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Happy Hour ... the Navy way

April 16, 2010

On behalf of her husband Tom, my pal Sheila Betters Schoenwetter asked if I thought an inordinate number of Saranac Lakers went into the Navy, and if so, why?

I'm sure there's a ream of statistics somewhere that'd give us a precise answer, but why bother when I can make one up on the spot?

Yes, I think traditionally more locals went in the Navy than any other branch. And the reason they did is because Saranac Lake is a perfect Navy town.

By "Navy town," I obviously don't mean a town where the Navy is stationed, a la Norfolk, Va., unaffectionately known to all sailors as Crap City, USA. No, it's a perfect town for Navy recruitment.

Why is that? When I was in the Navy, one of my pals (from Oklahoma, not so ironically) pointed out that almost everyone in the Navy came from a landlocked area. Or if they came from a city on the coast, they probably never even saw a ship, much less actually set foot on one.

The simple truth is if anyone knew what a ship was truly like, it'd be the last place they'd want to be - especially with several thousand other guys their age, for months at a time, with lousy pay, and with no way to quit.


The new Navy

Things in today's Navy are completely different from when I was in - especially in boot camp. Today the strategy is to explain to the recruits, rather than just order them around, the idea being they'll respond more positively to doing something if they know why they're supposed to do it. I realize this is only common sense, but when I was in boot camp, common sense was an uncommon quality.

Something else: The new Navy's boot camp is a kinder, gentler one, which I found out shortly after I got out. For example, Peter Sayles, who went in only a few years after I did, said he never heard an instructor call a recruit by a four-letter word, nor did he even hear an instructor utter one.

No four-letter words? You've gotta be kidding me. I not only heard four-letter words, I heard five-letter words, six-letter words, even seven-letter compound nouns and adjectives. And as for cusses being directed at people, I can recall one poor slob being told to perform a physiological impossibility - in the pluperfect subjunctive.


The old Navy

Another drastic change: There's no more K.P!

When I was in Great Lakes, our fifth week was declared Service Week and we had to perform the menial chores to keep the place running. They ran the gamut from grounds maintenance to mail sorting to the utter bottom of the barrel - working in the chow hall. But no more. Now, believe it or not, civilians perform those tasks.

Something else long gone - shlepping an M-1 everywhere, and having to do the manual of arms. The manual of arms was a drill done with an M-1, moving it this way and that, up, down and all around, in 96 supposedly precise moves. It was part calisthenics, part aerobics, part martial arts, part S & M. Not that we examined it - we just learned it, and then were drilled in it.

The manual of arms was actually used as a punishment during "Happy Hours." Happy Hours were, like so many other things in the Navy, a wonderful example of ironic labeling. Essentially, they were used as punishments for minor (if not nonexistent) infractions.

Every recruit had to carry with him something called a punishment chit, and if he violated some rule and an instructor in a particularly lousy mood saw it, the chit'd be signed and forwarded to the recruit's company. From there he'd be assigned a Happy Hour, which took place sometime after dinner.

There, some first-class petty officer (and usually a first-class sadist besides) would drill a bunch of the poor miscreants for a solid hour - nonstop - hoping they'd all lose their lunch so he could call it a success.

I never got a Happy Hour, but I once walked by one. About 75 guys were on the grinder, whipping their M-1's everywhichway, soaked with sweat and gasping desperately. I picked up my pace, wanting to get away from that scene as fast as I could (never being one who could bear the misery of others), and just as I passed, I heard the instructor yell, "Hey, ain't none of you scroungy coyotes smilin'. This is a Happy Hour, so you'd best slap some grins on them ugly faces."

At that moment, I knew how Lot's wife felt on her way out of Sodom and Gomorrah. I couldn't help it - I looked back, out of the corner of my eye, and sure enough, there they were, still gasping, still sweating, still flipping their M-1's around ... but now with huge, contorted, maniacal grimace-grins plastered on their beet-red mugs.

While I personally never had the pleasure of a Happy Hour, my pal Johnny Jarvis did.

His infraction - whistling.

He was walking up a company street, whistling, when some petty officer confronted him.

"What're you whistling for?" the P.O. barked.

"Uh I'm feeling happy, sir," said John.

"Oh yeah?" said the P.O. "Well, you're in boot camp, jackass, you ain't supposed to feel happy. But since you do, you're gonna go where you belong - Happy Hour."

John surrendered his punishment chit and then the wheels of injustice turned as they inevitably do.

Forty-plus years later, John still remembers the experience - but not the least bit happily.



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