March 08, 2009

Chief Axel Tarter, U. S. Navy

It's late September of 1947. I'd graduated from prep school three months
earlier and now I've enlisted in the U. S. Navy. We're at Union Station
in Washington, D.C., with 17 other recruits, all teenagers, waiting to
board a train for the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
Mom and Pop are the only parents there. A lieutenant hands me a folder
containing train tickets, scrip for meals, emergency cash, and travel
orders. "You're in charge of this detail, sailor," the lieutenant says.
"Report to the Officer-of-the-Day on arrival at Great Lakes."
I should have said, "Aye-aye, sir," but I was too green for that. I
learned later that when the lieutenant put me in charge of the detail,
Pop whispered to my Mom, "My God, Bob's in charge, the country must be
in serious trouble."
During the train ride a few recruits ask for scrip to buy snacks, but I
tell them to buy their own snacks, "the scrip is for meals." I enjoy my
new-found authority, until I surrender my humanity to the Navy.
I'm assigned to Company 127. When I arrive, the company is in formation.
Company Commander, Chief Gunner's Mate Axel Tartar, is addressing his
men — although they are really boys, like me.
I'm wearing dungarees. Canvas puttees cover my ankles — that's why we're
called "boots." I'm carrying my seabag on my right shoulder when the
chief wheels around and says, "What the devil are you supposed to be?"
"Seaman Recruit Robert Wayne Ford, U. S. Navy, 211-88-56, sir," I reply.
"I didn't see you salute, you miserable excuse for a human," chief
growls. He knows I can't salute with the seabag on my right shoulder. As
I swing the seabag around to my left shoulder, the canvas bag knocks my
white sailor hat off. As I bend down to pick it up, the seabag crashes
down on chief's shoes. What a Mickey Mouse sight that must've been.
"Assaulting a superior officer can land you in the brig, idiot," the
chief yells as he lofts my seabag with one foot. The guys in formation —
my soon-to-be shipmates — laugh hysterically, but not for long. They'd
been ordered to stand at attention, not laugh.
For that infraction the chief marches them out onto the grinder (gravel
drill field) and places me in position to "review the passing troops."
You can image what my new shipmates think of that move. Other sailors
may have had a tougher start in this man's Navy, but on my first full
day in uniform I feel like the court jester of Great Lakes Naval
Training Center.

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