The New Chief Engineer
By: Everett Ward
Back in 1967 there was a change on Whetstone that corresponded to the arrival of a new chief engineer. His predecessor, Lt. Savel, had been shifted from engineering to the operations department and the new lieutenant assumed command of the engineering department, better known in the jargon of the trade as “the snipes.” In the older days they were the “black gang,” but that throwback name is more atoned to the merchant marine, reminiscent of voracious open-mouthed boiler fronts and the insatiable appetite of hand fired coal-burning furnaces in the stoke hole. Anyhow, most people on board did not know the new chief engineer before he arrived on the Stone. Others did. For those on the ship with San Diego boot training residue, his arrival carried the shadow of a portent return of that which had been left behind. The new engineering officer had been part of the Recruit Training Command.
Recruit Training Command in San Diego in January was cold. That is to say at 0500 with a chill east wind blowing in from the Mojave Desert, the temperatures could drop to what seemed to be near freezing. This was a shock to the Tar Heel who had told the friendly Navy recruiter he wouldn’t join up unless he was sent to sunny California for boot camp. This ploy, of course, was to escape the artic ravages of Great Lakes Training Command outside of Chicago. It was a bluff, because the decision had already been made. Vietnam was heating up. With school deferments shattered and the local draft board breathing down his neck, the new recruit was already committed to the idea of not being a Soldier or a Marine. Never the less, the mandate made the recruiter smile —a funny kind of smile, if you get the drift, but definitely a smile. “Yes, we can do that,” he said, and the papers were signed. Life was changing.
The story of boot camp in San Diego is an odyssey. Raw civilians, 1960’s style teenagers---the best educated, the most privileged, the most independent of any decade before---capable of solving any worldly problem--at least by mouth, were transformed into a disciplined conformity-- obedient, and squared away sailors of the world’s greatest Navy. The product fed into the process was de-individualized, de-privatized, desensitized, remolded, and re-energized to a new cause. Whirling wheels of existence were stalled, braked, and spun again under military---naval military control. The transformation evoked a spiritual change from civilian to military life. It was something like, “Wring out the old; wring in the new.” The person who entered the front gate of Naval Training Center, San Diego, was not the same person who left the center about twelve weeks later.
The subject is complex. It meant learning to live with a variety of people, a cross section or America, from cities, towns, farms, villages and all walks of life. It was an exposure of the self as all characteristics were on open display with multitudes of different types of personalities, races, values, cultures, and eccentricities in a process akin to being a goldfish in a bowl. It meant erasure of ego and replacement with interaction in which life was based on how well people work together and support each other. Life evolved to a discipline not found in the civilian world. It meant folding clothes---this button unbuttoned; that button buttoned—this fold in; that fold out—and direful consequences if any order was broken, making beds, er, racks—hospital style of course, marching, terminology, obedience to commands and orders, and so on, complied and compounded—very complex indeed. It was a regimen in which all basic details of naval military life was drilled and drilled and drilled. The A. E. Neumann “What, me worry?” smile was wiped off leaving an expression dedicated to intense, if not frantic, attention to details, following directions, and willingness to complete the initiation. To say the least , a new depth of soul in the form of discipline and order replaced snug complacency. It was a new being.
It didn’t matter what new duty station the new sailor began the Navy adventure and it didn’t matter where recruit training took place. On arrival to any duty-station anywhere, the molded form was the same—ready and fit for duty. The product was complete and universal. In 1967 something like 18,000 recruits were involved in some comfiture of the training command. About half were in Camp Nimitz, the primary camp where life in the world ended and navy life began.
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