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The Great Great Lakes Candy Caper

October 5, 2012
By Bob Seidenstein ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

I know when the times change, everything changes with them. Still, I'm often boggled by HOW MUCH they change.

Catch this: The other day I was diddy-bopping around the internet, when I decided to see how things are at Great Lakes boot camp. I was there, lo, 40 years ago, but after one quick glance I couldn't believe my eyes!

First, the recruits didn't look like the recruits of my day, and ditto for the staff.

The recruits weren't dressed in the old navy dungarees and white hats we wore, but instead wore full camo outfits hats, and looked less like sailors than marines of some sort. Of course, the expressions on their faces were familiar - one part confusion, one part trepidation, one part fatigue.

As for the staff? Unreal. They looked as lean, mean and STRAC l as it gets. Long gone were the company commanders of my day, those salty dogs with pot bellies and tattoos, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and a permanent scowl on their face.

From the website I found out the base chow hall is gone, replaced by a chow hall in each barracks (which are no longer called barracks, but "ships"). Recruits no longer carry 1903 Springfield rifles like we did, nor do they perform the manual of arms anymore.

But all these changes are, I suspect, superficial. The real changes are within the training programs themselves.

For one thing, company commanders and instructors don't scream or even swear at the recruits, things we just took for granted. The fact is almost everyone there swore like well sailors.

Second, today's recruits get a lot more training, and more effective training at that. Then again, that wouldn't be difficult: For the most part, even though we went to classes all day, every day, we didn't really learn a lot. This is because the people who taught the classes pretty much ended up there having been on the receiving end of a 20th century press gang. All of them, like the company commanders, were chosen at random - none of them volunteered for boot camp duty, and none of them wanted to be there.

As a recruit, I thought being a boot camp instructor would be considered an honor - taking today's boys and turning them into tomorrow's men, and all that - and the duty would've been highly sought after. Now I realize it was probably the LAST place any of those guys wanted to be.

Why's that? Well, a bunch of reasons.

First, they were senior NCO's - a high-status position in the navy. And here they were stuck with recruits, the lowest-status position in the navy, barely one step above civilians. And, as a rule, the lifers really didn't like civilians. Or as my company commander once said, "I hate civilians. And to answer the question you're all thinking: Yeah, since my mother's a civilian I hate her too."


The bitter and the sweet


Although our training wasn't very useful, I don't think it mattered, since we all either went to Class A schools or got good on-the-job training. And I've come to the conclusion that, ultimately, we learn everything in life on the job.

But while by today's standards our training may have been deficient, there was no deficiency in our discipline. There was no room or excuse for laxness of any sort, and any transgression, no matter how small, resulted in punishment, namely the totally misleadingly-named Happy Hour.

Happy Hour was 60 nonstop minutes of doing the manual of arms, which was a series of 87 strictly choreographed moves with the 1903 Springfield - which weighed in at a mere nine pounds. And worst of all, since it was called Happy Hour, the sadists running it made the boots smile all the time.

Of course, since we could be busted for just about anything - hat at the wrong angle, walking too slowly, walking too fast, whistling, smiling, you name it - the threat of a bust was never far away. Me, I kept the bust at bay by making darn sure I was as squared away as possible. In fact, I can remember

One item of contraband was candy. We were told repeatedly we could not have it - either in our lockers, on our person, or in our mouths. Weirdly, though, in the ship's store, where we were marched once a week to get supplies like shaving stuff, paper and envelopes, toothpaste and the like, there was a huge candy counter. And it wasn't just there for display - they actually let the boots buy it. Made no sense to me, but then again, that was the least of my confusions.

Besides, I hardly ever ate candy before I came to boot camp, so why would I eat it there? Well, I'll tell you why - one day when I was in the ship's store, a candy bar spoke to me. It spoke in a very low voice, which only made sense since it was one of those huge Mr. Goodbars - tipping the scales at 10 ounces or so. What it said was, "Buy me," which I immediately did. Then I put it in the bag with my other stuff, figuring I'd eat it in the barracks.

But about halfway back to the barracks, Mr. Goodbar spoke to me again. This time he said, "Take a bite."

Mind you, I was walking in the company street, in front of Lord knows how many NCO's whose day would've been made by busting me for eating candy - and in public, no less!

I ignored Mr. G. - at least for a step or two. Finally I broke down, reached in the bag, tore open the wrapper, broke off a piece and popped it in my mouth. And when I did, every cell in body burst into song. How, I wondered, had I not eaten this stuff earlier? It was exactly what'd been missing in my diet. Yeah, that was it - I'd been suffering from a chocolate deficiency.

I popped another piece in my mouth. This one tasted even better than the first one so good that I had one more, then another, then another, until the entire bar was gone.

Was it possible? Had I eaten 10 ounces of chocolate (minus the weight of the peanuts, of course) in five minutes or so?

Not only had I done it, but I'd done it in the middle of the day, right under the very eyes of the enemy and got completely away with it!

They say revenge is a dish best served cold, which may be true. But on one glorious day in boot camp, as far as I was concerned it was even better served sweet.



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