Thursday, April 26, 2007

Back to Basics

While Tom is away, here is a guest blog by our friend, Ed Lee Keating. Of course, the semi-modern Navy has nothing to do with the Old Wild West, but I think you'll find it amusing. Lee and Tom have been friends since diaper days and together, they have seen lots of ups and downs. Here is one of Lee's "downs."
It was in the year of our Lord 1968 when I received a letter from the U.S. Government that started with these stirring words: “Greetings! Your friends and neighbors have selected you. . . ." I never did find out which "friends and neighbors" did the selecting but those good folks did at least give me thirty days to pick which branch of service I wanted. Not seeing much of a future in either the Army or Marines, I chose the Navy.

First contact with the military started at the Intake Center in Kansas City where we were run through our physical examinations like sheep. We started before the sun came up and we were kept in windowless rooms all day long. Of these first hours of the first day of the first year, etc., etc., etc., two events stand out vividly in my mind. One incident took place when a group of us were told to face the wall and do the old “drop your pants, bend over and spread your cheeks” routine. At the time, there was nothing at all "old" about this command. I was dumbstruck. Call me naive; call me backward; call me Aaron Slick from Pumpkin Crick, but at the time, I had absolutely no idea as to why we were ordered to do such a revolting thing. But, like everyone else, I did it and kept my "whys?" to myself. Looking back, I now know they were looking for hemorrhoids (more on that later) but at the time I imagined that they were seeking contraband of some sort, such as guns, knives, radios, hubcaps. . . .

Memory #2 of that auspicious day was being sent by groups into a bathroom to fill urine sample bottles. A simple sample . . . sounds simple . . . and yet, soon after entering the room one person in our batch became panic-stricken and ran around in a dither, desperately trying to find someone, ANYONE, to fill his bottle for him. I suppose the strain was too great and the fellow froze up. After a few minutes of pleading and cajoling, he found a volunteer.

Late in the afternoon of that first day, those of us who passed the physical (as well as those who found urine donors) boarded a bus to where we didn't know. Well after midnight, we arrived at some surreal place where we were herded into a temporary barracks. There, at 4 AM, we were allowed to sleep sweetly . . . for the next two hours! At precisely 6:00 AM, we were rudely awakened; we jumped from our bunks to discover that we had spent our first night in Uncle Samuel's navy at Great Lakes Naval Base in North Chicago.

During that first full day (or was it the second full day? or the third half day?) we went about the process of receiving our clothing, shoes, boots, and toiletries. Later, we were also assigned to a permanent barracks and a bed. We then received instructions on how to make this bed and square away our worldly goods. Again, all this may sound simple but more than one individual had a difficult time mastering the fine arts of shining shoes, stowing toothbrushes and mopping floors. On the latter account, we would have ample opportunity to perfect the techniques of modern military mopping over the next few weeks--there is a reason seaman are called "swabs."

After chow that first day we were marched back to the barracks. Just as on TV, our new home was a large, open room with several rows of beds. Hardly had we returned to the barracks when one of our number crawled onto his bed, pulled the cover over his head, then promptly proceeded to make love to himself with a vigor and rapture that could have earned him an entire chapter in the Kinsey Report. Apparently, like the fabled ostrich, this sex-crazed recruit felt if he could not see others, others could not see him. Afterwards, the miscreant resurfaced as if nothing unusual had occurred. This, and several other encounters, was sufficient to convince me that I “wasn’t in Kansas anymore.”

The next day, the first of many rumors spread rapidly among we new arrivals: DON’T EAT THE MASHED POTATOES!!! Those were the startling words which swept our ranks. Perhaps because of revolting spectacles like the day before, saltpeter was laced in the squashed spuds which, when consumed, caused a total inability to achieve a penile erection, or so the rumors ran. For a group of 18 and 19 year-old males, this was considered the worst fate that we could endure and it was tantamount to total emasculation. Although most of us pooh-poohed the notion in public, I didn’t observe anyone in private (including myself) eating potatoes for the rest of our basic training period.

Medical treatment was plentiful and fast, I must admit, but it could be insensitive and painful. I recall one person in our company having hemorrhoid surgery in the morning and being forced to march with us that afternoon. Another incident occurred during inoculations. The procedure involved multiple injections with a single high-pressure air gun. We were all lined up and sent, one at a time, through a doorway. As we passed the entry,simultaneous injections would be applied to both arms. In preparation, we were loudly told not to move or the injection guns would slice the skin. Sure enough, one of the first people through the gate (perhaps the urine man or self-love fellow) flinched both arms as he was being injected. With gauze pressed tightly over both bloody arms, the guy was sent back to do it again. Needless to say, the rest of us were like stone statues as we passed through the door.

I fared no better with a military dentist. My previous dental experiences were frequent and unpleasant. So, when a filling fell out one day, it was with no little trepidation that I visited a military dentist. You can imagine my concern when, after a ten-second cursory look, the dentist said: “This is only going to take a couple of minutes so we don’t need any pain killer." Arrrghhhh! The filling fell out again shortly after basic training was completed.

Even with all the yelling and name-calling associated with boot camp, I recall only one incident that could be classified as cruel above and beyond the call of duty. One individual in the company had a foul body odor. I don’t know if it was due to personal hygiene or a medical condition. After our unit received an inspection demerit, and the consequent punishment, the company commander suggested the individual in question might need a “Barracks Shower." Late that night, several guys in the barracks grabbed this fellow, wrapped him in his blanket, pounded him pretty thoroughly, then dragged him into the shower. There, the fellow was unrolled, scrubbed with stiff bristle brushes used to clean the floor, and hosed down. Even though the rest of us did not participate, we were all grateful that it had the desired effect of improving the individual’s personal hygiene.

Another, and final, thought: Almost everyone in our company was either from the Midwest or from an Eastern urban environment. Thus, many of us could barely swim and some not at all. There was a general assumption that the Navy would patiently train us to be good swimmers. We soon learned how wrong we were. Marched to an Olympic-sized pool, we were then forced up onto a high diving board and ordered to jump. Those who refused were thrown in. As if this was not already traumatic enough for we non-swimmers, orders were shouted that we must swim one lap around the pool. Several personnel stood by holding long poles. We assumed these individuals were there to haul us out should we have difficulty. Again, wrong! The first person who tried to climb out of the pool soon discovered that the poles were used to keep you in, not help you out. Even though I couldn’t swim very well, I was able to quietly sneak to the edge a couple of times while the guards were dealing with others. Surprisingly, we all passed (some would say "survived") our swim test.

My fondest memory of basic training--in fact, my ONLY fond memory of basic training--is the relief I felt upon returning home on leave and realizing it was all behind me.

Ed Lee Keating is a Principal Engineer at Hills Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kansas. Following basic training and duty aboard ship, the young seaman was assigned to a naval nuclear site where one of the world's first radioactive disasters occurred.