It was May 1977, and I was sitting on a United Airlines 727 waiting for takeoff.
I was two months shy of turning 18, and it was my first time on an airplane. I was heading to San Diego, ticket courtesy of Uncle Sam.
I had just graduated from Pocahontas High School, but I had joined the Navy six months earlier, in December of 1976. I was supposed to wait and go to boot camp later that summer, but I had wanted to get it over with and, besides, I didn’t really have any reason to hang around Pocahontas.
My career plan was to be a journalist, and the Navy was the only service I was aware of with an enlisted man’s rating of “journalist.” Of course, my recruiter had convinced me to sign up as a hospital corpsman, and having been a big fan of the movie MASH, I figured, “why not?”
Of course, History Channel wouldn’t make their documentary series Suicide Missions – which had a whole episode dedicated to Combat Medics – until 20 years later. I’d find out in hospital corps school that thanks to the Vietnam War there was a shortage of medics because most of them had either died or got the heck out of the Navy as quickly as they could.
Navy Corpsmen are stationed with Marines and serve in combat alongside them. I would eventually be sent to Beaufort, S.C., home of Parris Island.
I’d like to say I was John Wayne, John Rambo or Johnny Weissmuller material when I was 17, but I had much more in common with Don Knotts than Don Johnson. I weighed 98 pounds, was 5-10 and I have flat feet that would make a duck proud. The doctor giving me a physical before I boarded my flight to San Diego just rolled his eyes when he saw me, and said, “Son, are you sure about this?”
My dad was a career Air Force man, spending 30 years as a non-com and retiring as an E-9. Of course I was sure about wanting to join the Navy and serve my country.
If I happened to have awesome adventures while seeing the world, then I would make that sacrifice.
None of my high school friends were joining the service – most of their parents were against it, and most of them were going to college. I wanted to go to college, too, and the GI Bill was yet another enticement for joining the Navy.
It was nothing but win-win-win – I’d pulled the handle of the slot machine of life, and it had come up all Aces.
I’d seen all the World War II movies and had glamorous visions of what boot camp was going to be like. Parachutes, SCUBA gear, Jet Packs, Bazookas. I was going to master them all in the next eight weeks, and maybe even learn to surf.
Sadly, my boot camp experience was a bit less than expected.
My main two memories of Naval Training Center San Diego are of marching and trying not to doze off during the endless classroom sessions.
The smell of chorine was everywhere, from the bleach used in cleaning the barracks to the giant swimming pool that terrorized me – I’d never seen a pool that size, and it had a tower that had to be 100 feet high. I thought nothing good could come from a tower that tall, no matter how big the pool was, and I was right. Eventually we all had to jump off that tower as if we were jumping from a ship.
My favorite part of the whole experience was the food. Most of the guys seemed disappointed in the chow hall, but there was a lot of it and all three meals were warm, so it was like heaven for me, even if we did only get 5 minutes to eat every meal. I actually gained 40 pounds just from getting fed three times a day.
In high school, I went straight from school to Walmart where I worked until midnight five days a week, and on Saturdays I was at Walmart from 7 a.m. until 1 or 2 a.m. Sunday. As a result, I mostly ate Hostess cakes and barbecue sandwiches from the neighboring IGA’s deli. I seldom had an actual meal, so getting three of them a day, every day, was awesome.
My fellow recruits also grumbled about “field day” – housekeeping duties.
Again, my years as a stockboy, cleaning floors and bathrooms at Walmart, gave me superpowers when it came to handling a dust mop or a wet mop.
In fact, the only thing close to a weapon I mastered in my eight weeks of basic training was the dust mop. I also got to spend a week in the scullery, washing dishes and trays in the mess hall, so I got pretty handing with a hot water pressure sprayer. The dishes were basically run through a car wash.
One afternoon, we were taken to a shooting range and my group, Company 141, got to shoot a handful of rounds through a .22 rifle not unlike the one I had left back home in my closet.
The rest of the time it was march to class, march to chow, march for the sake of marching, and then more marching.
Highlights of the boot camp experience included the obligatory exposure to tear gas, being shoved into a big storm shelter like block structure filled with smoke (to give you the near-death experience of smoke asphyxiation) and taking a tour of a life-sized toy destroyer.
I remember first being issued my own copy of the Bluejacket’s Manual, and swearing to myself I was going to memorize every word of it. I only got as far as the Recruit’s General Orders – well, that and “port” versus “starboard.” I never did learn to tie any knots.
When we finally graduated, I had turned 18 and was old enough to drink, at least in the Enlisted Men’s Club. Most of my fellow seamen had family and friends come to see them graduate, but I was on my own, so I spent my post-boot camp leave in San Diego, where I was scheduled to attend Hospital Corpsman A School a few weeks later.
The day after I was released from boot camp, I rode a city bus out to the beach, and saw for the first time the majesty of the Pacific Ocean.
I’ve never been prouder of anything I’ve accomplished than I was sitting on that beach wearing my E-2 stripes. That’s why every Veterans Day the ghost of 18-year-old me comes out and reminds me most of the names on the memorial walls were just kids like I once was, but they never got to be the old man that I now am.