Friday, March 19, 2010

Flashback Friday: Navy Basic Training

Its hard to believe, but nineteen years ago today, I was a skinny, wide-eyed innocent 19 year old on my way to Basic Training in Orlando, Florida. Nineteen years!!! Where does the time go? From my perspective, the first nineteen years seemed to take forever, but the second nineteen years have flashed before my eyes...slowly at first, but steadily gaining momentum as time sped up in the past few years. The photo above is from two pages in the special journal I kept for the Basic Training experience. I'm very glad that I maintained my memories within the pages of that journal so I can "re-live" the experience whenever I want to.

I was very nervous about going off to Basic Training. For one thing, I never saw myself in the military. I had enlisted mostly to get away from home and experience the world. At the Military Enlistment Processing Station (MEPS) in downtown Atlanta, the bored bureaucratic lady had selected me as the guy to handle all the tickets for the small group of about 8 people going to Navy Basic Training in Orlando, Florida. She picked my name because my last name was ahead of everyone else's in the group. It didn't take long for her to figure out that I had no leadership skill. She even asked me in front of everyone if I was able to handle the responsibility! I said that I was, but I basically gave everyone their plane ticket and folder of entrance paperwork.

Off we went, escorted by some military personnel from the MEPS station in downtown Atlanta to the MARTA station to catch the subway to the airport. As we walked downtown, some homeless men stared at us, one asking another, "Who are those people?" The other responded, "Oh, they're going off to boot camp." Then the homeless men laughed at us! We fools. Giving up our freedoms, the kind of freedom they enjoyed.

The flight was an hour long. Not nearly enough time to enjoy a cup of Coca-Cola. We arrived late at night in Orlando. Saw many tourists destined for the Disney theme parks and wanted to run off with them. All was quiet on our van ride to the Naval Training Center. As soon as we cleared the front gate, I saw a small group of guys in dungarees marching to cadence and liked it immediately. The cadence, that is.

In the months between my enlisting (June 19, 1990) and my going off to Basic Training (March 19, 1991), I had read books about the letters soldiers sent home from Vietnam, read a play set in Basic Training (Biloxi Blues) and watched the film version, read a book about life aboard an aircraft carrier (the USS John F. Kennedy), exercised, asked my father and uncle about their basic training experiences (my fundamentalist uncle's simple word of advice: "don't drop the soap!" Har har), and staring endlessly at the pages of the thin Navy-published pamphlet about what to expect at Basic Training. I think I memorized the entire thing. The photos are burned into my long term memory.

My biggest concern about Basic Training was hazing and the communal shower (not that I expected anyone to try anything like my uncle had inferred, but that I like privacy). After I had been at Basic Training for a couple weeks, my biggest concern was getting set back in training. It was always sad to see fellow company mates leave for a company behind us in the training. Our company also received recruits who were set back in their training and they had a hard time fitting in, because our company pretty much bonded in the first two weeks of training. I was one of the rare recruits who made friends with the new guys, because it wasn't easy for them to go to a new company. You really want to finish training with the company you started with on day one. After my training was completed and I returned home for a brief vacation, I learned that my parents thought I might not make it through Basic Training. My mom, especially, thought I was much too individualistic to last.

I have no idea how much my several months of mental preparation helped me, but I would probably say that it helped A LOT. I knew going in that the Company Commanders (the Navy term for "Drill Sergeant") would play mind games on the company, creating conflict between recruits. Its such a classic tactic, particularly selecting a scapegoat to pay for the mess ups of another recruit. This happened quite often and I was amazed when a few guys would fall for it, getting angry at the recruit who messed up. Even I was made an example of, where another guy had to pay for my mistakes. I got yelled at for not shaving (I hardly had any hair on my face to shave...but in the water, a Company Commander could see those "invisible" hairs on the side of my jaw that I failed to see during the morning routine). I was also called a quitter for being unable to maintain the up "push-up" position for a long period. No one calls me "quitter"! That is one term no one can ever accuse me of being. I don't quit.

One of the things I learned in Basic Training was that you definitely do not want to stand out from the crowd. Keep a low and quiet profile. Its only 9 weeks long, so it was not a big deal for me to keep my ego in check. I did have a few conflicts because some guys tried to pick a fight with me. They ended up getting surprised when I outwitted them and emerged victorious. I'm generally a live and let live kind of guy and don't seek conflict with others, thus its always a surprise when people try to pick a fight with me. Most who have only learned to regret it. In Basic Training, I undermined the authority of two recruits who were selected to be the Section Leader for my section (our company started with 78 men and if I remember correctly, we were divided into six or eight sections). Another guy tried to pick a fight with me one day and was shocked when I responded by yelling a bunch of obscenities in his face. He never messed with me again. Another guy couldn't stop touching me, so with one smart alecky comment of a derogatory word ("faggot"), the label stuck to him for the rest of our time at Basic Training (poor guy...I'm sure that he wasn't, but who really knows?).

Most of all, though, I loved Basic Training. In fact, to this day, I still consider it the greatest experience of my life. I know that always shocks people whenever I say that, but its true. It was the first time in my life where I was known for me and me alone. Because I had a brother who's 14 months older than me but in the same grade / graduating class, I had to endure the "twin" label and often was made to feel like I was half a person. This was a terrible burden for an individualistic guy like me to have to live with for the first 18 years of my life. In Basic Training, though, I was in a fraternity of 78 guys and every single one of them got to know me for me alone. They either liked me or not based on my personality and I never had to hear people talk or ask about my brother. It was a liberating experience. I also loved the marching and the cadence. The last few weeks were especially great, because we knew we were leaving soon and we had more freedom to go places alone (with a special pass, of course) rather than among the group.

The above photo is of the barracks we lived in. My company (C093) was on the second floor. The building had four wings with a central building that held offices. Each floor had one large room aligned with bunk beds, a small office for the Company Commanders, a classroom, and the bathroom with two shower trees (where it was expected that 40 men would shower at the same time), about six toilets with no door in front (there were walls between each toilet, though), and a bank of sinks in front of a long mirror. That was home for nine weeks. We had to clean it every night before bed. I usually got out of it by volunteering to clean the offices of the central building. This allowed me to meet people in other companies, particularly the female companies. That was always nice!

Each company had to create their own flag. This design was our front side. I had no involvement in this planning or painting, though I was known as one of the artistically minded people (the guys saw the cover drawing of my Boot Camp journal). I declined for reasons I don't even remember.

This was the reverse side of the flag. We didn't vote on it, thus I have no idea who thought of it. The title "The Bonehead Club" came from what one of the Company Commanders called us. Probably not very original. But I did like the Company flag idea.

Out of the eight or so guys who came with me from MEPS Atlanta, I think only two other guys finished with the company (besides me). One of the guys was an older guy who didn't like me very much. He started a trend during our "work week" (when our company had to spend ten days of training doing nothing but working in the galley for 18 hours each day). He sang a song he created for his job (telling recruits how to turn in their trays after each meal): "Bowls up, cups down, dress edge to my left!" He had kind of a country twang to it and after all these years, I can still sing it!

To this day, I am pleased that I am still in contact with one person from my Basic Training company. His name is Scott and he's from Iowa. His first comment to me in one of our early days of training was: "Who's this skinny, short shit?"

I had hoped to keep in touch with more of my company mates, and I did keep in touch with a few of them for a couple years. It would be interesting to know how many of them made the Navy a career. I would venture to guess that probably less than 10% might have stayed Navy. One of the things I was insistent on was making my fellow companymates sign the back pages of my journal. Its great to read their comments every once in awhile. Brings back so many good memories and helps remind me of certain personalities.

So...if anyone from C093 at RTC Orlando, Florida in 1991 happens to read this, drop me a line or post a comment to say "hi!" Happy 19th anniversary to this great rite of passage experience!

1 comment:

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Interesting insights into the mind of Sansego! Have to agree with you completely on the passage of time.