Navy more than learning experience

Published 10:04 am Wednesday, August 22, 2012

by James D. Howell

Somebody is making loud noises and beating on a trash can (it has a more colorful nautical name also).

All the lights are on inside; it’s still very dark outside. I struggle to fully open my brain; my eyes seem to have made the leap by themselves.

I get dressed and make up my bunk, making sure that all the loose ends of those mattress cover ties are properly tucked in and not hanging loose. Apparently the world will collapse around my ears if those strings are not tucked in.

Each clothing article has a defined shape and place in the locker. Clothes are folded in a precise manner.

A large, separate, laundry building is next door, with scrubbing tables and clotheslines; it’s a heavy-use building. Clothes ties are used to attach washed articles to a clothesline for drying; every day is wash day in training.

The bucket (properly stenciled) is filled with soiled clothes and allowed to soak during the day. Each night, all articles are scrubbed and hung to dry; clean clothing is folded and stowed each morning. The bucket remains in the laundry building. It becomes a daily ritual.

We march everywhere in training; our drill instructor doesn’t seem harsh, but he doesn’t miss much. He’s a quartermaster by rate. That’s indicated by crossed flags above his chevrons on his left sleeve.

He also has service hash marks, one for every four years. Our DI has three hash marks.

Every day is drill day; it begins early and ends late. There does seem to be enough time for everything, but there’s none left over.

I learn marching commands and movements. I learn proper salutes and etiquette between rank and rate. For me, everybody’s superior, and I don’t have to think much.

Each day, three times a day, we are marched to the chow hall. Each company is permitted into the chow line in order, and no errant behavior is tolerated.

I am among guys who are not used to eating three times a day, if at all, and some who obviously have eaten too much and exercised too little. I fit into the latter category.

Much ridicule is placed on Navy chow, but I find it different and more than adequate. I learn to like creamed chipped beef on toast. It has a colorful name in Navy slang also.

One day becomes “shot day,” one day becomes testing day, one day becomes dental day. All days are testing days to some extent.

I find I have a color perception deviation from normal. I am restricted from certain jobs that require “normal” color vision. That’s about everything that I want to do; I’m somewhat depressed. I feel my chances of flight school slipping away.

Marching practice and classroom time share the day, with classroom activity slowly overtaking drill time. We learn about ropes, engines, ships, knots, naval history and customs.

We take turns at fire hoses in hands-on drills, we learn flag discipline and honors. We learn to work together as a unit; we learn to respect each other as fellow sailors. Our steps become firm and in unison; our physical and mental bearing become confident.

I am able to examine my company of fellow trainees with eyes unclouded by tradition and upbringing. I have a built-in respect for my fellows, but I’ve never experienced so many different fellows.

I see white skin, black skin, tan and olive skin, and many shades between. As our hair grows, I see blonde, brown, black, red, shades in between, and almost no hair at all.

I learn about Catholics and acquire a small Catholic Bible and learn some Liturgy; I accompany a Jewish friend to synagogue and am impressed by the gentle informality. I have become a part of a much larger world and find myself very comfortable in it.

Circumstances, because of performance during boot camp, give me an interview with an officer for guidance. I make him aware of the color vision discrepancy and he makes provision for a retest using aviation standards. I’m elated.

I learn pilots are required to be able to differentiate between aviation spectrum red, white and green. Normal color vision is not required. I pass the color test; I am sent to a Naval Air Station to await a flight-training schedule.

I’ve been given a second chance; it will happen many times when I deserve it and when I don’t. Permitting others the same opportunities is a part of my life and who I am. I feel welcomed by my new family.

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