It was a bitter, cold Saturday morning. The harsh November winds sweeping in from the Atlantic made Cape May, N.J. an undesirable place to be living.
I was one of a few hundred Coast Guard recruits standing in an endless line, shoulder to shoulder in our dress blues, waiting to have our physical selves and our uniforms inspected by the commanding officer, a captain, of the boot camp. (A Coast Guard or Navy captain is the equivalent rank to a colonel in the Army, Air Force or Marines.) The regular weekly inspection was really nothing to be concerned about. We usually appeared sharp, anyhow, as it was demanded of new recruits on a daily basis.
I was standing at attention toward the end of the long line, and it seemed to be taking an eternity for the commanding officer and his entourage to arrive at the space that I occupied. Every once in awhile I would turn my head left a bit to sneak a peek at their progression.
The inspection team had not stopped even once to address a new recruit. They seldom stopped once the procession had begun; the whole experience was more a formality than anything else.
Without turning my head I knew that the commanding officer would be passing me by any second now.
My heart almost stopped when the captain and his team came to a abrupt halt right in front of me. The scowling commanding officer leaned his face to within 3 inches of mine, and barked: “Son, do you know what the heck a razor is?”
“Yes sir, I do,” I weakly mumbled. I could not believe it because I had never shaved!
“Then get your sorry self into your barracks and shave, boy! Report back to me as soon as you’ve completed that task. Do you hear me, nummy?”
“Yes sir,” I sure do,” I replied in a half panic.
I vividly remember that experience because a few days ago I celebrated the anniversary of my 50th year of entering the Coast Guard and still receive a paycheck. I am so proud to be a member of this often neglected branch of the military.
I’ll never forget a September day in 1959 when my mother sat me down at the kitchen table the day before I departed for boot camp. She seemed a bit uncomfortable and in a few seconds I knew why.
“Ray, have you and your dad ever had a man to man talk?”
“About what, mom?” I replied.
“You know, the facts of life, son.”
“Aw, ma, I know all about that stuff.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what your father told him.”
“OK, I’ll be sure and do that and thanks, mom.”
I rather enjoyed the 13 weeks of boot camp at Cape May. I had had 18 years of rigid training and discipline issued by my father.
I learned another harsh lesson in boot camp. Our only storage space was the canvas seabag we were issued, which we lashed (tied) to the foot of our bunks. The clothing contents had to be folded precisely and the top of the bag locked at all times.
Late one afternoon, after a full day of seamanship classes, I returned to the barracks and found my seabag empty. I checked with my company commander. After receiving a severe chewing out he instructed me to start my search around the base for my missing clothing.
Someone must have had a delightful experience while seated in the back of a pickup truck dropping an article of my clothing here and another there. I found a pair of skivvies atop a bush at the church entrance, a T-shirt on the firehouse driveway, a pair of jeans in a gutter alongside the road. A little extreme, don’t you agree?
I’ve often thought that every young man in this country ought to do a stint in the military. Boot camp is good for the mind, as well as the body. It might even help with the emergence of a teenager into a loyal, well-disciplined young man.
God bless you.