3: Gunnersmate ‘A’ School
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Prior to the plane trip that had brought me to San Diego and boot camp, I’d only been on an airplane once. It was a short flight on a prop plane from Columbus, Georgia to Greenville, South Carolina. Now, counting my trip home for Christmas leave and my return flight to San Diego, I’d been to the west coast twice and was about to make my second trip from west to east. In less than 18 months my accumulated air miles would be the equivalent of three trips around the world.
The travel orders to Gunnersmate School were issued on a single piece of paper. Besides Fabian, Rucker, Irby and me there was one other guy from our boot camp company listed on the voucher. His name was Ehrmann. Kenneth Ehrmann.
Ehrmann was one of the guys from the northwest. He acted strange, like he was three or four years behind everybody else in maturity, and if he hadn’t joined the Navy I’m sure he would have spent every Saturday morning watching cartoons on television back home. Since I was senior, my name on the orders had an asterisk by it. That meant I’d been placed in charge. It was my responsibility to see that we all made the flight and that we got to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center at the appointed time.
The flight to Chicago was a long one. I don’t remember what time we landed, but I do recall that it was late. It was cold as hell, too! We took a taxi from the airport to downtown Chicago. We didn’t know where we were or what to do and we stayed in that state of confusion until we ran into another sailor. We asked him how to get to the base at Great Lakes and he told us to take the train.
I’m not kidding, it was cold as hell! I thought I was freezing to death! I don’t know what the temperature was, but with the wind chill factor figured in I’m sure it was well below zero.
We had to walk quite a distance to get to the train station. Our seabags felt like they weighed a ton. We had to cross a canal, and halfway across the canal bridge the wind blew my white hat off. I stopped and watched as it floated down gently and landed in the almost-frozen water below. Without my white hat I was officially out of uniform. But whoop-de-doo! I was too damn cold to worry about it!
Chicago’s Union Station was awesome. It was big! And it was cold! They shouldn’t make train stations out of marble. As cold as it was OUTSIDE, that cold-ass marble INSIDE didn’t help at all. Eventually, we found the departure area for the Chicago-Northwestern line.
The Chicago-Northwestern railway did just that, it ran northwest. I don’t know where it originated, but it ran through Chicago and continued north to Waukegan, Illinois, and then on to Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We weren’t going that far, just a few stops up the track to North Chicago and the Naval Station at Great Lakes. When the train stopped in North Chicago we got off and walked over to the main gate at the naval base.
The walk from the North Chicago train stop to the main gate at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center isn’t all that far. But when you’re freezing to death, trying to walk on an icy street, and carrying a ten-ton seabag on one shoulder, that short distance can seem like a thousand miles.
I’ve been to a lot of places that were cold. I marched in a parade in Atlanta once, when I was in the Arnold Junior High School Marching Band, and it was so darn cold my French horn mouthpiece froze to my lips.
I’ve been to a lot of places up north that were cold, too. Later on in the Navy I’d be stationed in Boston in wintertime, and no doubt about it, Boston was cold! On the way home from Vietnam I spent a couple of hours on the ground in Anchorage, Alaska. Again, no doubt about it, it was cold there, too! But I’ve never been anywhere, and don’t believe there IS an anywhere, that was, is, or ever will be as cold as it was in Chicago on the evening of January 15, 1969.
It was so cold we couldn’t talk. The E-4 that had the quarterdeck watch, the one who checked us in, kept asking us these really simple questions. Did we have a nice flight? Did we all just get out of boot camp? What was the weather like on the west coast before we left? And we couldn’t answer the sucker. We tried to, but words just wouldn’t come out. There was this chattering sound, the sound of teeth hitting teeth, rapidly, and hard - so hard it hurt - and no matter how hard you tried you couldn’t stop that sound. And as long as you were making that sound you couldn’t get words to come out. Our bodies were shaking, too. I was shivering so hard I couldn’t get my hands inside my pea coat to pull the travel voucher out of the inside chest pocket. I finally just motioned to the E-4 and he reached inside and got it for me. When he realized how cold we were he quit making small talk and just said, “Cold outside, ain’t it?” We all shiver-nodded and he finished checking us in. The guy must have really felt sorry for us. Rather than make us walk the three or four blocks to transient barracks, he got on the radio and convinced a guy in a base vehicle to come and pick us up. We couldn’t all make it in one trip, people and seabags, so the driver took half of us in one load and the other half in a second trip.
There were several transient barracks at Great Lakes. I don’t know how they decide to put you in the one they put you in, but the one they put us in was directly across the street from the new barracks building that housed Gunnersmate ‘A’ School students. That couldn’t possibly be the reason they did that. The Navy that I’d come to know, the Navy that put you in the new barracks on the new side first and the old barracks on the old side second, and the Navy that built a facility for attempted murder on Friday night and used that same facility for worshipping God on Sunday, that Navy would never do anything so logical.
The transient barracks we wound up in was an old, wood-plank, uninsulated sucker. It was darn near as cold inside as it was out. They had these old radiator heaters in the rooms but half of them didn’t work. If you got a bunk near a window, in a room where the radiator didn’t work, that was it; you were gonna be frozen solid come morning. I found an empty bunk in a room where the radiator WAS working. But it was by the window. I got to thinking about it and decided to keep looking. I mean, what if the radiator quit working in the middle of the night? It could happen, right?
I’m not kidding, in every room, no matter whether the radiator worked or not, only one idiot had taken a bunk by a window. I felt sorry for that guy right off. I finally found a bunk next to an inside wall. Across the room I found an empty locker and stowed my gear. Then I went to the master-at-arm’s office and checked out some bedding. I asked for an extra blanket and the guy said, “Is your bunk by a window?” It wasn’t, but I told him it was. He gave me TWO extra blankets. I was warm as toast when I went to bed that night.
The next morning I got up and checked in with the master-at-arms. First, he told me about the watchbill. I was relieved to hear that I wouldn’t be on it for a couple of days. Then he told me where the chow hall was and the best way to get there without busting my butt on the icy pavement. It seems there was a secret way, a route one could take where the street elevation wasn’t quite as steep. He said it would take a little longer, but guaranteed that I’d fall fewer times if I went that way. I did, and he was right. I only fell four times.
While in transient barracks waiting for our ‘A’ school classes to begin we were pretty much free to roam around Great Lakes and get familiar with our new shipmates and our new environs.
On the base there was a recreational facility that we all found right off the bat. There was a ‘short order’ restaurant in the building that made really great hamburgers, and a game room where guys could play cards, throw darts, and, in general, socialize and get to know each other.
There was a brand new enlisted man’s club on the base as well. Needless to say, when the E.M. club was open, and we weren’t on the watchbill, that’s where we could all be found.
There was another club/restaurant facility on the base as well. It was called The Ratskeller. It had a German beer hall motif and they would show movies there in the late evening every now and then. I saw the movie ‘The Sand Pebbles’ there. That movie, starring Steve McQueen, was centered around the exploits of a naval gunboat patrolling the rivers in China during the Boxer Rebellion. I didn’t know what life was really like in the Navy until I saw that movie, and I remember that I was not too eager about one day having to join the fleet after seeing it.
While in transient status we’d pull duty, or stand watch, every two or three days. On duty days we’d stand our assigned watches or hang around the Gunnersmate ‘A’ School barrack that was across the street from our transient quarters. There was a muster room there where the supernumeraries would hang out in case they were needed.
A supernumerary was any person on the watchbill who had not been assigned a watch. In other words, supernumeraries were ‘extra’ personnel who could be used to run errands and do chores not specifically covered under the watch instructions for the day. It was better to be assigned to a watch. Watches were generally only four hours in length and when you drew a watch you knew what time to report and when your watch would be over. If you were a supernumerary you had to stand by (day and night) waiting to be called upon to do whatever menial task the Navy decided needed to be done.
Waukegan, Illinois was just a mile or so north of North Chicago. And just north of Waukegan was Kenosha, Wisconsin. A short distance north of Kenosha was the city of Racine. Milwaukee was north of Racine, and 75 miles due west of Milwaukee was Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin.
You could get to Waukegan, Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee by train, on the Chicago-Northwestern, but you needed a car to get to Madison. When I found out that the University of Wisconsin was that close by, and that there was a Sig Ep chapter there (Sigma Phi Epsilon, my college fraternity), I got excited. If I could get to Madison and introduce myself to the Sig Ep brotherhood there, I was sure I’d be invited to socialize with them on weekends. If I could get to Madison on the weekends that would be great. It would be party time! But to do that I’d need my car.
I turned sixteen and got my drivers license in February of 1964. From the moment I got my license I dreamed about having my own car.
A lot of my friends in high school had cars; their parents had just up and bought them one. I couldn’t understand why my parents wouldn’t just up and buy me one, but my father had started his own company just a few years before and he was funneling every dime he made right back into the business. I didn’t really push the matter much in 1964, but in 1965, my Junior year, I went car crazy.
In 1965, the Ford Motor Company introduced THE MUSTANG. That was it! I was hooked! I had to have one!
We were already a two-car family. My father had one, and my mother did, too. They both worked, and they both needed transportation. The question was: DID I NEED ONE? Dad just couldn’t see the justification. He provided us (my brother and sisters) with transportation to and from school, and I had access to both cars whenever I needed one on the weekends. But my mother was on my side; she wanted me to have one.
Image was everything to my mother. She knew that I felt inferior to my friends who had cars, and she didn’t want any of her children to feel inferior to anybody. Accordingly, she was constantly trying to persuade my dad to buy me one. But it was a slow go; dad would have none of it.
1965 came to a close and still, no car. During my senior year, ‘65-’66, I still didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. When I didn’t get a car for my birthday, in February of ‘66, I finally gave up.
In the spring of ‘66, just before graduation, the Jordan band was invited to play a series of concerts in the Savannah, Georgia area. The Jordan band was one of the top five high school bands in the country back then, so it was not unusual for us to be invited to play a concert tour somewhere in the southeast in the spring. We loaded up the buses on a Friday afternoon and pulled out at around 4 p.m.
All the way to Savannah I sat in a window seat on the left side of the bus. I looked out the window at the on-coming traffic and drooled every time a Mustang went by. I don’t remember much about the trip, what we did in Savannah, etc, but I do remember that the ride home was brutal. Again, I occupied a window seat on the left side of the bus, and it seemed like every car that went by was a Mustang.
We got back home around 8 p.m. on Sunday evening. As the buses pulled into the school parking lot the people sitting up front started raising a ruckus:
“Wow, look at that. A brand new Ford Mustang.”
“It’s got a ribbon around it, too. A giant red ribbon.”
“Somebody’s getting a brand new car.”
“I bet it’s Bob’s. I bet it’s Bob’s car.”
“It IS Bob’s car; his mom and dad are standing next to it.”
“Yea, and she’s got the keys in her hand.”
It was a dark green, manual transmission, 6-cylinder, 3-speed Ford Mustang with black interior. And it was all mine! And it stayed mine through the spring and summer of ‘66. It stayed mine through two years of college at Auburn. But when I went in the Navy in October of ‘68, I left my car in the care of my sister, Betsey. I was four years older than Bet, and she had just turned 16 in May of ‘68. She was a sophomore in high school and having her big brother’s car made her very happy. It made my father happy, too. As long as Bet was driving my car, while I was in the Navy, she wouldn’t be bugging him to buy her one of her own.
One cold, lonely night in the barracks, in early February, I made a long distance phone call home. I made the excuse that I just wanted to check in and see how everybody was doing. But I make no bones about it, I had an ulterior motive.
I knew that my mother loved to ‘go’, she loved to travel, so I was going to suggest that my family come up to Chicago for a visit. If I could talk them into making the trip I was going to suggest that they come in two cars, one of which would be mine, of course, and they’d leave my car with me when they made the return trip home. I really didn’t expect them to go for it. I fully expected that when I brought the matter up my dad would say ‘no’. My mom answered the phone. We made small talk for a minute or two. Then, out of nowhere, she told me that they were planning to come up for a visit. Then she said the magic words; they were coming in two cars. They were bringing me my car, and they were going to leave it with me when they returned home. Mom said they were going to try to make the trip so they could celebrate my birthday with me in late February.
The Navy ran two complete shifts through Gunnersmate ‘A’ School at any given time. They had a day school component and a night school component. I wound up in class 2603-Nights. There were twenty people in the class. Besides Fabian, Rucker, Irby and Ehrmann, the only other name I can remember is Macon Smiley Bohon.
Mickey Bohon was from Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was a tall, lanky guy and he’d lean just ever so slightly forward when he walked. He was well-liked, I know I liked him from the get-go, but he was reserved, shy, quiet and unassuming. Once you got to know him, however, the shyness would evaporate and he’d come out of his shell when engaged in conversation.
In 1969, the Navy was going high tech, even in its lowly deck force rates like gunnersmate. In the old days there had only been one kind of gunnersmate. It was his responsibility to know everything there was to know about small arms and cannons. As gunnery advanced he had to learn about shipboard guns with rifled bores like the 5” 54. But in the Navy of the sixties there were three different types of gunnersmate, and two of them didn’t have anything to do with guns at all.
A conventional gunnersmate, one that worked with conventional naval gunnery, was known as a GMG (Gunnersmate, Guns). A gunnersmate who worked on a high-tech missile system was known as a GMM (Gunnersmate, Missiles). A GMT was a Gunnersmate, Technician. I never found out what a GMT did, but I do know that the Navy of the sixties had hand-carried nuclear weapons. They were designed to be deployed by a small marine or SEAL detachment. Once the device was placed in position the team could set a timer and get the hell out of Dodge. Now I’m not saying that’s what GMT’s worked on, like I said, I don’t know, but given the fact that somebody had to baby-sit those devices, and it damn sure wasn’t some boson’s mate with nothing else to do, you can draw your own conclusions about that.
A GMG did a conventional four-year enlistment in the Navy. A GMM or GMT had to enlist for six. Counting all the schooling they’d have to go through - ‘A’ School and ‘C’ School - they’d eat up two years just going to class. And the ‘C’ schools for GMM and GMT were into electronics big-time. You had to score very high on certain elements of the aptitude tests to even be considered for an ‘M’ or ‘T’ rating. I didn’t care what I’d scored on those tests, I just made darn sure they had GMG by my name. I wasn’t about to give the Navy a six-year enlistment.
No matter what gunnersmate rating you were training for, GMG, GMM or GMT, every gunnersmate candidate had to go to ‘A’ School. There, we’d learn about basic hydraulics, synchros and servos, basic electricity, electronics, small arms, gun mounts, and basic missile weapon systems. I wasn’t the only E-3 in the class, but for some reason I was selected class leader. A class leader’s job is to call the roll at muster and pass on information to the class from the upper levels of the chain of command.
Sometime in the middle of February, just before our classes began, we were ordered to check out of transient barracks and into the new barracks across the street. Fabian and I were assigned to the same room. There were three bunks in our room, and our roommate turned out to be a sailor from the fleet who’d been assigned to ‘A’ School after doing a year on an oiler in the Med (Mediterranean).
Gunnersmate School (Building 521) was new. It was several stories high and the exterior of the building was made out of a funky, dark green, tinted glass. Bohon called it ‘The Greenhouse’, and that’s exactly what it looked like. The name stuck. Only the Navy would build a multi-story building out of glass right slap-dab in the middle of ESKIMO COUNTRY. Hell, the Marines weren’t even dumb enough to do that!
Inside the greenhouse structure there was a multi-story classroom facility with stairs that led up to each tier. There was a walkway that went all the way around on each floor. On the ground level, all the way around the classroom facility, were various gun and missile mounts. These real mounts, just like the ones in the fleet, were used primarily by ‘C’ School students to fine-tune their skills on the use and maintenance of these weapons.
Night School wasn’t all that bad. During the day we’d wake up around 10 or 11 each morning and slide over to the chow hall at lunch time to eat. Then, we’d spend the early afternoon hours studying. Classes began late in the afternoon and they’d end at about 11:30 or 12 each night. After class we’d all head for the chow hall and eat midrats (midnight rations). Then, it was back to the barracks to turn in for the night.
But we didn’t always go back to the barracks. Every now and then during the week, and almost always on Friday, guys would hurry off-base after classes were done to catch the train to either Milwaukee or Chicago.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the ‘East Coast Navy’ and the ‘West Coast Navy’ had different regulations with regard to enlisted men owning and wearing civilian clothing. On the west coast, sailors could own and stow civilian clothes (civvies) in their lockers on-board most shore-based naval facilities. And, in some cases, a sailor could wear civvies ‘on the base’ at a west coast facility. But on the east coast the rules were different.
East coast sailors had to make arrangements to stow their civilian clothing ‘off base’. Accordingly, just outside the gate of every east coast naval station there were civilian establishments that made a ton of money renting locker space to sailors.
Just outside the main gate at Great Lakes there was just such a facility. It was a mini department store. The facility sold civilian and military clothing and provided a laundry and dry cleaning service. There was a department that sold military insignia and other Navy and Marine Corps specialty items, and, in the back, there was a large locker room that contained lockers that sailors could rent.
At first, I didn’t mind wearing my Navy uniform off base. But after one or two trips to Chicago I changed my mind. There was definitely an anti-military bias growing in the country because of the Vietnam war. In some circles, wearing your uniform off-base would open you up to ridicule and scorn. Adults weren’t so bad, but young people; college-aged people; people my own age, they could really make your feel uncomfortable. Sometimes they’d just stare at you with an angry, menacing stare. I finally got tired of drawing that kind of attention to myself, so I rented a locker and bought me some civvies.
If we went to town during the week we went to Chicago. It took about an hour to get to either Chicago or Milwaukee by train, and classes didn’t get out till around midnight. Milwaukee had pretty much closed down by 1 a.m., but in Chicago, a sailor could have a darn good time at any hour of the day or night.
Our favorite after-hours haunt was a topless bar in Chicago’s ‘Old Town’ district. And topless it was! The girls who waited on tables there wore mini-skirts. And that’s all they wore! They wore nothing above the waist!
There would always be a group of us, maybe four or five, and we’d get us a table and order a pitcher of beer. For hours sometimes we’d just sit there, drinking and staring, staring and drinking. Our eyes were as big as silver dollars, and they stayed glued to those small, marvelous little breasts as the girls moved from table to table serving drinks.
Now the girls weren’t all that pretty. Most of them were a little on the chunky side, but we didn’t care. They weren’t beautiful, but hey, they weren’t ugly, either. To heck with what they looked like, they were topless! What more could a sailor ask for?
Prior to my birthday (February 28th., 1969) nobody in the group that frequented the bar was old enough to drink. You had to be 21 to drink in Illinois, but the girls at the bar never asked us for an ID.
We generally didn’t go to town on Saturday night. We spent our Saturday evenings at the Enlisted Man’s club on-base. You could get beer at the E.M. club no matter how old you were. It wasn’t the full-strength stuff you could buy on the street, it was this watered-down version with an alcohol content of 3.2%. It was kindly referred to as Three-Two beer. All of the breweries canned and bottled Three-Two beer for the military. But if you wanted a mixed drink, or any form of liquor at all, you had to be 21. As far as mixed drinks went, most military installations went by the laws of the states they were in regarding the legal age to drink.
I met Sally Nagel at the E.M. club. Sally was a senior at the College of Saint Francis in nearby Joliet, Illinois. The College of Saint Francis was an all-girl catholic school. Accordingly, Sally’s only opportunity to meet young men was on the weekends at the base.
Sally was as sweet as she could be. She loved to dance and I loved to dance. In no time at all we’d become good friends and dancing partners. We had a standing arrangement to meet each other at the club every Saturday night at eight.
It was a Saturday night. Sally had other plans and wasn’t going to be at the club. If Sally wasn’t going to be there then there was no point in my going. I asked Fabian if he wanted to go to Milwaukee for dinner and a movie. The idea sounded good to him, so we showered, shaved and got dressed and headed for the train. I would have worn civvies but Fabian didn’t have any, so we both wore our dress blues and pea coats.
On the walk over to the North Chicago train stop we ran into Irby and Rucker. They were all decked out in their dress blues, too. We asked them where they were headed. They said they were going to Milwaukee. Two groups of two became one group of four and we boarded the train for ‘M’ town.
When we got off the train in Milwaukee we immediately ran into Bohon. He was with another sailor and they were trying to decide what they were going to do. We had a brief conversation at the Milwaukee train stop trying to plan something we could all do together.
Fabian and I wanted to find a nice restaurant, eat, and then take in a movie. Rucker and Irby weren’t all that hungry; they wanted to just skip the eats and find a good movie. Bohon and the other sailor wanted to walk around and check out the city. They had heard that there was a really good nightclub downtown.
It was cold! Real cold! We walked the streets for a while and in the process of trying to decide what to do we all wound up huddled in a recessed store front arguing about our options. We couldn’t decide on anything that made the whole group happy, so we decided to just start walking and see what happened. If we passed a nightclub, Bohon and his friend would peel off. If we passed a movie that Rucker and Irby wanted to see, they’d peel off. If Fabian and I found a restaurant we liked, we’d peel off.
A few blocks from the train stop we passed a pay phone on the street. It started ringing. Rucker was just walking passed it when it rang. He stopped dead in his tracks. After the second ring he called out to us:
We stopped and turned around. Rucker was standing perfectly still right next to the phone. His eyes were as big as silver dollars. He had a funny, awkward, bewildered grin on his face. He was waving his left arm back and forth with his fingers pointing toward the phone. Through his motions he seemed to be asking us what he should do. Irby set him straight in a hurry:
“Don’t just stand there, asshole. Answer the damn thing!”
Rucker picked up the receiver. He was tentative at first; awkward; but in no time at all he was carrying on a full-blown conversation with whoever it was on the other end of the line.
The rest of us were freezing to death. We all had our pea coat collars turned up and our hands in our pockets. It didn’t take long for us to get impatient.
“Come on, man, I’m starvin”
“Yea! Tell ‘em they got the wrong number and let’s go.”
“Come on, Ruck, we’re freezin’ to death.”
Rucker put his hand over the receiver and whispered:
“It’s a girl. She got this number by mistake. There’s going to be a party and we’re invited. She and her friends are going to come pick us up.”
Everybody but me went crazy. They all went bananas at the same time. They were acting like children. They all wanted to go to the party. I DIDN’T! I had this real uncomfortable feeling about it! It was the end of the month and we’d just gotten paid.
Why would the fact that it was the end of the month and a payday make me hesitate? The answer to that question was plain and simple. Arnold Spurling!
I first heard about Arnold Spurling when I was in junior high school. Arnold was four or five years older than me and had, for a time, been a student at my high school. The rumor was that Arnold had some kind of physical problem; that he was oblivious to pain; that he physically didn’t feel any pain, or, if he did, he didn’t feel pain the way normal people did. Arnold was also a troublemaker. He’d been kicked out of school for starting fights, and he’d had several run-ins with the police.
Columbus was a military town (Fort Benning was just south of the city) and Arnold and some of his friends more or less made a living by beating up soldiers and taking their money after they’d been paid on payday. This practice was known as ‘Rolling Soldiers’.
The term ‘Rolling Soldiers’ had a simple origin. The ideal target, or ‘soldier-to-be-rolled’, would be a soldier that was drunk. Accordingly, one powerful, well-placed punch in the face would generally knock a drunk soldier out. Such a punch would usually put the soldier on the ground, on his back. Then, Arnold and his friends would ‘roll him over’ and take his wallet.
Early on, Arnold and his friends had targeted drunk soldiers that were alone. But as time went by they’d take on groups of soldiers, and that group of soldiers didn’t necessarily have to be drunk. The whole practice had turned into this primal, macho thing.
One Friday night, in 1963, when I was a sophomore in high school, I was out with a group of my friends. It was late, and we’d stopped at the Goo-Goo drive-in restaurant to get something to eat before going home.
The Goo-Goo was a typical 1960’s drive-in. There was a main restaurant building where you could go inside to eat, but out back there was an awning-covered car port. You’d drive up under the awning and these waitresses on roller skates would come to your car and take your order. My friends and I drove up, parked, and a waitress skated over. While we were placing our orders we heard a car door open. We heard someone yell. We looked for the source of the disturbance and saw Arnold walking toward a car. A soldier got out of the car. There was a heated, intense, verbal exchange, and in no time at all Arnold and the soldier were fighting.
Under normal circumstances the fight would have been over quickly. Arnold would have prevailed after just a handful of blows. But this was not a normal circumstance. Whoever this solder was, he was good. There was something noticeably different about him. Besides having paratrooper wings on his chest and his pants legs bloused, he was wearing a funny hat. It was a green beret.
The blows were vicious. Both Arnold and the soldier were laying into each other with everything they had. All at once, out of nowhere, Arnold started waving his hands in the air. Then, he yelled out:
“Hold it, hold it, this ain’t no good!”
The soldier looked surprised. I think for a moment he thought Arnold was giving up. But he wasn’t. Arnold calmly walked back to his car, took the keys out of the ignition, and walked around to the trunk. He opened the trunk, reached inside and took out a tire iron. When the soldier saw the tire iron he yelled:
“Whoa, man! That ain’t fair!”
Then, out of nowhere, Arnold displayed an uncommon air of chivalry. He took the tire iron, walked over to where the soldier was standing and offered it to him.
“Here, take it. We’ll swap blows; one at a time. When one of us is down and can’t get up it’ll be over. Go ahead, you go first. Hit me with your best shot.”
The soldier seemed confused. He stared at Arnold. Then he stared at the tire iron. Then back at Arnold. His eyes were incredibly large; and they were wide open. His jaw had dropped; his mouth was wide open, too. For the longest time he didn’t do anything. Then Arnold got antsy. He offered the soldier the tire iron again:
“Come on, man, take it. You go first. Hit me with your best shot.”
In one motion the soldier grabbed the tire iron, lifted it high over his head, and came down in a swift, powerful motion. He was swinging at Arnold’s head, but Arnold reacted quickly and managed to move his head to the side. The tire iron missed his head, but it caught Arnold on the left shoulder just at the base of the neck. He went down hard; it looked like he was out. The soldier dropped the tire iron and started walking; fast; deliberately; back to his car. Just as he opened the driver’s side door he heard a voice. It was Arnold. He was up, back on his feet; and there was an evil, wicked smile on his face.
“Where you goin’, man? It’s my turn!
The soldier was shocked. I can only imagine what was going through his mind. He pulled the door open and jumped in the driver’s seat. He cranked the car immediately and started backing out of the parking space. Arnold was mad:
“Hey, man! Where you goin’? It’s my turn!”
The soldier’s car started peeling out of the parking lot. Arnold jumped back in his car, cranked it, backed out, slammed it in gear and the chase was on. The next day I heard that Arnold had caught up with the guy, run him off the road, pulled him out of the car and beat the hell out of him!
Did Milwaukee have an Arnold Spurling? Was the telephone call just a set up? Was our group being singled out to be rolled? I didn’t know the answers, and without knowing the answers I wasn’t taking any chances. I was not going to the party.
I told the others that I was concerned, but I didn’t go into the reasons why. They were determined to go, so Rucker and the girl decided on a meeting place; a location a block or two away where the girl and her friends would come and pick them up. I was concerned, but there was nothing I could do, so I decided to find a restaurant, eat dinner, and then catch a movie; ALONE!
I found a really nice restaurant a few blocks away. I ran into another ‘A’ School classmate inside. He was standing in line waiting for a table. We decided to team up, and after we chowed down big-time on shrimp, steak, a salad and potatoes, we walked around for a while and found a movie we both wanted to see: “Bullitt”, starring Steve McQueen.
When the movie was over the other fellow and I caught the train back to North Chicago. It was real late when we got back, probably 2 or 3 in the morning. I was exhausted. I undressed, went to the bathroom, turned down the covers and hit the rack. In no time at all I was asleep.
I woke up around 9 the next morning. The ‘Med’ sailor was gone. I glanced over at Fabian’s bunk and it was empty. He still wasn’t back. I got up, got dressed, and went over to the chow hall for breakfast. After breakfast I went to the PX to buy some candy bars and cigarettes. I got back to the room around 11. Fabian still wasn’t back. I decided then that if he wasn’t back by 5 I’d call the police.
Fabian got back at around 4 in the afternoon. He had this monster grin on his face. His clothes looked like he’d slept in them and he was exhausted. All he wanted to do was take a shower and hit the rack.
“What happened, man? How was the party?”
He wouldn’t answer outright. He was very secretive.
“You wouldn’t believe it, man. It was wild! It was wicked!” That’s all he’d say about it.
Rucker and Irby came in looking, and feeling, much the same way Fabian did. They didn’t have much to say either, except that there had been good-looking girls everywhere and more booze than they could drink. I didn’t need details, their expressions pretty much summed it all up. All of them had had one heck of a time; the kind of night-on-the-town that every sailor dreams about.
I celebrated my twenty-first birthday at the E.M. Club. I ordered my first legal mixed drink. It was a rum and coke. I drank rum and coke all night long. I needed help getting back to the barracks. The next morning I had one heck-of-a hangover. I quickly deduced that mixing a sweet alcohol with a sweet mixer, like coke, was a bad idea.
My family finally came up for a visit in early March. They got to North Chicago late on a Friday night. Sure enough, they came in two cars. I was glad to see them: mom, dad, Bet, my little sister, Leslie, and my little brother, Chuck. We spent that Saturday driving all over northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. We ate breakfast in North Chicago. We did lunch in Chicago. We had supper in Milwaukee. It was great to be together as a family again.
They left around mid-morning on Sunday, but before they left dad gave me the keys to my car and a Gulf Oil Company credit card. He told me to use it for emergencies, not for gas. Gulf Oil cards could be used to pay for a room at a Holiday Inn, too. Dad said that I could use the card for that purpose just once. He’d been in the service himself, and he knew that sometimes a serviceman needs some time to himself, alone, away from the base.
If I remember correctly, we got paid twice a month. I don’t remember exactly how much I got paid, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 a month; $150 a payday. I didn’t have a lot of expenses; the Navy provided me with a room and three meals a day. Everything I made was spending money.
$150 every two weeks was good money for a single guy in the Navy back then. But there was never much left over at the end of the month even before I got my car. Having my car, however, and keeping it gassed up put a strain on the finances.
There were a number of ‘A’ Schools at Great Lakes and every week there were a whole mess of ‘A’ School classes graduating. I’d seen notes posted on the bulletin board in the barracks where guys were willing to pay for a ride to the airport after graduation. I made up my own note. For $10 bucks a head (two bucks less than it would cost for a taxi) I’d take guys to the airport in my car. My only stipulation was that I had to have at least two passengers per trip. I posted my note on the boards in all the ‘A’ School barracks and in no time at all I was in the ‘Taxi’ business.
Having a car and being in the ‘Taxi’ business had solved my money problem, but every now and then the other guys needed extra money, too. Just north of Racine, in southern Wisconsin, there was a private company that paid $10 for a pint of blood. On occasion, when my classmates would run short between paydays, they’d offer me two bucks a head to take them to the blood bank. The blood bank was only a couple of miles from the base. The airport was 45 minutes away, so two bucks a head for a trip to the blood bank was a fair price as far as I was concerned. I’d give blood, too. So on top of the two bucks I got from each of the guys, I got ten bucks for myself.
As soon as I had money for gas, and wasn’t on the watchbill, I drove up to Madison to visit my Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers. I was in for a shock. The Madison Sig Eps were not what I’d expected.
At Auburn, my Sig Ep brotherhood had been a wild and rowdy bunch. We could party with the best of them. But partying aside, we were a pretty reserved group. The typical Auburn male in the 60s dressed in a conventional, conservative manner. Gray, blue or khaki pants, a white or chambray (blue) dress shirt, wing-tipped shoes (black), and a pull-over sweater, that was typical dress. Wisconsin males seemed to have no fashion initiative at all. They wore ragged blue jeans with holes everywhere, and their shirts were all tie-dyed in weird, obnoxious, outlandish colors. And none of them ever got their hair cut; they all wore their hair long. Hygiene was a problem, too. There was a note on the bulletin board in the fraternity house reminding brothers to visit the infirmary periodically to be checked for head lice.
The Sig Eps at Madison were friendly enough, and they accepted me as a brother, but the fact that I was in the military turned most of them off. The anti-war movement was in full bloom on campus. When I told them that I’d like to come up and visit the next time they had a frat party they assured me that I’d be welcome, but I could tell they were just being obligatory. It was as though I was intruding on them. I could tell they were being nice because I was a brother, but it was obvious that most of them just wished I’d go away.
Several weeks later they had a party and I drove up early that Saturday morning. I was twenty-one and legal so I made a trip to the liquor store for them. Throughout the day I began to feel more and more like I was intruding. I was being ignored and I definitely didn’t feel welcome.
I decided not to drink at the party, but the rest of the brotherhood got drunk in a hurry. The drunker they got the more of a target I became. They began to gang up on me in groups; their dates, too, and they grilled me about being in the service. They wanted to know why I didn’t go to Canada to avoid the draft. They wanted to know what I thought about the war in Vietnam. I eventually felt so uncomfortable that I just left. I was mad and confused, and I never went back to Madison again.
One weekend, Sally let me know that she’d be at the E.M. club on the following Friday. Normally I’d meet her there on Saturdays, but she had other plans for that Saturday night. Ordinarily, I’d have had class on Friday night and wouldn’t have been able to meet her, but for some reason we had that Friday off. That being the case we moved our date up a day.
It was Friday, March 28th, and we met at the club around 8 or so. We had a really good time, like we always did, but around 10 or so we both got hungry and decided to leave the base and go to this little diner in Waukegan to get a hamburger.
After we ate we got back in her car and were driving back toward the base. Sally turned on the radio. We’d been listening to the radio on the ride to the diner, and there had been music playing. But now, there wasn’t any music. A national network commentator was on the air and it was obvious, by what he was saying, that someone very important had just died. We kept listening and trying to figure out who it was. Finally, the commentator filled us in. It was a man, the man who had been the commander of all allied forces in Europe during World War II; a man that had been a former president of the United States. It was Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The death of president Eisenhower and the bad experience I’d had in Madison just a week or so earlier prompted me to reflect on why we were fighting the war in Vietnam.
Every war America had fought in the twentieth century seemed to have been for a good cause. Oh, I knew from history that not everybody had been in favor of our involvement in World War I. President Wilson himself had been against the war initially, but we eventually got involved. Public opinion after the sinking of the Lusitania had left Wilson no choice.
World War II was another matter entirely. We stayed out of it as long as we could, but after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor we were in it big-time. It was a fight to make the world safe for democracy. Considering the enemy, Germany, Italy and Japan; Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, we did the right thing. If there was ever a justification for war; for America to be involved in a war, World War II was it.
Korea was different. The reasons for our involvement there weren’t so well-defined.
So, what about Vietnam? Why were we there? I began to start trying to find an answer to that question. I didn’t know much, but from what little I knew it was easy to come to some basic conclusions:
Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese claimed that they were fighting a war of independence. They had lived for almost two centuries under French colonial rule. The French were replaced by the Japanese during World War II, and when the war was over, Ho Chi Minh got mad when the allies allowed the French to come back into the country and set up a colonial government again. The Vietnamese fought the French after World War II ended and defeated them in the battle of Dienbienphu in 1953. For the first time in more than a century Vietnam was a free and independent country.
The United States saw North Vietnam as an ally of the Chinese and the Soviet Union. China and the Russians were supplying North Vietnam with food, arms and munitions, so it was easy to understand how we had come to that conclusion.
The Cold War was raging in Europe. The Russians had tried to take over all of Germany after it had been partitioned at the end of World War II. The Iron Curtain was real, and there was a war of nerves going on between Russia and America (and our Western European allies) as we tried to keep Russia from spreading communism across that Iron Curtain boundary. Was Vietnam in on the conspiracy to spread communism in the east, throughout Asia, or were the Vietnamese just fighting a war of independence like Ho Chi Minh had said? That was the key question.
It was easy to understand why we thought the North Vietnamese (along with the Russians and the Chinese) were trying to do the same thing in Asia. It came to be known as the Domino Theory. America truly believed that North Vietnam, if left unchallenged, would move on Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand and make communist countries out of them as well. In other words, if North Vietnam prevailed in the war in Vietnam then those other countries would also fall, one at a time, like dominos under the influence of the communist sphere.
For several weeks I tried to make sense of it all. I finally decided that if conclusions 2, 3, and 4 were true, if Ho Chi Minh wasn’t fighting a war of independence, then we might be justified in fighting the war. But were those conclusions true? I didn’t know. And I doubted that the president or anyone else in Washington knew, either.
I got tired of trying to figure out why we were in Vietnam. I decided I needed some time off, away from the Navy, so I took my dad up on the offer to spend a weekend at a Holiday Inn.
On the first Friday morning in April, I found a Holiday Inn just a few miles from the base. I signed in at the front desk, got my room key, and without even going to the room I went back to the base and went to class in the afternoon. As soon as class let out that night I went off base, changed into some civilian clothes, grabbed an extra change of civvies and skivvies, and went back to the motel room. I had it all planned out. First of all, I was going to take a bath. Not a shower, now, A BATH! I hadn’t had a bath since October. I filled the tub with hot water and crawled in. For more than an hour I just sat there and soaked. When the water would start to cool off, I’d warm it up again. That bath alone was worth the cost of the room.
After the bath, I drove around the area and found a liquor store. I bought a bottle of bourbon. I went back to the motel room, got some ice and a coke, made myself a drink and turned on the TV set. For the next couple of hours I just lay in the bed. I watched TV, drank bourbon and coke and had a royal, lazy, wonderful time. I can still remember the name of the movie that was playing on television. It was “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”. It was corny as heck, but that didn’t matter. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hadn’t been that relaxed in months.
At some point, in the wee hours of the morning, I drifted off to sleep. When I woke up the next day (sometime after noon) the TV was still on. I got up, took another hot, luxurious bath, and put on some clean clothes. I found a restaurant just a few blocks down the street and ate a late, hearty breakfast.
I spent the rest of the day just being lazy and watching TV. That night, I went out to eat at a restaurant and then came back to the room. I got another long, hot bath and then turned in early. I slept for 16 straight hours and didn’t wake up until almost check-out time on Sunday. As soon as I woke up I had a panic attack. I’d royally screwed up big-time. I was supposed to have met Sally at the E.M. club the night before. I checked out of the motel and went straight back to the base. I called Sally and told her that I was sorry. She understood. Then she asked me if I’d like to spend the next Sunday afternoon with her. She wanted to introduce me to some of her classmates.
The next Sunday morning Sally came by the base and picked me up around noon. Then she took me on a sight-seeing trip. We went the long way, taking back roads and enjoying the scenery, and arrived at the College of St. Francis, in Joliet, about an hour or so later.
The campus was beautiful. She took me on a tour and introduced me to some of her friends. She introduced me to some of the catholic sisters at the school, too. At one point, shortly after we got there, Sally had to go across campus to get something. She left me with three of her friends. As we walked the grounds of the campus one of the girls began asking me questions about the military. She wanted to know why I had decided to join. She wanted to know what I thought about the war in Vietnam. She wanted to know if I was going to fight in Vietnam. Her questions had a hard tone to them; they were very much like the questions I’d been asked when I was in Madison.
Before I could answer, the other girls got mad at her for being so insensitive. They rebuked her for treating me that way. They told her it was none of her business why I was in the military; that it was none of her business what I thought about the war. She finally got huffy and just walked away.
After she left, the other girls apologized for the way I’d been treated. I told them that apologies weren’t necessary; that I’d been treated like that on another recent occasion. They both wanted to know what I meant by that, and I told them what had happened in Madison. One of the girls was quite frank in her response:
“The students in Madison have a reputation for being radical. But Madison isn’t the only place you’ll find radicals. We’re a catholic school, but we have our radicals, too.”
I hadn’t expected an answer like that.
“Oh, yes,” she said, referring to the girl who’d just left. “Her brother’s a Jesuit. Her sister’s a Maryknoll nun. To be honest, I’ve always wondered why she came to school HERE.”
I had no idea what she meant, but I deduced from what she’d said that Jesuits and Maryknoll nuns (whatever they were, whoever they were) were radical.
Before we got off the subject, one of the girls asked me if I thought I’d have to go to Vietnam. I told her that if I stayed in the program I was currently in, UDT/SEAL, that I’d be going to Nam for sure. She had a tablet and a pencil with her and she started writing something in the tablet. She tore the paper out of the spiral binder and handed it to me. It was her name and her college mailing address.
“If you go to Vietnam, write me. My brother’s best friend is in Vietnam right now, and he says the hardest thing about being over there is that he gets so little mail. Every letter he gets means so much to him. If you want me to write you, if you go over there, write me and I’ll write you back.”
The other girl grabbed the paper and wrote her address down, too. She said the same thing; that she’d write me back if I wanted a pen pal.
Six months later I was in Vietnam, and the first night I was there I wrote both girls a letter.
I realized when I took the paper with the addresses on it that there was no way Sally and I could stay in touch. These girls were sophomores, they were going to be in college and have the same address for at least two more years. Sally was a senior; she’d be graduating in June. And after that she didn’t know where she’d be. After ‘A’ School, I didn’t know what my address would be, either. I made up my mind right then that I’d talk to Sally about it. Surely we could come up with a way to stay in touch. I decided to mention it to her the next time we were together.
When the visit was over, late in the afternoon, Sally said that something had come up and she couldn’t take me back to the base. She asked if I’d mind taking the train back to North Chicago. I told her that was fine. When it was time for me to leave she took me to the train station in Joliet. I didn’t know it then, but when we waved goodbye at the train station it really was goodbye. I never saw Sally again.
It was a Saturday evening sometime in April. I had tried to call Sally to see if she was going to be at the E.M. club. I couldn’t reach her, so I decided to drive to Chicago and see a movie. I didn’t want to waste time changing into civvies, so I was wearing my dress blue uniform. My car was parked in a parking lot off-base, and as I walked through the main gate, headed for my car, I ran into a group of sailors from Snipe School. I knew one of them.
“Hey, Bob, we need a favor. We’re having a party and we need some booze. None of us are 21. You are. Would you mind buying the booze for us? We’ll give you the money.”
It seemed like an innocent request so I agreed to do it. They huddled around me and started making out a list of what they needed. Each man in the group wrote down what he wanted and each gave me more than enough money for the purchase. They told me to keep all the money that was left over; payment for helping them out, I guess.
I went in the liquor store and bought the stuff. It was a lot! When I walked out I was carrying two, large, brown paper bags full of booze. I made out pretty good money-wise, too; I had ten bucks and some change left over.
I had agreed to meet them in the parking lot behind the store. I walked out the front door, went around back, and they descended on me like a flock of vultures. They started reaching into the bags and grabbing the stuff. They were so ferocious in their efforts to get to it that I almost dropped one of the bags.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, we heard a siren. A police car pulled up. It seemed like it came from nowhere. Two police officers jumped out and started running toward the group. All the underage sailors panicked. They dropped the liquor and ran, and the sound of bottles crashing on the pavement almost drowned out the yells of the officers.
“Halt, halt, you’re all under arrest!”
But none of them stopped. They dispersed and ran in four different directions. The only person that didn’t run was me. One of the police officers grabbed me.
“What’s going on here?”
I replied very innocently:
“I don’t know, officer. I was just walking through the parking lot here when you guys drove up.”
“You weren’t with that group that just ran?”
“No, sir. I don’t even know those guys.”
“Let me see some I.D.”
I took out my wallet and showed the officer my driver’s license. While he was looking at it the other officer walked up.
“Well, at least we caught one of ‘em.”
“This guy’s 21. He says he was just walking through the parking lot here; says he doesn’t even know the others.”
“That’s bullcrap. You know he was in on it.”
“Then why didn’t he run?”
That question confused both of them. They just stared at each other for a minute trying to figure out what to do. Finally, the officer that had grabbed me brought the issue to resolution. He handed me my license back.
“Get out of here, sailor! Scram! And stay out of trouble, you hear me?”
Whoa! That was close. I’d been a heartbeat away from a criminal arrest. I was glad when it was over. It shook me up so bad that I just went back to the barracks and went to bed. Laying there, in my bunk, with my heart still racing ninety-to-nothing, I promised myself I’d never do anything that stupid again.
I hate to say this, but until we started studying basic electricity about two-thirds of the way through school, I don’t ever remember opening a book to study. Every week we’d cover a different subject. We’d have class on the topic from Monday through Friday, and then, at the end of class on Friday we’d have an exam. After the first few weeks, and the first few topics, I realized that I could make a passing grade without studying outside of class. So I didn’t. After all, it wasn’t rocket science! Well, I take that back. One week we did study ‘Basic Missile Systems’, and that has something to do with rockets, but it wasn’t REAL rocket science. But that’s neither here nor there. The bottom line is, I just got lazy.
Going into the week on basic electricity I had a rude awakening. My test scores were borderline; I was just barely passing. But I wasn’t the only one. There were four or five others that were in the same boat. Irby and Rucker were having trouble, too. So was Bohon. Before we started the basic electricity component the instructor called the group that was having trouble together and told us the cold, hard truth. If we didn’t make at least a ‘B’ on the electricity exam we’d be kicked out of school. If we got kicked out of school that was it, we’d be sent to the fleet. And there, we’d probably all end up as ‘Boson’s Mate Strikers’. The hardest job in the Navy is ‘Boson’s Mate’, and his threat put the fear of God in all of us.
I’ve never studied so hard in my life. The other guys did, too. We even studied together. We quizzed each other; we went over every possible problem. We worked hard. We busted our fannies, and come Friday night, when it was time to take the test, we were ready!
Nobody made a ‘B’. No sir! WE ACED THE DAMN THING! Everyone in the group that was having trouble made a perfect score on the test. And that night, after class, we all went to Chicago, to the topless bar, and celebrated big-time!
One of Bohon’s roommates was a guy named David Tarr. Tarr was from Fort Wayne, Indiana and that wasn’t too far away. One day, Bohon came up to me and said he needed a favor.
Tarr’s sister was in high school. Tarr had arranged for Bohon to be her date at her Junior/Senior Prom. Tarr had a date for the prom, too. The big night was all planned, but there was a problem. Bohon and Tarr needed transportation and they wanted to borrow my car.
If I’d heard the expression once, I’d heard it a thousand times: NEVER LOAN A CAR TO SAILOR! In every case that I knew about, where someone had done that, the car had been wrecked. But for some reason, I had no qualms about loaning my car to Bohon.
On the appointed weekend Bohon came to me after class on Friday night and I gave him the keys. It was midnight, and he and Tarr left for Indiana immediately.
I never once worried about them or the car. Sure enough, late Sunday night, Bohan and Tarr came into my room in the barracks. Bohon handed me the keys. They both said ‘thanks’. We chatted for a few minutes; they told me about the prom; then they left. The next day I had to go somewhere, and when I got to my car I checked it over real good. It had been washed. It looked better than it had looked since mom and dad had brought it up to me. It had a full tank of gas, too. I don’t know why I trusted Bohon the way I did, but there was just something about him; he was just one of those people you could trust.
One Saturday night, Bohon showed up at the E.M. club with a date. She was tall, if I remember correctly, and she was buxom. She wasn’t that bad looking, either. But there was something about her, something strange. It had something to do with the makeup; she always wore a ton of makeup.
For the next several weeks Bohon and this lady were a hot item. They spent a lot of time together. Mick would even see her after class in the wee hours of the morning during the week.
One night, Mick and the lady went parking. She had a car, and they drove to a secluded spot on the lake just a few blocks from the base. They were kissing and petting in the car and had fogged up the windows big-time. Suddenly, a police car drove up. The police officer got out of his car and calmly walked over to theirs. He knocked on the window and interrupted a passionate embrace. He asked them to get out of the car. They did. Then he asked to see their IDs. He looked at Bohon’s first. Then he looked at the lady’s. All at once, he started laughing. Bohon wanted to know why:
“What’s so funny?”
“Jesus, son! This woman’s old enough to be your mother!”
I tried to contact Sally almost every day the last month of school. But every time I called, she wasn’t in.
Sometime in early May, a week or two before graduation, our orders came in.
Fabian, Irby and Rucker and I had been wondering what would happen to us. We’d never qualified on the swim test for UDT/SEAL in boot camp. We’d gotten our ‘A’ School assignment, and we’d passed the interview with the psychiatrist, but we still didn’t know what that meant. When we got our orders we found out. Our orders instructed us to report for UDT/SEAL training at Coronado, California. Our report date was June 11, 1969.
Most of the other guys were going straight to the fleet. Some who were in the GMM and GMT program would continue their schooling, but two were being sent to ‘Small Boat’ training in California. That could only mean one thing; these guys were going to Nam. They were gonna end up in the ‘Brown Water Navy’! They were gonna see combat! They were gonna get shot at! One of those guys was Bohon!
Graduation day was May 23, 1969. I was driving home, and since I’d pass through Chattanooga and Atlanta on the way, I offered to give Fabian and Bohon a ride.
All of the UDT/SEAL bunch had 15 days of leave before our report date. Fabian and I made plans to meet Irby and Rucker in San Diego on Monday, June 9. Our report date was June 11th, a Wednesday, but we decided we’d all get back together a couple of days early. We all agreed that we’d meet at the Delta ticket counter at the airport in San Diego at 4 in the afternoon on June 9th.
Graduation from ‘A’ School was almost a non-happening. We all went into this big room, they called our names, we got these teeny-weeny graduation certificates. Then we were dismissed.
Fabian and Bohon and I didn’t waste time saying goodbye. We’d already packed up my car so we got the heck out of Dodge as soon as the ceremonies were over.
We took turns driving and we drove straight through. Day turned to night and night turned to day and we were still driving, headed for Tennessee and Georgia.
When we got to Chattanooga, Fabian and I got a little choked up when we dropped Bohon off. We didn’t know if we’d ever see him again. And we were worried about him. He was going to Nam! He was going to see combat! We tried not to show it, but we both teared up a little. After we dropped him off we talked about his future; what he had to look forward to in the coming year. The conversation went something like this:
“Geez, man, he’s going to Nam!”
“That poor son-of-a-bitch!”
“Man, I’m glad it ain’t me!”
“That poor son-of-a-bitch!”
“He’s gonna get shot at!”
“That poor son-of-a-bitch!”
When Fabian and I finally got to Atlanta, I dropped him off and we said our goodbyes. I then headed south toward Columbus. Columbus is just two hours south of Atlanta, but that last two hours seemed like ten or twelve. When I finally got home I was dog-tired. I hit the rack and slept for 24 hours straight.
The first couple of days I was home I just took it easy. I watched TV a lot. I ate a lot, too. I’d lost a good deal of weight in boot camp and ‘A’ School, but I damn near gained it all back in the two weeks I was home.
One day, I drove over to Auburn to visit the guys in the fraternity, but school was out for summer break and only a handful of brothers were there. The ones I really wanted to see , the ones I’d been initiated with, weren’t there.
My mom had told me when I first got home that there was a girl she wanted me to meet. Her name was Carol Ann Jordan. Right from the get-go mom kept hounding me to call her; to ask her out for a date. I didn’t really want to. I was only going to be home for two weeks. I didn’t really care about meeting somebody new. Too many emotions were at stake; especially mine! What if it turned into something serious? The last thing I wanted to do was to fall in love with somebody and then leave. God-only-knows when I’d see them again! But mom kept hounding me. I finally gave in. I called Carol Ann and we made plans for a date.
Carol Ann was a character. She was a student at Belhaven college in Mississippi and was home for the summer. She was sweet as she could be, and she loved to have a good time. She had a mischievous nature and she loved to pull pranks and play practical jokes.
Sailors are known for their colorful language. I’d heard an expression in ‘A’ School and I found an occasion to use it when I was out on a date with Carol Ann. It was an expression that the ‘Med sailor’ had used a lot. Every time he’d see a pretty girl in the E.M. club, a girl he didn’t know, he’d say: “Man, I’d drink her bath water.” I finally heard the expression in its entirety when a real beauty walked in one night. He banged his hand on the table and pointed her out: “Fellows, I’d drink her bath water ... (pause) ... any damn time of the month!”
One night Carol Ann and I were in a restaurant. We’d just ordered when a beautiful young lady walked by our table. I was feeling a little mischievous myself, so I said:
“Wow, did you see that. She’s beautiful. Man, I’d drink her bath water!”
Carol Ann started laughing.
“What did you say?”
“I’d drink her bath water.”
“You heard me.”
“What about me? Would you drink mine?”
Carol Ann got a really weird look on her face. A shocked look. I was afraid for a moment that I’d offended her. Then, out of nowhere, she started laughing hysterically. When her laughter finally subsided, she said:
“Where did you hear that?”
“Oh, it’s just an old Navy saying.”
“You’re crazy! Would you really do that, or is it just a saying?”
“I said it, didn’t I?”
“Then you’d really do it?”
We laughed about it for a while then we ate and went to a movie.
The next afternoon I went to Carol Ann’s house. We’d made a date to play tennis. When I rang the doorbell Carol Ann’s sister, Alice Ruth, answered the door. She was laughing. I asked if Carol Ann was ready and she said she’d be down in a minute. She kept laughing and giggling the whole time I waited.
Finally, Carol Ann came down the stairs. She made a grand entrance, like Scarlett O’Hara, and she was carrying a glass. There was no mistake about what was in it. It was soapy water. Carol Ann handed me the glass.
“Go ahead, sailor man, drink my bath water.”
I took the glass. I can only imagine what my expression looked like. Both girls were laughing.
“Go ahead, Bob. You said you’d do it; so do it!”
There was no way out. So I did it. I drank it all.
“Gross! I can’t believe you did that!”
We all got a big laugh out of what I’d just done, then Carol Ann and I went to play tennis. I really liked Carol Ann. She was so free-spirited. We went out every night the rest of the time I was home.
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