When I arrived at my first duty station, fresh from Navy A school, I understood what all newbies understood - nothing.
At A school I'd been trained to be a Morse code intercept operator, so of course I could copy Morse.
A quick note of explanation: You don't come out of Navy A schools incompetent. First, they screen the people who get in there, matching their aptitudes with the school's skills. Second, if you can't hack it, it becomes readily apparent and you get washed out early in the game. And third, since graduating from the schools qualify you for good duty, it's a huge incentive to succeed.
This is especially true since Uncle doesn't look kindly on low-level losers who use up his time and money and don't produce what they're supposed to. So flunk out of an A school and the rest of your Navy "career" the only skills you'll get to master will probably be swabbing decks and chipping paint. Suffice it to say, I didn't know anyone who thought chipping paint in the tropical sun, hour after hour after hour, was somehow superior to being gainfully employed in the radio shack - even for all the benefits that accrue with fresh air and a gorgeous tan.
Dots and dashes
But while I graduated A school with the ability to take Morse at a decent speed, I'd only done it from recordings, not live broadcast. So I knew I could copy Morse sort of. But while I didn't know whom I'd be copying or when or how or much of anything else about what really went on in the field, I figured I'd learn. And I did.
Then again, it was hard not to learn. The Navy I saw, while perhaps not the stuff of "In Harm's Way," was also not "McHale's Navy" either. Sure, we had our share of oddities and weird-outs, but it wasn't like we were sitting around all the time, shucking and jiving, waiting for the next bout of hilarity and hijinks to happen. In fact, on average, out of every hour, I'm sure I worked 50 minutes, sometimes more. And because it was intercept, we couldn't leave our station unless someone else took over, so we were pretty much glued to our chairs.
Not that I minded it. Don't ask me why, but I actually liked the work. I never found it boring; plus I'd always been fascinated by Morse code. Plus I'd always liked language, and that's what Morse was to me. Finally, the targets I intercepted sent in plain language, so - as opposed to the guys who were intercepting encrypted messages - all mine could be translated and understood on the spot. Not that they were the stuff of James Bond's world, but they weren't just a random collection of letters and numbers either.
But as much as I learned my immediate job, one thing that eluded me was our mission. I kept hearing that word over and over - the mission this, the mission that, and bladdy blah blah blah - but really had no idea what it meant. And compounding it was the odd circumstance that I was in a Navy radio activity that was actually part of an Army base.
In some ways it was great. There was no Shore Patrol, so the Army MPs were the base cops and since all of them were low-ranking enlisted men, most of whom had already been in Vietnam, they never hassled anyone. Also, since the base was a weird hodge-podge of support personnel - truck drivers, baggage handlers and a microwave unit - it was about as loosey-goosey as the military gets. Probably another way to put it is while there was a lot of spit, there was absolutely no polish.
But that was just us - a bunch of wingnuts on the North Sea, completely apart from any other Army bases. And there were a buttload of them. Stationed in Germany at that time weren't tens of thousands of American troops, but hundreds of thousands of them, making up our Sixth Army. So as far as total American troop strength in Germany went, the 250 of us were counted only with a decimal point and a couple of zeroes before our number.
So what of the Sixth Army? What was their mission?
Truth be told, I never thought about it. Keep in mind, like everyone else on a first hitch, I was just a kid. I was focused on all the minor stuff of every day, and taking care of that was a big enough deal. My only idea of a long-term goal was getting out unscathed, and that was that.
Losing lunch and everything else
So the Sixth Army's mission stayed completely out of mind till it suddenly leaped into sight one day in the base library.
Our library was small but had the best collection of books imaginable. I've no idea who did the ordering, but whoever it was, they were on their game. It didn't matter what genre - history, biography, classics, modern fiction, and so on - they had it all. As I recall, I went through three or four library cards in two-and-a-half years and never reread the same book. They also had a fine collection of magazines and once a week I made sure to go in and check out the periodicals.
On this particular day, I'd read a bunch of periodicals and was skimming a Time magazine when an article caught my eye. It was about the U.S. Army in Germany. More specifically, it was about its mission.
"Ah, that word again," I thought. "Sure gonna find out what it is now."
So I did. And when I did, I about lost my lunch.
The Sixth Army's mission was, in case of an attack from Russia and the Eastern Bloc, to hold them off for two days till they could be reinforced by troops from the U.S. and its allies.
On paper, it sounded perfectly sensible, reassuring even.
But as for the reality? Even I could figure that out.
If the most they expected of 300,000 troops (with tactical nuclear weapons) was to hold off the enemy for two days, it meant by the third day, while there'd be a whole lot of reinforcements, there'd probably be no Sixth Army.
And if there was no Sixth Army, there'd also be no Navy Morse intercept operators.
And if there were no Navy Morse intercept operators, there'd be no more Dopey Boy!
I quit reading, shut the magazine and put it back on the rack.
Then I put the entire Sixth Army and its mission far, far in the back of my mind.