One of my favorite passages from Shakespeare is "All the World's a Stage." It's cogent, comical and melancholy, all at once - the whole life process in 28 lines.
The beginning and end of the soliloquy are essentially the same: We all start life "mewling puking babes in the nurse's arms," and exit Planet Earth likewise - if we're lucky enough to be in anyone's arms.
But I'm not interested in either the beginning or end, since they're both pretty much visits to Nowheresville. What interests me is the intervening stages, when we're supposed to know what's going on. Note, I said "supposed to know," because it seems I only find out what's happening long after the fact.
No matter how you cut it, all life is what the Navy called OJT (On the Job Training). And it was in the Navy that I learned no matter what was written in Navy regs, reality was found only between the lines.
Clothes melt and make the man
In mid-July 1969 I stepped out of the plane at high noon in Pensacola, Fla., about to report to my first duty station, a communication school. The temperature was 95 in the shade - and there was no shade. As for the relative humidity? It wasn't relative - it was absolute - 100 percent ... And not raining.
And there I was on the tarmac sauna being broiled alive, but looking fine in my dress blues.
"But aren't dress blues wool?" you ask.
Right you are.
"But doesn't the Navy also have dress whites and tropical whites?"
Affirmative again, mate.
So why was I wearing a wool suit in the middle of a sub-tropical summer, when I had a perfectly comfortable set of whites in my sea bag?
Simple. I was a newbie and I believed what I was told, and in boot camp I'd been told the Navy's travel uniform was dress blues. It wasn't a lie - officially, we were supposed to travel in blues. Of course, in reality the only sailors who traveled in blues in the summer were the pathetic naifs fresh out of boot camp. Any fleetie worth his tattoos and tailored bells wore whites, official travel uniform be damned.
That was my first time in the Navy that I learned the difference between an official truth and an actual one. My second one came a couple of months later. This time the issue was my liberty card.
Liberty cards were passes you had to show in order to leave and get back on base. Certain bases stamped restrictions on the cards. For instance, we in the communications school had to be back no later than midnight. In Navy argot this was known as Cinderella Liberty.
Students had another restriction: We could not wear civvies off base unless we had a civilian clothes stamp on our liberty cards. This was a huge deal, since no one wanted to wear their uniform in town. Why that is, I've no idea. I mean, did we really believe anyone thought we were civilians just because we wore civilian clothes? It'd be along like mistaking me for Michael Jordan if I wore his game uniform. But somehow that didn't dawn on us.
Anyhow, we had to meet two conditions to get a civilian clothes pass. One was we had to be in school two months. The other was we had to pass a full sea bag inspection, which meant we had to show we had everything we'd been issued in boot camp.
The lure of bright city lights
After our eighth week everyone was chomping at the bit for the inspection to take place - at least everyone but me. I didn't care because there was no way I could pass it.
I'd been issued things I couldn't do without - mostly my uniforms. Then there was all sorts of stuff I had no use for. Among them were a crappy jackknife, a stencil kit, a scrub brush and so on. So I'd jettisoned that stuff before I left for Pensacola.
In truth, I didn't care if I got a civilian clothes pass because I didn't care if I went into town. Everything I needed was on the base. The food was delicious - as good as any restaurant - and we could eat as much as we wanted as long as we finished it. The library was decent, and air-conditioned. There were movies every weekend which cost two bits, and I could run or play handball pretty much anytime I wanted. And beyond all that, I had a bunch of pals to hang with.
Pensacola's built-up now, but back then it could've been charitably labeled "a sleepy Southern town." To the less charitable, it could've been called Dogpatch - minus Daisy Mae Scragg. I figured there was only one thing I could've gotten in Pensacola that I couldn't get on base - mugged.
Missing the inspection but still making the grade
Finally the day everyone had waited for arrived - everyone but me, that is.
After our last class on Thursday, a chief came in our classroom and told us to hand in our liberty cards.
I raised my hand. When he called on me I started to explain it was futile to hand mine in, when he cut me off.
"Just hand it in, wingnut," he said.
"But my seabag can't pass inspection," I said.
"Sounds like a personal problem to me," he said. "Better tell it to the chaplain."
I handed in my card.
"All right," he said to the class. "Y'all come back in here with your seabags at 1630, which to you idiots is four-thirty."
He dismissed us and I watched everyone sprint back to the barracks. I took my own sweet time.
By 1630 the barracks were completely empty except for one Dopey exception.
An hour or so later, everyone came back, full seabags on shoulders, big smiles plastered on their mugs.
"How'd it go?" I asked my rackmate, Wes.
"Piece of cake," he said. "We laid everything out, they went over it with a checklist, and that was that."
"So lemme see what the official civilian clothes pass looks like," I said.
"I can't," he said.
"Typical Navy. We get the cards tomorrow after classes. They only did the inspection there. They do the stamping somewhere else."
"Probably gotta keep the stamp in a secure area so the Russkis can't get it," I said.
"Never know how their minds work or how weird things can get," he said.
Wes didn't know it then, but truer words were never spoken: On Friday when I got my card returned, there in big block letters was stamped: CIVILIAN CLOTHES PASS.
At that moment I considered myself an old salt because I knew from then on I'd take anything anyone told me with a great big grain of the stuff.