Saturday, February 20, 2010

Do as I say, as I say you’re doo

Every now and then, someone asks about my military service. I’m glad I was able to serve. My four-plus years in the Coast Guard, during the post-Vietnam Cold-War, saw nothing you’d call “action.” Yet they made me the man I am today. Even boot camp alone, at 17, taught me a lesson you can’t get just anywhere.

The lesson of those first nine weeks in Cape May? It’s a simple one: There’s no limit to what can happen in a job when you can’t easily quit or be fired.

Most of us quickly learned that whatever we were told to do, to do it precisely each and every time. This meant we learned how to swap a deck, clean a bathroom (called a “head” even off ship) till it was spotless, make a bed wrinkle-free (the kids love that one to this day) and groom ourselves impeccably. Okay, so maybe I forgot one.

When our “company” of about fifty men and women screwed up, the usual way Chief Smith, our company commander, punished us was to make us run laps or do endless push-ups—you know, things I like to do for fun today. But what I remember most vividly was how guys were punished for their individual transgressions. I chuckle now when I look back on them. But at the time? I chuckled then, too. None of the best stuff happened to me, after all.

Take the fellow who, when told to remove off all “jewelry” before leaving the locker room for the gym, decided to leave on his watch. Heck, I’ve never considered any watch I’ve owned to be jewelry. But I, like most others, took it off just in case. So as we did our calisthenics in the gym for the next half-hour, the guy with the watch had to run round and round the gym’s perimeter with the arm in the watch held high. “I’ve got my watch on!” he chanted over and over the whole time. “I’ve got my watch on!”

Another fellow recruit decided he’d get in Chief Smith’s good graces, presuming they existed, by sticking as close to him as possible and being the quickest and loudest at replying, “Sir, yes, sir!” to every command. (Yes, the word “Sir” or “Ma’am” had to begin and end every sentence spoken to anyone but a fellow recruit.) His reward for sucking up? Being ordered to circle for a half-hour around the Chief, his arms extended outward, shouting “I’m a satellite—beep beep!”

Two guys from a different company (new victims arrived every week) apparently had gotten into a fistfight, which had occurred another day before we arrived at the track. The part I saw, while we practiced our drills on the quad, was their penalty. For several laps the two jogged side-by-side on the track, shadow-boxing into the air as they went along and having one repetitive dialogue. “I like you,” one recited as commanded. “I like you, too,” came the reply.

Not that it was all marching and exercises in those weeks before we graduated boot camp and my enlistment became, with exceptions, more like a regular job. Sometimes, in fact, recruits got to lie down in the middle of the day. Only you wouldn’t call it leisure. We saw it often, with one particular company whose barracks we marched past on our way to class. In response to some act of disrespect—maybe something as simple as dust found during an inspection—it was a form of discipline company commanders liked to call the “dying cockroach.” Supine position, arms and legs in the air and flailing, the whole bit…everything but the giant shoe that steps down from above.

Of course, there was a point: the notion of tearing people down to build them back stronger. Such merciless antics united us against a common enemy, the company commander, even as we came to form a team. Some of us, within weeks, might be boarding boats of drug runners off the Florida coast. Would you want someone unvetted at your side with a loaded gun?

Once, as we neared graduation, we even could hear the pride in Chief Smith’s voice when he spoke with us about what to expect after basic training. We learned something else: He wasn’t a bad guy.

But it took effort to arrive at such perspective. What it took was a little imagination, of somehow picturing Chief Smith as a young, misbehaving Seaman Recruit Smith. Who’d, for instance, left the covers a bit rumpled on his bed.

On his back. His arms and legs flailing in the noonday sun.

No comments :

Post a Comment