Sea tales from an old salt………Part One

As one sails farther into the sea of one’s “golden years” one is called upon to reminisce about some of the milestones that mark certain events in our lives. So it was with me, as I spoke with a friend the other day who also happened to be in the U.S. Navy about the same time I was, in the latter half of the 1960’s.

I found myself thinking back to a particular Monday in June 1965, having just finished my first day at Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., basically a “boot camp” for aspiring young men who wanted to join the fleet as officers. This was during the height of the Vietnam War, when the build up of the armed forces was cresting and the draft was still in effect. Here I was, a wide-eyed neophyte college grad who, just three days prior, had been living in the insouciant atmosphere of a fraternity house, now trying feverishly to adjust to a fiercely regimented existence in which every minute of the day was accountable. I still remember lying in my bunk, feeling defeated after that first hectic day Uncle Sam stole my soul, fighting back tears and cursing my mother for having given me birth. But I survived that day, and the next 18 weeks as well, to be commissioned an Ensign the following October.

The Ensign formerly known as Officer Candidate Hood

OCS was a nearly insurmountable combination of classroom time, physical training and parade ground drilling. Class time was devoted to learning such skills as Navigation, Naval Strategy and Operations, Military Organization and one of my favorites, Military Tradition. We used to fondly refer to this as “knife and fork school” since it dealt with military bearing and conducting ourselves in a manner befitting an officer and a gentleman. As you might expect, there were myriad forms to fill out, including next of kin and an insurance policy. I’ll never forget how first sentence of the insurance booklet read, “Even Ensigns die!” Welcome to the military.

Of course, indoctrination to naval terms was a big part of our education. We needed to be able to recite the military alphabet phonetically and identify each signal flag representing that letter (or number). Each letter of the alphabet was pronounced using a word, e.g., Alpha for “A” or November for “N” to avoid any confusion over a radio transmission. This was the military now and you had to watch your Papa’s and Québec’s! I was assigned to Oscar company for the duration. That was the easy part. The most difficult was to learn a whole new nautical language. You don’t enter a ship, you board it; it’s not the entrance, it’s the Quarterdeck; it’s not a floor, it’s a deck; it’s not a stairway, it’s a ladder; not a wall, a bulkhead; not a hallway, but a passageway; not a ceiling, an overhead; not a bed, a bunk; not a door, a hatch; not a window, a porthole; not left, but port; not right, but starboard; not down there, but below decks; not up there, but topside; not front or back, but forward and aft; not beside you, but abeam of you; not the middle, but amidships; not a room, but a space; not a kitchen, but a galley; not a dining room, but a mess hall. And woe betide the sailor who referred to the front or back of the ship, for he might end up being keel-hauled from the bow to the stern!  And it didn’t matter if you were actually on a ship or not, those were the terms you always used.

Can you find my company flag?

And we had to learn to tell time all over again. Military time is based on the international 24 hour clock, so 7am was known as 0700 hours and 9pm was 2100 hours, etc.  Zulu time or the prime meridian, the time line located through Greenwich, England was used when discussing rendezvous times so that everyone knew exactly what time was meant no matter where they were in the world. If a widespread operation was to commence at 800 hours Zulu, each command could convert that to their particular local time.

For one week, each OC (Officer Candidate) had to be in charge of his company based on what the POD (Plan of the Day) required. He had to assemble and lead his company to classes, drills, assemblies and chow. You had to have them marching with precision and correctly attired to each event or else face the wrath of some passing staff officer who would assign extra weekend drill time to your company if he saw the need. One of the more surreal moments was chow time. I would march my company up to the senior OC in charge of the mess hall that day and shout out my request, “Officer Candidate Hood, respectfully requesting messing instructions for myself and 17 officer candidates, Sir!” The response was something like, “very well, Mr. Hood, mess yourself and 17 officer candidates in chow hall B, on the double!” As I said, military bearing was everything.

OK, guys, get this mess cleaned up so we can go to mess.

All this, plus standing watches. It was as if our barracks was a ship at sea. You had to stand your share of watches. On a ship you have your primary job and you stand watches as well. This was no different. Of course the worst was the mid-watch from midnight to 0400 hours. After a day of classes, obstacle course and assemblies, you had to walk the passageways of the barracks, check in at various “watch stations” and keep an extremely accurate log of all this. Falling asleep on watch is a very severe offense in the military, punishable by death in certain circumstances. I actually fell asleep while walking on one particular mid-watch. I walked right into a bulkhead which, quite naturally, woke me up. I told no one about this. This practice at sleepless nights paid off, as I was later to find out at sea.

I had one harrowing experience that almost changed my life. On one occasion there was a mix-up on when the six man “section” of Oscar company that I belonged to was to report for a special meeting. We missed our appointed time. Our company commander was so incensed over it he demanded that the entire section be “washed out” and sent to the fleet as enlisted personnel. Unauthorized Absence, or UA, is a serious offense. However, thanks to the more level-headed Executive Officer of the base, the Base Commander was convinced we were not at fault and dismissed the charges. A close call that would have definitely affected the course of my life.

For the first month, we were not allowed off base. After 4 weeks we were permitted to go into town from Saturday after 12oo hours until Sunday evening at 1800 hours, but wearing our OC uniforms. Newport, R.I. is a charming, quaint seaside town with all the markings of a Herman Melville novel. Many of the local watering holes were awash with girls, whom we referred to as the Fall River Debutantes. Fall River, Massachusetts was only a half hour drive away and many of the young working girls would come down hoping to drop anchor on an OC. Yes, it was much like you saw in the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman”, with one exception, no one ever suggested I looked like Richard Gere.

A typical scene in Newport, R.I.

So, anyway, I made it through. The big moment just before graduation and being commissioned was finding out what your first fleet assignment was going to be. You put in three requested duty stations in the order you wanted them. I had requested destroyer duty first, but you never knew what you might get. So what do you think? What would be the destiny of this slacker college boy turned ultimate warrior in 18 short weeks? See Part Two installment to find out……

 

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31 thoughts on “Sea tales from an old salt………Part One

  1. What an excellent story Al about such a pivotal time in your life. I really enjoyed it! And I know Newport and Fall River quite well. I am also a huge Richard Gere fan and he’s got nothing on you. 😉

    I’ll have to review part 2 later, looking forward to it.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Tricia. Didn’t know you had some New England history as well. Thanks also for the compliment, just for the record, you put Debra Winger to shame too!

  2. Pingback: Sea tales from an old salt……Part Two – The Cvillean

  3. We are good friends with an American couple who served in the military. They met when they were both stationed in Okinawa during the Vietnam War. It is fascinating to listen to their stories, and sobering to think of the sacrifices so many Americans made.

    Here in Canada, we generally only play a peripheral role in many conflicts, and we would be fools to ignore the fact that our countries freedom often comes from the actions of the American military.

    I’m looking forward to more installments of your story!

    1. Thank you for your classy comment, Margy. We Americans are privileged to have Canada as our neighbor and especially lucky that you personally spend so much time with us during the year. I don’t comment every time on your Fueled by Chocolate posts but follow every one with interest, particularly like the ones on climate change.

  4. Marcia

    Great fun, and much of it familiar even though we were on the Army side……..such good memories, once you get past the Vietnam muck…….

      1. So true! I keep asking what makes him want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane????? His response “Because I can.” I have a feeling the military takes a certain breed of person to survive. And Thank you for your service Al!

        1. Yes, the military spends quite a bit on aptitude testing before accepting applicants in certain specialties. It’s quite an investment to train people only to find out later they weren’t cut out for it. Even then, the drop out rates are pretty high. Thanks, again.

  5. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing – I can’t wait to read more.

    We used much of the same terminology as power boaters, but my dad never made visitors walk the plank if they referred to the facilities as the bathroom instead of the head.

    My nephew has been in the Navy for maybe 5 – 6 years now, got trained in nuclear and, because the ship he was assigned to has been in dry-dock, has not yet been out to sea. Let me repeat. After 5 years in the Navy, he will experience his first tour actually out in the water in a couple of weeks.

    1. Doesn’t surprise me a bit, Peg. As I will reveal later, I was sent to a destroyer in dry-dock for one of my two-week reserve tours. What a shame your dad never let his inner pirate loose…..

  6. Karen Beth Szelest

    Hi, Al – I read or schemed over your time in the Navy. I think I know why we are connected now. My dad served in the Navy during World War II. Unlike you, he enlisted at age 16 to get away from an abusive father; an alcoholic. He served on a destroyer as well (don’t remember the name but will find out). I think any time in the service of our country prepares you for life. My father was a very good person and raised a wonderful family. You did as well. Thank you for writing, Al. It is inspirational to me. I find I am grieving the loss of my mom, but need to write, too.

    1. Don’t get your expectations too high, Jeri, I’m still the same boring guy you knew at Riverside. But thanks for the nice comment, anyway.

  7. I can’t imagine the feelings you must have felt those first few days, being thrust into an environment that requires such discipline & stamina. I am sure some days it must have felt so overwhelming. Thank you for sharing your story Al & giving us a bit of insight as to what that feels like. I look forward to reading more!

    1. Thanks, Lynn. Glad you enjoyed it. Looking back it doesn’t seem like it was a big deal, but life experiences are all about the “now” and that was some “now” for me at the time.

  8. Hello Al. What a great story. It’s so interesting to read about your experiences in the navy. I particularly liked the different words for different parts of the ship. I can also imagine how exciting it must have been for you to go into small seaside town pubs, dressed in your uniform; with lots of girls admiring you and your friends! I’ll look forward to hearing the next part of your story. Take care Carly

    1. Appreciate the comment, Carly. It was also exhilarating at times, especially at morning “colors”, the raising of the flag while the National Anthem was played. It gave a young man a real sense of pride and being a part of something in life instead of just languishing.
      As you’ll see in Part Two my hearing loss may have begun then.

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