The inevitable question is, “What the hell do you do in boot camp for 7-8 weeks?” Up until this point, we hadn’t done much. We got hair cuts and new clothes, we learned how to march (sort of), and we had daily physical training. But what did we actually do for the rest of our time there? It’s simple. We went to class and did drills from 4 in the morning until 10 at night. 18 hours a day, everyday.
Classroom instruction was a large and important part of training. Large, in that we spent a tremendous amount of time in the classroom. Important, in that, you had to fight for all it was worth not to fall asleep and miss something important that could potentially prevent you from passing a test.
Reveille was at 4 AM every morning, no exceptions. On a typical day, we would go through our morning run and exercises; cycling was only performed on “special occasions”. Following a quick shower, we would go to the dining hall, eat breakfast, then march to the classroom buildings. We would orderly file into the classroom, usually with a sister company. There were at least 140-150 guys in a large classroom. Not a lecture hall, mind you, but a standard classroom with a large chalkboard at the front of the room, a small desk for the instructor off to the side, and rows of desks to fill out the rest of the room. All we were missing was the cursive alphabet banner above the chalkboard. The desks were the combination desk/chair designed for right-handed people only. We didn’t get to choose where to sit in class. We went right down the line and sat at the next available seat from the person in front of us. There was none of the typical nonsense of all the cool people filling in the back rows, furthest away from the teacher. That didn’t fly in these classes. The only tools afforded us recruits with which to take appropriate notes was a spiral notebook that we kept folded and tucked in our belt in the back of our bell bottoms, and a black ball point pen. Blue ink did not exist in basic training for some reason. Outside of that, all we had was whatever coping mechanism we could come up with to stay awake in class.
The classes themselves were drier than an afternoon stroll through the Mojave Desert on a crisp July afternoon. Sweet Jesus, they were rough. It wasn’t the material that was rough; it was the delivery. We were taught all things Navy: the history of the Navy; famous battles and important events; basic seamanship; the 11 General Orders; rank, recognition, and the chain of command; the Bluejacket’s Manual; an idiot’s guide to a ship and its important features; and so on. This riveting information was delivered by instructors who fell into 1 of 2 categories with respect to their delivery of the material. They were either ultra-dry and monotone, à la Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off . Or they were loud and hyperactive, à la Sam Kinison from Back to School. There was no one in between with the instructors. So, we were either lulled to sleep by Ben Stein’s Ambien-like pace or scared awake by Sam Kinison’s cocaine-fueled ranting and screaming. See if you can guess who is who with the following examples:
“Alright gentlemen, the front of the ship is called…anyone, anyone…the forecastle, which is pronounced…anyone, anyone…”foc’sle” from the English or Irish word meaning…anyone, anyone…front of the ship.”
“You fucking pansies think you’ll have it rough as you’re at home watching your MTV and listening to your Snoop Doggy Dogg? You think you know anything about sacrifice? Well, think again. I’ll tell you about sacrifice. Sacrifice is being on the USS Arizona in the middle of Pearl Harbor when those Jap bastards started raining down bombs on our fellow shipmates while your grandparents were back in East Bumblefuck, Wisconsin making apple pie and listening to Frank Sinatra and the goddamn Andrews Sisters!”
You know that feeling of falling asleep at the wheel while driving. It’s a scary feeling. You start to open your eyes wide, yawn, slap your face around, maybe open the window. Try fighting that feeling for hours at a time, everyday for weeks. Man, what a bitch. Each person had their own technique for staying awake, some were more successful than others. I used to purposely sit in a uncomfortable position. Slouching was not allowed, you had to sit straight up, so you had to improvise in order to find the best position. I was pretty ingenious. I would slightly lift the front feet of the desk off the ground and put my foot underneath to rest where the toes meet the base of the foot. Pressure was then naturally applied to my foot, making it uncomfortable and keeping me awake, but the alternative of falling asleep was not an option for me. If, for some reason, my head started bobbing forward, my body weight instantly put pressure down on my foot and I was suddenly up and in pain. It worked.
Others weren’t as successful. It was funny, because you could see it happening. If guys were on the ball, they’d nudge the guy before he fell asleep so he didn’t get caught. That didn’t always work. Sam Kinison was real good at spotting the head bobbers. And he would wait. He wouldn’t get on them right away. Instead, he’d wait until they were truly out and then pounce. He had one of those wooden pointers, about 3 feet long, with the rubber tip in his hand. He’d slowly and quietly walk up to the desk of the unsuspecting, and unconscious, snoozer. No one dared moved. We knew what was about to happen and it was too late to alert the poor snoozer. Kinison, with a shit-eating grin on his face, would raise the pointer up over his head and violently smack it like a whip on the snoozer’s desk as if it was a horse’s ass. Everyone jumped: those of us who were awake, those who had been in various states of dreamland, and the guilty snoozer. He would inevitably have to peel himself off of the ceiling after having the shit scared out of him. Once the heart started beating again, he would sit up attentively. Nothing like a quick shot of adrenaline to keep you up in class.
We did have some relief during classroom time. If we did feel tired and didn’t feel we could sit anymore, we could get up and stand in the back of the room. Better to mildly shame yourself and stand in the back of the class than to have Kinison bring the whip down. By the end of the day, most guys weren’t concerned with shaming themselves as two-thirds of the class would be standing in the back of the room. I prided myself, probably foolishly so, on not standing. I wanted to make it all the way through the classes without having to get up. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t make a bit of difference whatsoever, but it was my little victory.
Trying not to fall asleep wasn’t a chore solely reserved for classroom time. Standing watch at night was also an exercise in our ability to stay conscious and alert. Most things in basic training are done to simulate life and work on a Navy ship. One of those things was standing watch, which occurs all of the time on a ship. Do you know what we watched and guarded in basic training? Nothing. Because there was nothing to watch. Not a thing. Seriously, what is going to happen in the barracks during the day when no one is in there? I’ll tell you. Not a fucking thing. Yet we had to stand watch in the barracks and keep a log book (just like on a ship) 24 hours a day. Every 30 minutes or so, we’d have to make an entry in the log book detailing the nothingness which was observed over the previous 30 minutes, in military time, of course. Usually it was something to the effect of “1430 hours: Company 177 Division 5 barracks secure. All clear.” Unfortunately, we couldn’t screw around with the log books because they inspected them, but it didn’t stop me from coming up with creative log entries in my head like:
2230 hours: Observed flying monkeys escaping from Recruit Jones’s anus before heading to a better life in Lake Titicaca. All clear.
2330 hours: Ingested psychedelic mushrooms covered in honey and tripped balls. Recovered nicely, but hope our CC, Petty Officer Smith, doesn’t miss his thumbs. I cut them off while he was sleeping. All clear.
0100 hours: Spent the last 30 minutes giving myself the “tuck”. My testicles are asleep. I wish I was too. All clear.
0300 hours: Saw Lemmy of Motörhead having an in-depth conversation with the fire extinguisher regarding the merits of Stanley Kubrick’s contribution to cinematography. Lemmy was clearly out of his league when he admitted he had never seen A Clockwork Orange. The fire extinguisher dismissed him with a quick burst of CO2 to his boots. I’m tired. All clear.
Standing watch at night was always a joy. You literally just stood by the office door in the barracks while the rest of the recruits were sawing logs in their sleep. Watch was only 2 hours, but it felt like an eternity. Every 30 minutes, you’d walk around and confirm the nothingness, log it, and go back to standing at parade rest by the office door. The only dangerous part was the lurking CCs. They were in the building and if they were roaming around, peeked in the door, and saw the guy on watch sleeping, he’d get pulled out in the lobby so as not to wake anyone, get an ass chewing, a personal and private cycling session, and an additional promise that there would be hell to pay come morning.
We did do some cool stuff during the instructional time. Firefighting was more interesting than I thought it would be. I believe it was during our sixth week of training that we did an entire week at the firefighting building. We just learned the basics as they had to dumb it down for the lowest common denominator, but I had never done anything like firefighting before. It was also a chance for us to actually DO SOMETHING. We got into firefighting suits, handled the fire hoses, put out fires (albeit computer-controlled propane fires), used breathing apparatus in smoke-filled spaces, and played with some of the cool firefinding gear. This was something I had never done before and something I never really thought I would do when I joined the Navy. But it made sense. Everyone on a ship has to be a firefighter. There is no calling 911 in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you better damn well know what you’re going to do for all situations.
Now, we were in Illinois for Navy basic training, right next to Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is big, but it’s not exactly one of the Seven Seas. Yet, you’d think we’d at least have a ship we could go on and sail around the lake for instructional purposes, right? Wrong. In fact, not only was there no ship in the water, but the base didn’t even have access to the lake. When we did our practical portion of basic seamanship, we went to a building on the base that had a mock up of a ship inside. What the fuck?!?! Are you kidding me? This was cheesy as hell. Yeah, it looked like a ship and felt like a ship, but it wasn’t a real ship. I don’t consider myself a guitar virtuoso because I can master “Reign in Blood” by Slayer on Guitar Hero III. I don’t say I’ve been to the countries of Norway, England, and Morocco just because I went to fucking Epcot Center in Disney World. Nevertheless, we spent a day on the bullshit ship tying knots or something, I don’t really remember because it was in a goddamn building. Still pisses me off.
One of the last lessons during firefighting week was on Chemical, Biological, Radiological (CBR) Warfare. We were instructed on what to do during an attack of these sorts. It was crazy to think about as they went into the details. You just hoped that you’d never have to use any of this shit. We were trained on using gas masks in case of a CBR attack, and included in that training, was a long-standing tradition of going into a gas chamber filled with tear gas. Everyone filed in as the instructor was at the front of the room. They didn’t use a police canister of tear gas, but some tablet they put on a burner. The room filled with a visible smoke and we all knew what was coming. They warn you of this for weeks in advance. We all had to take off our masks and breathe in the tear gas so we could see how well the gas masks worked. The key was relaxing and not tensing up, but, damn, it hurt bad. They tell you this, but recruits would still go nuts and damn near hyperventilate with fear. It hurt, no question, but I mentally psyched myself up for the pain and just dealt with it. Everyone had to say their full name and social security number, or something like that. I didn’t really pay attention, I just wanted to relax, breathe as little as possible, and get it over with. Finally, they opened the doors and we all raced out into the fresh air spitting and snotting into a garbage can and into the grass. It takes a little time, but the tear gas does eventually wear off. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced that since
In order to complete boot camp successfully and, more importantly for me, on time, you had to pass the written academic tests. I did not want to spend one second more in basic training than I had to. As a result, I was more nervous for those tests than any other tests I’d ever taken (which is probably one of the reasons I was there since I never took college seriously up to that point). I studied like a madman and was bound and determined to ace the tests and leave no doubt that I would finish on time. It turned out that I didn’t really need to worry. The dumbing down, lowest common denominator aspect I mentioned earlier, applied to the multiple choice tests as well. They weren’t all that difficult and I had no trouble with them.
So the physical and academic aspects of basic training, once experienced, weren’t too bad. In fact, they were relatively easy, in hindsight. As with so many things, the anticipation of these types of events far outweighs the actual experience. The tests were what they Navy measured our training by, but I measured it as much on the personal experiences and relationships formed during my time there. To be continued…