At the Paul Smith's graduation last Sunday I was reminded of one of my graduations - the one I never attended - my boot camp graduation.
The book camp ceremony was a real martial mishegoss. In addition to all the predictably clich-ridden speeches delivered by all the predictably hung-over officers in their predictably resplendent uniforms, there were brass bands, elite drill units, flags galore, salutes aplenty and the ceremony's highlight - the passing in review of all the recruit companies showing off their precise marching skills.
At least that was the theory, and it was true for most boot camp companies. But not for ours.
Being able to drill well depended on one factor - extensive practice throughout boot camp. Every boot camp Company Commander knew this ... but ours ignored it.
Lost on shore
Our CC was a 100 percent "Fleetie." "Fleetie" did not mean he was either fleet of foot or fleet of mind. Instead, it meant he loved serving in the fleet. And by contrast, he hated serving on shore.
Sea duty gave him everything he loved - a mission, a hierarchy (of which he was on the top), the company of like-minded lifers, and hedonistic revels in foreign ports, where the Yankee dollar was king ... if not God.
Shore duty, on the other hand, was anathema to him. The work was trivial and he used none of his skills; the routine was grindingly monotonous; he was stuck in base housing living with kids who wouldn't obey him and a wife he dared not DISOBEY.
And as lousy as shore duty was, boot camp was the lousiest duty of all. The hours were horrid and so was the duty itself: Trying to turn a bunch of blueness kids into even minimally functional military types was as reprehensible as it was impossible.
So, salty dog that he was, he steered the simplest course: He pretty much ignored us. And, due to the boot camp system, he could.
As soon as each boot camp company was formed, it was assigned recruit petty officers, and each RICO had specific duties. The Chief RPO ran the show when the CC wasn't there. Ours was a guy from Alabama named Armstrong who'd received his exalted position by having gone to military school. He was a smart kid who knew how to keep us disciplined enough to avoid unwanted attention, but not so disciplined that we actually had to do anything.
As a result, the CC only showed up for the stuff he had to; the rest of the time he was living large in the Chiefs' Club, swilling ten-cent beers and swapping sea stories with his cadre.
All of which was fine with us, since he never hassled us like the gung ho CC's did to their recruits. Of course we didn't learn a lot either, but to us it was a fair exchange.
The best thing about our CC was he was a jolly drunk - one of those guys who, the more he drank, the more he loved his fellow men - even us. So when he returned from the Chiefs' Club well buzzed (which is the only way he returned), if the subject of drill was brought up, he'd give a lopsided smile and a wave of his tattooed arm and tell us life was too short to sweat the small stuff.
Not that we didn't drill. We did ... but in a rather laid-back fashion, as befit Amstrong's laissez-faire approach to military discipline.
There was one kid who actually liked to drill - Smitty. Smitty carried the company flag and was on the front rank at the far right - the position we were supposed to line up with, both vertically and horizontally. We tried mightily to do it, but finally gave up.
The problem was that while Smitty loved to march, he marched to his own drummer. Either he had no sense of timing or rhythm, or he couldn't count to four and then get back to one again, or something. But since he loved carrying the flag and was such a nice guy, Armstrong didn't have the heart to replace him.
So while Smitty was diddy-bopping all over hell's half acre, we skipped, stumbled and staggered as best we could - resembling a military marching unit as much as we did the Folies Bergere.
The closer we got to graduation, the more apparent it became we'd be the laughing stock of Great Lakes, if not the U.S. Navy. Not that any of us cared - we just didn't know if the CC would. He hadn't so far, but that didn't mean he wouldn't. Besides, if we knew nothing else about the navy we knew what we'd been told repeatedly - crap ran downhill. We did not need to be told that when it came to hills - all hills - we were at their absolute bottom.
Three's a charm
In my case, it didn't matter, since I never even got to the ceremony.
Ranks were formed according to decreasing height, with the shortest guys last. When we formed up on graduation morning, the last rank, which should've been six across, had only three people. It always did, but for reasons known only to him the CC decided the company had to be perfectly symmetrical. So he ordered the last three guys to stay in the barracks. Luckily, I was one of the Unholy Trinity.
Did we feel bad about being left out of the ceremony?
Not at all.
Maybe we'd been in the navy only eight weeks, but we'd already had enough of spit and polish and gratuitous criticism. Besides, since we were now the only ones in the barracks, we got to do something we were almost never allowed to do: Take a smoke-n-Coke break.
In boot camp, cigarette and soda breaks were about as rare as discussions on the works of Goethe. Plus, since our CC didn't smoke or drink soda, he never thought anyone else threw nicotine fits or went into sugar withdrawal. So in the two hours the company was gone, we each finished off at least a half-pack of cigarettes and three sodas.
Shortly after our final hits of nicotine and artificial colorings, the company came clamoring up the stairs, the CC at their head, a huge grin on his face. He motioned for us to gather round, which we did.
"Men,'' he said, "l can't tell you how proud I am right now. You showed them other companies what squared away, four-oh sailors look like. And because you did so good, you got the rest of the day off!''
The room erupted in cheers.
Meanwhile, I was completely boggled.
After the CC left I sidled up to Armstrong.
"Did we really look good?" I asked.
"You kidding?" he said. "The only military thing we looked like was F-Troop."
"So why's the CC so happy with us?"
"Right now he's happy with everyone," he said.
"But why's that?" I asked.
"Because lucky for us," he said, letting out a huge breath, "he went to the Chiefs' Club before graduation."