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Turning yesterday’s wimps into today’s machos

March 30, 2012
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

I'm terrible at remembering dates, but I'll never forget April 29, 1969 -?my first day in the Navy.

I'd just gotten to Great Lakes, where I was herded into Camp Barry and I got my mind blown.

Then again, there was no way I couldn't.

First, there was the yelling coming from every direction. Of course, it was only the staff who yelled, but since we weren't allowed to talk, the din was deafening and disorienting.

Right after we arrived, we were taken to the chow hall and jammed into lines so tight we were breathing down each other's necks, literally. There was a big sign over the serving area that said, "Welcome to Camp Barry, The Finest Food in the U.S. Navy." Actually, the chow was good, but I was too distracted to enjoy, much less even taste it.

After lunch we were hustled to the barbershop. I've always appreciated the skill of a good barber, but "good" nor "skill" had nothing to do with those guys. What we got was less a haircut than a shearing, but they didn't draw any blood at least not that I saw.

After that, there was a bunch of processing, but I can only remember one bit: We were in a big room whose floor had been divided into 2-foot-by-2-foot squares, upon which we were ordered to sit, silently. Then we were given boxes, which we addressed to our homes and into which we stuffed our civvies, not to be seen till our first leave. Next we were given a set of dungarees and yelled at some more, and then hustled to our evening meal.

Finally, bugged and burned out, we marched (in some fashion, at least) to the barracks.

They looked like they came from the set of Stalag 17, which was only logical since they were of the same era. They were old World War II wood buildings, painted a bilious green and looking a tad worn. That was from the outside - the inside was the stuff of nightmares.

They had warped linoleum floors, ancient wooden bunks and locked windows that that were so scratched you could barely see out of them. Lighting came from a few bare 60 watt bulbs. Old time radiators hissed derisively while sending plumes of steam to the ceiling. Everything was clean but grim to the point of oppressive.

But that wasn't the worst part. Uh-uh, that was the head, which consisted of three rooms. The first contained sinks and mirrors. The second contained rusty cast-iron troughs. And they saved the best for last - the toilets. They were artfully arrayed in two rows facing each other -in a completely open room.

One look at them and we all said the same thing: "No way." It was the arrogance of young civilian egos failing to understand they were now on the bottom rung of the military ladder. Of course, once we found out we could go to the bathroom only a few designated times during the day and not at all during the night, our civilian egos went the way of our civilian clothes and our civilian haircuts.

I don't remember much else about Camp Barry, except we went through a couple more days of nonstop processing, getting uniforms, medical checks, equipments and harassment. Finally, we got big news: We were moving to Camp Dewey, where we'd spend the rest of boot camp. Manfully, we slung our seabags over our puny shoulders and stumbled our way to Camp Dewey.

As soon as we got on the Dewey's grounds, I felt like Moses looking at the Promised Land. The barracks were new and looked like college dorms, not 19th century jails. The lights were fluorescent; the floors were level; we could see out the windows. And best of all, there were actual stalls in the bathroom. Holy smoke, we'd gone from the pits to the peak in just one short walk!

As it turned out, Camp Barry was only a processing station. It was supposed to bum us out. That way, when we went to Dewey for the rest of boot camp, it'd seem like Home Sweet Home. And in a fashion, it did.

Living large in Dewey

As for our time in Camp Dewey? We quickly settled into a familiar routine, as we had to. Reveille was at 0530; lights out at 2100. And in between there was all sorts of activity.

We had classes, PT, more classes, more PT. Then there were shots, and more shots, classes and more classes. We shlepped M1s everywhere we went, and drilled with them in the 84 count manual of arms. At night, we had to wash our laundry, by hand with scrub brushes, and then hang it on lines using small cords called "clothes stops." Clothespins were verboten, since John Paul Jones hadn't used them.

We wore the Navy work uniform, dungarees which, since they were unironed, were hopelessly wrinkled. We also wore white canvas gaitors, the sine qua non of Navy recruits, which during the Spanish American war were called "boots," and hence boot camp.

The highlights of our day were smoke breaks. Since almost all of us were smokers and we were only allowed to smoke "when the smoking lamp was lit," (which was maybe a couple times a day) getting a smoke break was a big deal. It was such a big deal that in a five-minute break I could smoke two cigarettes down to the nub, easily.

Our company commanders and instructors, lifers all, were a colorful lot, to say the least. As a whole, they were bibulous, tattooed, and potbellied people who seemed to always have a coffee mug in one hand and a cigarette in the other. They barked rather than spoke, and used five or six compound obscenities where one polite word would've sufficed. But they were mostly good guys whose major problem was being stuck in Great Lakes with a bunch of boots, instead of being out in the fleet, where they really belonged. Thus the least they could do was take some of their misery out on us.

The update

All in all, boot camp wasn't that bad. Certainly, it wasn't as horrible as I'd expected. Then again, when it comes to conjuring up nightmares, I don't know anyone who does a better job than me.

The odd thing was once I got into the regular navy, I always heard the lifers say what a bunch of wimps we all were, since we never went to boot camp in "The Old Navy." And when they said The Old Navy, it was with reverence for glorious days gone by, when keelhauling and the lash were revered rites of passage.

Great Lakes boot camp is now completely different from when I went there.

Gone is Camp Barry, with its penitentiary ambiance and communal crappers. Gone too is Camp Dewey as I knew it, replaced by ultra-modern structures and technologies.

Company commanders no longer swear at the recruits. Plus they're a lean and hungry-looking bunch - a far cry from the chubby martinets of my day. These new guys are STRAC (Strong Tough Ready, Around the Clock) and look as if they actually volunteered for their jobs, rather than got roped into them. They also look cloned, corporate and colorless.

Recruits don't carry M1s and don't do the manual of arms. They also don't do their laundry by hand. As for smoke breaks? The whole boot camp is smoke-free!

And most amazing, women recruits are now in boot camp - lots of them - which I'm sure exerts a civilizing influence unknown to the Great Lakes of my day.

I know time stops for no man, and as the world changes, so must boot camp. But I never thought it'd change so much.

I also never thought I'd find myself feeling sorry for the kids now in Great Lakes, who'll never know The Old Navy of my day.



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