Boot Camp Memories


    This year marks the forty-fifth anniversary of a formative episode in my life—boot camp. It took place at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, near the Illinois/Wisconsin border and though it was many moons and gazillions of brain cells ago there are still a few surviving memories…

   There were a few firsts. One was the first time I was ever called a Yankee. The accuser was the guy who had the bunk above mine—a Louisianan named Tamplain. I’m sure there were plenty of loyal Sons of the South who, in the 1970’s, still smarted over losing the Northern War of Aggression, but growing up in northeast Ohio I was surrounded by nothing but Yankees who never thought to self-identify as such, so hearing the term spat at me was a fresh experience. I could tell by Tamplain’s tone that I’d been mercilessly mocked, but the epithet held no real sting. Sure, I was from a northern state, so I guess “Yankee” fit, but I felt unchastized and perhaps even a tad proud—not unlike when a mouth-breather might sneeringly call me a liberal.

   Another first was the first time (and last, come to think of it) that I fired a gun. A brief session at the firing range with an outdated rifle might not have molded me into a Seal-worthy fighting machine, but at least no one got hurt and now I know that I could really wreak havoc on a stationary paper target if it ever came to that.

   Having an appreciation for vocabulary and language, I was mightily impressed by my company commander. He was a 1st class petty officer from South Carolina, a lanky banty rooster of a man who introduced me to the wonders of foul-mouthed Southern slang. Once, when aiming to impart to his charges the importance of a proper military bearing while marching in formation, he counseled: “Men, I want you walk proud out there, like you just crawled down offa Miss America”. Inspirational! And once, during a particularly heavy rainfall, he described it as being like “ a double-cunted cow pissin’ on a flat rock”. Sheer poetry.

   Two harrowing incidents happened during my six week boot camp ordeal that I’ll risk having a PTSD flashback over in order to share with you. The first occurred during a routine inspection by some visiting mucky-muck. As luck would have it, the inspection turned up “gear adrift” outside in the common area where we all had laundry hanging out to dry. Gear adrift is the catch-all term given to anything that’s not stored in its prescribed place. My company commander, banty rooster man, had a rule that whoever was “hit” at an inspection for gear adrift had to eat said gear. Unbeknownst to me, someone trying to do a last minute sewing repair had stuck his needle in a nearby garment hoping to hide it prior to the inspection. That nearby garment was my shirt. Seaman apprentice Manche was called up in front of the company to atone for the infraction. Hearing the words “gear adrift” alerted me that I might be ingesting something unpleasant, but when it was revealed that it was a needle I’d be snacking on I admit to being a little worried. Just how hardcore was bantyman? The look of dread on my face must have sated his taste for debasing, so I avoided a trip to the infirmary with lacerated innards, thank God.

   As a final cherished memory, let me share the story of the swimming test. It should come as no surprise that training for a life on the high seas might involve a modicum of aquatic aptitude. That modicum was this: Jump off the 25 ft. high dive and swim the circumference of a medium-sized pool. No great shakes…unless, like me, you can’t swim.

   I got in line with everyone else going up the ladder, knowing this was not going to be pretty. Confiding that “I don’t do that” didn’t fly, so when my turn came I took an enormous breath and leapt into the pool below knowing…well, hoping, that I’d be fished out. After flailing about for what seemed an eternity but was probably only ten seconds, I was able to grab the blessed rescue pole to salvation. I was sent to the far end of the pool with all the black guys for a crash course in not sinking.

   My ten minutes of extra-curricular study was remarkably unhelpful. On my second, let’s call it ‘dive’, more flailing about ensued. But this time, instead of groping for the fishing-out pole, I managed a half-assed splashfest around the perimeter of the pool with the literal support of an instructor holding my head out of the water. Test having been passed, the high seas awaited.