Boot camp not so distant memory

Published 8:55 am Friday, August 17, 2012

by  James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

I don’t know when night occurred or if, in fact, it did occur.

It’s been something of a blur for a while. I checked in at the appointed place at Norfolk, was transported to Richmond, went through a swearing-in ceremony and was transported to the training center at Bainbridge, Md.

I assemble with other recruits at a reception facility that cuts our hair, and issues uniforms and metal “dog tags” with a notch in one end. I don’t ask what the notch is for; I don’t ask anything.

Instead it’s been a string of commands from someone in charge. My job is to say “Yes sir” and comply with commands.

At some point we all get semi-naked and undergo a physical examination; it’s a production line performance. I know these people do this every day and are proficient at their jobs, but it seems somewhat cursory to me.

Everybody is in a hurry; long casual days in the sun seem a very distant memory. I don’t have much time to think about it.

We are issued a bucket, into which all items for personal hygiene and cleanliness are placed. The bucket is a part of our personal equipment and will be an ever-present tool for holding anything that needs to be held. Mostly, it’s for laundry.

There’s a box of Rinso laundry detergent (with bluing), a can of Brasso, shoe polish, a scrub brush, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, razor and shaving cream (brushless). Combs are not issued.

Uniforms are for all weather, all tasks — dungarees (blue jeans), web belts (white and dark blue), buckles, blue chambray work shirts, under shorts (without elastic), undershirts (T-shirts), white uniform trousers with corresponding tops, dark blue uniforms, complete with neckerchief, round white and dark blue wool covers (hats), black shoes and socks, leggings, a heavy wool turtle neck sweater and matching knit cover (hat), a heavy wool pea coat, gloves, raincoat, swim suit, a small bundle of short, heavy cords with metal clips on the ends (clothes ties), and a Bluejacket’s Manual, the written guide for every sailors official activities and attitudes.

All clothing is packed into a long round sea (duffle) bag. Pillow covers, mattress covers and towels complete the personal property inventory.

We gather in a room of waist-high tables, with containers of black stencil (indelible) ink and short stiff brushes. Each of us is given a stencil, cut in stiff paper, with our name and serial number.

All clothing is marked in very specific locations with our name and serial number. Each serial number is personally assigned and will be used to identify virtually every action and article in the sailor’s life.

All, reports, tests, applications, assignments, orders and results will be reported and recorded by serial number. The digits are stenciled in my brain.

Eventually, we are dressed in underwear, dungarees, blue chambray work shirts, belts, shoes, leggings and white hats (all conspicuously new and newly-stenciled), and organized into a formation.

Our drill instructor is assigned and in charge. We are marched, sea (duffle) bags on our shoulder, from the arrival center to our barracks — our home for the next 11 weeks.

En route, we endure the catcalls and hoots of those who precede us in this training cycle. They can be identified by the color of their leggings; well-scrubbed, washed leggings lighten in color with time in training.

Other units look sharp and well coordinated; their movement is crisp and purposeful. I’m just tired.

Our barracks is a World War II vintage, wooden structure, laid out with an entrance area called the quarterdeck. From this quarterdeck, doorways open to the dormitory, an office, and the restrooms and showers (called the “head” in nautical terms).

Bare bunks are set up two sets (upper and lower) to a side with four lockers between bunks; lockers are steel cabinets that replicate those onboard ships. A center aisle divides the room equally, and is used for assembly and in-house inspections.

It doesn’t seem possible, but every item in my sea bag, including the sea bag itself, can be stored in that smallish, steel locker. A lockable small compartment for personal items, like a wallet, is there also; the lock I’ve been issued fits the hasp.

Mattress covers (known by more colorful navy slang) are slid over the blue-striped, cotton-filled mattress and tied with its own attached strings. Countless recruits have used this mattress before me. I don’t think about it.

Even today, I can recite my “white hat” serial number as easily as my name. The smell of bleach and detergent is the same today as it was all those years ago. Last week I bought a bottle of bluing.

JAMES D. ‘ARCHIE’ HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at