I went to Navy basic training on May 12, 1994. The details and reasoning behind why I decided to join the Navy could take up an entire book if I took the time. The Reader’s Digest-condensed version is this: I was 21-years-old, married with a 1-year-old daughter, living in a piece of shit apartment, didn’t have a real job, and was failing out of college. Basically, I needed to do something drastic to take care of my family and, personally, I needed a swift kick in the ass. Joining the Navy wasn’t an easy decision for my wife and I, but it was the right decision. There were good times and bad times, but I don’t regret the decision. As the Butthole Surfers so eloquently said in the song “Sweet Loaf”, “It’s better to regret something you did, than something you didn’t do.” Rarely have truer words been spoken, although, later in the same song, they did say, “And by the way, if you see your mom this weekend, be sure to tell her Satan Satan Satan!!”. I can’t quite figure out if that cancels out the good advice about regret.
I left for basic training from Albany and flew to Chicago. A group of us sat in the USO Lounge at O’Hare Airport for hours, waiting for the bus to come and pick us up. We partook in some mindless chatter, flipped through magazines, watched TV, and played checkers. The longer we waited, the more my nerves started to go and you know it’s bad when you start playing checkers. The most boring game of all time, in my opinion. I’d rather guess how many fingers someone is holding behind their back than play checkers.
The real game was being played on us, yet we didn’t know we were playing. It was called the Waiting Game. They don’t want you to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. No, no, that wouldn’t be any fun. Let’s let the newbies sit in the USO Lounge for a few hours, get nervous, sweat a little, pace around, and question why the hell they ever did this. They picked us up from the airport around 9 PM for the hour-long drive to the Navy base. It was dark outside, I had never been to the Chicago area before, I was on a bus to boot camp, and I had just left my beautiful wife and daughter at home for the next 9 weeks. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do and, yet, as we pulled into the main gate, I knew it was going to get a lot worse before it got any better.
The other 80 or so recruits and I walked off the bus shortly after 10 PM. Like arriving at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, we were pleasantly and cordially escorted into the main building. “Welcome to Naval Recruit Training Center, nice of you to join us. Please let us know of anything that will make your stay with us more comfortable”. But when the nice folks from the Navy said it, for some reason it sounded more like, “Get in a fucking straight line. No, I said a straight line, dumbass, not a semi-circle. Everyone shut the fuck up until we say you can speak. Is that clear, you fucking maggots? Goddamn, you are some of the ugliest pieces of shit I’ve even seen in my life.”
This went on all night long, and I mean, all night. There was no let up. In other services, these guys are called drill instructors. In the Navy, they’re called Company Commanders, or CCs. At least, they used to be called CCs, I think the title has changed. They were enlisted Sailors, late 20’s to early 40’s, who willingly chose to create a living hell for others, 9 weeks at a time. They clearly relished the role, and no event in that 9 weeks was more fun than breaking down recruits that first night.
These guys also liked to play games, but not the Waiting Game. Instead, they played the I Dare You Not to Laugh Game with their fellow CCs. The objective of the game was to see if they can make their peers laugh while they absolutely lay into an unsuspecting, clueless, 19-year-old punk who had the audacity to wear a ballcap in the building. How dare he wear a hat in the building? That’s disrespectful to them, the other people in the building, the rest of the people on the base, the entire United States Navy, the President, their families… You’d be amazed at how these guys take something like that and make the poor sap damn near suicidal. For the person getting screamed at, it’s the worst feeling ever. For everyone else, it’s a matter of controlling your fear and laughter, all at the same time, because they say some of the funniest shit you’ll ever hear. Part of me would love to try this job, but only on the nights when recruits arrive.
Meanwhile, I had my “attention” knob turned to 11. Nothing quite prepares you for this moment. You can hear all sorts of stories and get yourself mentally psyched up, but when you first walk off that bus late at night and line up to walk in the first building, all that preparation gets blown away by the stark reality of your surroundings. I was in my own personal battlefield and I needed to stay sharp and keep my senses about me. As soon as I walked in that building, all of the sadness, loneliness, nervousness, thoughts of my family, everything, instantly disappeared.
Like Forrest Gump before me, my sole purpose in life was to do exactly what the CCs told me to do and nothing else. If they said get in a straight line, I got in a straight line. If they said don’t breathe, then I wasn’t going to breathe. If they said, everyone had 30 seconds to get a drink of water, I took exactly 30 seconds. I didn’t want to take 15 seconds and get back in line because then I would be drawing attention to myself. I didn’t want to take 60 seconds either, because, well, you know. I focused every fiber of my being on remaining inconspicuous.
The first night was filled with an endless combination of filling out paperwork, standing in line, and drug tests, all while having someone constantly screaming in your face. The paperwork was enough to drive us crazy just by itself. I don’t even remember what we were signing. For all I knew, I was signing up to wear meat underwear in a room full of hungry Rottweilers. I could give two shits what I was signing at the time. I was intent on doing anything I could to avoid drawing attention to myself. If the CCs thought the paperwork was filled out the slightest bit wrong by anyone, they’d rip up everyone’s paper and make us start again. This would be a theme throughout my time there.
The drug tests on the first night were an early test of one’s humility. They would bring 5 or 6 guys into an empty bathroom with no stalls or curtains and have us all piss into a cup while they sat and watched the urine come out of our special purposes. No hiding, no Whizzinators, just a bunch of guys rocking out with their cocks out. If you were shy or had stage fright, too bad, better deal with it. There was no privacy here, or anywhere else for that matter, so if you weren’t comfortable being nude around others guys, you had to learn real quick.
It was also opportunity for the CCs to play another game with us. While we were waiting in line to go to the bathroom for the piss test, two CCs walked by us. One was holding a full urine specimen cup. He stopped right in front of us, took the top off the cup, and drank it like a shot of liquor. Never once did he crack while doing this and his partner just played right along. It was called the Make the Recruits Pretend It’s Urine While You Drink Apple Juice Game.
We finally finished our initial admission around 2 AM and headed to our temporary barracks for the rest of the night. The CCs made us march in a line, knowing full well we had no fucking clue how to march yet. That didn’t stop them from verbally assaulting us at every step. It was like trying to teach a bunch of 3-year-olds how to drive a stick shift. It looked absolutely atrocious, yet it got us to where we needed to go. They hurried us into the barracks and made us choose a bed. Then, in shifts, we were all forced to take a shower. The problem was, the showers had no cold water. To this day, it was the only shower I’ve even been in that only had hot water. It was excruciating, but we all kept our mouths shut and cleaned ourselves in water a degree below boiling. With our irritated scalps and wide eyes, it was finally time for lights out at 3:15 AM.
Sleep was an impossibility. You know those nights when you try to go to sleep, but you have a ton of stuff on your mind. How will you finish your proposal at work? How will you get the kids to their game on time? What are you going to buy for your spouse for his/her birthday? Times that by a million, in this case. And you have no book or TV to help your mind slow down. I just lay on my bed as my mind was racing a thousand miles an hour. I remember thinking, “What the fuck had I gotten myself into? Play it cool. You can do this. Millions of people before you have gone through this, there’s no reason you can’t do it either. I miss my family so much.” I would say this went on all night, but it really only lasted about 30 minutes. The CCs had the lights on and were pounding on steel garbage cans with broom handles by 3:45 AM. One night down, 8+ weeks to go.