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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Year In Bermuda


I joined the Navy right out of high school in 1961, doing two years of active duty, two of meetings (well, here George W. Bush and I have something in common in that I didn’t go to all that many), and two years of inactive reserves. The reason I did this, instead of going directly to college, was that my Air Force Office father suggested it. He always planned on me going to college eventually, of course, but he was afraid that if I went there straight from high school, I would do what he did at Indiana University, which was major in playing pool and getting bad grades. Dad also pointed out, and it was true, that I didn’t know what a hard day’s work was really like, and learning that would make doing well in college a top priority. So, dutiful son that I was, I joined the Navy.

After a nightmare called boot camp (the subject of a future post), I was assigned to the U.S.S. Rockbridge, a troop carrier stationed in Norfolk VA. I will discuss that in a future post as well, because, as a common deck had, I did learn what a hard day’s labor was all about, and got to see the world as well—the ship spent six months in the Mediterranean. In the meantime, Dad was transferred to the Air Force Base on the island of Bermuda, where he was in to be charge of a squadron that refueled jet fighters in midair. Dad, ever the lawyer even before he became one, studied military regulations with a fine tooth comb, and discovered that the military was willing to transfer members of the same family but in different services near each other as long as it was not against the overall interests of the military. So Dad, knowing there was a U.S. Naval Air Station on the island, suggested I use this regulation to request a transfer to the island of Bermuda.

I took the regulation to the ship’s yeoman, who was in charge of such paperwork, and showed it to him. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “Never heard of such thing, but okay, let’s send it in and see what happens.” When filling out the relevant form when it came to the name of the place I wanted to be transferred, I told him I believed it was called the “U.S. Naval Air Station.” But since I wasn’t sure, the yeoman said it was best to just type in “Naval Facility,” and that would do the trick no matter what the actual name of base happened to be. So he did that.

My family and I arrived in Bermuda in July of 1962, they to live on one end of the island where the Kinley Air Force Base was, and me to live with them as much as possible and commuting to the Naval Base, which was on the other side of the island. This is easier than it sounds, since the island is only 20 miles long and about one mile in width (though it nonetheless has FIVE golf courses). I travelled back and forth on my Velosolex, a motorized bicycle, which was barely adequate to the task. Bermuda is hilly, and the motor wouldn’t climb the hills, so I was forced to exhaust myself peddling (sometimes in heavy rain—Bermuda is in the part of the Atlantic where hurricanes form, and it was often wet). After a couple of months, with my parents help, I purchased a used car, an Austin A35, and learned to drive on the left side of the road from a driver’s seat on the right side of the car. This was made easier by the fact that Bermuda strictly enforced a 20 mph speed limit, which seemed fast enough given their roads, but when attempted back in the states was impossibly slow. I only became confused by the British system when backing out of a driveway, which took lots of thought in order to pull into the correct lane.

The first day I reported for duty at the Naval Air Station, the Officer of the Day looked at my orders and said I was in the wrong spot. When, alarmed, I asked why, he said that I was assigned not to the “Naval Air Station,” but to the “Naval Facility.” “What’s that?” I asked. “No one knows,” he replied, “since it’s a top secret naval project at the top of Bermuda’s highest point.” I gulped. The OD called a for jeep to take me to the Naval Facility, and so I hopped in and was distressed when we went through a major gate, up a steep and winding road flanked by intimidating signs like “United States property, authorized personnel only. Others will be arrested or shot.” Finally we pulled up in front of little village of military buildings, surrounded by barb wire, and I was deposited at the front gate. The Officer of the Day there had to come out to me, since I didn’t have a clearance to enter the facility. “Frankly, Whaley,” he told me, “we’re a bit puzzled as to why you were assigned here without the usual skills or clearance.” I knew, but kept my mouth shut, always a wise thing to do when talking to military superiors. I asked what I should do, and he told me to go back to the big base and await further orders. Eventually it was decided that I would become the Naval Facility’s supply clerk, who worked down at the Air Base supply office handing requisitions to the Facility. This was mostly light work, and to appear busy at my desk (because if one didn’t do this, other people’s work would gratuitously be dumped in your lap) I wrote a novel and the libretto for a musical. I was good at the supply job, and was promoted to working in the large hanger where the supply department had special needs (often involving heavy lifting).

Bermuda is a lovely island with a splendid climate, but it is not a place for people who are neither rich nor on vacation. If you didn’t have a lot of money, there was little to do on this tiny island except go to one of the beautiful beaches, but that wore out its charm after the first ten times or so. The native Bermudians are great people, with a lovely version of the British accent, and I became friends with a number of them (great music too—I can still sing some of the popular Bermuda songs).

When the year was up, I was discharged from active duty in the summer of 1963, and, due to circumstances I will address in a future post, I had no choice but to attend the University of Maryland, where I (and my sister, who is two years younger) went in search of an education.

And Dad was right. I really appreciated the need for a college education after being first a deck hand and then a supply clerk. I now knew what a hard day’s labor meant, and I had no intention of doing that again if it involved physical activity such as swabbing decks, standing watch, moving supplies around, or obeying the orders of people whose competence was greatly in doubt, even in high risk situations.

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“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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