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The Pilot

The Pilot
The Pilot

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Sir...my third general order is..."

With Friday being veterans day, I'd like to express my gratitude to all our veterans past and present for their courage and commitment.  Thirty seven years ago I found myself beginning one of the grandest adventures of my life....the first nine weeks were spent at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Alameda, California...boot camp.  Hope you enjoy this nostalgic look back...

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Boot camp for recruits often becomes that first time in a young mans life when he realizes the world no longer revolves solely around him.  In fact, it may very well be the first time most of the kids who experience it actually experience someone yelling and holding them accountable for what they do or don’t do.  It’s where a sheet tucked too loosely can illicit an irrational violent reaction from the stone faced company commander whose responsibility it is to turn these peach-fuzz young pups into confident and capable young Coasties. 

                “Why is he yelling at me,” goes through your mind over and over as you vainly try to maintain a sense of calm in the midst of the chaos being thrown at, and spit upon, your person by this hard core individual whose life history in the Guard is probably longer than you are old. 

                Somehow or another we survived…most of us that is and in the end, we began to understand what all the toughness was all about.  We still didn’t exactly enjoy it…anyone who says they did is telling a whopper of whale story.  It wasn’t supposed to be pleasant.  It was supposed to toughen your character and create fear and panic inside of you under controlled conditions so when you really did face something to be fearful of or panic for, you would be better able to handle it.

                I do remember those nine weeks beginning in September 1973…oh to well…almost too well really…with a certain degree of fondness…I didn’t say nostalgia.  There wasn’t much to become nostalgic about as part of Company Alpha 93 at the Alameda Training Center.

                We were certainly a rag-tag bunch of knuckle-heads.  I’ve never seen the likes of it before or since.  The oldest guy in our outfit, of around forty recruits, was about twenty-four.  I had just turned twenty-one with three years of college behind me and I quickly began wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into.  The two of us had been around the ropes a time or two, or so we thought, but almost everyone else was right out of high school and very wet behind the ears which by the way, became very prominent appendages once they shaved off our hair.  Afterwards we all became a bunch of knuckle headed skinheads who barely knew our left foot from our right foot.  This fact was much to the chagrin of our company commander who had to teach us how to march and perform close order drill and the manual of arms.  I figure we must have done thirty or forty thousand pushups and ran seven or eight hundred miles as a result during those nine weeks because someone forgot which was his right or left foot.  We were the original ‘Crank Kings’ as our plight became common knowledge that spread throughout the other companies in which we endured our incarceration.  Drills were the bane of our crew.  We must have messed up fourteen eleven times everyday…with the usual consequences…down and give me twenty-five you scumbags! 

                We were the last company if I remember correctly to receive a full issue of the old Donald Duck uniform…dress blues…undress blues…whites…Dixie Cup hats…the entire array of the old wool and cotton uniform wardrobe.  After us, from what I heard anyway, every other company only received a partial issue of the old stuff until the Coast Guard transitioned to the new blazer type of uniform.

                I was given the role of company yeoman and was held responsible to make sure all of our laundry was bundled and turned in at Gus’s place.  We veterans of that era surly remember Gus (I won’t use the name we actually called him as it not printable but it refers to the how much we were…uh… lets just leave it at that).  The first time I was suppose to take our bundled laundry in, for some dumb reason…I didn’t.  Our company commander wasn’t too happy about it either and I got an ear full and had to run all the way back to the barracks while the rest of the company stood at attention until I got back with all the bundled laundry.  It was quite heavy and took three of us to tote it all.  I never let that happen again.
               
I also had the misfortune of reporting to the officer of the day every Monday morning to endure an audit of our company books.  I was dutifully told to make sure the coffee was ready before the OD arrived or he’d be in a grumpy mood and start looking for discrepancies that weren’t there.  On that first meeting, being that I had never made coffee before as I wasn’t a coffee drinker handicapped me tremendously, so my first attempt at using the stagnant water that dribbled from the outside water hose as the liquid and adding enough coffee grains that thickened the concoction to approximately the texture of pancake batter elicited a rather strangled, choking response in the OD.  I really do believe his socks rolled up and down a couple of times when he took that first gulp.  I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or fear for my life, but the sneer across my face just couldn’t be hidden.  After tossing a disgusted look in my direction, he took pity on me and even laughed himself after he dumped the contents into the sink.  I received my first lesson on how to make a decent cup of coffee.  My books were perfectly in sync on that first occasion, and we got along just fine after that.  Never once did he find or even look for any discrepancies in my accounting skills, but he did tend to take a closer look at and a smaller first sip from the coffee I made each time.

I’ve long forgotten how to recite them now, but those eleven general orders we were suppose to know more often than not we didn’t.  It only took one time to get the message across that we better know them.  During our first inspection, this one poor sap just got raked over the coals for stuttering and stammering through a series of recital attempts.  It wasn’t pretty.  That evening and for several evening thereafter I drilled myself on not just knowing them in order, but front wards, backwards, and inside out.  The diligence paid off.

Several weeks into our nine week incarceration we were finally beginning to get into a routine and most of us had learned our left foot from our right foot by then and could march and turn with a reasonable degree of accuracy.  At least anyway, we weren’t doing nearly as many punitive adjustment exercises as a result.  Fridays were inspection day and we scrambled around preparing ourselves and help each other get suited up.  One thing we had to do was lace up these white leggings which had to be lined up a certain way.  It was impossible to do it yourself, so two people would lift you up onto a table and then commence to lace up the leggings for you…and then you returned the favor.  We also had to wear these wide white belts with brass buttons and they had to be snow white and spit polished or else.  Well, while I was helping lace up some leggings for one of the guys, I tossed my immaculate belt across my rack so it wouldn’t get soiled and where I could quickly pick it up on the way out to line up.  We finished lacing the last of the leggings and we had at best one minute to assemble outside.  I waddled over to my rack, so as not to break the crease in my inspection shoes or mess up the leggings, to get my belt and discovered that it was gone.  Some lowdown had swiped it for his own use as it was pristine in nature…I worked hard on that belt.  But, I had no option but to grab a spare belt out of the box we kept in a closet.  To say this belt was filthy would be an understatement.  I was out of time though, and slapped it on hoping that the Brass Head making the inspection wouldn’t notice.

He noticed.  For several minutes I became the brunt of every kind of foul comment that could spit out of the foul mouth of an inspection day Brass Head.  In his eyes I was the most worthless scumbag that ever disgraced the grinder.  He yanked my belt from around my waist and threw on the ground then kicked it three or four times about ten yards each time ranting and raving and in general having a hussy fit.  Then he stood nose to nose with me…yeah…really nose to nose.  I was too scared to notice just how bad his breath was, but I was prepared for what I knew was to come.  Over the next three or four minutes he drilled me on every one of the eleven general orders…inside out…and right side up…making me repeat over and over several of them.  With each vile command of ‘What is your third or fourth or ninth general order,’ I without hesitation blared back in his face as loud as I could, word for word every one of them…never missing beat.

‘Sir…my third general order is…blah…blah…blah’.
‘Sir…my sixth general order is…blah…blah…blah’.
And so it went on and on.

I don’t know if he simply got tired of trying to break me, or if he was simply impressed that I wouldn’t break, but he finally backed off grumbling all the while about how disgusting I was then stepped on to the next poor sap who by now was trembling in his spit shined shoes.  As my company commander passed by me, he hesitated for a few seconds and looked me straight in the eye with an odd smirk on his face.  He ever so slightly shook his head in disgust…and winked.  It was his way of saying…well done.  He knew I had endured a tough moment and stymied our inspector’s attempts at breaking me.  And, the belt thing…he knew something was not right for that to happen…and was probably relieved that I didn’t complain or blame the situation on one of my crewmates which would have gotten the whole unit in trouble.  I never did find out who took my belt…but I did let it be known afterwards that I took one for the company because of it and it wasn’t going to happen again…if you get my drift.  I never had another issue with it.

Every morning we lined up on the grinder before breakfast for our morning workout.  Oscar (Honor Guard) Company was always first out and had to lead the battalion out onto the grinder…they had to …or else.  We determined to beat them one morning and everyone got up and ready before reveille and lined up outside before Oscar Company ever began stirring.  When the time came, we burst out ahead of them in perfect unison marking time with…’Up we got good and ready…Today we beat…Oscar Come pany’!  It was great…as the cocky, great and powerful Oscar Company Honor Guard…got bested by lowly Alpha 93.  They got in some kind of trouble…and so did we as we weren’t suppose to do that…make Oscar look bad.

Somewhere along those nine weeks…the rag-tag group of kids that made up Alpha 93…became men.  We became so good at close order drill that in our sixth week we were allowed to march in a parade in Hayward along with Oscar Company and all of the honor guard units of the other military branches…Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines…and us.

By the way…Oscar Company were the best of the best often out performing even the U.S. Marines Honor Gurad at functions like this, and for us to be selected from all the other companies to join them, well…it was quite an honor.  How fun it was to have all the young ladies lining the streets waving and making all kinds of comments about our manhood…I think we marched about as well as we ever had…our heads held a bit higher…our lines and steps a bit crisper as a result.  We were good, and we knew it and for the first time felt we had finally arrived.  Our company commander chided us afterwards at just how crooked our lines were and how we were out of step and we looked awful…yeah...yeah...yeah…we knew better.  Afterwards he let have run of the town for a few hours before we had to load the bus for our re-incarceration, but we darn well better show up sober...most of us did.  We were like school kids let out for summer break.

Perez was his name…one of the characters from our company who had a voice like an angle…but who looked tougher than Joe Lewis.  He became the one single voice of our weekly graduation ceremonies.  ‘Battalion…’ he would sing out in such a powerful…angelic voice as all the various companies snapped to attention.  Man…he was great at the role…but almost didn’t graduate himself because he couldn’t swim a lick.  Jumping from the tall tower into the deep end of the pool was just too much for him.  During our final swim test, he froze on the edge of the tower as the swimming instructor yelled obscenities at him about coming up there and throwing him off if he didn’t jump.  It took several minutes and more obscenities, but he finally took the plunge screaming all the way down and hit the water hard with both arms outstretched to his side…whack!  After thrashing around attempting to get oriented and gasping for air, he finally made it to the side of the pool…and passed his swim test...and graduated.

My memory fails me, but our recruit company commander’s name leaves me.  That’s what happens after thirty-seven years, but he was a character in his own right.  Often during meal time, with the radio blaring in the background he would step on stage and put on a show miming the words to the best of Motown, songs like ‘Tears of Clown’, ‘My Girl’…spinning and do-wopping like a pro.  It was great fun and broke much of the tension we often had to endure.

 I was lucky being the company yeoman as I didn’t have go through KP week, instead I and a couple others got to lounge around the barracks that week doing some cleaning and relaxing and taking care of administrative stuff that I was suppose to take care of.  We took full advantage of it mostly reading and napping.  Even so, our barracks floor did have an inspection surface that was checked every Friday.  Myself and a couple of other guys spent that week polishing and buffing that surface until it shined like a mirror, then roped it off so no one could walk across it.  Come our next inspection, the comment we receive from the inspection Brass Head was...’that’s the best I’ve ever seen...’  You could ice skate on that surface.

Firefighting school was the highlight of boot camp.  For a full week we were indoctrinated in the methods of preventing and fighting fires onboard ship.  I’ll never forget the first time we lined up to fight the training fire inside the mockup ship interior concrete building.  I was lead on one of the three hoses.  When the instructors fired off the electrically ignited fire and those flames shot ten feet like a blow torch out those hatches, all of us looked at each other with this…’we gotta go in there’ fear across our faces.  The instructor shouted at me to charge the hose, at which point I popped the handle upright…a second later the instructor yelled at me to shut it down.  I didn’t understand why.  A moment later our backup hose went in ahead of us and everyone was yelling at me at what happened.  I shrugged my shoulders, then, another instructor came over and told me to replace the nozzle.  It seems the nozzle had malfunctioned and the spray attachment had blown completely off generating a sluggish blob of water that would not fight any fire much less what we were supposed to fight.  It took a minute or so to replace the nozzle, and by then the first team came out.  A few minutes later it was our turn again and in we went facing that wall of flame not knowing for sure what we were doing.  It was amazing how the high pressure spray simply shoved the flame back inside and in unison with the other hose teams we isolated and extinguished the fire in quick order.  When we first went inside, we were scared to death.  When we came out, we could conquer anything.

Those nine weeks of boot camp were the worst and best nine weeks of my life.  Nothing before or since can compare.  We saw ourselves evolve from fuzz faced cherubs who didn’t know up from down or left from right, into confident young men ready for our duty stations wherever they may be.  We still had a lot to learn…more challenges to face…but it was in boot camp where we learned how to face those challenges and understand that we were capable of doing more than we thought we could.  The undisciplined long haired kids all of us were became well groomed, strong and confident.  Some of us lost weight and gained endurance…some of us gained weight and strength.  The scared unsure faces we had on the first day of fire fighting school…became self-confident destroyers of smoke and flames.  In the end, I received one of the best honors that can be bestowed on a fellow crewmate in boot camp…Alpha 93 voted me ‘Best Shipmate’ and unknown to me at the time, I received the honor during our graduation ceremonies.  


All of us received a score during our nine weeks that determined our selection number when it came time to choose our next duty assignment from the selection billets.  I was number six out of 40 on the list. The guy who had the number one overall score received the highest score up to that time ever assigned to a recruit coming through Alameda.  Three of those ahead of me already had schools assigned, so I ended up with the number three pick out of forty.  Umpqua River Lifeboat Station at Winchester Bay, Oregon was my selection.  It was to eventually lead to the defining moment of my Coast Guard career with grand adventures that still affect my life today...adventures where the tough discipline that was imparted during boot camp proved its worth.  

 From the unsettled often awkward and stumbling group known as Alpha 93, we became one of the most decorated and successful companies ever to come through the Alameda Training Center. Our company banner was festooned with ribbons and awards.  Some of the highest scores ever recorded for personal achievement were recorded by Alpha 93.  From there we spread out across the country and served with distinction. We were no longer individual knuckleheads…we were Alpha 93…we were the best…we knew our eleven general orders, and they served us well.

1 comment:

Ronnie said...

Great read Keith! For those that have never been to "boot camp" this will be very insightful;-)