Boot Camp

While at Lake-Lehman High School, I first thought of joining the Navy right after graduation. Though I was near the top of my class and “Birdy” Johnson, the counselor, HAD spoken to me of college, he spoke chiefly in terms of loans and not scholarships.  “Loans” were simply not attractive to a young man whose home lacked running water and whose father worked for fifty cents an hour.  Pals Benson and Fred and I had resolved that all three of us would join the Navy.  I don’t think we were imbued with an overwhelming sense of patriotism or a desire to not die in Vietnam.  The war, after all, wasn’t yet a big item by our graduation in June, 1964. 

  As it turned out, Benson was the only one who enlisted right after school.  Fred’s folks somehow came up with the funds and he attended Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre. I will eventually write more at length about how I won a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to King’s College, just up the street from Fred.

  I had a draft deferment all though college but, within two months of graduating with a B. S. in Accounting, Uncle Sam came calling.  I was instructed to appear for a physical back at my old draft board in Kingston, PA at 7 AM on a weekday morning in August, 1968.  I called them to say that such would be impossible, for I now lived in Warminster, PA, outside of Philadelphia.  Further, my job as an Assistant National Bank Examiner took me all over the state and I seldom knew my schedule for than two weeks in advance.  “Not to worry,” they told me, “We’ll arrange for your physical to take place in Philadelphia.” 

  The Philly AFEES (Armed Forces Entrance and Examination) station stood on North Broad Street, not far from Temple University and old Shibe Park where the A’s used to play.  In my first 22 years on this planet, I had never really studied my feet or compared them to other guys’ feet.  I was delighted, then, to see the doc make notes as he studied mine.  Curious, I asked what he saw and he replied that I had flat feet.  Sure ‘nuff, I have a sincere lack of arches!  “Yay!”, I said to myself, “they won’t draft me because I can’t march!”  No such luck.  I’ll never forget the words I heard from a grizzled old sergeant when the doc was done.  “Well, lad, you’re fully qualified for induction.”  “Wonderful”, I replied, I’m going down to Willow Grove to talk to the Navy!”  “But, that’s a four-year hitch!”  “Yeah, but I could be dead inside of two years in your silly damned war.  If I go to ‘nam, I’m gonna sit off the coast and go ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ with my big guns and the Cong ain’t got no frogmen to swim out to get me.”  This conversation took place on an October day.

  I didn’t wait for a formal draft notice to arrive.  My departure for Navy boot camp at Great Lakes, IL, was set for just five days before Christmas, on December 20,1968.  I got out of my furnished-apartment lease and hauled my meager belongings back to my Dad’s house in Sweet Valley.  I left my car there, rode a bus back to Philly, and spent my last night of freedom at a YMCA.   The telephone rang with my wake-up call and I promptly smashed my foot against the desk getting to it in the strange room. Dang!  I thought I’d broken a toe.  “Ohmigod!  Now the Navy WON’T take me and I’ll end up as cannon fodder anyway!”  Back at the AFEES, I tried hard not to let them notice my limp and I apparently succeeded, for I was sworn in and officially relinquished my civilian status.

  One event occurred immediately after I took the oath, an event that later turned out to be quite hilarious.  Social agencies like the Red Cross and Salvation Army handed us personal-care items to put into our “diddy” (or “ditty”) bags. (I was learning to pronounce Navy lingo already even if I couldn’t yet spell it.)   They gave us toothbrushes, toothpaste, and, most notably, after shave lotion that came in glass bottles.  No sooner had we arrived at boot camp than we told that glass bottles were UA (which, I soon learned, stood for ”Unauthorized”.) Boot camp was rife with stories of recruits who, unable to stand the strain, had slit their wrists and the Navy wasn’t about to let us have any glass.  We were given two choices: “Sh**can ‘em (throw them in the trash) or donate them to Navy Relief.”  Not wanting to offend our new masters, to a man we donated them.  I later learned that, you guessed it; Navy Relief donates such items back to the Red Cross and Salvation Army!  I have no doubt whatsoever that some bottles have been making the rounds ever since bottles were invented.

  We boarded a train bound for Chicago and, during the overnight journey, got acquainted with our new “shipmates”.  We were a motley crew, of all races and social stations.  A good number were like me, college grads who had lost our deferments and ducked the Army’s draft.  The young inner-city blacks were a curious lot, dressed in their finest suits and ties. I think I wore sweatshirt and jeans.

  The next morning, following a change of trains in Chicago, we arrived at boot camp.  We were issued uniforms and assigned to decrepit old WW2-vintage wooden barracks where we sat for two weeks, bored out of our minds.  There was no training going on where we were, for the trainers were all on holiday leave.  All day long, all we did was endlessly clean our living spaces and ponder when we’d start doing some actual training.  The only relief from the boredom were the 2-hour “fire watches” we stood around the clock.  Given the wooden buildings in which we were housed, someone had to stay awake at all times watching for fire.  We also got our “GI haircuts” which brought some of the more vain to near tears.  Heck, I didn’t mind; I’d had a crewcut all the way up to high school.

  Shortly after New Year’s Day, 1969, the Chief Petty Officers (CPO’s) who’d ramrod our training companies began dropping by daily.  I imagine the Navy uses staggered starting dates so as to avoid crunch time six weeks later when large masses would otherwise all graduate on the same day and need transport to their new duty stations.  Each CPO had had a chance to review our skimpy personnel files and, based on that limited info, chose the 70-or-so men who’d make up one company.  I didn’t get picked until about the 4th day.  Chief Smiley, it turned out, was a CMCG (Chief, Master Chief, Guns) and we were his first boot company.  We were told to address him as “Mister” even though he wasn’t a real officer.  His status turned out well for us, for I think he was much more tolerant than older and more experienced trainers may have been.  We fell in and followed him through a tunnel and “across the road” to our new HQ.  I recall being so far out of shape that, halfway across, I was reduced to dragging the seabag containing all my worldly possessions, thereby wearing a hole in it.

  Our new barracks were just that; of modern cinder block construction, they were two-story, H-shaped structures that held eight companies which, in toto, equaled one battalion.  We became Company 761 with our “sister” company, 762, housed across the first-floor hall from us.  Companies seldom went anywhere alone; our “sister” company always traveled with us. 

  Chief Smiley immediately set about choosing his “officers.”  Within that first day, he interviewed us individually and made his decisions, posting the results on the bulletin board.  Not surprisingly, all of his “officers” were college grads, as we made up about two-thirds of the company.  The RCPO (Recruit Chief Petty Officer) was an English major named Ted and he was, thereafter, in charge of us, junior only to Chief Smiley.  Our Master At Arms, in charge of maintaining order, was a massive brute whose name I don’t recall but I’m pretty sure he’d been a Phys Ed major.  I doubt that my GPA of 2.29 was the highest but, somehow, I was chosen to be the Education Petty Officer.  My job would be to hold after-hours classes in the barracks to help our academically-challenged shipmates.  It was announced that anyone failing the exit exam after six weeks would be “recycled”, or assigned to a new company to begin training all over again.

  We lucked out by having enlisted during the winter months.  Although we missed  the holidays with our families, we also missed any outdoor physical activities.  January and February at Great Lakes were quite icy and Mr. Smiley would have been chastised had any of his charges fallen and been hurt.  Daily, we just marched back and forth to class with our sister company.  Classroom sessions were interspersed with physical workouts in a Quonset hut gymnasium structure.  We did some running on the tile floor but mostly, we’d just workout with our “pieces”, old WW2-vintage dummy rifles with which we’d lift, bend, and stretch.  (Surprisingly, it worked and I was able to carry my seabag all the way to a waiting bus six weeks later.)   There was also a bit of military stupidity.  We’d sometimes have to stand, perfectly stock still without batting an eyelash, in the parade-rest position, for up to five minutes.  I guess there was some point to that but it totally escaped me.  With my flat feet, I was often compelled to shift my weight a wee bit; a movement that the eagle-eyed overseers caught.  I apologized profusely to Mister Smiley for having caused our company to be assessed demerits and, when he saw my total lack of arches, he understood.  He was a smart cookie and soon found a job for which I was far better suited.  On days when we were to be tested on standing still, he’d leave me behind to guard our “compartment”.  Someone always had to be there and, with my excellent memory, I never flubbed answering the “7 rules of a sentry” posed by overseers who’d visit the compartment in the company’s absence.  I didn’t even have to go to graduation.  I had no family coming to see me graduate anyway, so I again guarded our home away from home that day.

  I must admit that I failed miserably in my duty as the Education Petty Officer.  I only managed to hold after-hours classes about twice a week.  I tried to impart knowledge the best way I knew how; by teaching memory devices.  “How many letters in the word ‘port’?  Four.  Same number as in the word ‘left.’  The left side of a ship is the port side!”  I couldn’t make it any simpler but they simply couldn’t learn.  In frustration, I reported to Mister Smiley, “These guys need a Special Ed teacher!”   The Navy was quite generous and let the slow ones take the final exam three times but, even so, I think we left one poor chap behind to be “re-cycled.”

  Our actual boot camp “training” really only occupied five of our six weeks at Great Lakes.  Midway through, a full seven days was designated as “service week”, a period during which our entire company (along with our sister company, of course) was assigned to the mess hall.  Every company in the entire training facility served their own week thusly, feeding the rest of the camp.  Having spent so much time in class and everywhere else with our sister company, I had become chummy with a fellow college grad in that company named Ed.  The first day at the mess hall, we shrugged and said “What the hell? Let’s take a chance!” when they asked if any of us could type.  We had both heard that it was foolish to volunteer for ANYTHING in the military but we bravely raised our hands.  In reality, from my half-year of typing at Lake-Lehman, I barely qualified as a “hunt and peck-er” but the Navy didn’t know that.  Out of sight of the rest of the company, Ed and I giggled mightily when we found ourselves assigned to the mess hall OFFICE!  The rest of our companies spent 18-hour days preparing food, serving it, and cleaning the dishes and pots and pans.  Ed and I sat back and “smoked and Coked and joked” the entire time as we typed up duty rosters for the “ship’s company” regular enlisted men who ran the mess hall.  Our  toughest job was to make a daily run out in the weather, carrying trays of donuts to the lady at the Navy Exchange dry cleaners across the street!  The rest of our guys were worked so hard that many of them came down sick.  The Navy expected this and our entire company received a massive injection of penicillin known as “bicillin.”  One could always spot troops who’d had their shots within the past week for, as they marched along, they were all limping, i.e., doing the “bicilllin bounce.”  I can’t recall exactly how many cc’s they shot into us, but it was enough to leave one helluva knot in your butt.

  Cigarettes were permitted in boot camp but the “smoking lamp is lit” was heard only infrequently in our compartment.  For some unknown reason, I became one of Mister Smiley’s favorites and the guys were always after me to go get another smoke break authorized.  I’d knock on his office door and he’d invite me in. “What’s up, Hontz?” “Have you noticed, sir, that the troops seem kind of fractious tonight?”  “Yes, I have seen traces of that.”  “Well, I think, sir, that they could be calmed down considerably if they had a smoke or two.”   Smiling, he’d most often reply, “Go ahead you silver-tongued devil.  You’ve got ten minutes.”  Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I’d never have believed a man could puff away THREE cigarettes in that short a period of time, but quite a few managed that feat.  We were never sure when the next smoke break would come.

  Aside from the poor learners, I felt sorriest for the “NQS’s”; the non-qualified swimmers.  I had learned to swim at North Lake in Sweet Valley but many of the inner-city guys had never seen a lake.  They were lucky if they’d had a municipal pool deep enough for anything more than wading.  NO ONE got out of boot camp without being able to swim or at least float enough to avoid drowning.  We were taught how to convert our denim “dungies” into water wings.  Even inverting a “Dixie cup” white hat, swooshing it above our heads to capture air, and then holding it in an inverted position above our pelvis would keep us afloat.  As the Education Petty Officer, I often drew a collateral assignment of marching the NQS’s up to the pool for more lessons.  There were always two or three lifeguards on duty but, I swear, they darned near drowned a few of our guys.

  The Navy also tested us to determine which of their jobs would best suit us.  Except for the Morse Code test which was, of necessity, aural, the remainder were written tests.  The  tests had probably not been revised since WW2, a time when the bulk of its members were high school grads or possibly even dropouts.  Those very same tests were now given to all recruits, regardless of scholastic achievement level.  Needless to say, we college grads aced them.  [About 1980, I briefly entertained the idea of joining Mensa. In 1964, not anticipating attending college, I hadn’t taken the SAT’s.  Not to worry, Mensa had many other standards against which one could be judged eligible for membership.  Eagerly, I scanned down their list.  WAY down the list, at about their “18th tie-breaker”, I found that I could use my boot camp test scores.  “My God”, thought I to myself, “you’ve GOT to be kidding!  They were scaled for about a C-average high schooler and I took them after I’d attained my B.S.!”  Turned off by that idea, I didn’t even send in the application.  As Groucho Marx once said, “I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”]

  The Blue Jackets’ Manual is the Navy “Bible” and we were told to pick from it much as one would scan a newspaper’s “Help Wanted” ads.  We were to pick five jobs that interested us but, at the risk of being chastised, I found only four I liked and bravely submitted them anyway.  My first choice was CTI (Communications Technician Interpreter) for I had earned about a 3.85 overall GPA in eight years of studying French, Spanish, and Latin.  I figured that even if I did get sent to Vietnam, I’d end up interrogating prisoners in the rear rather than facing danger in the front lines.  Wow!  The Navy was hot for interpreters and I was immediately summoned to an interview.  I’d be sent to the Army language school at Monterrey, California but the “Catch-22” proviso was that I’d have to extend to a 6-year hitch.  “Golly, sir”, said I, “I just got here and I’m not even sure yet if I like this man’s Navy. I can’t see extending for two more years.”  End of interview.  Sure that I’d just condemned myself to life as a “deck ape” (Boatswain’s Mate), I glumly headed back to my company.

  Shocked!  I was positively shocked when I got my orders.  They had given me my second choice!  I was to report to Quartermaster “A” school in Newport, RI.  I would be taught navigation and would have, essentially, an important “white collar” job on the ship’s bridge among the officers.  For the record, my third and fourth choices were SK (Storekeeper) and DK (Disbursing Clerk) – both related to my accounting background.  Ed, my buddy from the sister company, got orders to go to SM (Signalman) “A” school which was also in Newport, so we looked forward to continuing our friendship.  High school grads coming out of boot camp had only two white stripes as SA’s (Seamen Apprentices) but, since, Ed and I were both college grads, we earned a third stripe.  As full-fledged Seamen, we had some real “rank” (LOL) and felt quite good about ourselves.

  Our bus full of “squids” was a merry scene on the ride from Great Lakes to O’Hare Airport.  For the past six weeks, we’d been on the alert at every turn lest we cause our company to get demerits.   We’d even been reduced to saluting garbage trucks, for one never knew when there might be an instructor hiding inside.  On the bus, we were back in “the world” and we filled the air with singing, joking, and enough cigarette smoke that it’s a wonder the driver could see the road.

  The Navy had provided me an airline ticket to Philly and thence on to Wilkes-Barre, where my buddy Jess picked me up and took me back to Sweet Valley.  After a week’s leave, I was on my way to Newport.

Written in December, 2007 by

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402