A couple of years after the “Big One,” [WWII] I enlisted in the Navy. I had graduated at seventeen and had spent that summer helping Father on the farm. In the fall after the crops were in, I returned to Orlando to work for my grandmother at her nursing home. There was no money for college, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The “GO NAVY” booklet I kept under my pillow was becoming dog-eared from continual thumbing and daydreaming of the wonders within its pages. Like the wild geese, I grew restless…
One day, without discussion with family; I visited the Orlando Post Office and the Navy recruiters. The Chiefs-in-charge were assembling an “All Florida Company”…those enlisting for a three year hitch would go through Boot Camp together and a trade school of choice was guaranteed to high school grads. With that, yours truly, and sixty pimply faced teenagers accepted the offer and assembled in Jacksonville several days later for screening physicals, swearing-in and then by train to the Naval Training Center, San Diego, California.
With such a large group, it took the Jacksonville Recruiting District staff from early morning to late evening non-stop to process us. In the early afternoon, the line of naked warriors having snaked through a myriad of rooms, quizzes and tests arrived for hemorrhoid, or whatever it was they were looking for,examination. It was humorously known as “checking the chocolate speedway.” Being in line between “Hose Hanson and “Frank the Plank,” little Willie was being snickered at, and I was trying to bear up under the belittlement [oops, wrong word] of, “Shouldn’t you be in the WAVES?” Finally it was my turn; Willie was pleased it wasn’t his…
A graying Chief Hospital Corpsman with more hash marks that an Ensign’s skivvies shortswas propped up behind a gray metal desk with his feet crossed on top. A wrinkled open brown-bag and thermos was spread out on the blotter before him. The old curmudgeon was casually stuffing ham and cheese sandwiches in his face with one hand while signaling with the other for each enlistee to move up to his desk.
The inspection procedure was as follows; on reaching the desk each inductee was ordered to turn around, bend over, spread his buttocks wide and then slowly back up until the Chief could eyeball the orifice in question. “Doc” checked-out sixty-odd hairygrommets that afternoon and never missed a bite! Ah, the vista is such an important element of fine dinning…Bon Appetite!
The Train…Ribbons of Steel
Most lads of my era had never been far from home…much less having ridden trains. Greyhound buses perhaps, but not huge coal-burning, fire-breathing locomotives! I had never been inside a depot! Needless to say, I was filled with excitement, as the Chief Petty Officer in Charge of our detail marched us from the induction center to the huge Jacksonville Railway Terminal.
Still in its prime, it was an immense complex of polished marble, glass and bustling humanity. To my surprise, instead of mingling with passengers in the huge rotunda we were marched through the terminal to several Pullman cars sitting empty on a dark quiet siding in the rail yard. The cars appeared old, unused and in dire need of repairs. Perhaps they had carried troops during the war and had been forgotten since. Oh well, that was of little concern to a bunch of wide-eyed teenagers who were off on their first great adventure.
The Chief assigned each a berth, advising we would remain in these cars all the way to Los Angeles! There would by no changing trains at terminals as ordinary passengers. Instead, our cars would be put on sidings and coupled to the next train scheduled by the Railroads to move us westward. Our pastime was cards, penny-nickel poker, comic books, getting to know one another and looking out the window as the Great American scene unfolded with each click-ity-clack of the steel wheels.
Of course for eighteen-year olds food was the primary concern. The Chief had it arranged that we would take our meals in the dinning car at special times to avoid conflict with regular passenger meals. The chefs and black waiters treated us well. It was the only time we got a glimpse of other passengers as we were not allowed to roam the train.
The first stop was New Orleans! We were put on the siding about dark and would be there until the next morning. Begging the Chief to take us to the French Quarter, he finally consented with the firm understanding we would remain in a group abiding by his rules. We had a ball! It was the first beer for most of us. There was not a nickel among us on our return to the tracks. Poker thereafter was for matchsticks. Two cousins from the Cuban cigar section of Tampa apparently loved the magic of Bourbon Street so much they slipped away. The police could not find then before we departed the next morning.
As you might imagine, that was our first and last liberty in transit! There were several more siding detours in Texas and Arizona on our journey to California, but we were not allowed out of our cars except for meals. Remember this was before air-conditioning. With the broken window screens, humidity, mosquitoes, insects, desert heat, dust and the constant battle withsmoke and cindersfrom thecoal-fired engine, it was definitely not the parlor cars of Amtrak’s Silver Meteor! We were glad to see Los Angles…
That first great journey will forever remain in the recesses of my mind. As I look back, it will be my most memorable until I’m called to the hereafter…It was a transition from childhood to manhood, from indecision to one of a lifetime commitment to Navy and Country. A journey of panoramic splendor…of seeing this magnificent country unfold before my inquisitive eyes can never be explained in words. The Southern woodlands, the mighty Mississippi, prairies, majestic mountains and western plains that had only been pictures in textbooks, unfolded in all their magnificence’s! It was a magic ride on ribbons of steel…
“What did you say, Doc…?”
After that adventurous six-day train ride across country, it was our first full day at the Naval Training Center, San Diego. Seeing skin-head recruits standing on the sidewalks with white hats held over their hearts in reverence, gave one deep concern. I became even more apprehensive, as once again I stood butt-naked in line with the other youngsters that would make up Recruit Company Number 238.
The In-processing Dispensary personnel, who looked on us as some sort of pond scum, moved us through our exams with rapid precision. Mysterious letters and numbers…scribbled in lipstick by various robotic Hospital Corpsmen donned our boyish bodies. Our heads spun with uncertainty, what was next?
We filed into a room that had a blue and gold sign over the door: AUDIO LAB. To my surprise the room was completely empty. Not a stick of furniture or lab equipment was in the space. On the far side of the room was an exit door. Standing in the doorway was an older First Class Corpsman probably thirty-something exhibiting an air of authority with hands on his hips. His face reflected a harshness of liberty from some seedier side of exotic foreign ports. He stood there motionless glaring at us with a well-rehearsed snarl until we fell silent.
Having our attention, he pointed a finger at me…I stupidly gestured, “Me”? To which he snapped back, “Yes, you with the taxi door ears! With appendages like those I know you could hear a pin drop, [laughter] we will probably make you a Sonarman…so fall in here Ping-boy next to old Doc, I’m going to be your Sea-Daddy for a little while!”
When the laughter subsided, the Corpsman sternly barked, “Okay, you pitiful limp-weenie mama’s boys, listen-up, I’m fixing to give you the N-E-H-E, pronounced, nee-hee test! That’s short, for the Naval Entrance Hearing Examination! Those that fail will be sent immediately to the E-C-R-L, that’s the Ear Canal Rooter Lab, and then re-tested.”
Eyes widened and a hush fell over the room. Lowering his voice, he leaned in toward the group, cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered, “All you scrawny Dick-heads that can hear my voice…fall in behind Dumbo here.” Stumbling, pushing and shoving to avoid being left behind, my fellow Boots quickly lined up behind me.
With a big grin on his face, he bellowed, “Well, hot diddly damn!You all passed the NEHE with flying colors! This has got to be a major milestone in military medicine. Con-grad-u-lations tadpoles, I have never seen such outstanding physical specimens in my entire Naval career!”
The Square Needle…
Leading us from AUDIO, he stopped next to a large open laboratory, marked BLOOD and INOCULATIONS. The smell of medicinal alcohol and the din of activity drifted through the opening. Squinting and looking from side-to-side as if he didn’t want anyone else to hear, his face took on a very serious expression. “Now, I know you boys have all heard the old tale about getting the “square-needle,” well rest easy me lads, we haven’t use that old outmoded equipment since the war. This is the NEW POST-WAR NAVY and YOU lads deserve the very latest and best medical equipment the Navy has to offer. The newer model, the “MARK-1”is more sophisticated with a much smaller micro-grooved barrel.” He hesitated, and then continued…
“Though the needle is just a tad longer with a reverse corkscrew tip, it goes in easier with less pain.” Enjoying the reaction of gasps and bulging eyes, he took a deep breath and continued the theatrics, “Honestly boys you are very lucky, having used both needles I personally prefer the new MARK-1 to the old square-job. It is also the professional opinion of the doctors here that there is much less complications with bleeding and swelling in those sensitive reproductive areas with the new model.” With that he smirked, wished us luck and strutted away…
“Grraaanny, I want my Grandma!”