Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A (Navy) Way of Life

Doing Simple things the Right Way

I always fold the clothes after they come out of the dryer a certain way; the same way every time. When I get up in the morning I put the bed together neatly with all the seams aligned to the edges of the mattress. I feel good starting my day in a neat, orderly room without a lot of clutter. That certainly makes it easy to find what you are looking for most of the time.

Once in a while I reflect on why I maintain these habits. It would be easy to credit my career in the Navy but it is actually much deeper than that. I have been cleaning my room like this since I was old enough to stand up and open a drawer without help.

I can remember standing in my pajamas next to the foot of our bed, my older brother on the other corner as we did our juvenile best to stand at attention. My brother would call “Atten-hut!” in his best voice as dad came in the room. Sergeant Johnson, 101st Airborne, (“Daddy” to us), would enter the room and conduct an inspection. All toys were neatly put away, the floor swept and the bed was folded down ready for two little troopers. After we passed inspection our NCO would pick us up and tuck us in for the night. Lights out and we faded off to sleep before Taps sounded on the base.

The Navy Way

Almost four decades ago I reported for boot camp at Orlando, Florida. The whole experience was not as big a shock to me as it was for virtually all of my bunkmates that first night. I grew up in an Army family and took three years of AJROTC at a Department of Defense Dependents School (DODDS) in West Germany. (That's me, 2nd from the right, not yet at attention before the photo snapped.)

That experience made my classmates and me acutely aware of the state of politics in the world. We were mere hours away from the Iron Curtain and only a few minutes by missile flight time from being vaporized. All of the bases we called home were under the shadow of nuclear annihilation.
American civilians had the luxury of thinking they might not be hit; we were certain the Russians would hit us before the world even knew war had begun. That was our reality, our shared backdrop to the turbulent decade of the seventies.
Naturally, I wanted to sign up for service as soon as I was of age. I looked around at the sloppy, slouching, uncaring generation back in the States and knew they wouldn’t lift a finger to defend their country. Thus it was that while Barack Obama was killing brain cells with pot on some Hawai’ian beach I was in boot camp learning to do things the Navy way.
“There’s the military and there’s the Navy, don’t get the two confused.” Someone told me that while screaming in my face that humid fall in Florida. I didn’t need the reminder. The culture in the sea-going service is a far cry from the olive drab reality of my life up until that point. It was more than the strange rank structure (petty officer third class instead of corporal, for instance), it was the whole attitude.

Even before marching in formation at graduation I noticed the whole class distinction that came with Navy rank. Men of the same unit but different ranks seldom socialized like they did on Army posts. My suspicions were confirmed a few months later at “A” school up in Illinois.

Machinist Mate “A” School in Great Lakes was an unremarkable period in my life. It was self-paced back then and I breezed through the various phases as quickly as they could find an opening for me. Only seating availability and the blizzard of 78-79 slowed me down. That and having my wisdom teeth pulled. And I still took a final exam in Basic Engineering before the school would let me go back to the barracks and sleep off the pain-killers (that 93% grade wrecked my GPA; but I’m not mad.)

The lower ranks in the Navy—the E-1 through E-3 pay grades—were called “non-rates” where ratings mean a specific job skill. They are the ones who did menial tasks like mowing lawns, washing dishes and (in the winter) shoveled snow.

On graduation day for my “class” (self-paced, remember?) I sat sewing on my Machinist Mate 3rd Class patch on my shirt for the day1.  A chief petty officer came through the barracks grabbing everyone in sight to go out and shovel the sidewalks. He peeked in my room, saw what I was doing and took all of my roommates leaving me comfortably warm inside. Rank hath its privileges in every service; nowhere more so than in the US Navy.

Underway – All the Time

Eventually I got out in to the “real Navy,” that is on a ship that sails away. All of that boot camp nonsense about folding clothes “just so” actually had a real purpose. As an enlisted Sailor I lived in a very tiny piece of a very large ship.
My bed (called a rack) was one of three in a stack on either side of a very narrow space. Racks are generally enclosed on five of six sides with curtains covering the one open side for what is jokingly called “privacy.” It is barely longer than I am tall and a couple inches wider than my shoulders. For good reasons Sailors call the racks coffins.
Our personal space included a locker the same area as the rack about six inches deep. Add a tiny stand-up locker and you have all the space you could have to store uniforms, toiletries and a few items of civilian attire required in many ports of call. By folding clothes the Navy way you could maximize the space and tightly pack all of your items yet still have them accessible.
This also permitted you to have more space for personal items like books and videos (VHS in my day—electronic toys for the modern fleet). We could also pack away the goodies purchased in foreign ports for family back home.

Home is where your Geedunk is

I don’t miss the Navy life. The hours were too long, the separation from family was no treat for anyone, and I won’t comment on the food. After fifteen years I hardly think about it at all until someone mentions a ship at the VA or on Veteran’s Day when people pretend to care. It is when I get up in the morning and start putting hospital corners on my bed. When I open a drawer of underwear and see them stacked in a vertical row like slices of bread – that’s when I think how much Navy is still a part of me even when I don’t think about it.

[Note1: for those curious about how I could have gotten promoted so soon after joining, I was in an advanced technical field that guaranteed E-4 after completion of “A” school.]

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