1. Joining Up
Not having the funds to go on to college right after high school graduation, in June 1956, I looked for a job that might offer some training at company expense and the possibility for promotion and professional development. I was within a few days of starting work at Boeing in Seattle when I suddenly decided to get my “military obligation” out of the way before embarking on a civilian career. The Selective Service Act (“the Draft”) was still in force at that time, requiring all physically qualified young males to spend some time in uniform by the age of 30. Those who resisted the enticements of the military recruiters would, in time, receive a letter from Selective Service telling them when and where to report for their induction physical, after which they’d be allocated to one of the four services, most often the Army. There were ways to avoid the draft, and some did – having children, training to be a doctor, claiming religious scruples and various other means, some honest and honorable, some not so much. But most of us accepted the obligation.
It was almost an article of faith among young men at that time that recruiters would make promises that would prove empty as soon as the recruit had signed the enlistment papers. I was lucky to come across a recruiter who did not fit that generalization.
It had always been my intention to serve my military obligation in the Navy. As a child during World War II I became fascinated by ships and the romance of the sea. The newsreel scenes at the movies of battleships and cruisers plowing through the sea, pushing up foamy bow waves and leaving wide, silvery wakes behind, of Hellcats and Avengers racing down a carrier flight deck and leaping into the air, excited my imagination like nothing else. So, when I decided to sign up, of course I headed for a Navy recruiting office.
It was Navy policy to guarantee some training school to any enlistee who was a high school graduate. (A substantial percentage of young men at that time did not finish high school.) The guarantee was not for any particular school. (There were a few dozen Navy schools, many for technical training.) The recruit’s school preference would be considered but, of course, “the needs of the Navy” would be the final deciding factor.
The recruiter, a chief petty officer, asked what training school I would like to be assigned to and consulted the appropriate manual. He discovered that my choice, Journalist School, had an age requirement. An enlistee had to be at least 20 years of age to be assigned to that school. Being not quite 18, I thought I might want to forget about enlisting until a later time. But the chief checked further and found that a waiver of the age rule could be requested and, if the enlistee’s “Basic Battery” scores were high enough, there was a good chance the waiver request would be approved.
The chief explained that the Basic Battery was a set of intelligence and aptitude tests that would be administered during the early weeks of recruit training (boot camp). The tests covered general intelligence and educational development, math, language skills and general science. Those with scores at or above a certain level would also be tested for aptitude to become sonar operators ( a very keen sense of hearing was required) or to work with radar, electronics, guided missiles, avionics or other high-tech equipment.
The chief cautioned me that the interviewer at my classification interview in boot camp would encourage me to request a technical school, if my scores were high enough, because the Navy needed a lot of technicians and the interviewer would have been instructed to steer recruits to technical fields. The interviewer would also see that Journalist School had an age requirement and tell me that ruled it out for me. At that point I could tell him I wanted to request a waiver of the age requirement. He would be surprised that I knew about that but would have to prepare the request form for me to sign. I could list Journalist School as my first choice and a couple other non-technical schools as my second and third choices. If I let the interviewer convince me to list a technical school as second or third choice, my first choice would be ignored and after boot camp I would find myself on the way to a technical school. When the time came, I followed the chief’s advice and it played out exactly as he foretold.
A physical exam at the Seattle Induction Center, including the infamous “turn your head and cough” and “bend over and spread your cheeks,” was followed by lots of forms to fill out and sign, including a long list of “subversive” organizations I had to swear I had never been a member of. With these administrative details completed, I and 20-some other men in their late teens or early 20s raised our right hands and were sworn in by the recruiting officer. That done, we were marched outside and onto a bus for transport to SeaTac Airport.
As the DC-7 turned from the taxiway onto the runway, the four piston engines were revved to a mighty roar and the entire plane shuddered and rattled. I had a quick moment of buyer’s remorse that maybe I should have gone ahead and started work at Boeing. It was my first time on an airplane, which I was beginning to worry might either explode or fall apart any minute. I was leaving everything familiar and comfortable to venture almost 1,500 miles away to the Naval Training Center at San Diego and an uncertain future. My momentary doubts were overtaken when the pilot released the brakes and we began hurtling down the runway. Too late now for second thoughts.