It was on. As soon as we got to our barracks after being cleared for full duty, our CCs had a group of fellow CCs standing by, waiting for us. Once we walked in, we were told to get at “GQ”. “GQ”, unfortunately, had nothing to do with the magazine, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, or its 370 pages of advertisements for clothing and cologne that no man uses, as far as I’m aware. “GQ” stood for “General Quarters”…in other words, Battle Stations. We all stood at attention in front of our bunks. Nervous didn’t begin to describe the feelings in the barracks. You could cut the tension with a knife.
I had a mixture of nervousness, anxiousness, and a calm confidence as I glanced around. First of all, I felt I was in pretty good shape compared to a lot of the other guys in the room. Second, it was gonna be a cold day in hell before I was going to crack in front of anyone. There was no way that I was going to show any signs of weakness. But I was nervous, I’ll admit it. This was THE moment that everyone thinks about when they’re preparing for basic training. All of the verbal harassment from the previous week didn’t subside, by any stretch of the imagination, but now the physical punishment was about to commence. I could physically prepare for it, I could mentally try to prepare myself for it, but until I experienced it for the first time, I was clueless. The moment of truth was underway.
To be beat down in Navy basic training, is to be “cycled”. The word sounds so non-threatening and gives no indication as to the pain and suffering associated with it. It’s the same as saying “collateral damage” for all of the extra shit that a bomb destroys outside of its intended target. The ingenious and sinister part of the whole ritual is that the CCs never laid a finger on us. They couldn’t touch us or restrain us in any way unless one of us came after them. So the CCs needed to be a bit more creative and calculating by commanding us through a series of exercises that were designed for us to fail. And fail. And fail again. This was not a game we were going to win, but we all had to participate. It was the equivalent of someone flipping a coin and saying, “Heads, I win. Tails, you lose”.
We began our cycling session in “rest position”. “Rest position”, for the next 3 hours, was our arms straight out in front of our bodies as we ran in place with our knees coming up to our waists. It was about as restful as trying to fall asleep in a room with someone who’s learning how to play the clarinet. And, yes, I said 3 hours. 3 hours of doing every sort of exercise imaginable, in sync, as a group. Push ups, sit ups, crunches, scissor kicks, bicycle crunches, jumping jacks, dips, 8-count body builders, mountain climbers, bomber push ups, dirty dogs, donkey kicks, ankle biters, crouching tigers, hidden dragons, and on and on. No surprise, we could rarely get in sync and the CCs loved every second of it. A typical exchange between us and the CCs would go something like this:
“You should all still be in rest position…I don’t see those knees coming all the way up…We’re not going to start the next exercise until all knees get to waist level…OK, are we ready for the next exercise?”
“Yes, Petty Officer.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
“YES, PETTY OFFICER!”
“That’s better, now…get in the push up position….aaahhh, too slow, back to rest position.”
A handful of groans from the back of the room.
“OK, let’s try this again…get in the push up position…and hold it there. Don’t you fucking let your knees hit the floor. Now, we’re going to do only one push up…but it’s going to be on my count. I’m going to count to 10. As I count from 1 through 5, you will lower your chest towards the deck. As I count from 6 through 10, you will push back up to the starting position. Ready, ladies?”
Our arms were already shaking. “Yes, Petty Officer.”
“OK, here we go. 1….(30 seconds later)…2…(another 30 seconds)…Hey DC1, I need to take a piss, can you make sure these guys don’t move until I get back?”
If someone put their knee down, we started over. If someone whimpered, it was back to the starting position again. If someone didn’t get back to rest position fast enough, we’d repeat the exercise. Times that by 3 hours and you begin to get an understanding of this fun game. I would have had no problem going back to the Waiting Game or the Make the Recruits Pretend It’s Urine While You Drink Apple Juice Game, but we just had to suck it up and deal with it. The CCs had been waiting for this. They had to make their statement with this cycling session that we weren’t civilians anymore.
It’s been said that your body can do almost anything, you just need to convince your mind that it’s possible. Clearly, some of the minds around me weren’t convinced. I’m still amazed, to this day, that some of my fellow recruits didn’t physically prepare themselves for the rigors of training. It’s not like it takes a tremendous amount of effort. You run a bit and do some push ups and sit ups. But some people just didn’t feel like bothering to put in that time. They now regretted it.
The Unprepared were easy to spot. They had a maniacal, desperate, yet distant look on their faces. They looked as though they couldn’t believe that this was happening to them. Just a week before, they were sitting on their La-Z-Boy in the family den, eating Cool Ranch Doritos, and playing Madden 94 on their Sega Genesis. They avoided all thoughts of getting ready for the Navy and figured they’d get in shape once they got there. Now, they were neck deep in a physical hell that wouldn’t stop burning.
One of the Unprepared was right next to me. He was a pudgy, slightly nerdy guy with glasses. He had almost no upper body definition whatsoever and the pudginess mainly resided in that awkward area between his belly button and his groin. I’ve never really understood how one grows a massive bulge in that area. It’s a strange body type. You know, the “weebles wobble, don’t they don’t fall down” type of body. It’s usually seen on older people, but he had it going at the ripe old age of 20. About halfway through the 3-hour cycling session, he decided to vomit as we were in “rest position”. It hit the floor right in front of us. At first, he had a semi-relieved look on his face as if to say, “OK, they’ve pushed me far enough. Clearly, they won’t make me keep going.” He stopped running in place and just stood still as he tried to gather himself. The nearest CC was on him in half a second.
“Do you think your done? Think again, shit for brains. Get in rest position. NOW.”
It took him a second to process this as his shoulders slumped slightly. He actually whimpered a bit and his bottom lip quivered as though he couldn’t believe this nightmare wasn’t ending. I felt bad for him, but even in that state, I still found it slightly funny at the same time. My humor disappeared when we had to get into push up position. His vomit was still right in front of me and no one was in a hurry to clean it up. As Lynyrd Skynyrd said, “Ooo ooo, that smell.” I had to finish that initial cycling session with my nose 12 inches from his puke. I displayed some serious willpower by not adding to it.
The Unprepared also resorted to random, hysterical shouts of mercy. Screaming and crying were regular parts of the cycling routine. One guy, in particular, would go on long-winded soliloquies as we were exercising. I still remember him screaming, “SOMEBODY STOP THEM. THEY CAN’T DO THIS TO US. THIS IS INHUMANE. THIS SHOULDN’T BE HAPPENING!!!” He ended up being the company bitch boy. The CCs usually picked one guy to constantly rag on and he was “It”. He didn’t make it through basic training, but not before the following gem. During a later cycling session, in front of everyone, he asked if he could stop doing jumping jacks. The CC got in his face immediately.
“Are you fucking insane? What the fuck do you need to stop for?”
“Petty Officer, I have lactic acid buildup in my lower legs and my calves don’t work anymore. I’m serious.” I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what happened next.
The most memorable exercise of my entire stint in Navy basic training was a simple, yet potentially murderous exercise called Elephant Jumping Jacks. Elephant Jumping Jacks were just standard jumping jacks done in cadence to a short verse that we recited as a group. Simple enough, right? Wrong. It was the reciting-as-a-group part that was our problem. The verse lasted for 8 jumping jacks, or 1 set. I will remember the verse until the day I die. It went like this:
I asked my mother for 50 cents
To see the elephant jump the fence
Jumped so high, touched the sky
Didn’t come down til the 4th of July.
All 80 of us, as a group, had to do 15 sets without any mistakes. The first time we tried, we got halfway through the 2nd set before we were told to start over. No surprise. Then we got to 4, had to start over, and the groans started. Next, we got to 7 before we were told to start over. Our calves were starting to burn and tighten and any patience we had left was quickly disappearing. Guys were starting to add their anger and frustration into the mix. “Come on!!! Stop fucking around, let’s get this done!” We started again, got past 10, and started to get cocky. We passed 11 and were halfway through 12, when, “STOP, you guys are all fucked up. Start again.” Now, it was damn near mutiny in the barracks. I just sighed; many others weren’t so cool. They were on the verge of tears, “What the fuck!!! Stay together, dammit. LET’S GO!!!”. I think, out of pity, they let us finally finish Elephant Jumping Jacks, because we certainly weren’t in sync when we got to 15, but we were done. For now.
The CCs mercifully ended our first cycling session. Everyone just stood where they were, trying to catch their breath, spitting on the floor. It was unbearably hot and muggy in the barracks. We hadn’t noticed it before, but the ceiling was dripping with condensation. One of the CCs pulled a thermometer out of the office. We had raised the temperature in the barracks to 93 degrees. Another CC began to give a speech on how the Navy is about never quitting, even in times of extreme stress, or some bullshit like that. I wasn’t paying attention to him as much as I was trying not to breathe through my nose and smell the vomit right in front of me. The CC then pulled out a radio, put in a CD, and pressed Play. We were ordered to listen. The song was “Proud to be an American” by Lee Greenwood. They clearly planned this. Break down a group of recruits to their physical core, drain them emotionally, then pump them full of patriotic spirit while they’re vulnerable. It worked. Guys around the room were bawling, the emotion was spilling over. By the time the song ended, there was hardly a dry eye in the place. I was still pretty dry; not that I’m unpatriotic, I just couldn’t think about anything but getting a drink of water and getting away from that vomit.
We were cycled multiple times during basic training. After a while, I sort of got used to the routine. It was always physically strenuous, but I tried to never let it show. Some of the sessions were planned, some were impromptu, but none of the cycling sessions were as memorable, or as challenging, as the first one. You never forget your first one.