Navy Boot Camp
I stood at the door of my bedroom looking at all the familiar things that had been so much a part of my life. The old single bed that I slept in, the fake wood paneling on the walls, the concrete floor with the worn out linoleum. There in the corner was the bed where my brothers slept; in fact where all three of us had slept before we got so big we couldn't fit anymore.
I stared at the uneven ceiling where my Dad had miscalculated with his measurements when he was adding our bedroom onto the main house. I don't know why I even noticed something so insignificant, but it bothered my since of order. I was already developing my obsessive/compulsive personality.
We lived a couple of miles outside of Glendale, Oregon in an area known as the Humphrey Addition. It was named after the man who originally owned all the land around there. My Dad worked at one of the local sawmills, as did most everyone else in town. The railroad and the sawmills were all that kept Glendale in existence. We lived on a long dusty road, which ran up the hill and dead-ended at the base of a big mountain. There were houses on both sides of the road but none of the houses were that great, some were no more than shacks. The house we lived in had no foundation and we didn’t have an indoor toilet until I was about thirteen years old. The road was poorly maintained and in the summer it got so dusty that every time a car went by it would fill the house with dust. In the winter the ruts were so deep you could barely make it up the hill to our house. I had heard that some of the folks in town referred to it as Okyville.
It’s funny but while I was in school it seemed like this day would never come and now that it was here I was totally unprepared for the emotions I was feeling. All the years that I had dreamed of leaving and now that the time had arrived I was reluctant to go. “I could have at least waited until summer was over,” I thought to myself. “I didn't have to leave the very next day after graduation.” “But isn’t this what you wanted,” I asked myself, “you’ve been telling everyone for years that as soon as you graduated you were out of here, now it’s time to make it happen.”
“Robert”, my Dad called, “we’re gonna have to get going if you’re gonna catch that bus.” We lived about five miles from Wolf Creek, which was the closest Greyhound bus stop from our house. My Dad, along with my twin brothers who were a year younger than myself, were taking me to catch the bus. I don’t remember if my sisters were there or not. Martha was six years old at the time and Debbie was eleven. My mom told me she didn’t want to be there when I got on the bus so we said our good-byes at the house.
We drove to the bus stop and waited for the bus to get there. I was lost in my thoughts... it was hard to imagine that it was really happening... I was actually leaving home. “The bus is here Robert!” My Dad’s voice brought me back to reality. I grabbed my old suitcase and quickly told them good-bye. I wasn’t feeling so sure of myself now, but there was no turning back.
Without further adieu I boarded the bus hoping that I looked more confident than I felt. I took a seat next to the window so I could wave good-bye to them. My brothers stared at me through the window as if they couldn’t believe what was happening. Soon the bus pulled out and I was on my way to Portland where I was to take some more tests and get sworn in.
It took about four hours to get to Portland. I slept most of the way so the trip went by quickly, and soon I was there. The bus dropped me off at the recruiting station and after a few hours of tests and paper work I was sworn in. There were thirteen of us who got sworn in at the same time. I never did figure out why, but the officer there put me in charge of all the records. I was only seventeen, probably the youngest one in our group, but I eagerly accepted the responsibility. It was probably the first time I had ever been responsible for anything important in my life. I remember the Officer telling me how important it was to keep the records together and to deliver them to headquarters at the Recruit Training Center. I took the job very seriously and the records never left my person. We spent the night at the YMCA, and then early the next morning we boarded the airplane for the flight to San Diego where we would spend the next ten weeks in boot camp. I had never flown before... it was a fantastic feeling!
Some of the guys in our group were about half crazy, it didn't take me long to figure out why they were going in the service. They probably had been given a choice... either go in the service or go to jail. We had a four-hour layover in San Francisco and they scattered everywhere, but not me... I was in charge of the records and I also felt it was my responsibility to make sure that we all arrived at our destination. I waited anxiously at the Airport terminal hoping that everyone would make it back in time to catch the plane.
Glen and John waited until the last possible moment to get back to the terminal. I was so uptight I was about to have a nervous breakdown. Glen, the short unkempt drifter and John, the tall clean-cut young man from Central Oregon, were totally different, but in a very short time had become good buddies. This unlikely friendship would create trouble for them in the near future. I could see already that some of these guys were going to be troublemakers.
We arrived at the San Diego airport and boarded a bus, which took us to the Recruit Training Center. There we were met by Mr. Partain... the meanest man I have ever met in my life. “I am Mr. Partain,” he said, “and I will be your drill instructor for the next ten weeks.” “There is a right way and a wrong way and there is my way. My way is the way things will be done while you're here.” “As far as I am concerned you are nothing but a bunch of stupid sons of bitches!” “I will be watching every single move you make for the next ten weeks.” “If you mess up just once you’d better give your heart to God because your ass is mine.” “Now stand at attention and keep your friggin mouths shut!”
As we waited in fear for further instructions from Mr. Partain we could see a company of recruits marching a short distance away. As they marched by in front of us their drill instructor commanded loudly, “Eyes right,” and in perfect unison all eighty marching recruits turned their heads and looked in our direction. With heads held high they marched to the cadence as the drill instructor loudly called out, “Yo left, Yo left, Yo left, right, left.” They looked fantastic and I was at once impressed and intimidated. It was impossible to even imagine that we would ever be able to march like that.
Mr. Partain continued cussing at us as he tried to get us in some sort of formation. We were walking all over each other and he was screaming at us at the top of his lungs. A young man from Arkansas, named Steve Barber, was having an especially hard time getting the picture and Mr. Partain was giving him a mouth full of expletives. He finally managed to get us in some semblance of order and we sort of marched to our barracks.
For the next few weeks we trained from daylight till dark and everyday was filled with frustration as we tried to grasp everything that Mr. Partain was trying to teach us. Mr. Partain told us right off that there would be some of us who would not make it through boot camp. If you were unable to conform to military life you would be given a bad conduct discharge and sent home. This was a very troubling thought to me.
We got up at four in the morning and went to bed about ten at night... our days were filled with continuous activity. I was in a constant state of sleep depravation and would sometimes fall asleep standing in the chow line. We had several classes each day and I would have to pinch my leg or bite my hand to keep from going to sleep and falling out of my desk. It was amazing to watch as our company gradually started to come together as a cohesive unit. After only a few short weeks we could actually march and follow commands without stepping all over each other.
I had been in boot camp for a couple of weeks when a bad case of homesickness hit me. Up to that time I had been so busy I hadn’t had time to think much about home, but now that’s all I could think about. It all started one day when I was sent by Mr. Partain to deliver a message to another part of the base. I should mention that whenever you went anywhere alone you had to have a signed chit from your drill instructor and you had to run to and from your destination. If you ever got caught without a chit or not running you were in big trouble. On my way to deliver the message I passed by the Enlisted Men’s club where regular military personnel were allowed to go. Recruits were not allowed in these places of entertainment. As I ran by I could hear music playing on the jukebox, it was a song by the Four Seasons called “Sharie.” That song was one of my favorites and had been popular while I was still at home. Nostalgia swept over me and I remember thinking to myself “what in the hell are you doing here, you must have been out of your friggin mind when you volunteered for this?” Suddenly all I could think about was home, I thought about my friends and wondered how my family was doing. I missed my brothers and sisters and I longed to be back home with them. I guess I had been so involved with my dreams of adventure and romance I had failed to think about anything else. In my imagination it had all seemed so exciting. I could see myself walking down the street of some exotic Asian country with a beautiful girl on each arm. How could I have been so stupid?
Luckily I didn’t have much idle time to think about home or anything else. I was too busy trying to learn the things that would qualify me to graduate from boot camp. I had only one goal fixed in my mind and that was to successfully complete my training and go home for two weeks of leave. One thing I was sure of I didn’t want to fail and be sent home, unable to conform to military life.
The favorite time in boot camp for all recruits is mail call. If it weren’t for the letters from friends and family it would be an even more miserable place. I was writing to several girls from high school and was anxious to hear from them. They were very faithful to write to me, I’m sure they probably felt sorry for me more than anything. My Mom wrote fairly often and my Dad even wrote me once. Ten weeks seems like such a long time to one who is away, but to those at home it’s nothing. It takes a while to realize that life actually goes on quite normally without you. Oh the hard lessons of growing up.
I remember the day that I went to Grants Pass, Oregon to enlist, a friend of mine named Monty McLaughlin who had graduated the year before me happened to be walking by the recruiting office just as I was getting there. He asked me what I was doing and I said, “I’m going to enlist and you should go with me,” he just laughed and said, “No way man.” I never thought anymore about it, and then one day while standing in the chow line I saw this guy sitting at a table not far from me with the last name McLaughlin stenciled on his pants. I looked closer and to my surprise it was Monty. I was standing right behind him so when he turned around to get up from the table he saw me. “What are you doing here,” I asked. He said, “I didn’t have anything else going so I took your advice.” I found out what company he was in, but it was impossible to get together while in boot camp.
I’ll never forget how good it felt the day we marched by Headquarters and some new recruits were just piling off the bus. They stared in awe as we marched by. It seemed like a long time ago that I had stood right there in the same place, but it had only been a few weeks. I felt sorry for them, as I knew what they were going through, but it sure felt good to show off in front of them. Mr. Partain was calling cadence, “Yo left, Yo left, Yo left, right, left,” and we were marching proudly in perfect step to the cadence.
Glen and John were having a real hard time adjusting to life in boot camp and wanted out. One night while everyone was asleep they made their break. They actually managed to make it out of the training facility, which was not an easy task as it was almost like being in prison. There was a very tall chain link fence all around the grounds with barbed wire at the top. I don’t know how they made it, out but they were only gone for about a week when they were picked up by the military police and brought back to boot camp. I never saw them again as they were put in the brig. The marines operated the brig, and I had heard horror stories about the treatment people received while there. I did find out later from one of the other guys from Oregon that in spite of their troubles both Glen and John eventually made it through boot camp. Unfortunately John, who was from Bend, Oregon, had a car wreck while he was home on leave and broke his back. He was paralyzed from the waist down and was not expected to ever walk again. I never heard anymore about him after that.
Steve Barber, the young man from Arkansas, was still having his problems; he just couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. He and his cousin Wayne had enlisted on what was known as the buddy system. This was a program that guaranteed that you would be stationed together throughout your four-year tour. Wayne wasn’t having much trouble with boot camp, but Steve was something else. He got caught goofing off while on guard duty one day and Mr. Partain made him do jumping jacks with his rifle over his head until he was so tired he was ready to drop. He completed his jumping jacks and then Mr. Partain said, “Now drop down and give me fifty pushups.” We were all watching him wondering how much more he could take when all of a sudden he jumped up and said in a loud voice, “No more, I'm not doing anymore!” “I’m only fifteen years old, and I don’t have to take any more of your shit!” We were all shocked as he looked as old or older than most of the other recruits. I was seventeen and he was physically much more mature than I was. Mr. Partain very calmly said, “I know how old you are son, and if you could have taken it I would have let you go right on through with the rest of the guys, but now you’re going home.”
One thing we all feared was getting sick or having to go to the base hospital, if you were gone for more than three days you would be put into another company. I dreaded the thought of this happening to me, but after about my fifth week I got sick with a fever and sore throat and had to go to sickbay, they put me in the hospital immediately. I have to admit though I enjoyed my time there. I could sleep all night and all day if I wanted to and they gave me all the food and juice I wanted. Luckily on the third day I was better and returned to my old company.
Mr. Partain was continually yelling about something and he never grew tired of tormenting us. No matter what you might be doing or how hard you were trying he could always find something wrong. A recruit named Komas, from San Francisco, got fed up with it one day and marched into the headquarters building and said, “I want to talk to the Commander!” “Mr. Partain is being cruel to us and I want someone to do something about it.” What a mistake that was! He got no sympathy from the Commander at all and was escorted back to our company where he faced the wrath of Mr. Partain. He got into a lot of trouble over this and after a few more altercations he was discharged and sent home, unable to conform to military life. To be sent home like that would have been the ultimate disgrace for me. I actually think I would have considered suicide if that had happened to me.
When it came to inspections Mr. Partain was very particular about the toilets and showers, we scrubbed every nook and cranny trying to gain his approval. He was especially concerned with the commodes, after cleaning them he would make us drink water out of them. I guess he figured if you knew you had to drink out of them you would be extra careful when cleaning them.
Mr. Partain did not tolerate failing inspections... if you failed an inspection you faced the dreaded shower shoe. Those guilty of failing inspection were lined up in single file to await their punishment. In turn they were commanded by Mr. Partain to step forward, and then with all his might he would slap the recruit right across the face with the shower shoe. The pain was excruciating and left a big red welt on your face. I feared this punishment so much that I never failed one inspection during the ten weeks of training. Little did I know at the time, but I was not to escape the shower shoe forever.
How fast the ten weeks of training flew by! We had been busy almost every single minute, and now all that was left was the graduation ceremony. We wore our dress uniforms for the formalities and as we marched by the reviewing platform a chill went up my spine. The marching band, the brilliant colors, the dignitaries, it was all so impressive and I had earned the right to participate in this grand ceremony. It was the most exciting thing I had ever been involved in, and I was thankful and proud to be a part of it.
As soon as our graduation ceremony was over we all gathered back at the barracks one last time before going on leave. I was packed and getting ready to go when Mr. Partain said “How many of you have never been smacked with the shower shoe?” There were only a few of us who had never had this experience and everyone knew who we were so there was no way of escaping. “ Line up men,” Mr. Partain said with a gleam in his eyes. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “Not the shower shoe, anything but that!” When it was my turn I hesitantly stepped forward and then with a look of pure delight in his eyes he applied the shower shoe to my face. I felt a flash of excruciating pain, and then it was over, it was as bad as I had feared it would be.
Well, it was finally over and I was on my way home to see my family and friends. I had made it through boot camp and now I could enjoy two whole weeks of total freedom. I could sleep in every morning and stay out as late as I wanted without answering to anyone, but me. I felt great!
Our company finished number one in our battalion. We started out with eighty young men in our company and finished with about seventy. Although Boot camp was physically challenging, I believe that mentally it was even tougher. We had to learn the importance of functioning as a unit and to take responsible for each other. The value of the individual is only important in that each singular performance must be successful if the unit itself is to achieve success. Those who could not make this adjustment were discharged and sent home... unable to conform to military life.
Written By Robert McDowell