Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Anchors Aweigh

It was 1967 and my senior year at Waldron High School. Graduation was upon us and everyone was excitedly making their plans for college or whatever their next adventure would be. No one had talked to me about college and I had no idea how important it was at the time. There was no way my folks could have afforded to send me and my grades were not good enough for a scholarship. Besides the Yates men were Navy men. My Dad had served on a PT boat in the South Pacific in WWII. My brother Gary was in the Navy Reserve and my brother Gene was already in Vietnam on the USS Ranger. So I went down and signed up under the 120 day delay program. The 120 day delay program gave you 120 days to get all your affairs in order, get your 90 lb weakling body into better condition and most of all it gave you 120 nights to wake up in a cold sweat wondering what they would do to you when you got to Boot Camp. My brothers had casually mentioned one or two terrifying events and I imagined a few more.

The 120 days were a blur and I found myself down at Denver Plummers gas station that cool October morning watching the bus pull in and stop. With hugs, handshakes and nervous smiles all around I stepped on the bus and chose a seat on the left side so I could have one more wave out the window as the bus pulled out. As the bus topped the hill I had a clear view of Waldron. It was the only town, the only family and the only home I had ever known. I was embarassed to feel tears welling up in my eyes and it was hard to swallow. I quickly looked around to make sure no one had noticed. I had heard that, since the war was heating up, they were sending some guys straight to Vietnam out of Boot Camp. I wondered if I would ever see Waldron again.

The bus lumbered through Boles and by the time we turned off at Y-City I was starting to look forward to my big adventure. We picked up another nervous looking recruit in Hot Springs and I felt much better now that there were two of us. After spending the night in the old Lafayette Hotel in Little Rock they loaded us up for my first plane ride to San Diego. I don't remember much about that first plane ride but I imagine it was pretty exciting.

What I do remember is getting off a bus at the Recruit Training Depot in San Diego. It was rather late in the evening and I was tired and hungry and there was this man screaming and yelling at me for breathing perfectly good air that a worthy sailor could be breathing. We were shuffled off to a temporary baracks for the night and would begin processing the next day. I woke up very early the next morning in a room full of strangers with some guy banging on a trash can with a club and explaining in a very loud and animated voice how it would be in our best interest to be dressed and lined up outside in exactly five minutes. The food was pretty good and I felt much better about my unfortunate circumstance after a good breakfast.

The next few days and weeks were spent in formation, marching from one endless line to another on the other side of the base. I was poked, prodded, sheared, given at least 20 shots in each arm and 2 giant shots in the hip. We washed our clothes on long concrete tables with a brush and a bottle of Wisk, then tied them to the line with pieces of string tied in perfect square knots. The square knots seemed important to Chief Shot because my granny knots made him scream bad words at me and his face got all red. The Chief often reminded me that if I didn't swing my arms when we marched that he would be required to rip them off. I took him literally.

My brothers had warned me about the big shakedown but it was worse than they had described. Just when we started to feel sort of cocky and that maybe Boot Camp was not so bad after all, they came in to inspect our barracks. They proceeded to yell and holler at us while they were turning our bunks upside down and dumping all our neatly folded clothes on the floor. I will never forget the image of the guy from Hot Springs standing at attention but with his arms extended with dungrees draped over them and underware on his head yelling over and over,"WHY AREN'T YOU BUTTONED BUTTON". As terrified as I was It was hard to keep from laughing.

Our greatest fear was getting sent to 4050 (Forty Fifty) Company. The guys that really messed up or refused to submit to the insanity that was Boot Camp were sent there and had to start Boot Camp all over again when they had finished their sentence. While they were in 4050 company their white hats were died red and they had to double time everywhere they went with tough looking SPs in charge. In the chow hall they would get their trays and stand at attention behind their chairs. The guard would blow his whistle and they sat down. He blew it again and they started eating as fast as they could. In about three minutes he blew it again and they stopped eating and stood at attention. Again and out they went. We heard that every night the guards would pour cold water on them or turn their racks upside down every time they fell asleep.

When we were issued our service numbers Cheif Shot told us that if anyone forgot their number they would be sent to 4050 Company. I lay in bed all that night saying my number over and over and over. The Navy later switched our service numbers to our social security numbers. That was over forty years ago but I still remember my service number.

The Navy was big on chemical weapons training so they crammed us all into a small building and flooded it with tear gas. After a while they made us shed our mask and find our way out. Another bad break for me. For whatever reason they put the tall guys in the back so it took us a critical 20-30 seconds to get to the fresh air.

The Navy is also big on firefighting so a couple of times they crammed us into a building and set it on fire. They sort of wanted us to put the fire out before we came out.

Smimming qualification was a fun day for me. My brothers and I had taught ourselves to swim down at the Mill Creek bridge near Y-City. For the nonswimmers it must have been the worst day of their lives. The look of shear terror in their eyes is forever etched in my mind. They were lined up on the deep end of the pool and forced to jump in or were pushed in. After reaching the final stages of drowning, an instructor would extend a long pole to them and pull them to safety. If they panicked and tried to climb up the pole, the other instructors would hit them in the head with volleyballs until they let go of the pole, at which point the drowning sequence would start all over again. We also had to take our pants off, tie knots in the legs, catch air in them and use them for a flotation device. We also had to float using out navy white hats.

The days seemed long and hard but before we knew it the nine weeks were over and we were in our dress blues, orders in hand, heading for the fleet for our next big adventure.

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