Monday, March 29, 2010

From The Beatles to L. A. and Bob Dylan

Good Lord. What have I gotten myself into? At 4 o'clock in the morning on January 17 th, 1964, my first full day at Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, I sat straight up in bed wondering what that ungodly noise was. Boot Camp started with a banging, literally. Someone is using a baseball bat in a corrugated steel garbage can, swinging the bat around and around against the corrugated ribs – a rude awakening. Someone yelled, “Okay, okay. We're awake goddamn it.” “Up and at 'em you dirt bags. Fall in.” Things were not looking up. It didn't get any better.
Breakfast, too, on that first day was terrible. Powdered eggs, canned bacon, a bruised apple, a bowl of very thick oatmeal and baked beans were heaped on my tray. Baked beans for breakfast! I gagged. The oatmeal, too thick, looked edible at least, but the sugar dispenser was empty. I didn't dare get the one from the next table. I sat alone, still in my civilian clothes, and nibbled at the eggs and bacon and gagged again. Nothing was edible. I couldn't eat it. What do I do now? Leave the tray here? Take it someplace? Where? I watched another recruit in uniform take his partially eaten meal to a half-door and hand it in, like my high school cafeteria I remembered. I followed his lead. Nobody yelled at me for not eating my food. I was safe.
So, on an empty stomach I went off with my company for ID cards and uniforms. Down a long isle we walked along the stacks of uniforms on the floor. We striped off our civvies, down to our birthday suits, and began putting on our uniforms right there in that long hallway. There was no privacy, no modesty. It was, somehow, worse than that high school locker room I experienced. We boxed up our civvies to be sent home. We wouldn't need them for a long time. Navy Blues, however, fit me very well; thirteen buttons closed the front flap. That was the strangest goddamned thing I'd ever seen. Why not a simple zipper? Brock missed a button. “Do you have to pee, sailor?”
“No,” Brock answered.
“No, what?”
“No, I don't have to pee.” he answered again.
“Don't you mean no, I don't have to pee, SIR?”
“Yes,” Brock answered.
“Yes, what?”
“Yes, SIR.” He finally understood. So did the rest of us, except George Washington...
“Then button up your uniform, dirt bag.” Brock began to fix his uniform. “No, not that way. Undo ALL of the buttons and start from the beginning.” A second later, “No. Don't button them all up yet. Stand at attention.” Brock stood at attention with his fly open, a cold Great Lakes, January wind blowing and his open-fly Navy issue skivvies, the worst underwear ever devised, clearly exposed. Very humiliating. We heard a snicker somewhere in the back of our formation. “Who was that?” our company leader, a temporary fill-in recruit just-like-us Company Commander (CC) as it turned out, asked.
“George Washington,” a black guy answered. There was a pause. We heard several more snickers.
“Come up here, comedian. Let me see your brand new ID.” The temp CC looked at the card for several seconds, and finally looked up, “I'll be damned. Your name really is George Washington.” Someone laughed out loud.
So, with a turn of fate, the entire company was introduced to its most memorable, unforgettable characters, Kenneth Brock and George Washington. Washington's affect on us started on that day and lasted the whole thirteen weeks of boot camp. Brock's notoriety came a few weeks later. I can't tell you the names of anyone else in our Company, except those two. By the end of the first day all of us realized we had a clown in our company. Washington was funny. What he said and the way he said what was on his mind, unasked and out of the blue, the most innocent remarks, at the most inopportune moment, struck all of us as funny. Later in the barracks, Brock complained about how cold it was standing at attention with his fly open. “Shiii,” George says, dropping letters from his words and using the vernacular of his Philadelphia, black neighborhood home, “fust unerwear I ever had. It ain't cole.” We laughed.
We began our boot camp training. Our permanent Company Commander was a First Class Petty Officer Commissaryman, a cook. His red hash marks and rating badge on his sleeve, I later learned, meant that he had a disciplinary blemish on his record. Gold hash marks and badge indicated no blemish. Never-the-less, he was good. He never raised his voice and he never called us names. He appointed the recruit company officers, from among our ranks, on the first day; our Recruit Company Commander (RCC) and squad leaders. “Clark,” he said, “you're Squad Leader Six.” As surprised as anyone, I took my place with the other squad leaders and he handed out our assigned areas; sleeping quarters to the first squad, toilets to the second, and down the line to my squad – the clotheslines. George expressed my sentiments for me, “ You tellin' me we have a squad for clotheslines?” in disbelief. We laughed. And, with that question our CC met George, proven once again by reading his ID card and the response we knew was coming, “Your name really is George Washington.” We laughed. So did our Company Commander.
George couldn't march and we marched everywhere, all the time. He was unable to adjust his step to the cadence of the marching column. If you saw his column coming straight at you, you would see everyone's shoulders square-on, in rhythm, but his shoulders peaked out one side, then the other by half a foot or more, and his rhythm was slightly off, cycling with the group one minute, then in the opposite direction the next. He took long steps, but instead of taking shorter steps, adjusting with the others, he simply tried to stay between the guy in front and the guy behind. “Goddamn it, George, will you stop walking on my heels,” we heard. Or, “Damn it George, will you hurry up,” we heard from the guy behind him, and the whole column would look like a slinky, expanding and contracting to accommodate George. “George, you'll be our Flag Bearer,” the CC finally said. That solved the problem for the column. George carried our Company Flag at the tail end of the formation. Another bearer carried the American Flag in front of the company. All George had to do was stay roughly behind the left column. He managed to stay within a three-foot square area, which is to say he wandered a bit. That didn't solve all of his marching problems, however.
We learned all kinds of marching maneuvers, left and right face, left and right obliques, to the rear – march! George was like a swinging tail on turns, much like when we were kids perhaps skating, holding hands, and the last in line would flare out going faster than those in front. George was a step or two behind all of the rest of us. To-the-rear, MARCH! A 180 degree turn in the opposite direction; he'd crash into the column suddenly coming toward him and destroy the formation. “Gimme' some warning, goddamn it!” We howled with laughter, barely able to keep formation. The cadence caller would say, “you have to pay attention, George. You can't have your mind wandering all over the place.” “My feet hurt. Can't listen to you if my feet hurt,” George said. We laughed more. Finally, the CC took George for new wider, double-wide shoes and that helped to some extent. As innocent and as serious as can be, for everyone to hear, George pipped up, “I didn't know they was double-wide shoes.” We laughed until we cried.
Fridays were inspection days for all the companies, either on the parade grounds or in the parade hall in bad weather. We stood at ease, relaxed, feet apart and hands behind our backs, until the inspector was close by, then ATTENTION! We came to eyes-front, serious look on our faces, hands straight to our sides, feet together attention. The inspector was steps away. “Wait a minute! My skivvies is in my crack,” George announced. Well, that did it. All of us, losing our concentration, clenched our teeth to keep our faces straight, tears of laughter flowing down our cheeks, as the inspector stepped in front of the first recruit and looked him up and down. “Are you crying?” he asked. That made it worse, but we managed to keep our teeth clenched. The inspector stepped in front of the next guy and looked him up and down. We all saw a change come over the inspector's face as he stepped back and looked over several more faces in the company. “You're all crying,” he said, and that broke all of our ability to contain ourselves. We collapsed laughing, all composure gone, just barely managing to stand in one spot. The shock on the inspector's face was something to behold. He went on to the next company, not finishing our inspection. “That's the damndest thing I've ever seen,” he said as he walked away. George caused us to fail several inspections.
If there was something out of the ordinary going on, George was in the middle of it. In our second or third week, a strange noise at night, usually around one or two in the morning, began waking several of us up. Clunk-cinch, clunk-cinch, clunk-cinch, in perfect rhythm, on and on. The first night we lay in our bunks looking around in the dimly lit barracks for the direction and source of the sound. The sound stopped after a while and we went back to sleep. The next night was a repeat of the first, we listened, tried to identify the sound, it finally stopped and we went back to sleep. On the third night George asked loudly, “What the hell is that noise?” and several began laughing and the noise stopped after a while. The next day in ranks George made several comments about “Ghosts in our goddamned barracks. Can't sleep with ghosts bumpin' and poundin',” which started us laughing. The noise continued, however, and the RCC and a few of us, including, of course, George, got out of our bunks to see if we could find the source, all of us with the hair on the back of our necks standing straight out, totally aware of the eeriness of the situation. Had there been a sudden surprise, we would have jumped cleanly out of our skin, or died of a heart attack. The sound eluded us for several more nights.
George found the source. “Com' 'ere,” he called to us quietly and we all gathered around him. Brock was marching in his sleep, clunk-cinch, clunk-cinch, with each step causing one bunk leg to rise and fall, clunk, and a “ cinch” noise of the bunk spring and his blanket popping up and fluttering down. The guy below him was sound asleep. Instinctively, the RCC grabbed Brock's arm to wake him up and, shockingly, Brock bounced out of his bunk to full attention, eyes-front, hands to his side, perfectly straight. He was still asleep. We curbed our impulse to run and looked at each other. “Now what?” George asked. After several minutes, Brock climbed into his bunk and relaxed. He slept quietly for the rest of the night.
The next day, the CC suggested that we could request Brock to be “sent back.” All of us had already heard of being sent back, and through hell or high water we were determined not to have that happen to us. It meant starting again, from day-one, with a new company. We were determined to get this nightmare over with. So, it was decided that we would handle the situation, somehow. We tried several things for the next several nights; quietly talking to Brock to wake him, telling him to stop, ordering him to stop and anything else we could think of. Brock would pause, in some cases, but for the most part he stopped when he chose to stop, it seemed to us. By then, the whole company watched and suggested things to do, but nothing seemed to work. Whether from impatience or a guess or a hunch, it was George, again, who said the magic words. George said in a loud, strong voice, “COMPANY, HALT! AT EASE!” Brock stopped marching and woke up bleary-eyed, barely awake. “What's going on?” he asked. We rolled on the floor laughing, loud enough to wake up the entire base, rib and stomach muscles hurting and tears of laughter flowing. There was always one Company Commander of the six, the Watch Commander, on watch around the clock. A few minutes later he opened our door and asked, “ What's going on up here? Horse play?” Our company was reported for loud and boisterous behavior after hours. I can't deny it. It was loud and boisterous.
We finally reached “Service Week,” our sixth week of boot camp where we were assigned various base duties from temporary Company Commanders to guard duty to the mess hall and we were allowed more freedom in the evenings to go to the Canteen and Saturday liberty in Chicago, which usually meant State Street at a movie and a restaurant meal or two, for a real hamburger, or even a bar for those old enough. I had a terrible cold, the worst I've ever had, and the CC wanted me to go to the dispensary, the medical clinic, but I wouldn't do it. I had no intention of being set back, or even chancing that remote possibility. I was determined to finish with the company I started with. Three days of high fever and fluid on my lungs made guard duty in the bitter cold of late February miserable, but I managed to make it through. I was getting better by the end of the week and went to the Canteen with the RCC and a couple of other guys. That's when I heard, for the first time, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. And you know that can't be bad...” and another song, “Love, love me do...” and “I want to hold your hand...” all by the same group.
Who's that?” we asked. The Beatles, we were told. In six weeks time while we were completely cut off from the world, the entire world had changed. That Saturday at around 9:00 A.M. I and two others were at the station catching a train to Chicago and State Street. There was not much happening on State Street at that time in the morning, we learned. The first thing we noticed was long hair – on men, with bangs. We were shocked. And, we laughed at the idea and asked each other whether we'd seen anything like that before boot camp, only six or seven weeks ago. We didn't think we did. We ate a real breakfast at a coffee shop. As a few hours passed more people appeared on State Street and the movie theaters opened and we went to a movie about noon. I don't remember the movie we saw, but I do remember the Movietone Newsreel. The theater was nearly full and most were high-school age girls, which, of course, was exactly to our liking. But, we soon learned they were there for the Newsreel. The Beatles, the first time we saw them, emerged from a plane in Los Angeles, waving to a crowed of screaming and swooning girls along the edges of the tarmac. As soon as the Beatles appeared on screen, the entire theater erupted with girls screaming and yelling and jumping, pulling at their hair and clothes.
It is rare to remember a thought a person has of only a week ago. We may remember attitudes or ideas or the general circumstances of an event. I can remember George and the laughter and roughly the words he spoke and when he spoke them, but more than likely he didn't speak those exact words, but my guess is very close. Memories play tricks on us. But in that theater that day, I remember clearly what I was thinking. I liked what I was seeing. It looked like fun to be a part of that. I had a tinge of regret for joining the Navy at that instant. What, I asked myself, if I had waited just a few more weeks before joining the Navy? I wouldn't have joined at all. I knew that I would miss a big, probably important, change that others will experience.
And, that's what happened. We, of course, made it through boot camp, made all the more pleasant by George's humorous antics and Brock's weird sleep-marching, and I went on to Storekeeper School at Newport, Rhode Island. Newport was an uncomfortable town to be in with closely cut hair and wearing a uniform. There really were signs on lawns that said “Sailors and Dogs – keep off the grass.” I tried raw oysters, touted as a delicacy, and nearly vomited in front of a dozen restaurant patrons. I went to the Newport beaches and learned that I didn't care for swimming in the ocean, but the beach scenery was great. But, I did, surprisingly, gain an understanding of and I enjoyed the school, consisting mostly of Navy bookkeeping, supply orders and typing. I finished near the top of the class, including typing over 70 words per minute on a manual typewriter. Until then, I had never finished near the top in anything. It was a new feeling.
But, it was lonely at Newport and I was glad to get it over with. I left one week before the Newport Jazz Festival and long-haired people, men and women, were already gathering in the town. Dad and Durward picked me up at the Evansville airport. It wasn't long before I was back in Ross' Poolroom (Was that its name? Didn't Bill Ross own it?) with Mike, Pudge, Ronnie and others, enjoying myself, although they were not around as much as they used to be. They were busy at college or with girlfriends or jobs, or maybe their wives. I don't remember if it was that visit home from Newport, or home after Vietnam a year later, that Mike ask the critical, criticizing, question, as only he seemed to do, “Don't you grow your hair long?” Everyone laughed and I was embarrassed. No, I couldn't grow long hair – I was on a different path, in the Navy.
A little over a year later, after one year in Vietnam and out of touch there as well, I was walking toward the USS Princeton's enlisted man's brow for the first time, with my duffel bag on my back, checking into a new duty station home-ported in Long Beach. Had I had the ability to look into the future, I would have paid attention to the supplies waiting on the pier to be lifted aboard the Princeton that day, specifically to the huge rolls of non-skid for the hanger and flight decks. Each roll contained 500 feet. Only two months later I would order 5,000 “ rolls,” not “feet,” costing $100,000, instead of the correct amount, $10,000, from the Pearl Harbor Supply Center on our way to the Western Pacific Theater. In a panic after seeing my mistake, I ran two miles to the Supply Center to get the order back, just in the nick of time, saving myself from a lot of grief. It became an unforgettable memory. A lot of in-the-nick-of-time events occurred since that became unforgettable memories.
Long Beach was both a sailor town and a Hell's Angel town, about which there are suitable sea stories for another day. We tried to get out of Long Beach, though, to L. A. and Sunset Boulevard, the “Strip,” where there were plenty of pretty girls our age and fun places to go. After we returned from the Western Pacific, out of touch with the world and nearly a year later, I heard new music, just as surprising to me on our return as the surprise we experienced by the Beatles' sudden emergence. “Come you masters of war, you who build the big guns...” Bob Dylan. The song was about me and, after Vietnam, I agreed with the words and the cause it spoke of. Since I couldn't join it, I bought a guitar and I and other, much better, real musicians on ship began to gather in the Supply Office after work for nightly sessions. Somehow my plunking the strings managed to fit into their strumming and picking as we learned the latest songs. We had a good time there, too.
Hey mister Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey Mister Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle-jangle morning I'll come following you...”
...Bob Dylan, 1964.
Oh, and thanks, George, for the laughs.

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