August 20, 1989, I boarded a Greyhound bus out of Fort Pierce and started what would end up being an 8 year enlistment in the United States Navy. I said goodbye to my mother, my friends and to my girlfriend, took a seat heading for MEPS in Miami to be formally enlisted, then off to Great Lakes, IL for boot camp.
Even though I was surrounded by other people who would be joining the military, I felt completely alone. They were not friends, they were not even acquaintances, at best they were traveling companions, and most of them were barely that as their destination was different than mine.
I suffered through the initial indoctrination process in Miami, boarded a plane, ended up in Chicago with only minimal instructions as to where to go, eventually ending up in the USO where I met up with other young men who were headed to RTC Great Lakes. It wasn’t until almost dusk when they rounded us up, filed us onto a blue school bus and we were driven to our final destination. In the dying light of the day, I was able to see some of the surrounding countryside, take in a few of the autumn changes that I was not used to being a native Floridian, and watch my final sunset as a civilian.
I’m not sure how long the actual bus ride lasted, but in my memory, it was about an hour. What I do remember, vividly in fact, is pulling up to our debarkation point, looking out the window, seeing a handful of men standing in what I would learn is the ‘at-ease’ position, hearing the air brake engage, and then the opening of front door. The reason that moment is so acute in my memory is because the very next second, all hell broke loose.
The men who had been outside the bus were now on the bus, yelling and screaming for us to move, to get off the bus, to line up, to stand at attention. The yelling continued for several minutes and all I could think to myself was, “What did I get myself into.” There was a point to where I just remember not wanting to mess up so they would stop yelling, however, no matter how correct you did something, they had a way of finding anything to yell at you about.
Most of the next two months is a blur filled with marching, exercising, the haircuts (which we were only allowed to touch once), being gassed (no one ever forgets that experience…ever), brief memories of down time with Barq’s Root Beer on Sunday’s, the first phone call home where I watched a room full of 80 men break down in tears as they talked to their parents (I was one of them), the simple joy of geedunk (if you don’t know, ask), the day of the Great White Tornado (again, if you don’t know), and the endless barrage of being yelled at (that just never seemed to end until about week 5).
In the end, I stood at graduation with my shipmates, we marched in succession with our eyes right, proud to have accomplished just surviving. In just two months, I went from being a 165 pound boy, alone in bootcamp with no idea of who I was or where I was going to a 185 pound sailor surrounded by friends and the sea ahead of me.
Not all that bootcamp did for me was positive, and not all my experiences in the Navy were great, but I will save some of those stories for later.
(Seriously.. look at those ears!)