I’m an avid people watcher and observer, by nature. I can sit in any public setting and just study people. I watch and analyze their movements, interactions, and idiosyncrasies. I try to guess what’s going on in their lives and make up detailed back stories for pure, personal entertainment. It’s something that’s always come natural to me and I especially enjoy it when I have a partner to riff with. Navy basic training was a constant barrage of stimulus to fuel and sustain this habit. There was so much to choose from.
A little background information: I was born and raised in Long Island, NY. My family lived in Lindenhurst, NY until I was 7. If you look at my 1st grade class picture, I was one of three White kids in a class full of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans. I never dwelled on the ethnic diversity; who does when they’re 7 years old? Before I started 2nd grade, we moved to East Northport, NY, also in Long Island, which was more middle/upper middle class at the time (we were squarely in the lower end of the “middle class” section) and predominantly White. There were some minorities (I hate that word), but not a large percentage. The Ivory Soap-era (99 and 44/100 percent White) of my upbringing commenced once we moved to Sidney, NY the summer before my sophomore year in high school. It’s not a knock on Sidney by any stretch, just reality at the time. College was more diverse, but it was basically more of the same. I love upstate NY and live there today, but I enjoy being near a diverse mixture of cultures.
The Navy satisfied my desire to be surrounded by people from all walks of life and different parts of the country. Here I was, with guys from as far away as Hawaii, completely enamored with the fact that I was living and experiencing the same things as they were. Looking back, it’s kind of corny and hokey, but it meant a lot to me. I was using the Navy as much as they were going to use me. I got to travel, see new places, and, most importantly to me, meet people from all over the country. It was like an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at the United Nations. There were so many people for my overactive mind to observe and process; it was almost too much. I still remember many things about my fellow recruits…
I remember a guy from Boise, ID who was fascinated and, I think, slightly confused by the gibberish I used to write in the margins of my spiral notebook. One of the few things the CCs didn’t bother inspecting were the notebooks we carried around with us. We had study time every now and then and I used to write Pavement lyrics in the margin to help cure boredom and allow the greatest band in the world to give me a small reprieve from this shit, if only in my mind. I would show the lyrics to Boise, ID. On my page, I had written, “Open up your purses for the boys to reimburse us with a goal line stand on 4th and 2″. He’d look back at me, and just go, “What the fuck does that even mean?” Thank you, Stephen Malkmus. Boise, ID was also one of only two guys I ever saw from my company after basic training. I saw him years later in the parking lot of a training building in San Diego. It was awkward to say the least; like two guys who see each other after spending time in prison together. We had no frame of reference other than our 9-week basic training experience. So, after exchanging pleasantries, we quickly realized we had nothing else to say to each other, and ended with an abrupt, “Well…see ya.”
I remember a guy from Salem, OR who was 29 years old. He seemed like he was 59 years old. He was about 6′ 4″ tall, had a wrinkled face with a permanent frown, and was always in a bad mood. He was well on his way to auditioning for his long and prosperous career as the crabby, old next-door neighbor in movies and TV shows. Salem, OR was married and had 3 kids, if I remember correctly. I always got the feeling that his wife had him by the balls and said, “if you don’t join the military to take care of me and the kids, I’m divorcing your ass.” He was miserable and everyone generally avoided his presence for fear that his miserable-life vibes would somehow seep into our bodies and permanently infect us.
I remember a guy from Easton, CT who was our self-appointed female watch-stander. Our only time to ourselves each week was a 6-hour period between 7 AM and 1 PM every Sunday. During that time, we were allowed to attend church service, write letters, study, shine shoes, and participate in earthquake drills. Earthquake drills consisted of crawling under our racks to simulate protection from an earthquake, but, equipped with a pillow and blanket, the drills turned into a sweet little naptime session. At first, the Sunday break was very strict and we were always paranoid about doing anything that looked enjoyable. But as the weeks passed, and we realized that the CCs also used that time to their personal advantage, we felt more comfortable to enjoy ourselves. Our barracks were located within sight of the base chapel. Every Sunday morning, Easton, CT used to climb up on the ledge and look out the windows at all of the base personnel family members attending church. He would give us play-by-play, in vivid detail, of all the females who walked in the chapel. No female contact in 9 weeks will do crazy things to a group of 80 guys.
I remember a guy from Talladega, AL who must have joined the Navy under the assumption that he didn’t need to know how to swim. How you make a conscious decision to join the military, specifically the United States Navy, knowing full well that you can’t swim, is absolutely beyond me. I mean, the entire mission of the Navy, it’s whole reason for being, resides on the fucking water. How you don’t know that, or let it affect your decision (or force you to take swimming lessons at the nearest pool before joining), is beyond my level of comprehension. Yet, he arrived at basic training knowing full well that he didn’t know how to swim. This wasn’t evident to the rest of us until he actually had the onions to jump off a 10-foot platform into the training pool. He spazzed and flailed around on the surface for a couple seconds, then sank like a rock. The dive instructors swam into action and saved him from drowning. They had seen this before. He was able to get remedial swimming lessons everyday until he could pass the basic swimmer’s test. He wasn’t the only one, by the way.
I remember a guy from Gibsland, LA. Thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that Gibsland is famous for the nearby capture of Bonnie and Clyde in 1934. They actually have a museum called The Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum which is in the old cafe where they ate their last meal. It was breakfast, in case you were wondering. I believe every town is famous for something; some are noteworthy, some aren’t. This is legendary. Come on, who doesn’t want to go to an Ambush Museum? The museum is run by the son of one of the posse members who killed Bonnie and Clyde. His name is L.J. “Boots” Hinton. Of course it is. I wish I had known about this while we were in basic training. I would have asked Gibsland, LA a million questions.
I remember a guy from Philadelphia who moved into our company about halfway through basic training because he failed an academic test and had to repeat 2 weeks. One Sunday morning during our 6 hours of free time, he asked a few of us if we wanted to see pictures of his girlfriend. He pulled a few photos out of his locker and we proceeded to flip through them while he looked over our shoulders. One of the pictures was, at first glance, just an ordinary-looking picture of him standing next to his girlfriend in the family room of some house. But, upon further inspection of the picture, we noticed something a bit unusual. In the photo, Philadelphia had his shorts down near his knees as his girlfriend had her hand wrapped around the shaft of his erect cock. I’m crapping you negative. The look on their faces, in the picture, suggested this wasn’t the least bit strange or creepy at all. It was just a normal, intimate photo of two people; one standing at “attention”, the other holding his “attention” for dear life. I asked him what the fuck he was doing and all he did was laugh at me. So many questions entered my mind, but none of them were answered. He simply found it amusing that we were confused. And people wonder why Philly sports fans are notorious for being Neanderthals. These are the same people who booed Santa Claus at one game and cheered at another game as Michael Irvin lay motionless on the football field. I still want to know who took the picture. Who actually grabbed their camera, saw Philadelphia walking around the family room with a boner, called over his girlfriend, asked her to strangle his crank, have them both look in the camera, and say “Cheese”?
I remember a guy from St. Paul, MN who had the worst case of cross-eyes I’ve ever seen. These wretchedly off-set scanners were brutal. Typically, I don’t like to make fun of people’s physical deformities…to their face, but St. Paul made it difficult for me to resist ridicule. Even with glasses on, his eyes were still severely crossed. I know how cruel some of the guys in our company were to him. I can’t imagine how tough it must have been to be a kid with that affliction. Kids are horrendous about pointing out the obvious. I think he was a solid guy, but all I can remember are his eyes.
I remember a guy from Salinas, CA whose whole mission in life was to be a Navy SEAL. Every company has at least one of these guys. He was always smiling which, to me, was the wrong demeanor to have if he wanted to be one of the world’s elite commandos. Nothing seemed to phase him. He loved the physical training, the cycling, the running. He would get so pumped up during a cycling session that he would start jumping around, tried to get people pumped, and would do extra reps just for the hell of it. The CCs finally made him stop after a few weeks. From then on, anytime we were cycled, he would have to stand, face the wall, and hold a pencil in each hand with his arms outstretched. They knew this royally pissed him off. I have no idea whether or not Salinas, CA ever became a SEAL, but I’m willing to bet that, if he did, somewhere along the way, he lost that smile.
I remember a guy from San Jose, CA who was Vietnamese and would have won Best Dressed in our company had we handed out superlatives like a high school senior class typically does. Stereotypes can certainly get you in trouble, but they’re usually based on half-truths. For example, it’s been said that Asians are masters at laundry. It’s somewhat demeaning, I know, but this guy fit the profile. The creases on his shirts were so sharp, they would slice your fingertips. His boots, or boondockers, shined brighter than any other recruits in all of Great Lakes. You could have hooked a small battery and storage unit to his boots and he could have single-handedly solar-powered our barracks. I have no idea how he got his boots so fucking shiny. It was amazing, really. I think he would have been willing to share his technique, but I don’t think he spoke English. I never heard him say a word in 9 weeks.
I remember a guy from Lake Charles, LA who was probably the guy I most closely identified with. He was a year or two younger than me, but we had similar sensibilities. He had a North-easterner’s sense of sarcasm and wit, with a Cajun drawl. I liked that. He was a big fan of music and movies, but he was admittedly lacking in his knowledge of both. It didn’t curb his enthusiasm to learn. I acted as a guide of sorts to help broaden his horizons. Not that I’m some know-it-all walking music and movie encyclopedia, but I know a thing or two. Unfortunately, I never got to see the fruits of my labor. It’s not like I could play anything for him while we were together. I would have loved to play Let It Be by The Replacements in its entirety for him, after waxing poetic as to its greatness, but I had no such luck. He was a good guy who knew when to be serious and when to take his foot off the gas. He was one guy I would have liked to have had a few drinks with under normal circumstances.
I remember a guy from Palestine, TX with whom I shared a bunk bed. He was a whiny little bitch. He complained as soon as we were assigned to the same bunk bed. He claimed that he had to have the lower bunk because he was scared he was going to fall off the top bunk in the middle of the night. He continued complaining about everything else for the remaining time together. Half the time, he didn’t know how to do certain things and would come crying to me for help. He clearly wanted me to do the task for him, like fold his clothes properly for inspection, but I always refused. I would show him how, then make his ass do it. I had no problem helping someone out, but I wasn’t there to babysit anyone.
A quick story about sleeping and how my mind would fuck with me from time to time…one night after spending a day learning about chemical, biological, and radiological warfare, talking about nuclear weapons and bombs and missiles and anything else that exploded, my head was spinning. That night, as we were sleeping, Great Lakes, IL had a classic Midwestern thunderstorm; the kind you just don’t get in the Northeast. This storm was fierce, with spectacular lightning and deafening thunder. Right outside of the window, which was about 6 feet from my head as I lay on my bed, was the courtyard to our barracks. The building was shaped like a square with a courtyard in the middle where we occasionally did drills. Around 1 in the morning, the storm must have been centered right over the courtyard. There was a brilliant flash of lightning, immediately followed a thunderous, earth-shattering boom, the likes of which I’ve haven’t heard since. In my semi-conscious state, with thoughts of nuclear explosions floating around in my head, I was convinced we were under attack and instinctively reached for the metal bar that acted as a head board to await, what I thought, was the inevitable shockwave. It took me about 3 to 4 seconds to realize that I had spooked myself. It was a long 3 to 4 seconds thinking I was about to die.
I remember a guy from St. Louis, MO who, at 5′ 5″ and roughly 200 lbs., may have been, pound for pound, the strongest guy I’ve ever met. A completely unassuming looking guy, with almost no muscular definition to him, but, damn, was he strong. During firefighting week, we did fireman’s carry races, where you have a guy draped over your shoulders like a winter scarf and you have to run about 50 yards or so. Most guys, myself included, could only go about 20 yards before slowing down to a fast walk, then a slow walk, before finishing. And that was with carrying someone relatively light. St. Louis, MO could carry and race anyone of any size at a full sprint the entire 50 yards. And he could do it over and over again. It was awe-inspiring.
I remember a guy from Fayetteville, NC who was one of the only albino Hispanics I’ve ever seen. His skin was pasty white, he was dotted with freckles, and had nappy red hair. He had a Hispanic last name and a noticeable accent, but he looked like someone put his body into Photoshop and changed his color palette. It just didn’t look right.
I remember a guy from Flint, MI who looked and acted just like the actor/comedian Anthony Anderson, before anyone knew who Anthony Anderson was (or is). Flint, MI was a loud, boisterous guy who loved to laugh and be heard. As mentioned in an earlier part of this series, there were no doors on the bathroom stalls. Flint, MI would typically use the first stall and he loved to hold long, detailed conversations with people while taking a shit. Not much bothers me, but I avoided his vocal tractor beam during his constitutionals.
I remember a guy from Pensacola, FL who, one night, got tied to his bed in dental floss. Guys would pull mild pranks on one another from time to time, but nothing too harmful. Typical pranks would be: shaving cream on someone’s forehead while sleeping; toothpaste in someone’s socks; hiding or switching guy’s boots. But one night, someone purposely woke up in the middle of the night, used an entire roll of dental floss to cocoon Pensacola, FL in his rack, and somehow convinced the guy standing watch to keep his mouth shut. When we woke up a few hours later, he started to get out of his rack, hit the floss, and couldn’t move. It wasn’t that the dental floss was strong, but there was so much floss used that he couldn’t wiggle out of it. The CCs never saw it as he was down towards the other end of the barracks. We had to carefully, without detection, get a pair of scissors and cut him out. He was less than amused, but the look on his face was priceless. I still don’t know how he didn’t wake up as this was happening to him.
When you stripped away all of the tough guy posturing, the machismo, the trying-to-act-hardcore bullshit that was Navy basic training, you ended up with a bunch of guys from different parts of the country, different racial and ethnic groups, different walks of life, who lived together for 8 to 9 weeks, while trying to cut it as a United States Sailor. Each person had a different story, each person had their own reason for being in basic training, and each person was motivated, as Billy Crystal said in City Slickers, by that “one thing”. My “one thing” was my family. My wife and daughter were always in my thoughts, in everything I did, especially during the rare down times. But I’ll leave that story for the finale in Part 7.