(Caution: contains coarse language)
The story has been in the works too long, partly because it’s important to me and I wanted to do it justice, and that required time to think. But also because it brought to mind a couple of old photographs, and I thought seeing them would help stir some relevant memories.
I scoured iPhoto. I excavated my various closets, where boxes of the stuff of life reside. I thought about it a lot.
At last I found my stash of photos. They had hidden themselves coyly in a file cabinet, in a row of files sardonically labeled “Photos.”
It turned out I didn’t need the pictures, though, because a couple of short Facebook posts brought back the memories in a torrent and that was more than enough.
This is a love letter to a moment.
I wrote in these pages several years ago about my time in U.S. Navy boot camp, specifically when the Navy’s first black female captain fell off her chair and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff helped her up. By honking into a dented government-issue trombone once a week at recruit graduation ceremonies, I managed to avoid a variety of unpleasant tasks and situations.
For most Navy recruits, boot camp included a week during which you were pulled away from your instruction in the identification of sleeve insignia, the proper folding of underwear, the names of everyone who outranked you, up to and including President Ronald Reagan, and the avoidance of venereal disease while on shore leave, especially, for some reason, shore leave in Diego Garcia, the most desolate installation in the American military’s offshore firmament.
During Shit Week you did nothing all day but unpleasant menial tasks. You might scrub pots and pans in the galley. You might pick up trash or shovel snow. (I entered boot camp in January in Great Lakes, Illinois, so snow was what we considered a “thing.”) If there were any ships at Naval Training Center Great Lakes, 40 miles north of Chicago on the Lake Michigan shore, you might have scraped barnacles, but the world’s largest military training facility had no ships.
I don’t know what other unpleasant thing you might do during Shit Week because I didn’t have to do Shit Week. When you’re in the band you don’t have to do Shit Week, and I was in the recruit band. Not having to do Shit Week I didn’t give it much thought.
Without volunteering I had managed to be drafted into the band, which meant I was part of something called a Recruit Special Unit. The 50 or 60 of us in it were divided into the band, a choir and a rifle drill team. We entertained at the recruit graduation ceremonies that took place each Friday. Great Lakes churned out several hundred sailors a week.
Recruit companies give themselves names, and Company 909’s name was Futch’s Finest Triple Threat. The triple threat part refers to the band/choir/drill team thing. For the Futch’s Finest part to make any sense it would help to know that our company commander was Petty Officer First Class Woody Futch.
It was Petty Officer Futch from whom I learned the art of making a bed with square corners. He also taught us the importance of urinating as soon as possible after visiting a prostitute in Diego Garcia. I’m not sure whether he spoke from experience or only out of concern for our well-being, but he painted a vivid picture1 I’ve never forgotten of what can happen to you if you visit prostitutes in Diego Garcia. He might also have mentioned prostitutes in the Philippines but I’m not sure.
It never occurred to me until this minute, by the way, to wonder if Woody Futch had a first name other than Woody.2 Woodward? Heywood? Those don’t really fit. He played the role of good ol’ boy, often with a toothpick in his mouth and indulging freely in crotch-scratching (his own). When he addressed the company he’d often pull out a chair, lift a foot onto it, and rest an elbow on his knee. He peppered his speech with GD’s but not too many F’s. (He was a sailor so maybe he salted his speech instead of peppering it.)
But I think a lot of Woody Futch’s crustiness was just that — crust.
When one of us would do something wrong in an inspection — have unshined shoes or not know who the Secretary of Defense was — Futch would command the obligatory, “Give me 25.” 25 became 50 if the offense was particularly severe. There was the time he told a guy to do 1000 pushups AND 1000 situps3 but that’s another story.
During one inspection, though, I caught a glimpse beneath Futch’s crust.
Every hour of the day, one of the recruits stood watch at the front of the barracks. (He was called “watch,” the navy being clever with its lingo.) When the company commander or some other non-recruit entered, watch would come to attention and scream, “Attention on Deck!”
During this particular inspection I was watch. I stayed in my spot while Petty Officer Futch and one of his fellow company commanders grilled the rest of the company on the General Orders of a Sentry and the name of the base commanding officer, and checked to make sure the recruits’ belt buckles were shiny.
The inspectors growled and came up with reasons to make most of the guys do pushups, but finally they dismissed the company while they continued their inspection of the barracks itself.
Mostly they shot the breeze while ripping sheets off of random beds and pulling shelves of personal belongings from lockers. But as they ripped and pulled and shot the breeze, Petty Officer Futch bragged about the company.
“This is a great crew,” he said. “A good bunch of guys.”
They tossed folded-up skivvies onto the floor haphazardly, and the place looked like a tornado had hit it when they were finished. They dispatched me to call the company in from outdoors.
The recruits filed back and beheld the carnage. More than a few mumbled softly, “Holy shit.”
Futch said, “We found a few things, but good inspection.”
“Now clean up,” he said. And we did. It took a while.
The company of recruits had its own leadership hierarchy, with a Recruit Petty Officer in Charge, or RPOC (pronounced “r-poc”), and platoon leaders or some such things.
I wanted no part of that. I was mostly terrified of the whole situation and wanted only to lie low and get through my 11 weeks in one piece.
Somehow, though — my memory on the details is fuzzy — I became the company Flag Carrier. Futch’s Finest had a flag and I carried it.
This is not a picture of Futch’s Finest. One way you can tell is that everyone’s wearing white. Navy personnel in northern Illinois do not wear white in the winter. But the picture shows where a company Flag Carrier stands.
Despite my best efforts to avoid attention in boot camp, I ended up right at the front of the pack, leading Company 909 everywhere we went as a group.
But in truth I didn’t lead anybody. I only marched, turned left, turned right and halted when I was supposed to. I did that quite well. I just happened to do it with nobody in front of me. Maybe they picked me because I looked like the kind of guy who knew my right from my left and didn’t have to be following someone else to get where I needed to go.
Our real leader was our recruit company commander, the RPOC I mentioned earlier. His name was Jeff Smith, and beyond his leadership duties he was on the drill team, where they twirled rifles energetically and in unison like in an Esther Williams movie except instead of women in frilly swimsuits they were men wearing blue bell bottoms, and instead of swimming and splashing and smiling while underwater they twirled rifles and stomped their feet a lot and most definitely did not smile while doing so. Grimness is a virtue in recruit drill teams in the United States Navy.
Jeff and I hit it off but I don’t know why. We didn’t have anything in common. He was the big man on campus, a former high school athlete. He was a jock and I was not that. He was confident and I was a knot of anxiety.
Jeff was tall, with a cleft chin and deep voice. Presumably he’s still tall and still has a deep voice. I don’t think men begin to shrink until they’re much older than Jeff is now, and if anything voices deepen with age. In my own case I’m getting into Kathleen Turner territory, voicewise, so Jeff these days might very well sound like Lurch4.
When we weren’t busy learning about John Paul Jones and Admiral Farragut, rehearsing “Anchors Aweigh” (or, for the choir and drill team, their various songs and stomp routines) or looking at photographs of the results of venereal diseases, we practiced marching.
As the senior recruit, Jeff Smith called the orders. Forward, left, right, halt — it was all pretty straightforward. That was one of the reasons I liked the navy: no harches, huts or oo-rahs.
Basic training in the navy includes an introduction to the .45-caliber pistol, a session with tear gas and a gas mask, and training in putting out fires. Company 909 somehow did none of it. Someone somewhere saw fit to issue exemptions for Futch’s Finest.
On the day we were supposed to fire the .45’s the heating system in the arsenal was being repaired, so no-go on the guns. The gas mask and fire stuff was scheduled for Friday mornings, which were graduation days, and the powers-that-be didn’t want us to smell bad during performances.
Happily, my life since 1981 has not suffered because I never fired a .45, put out a structure fire or smelled tear gas5.
There isn’t much else to be said about boot camp. After ushering hundreds of freshly-minted gobs to the next stages in their navy careers, it was Company 909’s turn to graduate. Some guys went straight to the fleet while others moved on to further training in the various specialties, such as the firing of big guns, the preparation of chow, the decryption of enemy dispatches, and, presumably, the scraping of barnacles. Somewhere in the navy there are ships, and somebody has to scrape barnacles off of them.
In my case and Jeff Smith’s our further training meant a bus ride of about five minutes, from boot camp on one side of Sheridan Road to the training center proper on the other.
We both went into electronics schools though we lived in different barracks, and we stayed in touch. Within just a few weeks of graduation we took a bus trip to Fort Wayne, Indiana, Jeff’s home, to visit his mom.
After boot camp you’re not allowed to wear civilian clothes for a month or so, when you get your “civvy chit,” which is a piece of paper indicating your qualification to get out of your uniform now and then. Jeff and I did not yet have our civvy chits when we boarded the Greyhound Scenicruiser bound for Fort Wayne.
Jeff went in the bathroom and changed clothes and suggested I do the same. A by-the-book guy, I resisted at first, but I didn’t want to be a bad sport so I followed suit. I think I at least waited until we were out of Illinois but I was nevertheless sure that one of our fellow passengers would know I didn’t have a civvy chit and report me.
The details of the weekend don’t congeal in my mind just now but I remember that Jeff’s mother was very pleasant. I expect we also took a drive past Jeff’s high school, not because I remember it but because it’s just the kind of thing people do when hosting friends they met in boot camp.
Later that summer Jeff and I took another trip, this time to fish in Michigan. In the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula is a famous trout river called the Au Sable, and Jeff and I went to fish in the Au Sable near a town called Grayling.
Getting to Grayling meant a six-hour drive. Jeff had since brought his car from home. It was a Camaro or Trans Am or something snazzy like that. We left after we were off on a Friday so the trip took place at night.
After passing Chicago and industrial northern Indiana there wasn’t much to see on the drive, at night anyway. Not, that is, until we encountered three men in the middle of the highway, playing frisbee.
It would not surprise me to see people of any gender playing frisbee in a street if the street were in a suburban residential subdivision. It surprised us, though, to see these guys playing frisbee at night in the middle of a highway in central Michigan. In the time Jeff Smith and I knew each other I was only cross toward him once and it involved the three frisbee-playing men.
Somehow these men ended up in the car with Jeff and me. I don’t remember whether they waved us down or Jeff stopped out of curiosity; I know only that they were in the car with us and heading to Grand Rapids and I wasn’t pleased about it.
The car door had not been closed for ten seconds and Jeff had barely pulled back onto the highway from the shoulder when a voice from the back seat said, “Hey man you got any drugs what kinda drugs you got?”
You have to give the guy credit for his straight-to-the-point quality. After all, Grand Rapids was only 30 miles away, leaving us not much time to smoke, snort, pill-pop or inject if we had been so inclined. If Jeff and I had been so inclined, that is. Clearly, our passengers were inclined.
One or the other of us said that no, we did not have any drugs. I tried to be inconspicuous while removing my high-school-graduation Rolex from my wrist and slipping it beneath my seat. If things went south on this trip — in fact we were heading due north — I at least wanted my watch to survive. I was not pleased with Jeff Smith just then. As I considered options for self-defense I realized that the navy had taught me not a thing in the realm of hand-to-hand combat.
We made it intact to Grand Rapids, where it amused me to hear one of our frisbee-enthusiast passengers, when giving us directions to his home or drug dealer’s headquarters, refer to a local expressway as “the Gerald R.” I didn’t stay annoyed with Jeff for very long — he’s a big-hearted guy and it’s hard to stay annoyed at people like that — but for an hour I was pretty annoyed.
The Au Sable is a beautiful river. It meanders gently so that when you’re wading thigh-deep you don’t worry about being swept 90 miles downstream into Lake Huron.
I don’t remember catching anything bigger than a banana on that trip but we had a good time. And Jeff resisted whatever urges he may have felt on the way back to Great Lakes to scoop narcotics-addled hitchhikers from the roadside6.
To be continued…
1The vivid picture included a photograph of a blueberry pie, and to this day I can’t see a blueberry pie without imagining what might have befallen me if I had ever visited a prostitute in Diego Garcia, or possibly the Philippines.
2We are friends on Facebook so I’ll ask him and report back. (UPDATE: It’s Woody — no more, no less.)
3Not realizing Futch was being wry, the guy did 750 of each before being called off.
4Look it up.
5I was maced — twice in one day — in Mule Creek State Prison but that’s another story.
6I would not have been able to recount much about the trip to Grayling if Jeff hadn’t snapped the memories out of me recently. He says we chased a patrol car and there was a bee in my sleeping bag but I’m drawing a blank about those parts.