I’m Not Supposed to Be Here
After bootcamp and ‘A’ School, my first duty station was in Gaeta, Italy, aboard the USS Belknap. Looking back on things, I probably resembled the Clerks character, Dante, in my recurring echo of, “I’m not supposed to be here.” While I was in college I learned about something called the “Peter Principle” from a very good friend, Dr. Marty Laubach, who is a sociology professor at Marshall University. This principle set forth by Lawrence J. Peter states "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence... [I]n time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties... Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence." Lawrence J. Peter is also quoted as saying, “Fortune knocks but once, but misfortune has much more patience.” How was I not supposed to be
I entered the Navy under a guaranteed contract to become a sonar tech, something I had decided upon after watching The Hunt for Red October. (Yeah, I know, making that decision upon the basis of a movie was probably not the wisest of actions, but hey, I was young…) Now, I mentioned in the previous post that none of my family had ever served, and I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I went to bootcamp. It was a rude awakening.
We arrived at the Recruit Training Center in Great Lakes Illinois after a short plane ride to Chicago. I was riding on a commercial airplane with another guy from my area who had just enlisted too. We were clueless, yet nevertheless excited, about going to bootcamp. (Shows how much I knew about what was about to happen to me…) After landing at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, we rode a bus to RTC Great Lakes and were escorted onto the base. I remember standing in a loose formation, my duffel bag slung over my shoulder, wearing civilian clothes for what would be the last time in a few months. They called us in a few at a time, took our belongings—civilian clothes included—and put everything in a cardboard shipping box. We wrote our home address on that shipping box and it was taken away, and with it went every connection we had to the civilian world, to our old life. They issued a sweat shirt and sweat pants, each with a Navy emblem upon them, and we proceeded to the barbers. After a few quick passes with some high-speed clippers, we were sporting proper military haircuts and some baggy sweat clothes that would be our uniform for the next few days.
The Company Commanders took charge of us shortly thereafter, marching us to our barracks for a few short hours of sleep, only to be interrupted before the first rays of the Sun hit the ground. We were placed into formation on the asphalt “grinder” in front of the barracks and we learned the basics of marching in those pre-dawn hours. We marched back and forth, going nowhere but the immediate area around the barracks for what seemed like hours. Time was meaningless then, to tell the truth. The one memory I have of that experience was watching the Sun rise over the distant, flat, Illinois horizon. I remember thinking, “Wow, I should not be able to see the Sun yet.” Growing up in West Virginia, the Sun was well into the sky before we saw it because of the ever-present “mountains.” West Virginia is well known as The Mountain State, and at some point in the formation of North America I’m sure she was, but let’s be honest folks—they’re hills in comparison to the real mountain ranges.
Bootcamp was an assault to my backward, hillbilly sensibilities. My fellow recruits were mean, the Company Commanders were assholes, and even the medical personnel seemed to be on some sort of egotistical power trip. I felt out of place, moreover, I felt like I had made a terrible mistake in coming here. “I don’t belong here,” I remember thinking over and over again. “I’m not supposed to be here,” was another familiar mantra during those long days and short nights of bootcamp. I honestly didn’t know that people could be as mean, as cruel, as they were here; it was an all-out assault on my understanding of humanity. Then the Company Commander of our sister company noticed me and things went even further downhill for this lost little country bumpkin who dared to venture into the big, wide world beyond the borders of my little home in the hills of West Virginia.
When I say the Company Commander of our sister company noticed me, it was not for the lack of my paying attention to him. He was a Chief Petty Officer, strutting around in his khaki uniform with his “dolphins” prominently displayed above several rows of ribbons. The ribbons were, of course, for unit and individual accomplishments, but I didn’t know any of that at the time. The dolphins were what fascinated me. Those dolphins, shiny metal fish that didn’t really look like
“Sears,” he said to me one day as he stood in front of me. I had been on the deck of our berthing compartment carefully stenciling my name onto my dungaree uniforms with a black acrylic pen. This was something all of us were doing at the moment, each young recruit in our company was sprawled upon the heavily waxed tiles of the deck of our berthing compartment, really just a single, large, open bay that consisted of bunk beds and lockers that stretched forever it seemed. It was our home at the Recruit Training Center. “Sears, I understand you’re going subs,” he said accusingly. I jumped to my feet as fast as I could and stood at attention, “Yes, Chief Petty Officer,” I responded as proudly as I could. “Do you really think you have what it takes to wear these?” he said, pointing toward the shiny metal dolphins upon his chest. Without thinking, I responded as loud and proud as I could, “Yes, Chief Petty Officer.” He seemed to consider this, as he took a few steps, striding upon the uniforms I had been diligently working to keep unwrinkled while stenciling. “Listen, you little shit,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument, “I don’t think you have what it takes to make it through boot, much less through sub school, and there’s no way you’ll make it to become a sonar tech. If by some miracle you do make it through sub school, I’ll be getting back to the fleet about the same time you do and I’ll have you cleaning torpedo tubes in your fucking underwear. Do you hear me, boy?”
My only response was, “Yes, Chief Petty Officer.”
“What do you have to say that, boy?”
Now, I’d been here long enough to have learned already that to say something in response to this kind of baiting was to invite all manner of trouble, both for me and the rest of the company. It had become abundantly clear that if one of us messed up, then all of us would be punished. Not wishing to spend the next hour doing pushups, sit-ups, and butterfly-kicks along with the rest of my now pissed-off fellow recruits, I responded, “Nothing, Chief Petty Officer.”
He shook his head and walked away, leaving me to finish stenciling my very wrinkled uniforms that had his boot prints all over them now.
That was the beginning of the end of my submariner dreams. I remember thinking, I’ve got more dignity than this… maybe this whole Navy thing was a just terribly bad idea… I don’t want to scrub torpedo tubes in my underwear. I don’t want to wear those dolphins if this is what it turns you into. I became disheartened, frustrated, and was quickly losing any hope of being anything but a washout. I wanted to go home. Thus began what I hoped at the time what would become the end of my short, depressing naval career. I started going to sick-call. When I was in high school I’d had some inconclusive gastrointestinal problems that I had glossed over upon my admittance into the Navy. I attempted to exacerbate them. I drank a ton of soda, ‘pop’ where I come from, during the incredibly short chow time at the mess hall. I ate the worst food, things that I knew would make me sick, and spent much of my time worrying about anything and everything that would make my problems worse. I went through the motions of bootcamp halfheartedly during this time, but my heart wasn’t in it. I had given up because this Chief Petty Officer with the dolphins that I had admired so much stole my dreams and told me that he didn’t think I had what it took to make it through this challenge. More than that, he told me that I wouldn’t make it through Sub school, and I definitely wouldn’t become a sonar tech. I didn’t know how to handle this. I was accustomed to older adults encouraging me, most of the time anyway, but that’s a story for another time.
The long and short of it is that I voluntarily gave up my slot for Sub school, thereby voiding my contract for a guaranteed ‘A’ school. I fell into the system, the system the Navy uses to determine what the Navy needs rather than what the recruit wants or is capable of. Bootcamp was long, but it really wasn’t very difficult once you got the hang of it. My health problems ‘miraculously’ went away after I dropped Sub school and the thought of having to face that Chief Petty Officer in his realm, the underwater realm of the submariner, was no longer a reality. I coasted through the rest of bootcamp, but things got more real as graduation day grew nearer. I was in for another rude awakening in the way the world works, in the way the Navy works.
When the time came for orders, your next duty station after bootcamp, I received a set of orders to proceed to the other side of RTC Great Lakes. I was going to Deck Seamanship ‘A’ School over at NTC Great Lakes (Naval Training Center.) I didn’t know anything about Deck Seamanship ‘A’ School, didn’t know what it was, so I started asking. The answers I got were even more disheartening than what I’d already gone through. For the uninitiated, Deck Seamanship ‘A’ School is the most basic of jobs in the US Navy. What does a deck seaman do? I found out the hard way, and it was a blow to my pride.
I say, “a blow to my pride,” because when I took the ASVAB, I scored high, really high. I was told, “Your aptitudes assessed on this exam show that you can do anything in the United States Navy.” My recruiter, back in West Virginia, wanted me to become a ‘Nuke.’ “What’s a Nuke?” I asked.
“A nuke is a naval technician responsible for the nuclear reactors on both submarines and ships. They’re the sharpest tacks in the fleet. You WANT to become a nuke.”
Now, I had found my Mom’s old college text books back in elementary school. “Why is this important?” you ask. In elementary school, I was reading college level chemistry books, modern physical science books, Gray’s Anatomy (Mom was a nursing student when I happened to her) and the like. In elementary school, I could explain nuclear fission at a detailed level and draw a fairly accurate diagram of how a nuclear reactor did what it did. I knew that becoming a Nuke would have me watching gauges, steam dials, or managing steam turbines once the whole concept was explained to me, and I knew that I didn’t want to do that. Becoming a Deck Seaman was a blow to my pride at the time because I knew that I was qualified to do anything in the Navy, but I was being sent to school to learn how to scrape paint, paint, sweep, mop, and clean. There were other aspects of being a deck seaman that I didn’t consider at the time, things like learning how to drive small boats, standing watch on the bridge—learning how to drive the ship—maintenance and management of maintenance, line handling, (more exciting than it sounds actually) and just generally learning how ships do what they do. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, but I couldn’t see that at the time.
After graduation, I transferred over to the Naval Training Center for a short three-week course on how to become a deck seaman. There wasn’t much to the course but some basic line handling safety, the accepted best practices for scraping paint, chipping paint, and some rules of the road for small boat handling. It was really just a waste of time because we would learn much more on the job than we ever did in a classroom setting. Even with the mind numbing simplicity of the class, I paid attention and aced the class with the highest grade in the room. Supposedly, according to our instructors, the top three people in the class would get to make a choice of going to another ‘A’ School or an instant promotion. I selected an ‘A’ School. After carefully studying the jobs, or ratings according to standard Navy terminology, I requested ‘ET’ ‘A’ School. ‘ET’ in the Navy’s world stood for Electronics Technician, with a fairly wide array of different sub-specialties available after completing the initial school. I’d always been good with electronics, having taken apart all of my electronic toys since I could effectively handle a screwdriver and eventually learning to rebuild them in new and more entertaining ways. Once again, the Navy had a big surprise for me when new orders finally came in.
I remember opening the yellow manila envelope expecting to see “Proceed to Naval Training USS Belknap, the flagship of the Navy’s Sixth Fleet. The Navy’s need for deck seaman apparently overrode the award program for completing the course with the highest grades . I wished I had opted for the promotion at that point because not only did I not get the ET ‘A’ School, I didn’t get a promotion either, and arrived at the fleet as an E-1—the lowest of the low.
After going back home to West Virginia for two weeks of leave, granted because I was going overseas, I boarded an airplane at Charleston, WV’s Yeager airport and flew back to Chicago O’Hare because my PCS (Permanent Change of Station) orders required me to fly out of my official duty station. Anyone who knows Chicago O’Hare’s Airport probably doesn’t have the highest opinion of it, but my experience with them up to that point had been good. I say up to that point because things were about to get worse.
Upon arriving at O’Hare, I was on a layover while waiting to board my next plane to Philadelphia International Airport. I felt spiffy in my ‘Dress White‘ uniform, even though I had an E-1 patch on my left shoulder, no command insignia, and a single red and gold ribbon, the National Defense Ribbon, on my breast that was granted to us simply because we were on active duty during the Desert Storm operation. I was a United States Sailor on my way to my first duty station and even though the Navy had shafted me into this, I was ready to go to Italy. Apparently my sea bag, full of all my uniforms and gear, was not.
I arrived in Naples, Italy after a sixteen-hour flight with a stopover somewhere—I’m not even sure where as we weren’t allowed to get off the aircraft—full of pride and enthusiasm. I was a United States Sailor, and proud of it, especially after the welcome home I’d received while on leave. My family wasn’t exactly happy about it, and they couldn’t come out to Great Lakes for the graduation ceremony because there was barely enough money to keep the family fed, much less provide for a trip just to watch me march in some fancy military parade, but my friends were proud of me. I stepped off the airplane and went to claim my sea bag, which wasn’t there to be claimed. Apparently, it never left Chicago. My spirits deflated, I boarded a bus to Gaeta with a few others who were transferring to the USS Belknap and rode through the Italian countryside toward my destination. It was a different world for me. I had grown up in Nowhere, West Virginia, and here I was riding through Italy on my way to my first duty station. I wasn’t supposed to be there, but often times our journey isn’t one we plan. To quote Robert Burn’s poem, To a Mouse, “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry.]”