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A shining example

When it comes to remembering dates, I’m hopeless. I know few peeps’ birthdays, some national holidays and an odd occasion here and there. If something significant happened in my life, I might remember the year and season, but never the actual day.

The only exception to this is April 29, 1969, which I couldn’t forget if I wanted to. It was the day I went to boot camp.

To say boot camp was a whole ‘nother world would be lowballing it. To me, and I’m sure to everyone else, it was a whole different solar system.

After about a month I’d adjusted pretty well and was comfortable in my surroundings (“comfortable” being a relative term). But for the first few weeks I was a stranger in a strange land. And every day, if not every hour, I had to learn all sorts of new stuff just to function.

Floors were decks; ceilings were overheads; walls were bulkheads; pillars were stanchions. The bathroom was the head; the hospital was sick bay; the prison was the brig. And we, the recruits, were whips or boot-asses and lower than whale poop, and don’t forget it.

Then there were the traditions and rituals. To put it as simply as possible: If John Paul Jones did it, we did it. If given an order, the proper response was, “Aye aye.” The first Aye was, “Yes, I heard the order.” And the second Aye was, “Yes, I’ll do it.”

Next was our laundry. Each evening we washed our clothes … by hand. We did it in a communal laundry room with a bunch of adjoining sinks. We scrubbed the clothes with small brushes and wrung out the water, first by hand, then pressing the clothes on top of the sink (which, made for that purpose, had a pebbled surface and was inclined into the sink itself). After we washed them, we hung them up in a drying room, NOT with clothespins but with small pieces of cord called clothes stops. The clothes stops had to be tied with a specific knot, of course — presumably they way the crew of the Bon Homme Richard tied them.

Leader of the pack

All of this was done under the gimlet eye of our company commander. CCs were the Navy equivalent of drill instructors, but they bore no resemblance to their Army or Marine counterparts.

Whereas the DIs were a bunch of lean, mean, buzz-cut hardcores, the CCs were loosey-goosey. They were, to the man, salty dogs who’d spent almost all their time at sea, had been all over the world a bunch of times and loved that life. Conversely, they didn’t like shore stations, and they loathed being in boot camp.

And why wouldn’t they? They had to get up long before reveille (0530) — probably nursing an industrial-grade hangover — and then were stuck with us. I didn’t understand this till my CC inadvertently explained it in his usual articulate and diplomatic way.

His name was J.R. Scarborough, an aviation boatswain’s mate chief, and when he said he’d shaken more salt out of his sea boots than any of us ever would, it was a mere statement of fact. He often began his sentences with, “I’m a sailorman …” and then followed it with a statement that explained why being a sailorman meant he didn’t give a tiddly-doo about something revered by everyone else. He had a topless hula girl tattoo on his forearm, and he took obscenities to exospheric heights.

Anyhow, one day, apropos of nothing, he said, “I hate civilians.” (Note: I’ve left out the hyphenated obscenities). He then followed it with the timeless utterance: “My mother’s a civilian, so I hate her too.”

It didn’t take a lot of thought to conclude that while we weren’t civilians any longer, we weren’t sailormen either.

A bout with boots

I was hardly the most squared-away guy in my company, but I stayed on top of the game passably well … with one noticeable exception — putting a spit shine on my shoes.

We were issued three pairs of shoes. Two were dress shoes. The third were our work boots, called boondockers. (Boondocks, by the way, is from the Tagalog equivalent of “the sticks,” and it got in Navy parlance like a lot of other Asian words, since the fleet had been in the Far East since before the Great White Fleet).

The dress shoes were meant to be polished; the boondockers were not. Not that it mattered to me, since I was hopeless with both.

Here’s the thing: From a very early age, the only dress shoes I wore were Hush Puppies. They were really comfortable, and best of all, I didn’t have to polish them. This was great for a lazy kid like yours truly … till that aforesaid kid got to boot camp.

Spit shines are easy to maintain — once the the first spit shine is built up. But having never shined a shoe, let alone spit-shined one, I was as capable as putting the required shine on my footwear as I was translating the Bhagavad Gita. Still, I gave it my best.

I was sitting on the floor next to my rack (we weren’t allowed to sit on our racks, only sleep in them at night), putting on polish, rubbing it, putting on more, rubbing it some more … all to no real avail. And that was with my dress shoes — I couldn’t even face the boondockers.

Now a quick note about the demographics of my boot camp company. It was made up of 80 guys, almost all of them falling into one of two groups: Either they were Southern country boys or inner-city guys from The Big Apple or Chi-town. Then there were the outliers: northern country kids, Midwestern guys, and one guy from Pittsburgh and another from Arizona. We obviously had our differences, but to everyone’s credit, we got along well. I never saw anyone dis anyone else, never heard any angry words among us.

Of course, each main group had a lot in common among its members, and one thing all the inner-city kids could do was spit-shine shoes. They had learned how to dress up from the get-go. They knew how to put razor-sharp creases in pants and shirts, their ties were perfectly knotted, their hats sat at the ideal jaunty angle, and if shoes needed a shine, they knew how to do it. Plus, a lot of them had made money as shoe-shine boys.

So as I still struggled with my first shoe, the kid on the floor next to me, Baker, was all done with his. He wasn’t just good at shining shoes — he was the Leonardo of the Spit Shine. His shoes didn’t look like they were made of leather so much as polished onyx.

Baker was from Harlem. He was short, stocky, self-contained and tough looking. He never indulged in the banter the rest of us did, and he had a faintly ominous air about him. He kept to himself, rarely spoke and, most telling of all, never smiled.

The more I kept messing with my shoe, the less progress I seemed to be making. All the while, Baker would look at me every couple of minutes and then shake his head. Finally, he spoke.

“Gimme your shoes,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“Your shoes,” he said. “Give ’em over.”

I did.

He then took a rag, shoe polish and water, and worked his magic. It was amazing. He wasted no motion, didn’t look like he was working hard or fast, but before I knew it, he’d finished with all three pairs.

He handed them back to me, and I sat there, speechless: I could actually see my reflection in all of them!

“I don’t know how to thank you,” I said. “You really saved me.”

He shrugged, but said nothing.

“Honest,” I said. “You did a great thing for me just now.”

Finally, he spoke.

“Listen, Seidenstein,” he said, “if I’d hadda watch you for five more minutes, someone woulda gotten hurt.”

For an instant, a thin, tight smile flitted across his face

Or at least I thought it did. I was never sure if it happened or not.

But I am sure that for the rest of boot camp, I never saw him smile again.

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