, the politician who, if elected President, was thought most likely to bring an end to the police action in Indochina. With Robert's death came the death of Camelot, a state of mind first created by Robert's brother, martyred President John F. Kennedy.

Meanwhile, student demonstrations sought to gain more say and power for students over the imposing, Authoritarian power of their colleges. Jerry Farber, a university graduate, and later university professor, became the movement's spiritual leader by writing an essay in 1967 laying bare discrimination against students. The essay, entitled "The Student as Nigger," was published in an underground, Los Angeles newspaper.

It was a time of paranoia, with a growing, dangerous tendency for all things thought to be bad labeled as the works of "Them," a general catch-all term used interchangeably with "The Establishment." Included in categories covered by these terms were everyone in authority from ones parents all the way up to the President of the United States who, at that time, was still Lyndon Baines Johnson. The turmoil was in its infancy but growing daily. An apt news media description of the atmosphere was "America is burning!" It seemed like the last straw when Presidential hopeful Governor George Wallace chose as his Vice Presidential running mate General Curtis LeMay. LeMay had already indicated his willingness to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. The Christian community was predicting the start of Armageddon.

- - - - - -

On September 29 I had compartmental watch between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. Then I marched, with the company, to chow hall, and spent the rest of the evening scrubbing my dungarees, underwear, etc. No room had been provided for stowing dirty gear, so everything had to be cleaned nightly. There were only three places where ones gear was permitted to be: on ones body, on the drying lines or in ones locker. During inspections the officer frequently spot-checked (literally) to see if anybody was stowing dirty gear in their locker. If a boot was unlucky enough to be discovered doing so (and this happened occasionally), his locker was emptied onto the deck, and he was forced to scrub everything whether or not it had ever been worn. This was not a trivial punishment. Then he was inspected again after the feat was completed. Each subsequent inspection would find him (or them) singled out and their locker thoroughly gone over. This was one of the numerous ways in which perpetual screw-ups were pinpointed to the company and the Company Commander.

Most of us quickly realized that our very survival was at stake, so we began to pull together as a team. We, also, were made to realize that any single person in the team who screwed up could get the entire company in trouble. Soon, whenever another bluejacket/squid/swabbie/squirrel/boot/recruit did something wrong in how or what he wore, folded, stowed, laundered, saluted, addressed an officer, marched, drilled, recited the eleven General Orders, or anything else, his fellows immediately let him know. Individuality was stifled for the sake of the team's competency in regards to all other companies of the same age (companies that would graduate together). Failure to know, or failure to do something correctly after being taught the right (or Navy) way, would be met with punitive actions against the offender and, frequently, against everybody else in the company. The primary formal punishment was a red mark next to the offender's name on the company muster sheet. Too many red marks and a fellow could be kept from attending an "A" School or from getting a choice duty assignment. Even worse, he could be dropped back to a younger company and thus be made to spend additional weeks at boot camp. Informally, life for these recalcitrants soon proved unbearable. Once a reputation was acquired, it could never be removed.

When first entering the Navy I was idealistic, or at least optimistic, about the fraternity to be found. As the comradeship changed to the game of labeling and ganging up on the weaker links in the chain, my attitude returned to what it had been in high school. At that time I was in rebellion against the exclusionary practices of cliques, including their cruelty to each other within and to others without. I became terribly disappointed, and it seemed unlikely that my quest to discover the answer to what was true friendship would be satisfied here or anywhere in the military. Luckily, I had brought with me one exception to the rule, Gilson. All others were just "comrades in adversity."


In later years I decided that friendship is a state of mind governed by compatibility in what can be tolerated, as well as basic attitudes, of at least two people. Friendship carries with it some innate exclusionary tendencies and dangers. How exclusionary depends on the agreement of the friends stemming from their sense of security regarding the relationship. The more secure they feel, the less severe need be the exclusionary tendencies.


The danger comes when either party's sense of tolerance or basic attitudes begin to change—something that happens more often than people realize. This is one reason why some go out of their way to conform to all those things and ways of thinking followed by their friends, family and associates, while refusing to be exposed to different aspects of existence. Unfortunately, this way of ensuring friendship, or any relationship, is severely limiting to personal growth and plays havoc with a person's tolerance of things, ideas and people that are different.

Early we learned how to spit-polish our shoes, a perpetual spit polish being a minimum requirement. Most importantly, at least in our current circumstances, we become proficient in how to wash our gear. Behind each set of barracks were two large, concrete scrubbing tables—one for each barrack—on which we would have to scrub our laundry using brushes, soap and water. (The most popular detergent was WiskTM.) Both sides of each oblong table sloped down toward the center, where a trough channeled suds and excess water to a drain which spilled out around your feet. To start out, you'd fetch an empty bucket, fill it with water from a tap on the side of the barrack, pour in some detergent, get a brush and your dirty gear, then take all to a concrete table, find a niche amongst the other scrubbers, drench the gear in the bucket of soapy water, lay it out on the table and begin scrubbing. Upon completion of a piece of clothing, you'd rinse it out in a bucket of clear water then hang it from nearby drying lines. There were no clothes pins, only short pieces of heavy string called "clothes stops," which would be used to attach corners of wet clothing to the drying lines. One had to be careful not to tie any clothes stops using a granny knot. Only square knots were acceptable. A granny knot discovered by a Company Commander or any inspecting officer would result in the offending gear being removed and ground into the dirt to be washed again and hung correctly.

Later on, when I was in the Bluejackets' Choir and had been issued my dress white uniforms, I discovered that scrubbing whites had its own technology. With dress whites, white hats, etc., we generally believed that using a blue-colored detergent helped make whites more of a blue-white, which, to the eye, made them look whiter. Some of the choirmen let their whites soak in buckets of blue-soaped water for hours before scrubbing. Suffice it to say, we spent many hours exchanging cleaning hints. At times we seemed more like domestic scrubwomen than men who one day may be facing enemy guns.

Other early lessons included when and when not to wear ones hat coupled with how and how not to wear it and what and what not to do with it when not being worn. No twirling of hats was allowed, so everybody that was anybody twirled their hat whenever unobserved by Company Commanders, or CCs as they were informally called.


Throughout history it has been a truism that wherever stalks Authority, nearby there also larks defiance. In boot camp the battleground where met these two adversaries was the taboo white hat twirling. The technique was similar to that used in spinning a basketball or Frisbee on the tip of ones index finger. The hat's flap could be left up or folded down to give it a dome shape. Next, the hat would be placed right-side-up on ones up-pointed finger at the hat's center of balance. The skill came in when a fellow could twirl, or spin, the hat without external assistance and with little wrist movement.


Some men became proficient at this constantly discouraged sport, and it provided a form of fun and entertainment where few were allowed. The Company Commanders claimed it showed a degree of disrespect for the uniform, and any form of disrespect made them, and no doubt the entire military structure, uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the larks continued to play, and covert hat twirling tournaments were not uncommon, with frequent champions earning coveted reputations. Little did we know that within a couple of years, sporting our uniforms would make us all feel uncomfortable.

Our Company Commander, Mr. Moak, was a chief petty officer of medium height, hefty build (with obligatory beer belly), and a southerner with lots of personality. He did not enjoy spending time in boot camp, so he spent as much time as possible elsewhere. When he did show up, he usually was in an empathetic state of mind. Unlike some CCs, especially first class petty officers who tried to "impress" their seniors by being arbitrary toward their men, Mr. Moak never abused us. He was generally easy to get along with and just let the RCPO (Recruit Company Petty Officer—a lad taken from our ranks who seemed most likely to command authority over his comrades) enforce the normal routines. We tried to show our appreciation by learning everything quickly and doing all correctly. I say, we tried.

It was very rocky from the beginning, and my beginning company, Company 675, didn't take any awards. It seemed that no matter how well we kept the barrack, an inspecting officer would still find something wrong. We'd polish all the brass and anything else that would be improved by a little BrassoTM mixed with elbow grease, scrubbed all floors (of course I mean decks), scoured the head (what civilians call a bathroom), made all bunks up to what we felt must be inspection-passing quality, stowed our gear with precision, polished our shoes practically non-stop during infrequent free times. Yet, invariably, the inspecting officer would find that someone had used the water cooler after it had been polished to sheer brilliance, leaving dried water drops behind. Or a white glove rubbed on the top and backside of a locker would turn up a trace of dust. Worst of all, the officer would feel that the shine on a sink drain pipe wasn't quite deep enough. Again, it was easy to get the impression that we were being trained not as military men but as household servants.

We were introduced early to greasy breakfasts of "shit-on-a-shingle" (Navy issue creamed beef on toast), and we discovered to our chagrin that skipping any meal was not allowed. Sundays we got to sleep in till 6:00 AM. After breakfast it would be time to get ready for church. Like the Navy's boot camp policy of not allowing recruits to skip a meal, we were not allowed to skip church, either. Main services were for Protestants and Catholics. For non-churchgoers it became a time of decision. The Catholics had the first service, leaving the Protestants behind to stand guard duty at the barrack. Then roles were switched when the Protestants did their religious obligation. The "church," itself, was an outdoor, open amphitheater, with bleachers arranged in a semi-circle facing the pulpit platform. The services were nice but short. Afterward we would march back to the barrack, where we could write letters, prepare for the coming week, or do any of a number of things that weren't proscribed (and some, like white hat twirling, that were). In my early letters I used to patronize by using military time, interpreting it into civilian time for those back home.

As to the writing of letters, the military even took that choice away. We had to write letters at least occasionally. Ones butt was in the proverbial sling if the CC received a complaint from a boot's family that nothing had been heard. (The Navy, and most likely other branches of the Armed Services as well, often dominate the lives of its men and women by installing itself as a substitute parent. Eventually, I began to think of the Navy as a sort of "Never-Never Land," a place where little boys never had to grow up.) This lack of choice didn't bother me, since I wrote whenever time allowed. However, some of the guys simply wouldn't and didn't write letters. It's possible that some of them couldn't write, period. And if their parents, also, couldn't read or write, at least the CC wouldn't be likely to receive a complaint.

Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige

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Last modified: Saturday September 25, 1999

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