LIFE IN THE NAVY
The Navy’s “Recruit Training Command”
(a\k\a “Great Lakes”) lies north of Chicago on the west side of Lake
Michigan. While the winter weather
was quite cold there in January and February of 1969, the only cold, damp, wind
would come from the Lake Michigan to
its East, i.e., seldom.
Newport, Rhode Island, on the other hand, is at the southern tip of a large
island and, therefore, smack-dab surrounded by water.
Arriving there in mid-February, I found it to be even colder than the
weather at boot camp. One never
went outside without one’s “peacoat” collar turned up.
As I stated in “Navy 1: Boot Camp”,
I’d been assigned to Quartermaster “A” School to learn the basics of
navigation. My boot camp buddy, Ed,
had also come to Newport to attend Signalman’s “A” School.
We wrongly believed that the full-time class setting would somewhat
approximate what we’d experienced in college.
We’d mosey down to the classroom on our own sweet time and even run
there when it was too cold to just walk. NOPE!
That’s just not the Navy way. We
had to MARCH there in formation, just as we had in boot camp.
“Darn!” we said, “we thought we were now REAL sailors.”
I think that the real reason we had to march was the fact that the
Officer Candidate Training school lie immediately next to our Quonset hut
classroom. The “OC’s” (OH-cees)
marched everywhere they went and our enlisted command wanted to show that we
could march as well as they. Often
our column would pass within an arm’s length of theirs and my “shipmates”
would put me up to no good. I had a
strong voice and was selected to call the cadence for our column. “Hut, two,
three, four” I’d sing out, but I was always sure to be about one-quarter of
a beat off that of the OC’s cadence. My cadence would override that of the OC’s leader to the
extent that I could turn their entire column into a totally out-of-step “can
In my senior year at King’s College, the Navy had bused me all the way from
Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh to take the test for entrance to the OTC school.
While I did well enough on the test,
I wasn’t selected. I later found out that I shouldn’t have been surprised by
my non-selection. They were turning
down Eagle Scouts while I had never even joined the Boy Scouts.
We country boys in Sweet Valley didn’t need to have a troop, for we
could go camping any day we chose. From
what I saw of the OC’s in Newport, they were just plain nuts and I would have
quickly washed out. Those fools had
a game they played that made no sense at all.
They played “volleyball” using a medicine ball!
There was no “spiking”, just trying to toss that heavy ball,
underhanded, over a standard volleyball net.
Can you say “rupture” ? More
than one fell over in pain.
Classes in Quartermaster “A” school were pretty much like our boot camp
tests, designed for the average high school grad and, therefore, quite simple to
me. We were taught to use the Loran
“A”, a piece of electronic equipment that, by LOng RAnge Navigation, could
tell us where on the globe we were at any given moment by comparing its readings
to our charts (maps.) We learned to
use “dead reckoning” to figure out where we SHOULD be, given how long we’d
been traveling on which heading from our last known position.
The curvature of the earth came into play when we could decide which of
two like-colored navigational light aids (lighthouses and such)
we were seeing. For example, given our height above the surface of the earth,
we could see a given distance and, therefore, it couldn’t be that one
light; it HAD to be the other one. That
training came into play later at Guantanamo Bay where we were told not to trust
Cuban navigational aids that much because Castro had likely moved some of them.
We learned to be weathermen, for that duty was a collateral assignment of
a quartermaster. We used anemometers to measure wind speed and “wet-and-dry
bulb” hygrometers for relative humidity.
Direction of the wind could be determined by comparing wave direction to
our course. (If we were headed due North and the waves came from our starboard
“right” side, then it was an easterly wind.)
Our most important instrument was the barometer, for if it fell by more
than a certain amount within a certain time period, we were headed into a low
which meant bad weather. In that event, we’d report it to the bridge.
We learned about chronometers, exceedingly-exact timepieces that could be
used in the event we lost the signal to the National Bureau of Standards’
time-tick on WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado.
(WWV always knew the precise Greenwich Mean Time, based on atomic clocks
at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.) As part of our cross-training into
the realm of Signalman, we also ventured into semaphore (flag waving) and Morse
Code (blinking light) but I wasn’t very good at either.
Ed said he also tried to learn some navigation.
All of this came easy to a college grad and I spent a good deal of my
in-class time doodling. I even
managed an “Allan Sherman-esque” moment, writing new lyrics to Roger
Miller’s “King Of the Road”. Ever the devout atheist, I titled mine
“King Of the Jews” but I’ll refrain from listing those lyrics herein lest
I offend my Christian audience members.
Ex-president Dwight D. Eisenhower died on March 28, 1969, while I was in school
and his death led to another learning moment for me.
Each day, before class, we were assigned to raise our “national
ensign” (flag) on the flagpole outside the school.
To honor “Ike”, it was to be displayed at “half-mast”. (One can
catch newscasters even today improperly saying “half-mast” when speaking
about flags on buildings. Building
don’t have “masts”; only ships do. Buildings have flagstaffs and fly the
ensign at “half-staff”.) We
“squids”, despite being on dry land outside our school, were learning
everything we’d use on shipboard and, thus, properly said “half-mast”.)
The correct way to get to “half-mast” was to first raise the ensign
to the top of the mast and then slowly lower it back down halfway.
At the end of the day, it would be returned to the top and then taken all
the way back down and removed from the “lanyard” (rope). [Time for a slight
diversion here while I explain a related flag-etiquette theory I’ve developed.
Why must one illuminate flags displayed at night?
I think it must be because we are plumb out of “rockets’ red glare”
and “bombs bursting in air” to give proof “through the night” that out
flag is still there. Nope!
We ain’t got none of those in most places like municipal buildings and
such where you’ll find Old Glory unfurled 24/7. Ergo, lest anyone doubt its presence, we MUST shine lights on
The Newport area bustles with tourists in the summertime but most of them took
the tour called the Cliff Walk. http://www.cliffwalk.com/history.htm
a high overlook above the Atlantic Ocean are many mansions built by wealthy
families with names like Vanderbilt and Aster.
In downtown Newport proper, one can find the Truro Synagogue, the oldest
such structure in North America. http://public.fotki.com/idesign/temple/2004/truro_temple_visit/
I personally visited Truro and found
it quite interesting. For the most
part, the high school grads in our class lolled about central Newport.
Many were taken in by the “carnies” outside jewelry shops who’d
lure them with zircons and other jewelry that likely would, under the weakest
jeweler’s loupe, quickly prove to be no more than paste.
“Buy a present for your mother and girlfriend”, they’d shill.
“Easy terms and free shipping back to your hometown.”
For many youngsters, it was their first time away from home and they fell
for these spiels. They’d buy an
overpriced bauble or two, signing up for payroll deductions which would likely
last for their entire hitch. The
“carnies” had more than met their match in me.
I’d stop them cold with “My Mom died when I was 6.
I have no girlfriend but I DO have a B.S. in Accounting that lets me see
the usurious rates you’re charging on the financing.
Get out of my face!!” Another downtown location was Thames Street,
pronounced as if it rhymed with James. I
don’t recall any “carnies” along there, but there were shops selling other
touristy trinkets such as scrimshaw.
Ed and I made a few day trips to see other sites.
Once or twice we simply lolled around the campus of Brown University over
in Providence, to relive the sights and sounds of our college years.
It sure was good to see college girls again!
LOL Just 20 miles up the road from Newport is Fall River,
Massachusetts and we toured the battleship “Massachusetts” but passed on
visiting Lizzie Borden’s house. [For
the record, she was acquitted.]
Boston wasn’t that far away from Providence and we decided it warranted an
overnighter. We’d heard of a
cheap Navy YMCA where we could stay. We
weren’t exactly sure of its location but we boarded a subway train and headed
in its general direction. The
subway in Boston was known, at that time, by a name I’ve never encountered in
any other city. They were called
“subway-surface cars” for, indeed, while they may start out underground,
they eventually emerged above ground and continued their runs.
Being tourists, Ed and I weren’t aware of the fare structure and we ran
smack dab into what the Kingston Trio had sung about in 1959.
In “MTA”, they sang about poor Charlie who encountered a fare hike he
couldn’t cover. Composers Bess Hawes
and Jacqueline Steiner had written “When he got there, the conductor told him
"one more nickel"
couldn't get off of that train”. They went on to say “Charlie's wife goes
down to the Scollay Square station every day at quarter past two; and through
the open window she hands Charlie a sandwich as the train comes rumblin'
through… He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston; he's the man who
never returned”. Ed and I only
spotted the Y after the train had emerged in daylight, made one stop, and then
started up again. We SHOULD have
gotten off at that first stop, as the Y was back over our left shoulders. As we stepped forward to get off at the second, sure
‘nuff—we had to pay another ten cents!!
Apparently, the motorman couldn’t tell from our tickets that we had NOT
just climbed on at the first stop. He was charging us for the distance between
the first and second stops. Golly,
you’d think the MTA would have been kinder to sailors in “full dress
blues”. After all, we WERE out to make southeast Asia safe for democracy.
“Full dress blues” were not all that different from our “undress blues”
that we wore on-ship or on-base. The
bell-bottom pants remained the same and, basically, we just changed our shirt or
“blouse” and added a neckerchief\tie. The
“undress blues” blouse was a simple Navy blue with no adornment but the
“full dress blues” blouse had white piping on the cuffs and on the flap that
hung back over the shoulders. Navy
regs decreed that one wear the “full dress blues” when traveling on orders
but we were free to switch to civvies when otherwise off-station.
We had been told by other “squids” about the advantage of traveling
off-station in “full dress blues”; it
entitled us to substantial discounts. [It
was also a big advantage when hitchhiking, for motorists were more likely to
pick up a soldier or sailor rather than a hippie.]
Interstate buses like Greyhound gave us something like 50% off and the
USO always had free tickets to any movie in town.
Ed and I did go to see a movie and we also took in a Red Sox game at
Fenway Park for a reduced admission fee. I
can’t recall who they played or the final score but I do know that we had
great box seats along the first-baseline. Fenway
was, and probably still is, the smallest major-league ballpark. We could nearly
shake hands with a pitcher making his way in to the dugout from the right-field
We also wandered about Boston on foot, enjoying its many historical sites.
We visited silversmith Paul Revere’s house and old North Church where
the two lanterns had been hung (the Brits had come up the Charles River, or
basically, “by sea”.) Faneuil Hall was an interesting site, for we could
stand on the very ground once trod by Samuel Adams and his Sons Of Liberty
The USS Constitution (a\k\a “Old
Ironsides”) was of particular interest because we found it to be still in
commission and, thereby, manned by modern-day sailors like us. http://www.ussconstitution.navy.mil/
We spotted the Bunker Hill monument, but it was way across a bridge about
a mile away and our feet were sore, so we passed on getting closer.
Boston Commons was a surprising sight. During
my four years at King’s College, I’d often hitched to New York City, chiefly
to visit the porn shops on Times Square, but I had never ventured far enough
north to see Central Park. Boston
Commons, therefore, was an interesting find for a country boy from Sweet Valley.
It was a HUGE green expanse, right in the middle of a major city!
The “Summer Of Love” had passed, a continent away (Haight-Ashbury,
SF) and two years earlier, but
unreconstructed hippies still held sway in the park.
Playing their folk tunes, they sat on (and maybe even smoked) the grass
while, nearby, families picnicked.
Graduation day at Quartermaster “A” school was no big deal. Classes simply ended and we were awarded our “striker
badges” to be sewn on our left arm, right above our three white stripes.
A Quartermaster’s “striker badge” consisted of an embroidered
depiction of a four-spoked, eight-handled helm (steering wheel) from an old
sailing ship. In boot camp, I had
been obliged to sew on my own three
stripes but now, out in the “real Navy”,
I did what all other sailors have done for time immemorial; I headed down
to the nearest dry cleaners and paid them to do it.
I felt secure with my striker’s badge for it protected me.
It said “He’s been to school. He
WILL become a Quartermaster and woe betide anyone who tries to turn him into a
deck ape.” Quite satisfied with
my accomplishment, I readily looked forward to my first assignment; the USS
Conyngham (DDG 17) http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/01017.htm
in Norfolk, VA. Little did I expect the treatment I’d receive there.
Ronald E. Hontz
33 Whitcraft Lane
Shrewsbury PA 17361