The most difficult part of Navy basic training was being separated from my family. Shocking revelation, I know. Your world gets turned upside down in so many ways when you embark on a stint in the military. Life, as you know it, ceases to exist and is replaced by a world of strict order and discipline where you’re always on your guard and always feel like there’s someone watching everything you do. I chose this, no one forced me into joining the Navy. I had an idea of what I was getting myself into, although that knowledge didn’t make it any more comfortable. I knew I was sacrificing a large chunk of my personal freedom in order to better myself and take care of my family. It still didn’t make it any easier to be away from them.
When we first arrived at Great Lakes, we were required to make a phone call to let our families know that we arrived. We were given an index card that had a script of what to say to whomever answered the phone. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something to the extent of, “Hi, it’s me. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve arrived safely at the Recruit Training Center. Our training will begin right away. I will call you when I get permission. Goodbye.” And that was it. Contact was simply cut off from that point on. I barely remember making the call. I think I spoke to my wife, but I honestly don’t remember in the mass chaos of that first night.
The best piece of advice given to families during this time is that no news is good news. If someone from Recruit Training Command called your house, there’s a decent chance it wasn’t good news. For example, your son is hurt or, he decided to hit a CC or, he left and hasn’t told anyone where he went or, he tested positive for horse tranquilizers. Families would rather not get those calls. Calls home from the command were never, “Hey, Mrs. So-and-so, just wanted to let you know that your son is doing great. He passed his swim test, lost 12 pounds, and has an 85 average in his academics classes. He wishes you well and will call you just as soon as he gets a chance.” That would be nice and reassuring if this had been Camp Ki-ka-kee, we were hopped up on bug juice, and we had a week left until Flag Day. Alas, this was boot camp and no news was good news. Tough for a family to take, but easier if they know that going in.
I, on the other hand, had to employ, for the first of many times, my own coping mechanism. I had never been away from my wife and daughter for more than a couple days at a time. I still remember when my wife came to drop me off in the hotel in Albany, NY the day before I shipped out to basic training. We were in the parking lot, completely clueless as to what to say to each other. We were so young and had no idea what we were getting into. And I say “We” on purpose. “We” were joining, not just “me”. This was as much about her taking care of our family while I was gone, as it was about me taking care of our family while being separated from them. We both had the same objective in mind; we were just doing it apart from one another. The farewell was awkward and painful. I remember her driving away after we said our goodbyes. It was the loneliest feeling I’d ever experienced. It hit me like a sledgehammer; I wasn’t going to see her or my daughter for the next 9 weeks. It hurt to sleep that night. The only thing, and I mean only thing, that kept me from hitching a ride back home, was that I knew that this night would be the worst night. Every subsequent night, no matter how bad things got, would be one night closer to being together again.
Over time, I learned how to cope with being homesick. The only way I could survive was simply not to think about my family. Period. If I started thinking about them, I was afraid I would go bonkers and do something irrational and jeopardize any freedoms I was to be alloted. I learned how to not think about them, how to not dwell on our times together, or how to not dream about the day when we would be reunited. The first couple weeks were the hardest, but once I started to condition myself into that way of thinking, it became easier. Out of sight, out of mind. I know it sounds awful, but that was my way of dealing with the separation. That’s not to say my wife and daughter weren’t a part of everything I did, because they were, but I blocked out any strong, conscious thoughts of them before they led me to a vulnerable, emotional state. I had to maintain control.
It wasn’t easy. Signs of the real world surrounded our secluded way of life. We would often march to the corner of the base where the administration and firefighting buildings were located. In order to get to this area, we had to march through a tunnel that went underneath the main road that ran parallel to the Recruit Training Command. It was a typical busy road, just off the interstate, that was usually quite congested. As we marched through the tunnel, I often thought about the cars going by overhead. I thought about the people in those cars who were going to their place of employment while drinking their coffee and listening to local talk radio. I thought about the fact that they most likely brewed the coffee at home as they read the morning paper and toasted a couple slices of wheat toast to eat with their eggs over easy which they washed down with a glass of orange juice. I thought about them kissing their spouse and kids on the way out of the house and making plans to meet them at the park after work to play catch and toss around the frisbee. I wanted to be the one of the people driving those cars, drinking coffee.
About 3 weeks in, we were allowed to call home for the first time. Our company marched to a building that had a wall of pay phones. We were issued phone cards, that came out of our measly pay, of course, and were given about 10 to 15 minutes to call home. I stepped in the phone booth, palms sweating, nervous as hell. I don’t remember what day of the week it was, but, all I could think was, I hope someone, anyone is around so I can hear a familiar voice. Most of all, I wanted to talk to my wife, just to hear her voice, but I would have taken anyone in my family. There was a sequence of quick, frantic calls to a couple different numbers, but I finally got a hold of her. Once I heard her voice, I completely broke down and bawled. This wasn’t a whimper, this was a full-on release of emotion. It was so hard for me to even talk. I don’t even think I said all that much.
Me: (sob sob sob)
Her: Oh my God, it’s so good to finally hear from you.
Me: Uh-huh (sob sob sob)
Her: We miss you so much. How are you making out there?
Me: (sob sob sob) OK (sob sob)
Her: We can’t wait to come see you soon. Everyone’s been asking about you.
Me: (sob sob sob sob)
Her: We wrote a bunch of letters. Hopefully you’ll get them soon if you haven’t already.
Me: OK (sob sob)
Her: We love you and miss you.
Me: Gotta go. (sob sob sob). Call you when I can. (sob sob)
When our company was done with our first phone calls, we all gathered to march back to the barracks. There were 80 guys with puffy, red eyes and runny noses. Everyone bawled. Looking back now, it makes me laugh. But I really needed to hear my wife’s voice. Even though I blubbered like an absolute fool, that phone call fueled me. Again, deep down, I knew it was never going to be worse than that particular moment. And I was one step closer to seeing my girls again. I was able to call a couple more times during basic training. Each time it was easier for me and always meaningful.
We did get mail fairly regularly while we were there. It took a few weeks for the mail to really start to come in, but, once it did, it was steady. Letters from my wife always brightened my day. Just seeing her handwriting made me swoon. It was like an energy boost. Knowing she was thinking of me, half as much as I was thinking of her and our daughter, was the constant, inspirational lift that I needed to get by. It always worked. About halfway through, my wife sent new pictures she had taken since I left. Mostly, they were of our daughter. It was hard to fathom that someone could change so much in 4 weeks, but my little girl surely did change. I got halfway through the pictures, had to put them down, and find a place to be alone. I found an empty stall in the bathroom and cried. The pictures were priceless, but they didn’t make it less difficult to be away for so long. She looked so much older, mature, beautiful, that it was too much for me. I missed her so much.
I assure you, not all of the correspondence was this heart-wrenching. I can’t let all of this be all mushy and lovey-dovey. I received two letters, outside of what my wife sent me, that were memorable. The first was enormously important and had life-altering implications, at least for me. While I was in basic training, the Beastie Boys released the 1994 album, Ill Communication. Oddly, the Navy did not have a record store at the Recruit Training Command where I could purchase this album. Alas, I had to wait until I was done with my stay before my auditory senses could be bathed in the glorious waves of geniusness (I think I just made this word up) that was Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D, a.k.a. the Beastie Boys. I had devoured everything they had ever done up until that point and was bummed that I couldn’t be at the record store the day this masterpiece came out, as I was for Paul’s Boutique (in a record store in the Ithaca Commons) and Check Your Head (in the Carousel Mall in Syracuse, NY after I paid my college roommate to drive me there from Cortland because none of the record stores in town had it).
I had worked out a consolation scheme with my younger brother. Before I left for basic training, I gave him explicit instructions. He was to buy the CD, make photo copies of the entire CD booklet, and mail it to me so I could go over the lyrics and study the credits as I mentally prepared to listen to the album firsthand once I left this prison. Sure enough, I received a thick envelope with his chicken scratch on it soon after the release date. I tore into it with vigor. A couple people asked me what I’d received. I gleefully held up the copy of the Ill Communication CD booklet, as if it were the original manuscript of The Catcher In The Rye, and let out a “Fuck Yeah!”. They rightfully dismissed me, but I poured over those lyrics the next few weeks as if they held the secret location to the long lost city of Atlantis.
The second letter was from my father. It was a much thinner envelope, but no less memorable. It wasn’t even a letter per se, it was simply my college grades from my final semester at SUNY Cortland. I had taken four classes in my last semester before leaving for basic training. My grades, you ask? One C and three F’s. Just brilliant. My dad attached a yellow Post-It note to the grades. It simply said, “Nice job, son”. I translated that to mean, “Hey dumbass, you better fucking thank your lucky stars that you’re 1,000 miles away right now because, if I could, I’d strangle your ass for wasting my money to send you to college so you could get one C and three F’s.”
I will not make excuses about my academic performance my final semester. I won’t say that I didn’t work hard enough because I would have had to work, in order to say I needed to work harder. I just didn’t go to class, plain and simple. I knew I was going into the Navy at the end of the semester and just didn’t care. Maybe it’s becoming clearer why I needed the military to whip me into shape. I know this is going to sound like complete bullshit, but it’s true: I would drive to the campus everyday that semester and head straight to the library. While there, I would devour as many books as I could, strictly for pure entertainment. When it was the time to start heading home, I’d pack up and leave. I always regretted what I had done (or didn’t do). But I went back to that very school, years later, aced every class I took, and graduated. Regret destroyed forever. Nice job, son.
Other than the letters we received, we had no other contact with the outside world. No concept of news, current events, sports scores, nothing. For 9 weeks, from May to July 1994, we lived in a cocoon. But, every once in a while, when we would catch one of our CCs in a halfway decent mood, we’d delicately ask him if he could let us know some of the major current events. One Sunday, towards the end of June, a few of us asked him some questions. This wasn’t the exact conversation but, I’m telling you, it’s damn close:
Recruit #1: Excuse me, Petty Officer? Would you happen to know who won the Stanley Cup Finals?
CC: The Rangers beat the Canucks in 7 games.
Holy shit, I thought. First Stanley Cup in 54 years for the Rangers. New York must have been fucking bananas after they won. Sure would have been cool to be there.
Recruit #2: Petty Officer, do you know who won the NBA Finals?
CC: The Rockets beat the Knicks in 7 games.
Damn, I thought. The Knicks were so close. That would have been crazy if the Knicks and Rangers would have won back-to-back.
Recruit #3: Anything else happen that was noteworthy, Petty Officer?
CC: Oh yeah, O.J. Simpson killed his wife and some other guy. The LAPD chased him in his car and it was live on TV. They thought he was going to commit suicide. That’s about it.
What??? Come again??? O.J.? The Juice? A killer? There’s no fucking way that’s true. Clearly, he was messing with us. For days, I honestly thought he was just jerking our chains.
With about a week left, a few of us were having an impromptu training session in the barracks with our CC. He was quizzing us on some of the acronyms we’d learned over the past few weeks. Terms like CO (commanding officer) and XO (executive officer). He seemed to be enjoying himself and was pretty loose. He ended by asking, “Does anyone know what NAVY stands for?” No one was really sure. He said, with a sly, little smile, “It stands for Never Again Volunteer Yourself”. We gave a little laugh, but one of our fellow recruits found it particularly funny and said, “You got that right!” The smile disappeared from our CC’s face. The temperature in the barracks turned cold. The CC just looked at the recruit for a second, then said, “You. Push-ups. Forever. Begin.”
Our company did fairly well for the rest of basic training. We lost a few recruits along the way, for various reasons, but we scored high academically, did well on inspections, improved overall as a company in our physical training, and were pretty damn sharp at marching and drill. We transitioned out of our embarrassing blue ball caps that said “RECRUIT” on the front, to the traditional Navy white cap. We finished all of our prerequisites and started our preparations for the next phase of our Navy career. Each of us was going to leave boot camp and go to our trade school for the job we would do during the remainder of our time in the Navy. Some schools would last just 4 weeks, others would last up to 2 years. I was heading to Defense Information School for journalism and broadcasting at the now closed Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis for the next 7 months. But before we embarked on the next step, we had our graduation ceremony and a reunion with our families to look forward to.
The reunion with the families took place the night before graduation. Families had made plans weeks in advance to book travel, rental cars, and hotel rooms in anticipation of this moment. If a recruit screwed something up during his training and got pushed back a couple weeks, his family was screwed. I did nothing to extend my stay, thankfully. I really started thinking about the family night reunion once we had 3 weeks left. It started to sink in that I would see my wife and daughter again. The closer we got, the more I found myself thinking about the actual moment we would reunite. Would they recognize me with all of the other Sailors? Would I recognize them? And would my daughter, who was all of 22-months-old, recognize me? I would dream that she would. The anticipation was greater than any Christmas or birthday I ever had as a kid. When we were just days away, I had to force myself not to think about seeing them because it would consume my thoughts. I had gotten this far, I had to maintain my composure.
We dressed in our working white uniforms and marched to the drill hall where the reunion was to take place. I was vibrating with equal parts giddiness, anxiousness, and nervousness, but I had to remain calm. I had waited 9 long weeks for this moment. 9 weeks away from the love of my life. 9 weeks of being unable to spend time with my daughter. The tingling in my body increased with every step. We marched into the drill hall and it was packed. The bleachers, that ran the entire length of the hall, were filled to capacity. Our company marched to our position, with the bleachers on our left. Once we turned and faced the bleachers, we were given permission to find our family. I was near the front of our company and looked into the throng of people. I scanned the crowd for a couple seconds. Nothing. And then I saw them.
My wife was holding our daughter and walked towards me. I saw them and my heart burst with indescribable joy. I quickly walked over, held my wife, and kissed her for the first time since we parted ways a million years before. She was crying, I was crying, we hardly said a word. I looked at my daughter. She looked back at me as if she couldn’t believe it was me. She reached out for me to take her. I grabbed her and gave her a huge embrace. She held onto me. And she would not let go.
I don’t know what goes through the mind of a 22-month-old child, nor do I have any recollection of what I was thinking when I was that age, but I had the sense that my daughter didn’t want to let go because she was afraid I would leave again. I just kept holding onto her. I wasn’t going anywhere. This was exactly the moment I had been dreaming about. Graduation followed the next day and it was a great experience, but this one moment with my wife and daughter made it all worth it.
Our company went back to the barracks after graduation, packed up and headed our separate ways. It dawned on my fellow recruits and I that we would probably never see each other again. It was the first time we would have this experience in the Navy, but it wouldn’t be the last. It’s a way of life in the service, as we suddenly found out. I met back up with my family and left Great Lakes forever.
Navy basic training was a seminal moment in my life. It changed me for good. To be honest, I never looked at my time in the Navy as serving my country or anything patriotic like that. I looked at it as trying to better myself and my family for when we eventually moved on to the next phase in our lives. A 20 -year career in the Navy was never the plan. I had good times and I had not-so-good times during my 9 years of service. I’ve been out for 7 years now and those not-so-good times have begun to fade away. What’s remained are the good bits, the essence of the “experience”.
I’ll always remember the cycling, the attempts to stay awake during classes, the bizarre sign language rituals while eating meals, and the tying of recruits to their racks with dental floss during basic training. At the same time, I’ll always remember the friends that I still stay in contact with from my tours of duty, the amazing places I was able to see, and the sense of structure and discipline I’ve developed as a result of my time in the Navy. But more than anything else, I will remember that it gave a young family the chance to make it in this world.
I hope you enjoyed this story. Thanks for reading.