I was in. I had passed out admiralty or so I was told. I was now part of the maritime brotherhood. One of Nelson’s prodigious and perhaps precocious smart asses: a cadet, or so I had thought. I knew the secret handshake, the secret password and the secret walk. For all sailors walked the same way – the Charlie Chaplin jaunt on a heaving deck. We were full of piss and vinegar and “ready aye ready” to take on the world of maritime lore. It was a great feeling but short lived as I would soon find out. For Basic Training or “Boot Camp” as it was more affectionately called, was just that – Basic Training. The real hard nosed bad assed element training was about to begin: a full year of swabbing the decks, living far below but up forward along with the anchor pocket doors. Heaving: literally and figuratively. Often times the pitching motion of the ship would cause one’s stomach to rise up high into the throat. Living with the great unwashed, eating in the main caf but all the while completing all of our sea phase requirements. Undoubtedly however, we were lower than the low.
One XO who shall remain nameless told us that he really didn’t know where to put us in his ship. We were not yet commissioned Officers of the so called realm. We weren’t seamen so what were we really? In his humble naval gazing view of the world to consider us dog shyte would be an insult to a dog. We couldn’t dine in the Officers mess because we were not commissioned Officers. We couldn’t live in Officer Country because we were not “Fuckin Officers” or so he reminded us. Ah the verbal and emotional abuse and the pranks on us newbies would continue for the next few months:
“Hey cadet, asshole, go and get me the keys to the anchor pocket doors,” or, “get me a bucket of steam,” or “the buffer needs 50 feet of shoreline. Go get it. Now!”
And on and on it went. But I wouldn’t cave in, no matter how bad it got. I just had the feeling that this was all a test of character. Could we take the abuse or would we melt away like the butter spread on those hardtack delectables that the Navy liked to refer as steak: served on steak night, obviously, every Thursday night at sea. It was quite comical watching ten Officers around the mess table trying to cut into a thickly muscled, marbled steak with their deck knives. Some of these steaks were so badly cooked that they were still frozen in the middle. No matter. It had to get better than this. And it did. But not the steaks.
After a while you could sense that you were being accepted into this brotherhood. Instead of being called an asshole by your seniors, of whom everyone who was not a cadet was, or some other inhuman, unworldly appendage or sad form of life, they began to call you by your name, slowly at first then almost all the time. Nicknames were common too. Mine was Shakey Jay because of a slight tremor in my left hand. No matter. It was a sign of acceptance and that we were beginning to progress satisfactorily in their view of the cadet world. And soon we would receive our commissions and become real Naval Officers. No more bullshyte.
That day finally arrived. We all passed out in our training ship and were soon transferred to our first operational Frigates or Destroyers. I remained on the West Coast while a lot of my new found mates went east. It was somewhat of a sad and bittersweet day, watching newly formed but endearing friendships grow then pass on with that passing out parade. Maturing, growing up I guess. And there we were, on parade, proud as punch, uniforms finely pressed, buttons polished where shoe caps shone like mirrors. We were fully trained and sharp as a knife both in spirit and in drill, receiving our commissions and our junior watch-keeping certificates all the while the Navy band playing all the marshal favourites during the march past with excerpts from: Heart Of Oak, Popeye the Sailor Man, Eternal Father – The Naval Hymn, Redetsky’s March, Great Escape Theme Song, Colonel Bogey March, not all of which are maritime in nature but all of them inspirational nonetheless. Marching past the reviewing Officer, hundreds of us cadets, regular sailors, officers and the like, with a 40 piece marching band playing these tunes, was awe inspiring. It brought a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat.
Marching as one and listening to these tunes I couldn’t help but think of all those years past: all the laughs and the heartaches, lost friends and absent family, memories galore and the frustration of not knowing how life would evolve or turn out. I needn’t have worried for I fell into this world by pure happenstance. By chance? Perhaps! Fate? Perhaps! Destiny? Perhaps! Providence? Maybe! Just like my childhood friends: Jimmymum remained in finance working his way up to comptroller for a very large transportation company; O’Grunts became a painter; Bruce, for some inexplicable turn of events returned from magical, spiritual Nepal and became a dentist; and Timmy remained on the wet coast driving for the city’s transit system for over thirty years working and needling his way into those hallowed halls of unionism. All of this with just a high school education, except for Bruce of course. But if someone had told me just a few years earlier that I would be in the Navy I would have laughed and scoffed in their face.
And yet when I finally arrived at my first operational ship and looked her over from stem to stern, I suddenly became possessively proud. Somehow I thought she was mine. As I crossed the brow and came onboard I was bursting with pride, albeit a tad self-conscious, as I saluted the quarterdeck. It was a strange but a wonderful feeling of accomplishment to be here at this particular moment yet, paradoxically, it held some fear of anticipation and the anxious trepidation of what the unknown future may hold. But as the saying goes “there is no life like it.” And so it was, or it would turn out to be, as I look back now over 37 plus years. Not a career, not a job, not the daily grind but a way of life: a professional and extremely satisfying way of life, almost akin to a vocational calling. On top of all of that to be paid; to have three squares a day with clean sheets, starched linen and a made up bunk; to forge and maintain strong bonds of friendship that would last a lifetime; to the cheap beer, cheaper liquor, and extremely cheap cigarettes. I felt for the very first time in my life that I had arrived with an acute sense of being and belonging. And as I think back on all of this and all that has happened over the years, I couldn’t help but think of Mr O’Brian’s words to me on that cold winter’s evening not so long ago, as I crossed the ship’s brow for the very first time. Like him I truly believed that somehow I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.
All of this from my book: I Thought I’d Died and Gone to Heaven
Tomorrow? Back to regular boring posts.