Seaman Recruit Dope learns the ropes

Forty-eight years ago today, I’d finished my second week of boot camp.

I was still in shock, and it was a good thing. The enormity of a four years in This Man’s Navy hadn’t dawned on me. Instead, from minute to minute I struggled, just to figure out what was going on.

I was now in a n different world that nothing in my cushy and long-since-gone civilian life had prepared me for.

There was a new hierarchy: chains of command, petty officers, non-commissioned officers, warrant officers, line officers, staff officers, limited duty officers. There was a new vocabulary — floors were decks, rooms were compartments, pillars were stanchions, and we were boots, a life form I quickly learned was lower than whale poop.

Every minute of the day was accounted for, from reveille at the leisurely hour of 0500 to lights out at 2100.

We had close order drill – enough to be competent but not enough to be skilled. We did the 24-count manual of arms with 1903 Springfields till we about dropped. We got run through an obstacle course, all the while being vilified by a bunch of slavering, aggro PT sadists.

But mostly, since Navy duty consisted of shipboard life, boot camp was set up for confinement. Thus most of our days were spent indoors, in classes of every imaginable ilk. They were also of every quality, from the excellent to the atrocious, most being a fair ways south of good.

Class quality depended on one thing — the instructor. And early on it was apparent that most of the instructors did a poor job because they couldn’t stand being there. They were all salty dogs who thrived on sea duty. Being stuck with a bunch of raw recruits, who were basically civilians in uniform, was anathema to them. They longed for a job in their chosen field, for the smell of the salt air and the degeneracy and depravity of liberty in the fleshpots and buckets of blood of the world.

The best class by far was first aid. It was run by a squared-away First Class who obviously prepared his presentations scrupulously. He also never insulted or condescended to us, and he was even entertaining. Those qualities made him not only outstanding but downright unique among the Great Lakes “faculty.”

From Midway to Ma Bell

Some of the other classes were equally memorable, for the exact opposite reason: They were stinkareoos.

One was on naval history, which didn’t have an instructor, just a film. But even that was a bummer. It was an ancient 16 mm newsreel on the Battle of Midway. The film was scratchy and weirdly edited, so it shifted from one scene to another with no clear segue, all while an announcer in that classic ’40s voice was narrating his little heart out. Most of it was footage from within the airplanes, since Midway was the first naval battle that took place almost exclusively with planes, out of sight of the ships themselves. That point alone stuck with me forever since I spent the whole class fighting a king helluva case of airsickness.

Another loser was marlinspike seamanship. A marlinspike is a knife blade specially designed for splicing ropes. And that’s all I learned from the class. The instructor handed out a buttload of ropes, tied a bunch of knots at warp speed, told us to do the same, and did nothing more. All the rope was probably a bondage freak’s dream-come-true, but being of a more conservative and less flamboyant persuasion, I was simply lost.

Then there was Telephone Talking. This was to show us how to use the ships’ internal voice communication system – voice-activated phones. The system was pretty amazing to me, since it was powered by the voice alone, not an external power source. How that worked, I have no idea, since it wasn’t explained to us. Nor, in fact, was anything else. The thing with those phones is, in effect, they’re always on and all channels are always open. You can also have more than two people on a line. This was a key point because after the instructor mumbled his way through what he thought were instructions, we got to use the phones ourselves. But when we did, all I remember was trying to talk and listen to one guy, while a bunch of other guys were talking at the same time. In reality, the sound-powered phones are fabulously reliable and are used in the Navy today, but you’d never have known it from that class.

Court martial mishegas

While I’ve remembered those classes, the one I could never forget — even if I wanted to — was on the UCMJ. UCMJ stands for the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the basis of US military law. According to the instructor (and according to a lot of military groupies), military law is actually more advantageous to the defendant than civilian law. I’ve no idea if that’s true or not, and having been a law-abiding lad then and a law-abiding gaffer now, I hope never to find out. I will say, however, I have my doubts.

Anyhow, there are 146 articles and 12 sub-articles in the UCMJ, covering everything from unshined shoes to adultery. There’s even one prohibiting dueling, which the Navy, in its love of tradition, kept the wording but used to punish fighting.

The character going over this babbled from one article to the next, making no solid points and even no real sense. But even with that, he managed to drive home one point that stayed in my mind as if branded there. It was about the General Article.

The General Article, Article 134, is a real beaut. Essentially, it covers anything not mentioned anywhere else in the other articles. It’s the one-size-fits all, good-for-what-ails-you article, just lying there, waiting for some schlimazel to test its powers. Say the aforementioned schlimazel whispers to his friend that the captain is a dad-blamed hornswoggled sidewinder, and some fink overhears it and immediately reports him to the powers that be. An Article 134 for sure!

Like everyone else in boot camp, I was just a kid. I knew precious little about the world, even less about the Navy and absolutely nothing about military law. Certainly, while I knew who George Clemenceau was, I’d never heard his quotes that could’ve summed up the whole class on the UCMJ in one short sentence. And here it is:

“Military justice is to justice,” said Clemenceau, “what military music is to music.”