It would take me a lifetime to write about my Navy career but here’s a little peek at a small moment in my career that helped shape me into what I am today.
Before you can understand the story, I need to get you up to speed on what San Diego Navy boot camp was like in 1982. When I joined the Navy, I had rarely been out of the Midwest except for a few family vacations as a kid so flying into San Diego, Ca. at 10:30 in the evening to report to boot camp was a big deal. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be a little freaked out for the first 48 hours or so. You go through a series of fun events within the first few days but one of the first things that happens after a good haircut is you go through uniform issue. This is a time when you are issued all of your Navy uniforms and undergarments and you stencil your name just above the pocket on all of your “dungaree” shirts and trousers or working uniform as well as stenciling your “skivvies”, hats or “lid”, socks and personal belongings. By this time, you have been formed into a “Company” which is a group of about 50-75 guys that you’ll be spending the next few months with, living in cramped quarters in a barracks without heat or air conditioning. Each person is referred to as a “recruit” for the duration of boot camp and we marched in formation everywhere we went. During my time in bootcamp there were at least 5-6 companies on the same time schedule as our company.
While we stenciled our new clothing our prospective “Company Commanders” were walking around watching us work on stenciling our gear. Company Commanders were the equivalent of a Drill Instructor in other branches of the service, more senior members in the Navy and could be recognized by a chest full of medals and ribbons, a lot of stripes on their uniform and these red ropes dangling in a loop from their shoulders. We referred to them as “red ropes” behind their back and “Sir” to their face. There would usually be 2 Company Commanders assigned to a Company and they were the boss, your mom, you dad, your best friend, your worst enemy and just like Sgt Hulka, they were our big toe. While stenciling my uniforms I could tell the Company Commanders were watching us to see who was paying attention to detail and doing a thorough job in a timely manner, so I made sure I did everything to perfection when they walked behind me and looked over my shoulder. It paid off to perfection and a week later I was dubbed our new “Company Yeoman”. Our Company Commander, First Class Petty Officer Marlor took a liking to me and trusted me the responsibilities of a Yeoman which was taking care of the daily logistics of head counts and mail call. I was the liaison between the company and our Company Commander. I liked my job, but our Company Commander was mean, I mean real mean. He was covered in tattoos from neck to toes and could outrun, do more push-ups, set-ups or any number of exercises we did on a daily basis. This guy was covered in tattoos before that sort of thing was cool. He was intimidating to say the least but in the back of my mind a little part of me knew this was all part of the act. The act of shaping us all into young sailors before setting us out to start our real Navy careers.
I don’t think words can properly describe the feelings I went through in Boot Camp. Besides the obvious things like missing home, a girlfriend, mom and dad and all of those creature comforts, you learn very quickly to do without. There were challenges on an hourly basis and there was so much to learn in a short period of time. There were great things that got accomplished in boot camp and there were failures and consequences to be paid. A few weeks after the start of Boot Camp we were all settling into a routine and starting to feel a little cocky. Feeling a little cocky was something that was not advised during boot camp. Us recruits feeling a little cocky made the Company Commander feel a little cocky too. Their idea of feeling a little cocky was singling out any one person who thought he was better than the rest or maybe someone who made a mistake? This person would become the target of Company Commanders enjoyment. Sometimes the Company Commander would take matters into his own hands and sometimes he would send a hard case to a “Marching Party”. A marching party was something that took place after dark, every other week on Thursday and there was usually someone going from our unit every time they had it. The ones that went never came back the same. It wasn’t like they got a lobotomy or anything, but they didn’t chat much about it, only saying it was 2 hours of hell and involved some crazy, out of control Navy SEALs. At the time about all I knew about the SEALs was that they were elite and mean. I only knew what I had read in our “Bluejacket” manual which is the sailors bible and has everything about everything in the Navy. In the manual they gave a brief job description of a Navy SEAL, and I knew they had to be tough.
After about a 4-week period of being our company Yeoman I had things down to a science. I knew my job inside and out and I got complacent. One of my jobs was to do a head count of every recruit in our company prior to sitting down for a meal. For every meal I would report the number of recruits to our Company Commander, and we would file into the chow hall for our meal. Sometimes a recruit would be sent to sick call or some other demand so the number of recruits going to a meal may vary from meal to meal. After 4 weeks on the job as the head counter before meals I just started winging it and throwing out a number thinking no one was checking my numbers. We went days with me reporting a headcount that went unchecked, so I thought it was just a formality. Yea, I was dead wrong. One day our Company Commander call me into his office out of the blue. Up until this point I had been his “Go To” guy in the company and could do no wrong. On prior meetings with him in his office it was generally a pleasant experience but, on this occasion, it was all business. I saw a side of him I had never experienced before, and he was pissed to say the least. He informed me that from his best estimation, in the overnight hours a week ago perhaps, something or someone came in and had made me a dumbass. He explained that he had been watching me operate at the chow hall head counts and had been checking my numbers for the last week. Needless to say, I was busted and for punishment I would be fired from my position and sent to the marching party on Thursday evening. This is the part I’ll never forget. He looked me straight in the eyes and in a stern voice he said: “You know Farmer, in the Navy complacency can get you killed, or even worse, you’ll get the people around you killed. I want you to remember that“. It was like the voice of experience had just spoke and my whole world just tanked. I was fired from my position and banished to the marching party. I wasn’t going alone as I soon found out that another recruit from our company had done something wrong and would be accompanying me to the party. His name was Powell, and we were both trying to find out all we could about what went on at a marching party but the guys from our company who had went didn’t want to talk about it much, siting a sworn secrecy.
Thursday night finally came after a long day of marching and classroom events. Everyone else was finishing their duties for the evening as Powell and I were donning our gear to go to the marching party at 10pm. Our gear included our working uniform with a watch cap or black stocking cap. We were told to march to an empty parking lot or “grinder” directly in front of the little store where we got our supplies. We would be greeted by our hosts for the night, and they would give us our instructions for 2 hours of hell. Powell and I really didn’t know what we were in for, so the mood was light as we marched to the grinder. When we got there the party was in full swing and we were immediately told to join ranks for a little chat before we got started. There were at least 2 dozen of us, and we were all in a formation, standing at attention while these big face painted gorillas walked through our ranks explaining to us how we had fucked up really bad and we were about to pay for it. They asked if anyone wanted to go home to momma before we got started but no one had the balls to go that route so without further ado we started doing different physical exercises while being yelled at by about 6-8 psychotic and somewhat humorous, Navy SEALs. They got in your face, they got in your ear and tried in every way to make us break and cry. I won’t go into detail but some of the exercises were very extreme with names like “Hello Dollies” and “Eight count body builders” and one of my personal favorites, “The Superman”. We would do push-ups but you would have to stay in the down position with your nose and body 2 inches from the deck. It didn’t take long till the sweat started mixing with the dirt on the ground and everyone’s faces were black and dripping mud. My working uniform was drenched in sweat and dripping, making a puddle of mud beneath me. They tested ever muscle in my body, and I was in great shape at the time. After the first hour my body trembled from exertion and my muscles were fading fast. If you were caught screwing up an exercise the SEAL’s were on you like a pack of wild dogs with 2 or 3 of these gorillas in your face screaming obscenities and just trying to get you to break. I finally decided that these SEALs were probably betting big money and taking a head count on how many of us they could break before it was over, so I made up my mind that wasn’t going to happen to me. They could break my body, but they couldn’t break my spirit. Names were a form of enjoyment for these guys, and they would make light of our names. When they saw my name was Farmer, they had a little fun with me, and my name designed to see if mocking my family name would break me or make me snap. They never put a hand on us, but it was degrading to say the least. Just before we were done, Powell, who was directly to my left finally broke down and the tears started flowing. He was physically spent and could give no more. They showed no mercy and giving up only gathered a crowd of these antagonizers. That was the point in the evolution that I realized the reason that no one who had been there before me talked about it much. They didn’t break me and when it was over Powell and I marched back to the barracks with muscles either locked, cramping or in some kind of spasm.
When we got back to the barracks, everyone was asleep except for the two night watchmen. We were covered in dirt and told by the night watchmen in the barracks to get a quick shower and hit the rack for the night. One of the night watchmen asked us how it was and neither me nor Powell wanted to discuss it much. I promised Powell on the way back that I wouldn’t say anything about what went down. I showered and hit the rack for the night. It seemed like I had just closed my eyes when the lights came on and it was morning. I had slept a total of 4 hours, but it seemed like I hadn’t slept at all. When I tried to get out of my rack, my muscles were completely locked up. I have never felt like I felt that morning at any time in my life. I have competed in military and civilian marathons at a lightning pace and pushed my body to the brink of destruction, but I have never ever felt like that since. Powell and I went on to graduate from boot camp and start our Navy careers but that little 2-hour snippet in time will never be forgotten by me and I’m sure, by Powell also.
Although that was just a small fragment of my life there was a lesson to be learned and our old Company Commander was right, during my career in the Navy I’ve witnessed more than one incident or accident where complacency was the culprit, and the outcome wasn’t good. On the flight deck of an aircraft carrier there is an old saying “The moment you are complacent is the moment you jeopardize your life and the lives of everyone around you”.