Friday, March 20, 2009

Semper Paratus


Above, on the day of my graduation from boot camp. I cut quite the image.

The words Semper Paratus mean "Always Ready" in Latin and much like the Marine Corps' Semper Fidelis, or Always Faithful, these are the words attached to a military force of the United States, the Coast Guard. I was a Coast Guardsman, something I am still proud of to this day.

I was a junior in college at Liberty University. Coming home over the summers to work at my father's business at Charter Catalogs was beginning to get a little old for me. When you work with members of the family, it can strain relationships. I was still a bit like Maynard G. Krebs of Dobie Gillis fame, and still had not an idea of what I wanted to do with my life, professionally after college. All the adult men- coaches and professors I knew- recommended military service. "It will make a man out of you," they said. Little did I know just how true that would be.

I was attracted to the Coast Guard because I did not really care to be blowing people up, crawling through the dirt and shoveling foxholes. The Coast Guard, on the other hand, had a more attractive mission, it seemed to me. To save lives (in search and rescue,) to be involved in drug enforcement (on our seashores,) and to monitor ports and ships for safety. That sounded like something I could go for.

I filled out all the applications and got my background check done with the police. As the Coast Guard is a small service, they really can't afford screw-ups, so they were and still are fairly picky about whom they accept. On my day of induction, I went to the recruiting station, raised my right hand, and said the pledge to defend the Constitution with my life. Then, off in a whirlwind of activity. We piled onto buses to the airport, and whisked off to the beautiful, sunny, tourist-centered town of Cape May, New Jersey. Not that I noticed any of it while I was there. A warm, congenial and friendly face greeted us on our arrival, clambering on the bus, sneering.

ALL RIGHT YOU MAGGOT HIPPIES!!! OFF THE BUS! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!

We piled over each other to get out the doors and stood at what we considered to be attention while the instructors got into our faces and screamed. Fortunately, I was a little older than some of the kids that had just come straight from high school. A few of them were not used to being yelled at, and started to tear up.

The instructors quickly singled these poor souls out, smiling in glee. WHAT'S THE MATTER, MAGGOT? MISS YOUR MOMMY? WELL, GUESS WHAT? I AM YOUR MOMMY NOW, BOY! GO AHEAD AND CRY! CRY LIKE THE LITTLE BABY RECRUIT YOU ARE! HOW ABOUT AS YOU ARE CRYING YOU GET DOWN AND GIVE ME 50 PUSH UPS, MAGGOTS! ALL OF YOU!

So we are now grunting and trying to do push ups while still at attention on the ground. WHAT A PATHETIC GROUP OF FREAKIN' LOSERS! the drill instructors continued to shout, but with more choice words. WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS IS? CAMP SNOOPY?

One of the recruits on the ground near me decided to answer. "No, sir." It was a bad decision, as well as a poor choice of words.

DO YOU SEE ANY GOLD ON MY BLANKETY BLANK COVER? The guy then decided to compound the mistake by actually looking at the instructor addressing him. WHO TOLD YOU TO LOOK AT ME, YOU IDIOT?

Down we went for more push ups. I was beginning to understand that the smallest foul up by anyone in our unit would get the whole unit in trouble. We quickly wised up and shut up. Then we were piled into a line and marched off to receive our gear.

In lines, we were quickly evaluated for our uniforms, both dress and work. We were issued shoes, boots, belts and covers (hats;) given a raincoat and a sea bag (which is like a really large cylindrical backpack;) and marched over to the squad bay by which time it was about 3:30 am. We were not allowed to sleep until we had made our bunks, which were called racks, the military way. Finally, we collapsed on the government issue mattresses.

Only to be woken 15 minutes later by our loving and kind drill instructor. GET UP, RECRUITS! he screamed, throwing a trashcan down the center aisle. The white, glaring, buzzing lights went on and we scrambled in our skivvies to stand at attention in front of our racks. And, as you might have guessed, there was one guy who was not phased by the lights, the screaming or the clanging metal trashcans being hurled around. He had slept right through it and was still tucked into his blankets, snoring. The drill instructor closed in on him like any caring mother would.

GEEEEEETTT UUUUUUUUPPPPPPP !!!!!!!!!!!!!! he screamed right in this guys face, his veins popping out of his head and his face turning three shades of purple. The guy woke up, screaming from fright, and scampered to stand in line at attention with the rest of us. We tried to keep a straight face.

Off we went to do morning PT. Running, jumping jacks, sit ups, push ups, you name it. Then it was off to stand in line at the barber shop, and to get our new identity as well: "Recruit." The actual title is Seaman Recruit, E-1 in the scale of ranks. The lowest of the low. We were gutter-crawling, toothbrush-polishing, watch-standing, grunt-working slime. Some of the other graduated recruits who were still on base (E-2's, the Seaman Apprentices) and a few of the folks who had taken ROTC (E-3's, Seamen) had a smidgen more respect from the instructors than the rest of us did. They were held to a higher standard, however.

Then into another line we went to get our shots and dental check up. They love shots in the military, by the way. "Don't scratch this inoculation or you will go blind. That's an order," the doctor told us. And boy, did it scratch over the next few days. That's because the little bacteria in there were multiplying, but at the same time, our bodies were building up immunities to the little buggers.

Once the entrance week was done, we were handed over to our Company Commanders. They would polish us and make us into Coast Guardsmen, or attempt to make us wash out. Lives depended on us being able to do our jobs and follow orders to the letter. Over the weeks, we became more accustomed to our routine. We began to show a pride in our appearance and our training as a unit, Tango-118. We marched with military precision, ate with military precision, slept, showered, shaved, spoke and replied with military precision.

"RECRUIT HOUTCHENS!" I squared off the corner in the hallway pivoting 90 degrees on one foot and stood at attention just inside First Class Boatswain's Mate Metts' door. The Company Commander evaluated my belt buckle, my ironed uniform, my polished shoes, my stance at attention, and my military bearing. My eyes stared straight forward at attention, my ears waited for any orders. "What is the knot of the day, Recruit?"

"Sheep shank," I replied.

"The Petty Officer of the day?"

"Petty Officer First Class Stott."

"What is general order number eleven?"

"To be especially watchful at night, and, during the time for challenging, to challenge all persons on or near my post and to allow no one to pass without proper authority."

"Mmm," he grunted. "Dismissed."

I smartly did an about face and exited the office, once again squaring off the corner with my foot.

I still remember many of the times I spent there like they were yesterday. The classes, the people, the places. Sundays were special as we were allowed to go to chapel. How deep, emotional and meaningful those services were. I was elected protestant representative to the chaplaincy from my company, and at times, spoke to my fellow recruits just before lights out concerning spiritual matters.

I left boot camp in Cape May that summer as a mature (well, more mature,) responsible, highly motivated, tightly organized and physically adept young man. If you are young and lack direction or focus, may I recommend a tour in the US Coast Guard. It will make a man out of you.

G.Houtchens
armchair coach
amateur historian

2 comments:

Harpal said...

Mr. Houtchens this is a really cool story. You really got me thinking.

John M. B. said...

Really cool post Mr. H. I never knew how mean drill sergeants can be!..Ha Ha Ha