I craned my head around and watched through the window as sentries, wearing sidearms and carrying rifles, lowered the traffic barricade that shut off contact with the outside world. My heart skipped two beats and a stab of fear flashed through my mind. Fear of the life-altering weeks ahead of me. Fear of the unknown. I fought back a panic attack and looked for escape. I wanted to quit, flee and go home. Fight or flight. Too late for flight. I fought back the fear, swallowed hard and turned to face front, eyes wide, senses straining to absorb the onslaught of change from my new world.
No one spoke on the bus; we had the same thoughts. Outside, the new world looked cold and sterile, austere. Great, rectangular, puke-yellow and gray concrete buildings cut with abrupt angles and covered with flat roofs. Functional. Imposing. Ominous. Columns of uniformed men marched on acres of parade ground; flags and standards flew above them. The men looked severe, purposeful, martial. My new world looked brutal. A shiver thrilled along the back of my neck. I felt cold.
The change had been immediate and I had not yet stepped off the bus. I felt as though I had passed through a particle beam that tore my old identity away cell by cell and reassembled me into something no longer civilian but not yet military, not yet a Sailor. I wouldn’t be allowed to call myself a Sailor for nine weeks. A lifetime.
The bus drove past the parade ground and a mock-up of a Navy ship, the Bluejacket. Recruits swarmed over its deck. What appeared to be real Sailors directed them here and there. It looked like organized chaos, but what did I know: I had been in the Navy a mere four hours. My fellow recruits and I sat silent, taking in the last few moments of freedom to think about what lay ahead. We were free, for the moment, to look around, stretch, run our fingers through our long hair, talk if we wanted, laugh, grumble, fart, belch, cuss, threaten defiance. Freedoms taken for granted. Freedoms about to be taken away. One fellow two rows ahead of me said in a New York accent,
“They ain’t gonna break me, the fuckers.” A few guys smirked at the comment.
“What are you going to do, tough guy,” said a big, muscular man, later selected as company Master-at-Arms, “beat up the Navy?” The bus erupted in laughter.
“Yeah, fuck you,” said New York.
“Yeah, fuck yourself.”
New York would find his attitude fuck him often over the next nine-weeks, but he’d make it through. Same thing for Master-at-Arms, except he would find it takes more than brawn to make it through boot camp.
“Oh shit,” someone said. Those were the last words anyone spoke that day without first being permitted to speak.
The bus pulled up to a low squat, gray building with a ramrod straight, uniformed man standing in front. The creases in his uniform could cut glass. His black spit-shined shoes reflected the sun’s rays into the bright blue sky like mirrors. He wore a red aiguillette around his left shoulder. Our Company Commander. He didn’t look happy.
From the moment we stepped off the dark-blue Navy bus our lives would belong to the United States Navy in general, and to our CC specifically. He would become the sole object of our attention, the single most important person in our lives, the man who could break us before our naval careers began. By the end of my first hour in boot camp he would have begun to peel away my old self, leaving the shell that remained a blank slate, a blank slate upon which he would begin the deliberate process of transforming me into a Sailor. A blank slate indelibly imprinted with the creed, code, history, and traditions of the United States Navy. He would tell me only a select few received this singular honor, that it would be my solemn duty to live up to the expectations of my country and the trust my countrymen placed in me for their safety and liberty. And I believed it wholeheartedly. At least fifty-eight of the men with me believed it wholeheartedly, too; I couldn’t be sure of New York.
We had entered a world in which self had no meaning, because self led to death. Each man would have a job to do, and he would know that job intimately. He would receive the tools and training needed to perform his job. His job would be to ensure the survival of his ship and his shipmates.
This new world would have rules to govern every aspect of our lives, every minute of every day, for nine weeks. We would learn very quickly to obey without question every order given to us, no matter by whom. We would have no privacy except that which we found in our thoughts; even then we would have time for our thoughts only after taps. However, by the time taps ended, we would be too exhausted for anything but sleep, and the lessons we learned during the day would percolate through our brains in the night and etch themselves onto our sleeping minds. We would wake each morning a little less civilian, a little more Sailor.
The first words we heard on our first day of boot camp came from our company commander’s mustached head leaning into the doorway of the bus. He would, for the next nine-weeks, speak to us deliberately, with clear enunciation, his words dripping with sarcasm, and shrieked, roared, or yelled depending on circumstances.
“All right, ladies, what are you waiting for, an invitation? Get off the bus and fall in. I want three ranks, your toes on the white lines. Now!” he said.
No bus ever emptied faster than ours as sixty men from all walks of life and all points of America pushed and shoved to get off the bus before…we didn’t want to think about what would happen if we didn’t move fast enough. As we filed past, the CC gave every one of us the eye. It became apparent he wanted us to know he meant business. His square jaw looked tight as I scrambled past him and headed for the white line, but he stopped me and said,
“Did you eyeball me, recruit?”
“No,” I mumbled.
“Stand at attention,” he yelled.
I came to what passed for attention for a seventeen-year old boy with a few hours in the Navy.
“Did you eyeball me, recruit?”
“What did you say?”
“I said, no, sir, I didn’t eyeball you.”
“I can’t hear you.”
I increased the volume of my voice and repeated my last words with a few more sirs thrown in but, apparently, appeasement didn’t work with him. His face turned into a red scowl, his jaw tightened until I thought it would snap, and his brow furrowed until his eyebrows merged and met with the bridge of his Roman nose. His body seemed to swell in size as he leaned into me. Because I had glanced at his jawline, he had chosen me as the scum upon whom he would set the example for the rest of the company. I didn’t feel honored, I felt humiliated. I stood ramrod straight at this point, the point where the brim of his combination cap shaded my eyes from the sun and his nose continually bounced off mine. I looked right through him. He stared straight at me. I could have licked his tonsils.
“You,” he said with his finger in my chest and in a voice sufficiently loud to be heard several miles away, “will address me as ‘Sir’ when I choose to let you speak. ‘Sir’, will be the first word you use in every sentence you speak to anyone who is not a worthless, miserable excuse for a human being like you. ‘Sir’, will be the last word you speak. Is that understood?
“Sir. yes, sir.”
“I can’t hear you.”
“Sir. Yes, Sir.”
“SIR. YES, SIR.” My pulse raced, my heart pounded, my palms sweated. Sweat stung my eyes but I didn’t dare move.
“Did the rest of you ladies hear that?”
“SIR. YES, SIR.”
“Fall in,” he said to me as he strode to the first rank. I fell in at the rear.
“Get those arms straight down. Align your index fingers with the seam of your trousers. Stand up straight and keep your eyes straight ahead. Suck in your guts and throw your shoulders back. Look like men for a change. Keep your heels together and your toes pointed out forty-five degrees. Breathe through your noses, you’re not goddamn mouth-breathers. And don’t lock your knees.”
He stopped at the center of the first rank, his hands on his hips, and addressed us.
“I am your company commander. My name is Petty Officer First Class John Phillips. I am a submariner. I am not a sub-mariner. Do not ever call a submariner a sub-mariner or he will kill you. You may call me Sir. You may only call me Sir. You will never address me as Petty Officer Phillips. Only Sailors may address me as Petty Officer Phillips. You – are not Sailors. You will precede every address to me with Sir. Do you understand the word precede?”
“Sir. Yes, Sir.”
There were many moments like this in boot camp, moments when we learned that there might be those among us who didn’t have a basic grasp of the English language. But no one took notes.
“Good. You will call out attention on deck and jump to attention when I or anyone wearing a red aiguillette enters a room. This,” he said pointing to the red braided-cloth rope he wore around his left shoulder, “is a red aiguillette. You will jump to attention and hand-salute when I or anyone wearing a red aiguillette comes within ten feet of you out of doors. You will render the same honor and respect to anyone wearing gold on their collars or their covers. Is that understood?”
“Sir. Yes, Sir.”
“And you will never, ever, eyeball me. Is that understood?”
“Sir. Yes, Sir.”
“Very good. There may be hope for one or two of you yet. Now, are any of you familiar with the term pushup?”
It generally doesn’t take Sailors very long to get the message. But we weren’t Sailors yet; several unfortunates raised their hands, and we all would pay the penalty.
“I did not tell you to move. You,” he addressed another chump somewhere down the line; I didn’t care to turn my head and look. “Did you hear me tell anyone to move?”
“Sir. No, Sir.”
“Ladies, when I want you to move, I will tell you to move. I will say ‘give me a show of hands’, or I will say ‘march’, or I will say ‘wave’. Do you understand me?”
Sixty voices in unison, “Sir. Yes, Sir.”
“Very good. Let’s see how well you understand me. Assume the pushup position.”
And so we began nine weeks of pushups, a regimen not intended to work our triceps or improve upper body strength, but to condition our reflexes for immediate, unthinking obedience. I didn’t hear the groan of sixty voices as I fell to my hands and knees, I felt it.We began our pushups to a spattering of umphs. Big mistake.
“What are you doing? I did not tell you to begin. Did I tell you to begin? When I want you to begin, I will tell you to begin. My direction to begin will be unmistakably clear. I will say, ‘begin’. Now, assume the pushup position. Counting off, begin. See how clearly I indicated my direction to begin? Do not ever forget to start, stop, and resume only on command. I know you are not capable of understanding these concepts, therefore, you will always have superior beings, those who are honored with the red aiguillette and capable of understanding these things, telling you when to do them.”
All this time we strained our flabby, out of shape, civilian bodies and wondered if he would ever tell us how many pushups we could expect. Several minutes passed in which he droned on and on about how worthless we were and how we would probably all drop out by the end of Week Two, Day One. I stopped listening at the 120 pushups mark, mainly because I couldn’t hear through the blood pounding in my head.
“All right, on your feet. Stand at attention. Those pushups were crap. You cannot even properly do pushups.”
With the sharp knife of humiliation in hand he informed us that we were quite possibly the worst candidates for a Sailor’s uniform ever to set foot on hallowed Navy ground. That he had little faith he would ever make men out of us, let alone Sailors. We listened to him bemoan that he did not know what he had done to earn such punishment as that of leading us for the next nine weeks. He would attempt the feat, though, because he had sworn an oath before God that he would do his best to lead by example.
And so it went for the rest of the day. Insults and humiliation. Pushups. Falling out of ranks, falling into ranks. Pushups. Dressing our lines and learning how and when to salute. Yet more pushups. In between the pushups we marched, if you could call it that, around the base, visiting various offices where other men like our CC were invited to welcome us aboard and wish us well, which they did with sadistic pleasure. We marched to the chow hall where we stood out like sore thumbs in our long hair, jeans, and tennis shoes. Senior recruits derided us as raisins and Ricky recruits. We couldn’t avoid or ignore the insults, finger-pointing, and laughter; we could only hope to soon join their raucous fun.
New recruits arrived weekly in boot camp, and company commanders paraded them around base for a few days before allowing them to get haircuts and uniforms. The intent was to humiliate and degrade, to make new recruits stand out and feel their differences. There could be no individuality here, only conformance. To fight as a team, to work as a team, to save one another in order to fight on and save the ship, Sailors must look alike, think alike, move alike. The sooner the old image is erased, the sooner future Sailors will fit in and become part of the team. The humiliation of sixty men standing out in stark contrast to thousands of other men works wonders on the psyche. And our CC understood psychological warfare.
We hated the sight of him and the sound of his voice for the first three weeks of boot camp. We hated him because he humiliated us, criticized us, tyrannized us and screamed obscenities at us. He abused our mothers and sisters and girlfriends. He shamed us before our fathers and grandfathers who had fought bravely in our country’s wars. He tortured us with endless hours of drill on the parade ground, marching us up and down, up and down, to-the-right oblique, to-the-left-oblique, to-the-rear march, to-the-rear march, thousands of pushups for every infraction or just for the pure hell of it. He made us do jumping jacks until our knees threatened to give out. We held our rifles over our heads or at arm’s length in front of us while running in place until our arms ached, our hearts pounded, and we felt we could go on no longer, and then dropped and did twelve-count body-builders to remind us that obedience must be blind and immediate. A mental detachment from reality became the only way to survive. Relief came when we were afforded the luxury of standing at attention in ranks for long periods of time, careful not to let our knees lock lest we faint. Practicing falling in and falling out of ranks, learning the intervals allowed between each man, standing nut-to-butt outside the chow hall waiting for our twenty minutes to run in, eat, and run out. All of this to ensure divestment of any shred of civilian identity and transformation into Sailors.
Sometime around the fourth week, though, it all began to coalesce, our attitudes began to change and we began to look like Sailors. We sang our cadence songs louder with great gusto. We marched as one man, our motions fluid. We gained confidence in each other and in our company. Company 168 became an entity, a formation of disciplined recruits, a single organism. We understood, now, our CCs reasons for putting us through the grinder. We wanted to work hard and become the best. We wanted to stand out not as humiliated recruits, but as proud Sailors. None of us wanted to be the one who would let the company down. None of us wanted to let our Company Commander down. He might still occasionally rage at us and the spit fly from his mouth and into our faces, the brim of his combination cap might bounce against our foreheads and leave red creases, he might cuss us out as vile pussies not fit even to serve in the Air Force, but not one of us would let him down. He had filled in sixty blank slates, each of them etched with military bearing, cadence, and Naval tradition. For the rest of boot camp the lessons learned over the previous four weeks would be reinforced with deeper, more specific training. The humiliation would nearly cease; it would not be needed as a constant tool of discipline. Petty Officer Phillips let escape now and then a smile, and a glimmer of confidence in us. He allowed us to address him as Petty Officer Phillips in the barracks.
Week Five, Day One brought our first break, Service Week. This week would be spent learning the various menial tasks we might be faced with in the Fleet, as Sailors called the real Navy. Some guys worked at the swimming pool, others worked at one of the gyms or various other places. I worked at the chow hall. Awakened by the roving watch at 03:30, I reported to the chow hall by 04:00. Back in my rack by 21:30. Some unlucky bastards washed dishes or swabbed the heads all week. I ran for chow. I brought chow from the prep rooms to the serving line and ran back for more. I found that I loved pecan pie and probably stuffed fifty pounds in my stomach that week. The week of service exhausted me but the break worked psychological wonders. I had trained for the previous four weeks to be a member of a team. And I had become a member of a team. I could now work as a member of any team the Navy chose for me. I had changed. No longer the same person I had been oh so long ago, I now had just weeks to go until I would be allowed to call myself a Sailor.
By the time Week Nine, Day Five arrived, graduation day, respect and admiration for Petty Officer Phillips left his image and example forever after etched in our minds. The long, deliberate process of peeling away the layers of humanity had revealed the Sailor inside. To his glory, we earned the coveted title of Honor Company. We marched our hearts out on the parade ground in the bright sun, in front of the grandstand, watched by the commanding officer and other VIPs, as well as our families and friends. We stood proud at attention, our formation resplendent in white Crackerjacks, black neckerchiefs tied around our necks, Dixie cups set square on our shaved heads. And our black spit-shined shoes reflected the sun’s rays back into the infinite blue of the sky. We were Sailors.