Thursday, June 11, 2009

Continued -- Musings of a Seaman Apprentice

This is a a continuation of a series of posts I wrote a few months ago.

I left Boot Camp for two weeks of leave/vacation back home before returning to Great Lakes Naval Training Center and Radar A-School north of Chicago in Waukegan, IL in the spring of 1976; I was 18. We'd receive our instruction in buildings 310 and 311. The training would last a few months and teach us the basics of tracking surface traffic, vector analysis (maneuvering board) to be able to recommend heading and speed changes to the bridge to avoid shipping, plotting air contacts and radar navigation. We'd all been screened for the course and I believe we all successfully completed the training.

The phosphorous like display of the radar scope with its ever present rotating sweep has changed a good deal over the years in comparison to the digital displays we use today. Little did I know then how much a part of my life monitoring a radar scope would become.

Gone were the days of living in a barracks with some 60 other guys. I'd now share a room with two others directly across the street from the Enlisted Men's club. I'm not sure if the Navy has changed the way they think in terms of making alcohol so accessible to young adults but it bordered on ridiculous having a bar right outside my window. I and most others spent way too much time there. I imagine it beat the alternative of going off base into the city where hustlers looked to take advantage of naive kids like myself.

I seldom went off base and when I did it was usually with one of the guys from my class. A favorite thing we'd do was to hitchhike 50-60 miles north to Milwaukee for the day/night. Getting there was usually an adventure and easily half the fun.

I was pretty stupid back then. I remember standing on a gravel shoulder on the side of the highway with my friend thumbing for a ride. A car approached us and veered onto the shoulder sliding uncontrollably at us to a stop. We both ran to get out of the way in a flush of adrenalin and panic that took over. He rolled down his window and asked us where we were headed. It was obvious that he was drunk but it didn't seem to matter; it was a ride and we both got in. I'd hitchhike a lot over the next few years but would finally quit after climbing into a few too many cars driven by people who made me uncomfortable. I hopped out at more than one intersection without notice waiting for the light to change while offering a quick 'thank you' as I exited the car before giving up the practice altogether.

There was a club in Milwaukee called Oliver's that we'd frequent. I don't know what was so special about it but it's where we'd go. The night would usually end with a bus trip from the USO back to the base.

There really isn't much to say about my time at A-School. I'd finish there in late June and spend a couple more weeks at home before heading off to the Philippines to catch my ship which was deployed to the Western Pacific. My real Navy adventure was about to begin.

I caught a flight out of Minneapolis for San Francisco where I was put on a military transport from Travis Air Force Base to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. If I'm not mistaken I believe it was a Boeing 707 they crammed us into. I remember sitting on the plane next to an Air Force Captain who was asking me about where I was headed. An officer was actually chatting with me. It seemed a bit odd after having gone through Boot Camp where I was intimidated by people of even lesser rank. I was in uniform and couldn't he see that I was a lowly Seamen Apprentice? I believe he was flying to Guam to ferry an aircraft back to the states with another guy he was traveling with. As we approached Guam he told me a bit of trivia about how there's an eighty foot difference in the runway elevation from one end of the field to the other. Odd that all these years later I still remember that. Actually, there's an 87 foot difference to be exact.

From Guam we'd load the plane with even more people as we next made our way to the Philippines and my destination. I don't think I've ever been on a more crowded aircraft. If I had any tendencies toward claustrophobia it would've been apparent then. We'd use nearly every bit of the 11,000+ foot runway to get airborne. My dad flew a lot in his job as a financial manager and I remembered him telling me years earlier how it never seemed to fail that from the time the pilot pushed the throttles forward it would take around 30 seconds for the airplane to become airborne. Not on this flight; we were much closer to 45 seconds.

It had been a long trip by the time we touched down at Clark Air Force Base. I didn't know anybody on the flight but many were just like me in that they too were hooking up with their new commands. We stepped off the plane into warm, muggy, tropical air and were then assembled in a room and given instructions on how we'd be processed through the system. It was late in the evening.

We arrived at our barracks and a local laundry service came by inquiring if any of us were interested in having our day old uniforms washed and pressed. Most of us jumped at the opportunity but later wondered if we'd made a mistake. When it got close to the time we were supposed to leave the next morning they still hadn't returned with our clothes. We wondered if maybe we'd given our stuff over to some disreputable people. Not to worry; they would eventually return with little time to spare and we'd all breath a sigh of relief.

We boarded a bus for the trip to Subic Bay Naval Station where we'd catch our ships. I sat behind a Navy officer who was going to be assigned to the base, and his wife. I can still hear her wondering out loud if the shacks of homes along the side of the road were those of prostitutes. No doubt she'd learn a lot during her husband's tour of duty there.

To be continued...

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