4: UDT/SEAL Training
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My leave was finally up. Early in the morning on June 9th my mom and dad took me to the airport. I caught a connecting flight to Atlanta, and there, I boarded a non-stop for San Diego.
I tried to relax on the flight, but I couldn’t. Were those butterflies in my stomach? In two days I’d report for UDT/SEAL training. I didn’t know what it would be like, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I was really concerned that I wouldn’t measure up. Earlier, before I was even inducted, I’d decided that I didn’t want to be in the program. But now, even though I’d failed my swim test, I was not only IN THE PROGRAM, I was on my way to START THE PROGRAM! No doubt about it, those weren’t butterflies in my stomach. THEY WERE BLACKBIRDS!
My flight landed in San Diego in mid-afternoon. I made my way to the baggage area and retrieved my seabag. Then I went looking for the Delta ticket counter. I was the first one there. Ten or fifteen minutes later, Fabian showed up. We’d been on the same flight and didn’t even know it. Twenty or thirty minutes after we hooked up, Rucker and Irby arrived. We said our hellos and caught a cab. Thirty minutes later we were checking into a flea-bag hotel downtown.
We just lounged around for the rest of the day. There was a channel on the TV in the room that ran these gosh-awful porno movies. They couldn’t have been on video tape, the commercial version of the VCR hadn’t been invented yet. We couldn’t get Rucker to change the channel. All he wanted to do was watch that porno mess.
Later that evening we all went out to eat. We thought about going to a movie, but the only one we could find was ‘Bullitt’, starring Steve McQueen. I’d already seen it, in Milwaukee, the night the other guys went to the party, so I nixed that idea immediately. I bought us a bottle of bourbon and Irby bought some cokes. We went back to the room and got sloshed. The next day was much the same. We watched TV (that porno channel) all morning and had a room service lunch. We went to a nice restaurant for supper and then came back to the room. Rucker bought the booze this time and Fabian bought the cokes.
We all spent a lot of time in the bathroom. At first, I thought it was just me; I had a bad case of the ‘runs’. As it turns out, the others had the same problem. It was nerves. We were all scared to death! The next day we’d be reporting for UDT/SEAL training and we had no earthly idea what to expect.
On Wednesday morning, June 11, 1969, I woke up around 8. Rucker was already up. He was in the bathroom. Bummer! I still had the runs and I needed to get in there bad! By 9:30 we were all up. By 11:00 we’d all showered, dressed, packed and had breakfast. We were ready to report for duty at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado.
The city of Coronado, California is on the northern tip of the Coronado peninsula due south of San Diego. Just south of the city of Coronado is the Naval Amphibious Base.
The Coronado peninsula is separated from San Diego by a bay. The city had just finished constructing a brand new bridge to tie the two together, but the bridge wouldn’t open until August. In June of ‘69, the only way to get to the peninsula was by ferry.
When we checked out of the hotel, we told the guy working the desk where we were going and asked him the best way to get there. He said the Coronado ferry wasn’t all that far away. We asked him if it was close enough to walk and he said it was. But he advised us to get a cab because the walk from the ferry landing in Coronado to the main gate at the base was a doozie. We caught a cab!
The cab had to cross the bay by ferry, too, and the ferry ride was a hoot. Once on the ferry, we got out of the cab, stood along the ferry rail, and took in the sights. The day was gorgeous, the skyline of San Diego was beautiful, and the salty air was invigorating.
Once the ferry landed on the Coronado side of the bay the cab driver took us to the main gate at the base. The cab driver wasn’t allowed to enter the base so we got out, paid him, and then checked with the sailor at the main gate for instructions. He looked at our orders and told us to report to a receiving facility just a few blocks down the street.
We checked in at receiving and the clerk there told us we’d be temporarily berthed in a transient barracks where all incoming UDT/SEAL trainees were being formed into pre-training classes. We were handed a map with directions to the barracks and told to report to the master-at-arms office to get our bedding. The master-at-arms issued each of us a pillow case, a pillow, two sheets and a blanket. We grabbed our bedding and our seabags and followed the map directions. When we got to the building circled on the map it was a big disappointment.
The building was old and dilapidated. We walked inside and looked around. There were a number of other sailors already there. Some were in their summer whites, just like us, but others were wearing olive drab marine utilities, the same uniform that frogmen and SEALs wore. The ones in white had a little hair on their heads; like us. The ones in utilities had been shaved real close; just like in boot camp. They all came forward and introduced themselves.
“You guy’s here for UDT?”
“Find a bunk and make yourselves at home.”
We all found a bunk and started stowing our gear in nearby lockers. Some of the guys in white were stowing their gear, too. They must have just checked in ahead of us. One of the guys in utilities filled us in on what to do next.
“Once you get settled in, you need to go over to the Frog Shack and check in there.”
“Where’s the Frog Shack?”
“Go down to the end of the street, toward the bay. When you get there hang a left; the squatty little building on the left is the Frog Shack.. When you check in they’ll give you two chits, one for a haircut and one for clothing issue.”
“Yea. Your tadpole clothes. You’ll get three pairs of utilities, an olive drab belt, a brass belt buckle, a utility cap, two pairs of utility socks and a pair of black combat boots.”
We made up our bunks. Then we went down to the Frog Shack. They issued us the chits and we went and got our heads shaved. Then we went to clothing issue and got our tadpole clothes.
When we got back to the barracks we changed into a pair of utilities and stowed our lockers. Throughout the afternoon other new trainees were reporting in. We all spent the rest of the day getting to know each other.
At some point, late in the afternoon, one of the guys said:
“Hey, the chow hall’s open. Let’s go get in line before the classes get there!”
One of the new guys asked the obvious question:
“What difference does it make when we get there?”
“Hey, man. When a UDT class gets to the chow hall they get to go to the head of the line. If a class and/or a pre-training class get there at the same time, even if you’re already inside, already in line, it could take you 15 or 20 minutes to get served.”
Rucker chimed in:
“Ain’t WE a UDT class?”
“Yea, technically. But we ain’t formed up yet. We ain’t got an instructor. The classes with an instructor are the ones that break in line.”
Irby started for the door.
“Well shoot, let’s go. I’m starvin’ to death.”
We all went to the chow hall in one big group, and we made it through the chow line with no delays. Then, just as we sat down to eat a UDT class arrived.
We could hear them coming before we saw them. The sound of a UDT training company coming down the street at the double-time march is unmistakable. While the rest of the company was still marching in-place outside, at the double-time, the first squad came pouring through the door. They didn’t stop the double-time routine until they were at the front of the line. One squad at a time the rest of the company followed, and they blew through the chow line in a hurry.
Those of us who’d just arrived were in shock. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. They were soaking wet. And there was sand caked all over their uniforms. Their faces were ashen - almost blue in color - and all of them were shivering violently. One of the guys in our group filled us in:
“Ahhh, they’ve been for a little dip.”
“In their clothes?”
“They probably ran the strand first, up to the hotel. Then, when they got back, their instructor probably stood them neck deep in the Pacific for ten or twenty minutes.”
“Neck deep in the Pacific! Why?”
“It’s a character building drill. Stop and think about it. Stand a whole UDT training company at attention neck deep in the Pacific for ten or twenty minutes, hey! If that won’t build character, nothing will!”
“How does that build character?”
“You guys been in the ocean yet?”
“Hey! That son-of-a-bitch is cold! Now I don’t mean cold! I MEAN COLD! Hell, that’s why them suckers are shivering like that! God-damn Pacific is cold, man! It’ll freeze your friggin’ badoogies off!”
I had a question, and I just blurted it out:
“What’s a strand? And what hotel?”
“They call the beach just across the road from the main gate the Silver Strand. And four or five miles up the strand, in Coronado, is the Hotel Del Coronado. That’s a typical UDT run, up to the hotel and back.”
“Four or five miles? Up and back? Up and back would be eight to ten miles. They run eight to ten miles at one lick?”
“Yea. Eight to ten miles at one lick; wearing combat boots, and running in the sand; the soft part of the sand!”
Our jaws were on the floor. We couldn’t stop looking at them. God only knows what else they’d been through that day, but before coming to the chow hall they’d run the strand for ten miles. Then, they’d stood at attention, neck deep in the Pacific, for ten to twenty minutes; shivering; with the surf tearing into them. Then, they’d double-timed it to the chow hall for supper. What had we gotten ourselves into?
There was no lost time. They ate with an economy of motion. Some literally shoveled the food off their trays with their spoons; directly into their mouths. They were in and out in less than ten minutes. And once they’d formed up outside they double-time marched back toward the main gate. They were headed for the strand again. They obviously weren’t through for the day.
We all lost our appetites. We just got up and returned to the barracks.
We had the evening to ourselves so Rucker, Fabian and Irby and I were looking for something to do. We were open to anything. We wanted something physical to do; something to get our minds off of the mess we’d gotten ourselves into. We’d seen a sign pointing to a bowling alley when we went to chow, so we all agreed we’d go bowling. As we were walking toward the door one of the others went barreling past us chasing a roach.
“Hey, don’t step on it, man. It’s mine!”
Irby just had to ask:
“What-the-hell are you doin’?”
“I’m chasin’ that roach, man. Get out of my way.”
“Chasin’ a roach?”
“Protein, man. Protein.”
We all said the same thing at the same time:
The guy caught the roach and then walked back over to where we were standing.
Then, the son-of-a-bitch opened his mouth; put the roach in; put his lips together and smiled a freakish, wide-eyed smile.
Fabian thought he was pulling our leg.
“This is a joke, right. You didn’t really put that thing in your mouth, did you?”
The guy started chewing. There was this morbid, god-awful crunching sound.
“Come on, man. Tell me you didn’t really put that roach in your mouth?”
When the guy got through chewing he opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue. There were roach legs and roach wings plainly visible along with this vile looking yellow-green juice.
Rucker just about lost his supper.
“Jesus, man! You’re crazy!”
“No I ain’t. Hey, you’re gonna have to eat ‘em, too. SEAL’s have to live off the land, man. They eat snakes, birds, bugs; anything they can find.”
Irby was mortified.
“I ain’t eatin’ no god-damned roach! No way, man, that’s it! I ain’t eatin’ no roach!
“It’s in the training, man. They teach you how to live off the land. If you can’t eat roaches, hey! You ain’t gon’ make it.”
“Fine! Then I ain’t gon’ make it. Come on guys, let’s get out of here.”
We walked out in a huff.
“That son-of-a-bitch is crazy. Roaches got all kinds of diseases and stuff.”
“Surely we ain’t gon’ have to do that. I mean, I could handle a grasshopper ... or a cricket. But I don’t think I could do a roach.”
“A cricket! Geez, man! There ain’t a whole lot of difference in a roach and a cricket! They’re about the same, don’t you think? A roach and a cricket?”
“You’re right. I ain’t doin’ roaches or crickets!”
Then, we walked right into him; right there on the street. It was Snow.
“Hey, Steve! Is that you?”
We surprised him.
“Yea! (pause) YEA! Hey, guys! How you doin?”
“How long you been here?”
“Seems like forever.”
“Are you in our class? We’re forming up now.”
Then his mood changed. He went from being glad to see us to severely depressed.
“I already been in a class. I got kicked out.”
“Kicked out? For what?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Hey, man. We’re on our way to the bowling alley. Why don’t you come with us and tell us what happened.”
Snow agreed to join us. We all went to the bowling alley. We bought some beer, got a table, and Snow filled us in on his run-in with UDT. Snow didn’t elaborate at all, he just told us what happened; the plain and simple truth.
After boot camp he’d reported for Yeoman ‘A’ School. He didn’t spend any time as a transient, his classes started as soon as he got there. Yeoman school was four or five weeks shorter than Gunnery School and as soon as he graduated he reported to Coronado. He was one of the last to report for his pre-training group and they started the day after he arrived.
A week or two into the training cycle he and a group of his classmates noticed a channel buoy out in the middle of the bay. One guy said it had to be at least a half-mile away. Another said it was closer. Another said it was more than a half-mile. One thing led to another and a challenge was made. Somebody in the group dared another classmate to swim to the buoy and back. That classmate refused. But Snow, seeing an opportunity to make some money, bet the group $20.00 apiece that he could do it. They took the bet!
The next evening Snow took up the challenge. He put on his swim trunks. He got a mask, a snorkel and swim fins from someplace he called the Lung Locker and put them on as well.
The sun was going down when he started the swim. It took him an eternity to make it out to the buoy; he had to fight the current all the way out, constantly adjusting his direction to keep the buoy in front of him. Finally, he made it. After a brief rest in the water he climbed up on the buoy, dropped his swim trunks and mooned his classmates. Then, after resting for ten or twelve minutes, he was back in the water and swimming toward shore.
The sun had gone down completely midway through his return swim. There was no moon that night, so the guys on shore lost sight of him. They had no idea where he was. They had no idea whether he was in trouble or not. They panicked! They ran back to the UDT compound and found their instructor. They told him what had happened. He put on his swim trunks, grabbed some fins and a mask, and ran down to the bay with Snow’s classmates in hot pursuit. When they got there Snow was sitting on the ground catching his breath. He’d made it, but he was dead-dog tired.
The instructor was livid. He told Snow to report to the Frog Shack first thing the next morning. He was going to be re-assigned to transient status to await orders. He was out of the program. He was going to the fleet.
When Snow finished his story we all just sat there. Nobody said anything for the longest time. Finally, Irby spoke up.
“What are you gonna do?”
“I don’t know what to do. I’ve apologized to everybody: to my instructor, my classmates, the C.O. of UDT, the base commander, EVERYBODY! Let’s face it, it was a dumb thing to do. And every day I go over to the Frog Shack and beg ‘em to let me back in. I’m gonna do that every day till my orders come down.”
“You think they’ll take you back?”
“I doubt it. But I’m gonna keep tryin’. Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky. If I can convince ‘em that I’m really sorry maybe they’ll give me another chance.”
Snow excused himself and said he had some laundry to do. The rest of us finished our beers and felt way too depressed to bowl. We said our good-byes. Snow went his way and we went back to the barracks.
It was close to 10 o’clock when we got back. Just as we were walking in the door a pizza delivery man pulled up outside.
“Is this the UDT compound?”
“Yea. Whatcha’ need?”
“I got a pizza here for somebody named Bug Man.”
“Come on in, we’ll run him down for ya’.”
When we walked through the door, Irby yelled out:
“Hey, Bug Man! Your pizza’s here.”
Bug Man ran to the door. He had a roach in his hand. The pizza guy came in and Bug Man met him at the threshold.
“Are you Bug Man?”
“Here’s your pizza. That’ll be $5.57.”
Bug Man lifted the roach by one leg and held it up so the pizza guy could see it. Then, he opened his mouth and placed the roach on his tongue. He closed his mouth, smiled that wicked, wide-eyed smile and started chewing. We heard that god-awful crunching sound again. The pizza guy just stood there. His eyes got big and round. His jaw fell open. Irby was starting to get pissed:
“Geez, man! Why you wanna gross everybody out?”
After four or five hefty chews, Bug Man opened his mouth. His tongue was covered in that monstrous jumble of roach legs and wings. That vile, yellow-green juice began to roll down his lips. The pizza guy dropped the pizza and ran out the door. Just when he got to his car, just as he was opening the door, he lost it. He threw up all over the place; on his car; on the ground. That sucker was sick as a dog! As soon as he composed himself he jumped in his car and left. Bug Man had found a way to get a pizza for nothing.
The first group of UDT volunteers were members of the Navy’s Construction Battalions (SeaBees) and were formed up in the spring of 1943. These volunteers were organized into special teams called Navy Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs). They were responsible for reconnoitering and clearing beach obstacles for troops going ashore during World War II.
In 1947, the Navy organized its first underwater offensive strike units. During the Korean conflict, these Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) took part in the landing at Inchon as well as other missions, including demolition raids on bridges and tunnels accessible from the water. They also conducted limited minesweeping operations in Korean harbors and rivers.
During the 1960s, each branch of the armed forces formed its own counter-insurgency force. The Army formed the Green Berets, the Marines created special reconnaissance (RECON) units, and the Navy utilized UDT personnel to form its SEAL teams.
In January of 1962, two SEAL teams were commissioned: SEAL TEAM ONE in the Pacific Fleet (at Coronado), and SEAL TEAM TWO in the Atlantic Fleet (at Little Creek, Virginia). These teams were developed to conduct unconventional warfare, counter-guerilla warfare, and clandestine operations in both blue water (Ocean) and brown water (Riverine) environments.
In Vietnam, in the late ‘60s, UDT personnel were being assigned to perform limited reconnaissance missions while SEALs were being tasked to perform both RECONNAIS-SANCE and OFFENSIVE operations.
I was surprised to learn, as our pre-training class formed up, that most of the guys in the program didn’t want to be SEALs. They just wanted to be in UDT; to be divers; to be on an UNDERWATER DEMOLITION TEAM; to be Navy FROGMEN. Only a handful wanted to be SEALs.
But whether you wanted to be a Frog or a SEAL you had to successfully complete the BUDS program. BUDS was the basic training cycle for both.
In 1969, the BUDS basic training cycle was an 18-week course. At the end of that 18 weeks the top graduates would be picked for SEAL cadre training. In other words, if you were one of the top eight to ten people in your class, in the final weeks of training, you were going to be selected for a SEAL assignment. The scuttlebutt was that guys who were in the top of the class, who didn’t want to go SEAL, would start screwing up in the final weeks of training. Of course, some of the guys who weren’t at the top wanted to be SEALs. If that was the case they could apply, and they were either approved or rejected depending on their abilities and the manpower needs of the cadre. Prior to beginning a BUDS class everyone had to go through four or five weeks of pre-training. Once pre-training was completed, that pre-training class would form up with other pre-training groups to form a single BUDS class.
The first four weeks of BUDS focused on heavy duty physical training. Along with the physical training, which consisted of monstrous beach runs, morning exercise rituals that could last up to four hours, and excruciating pool or ocean swims, the trainees were introduced to the IBS (Inflatable Boat, Small), SCUBA gear (Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), the MUD PIT, and the infamous ‘O’ course (Obstacle Course). But the first four weeks were a piece of cake compared to week five.
Week five was Hell Week! There is no way to adequately describe Hell Week, so I won’t even try. Nobody who has ever been through it would voluntarily go through it again, EVEN IF THEIR LIVES DEPENDED ON IT! I knew guys who’d completed it (some were instructors) who said they’d rather die than go through it again. You got virtually no sleep and you were constantly being driven beyond all human endurance. It was, simply put, and as the name implies, one full week of bone-crunching, mind-breaking, unbelievable, excruciating HELL!
But if you made it through Hell Week, the rest of the program was a piece of cake. After Hell Week it was classroom work, field exercises, ocean swims, beach runs, IBS drills, the ‘O’ course, SCUBA training, small arms training, and a concentrated cycle on the use of explosives and other ordinance.
It took almost a week for our pre-training class to form up. During that entire period we weren’t on a watchbill so we didn’t have to stand any watches. We just roamed around base all day taking in the sights. I guess we could have even gone to town on liberty. But we were afraid to. We didn’t know what would happen to us if we got caught.
We got the word that we were formed up on a Thursday. They called us together for a muster at 3 o’clock. in the afternoon. We ran everybody down and reported to the Frog Shack. The duty clerk lined us up in company formation out in the street.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Olivera. He was exactly what you’d picture in your mind if you tried to conjure up what a Frog or a SEAL would look like. His shoulders were broad and his biceps were huge. His waist was incredibly small, and his thigh muscles were awesome; they were the largest thigh muscles I’ve ever seen on a human being. He came out of the front door of the Frog Shack and slowly walked over in front of our formation. He didn’t introduce himself right away. He had a roster and he just started calling out names. Then, in a quiet, unassuming voice he introduced himself:
“My name is Olivera, I’m your class instructor. Be here, right where you are now, in formation tomorrow morning at 0800 hours. I want you to break starch in a clean pair of utilities. I want your boots spit-shined to a ‘T’. I want your belt buckle polished to a high sheen. Any questions?”
There were none.
“O.K., then. Stand fast. Somebody’ll be out shortly to give you berthing instructions.”
Another guy came out. He went through some general instructions, then he told us to check out of transient barracks and into our new quarters which were right behind the Frog Shack. He said that we’d been assigned to three buildings. He called out the numbers on those buildings and said we could pick the one we wanted to be berthed in. That way we could choose who we wanted to be berthed with.
Talk about primitive! Our new quarters were Neolithic! UDT called them ‘Small Barracks’, but we called them bunkers. They were nothing more than cinder-block buildings. They had no doors. There was only one window in each unit. Actually, it wasn’t a window; it was just a square hole in the shape of a window. There was no wood or glass, just a square hole in that one cinder-block wall. The base of the window - or hole - was six feet off the ground. Just to get inside you had to reach up, grab the bottom of the opening, and hoist yourself up. From there, you had to jump down to the sandy floor below.
The bunkers may have had a concrete slab for a floor, I don’t know. But it didn’t matter. There were four or five inches of sand on the floor. For all intents and purposes, the floor was made of sand! Rucker, Irby and Fabian and I got bunks in the same bunker. There were five two-man bunks and ten lockers. We made up our beds and stowed our gear. Then, we just sat there on our bunks staring at the walls; at the floor; at the opening that would serve as both door and window. Rucker jolted us back to reality:
“What did he mean by ‘break starch’?”
One of the other guys chimed in:
“That means your utilities have to be cleanly washed and starched. You can get ‘em starched at the base laundry.”
We put on a pair of dungarees, grabbed all three pair of our utilities and ran to the base laundry hoping that they could starch them for us before morning. They washed, starched and ironed them while we waited. Then, we went back to the bunker and polished our brass belt buckles and shoes.
We all got up around 6 the next morning and found the single head that we all had to use. It was primitive, too. The urinals, sinks and toilets were on one side of the building. The showers were on the other. There was only one handle under each shower spigot. In other words, there was no hot water.
Irby was getting irritated:
“Cold water! BULLSHIT! This is ridiculous!”
We all got a shower, went back to the bunker and dressed, went to the chow hall for breakfast, and then went to the Frog Shack for muster. At 8 o’clock sharp Olivera showed up. There was another fellow with him; his name was Bijot.
Bijot (pronounced B.O.) looked Hispanic, but none of us ever really knew what nationality he was. He was well-built, like a carved Greek statue, but not as large and imposing as Olivera.
The first thing Olivera did was explain ‘Hoo-Ya’, the UDT battle cry.
Anytime anybody gave us an order we were to respond by yelling ‘Hoo-Ya’. That ‘Hoo-Ya’ would then be followed by the name of the person who’d given the order. For example: If Olivera came up to a trainee and said, “Give me ten!”, that meant that the trainee was to drop to the ground and do ten push-ups. But before executing the order, the trainee had to yell: “Hoo-Ya, Olivera!”
Our first inspection was a hoot. There were thirty guys in our class. We were lined up in three rows of ten. Olivera started at the far end of row one. He nailed the very first guy:
“Not enough starch. Hit the bay!”
Then, the trainee just stood there; unsure about what to do next.
The bay was just across the road, right in front of the Frog Shack. There was a short, wooden pier just off to the left.
“Well. Don’t just stand there. I said, HIT THE BAY!”
The trainee was still confused. Olivera grabbed him by the shirt and pointed toward the pier.
“The bay, asshole! Go jump in the friggin’ bay!”
“OH! Hoo-Ya, Olivera!”
The trainee got a running start, ran to the end of the pier, and dove into the bay head-first. Olivera nearly had a heart attack.
“Jesus! The son-of-a-bitch is tryin’ to kill himself!”
Seems the water just below the pier was only three or four feet deep. He’d hit the bottom and was a little woozie when he came up, but once he’d gotten his composure back he stood at attention, alone, waist deep in the water. He wasn’t alone for long.
“Boots look like crap. Hit the bay!”
Another trainee ran for the pier. But this guy got creative. He did a forward somersault and landed feet-first in the water. Olivera moved on to the next trainee. When he got to Fabian he checked him over real good and then moved on to Rucker. Rucker passed as well. Then he got to me.
“Belt buckle! Bay!”
I didn’t want to just ‘jump in the bay’! That other guy had been creative so I thought I’d give it a shot, too. I decided to do a forward somersault as well, but I’d go into a layout position first, then complete the somersault at the very last minute. It was a bad idea! I didn’t pull out of the layout in time and landed flat on my back in the water. It knocked the breath out of me, but I recovered. It took a second or two, but I finally managed to come to attention in the cold, waist-deep water.
While Olivera continued the inspection process I noticed a series of dark shadows in the water. All of a sudden, one of the other guys in the bay let out a muffled shriek. At about the same time I felt something nibbling at my ankle. Then, I felt a nibbling on my calf. I looked down. IT WAS A SHARK! IT WAS A DAMN BABY SHARK! I stood my ground and remained at attention, but I was damn glad when inspection was over.
P.T., or ‘Physical Training’, was pure, unadulterated Hell On Earth!
After inspection, those of us who’d gone in the bay were instructed to fall back in formation. Bijot then double-timed us to the P.T. field. It wasn’t a long run, the P.T. field was just up the road, but all the way there I was sorry I hadn’t passed inspection. My clothes were soaking wet and my boots were water-logged. P.T. was gonna be a bitch! With the weight of all the water I was carrying, in my clothes, in my boots, I bet I weighed an extra 30 or 40 pounds.
The P.T. field was big, and I noticed the sprinkler heads right away. There was an underground sprinkler system under the field. I knew when I saw them that they’d probably turn them on at some point during the session.
Bijot lined us up in the same formation we’d be in at muster. He made us spread out an equal distance from each other front-to-back and side-to-side. Then he led us through a series of exercises.
The exercises were just like the ones you’d do before football practice. We started out doing 20 eight-counts of side-straddle hops. Then 20 push-ups, 20 sit-ups, 20 deep knee bends. Then, we got on our backs and did 20 leg lifts. More exercises followed; about 20 in all. At first I didn’t think it was all that bad. It wouldn’t have been bad at all if my clothes hadn’t been soaking wet. Then, Bijot told us to take five. We couldn’t lay down, we had to either stand up or take a knee for that five minute break. When the break was over Bijot started the whole process again. But this time, the number of repetitions doubled. Instead of 20 push-ups, we did 40. EVERYTHING WAS DOUBLED! After we completed that whole cycle, and took another 5 minute break, Bijot started the process again, and doubled the reps again. 40 push-ups became 80. AGAIN, EVERYTHING WAS DOUBLED!
It went on and on like that. We’d do a cycle; Bijot would give us a 5 minute break. Then he’d double the reps and we’d start all over again. From 8:30 until 11:45, IT WENT ON AND ON AND ON!
When we got to the last cycle somebody turned on the sprinklers. The whole company let out one gigantic moan. The pain was excrutiating! It wasn’t that big a deal to those of us who’d been in the bay; we were as used to it as one could get. We were already dying! I mean, we’d already been carrying that extra water weight. But the other guys acted like a bunch of school girls. As soon as they got saturated they started dying, too. AND MOANING!
“Shut up, you worms! Quit that moanin’!”
When the last cycle was completed they turned off the water. We all took a knee. Bijot had led us through all the exercises, but he hadn’t been where the sprinklers could hit him when the water was turned on. Fabian was right next to me; he whispered in my ear:
“Look at that son-of-a-bitch. Can you believe that?”
I looked, but I didn’t know what he was talking about right away.
“He’s done every exercise with us, right?”
“He’s done everything he’s asked us to do, he led us in every rep, right?”
“Look at the bastard. Look at him! He ain’t even broke a sweat!”
I looked at Bijot. Fabian was right. That son-of-a-bitch looked like he’d just stepped off the cover of a G.Q. magazine. His utilities were still sharp-looking; like he’d just broke starch. There were no perspiration stains anywhere. His brow was dry as a bone, too. No sweat anywhere. There was one, small, tiny piece of grass on his shirt, but as soon as he noticed it he wiped it away.
When the 5 minutes were up, Bijot formed us up and double-timed us about 200 yards to a rope that was suspended from a cross-tie. The cross-tie was attached to two vertical beams and was about 15 feet off the ground.
“All right, gentlemen. We’re gonna climb this here rope. Then we’ll go get some chow. First row, line up here. Climb all the way to the top, touch the cross-tie, then get your asses down as fast as you can. Oh, one last thing. You can’t use your legs. Arms only. Ready! GO!”
WE WERE NOT AMUSED!
Just as the first group began to climb, Olivera showed up. He watched in disbelief. We were some hurtin’ puppies. Out of the whole company just two guys made it to the top.
Olivera seemed to be genuinely pissed:
“Geez! Where’d they find you people?”
Bijot and Olivera huddled up for a minute. We couldn’t hear what was being said, but they seemed to be very concerned with our inability to climb the rope. When they finished talking, Olivera headed back toward the Frog Shack and Bijot ordered us back in formation.
“All right, gentlemen, we’re gonna double-time to the chow hall. Look sharp, and don’t waste time. I want you in and out of the chow hall in ten minutes.”
Just as Bijot was about to give the order to march, someone in formation asked a question.
“Are you a SEAL?”
Bijot started smiling. His answer was slow and deliberate:
“No. (pause) I didn’t make the cut.”
OUR JAWS HIT THE GROUND! IF BIJOT COULDN’T MAKE IT, NOBODY COULD MAKE IT! WE WERE IN SHOCK!
Bijot was still smiling. He knew he’d taken the wind out of our sails.
“All right, gentlemen. At the double-time, forward, march.”
We were dead-dog tired, but we sucked it up. Somehow we managed to look sharp as a tack as we double-timed it to the chow hall. We couldn’t climb a rope, but damn if we didn’t look good at the double-time march. When we got to the chow hall we marched in-place at the double-time while each row entered the facility. We went straight to the front of the line. We sped through the line as fast as we could and loaded down our trays with heaping helpings of everything. And we scarfed it! Everything went down half-chewed!
We were all soaking wet. Our faces were gaunt and pale. We literally looked like warmed-over death. I looked around once or twice, while I was eating, and everyone in the chow hall was just staring at us. They were in awe of us. It felt good to be in an elite unit; a unit that could elicit that kind of response from people.
We were all back outside, in formation, in less than ten minutes. Bijot called us to attention.
“All right, gentlemen. We’re scheduled for an indoctrination class. At the double-time, forward, march.”
Bijot double-timed us back to the UDT compound. We broke ranks on command and went inside a building. Bijot turned us over to another instructor, then he left.
“Gentlemen, pay close attention. I’m going to tell you what to expect in pre-training and what the UDT command will expect from you.”
And he did just that.
We learned that they knew that some of us had not qualified in our swims and runs. While we were in pre-training we were all going to have to re-qualify in everything. We would not be allowed to join a BUDS class until we did.
For over an hour the instructor told us about the training we’d receive. He told us about the ‘O’ course. He told us about the Mud Pit. He told us about running the strand. He told us about everything we’d be doing for the next four or five weeks. When he was done, he asked if we had any questions. There were only two:
“Yea, I got a question.”
“What’s the toughest part of training?”
“The cold. Most guys can’t handle the cold. The Pacific is cold enough in the daytime, even in the summer. But night ops in cold water; night ops in cold water in the winter, that’s another matter entirely. Most of the guys who quit just can’t handle the cold.”
There were some moans in the group.
“Any more questions?”
“Yea, I got one. Are we gonna have to learn to eat bugs?”
“Not in pre-training. They get into stuff like that in cadre.”
“But we WILL have to learn how to eat bugs?”
“In cadre, yes. Certain kinds of bugs, like grasshoppers.”
“What about roaches?”
“Yes, sir. Are we gonna have to eat roaches?”
Every eye in the room turned toward Bug Man.
“Jesus, son! Roaches are filthy! They carry every disease known to man; cholera, typhoid, plague! Who told you you’d have to eat roaches?”
“Bug Man, sir.”
First, Bug Man lost all the color in his face. THEN HE LOST HIS LUNCH!
I’d heard of projectile vomiting before, where the stomach contents just explode out of the mouth. Now, I got to see it first-hand. The spray flew across the room like it had been fired from a shotgun, and it splattered all over the instructor’s pants and boots.
“That’s Bug Man, sir. He eats roaches!”
“WHAT? Jesus H. Christ!”
Everybody in the room bolted for the side walls, including the instructor. Nobody wanted to be in the line of fire. We were all on our tippy-toes trying to avoid the gunk. We looked like a bad, first-day ballet class. I remember thinking that if an enemy ever wanted to totally humble a UDT or SEAL team, all they had to do was up-chuck.
When Bug Man finally composed himself we all returned to our seats. The instructor returned to the front of the class, but he moved to the rear, well out of range in case Bug Man got sick again.
“Mister, get your ass out front and find the duty clerk. Tell him to give you a mop and a bucket. Then you clean this mess up. You understand?”
Bug Man was still woozie, but he responded:
“Don’t give me that hoo-ya shit! Clean this mess up NOW!”
Bug Man left the room.
“All right, you squirrels. Back in formation out front. Somebody go find Bijot and tell him to get you miserable bunch of pussies out of here!”
We formed up in front of the building. We stood there for about ten minutes. Finally, Bijot and Bug Man came out. Bug Man took his place in the formation and Bijot, smiling, acted like nothing had happened.
“All right, gentlemen, we’re going for a little run. At the double-time, forward, march!”
We double-timed down the main street of the Amphibious Base. When we got to the highway, just outside the main gate, Bijot yelled out some instructions:
“First man in squads 1 and 3, break formation and take up positions for traffic control. NOW!”
We never even stopped. The two men broke formation and ran out onto the highway. They stood at parade rest and held out their left arms to signal on-coming traffic to stop. They knew what to do; they’d either done it before themselves or seen it done in boot camp. As soon as we’d crossed the highway, the two men came to attention and ran, full-tilt, back to their positions in formation.
We were headed toward the beach. THE SILVER STRAND! That’s when I noticed the ambulance. It was an all-terrain vehicle. It was painted olive drab and it had a big red cross in a large white circle painted on the side. It followed us for the rest of the run.
When we got to the beach Bijot turned us to the right, positioned us in the soft sand about twenty yards from the ocean, and headed us north. Then, out of nowhere, Bijot started up a chant.
“I don’t know but I been told ...”
We’d never done it before, but instinctively, we answered his cadence call:
“I don’t know but I been told ...”
“UDTs wear wings of gold ...”
“UDTs wear wings of gold ...”
“We are proud as we can be ...”
“We are proud as we can be ...”
“To be Navy UDT ...”
“To be Navy UDT ...”
On and on we ran.
For as far as the eye could see there was nothing but sand. And dunes! We ran up the dunes and down the other side. Some of those suckers were ten or twelve feet high. And DUNE sand is SOFT sand! IT FEELS SOFTER THAN ORDINARY BEACH SAND! The pain was intense; the burn in the thighs; the ache in the arches; the cramping in the calves! And there where dunes everywhere! Bijot called out another couple of cadences. Some of them were silly but we didn’t mind doing them. They took our minds off the pain.
My breathing got more and more labored. My chest was burning. I felt like my lungs were on fire. My legs were turning to lead. My gut started aching. My forehead was burning; I felt like I had a fever. I looked to the left, then to the right. It wasn’t just me; everybody was laboring just to keep up the pace.
Just when it seemed like we’d been running for hours the Hotel Del Coronado came into view. On and on we ran. The hotel got closer and closer. Maybe we’d take a break when we got there. Surely we would. The closer we got to that big, magnificent, Victorian structure the more I began to look forward to the break. Surely we’d get one. Surely we’d get a break when we got there!
BUT WE DIDN’T!
As soon as we got there, on the hotel property, just yards away from people sitting in lounge chairs, jaws agape looking on in amazement, Bijot turned us around and started us back in the other direction.
TALK ABOUT A LETDOWN!
I took another long, hard look at Bijot. He was leading the way. He’d led the run since we started. We were all sweating like crazy; he wasn’t sweating at all. Again, he looked like he’d just broke starch in his uniform. There wasn’t even any sweat on his brow. I came to the quick conclusion that Bijot had a metabolic disorder. Obviously his sweat glands didn’t work!
On and on we ran. And it got worse! Half way back, Bijot pushed us into triple-time!
“Get ready, ladies. AT THE TRIPLE-TIME, MARCH!”
I don’t know why they call it triple-time. Triple-time ain’t nothin’ but a dead-out run!
It was a trade off. When we pushed it into triple-time, Bijot moved us down to the compacted beach sand. It was hard and easier to run on, and there were no dunes to negotiate. But the agony of running at the triple-time was intense.
An eternity later, just when I felt like I was going to pass out, I could see the main gate to the Amphibious Base off to the left. Bijot stepped us back down to a double-time, and just when we got even with the main gate he backed us down to a simple march step. Then, he called us to a halt. He told us to take a knee. WE DID! HE ONLY HAD TO SAY THAT ONCE! Then he gave us a 10 minute break.
I knew what was coming next. We were going for a dip. Sure enough, Bijot marched us into the ocean and made us kneel neck deep in the Pacific, just like that class we’d seen in the chow hall the day we reported.
THE WATER WAS COLD! IT WAS FREEZING! And the surf was murder! The waves were knocking us all over the place. Our teeth were chattering so bad that the sound must have been something akin to 30 radiomen sending Morse code. Suddenly, one of the guys lost his balance and went under. He was so weak and exhausted from the run that he couldn’t get back up. Bijot had to go in after him and drag him up on shore.
Finally, after about twenty minutes in the water, Bijot called us up on the beach. The guys in the ambulance had been working with the guy who’d gone under. About the time we took a knee they’d gotten him to a point where he could stand again. After a five minute break, we formed back up and headed for the chow hall. It was supper time.
We double-timed it back to the chow hall. We busted our butts and ate in the allotted 10 minutes, then we formed back up outside. Bijot double-timed us back to the Frog Shack and left us standing at attention while he went inside. Five minutes later, he came back.
“At ease, gentlemen. It’s Friday and you’re done for the day. Take the weekend off and get some rest. Muster here at 8 Monday morning. Any questions?”
There were none.
We all walked very, very slowly back to the barracks compound. When we got there we just fell into heaps on the ground. Nobody had the strength to jump up, grab the window ledge and drag himself into the bunker. Finally, one guy tried, but he couldn’t do it. A minute or two later another guy tried. He couldn’t do it, either. Eventually, two guys came up with a broom handle. They held it below the window while the rest of us, one at a time, stepped up on it. They’d lift the handle just high enough for us to reach the ledge with our arms in a downward position. It was easier that way, we didn’t have to pull ourselves up. The last two men in the group reached down and helped the two holding the broom handle up.
When we all got inside we were in for a big surprise. Everything; bunks; lockers; everything; EVERYTHING WAS COVERED WITH SAND! We shouldn’t have been surprised. We didn’t have a window; there was nothing to keep the sand out. Some of the guys hadn’t made their bunks that morning. They’d never make that mistake again! Their sheets were covered with grit! Those of us who’d made our beds only made out a little better. The sand basically just covered our blankets. Only a little had filtered through to the outer sheet. But pillows were another story. All of our pillows were gritty.
We all stripped down butt-naked. We grabbed towels and dried ourselves off and then collapsed on our bunks. I went to sleep. I don’t know how long I was out, but it was dark outside when I came to. I wanted to go get a shower. Then, I just wanted to come back, hit the sack and sleep till Sunday. But I couldn’t get motivated to do so. I couldn’t stand the thought of having to climb through that opening to get to the head. I’d have to climb back through it when I got back, too. Could I even do that? Did I have the strength to do that?
Another guy got up, put on his skivvies, grabbed a change of clothes and his toilet articles and headed for the window. That’s when I first noticed it. Somebody had built a series of steps out of concrete blocks at the base of the window on the inside. Getting out would be easier, but getting back in would still be a bear!
I put on my wet skivvies, grabbed a clean change of clothes and followed the other guy out. I went straight to the shower. I suffered through the cold water and put on the fresh change of clothes. Then, I headed back to the bunker. I felt a lot better. I even mustered the strength to jump up, grab the ledge, and haul myself in on the first attempt. I hit the sack and immediately went to sleep.
I woke up around 10 the next morning. It was Saturday. I was lying on my back. I had a bottom bunk, and I stared at the springs on the bottom of the bunk above me. The person who’d had the bunk before had left a deck of playing cards tucked into the springs. My mind told my right hand to reach up and grab the cards. My right hand didn’t respond! I tried my left hand. It didn’t respond, either! WHY COULDN’T I DO IT? Finally, I tried to raise up and sit on the side of the bunk. My gut felt like it was on fire. Every muscle I tried to use didn’t seem to want to work. It took a final, gargantuan effort to raise myself up. It took even more of an effort to stand.
I was the first one up. I forced myself to do some exercises to limber up my muscles. IT HURT LIKE HELL! Finally, I got to a point where I could function to a limited degree. I stepped up on the concrete blocks and climbed out of the bunker. I staggered to breakfast. After I ate, I went straight back to the bunker, hit the rack, and slept till 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Rucker and Fabian woke me up. They said they were going to town and asked if I wanted to join them. Liberty sounded good. I was wasted; dead-dog tired, but I needed to get away. An evening in San Diego sounded like a great idea.
There was a ferry landing on the base. We found out where it was located and made our way over. The ferry ride did us good. The salt air was invigorating.
The ferry docked in San Diego. We walked a few blocks and found a great little seafood restaurant. We went in and ordered the house special; a dynamite seafood platter. The food was delicious and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
After supper we just walked the streets for a while. When we got to this major intersection downtown we noticed a beautiful blonde in a red Camaro. She kept going around the block. Was she trying to pick up a date? Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe this chick! She was gorgeous! She kept going around the block, and we kept staring at her. Rucker began to try to get her attention. Suddenly, another sailor noticed us. He realized what Rucker was trying to do and walked over and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Is your buddy trying to get the blonde’s attention?”
“You mean the girl in the Camaro?”
“Well, tell your buddy THAT GIRL ain’t a GIRL!”
“You heard me. That girl ain’t a GIRL! It’s a guy!
“No, I ain’t. You guys must be new. Every sailor in Dago knows about that creep.”
Just then, Rucker got the blonde’s attention.
“Hey, sweet thing. How ‘bout givin’ me a ride?”
“No problem, darlin’, crawl in!”
I got to him just in time.
“We need to talk.”
“When I get back. Wait for me, I won’t be long.”
“Now, Rucker! Get your ass over here NOW!
Rucker got a confused look on his face. He knew I wouldn’t yell at him like that if it wasn’t important. He told the ‘girl’ to wait. Then he walked over to where I was standing.
“Ruck, that ain’t a GIRL!”
“It’s a guy.”
The other sailor interrupted me.
“Trust him, bubba. He ain’t lyin’.”
Rucker didn’t know what to say. His eyes were enormous. Finally, he just mumbled:
He turned around and smiled. Then he waved at the ‘girl’ in the car.
“Another time, sweetheart. Me and my friends have other plans.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing, darlin’.”
Rucker mumbled something under his breath.
We finally decided to see a movie. The only one we found worth seeing was ‘Bullitt’, starring Steve McQueen. I’d been in the Navy for 8 months and I’d only seen two movies: ‘Bullitt’ and ‘The Sand Pebbles’. Both of them starred Steve McQueen. I’d already seen it, but the other guys hadn’t, so I went to see it again.
Sunday morning was even worse than Saturday had been. It took even longer to get out of bed; to get my muscles to work. I went to breakfast. Then I went to a pay phone and called home.
It was 10 o’clock in California, 1 o’clock back in Georgia, and my family had just gotten home from church. We talked for a while and I caught up on all the family news. They wanted to know how training was going. I told them everything was fine. I wanted to tell them it was hell, but I didn’t. It would have made my mom worry.
After the phone call I went back to the bunker. I crawled through the window, crawled in my bunk, and slept straight through till Monday.
Monday morning was the same old grind. We mustered in front of the Frog Shack and stood inspection. I got gigged for my belt buckle again and wound up back in the bay. Nothing fancy this time, I just ran to the end of the pier and jumped in. After inspection, we went back to the P.T. field. It was just as bad as it had been on Friday. We finished up around 11:30 and Bijot took us back to the rope climb. Again, Olivera got there just in time to watch. Almost everybody was having trouble again. The only two who weren’t were the two that had made it the first time. They were gymnasts. They’d been on the gymnastics team at U.C.L.A. They’d joined the Navy together, gone to boot camp together, gone to ‘A’ School together, and now they were in BUDS together. Everything was easy for them.
The rest of us did better, we got further up the rope, but we couldn’t make it to the top. Olivera was pissed:
“Where in the hell did they find you guys? Geez! Ain’t none of you worth a damn!”
One of the guys yelled out from the rear:
“We could climb the damn thing if we were fresh. Making us do it after three hours of P.T., HELL! What do you expect?”
Olivera did not mince words.
“Hey, buddy! You SEAL or UDT?”
“Mister, when you get to Nam the Vietcong ain’t gon’ ask you if you’re fresh when they chase you through five miles of jungle. They ain’t gon’ ask you when you get to that rope hangin’ out of that chopper if you’re fresh or not. The pilot of that chopper ain’t gon’ ask if you’re fresh, either. You’re either gon’ climb the god-damn rope or you ain’t! That pilot ain’t gon’ wait around until you get your FRESHNESS back! YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“His ass’ll be hangin’ in the balance just like yours. You gon’ make him sit there and hover while you get your FRESHNESS back?”
“You gon’ make him sit there and hover while the Vietcong are tearing his chopper to pieces with B-40 and A.K. fire?”
“Are you sure you understand what I’m sayin’ to you?”
“Do all of you understand?”
“Then ain’t nobody goin’ nowhere till everybody climbs this rope. You understand me?”
“THEN, BY GOD! DO IT!”
Olivera was livid. He stormed off in a huff back toward the Frog Shack. He was not a happy camper. It took us more than an hour but we all finally competed the climb. When we were done it was obvious that Bijot wasn’t happy, either.
“Gentlemen, you ain’t goin’ to lunch today. You wasted your lunch time climbin’ the rope. Fall in. We’re goin’ for a run. At the double-time, forward, march!”
We ran the strand again. We went neck deep in the Pacific again. Then, Bijot brought us back to the rope. We all had to climb it again. It took almost an hour-and-a-half for all of us to complete the climb. We didn’t get any supper, either! After we’d all climbed the rope, Bijot ran us until he was sure the chow hall was closed!
As a class, every day that went by we got stronger and stronger. And, as a class, every day that went by we did better on the rope climb. By the middle of the second week only one person couldn’t make the climb on the first attempt. That person was me.
I just couldn’t do it, and I felt terribly guilty that I was holding everybody back. We missed a couple of chow lines because I JUST COULDN’T DO IT! On Wednesday of week three, I knew! I knew I wasn’t cut out for the program. It was the cold, hard truth. And the truth hurt. I started thinking about dropping out right then and there. The problem was, I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to quit. What was the procedure? And what would happen to me then? Would I be sent to the fleet? But all that didn’t matter. Whatever would happen would just have to happen. I just wasn’t cut out for the program, AND THAT WAS THE COLD, HARD TRUTH!
One evening we were instructed to wear swim trunks under our utilities the next day. That afternoon, after chow, we didn’t run the strand. Instead, Bijot took us to a swimming pool. It was time for our swim qualification test.
There were eight lanes in the pool and it took forever for them to test all of us. To my surprise, I passed. Only one or two didn’t. Then, Bijot marched us to an athletic field. We all lined up and started the one-mile run when Bijot blew his whistle. I finished in the second group of five. I’d always known that I’d do well on the run, but I never expected to do THAT WELL! Finishing as well as I did was a pleasant surprise.
For a moment that afternoon I actually started to have second thoughts about quitting. But the next day, when we got to the rope climb, and I made everybody miss lunch again, those second thoughts vanished forever.
The rest of the time I spent in BUDS training is just a blur. One day turned into another. Running the strand never got any easier, but we got used to it. P.T. never got any easier, either, but we got used to it, too. We were introduced to the ‘O’ Course. We were introduced to the Mud Pit. We were introduced to the I.B.S. (Inflatable Boat, Small), and we learned how to maneuver an I.B.S. in the wild Pacific surf. We did ocean swims, too.
Finally, one evening in the bunker, I got Rucker and Irby and Fabian together and told them I’d made up my mind to quit. Rucker was the first to speak, and the others put in their two cents worth as well:
“Bob, you can’t do that. Look how far you’ve come.”
“Yea, you’re over the hump now.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not! I make you guys miss lunch two or three times a week.”
“Big deal. You’re gettin’ there. In another week or so you’ll be climbin’ the rope on the first try. Every day you get better at it.”
“Yea, that’s what pre-training’s all about, to get us in shape. You’re so close. You can’t quit.”
I realized that Rucker was right. I WAS close! In another week or so I probably would be making the climb on the first try. Then it hit me like a bolt out of the blue. Not being able to climb the rope was just an excuse. I didn’t want to be in the program! I’d never wanted to be in the program! THAT WAS THE COLD, HARD TRUTH!
I laid it out plain and straight for them:
“I’ve made up my mind, guys. I’m gonna drop out tomorrow.”
Nobody said anything else. They just patted me on the shoulder and walked back to their bunks. By bedtime everybody knew.
The next day, in formation, during inspection, when Olivera got to me, he said:
“If you wanna talk to me you can fall out before the class heads to the P.T. field.”
Even Olivera knew. But that didn’t keep him from being a son-of-a-bitch!
“Belt buckle. Bay!”
I couldn’t believe he gigged me like that; put me in the bay on my last morning in the class! But in a way, I was glad he’d done it!
What-the-hell! This was it; my swan song! And my entrance into the bay was spectacular! I got up a full head of steam and ran down the pier as fast as I could. I jumped. I did a double somersault and landed perfectly, feet-first, in the water. No one had ever done a double before! There was applause; the whole damn class; even Bijot and Olivera; even a couple of SEALs out for a morning run around the compound; everyone was applauding my entry into the bay. I feigned a bow. Then Olivera jolted them back to reality.
“Hoo Ya, Olivera!”
The meeting with Olivera wasn’t formal at all. We went in his office and he had me take a seat. We talked about the program and the progress I’d made. Then, he brought up the question.
“Scuttlebutt is, you’re droppin’ out. Is that right?”
“That ain’t my call.”
“Do you think I’ve got what it takes? Do you think I can make it?”
“That ain’t for me to say; not while you’re still in the program.”
“O.K., I’m dropping out. Now, do you think I have what it takes?”
“So, what do I do now?”
“Our duty clerk will assign you to transient barracks. He’ll give you some paperwork. You fill it out and then go back to receiving, they’ll take care of you there.”
I stood up. It was over. All I wanted to do was get out of there. But Olivera wasn’t through talking.
“Powers, it’s no dishonor to fall short in UDT. Only 30% of the people in your class will make it. 70% of them won’t. O.K.?”
We shook hands. And what Olivera had said was the last word on the matter.
The duty clerk gave me some paperwork. I went and checked in my tadpole clothes and took the same bedding I’d already been issued and reported back to the receiving office. They told me to keep the bedding and re-assigned me to the Amphib Base transient barracks. I was told that it would probably take the Navy Bureau of Personnel about two weeks to cut me a new set of orders.
The last thing the duty clerk did in the re-assignment process was a surprise. He handed me a slip of paper that ordered me to report to the office of the commanding officer of the Amphibious Base at 1100 hours (11:00 a.m.). I had no idea why the commanding officer of the Amphib Base would want to see me. I got a sick feeling in my stomach, but at 1100 hours I reported to his office as ordered.
The commanding officer’s office was in the main administrative building on the base. As I entered the building I noticed a sign in the main foyer. It said:
All hands having business before the Board of Inquiry into the actions
of Lloyd Bucher, Commanding Officer, U.S.S. Pueblo, report to the
conference room on the second floor.
The U.S.S. Pueblo was a U.S. Navy spy ship that had been captured by the North Koreans in North Korean territorial waters early in 1968. The crew had been released during the Christmas holidays that same year. I remember watching their return to the states on television when I was home on leave from boot camp. Lloyd Bucher, the Pueblo’s captain, had been ridiculed by the Navy for allowing his ship to be taken by the enemy. Screw the fact that he and his crew didn’t have anything larger than a 50 calibre machine gun, the Navy needed somebody to hang. From the looks of the sign, Lloyd Bucher was that somebody!
Sometimes I was downright ashamed to be in the Navy. Reading that sign was one of those times.
I found the commanding officer’s office and noticed that there were ten or twelve others waiting outside. Their faces all looked familiar. I’d seen them in the UDT compound. They were BUDS trainees. At first I was surprised to see them. Then, when I realized what day it was in their training cycle, I wasn’t surprised at all. Their class was in the middle of ‘Hell Week’! At exactly 1100 hours the door to the commanding officer’s office opened. A young ensign stepped out and motioned for us to step inside. The C.O. of the Amphib Base entered the room. The ensign said:
“Attention on deck.”
We all snapped to.
“At ease, gentlemen.”
We quickly came to parade rest and the C.O. continued his remarks.
“Men, every day there are a number of UDT/SEAL trainees that drop out of the program. And every day, at 1100 hours, I have a reception here in my office for those men.
“I know you all must have mixed emotions about your decision to drop out, but I want you to know how much the Navy appreciates your courage and dedication. And I want you to know that the Navy does not consider your decision to drop out to be a sign of weakness. Quite the contrary. It takes a very special person to qualify for the program to begin with. Please don’t feel that you’ve failed. You haven’t. We’re here today to honor your courage and dedication, and to wish you well as you leave this command. There are refreshments on the table here, make yourselves at home, and again, best wishes in your continued service to the Navy.”
What a bunch of horse-hockey. I didn’t feel like partaking of the goodies and I left almost immediately. I spent the rest of the day transferring my gear from the UDT bunker to the transient barracks. I promised myself that I’d go back to the UDT compound that night and say good-bye to everybody. But I didn’t. I meant to try to run Snow down, too. But I didn’t. And I never saw Fabian, Rucker, Irby or Snow again.
I spent the next few days recuperating from the rigors of BUDS training. I was relieved that I was finally out of the program. I hadn’t really wanted to be in the program to begin with, but I was withdrawn and depressed just the same. I was glad that the BUDS experience was behind me, but I felt guilty that I had dropped out. I had made a number of poor decisions in the short time I’d been a man, and I spent some quality time over the next few days reviewing those decisions and the consequences of the choices I’d made.
In 1966 I’d been offered a music scholarship to Auburn University. Accepting that scholarship had required a commitment on my part to major in music education. That commitment implied another; that I’d be a music teacher, a high school band director, and that’s what I’d do for the rest of my life. I knew when I accepted the scholarship that I didn’t want to be a band director. Subsequently, two years into my studies I faced my mistake and did something about it. I quit. And with no other college career choice in mind I dropped out of school.
When I’d talked with the Navy recruiter about joining the Navy, and inquired about the UDT/SEAL program, I made another dumb choice. I’d let the recruiter talk me into going into the Navy as a UDT/SEAL candidate. I had only been interested in taking the qualification test just to see if I could pass. But, as it turned out, the recruiting team in Macon wasn’t set up to give me the test. They wanted me to qualify so they could get the recruiting points, so they fudged the paperwork. I tried to tell the recruiter that I’d changed my mind, that I didn’t want to be a SEAL, but he told me I couldn’t get an ‘A’ school unless I followed through on my commitment. Another bad choice. And now, I’d quit the BUDS program.
It really bothered me that the two most important decisions I’d made as an adult had resulted in my being a quitter. I promised myself that I’d never make another bad choice. I made a firm commitment, a promise to myself, to think about every future opportunity thoroughly; to be absolutely sure about the consequences before I made another career decision. And I was emphatic about that promise! I would not make any more stupid decisions! I made that promise at 10 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, July 16, 1969.
My future was now in the hands of some ‘paper pusher’ at BUPERS. I didn’t know how the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel would decide where to send me, but it was obvious that I was going to the fleet, and that I’d spend the rest of my enlistment on a ship somewhere, probably in the Pacific. I DID NOT WANT TO GO TO THE FLEET! In the hope that there might be an alternative, I went to the receiving office to ask what my options were. When I walked into the office there wasn’t a soul manning the counter. Everybody that worked there was crowded around a television set. There was a bell on the counter. There was a note next to the bell that said: “Ring For Service”. I rang several times. Finally, one of the clerks came over and I made an attempt to be cordial.
“Must be something special on TV?”
“Moon launch. Apollo 11 blasted off today.”
“You didn’t know?”
“Where you been, man? Everybody knows about Apollo 11!”
“Oh! What’cha need, sailor?”
“I just dropped out of BUDS and I’m presently awaiting orders.”
“Well. I was wondering if there were any shore duty billets that I could volunteer for.”
“Didn’t they tell you in boot camp that you had to do six years of sea duty before you could qualify for shore duty?”
“Yea. But they also told us that some shore duty assignments count as sea duty. You know, hardship assignments like in the Arctic; stuff like that.”
“You wanna volunteer for a hardship assignment?”
“Maybe. Is there some kind of list or something telling what they are?”
“It depends on your rate.”
“I’m a gunnersmate striker. I went to ‘A’ School.”
“I ain’t gotta look at no list, man. The only volunteer shore duty assignment for a gunnersmate is Vietnam.”
The word ‘Vietnam’ was a shock. As soon as he said it I felt like someone had hit me in the chest with a sledgehammer. While I stood there trying to think, the clerk walked back over to the TV set. I knew I didn’t have any time to waste. At that very moment some paper pusher at BUPERS was looking for a ship to assign me to. I don’t know why, BUT I JUST DIDN’T WANT TO GO TO THE FLEET! I decided to explore the Nam option further. I rang the bell again and the clerk came back to the counter.
“Whatcha need, hoss?”
“What do we do over there? I mean, what kind of shore duty assignments do we have in Vietnam?”
“Well, if you get assigned to the Brown Water Navy you’ll probably end up on a river boat. That shit can get hairy! But most of the guys who volunteer get assigned to Naval Support.”
“What’s Naval Support?”
“That could be anything. For you, a gunnersmate, you’d probably end up in an armory somewhere, or on a security detail. But it’s really hard to say. You know the Navy, they don’t always do the logical thing. Sometimes they just send guys over and decide what to do with ‘em later. And what you wind up doin’ might not have nothin’ to do with your rate.”
That didn’t sound good, but as far as I was concerned any form of shore duty was better than going to the fleet. It was decision time, and I made my decision in a hurry. I stood right there and broke the promise I’d made to myself that morning. Without thinking it through any further I told the clerk I wanted to volunteer for Vietnam. He grabbed a form and helped me fill it out. That was all there was to it.
When I walked out of the receiving office I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. But I was ecstatic at the possibility of not having to go to the fleet.
When I got back to transient barracks there was a black guy stowing his gear in the locker next to mine. I introduced myself and we spent the next hour or so getting to know each other. His name was Scooter.
Scooter was from Oxnard, California. Oxnard was just a few hours up the coast, just outside L.A. Word had come down that we were going to have Friday and Monday off because of the moon landing. Scooter asked if I’d like to go home with him for the weekend. I didn’t have anything else planned so I accepted his invitation.
The first manned journey to the moon began at Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center, Florida with the liftoff of Apollo 11 at 9:32 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, July 16, 1969. It only took 11 minutes for the spacecraft to reach earth orbit. One complete orbit of the earth took 90 minutes, and after one and a half orbits, to achieve the proper line-up position, Apollo 11 fired its thruster rockets and began its historic journey to the moon.
Apollo 11 had blasted off on Wednesday, the 16th. But it wouldn’t get to the moon until Sunday the 20th.
I was from the south, but I wasn’t a racist. I hadn’t been raised that way. As far as I was concerned, people were people; the color of their skin didn’t matter. But I will admit that I had second thoughts about going home with Scooter. No matter whether you were a racist or not, that kind of thing just wasn’t done back in Georgia in the ‘60s. A white guy didn’t go home with a black guy. It just wasn’t done! I knew California was different, but I didn’t know how different. I almost backed out of going.
Scooter and I were both looking forward to the sudden and unexpected holiday weekend. The whole world had MOON SHOT FEVER and the government wasn’t the only entity that was taking a four-day weekend. We took the ferry to San Diego early that Friday morning and caught a Greyhound to L.A.
I’d had this uneasy feeling during the whole bus ride. I kept trying to imagine what it was going to be like staying with a black family. In my mind I had conjured up the picture of a typical black family back home. Scooter’s mother would surely be like the middle-aged black women I knew back in Georgia; probably a domestic worker in a one-piece cotton dress with a kerchief in her hair. His father would probably be a common laborer dressed in worn-out clothing. They would probably only have one car, if they had one at all, and it would be old and in need of repair. Their home would surely be a simple clapboard structure and the furnishings would be old, soiled and dirty.
When we got to the Greyhound terminal in L.A. Scooter’s mom was waiting. She was a beautiful woman, and she was dressed in a really nice two-piece business suit. When Scooter introduced us he told her that I was from Georgia. She asked ‘where in Georgia?’ When I told her I was from Columbus she said that she’d grown up ‘just down the road from there’. ‘Just down the road’ turned out to be Sylacauga, Alabama. Actually, Sylacauga wasn’t ‘just down the road’, it was at least a hundred miles away, but that didn’t matter. Scooter’s mom was a pleasant surprise.
Scooter’s mom had lived in California for the past 20 years. She surely must have had a southern accent at some point in her life; everyone I’d ever known from Sylacauga had had a southern accent. But she had no accent at all. In fact, I would have sworn that she’d lived in California all her life. Her diction and dialect were impeccable.
Scooter’s mom’s car was a brand new Ford Fairlane. I was very aware of the ‘new car’ smell as we were driving from L.A. to Oxnard.
When we turned into the driveway at Scooter’s house I was floored. The home was a conventional ranch-style structure and the neighborhood, as a whole, was a lot like the one I lived in back home. It was a typical home in a typical middle-class subdivision.
Scooter’s dad had just pulled into the driveway a moment or so before we arrived. His car was a brand new Lincoln Continental. He was dressed in a business suit and he’d just picked the newspaper up off the perfectly manicured lawn. He walked out to the car to meet us. Scooter introduced us, and his father extended his hand in welcome. His voice was very deep; he sounded like he might be a radio personality or a professional announcer.
There was a third car in the driveway. It was Scooter’s. It was a 1966 Ford Mustang just like mine; same color and everything.
Scooter took me inside and showed me the guest bedroom that would be mine for the weekend. Then, he took me on a tour of the house. We finished the tour in the den and sat down on the couch to watch television. The evening news was on and we listened intently as Walter Cronkite explained how Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would make their moon landing on Sunday.
An hour or so later Scooter’s mom called us to the supper table. In casual conversation during dinner I learned that Scooter’s dad owned a construction company and that his mom was a legal secretary.
I had hoped it wouldn’t come up, but it did. At some point the conversation turned to racism. Scooter’s mom brought it up first.
“Bob, I have to tell you that I’m surprised that you accepted Scooter’s invitation to spend the weekend with us.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just said I was sorry. Scooter’s mom realized that I’d mistook her meaning and she fumbled to explain what she meant.
“No, no, don’t be sorry. We’re all glad you’re here. It’s not unusual for Scooter to bring his white friends home. But I was born and raised in the south, and I know how things are there. I’m just surprised that you, of all people, a young man from the south, would accept his invitation; that you would agree to come.”
While I fumbled for the right words, Scooter’s father spoke up:
“Let me ask you a question, Bob. If you and Scooter were stationed at a Navy base near your home, would you invite Scooter to spend the weekend with you?”
I thought about the answer for what seemed like an eternity. I wanted to say what I thought they wanted to hear, but I decided to tell the truth.
“No, I wouldn’t.”
Scooter’s mom and dad both smiled a touching, understanding smile. But Scooter looked shocked. He started to speak:
“What? You wouldn’t ...”
His mother interrupted him.
“Scooter, Bob couldn’t. He couldn’t invite you home. That just isn’t done in the south.”
As she was about to explain, I interrupted her. I had my own explanation:
“Scooter, I’m not a racist. I hope you know that. But I’m not a very brave person, either. I’m not a racist, but I’m not a radical, and if I invited you home with me right now, back in Georgia, that would be a radical thing to do. I’d want to, but I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be fair to my family and it wouldn’t be fair to you.”
His dad explained what I was trying to say.
“Scooter, the south isn’t ready for black and white friendships. If Bob invited you home with him some of his neighbors would think badly of it.”
I picked it up from there.
“Scooter, things are changing back home. I know other young people, young white people, and they feel the same way I do. But we’re a minority. We don’t want things to be the way they are, but we’ve been brought up to believe that there isn’t anything we can do about it; that there isn’t anything we can do to change things.”
“I don’t know why. But that’s just the way it is right now.”
Scooter’s dad interrupted:
“Bob, you are changing things. We’re not in Georgia, but the fact that you’re here, that you accepted Scooter’s invitation to spend the weekend with us, that’s a change. You probably wouldn’t have done that just five years ago.”
Scooter started to say something, but his mom spoke up first:
“Scooter, your dad’s right.”
Then she turned to me:
“Bob, you’re welcome here, I hope you know that. And some day in the future, when there are more people like you, things will be different in the south. And when that day comes, America will be a better place.”
I felt compelled to say something. And what I felt compelled to say even surprised me when I said it.
“Let me say this. When I get out of the Navy and go back home to Georgia, if things are still the same way; if I don’t feel I could invite Scooter home with me, I’ll leave, I won’t stay there. I’ll move somewhere where I could invite him home, like here, in California.”
Scooter’s mom spoke up immediately.
“No, Bob. Don’t do that. If all the people who feel like you do just up and leave the south then things won’t ever change. You’ve got to stay. You’ve got to go back to Georgia. And when you do, you’ve got to join together with others who feel the same way you do. You’ve got to speak up; take a stand. All of you, you can all make a difference. But if you move away, nothing will change. Ever.”
Scooter was hurt and confused. It was obvious that he’d lived a sheltered life. It was obvious that his family had never talked to him about the way things were outside California. His words were humbling.
“I’ve heard people talk. I saw what happened in the south during the sit-ins, when the freedom riders went down there, I saw it on television. But I thought things had changed. I thought it was different now.”
His dad tried to explain:
“They changed the laws, son. But changing the laws doesn’t change peoples’ hearts. In the south, you can eat in the white man’s restaurants now. You can stay in the white man’s hotels. You can drink out of the white-only water fountains and go to the white-only rest rooms. But you can’t do anything about that ugly stare you’re going to get when you do.”
Scooter hung his head. Then he mumbled something. It was almost a whisper:
“What are they afraid of? What are white people in the south afraid of?”
I couldn’t help but wonder the same thing. I glanced at Scooter’s mom and dad. They seemed to know the answer; but they weren’t saying. There was a moment of silence, then I had the final word on the matter:
“It’s gonna change, Scooter, I promise. I don’t know how, and I don’t know how long it’s gonna take, but things are gonna change back home. I promise, man. Things are definitely gonna change.”
Nobody said anything else during the rest of the meal. When dinner was over, Scooter and I both helped his mom clear the table. Then, while his parents washed the dishes, Scooter and I went in the den to watch TV.
Ten or fifteen minutes later the phone rang. Scooter’s mom answered it. It was for Scooter. It was one of his friends and he was calling to invite us to a party.
Scooter and I were wearing our Navy uniforms. I didn’t have any civvies, so Scooter didn’t change. We both went to the party in our summer whites.
All the way to his friend’s house, Scooter and I didn’t say anything. I’m sure he didn’t know what to say. I didn’t either. The friend that had called Scooter was a black kid. When we pulled up in front of his house I was in for another surprise. It was another typical middle-class home in another middle-class neighborhood. There were a mixed group of kids present; half white and half black, and I got the definite impression that they’d all gone to high school together. I’d never gone to school with a black kid. PERIOD!
As soon as I walked in the door I found an answer to the question Scooter had asked at supper. The answer hit me like a ton of bricks. Everyone was paired up; and with few exceptions, white guys were paired up with black girls, and black guys were paired up with white girls. That was it! That’s what the whites back home were afraid of! They didn’t want black guys dating their daughters; and they didn’t want their sons dating black girls! AND GOD FORBID, THEY DEFINITELY DIDN’T WANT THEM TO MARRY! THAT WAS IT!
Scooter’s old high school girlfriend was there. She was white. After Scooter and his girl had paired up, they took me around to meet everybody. Everyone was very cordial.
The parents of the kid who was having the party were handing out refreshments. There was every kind of beer imaginable; in bottles, in cans, and there were a vast assortment of wines, liquors and mixers, too. There were goodies to eat as well, sandwiches, cookies, cakes, and there was even an open can of sardines and some saltine crackers; it was all laid out on an eight-foot serving table.
Half of the kids were inside the house and the other half were outside, in the backyard. We eventually made our way outside and the introductions continued. One of the black guys in the final group of people we greeted must have been Scooter’s best friend growing up. They embraced like long-lost buddies and we spent a good part of the rest of the evening hanging out with the group he was with.
At some point in the evening I lit up a cigarette. A few moments later a white kid came over and handed Scooter a cigarette. I knew right away what it was. It wasn’t a regular cigarette. It was marijuana! Scooter took the joint and took a toke. Then he passed it to the person next to him. The joint made it all the way around the group. Finally, the girl I was standing next to handed it to me. I handed it back to Scooter.
“Come on, Bob. Take a hit.”
“What? Don’t tell me you’ve never smoked weed before.”
The whole group started laughing.
“You’re kidding. You’ve never done weed?”
“No, I never have.”
“Come on, man. You smoke cigarettes. Take a hit. You probably won’t even feel it. Come on, just one hit.”
Some of the others were looking at me funny. I didn’t want to be an outcast, and if just taking one hit would make those looks go away I was game to do it. I grabbed the joint and took a slow easy breath. I felt the smoke ease into my mouth, and as I handed the joint back to Scooter I inhaled slowly. The tension eased; everyone smiled, and all previous conversations resumed as if nothing had happened.
I kept looking around for the parents. Did they know that kids were smoking pot in their backyard? I had to assume that they did. Man, talk about culture shock!
I kept waiting for the pot to have an effect on me, but I never felt anything. As time went by, and I didn’t feel any different, another joint was offered to me. I took another hit. Again, as time went by, I kept waiting to feel the effect. But I never felt any different. I’d had a beer or two, and I began to feel the way you feel when you’ve had a few beers, but I never felt as though the pot was having an effect.
When the party started breaking up and it was time to leave, Scooter and I said our good-byes and headed back to his house. On the way home we passed a Burger King restaurant. Scooter was hungry.
“Hey, man. You want something to eat?”
Scooter pulled into the Burger King parking lot. As we were walking into the restaurant, Scooter asked me if I was feeling the effects of the marijuana. I said no. He said that he was. Scooter ordered first. He asked for a whopper, a large order of fries and a medium coke. Then it was my turn. I ordered two whoppers, a large fry and a large coke. Scooter started laughing.
“What-the-hell you laughin’ at?”
“What’s so funny?”
“You’ve got the munchies, man. You’ve got the marijuana munchies!”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I ate both whoppers, all the fries, and got a refill on the coke.
Scooter and I didn’t talk much on the ride home. He’d laugh every now and then and say that I was stoned. I denied it. I really didn’t think I was. I didn’t feel any different than I’d felt at other times when I’d had a few beers. I finally admitted to myself that if stoned and slightly drunk were the same feeling, then I might be.
I spent most of the ride home thinking about the racial mixing I’d seen at the party. I wasn’t really sure how I felt about that. I remember thinking that if the world were a perfect utopia, that it would be a place where whites and blacks could be friends, but they wouldn’t date or marry each other. Dating and marrying, that’s what was screwing it all up. And I knew the utopia I was thinking about would never come to pass.
I thought about home; about my family; about my mom and dad; about my brother and sisters. I had not been raised in a racist environment, but I knew that if one of my sisters ever dated a black boy my parents would hit the ceiling. If my brother or I ever dated a black girl they’d hit the ceiling, too. Hell, if they’d known that I’d been at that party; if they’d known I’d been exposed to white-and-black mixing, they’d have hit the ceiling about that! No doubt about it, that was what was driving the racial attitudes in the south. I still wanted things to change; I still wanted blacks and whites to tear down their barriers and get along with each other, but I knew now, for the first time, that it wasn’t going to be easy. And I knew now, for the first time, what the real problem was.
Scooter and I spent the whole day on Saturday visiting his friends in Oxnard. We’d drive from one house to another and visit for an hour or so at each one. Most of the people we went to see hadn’t been at the party the night before. We had a few beers at the last stop, but I let Scooter know that I didn’t want to smoke any more dope. None was offered.
We spent Saturday evening, the 19th. of July, watching coverage of the Apollo mission on television. We watched late into the night. When we woke up Sunday morning we were right back in front of the TV set.
On Sunday, July 20th, after a four day trip, the Apollo astronauts arrived at the Moon. At 1:47 p.m. EDT, (10:47 a.m. in California), the Lunar Module "Eagle" carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin separated from the Command Module "Columbia" and began its lonely descent to the moon.
"You cats take it easy on the lunar surface", Michael Collins said as he released the Landing Module (LM) from the Command Module. Poor Collins. He wasn’t going to get to land on the moon. He had to fly the mother ship while Armstrong and Aldrin got to have all the fun.
We could hear the transmission between the control center in Houston and the Landing Module on television. As the LM got closer and closer to the lunar surface we could hear both parties talking to each other. And the closer the LM got to the surface the more anxious those voices seemed to get. Not scared or hectic, but anxious just the same. Finally, toward the end, the voices in Houston sounded as though they were getting close to the panic point. Then, there was a moment of dead silence. The whole world was watching. The whole world was listening on millions of TV sets from America to Russia to China. And that silence, at that moment in time, was world-wide. Then, out of nowhere, eight simple words were uttered; the first ever spoken from the surface of the moon:
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Scooter, his mom and dad, and me, too, we all jumped up and yelled at the top of our lungs. The windows were open in the living room and we could hear a joyous, loud and wonderful noise coming from every house on the block. The whole world was letting out a shout at the same time. What a moment! What a time to be alive! What an event to be able to witness, to hear, to see - live as it happened!
Man had done it! America had done it! John F. Kennedy had challenged America, in 1961, to put a man on the moon and bring him home before the end of the decade. It was July 20th., 1969, and with five months to spare we’d done it. We’d done better than that! We’d put two men on the moon! What a day. Had there ever been another day like it? At the time I didn’t think so.
“Magnificent desolation”, Aldrin called it. Magnificent period! There’d never been a more magnificent day. But there would be a more magnificent moment!
Armstrong and Aldrin spent almost ten hours on the lunar surface before opening the hatch. There was a lot to do; like putting on their space suits.
Then, at 10:56 p.m. EDT (7:56 in California), Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon. The windows in the house were still open, and we promised ourselves we wouldn’t yell out. We listened on purpose to hear the sound that would come out of the houses down the street. And it came in a tumult. Not at first, mind you, when Walter Cronkite said he thought Armstrong was on the surface. We’d all seen a blur, a movement that looked like someone had jumped off a ladder, but we couldn’t tell what that movement had been. But we knew what that movement was just a moment later. The voice belonged to Armstrong, and his words were historic:
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The sound from down the street was incredible. It was an uproar! We ran out the front door and it sounded as if the whole world were cheering. It sounded like the whole world was lifting up a mighty shout. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. My arms and legs started shaking. What an incredible moment it was!
Scooter’s main reason for coming home that weekend was to get his car. Early Monday morning, after eating a hearty breakfast, we put our gear in the Mustang, said good-bye to his parents, and headed back to Coronado.
Scooter was disappointed in me, I could tell. We didn’t talk much, but what little he did say had to do with why I wouldn’t have taken him home with me for the weekend. All the way back I could feel our friendship slipping into the toilet.
I didn’t know how ‘in the toilet’ our friendship was until we got back to Coronado. Scooter and I were bunk mates; I had the bottom bunk, he had the top. As soon as we got back I put my overnight bag on my bunk and went to the PX to buy some cigarettes. When I got back I noticed that Scooter’s bunk was un-made. There was nothing but a bare mattress on the upper springs and his locker was empty. Then I saw him. He’d found a new bunk.
Scooter’s old bunk didn’t stay empty for long. Sometime in the late afternoon I went over to the bowling alley to drink a few beers. When I got back I had a new bunkmate. His name was Bob Earles.
Bob was a character. He was from Haskell, Texas and he had this really heavy south-western drawl. We spent the rest of the day talking, and by taps that night we’d become pretty good friends.
Bob wasn’t a new arrival. He’d already been in transient barracks for several days. He was there awaiting orders, just like me. Bob and his first bunkmate had had a falling out. Their disagreement had almost come to blows, so, when he saw the empty rack over mine, he took it.
There was a cork bulletin board enclosed in a glass frame on the wall just outside the transient barracks building. Every day at noon a fresh list would be posted on the board detailing any new orders that had come down from BUPERS. Needless to say, every day at noon there would be a crowd waiting to read the new postings. Bob and I checked the board every day. We’d stand there together and rush to read the list as soon as it was up. When our names weren’t on the list we’d go to the chow hall and bad-mouth BUPERS for being so slow. It seemed like it took years for our names to make the list, but it was actually only a matter of days.
When we finally DID make the list, we just looked at our postings in awe.
GMGSN Robert J. Powers, Jr. Naval Support Activity DaNang, RVN
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