Officially, I’d been in the Navy less than six hours and was already lost at sea — though only figuratively.
In Syracuse that morning I’d been sworn in, and in the early afternoon I found myself in the Chicago airport, trying to figure out how to get to boot camp at Great Lakes.
Someone was supposed to be at the gate to take the recruits to boot camp, but no one was there. It was a perfect introduction to military life.
The good news was I wasn’t alone — I was with about 20 other kids who’d flown from Syracuse with me. The bad news was they were as lost as I was.
We wandered around, and while we did, we kept getting passed by fellows in dress blues with seabags on their shoulders — obviously guys who’d just gotten out of boot camp and were headed home on their two weeks’ leave.
That didn’t bother me. But what did was I still had no idea how to get to Great Lakes. Finally, I stopped one of the guys and asked him what to do.
“Well,” he said, “usually a driver meets you right at the gate. No one there for you?”
“Uh-uh,” I said.
“Then maybe he’s still in the bus, out front.”
I thanked him and checked the pick-up place in front of the terminal, the rest of the crew in tow. And sure enough, there was a battleship-grey bus and a guy in dungarees and white hat, leaning on the door, smoking a cigarette, staring off into the middle distance.
I figured he was fondly recalling his days on the bounding main, which only shows how naive I was. Now I realize he was bored to tears and was probably counting how much time he had left in his hitch — in hours, if not in minutes.
I asked him if he was supposed to take a bunch of us to boot camp, and he said he was.
“Great,” I said.
“Dunno how great,” he said. “This is my first day on the job, and I don’t have a clue where to drop you guys off.”
“Well,” I said, “get us anywhere on the base, and I’m sure someone’ll figure out what to do with us, don’tcha think?”
He took a drag of his cigarette and shrugged.
“They don’t pay me enough to think,” he said. “But I can get you to Mainside all right.”
He was hardly the most reassuring guy, but since he was the only one there was, we piled into the bus and he took off. The ride was uneventful, and before we knew it we’d arrived at the base.
“OK, all out,” said the driver. “And see you losers later … if you’re lucky.”
Down the tubes
With that, he was gone and we were left to admire the scenery. And admire it we did.
It was a hot May day, and the layout was gorgeous: beautiful old stone buildings with perfectly manicured grounds full of gardens and surrounded by mighty oaks. The building we stood before was the most magnificent of the lot. It was huge and gray, with gigantic pillars surrounding the entrance, which was at the top of a staircase as wide as Fifth Avenue. Stone lions stood guard on either side.
“Ain’t too shabby,” said a kid with steel-capped front teeth.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t think this is where we’re gonna end up.”
“So where will we?” he asked. “And when’ll we get there?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” I said.
“What should we do?” he asked.
“Don’t know about you,” I said, sitting on the steps, “but I’m gonna have a cigarette.”
A cigarette — now that was a brilliant idea. Certainly it was a popular one, as almost to a man, everyone lit up.
And there we were, a bunch of total newbies, clueless losers as far as anything military went, enjoying a leisurely smoke while sprawled out on the steps of the building. And as it turned out, this wasn’t any building — it was Headquarters, the most important building on the entire base.
And that’s why everything was so beautiful: Headquarters is THE focal point of every base, so they spare no expense to impress the living bejammers out of anyone who sees it. It’s everything the military isn’t. It’s also ridiculously easy to do when the money for it comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets.
Shortly, a figure appeared at the top of the steps. He was all spit and polish, covered with so many medals and so much gold, all of it shining blindingly, that for all I knew he was the chief of Naval Operations.
Of course he wasn’t. Instead, he was a master chief, a senior enlisted man, and while he looked like a real martinet, he turned out to be a decent enough sort. He asked us why we were there, and when we told him, he said he’d get someone to take us to the boot camp, which was only a few minutes’ walk away.
About 10 minutes later a much less impressive figure appeared. He was our age, dressed in wrinkled dungarees and wearing the tell-tale white, lace-up gaiters of a recruit.
He looked us over for a bit, apparently not impressed with what he saw.
“OK,” he said. “Why don’t you try to line up in some kind of ranks.”
We did what he said, loosely forming into two ranks of 10 each.
“Awright,” he said. “Now, we’re supposed to march in step everywhere we go. But from the looks of yaz, you’ll be lucky if ya can WALK to the camp without trippin’ over your own feet.”
Then he shook his head in obvious disgust, called, “Forward march,” and moved far to our side, in case we crashed into each other and took him with us.
We stumbled our way out of Mainside and soon found ourselves in the middle of the boot camp processing center, Camp Barry.
The place was a horror show.
Orders were being yelled constantly, and at the tops of leather lungs.
And the buildings! They were the stuff of nightmares — the worst being the barracks, which were WWII vintage, complete with warped floors, wooden bunks, hissing steam radiators, 20-watt bulbs and bathrooms that can only be described as “barbaric.”
They were nightmarish because they were supposed to be. We’d be at the processing center only a couple of days, getting our uniforms and records and the rest; after that, we’d go to the real boot camp, Camp Dewey, for the rest of our stay. Dewey was completely modern and a delight to be in, compared to the Gulag Chic of Camp Barry. Thus we’d be so delighted with our luxurious new barracks and chow hall, we’d adjust immediately.
But of course I knew none of this at the time.
In fact, at that moment, I knew only one thing — namely, that I had just made the biggest mistake of my entire life.
(Editor's note: This article was published in the Friday, May 2 Enterprise but was mistakenly not posted on the Web right away.)