My Many Interests

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Growing Up and Growing Old - Reflections On My Navy Experience

On this date, 35 years ago, I entered into a contract with the United States to serve in the United States Navy. It's not something that I regret. I have often said that I would do it again, if given the choice, and I've never attempted to talk a young person out of serving, though I'm honest with them about what that service will ask of them.

I remember boarding a Greyhound bus from Monroe, Louisiana on a Sunday afternoon. My Dad took me and waited with me for the bus to arrive. He gave me his old wallet, since I didn't have one, though they would eventually make me send it back to him. You didn't bring in any unnecessary things; the military provides for you. I've only seen my Dad cry a few times in his life and that day was one of them.

I took the bus from Monroe to Shreveport, stayed the night at a hotel, went to the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) at 5AM Monday morning and eventually boarded a plane bound for Orlando with a slight layover in Dallas. That bed I woke up in on Monday would be the last bed I would see until I was introduced to a rack in our barracks on late Tuesday night. Yep, about 42 hours before we were allowed to sleep, and then it was wake up at 4:30AM.

Our company commanders, or CCs, were Chief Roland and Chief Livingston. Chief Roland loved to fish and Chief Livingston liked to chase me around the grinder (big parking lot like exercise area) until I puked. Eight weeks of torture, but there was a reason for it. It's better to break in boot camp than out at sea. The first morning of processing, we were waiting in the chow line and we witnessed the first drop. Two chiefs carrying a recruit between them, screaming his lungs out. Kind of scared us, but also made us resolve not to be that guy.

Oh, and they would push you. Like I said, Livingston liked to run behind me (yeah, I was the slow one) yelling for me to give up and go home. I kept my nose clean, but even that didn't get you out of anything. They have a certain event, I can't remember the cutesy name for it, that they would have where all the screw-ups would go for intense physical training. Two hours of push-ups, sit-ups, planks, etc. One night the chiefs came in with smiles on their faces and asked "Okay! Who hasn't been yet?" Yep, I got to experience it and it wasn't fun.

For all of the pain we went through, we learned a lot. We learned what our limits were, we learned how to push ourselves, and we learned above all things, responsibility and accountability. Something I can't say that I would have learned at home. And I would be lying if I said that I took it all in stride with a smile on my face. No, there were nights that I went to sleep crying wondering what I had gotten myself into and then crying when I woke up because I was still there.

We passed in review on December 27, 1986 in eighty degree weather, in dress blues, called crackerjacks after the little boy on a Crackerjack box, that were made out of wool. Great material for cold weather, but not in the heat. We had a few boys pass out.

Even though we had graduated, Chief Livingston stayed in character. Standing in a line outside our barracks with our seabags packed, Chief cracked jokes and smiled with everyone, but told me that I would never make it in his Navy. Six years later when I would get discharged, I thought of him as I walked down the brow (or gangway), and wished he was there so that I could tell him that I had made it in his Navy. That's not to say that I hated him or anything. In the end, I knew that he was probably trying to motivate me to keep going.

I do miss my shipmates and have a Facebook page where we connect and yes, I'd do it again, if I had the chance. But now I'm older and not in the best of shape, though I think that might be from some of the stupid stuff I did when I was in the service. But I am thankful every day for what the Navy made of me. Bravo Zulu to that experience!

This photo was taken in boot camp. My mother remarked that she started crying when she saw it because the look on my face made her think that they were torturing me. I laughed and told her that we were told to look "stoic" for our photos. I think I did a good job.

James Pickering - Sailor