When I signed my name on the dotted line, I was set to go forth and have wonderous adventures
in foreign countries
What I got was boot camp in San Diego, California.
One thing I can do is think on my feet. I was also told that, despite my Italian heritage, I must have a touch of Irish in my blood, because I have blessings given by the Blarney Stone in Ireland.
My flight from New York to San Diego was uneventful. I caught the Navy transport to the Naval Recruit Training Center and checked in. A large group of kids from every corner of the 'States was stuffed in the claustrophobic communal barracks to sleep until the next morning.
Morning was the operative word. All stereotypical thoughts aside, a loud Navy Petty Officer walked in at exactly four-thirty in the morning and tossed the garbage can down the center aisle. "Get the hell OUT OF YOUR BEDS right this GAWDDAMN MINUTE!" he shouted. We slowly obliged, and we marched out bleary-eyed to have our first meal courtesy of Uncle Sam. Oatmeal, eggs and sausages, all cooked in taste-stealing grease. I'd never had oatmeal with a layer of oily residue before, and it certainly wasn't the last.
After our meal, we were herded to a large, open room. Several Navy Petty Officers were standing about, and they each had a red embroidered rope on one of their shoulders. The rope was the insignia of a Company Commander (CC), also called the Drill Instructor in other branches of the military. One of them began reading off a list of names. One by one, we were paraded in front of the CCs. They asked interesting questions, including if we had any college training or played a musical instrument. I had both, so I was sent to a smaller group of recruits.
One of the CCs came over to us after the crowd had been assigned to cliques. He was a short Fillipino, and he began yammering at us in an indecipherable accent. We all stared at him for a few minutes with a blank expression on our faces. Nobody could tell if he announced that we were to be marched off to get shot or if we won the Irish Sweepstakes. After a few minutes, he realized there was a communications gap, and he repeated his greetings to us in the same tone and voice used by Americans when they visit other countries. Yes, that same condescending, loud and slow purposeful voice.
He was our very own Company Commander. He was to teach us the proper way of doing things in the United States Navy. This was his very first boot camp company, and he was excited to be there. Our company was number 928, and we were what was known as the Drill Division. We were the folks who would do the close-order marching and provide the musicians for the band during the boot camp graduation ceremonies. We'd miss out on a few things, such as going to the gas chamber so we could experience the thrills of tear gas first-hand. Things were looking up.
We went through our medical screenings, then started to do the typical stupid grunt work associated with boot camp. Dusting, mopping, learning how to fold our clothes and make our beds, et cetera. The first two weeks of boot camp just plain sucked. The inspectors found dust no matter what you did. They always found someone who didn't fold their underwear just right. This gnawed at the younger crowd of Company 928, but us older recruits knew it was to teach us discipline and the Navy way.
After a few weeks of this hellish mind-numbing routine, we split off from our division and went "across the bridge". The Drill Division company stayed in nicer barracks. The first thing I noticed was we didn't have an open bathroom, we had actual stalls surrounding the toilets. The space was cooler, and the beds were newer. There were no double-decker beds, so everyone had a lower bunk.
All during this time, I was watching how things happened around me. Our CC had problems remembering things, and this move to the new barracks was as confusing to him as it was for us. I was assigned the task of Drill Division Yeoman. My job was to carry a mailbag and walk around the base delivering messages. I was disappointed at first, but it was truly a blessing in disguise.
I was to keep my mailbag with me at all times. My CC didn't know what my job was, so whenever the company was going to get punished for some minor transgression, I had to go do a mail run. I had head-of-the-line priveleges during meals, and I ate whenever I was hungry. I was not allowed to run on the base, I had to walk. Life was very easy, and I occasionally went out to watch the guys marching around in the hot sun, or watch the band practice playing with instruments heated by the Southern California sun.
I began to look out for the guys. I was able to go to the base store daily, so I picked up cigarettes for all the smokers. I lugged out coolers of water with ice stolen from the fridge. The recruit in charge of the laundry kept trying to get me to charge them an extra buck for each pack of cigarettes, but I didn't want to take advantage of their habits at the time. I kept out of the way, I helped out when I could, and everyone was happy.
I had a bit of money stashed away, and on one trip to the store I saw they started selling the new Sony Walkman cassette players. I bought one and a few tapes, and that night I listened to Rush and Til Tuesday. I was immediately inundated with orders for cassette players. I charged them an extra five bucks each, and I told them this up front. They were still quite happy to pay the smuggling fee. Three trips to the store daily, three loads of tapes and players for the boys. I bought every AA-pack of batteries in the place. I kept a few, and sold them for cost. The supply ran out, however, and so I made a deal with one of my friends who was in a company that was graduating that week to get a case of batteries. He came through, and I sold them for five bucks each. Nobody complained, they were glad to get the batteries and the at-cost cigarettes.
There were some folks who received special treatment, like free batteries and special ordering items from the store. The Laundry Guy and the Master-at-Arms were two of these special cases. Technically, Sony Walkmen were not issued, ergo they were banned. They looked the other way as I greased their musical appetites.
The Laundry Guy heard the news first. We had two weeks left to go, and word had leaked that we had a pile of contraband musical entertainment units. We were going to have a "surprise inspection". Everyone began to panic, since if you were caught with contraband, you'd get sent to a marching party, where Navy Seals made you exercise for hours as they made fun of you. I knew the Laundry Guy had relatives coming for the graduation ceremony, so I suggested that we box up the units and have them sent via the Post Office. The relatives would bring them to the graduation, and we'd get back our players. We dug around for a box, packed up the contraband, and I took the box to the base Post Office. The next morning, the "surprise inspection" turned up only regulation Navy-issue items.
During the graduation ceremony, I picked up the box from the Laundry Guys folks. Since my job was over, I was to sit in the stands whilst my guys performed their close-order marching and the band played. They did a great job, and I was quite proud of them. Afterwards, I handed out the walkmen to the guys in front of our now ex-Company Commander, who was shocked that we had been able to get away with what we did. The Laundry Guy took me aside and made sure I had a complete set of uniforms (and a few extra items). Only three of us left boot camp with a full seabag.
All in all, it ended up being an interesting part of my life. I can still recall the faces and names of a large number of guys from boot camp, even though I never saw a single one again during my 11-year Navy career. When I added up the money I made from selling batteries and walkmen, I had made over $440. Most of our company went out to celebrate that evening, and the first round was on me.