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.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Little League

It was the summer of 1958. There was not a lot to do in my little town of Waldron Arkansas. There was only one TV station, no Xbox, no IPhones and no Nintendo. Kids were outside kids. There was nothing to do inside. In the summertime our lives revolved around Little League baseball. Our parents didn’t drive us to practice or even to the games. We rode our bikes if we had one or walked down to the ballpark.
My older brother Gary was one of the best pitchers for the Pirates. I played for the Bluejays and was the smallest and probably the worst player on the team. My other older brother Gene was real good too and I think he played for the Giants. We never missed practice. We couldn’t wait to put on those nice clean uniforms on game day. We were instantly transformed into Micky Mantel, Roger Maris and Warren Spahn. We walked and ran the mile or so to the park long before it was time for our game.
It was another warm summer night. The bleachers were full of people. Bugs and bats buzzed around the tall bright lights around the field. The infield was raked smooth and fresh lime striped the baselines. The infamous Dave McConnell towered above his Pirates on the third base side. He was a big man and always had a big chew of Red Man in his jaw. He was a great coach and tough as he was, his team loved him. Bill McCullah stood along the first base side with his rag-tag assorted size Bluejays. Bill was an average size man with a heart of gold. All the Little League coaches cared a lot more about teaching and developing young ball players in those days than winning a baseball game.
It was the last inning of the last game of the 1958 Little League season. The Pirates had a 4-3 lead and the Bluejays already had two outs but we had a man on second and Jim Blythe, our pitcher and the best player in the Little League, was at bat. I have never felt as small in my life as when Wendell Henderson, the local postmaster and announcer said, “and batting next for the Bluejays is Yates, Number 24.” Jim glanced over at me and the look in his eyes told me that he just realized it was all up to him. I figured he would get one RBI to tie it up but that it would probably be up to me to get him home for the win. My knees felt weak and although there was a nice breeze blowing in off Bull Creek, sweat was popping out on my forehead. I nervously glanced up towards the announcer and saw the color commentator, Poss Griffin look at me then say something to Mr. Henderson while shaking his head. Mr. Henderson nodded.
Just then I heard the crack of the bat. Jim had sent a long fly ball deep into left field..way back…just foul for strike 2. I was about to pass out. I wished I had drank my milk like my mom had told me. I felt so weak and insignificant. If only Jim would hit a homer the game would be over. If only my family could move to another state or I could at least go to a different school, everything would be different. I would be good at baseball like my brothers. Everyone would like me. The next day at the barber shop and drugstore everyone would be talking about the winning homerun I hit or the great play I made to save the game.
The count was full. Jim stepped up to the plate, confidently took a couple of practice swings and stared my brother down; double dog daring him to throw his best pitch. I was the designated catcher for my brother when he practiced pitching at home. He could throw the ball and throw it hard. To this day I still have a crooked finger to prove it. As I watched Gary start his windup it was as if everything stopped for a moment. I couldn’t hear the crowd or the chatter from the players. Then it was like slow motion as, with a determined look on his face, Gary sent the ball screaming towards the plate. I could see the seams on the ball slowly turning as it crept towards the plate…. and Jim Blythe’s bat. I must have closed my eyes for a second because the next sound I heard was the baseball slamming into the catcher’s mitt. Jim Blythe had taken a mighty swing and completely missed the ball. The game was over.
When I got back to the bench I said, “That’s OK Jim.” Then I told Mr. McCullah that if only Jim had gotten on base we could have won the game. On the warm dark walk home that night I was a little sad about losing but very relieved that it didn’t come down to that final at bat for number 24.