Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Tales from The Goat Locker:
The Apprentices

I talked to the LTJG via the miracle of Google Chat the other morning, and we discussed a couple clear differences between my Navy and his. It is a lot more correct these days, and not nearly as hung over as my class of hard-partying liberty hounds.

Of course, I was a couple years older than the norm in my Fleet days in WESTPAC. I had worked for a book publishing concern out of New York, stationed in exotic Detroit, before getting a touch of the wanderlust and shipping out for Aviation Officer Candidate School, and the tender treatment from Staff Sergeant Ronald C. Mace, USMC.

So, I was in my late twenties by the time I emerged from the pipeline and reported to the World Famous Vigilantes of VF-151, embarked in Ma Midway (CV-41) and had pretty much set all the bad habits I have worked hard to maintain ever since.
That wasn't the case for most of the men- and is was an all-male fleet then- who composed the bulk of the crew. I have been having a back-and-forth with Boats, the retired Coastie Master Chief about the difference in eras and ages. He wrote me yesterday to explain some of the challenges that would not have occurred to a smart-ass college grad, and what he described is a system that brought young men into the safe-harbor of maturity.

As a society, we have a couple generations who have come of age after the draft was abolished in 1973, and we have seen the consequences of the impact of households that have no father to assist in the transition to adulthood.
“An after thought I've had about the difference in experience on liberty between myself as a painfully young non-rated sailor and "young" junior officers experience on liberty in foreign ports,” he began, and then he told me a story that was poignant and kind of sweet and sad at the same time. What he talked about was a system that doesn’t exist any more because society and the Services have changed. It might have helped some of the lost young men whose deaths are so prominently reported these days.

Boats described it this way: “As was not all that unusual in the 1960’s, I entered the Navy immediately after high school and I graduated young. I was 17 when I arrived at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. I spent the years between 17 and 22 transitioning from Seaman Recruit to Boatswain's mate First class. Six pay grades in five years was aided by skipping E-2 after boot camp, my only "meritorious" promotion.I was far from the only teen in the fo’c’scle back then. On our first liberty in San Juan, the XO arranged for an escorted tour of the Island for a dirt-cheap price. He encouraged all of the teen aged non-rates to go on it, and he came along on the tour and spent the day with us.

The over-21 seamen and petty officers hit the dives and few of them made it more than a few blocks from the ship. Most spent a month's worth of pay on day one. I learned a lot about foreign liberty that first out CONUS liberty.
I experimented a few times but basically decided that it was cheaper and more enjoyable to avoid the dives and sex clubs. I think I managed to avoid a lot of trouble that would have slowed down that lightening-fast ascension to First Class.
When I first reported aboard the Thetis-class Medium Endurance Cutter Triton (WMEC-116) down in Corpus Christi with post-patrol liberty in Tampico I noticed that the first Class Engineman that everyone called "Papa White" typically did something similar to what the XO did on the destroyer.

Not only was he there steering the teen-aged non-rates away from trouble on the beach at Tampico by arranging and encouraging economical and enjoyable outings, but he took about half the teen-aged liberty section home on Friday night. His wife served up hot dogs and fries. Then we usually watched a movie on TV, ate, and slept on the living room floor.

A typical Saturday was a softball game with some of the youth group from his big Presbyterian Church, lots of attractive but "decent" Presbyterian girls at the game, occasionally a girl’s game preceded or followed ours.
On Sunday morning we all went cheerfully to Church, including us Catholics and our one Jew. As a Catholic, used to a fast one-hour service the idea of spending the morning in different bible study groups, then a prayer service and barely getting out the church complex before noon was unusual but I have to say I actually enjoyed it.
Generally the Congregation accepted us as just a sort of another youth group and no body got too far out of line. After church, Mrs. White (they had no kids) made a big chicken dinner. About 1600 we started drifting back to the ship by liberty van, city bus, the rare non-rate's car.Sundown often found us fishing off the fan-tail. Liberty wasn't very exciting but it was pleasant and a real break from the weekly routine.

 The XO on TRITON  had struck a deal with the local cops and a North Beach Bar where we could go and get a limited amount of beer and late-night Mexican food only a few blocks from the Buoy Depot gate.A woman named "Millie" who must have been around sixty years old oversaw the place. If any of us had more than two beers in an hour or showed any signs of inebriation we'd be cut off. Make a fuss and "Aunt Millie" called the cops and you were unceremoniously dropped off at the Buoy Depot gate.

 All things considered, the years between 17 and 20 and the transition from Seaman recruit to Boatswain's mate Second was characterized by a lot of almost imperceptible mentoring by some senior officers and petty officers,  who unlike BM-2 Morrison and BM-1 McElroy weren't trying to teach me my rate. They were trying to teach me how to be an adult.Of the six teen-aged non-rates on TRITON, two of us retired as Master Chief Boatswains mates. One became an officer, and the other three left the service after four years and went to college.The last I heard from them, they landed pretty decent jobs and had wives and families. I don't think that I realized it until I was much older that while the teen-aged seamen were certainly exposed to the "perils of the sea," we were actually pretty carefully protected and mentored about the perils of the beach, and we were mentored constantly by more than our rating coaches in areas ar beyond seamanship, navigation, gunnery and signaling. They were teaching us to be grown-ups.

 What was most unusual was that the Navy Destroyer had this informal system going and I passed right from it to the system on TRITON. It was years before I realized how unusual the level of care and concern for the non-rates was on those two ships. This unusual and constructive atmosphere was not created by military fiat.
This is awfully politically incorrect to say; but I believe that my early life as a teen-aged sailor was graced simply by Christians who were doing what Christians do, and who happened to be older and senior to me.Nothing could make a sailor’s apprenticeship physically safe, but the Christians I happened to have appointed over me kept the experience morally safe and constructively educational. My friends who spent the same years drinking and partying their way through LSU thought I'd been handed a raw deal. After my first cruise, I wouldn't have traded places for anything. But I know I was very fortunate.

It is different today. Recruits tend to be over 21, and are often married of have had some college. But I think the nation is missing something with the great reduction of teen-aged naval apprentices. I think it would be a great experience if some of the off-duty care and nearly invisible "supervision" that I experienced could be institutionalized.With all of the continuing education "distance learning" programs today why not skip that burdensome student loan, let Mom and Dad retire in peace and plenty and enlist with the dual goal of completing the apprenticeship of a rating and earning that degree while serving. It might take six to eight years to do both. However, young people would leave with out debt, and highly employable. The lower and middle enlisted grades would gain a lot of stability and experience while still having enough movement to allow an encouraging rate of advancement.
I think we need to sell our military services as a great place to get a real education, not some place to "earn money for college". The naval ratings are the last great "Master, Journeyman, Apprentice” system.  Its very structured but structured around the great adventure of naval operations.

Our older new recruits today actually come for the structured learning/advancement system after some disappointments in the civilian post secondary educational system and job market. It seems a shame that so many young people between 17 and 22 have to waste so much time. Unfortunately today a Muslim Imam will be welcomed into a public high school gladly to explain to the student body why they all now have to eat Halal food, while I would be viewed with utmost suspicion.
The naval apprenticeship program has been saving impressionable teen-agers since 1776 from the stupidity that has destroyed our nation.  

Oh, and TRITON, my first Medium Endurance Cutter? She was laid down in 1933, and served on active service through my time aboard her. In 1967, she was sold as government surplus and converted into a twin-deck passenger excursion vessel for Circle Line Sightseeing in New York City. She is serving still.
Sometimes the old ways are the best, you know?”



Copyright 2014 Vic and Boats
Twitter: @jayare303

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