Wednesday, April 21, 2010
The Boot Camp Fiasco
I have always written comic songs of a Tom Lehrer sort (and if you don’t know his brilliant work, investigate immediately and prepare to belly laugh). Indeed, in 1977 I put out an album called “Strange Songs,” which some people kindly deemed quite funny. My son Clayton and I wrote a variation of “Happy Birthday” entitled “Big Birthday,” to be sung by evil friends to someone celebrating any birthday ending in a zero (30th, 40th, etc.). It contains lines like “Every year, more people here are younger, friend, than you!” We’re currently working on a website to market it and make a vast fortune from the royalties. Even as a teenager I wrote such lyrics, with ideas pouring out of me more or less compulsively.
And that is what got me into so much trouble at Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside Chicago in the late summer of 1961, when, fresh from high school, I joined the Navy as an enlisted man and took a train from Virginia to Illinois.
Boot Camp was awful for many reasons, but I held my own and got through it. I made myself popular in my twenty man platoon by being funny, and, especially, by writing comic poems about events and people in or around camp. One night, for example, I wrote a verse about the Regimental Commander (I had never seen the man), who had the unfortunate last name of “Cockell.” That name, alas, mated easily in rhyme with many a bawdy companion. Far too many bawdy companions.
The trouble started in a classroom where we were enduring a lecture interspersed with 16 mm. movies called “Navy Driver 10” (which meant it was the tenth class on this subject: “How To Be a Safe Driver”). The movies were horrific: one bloody crash after another which involved dead sailors and others tangled in vehicular mayhem, and which kept my riveted attention through—say—Navy Driver 4. But by the class in question that day, all the students were bored silly. Since I can draw, for my own amusement I was doodling in my workbook when, to my astonishment, it was yanked from my hands by a large and beefy Chief Petty Officer, who also grabbed the notebook of the young man sitting next to me. “Doodlers!” he exclaimed loudly. This was obvious a bigger deal than I’d understood before being apprehended. We were promptly yanked from the class and hustled down to the administrative office and told to sit and wait. The Chief thumbed through our notebooks, and then came a really, really bad moment. He came upon the Cockell ditty and his mouth dropped. He jumped to his feet and ran over to where a young ensign was sitting and showed the offending page to him. The ensign grabbed a phone to call Regimental headquarters and ask for a meeting with Lieutenant Cockell at once. That was soon accomplished, and while I stood at rigid attention outside the Lieutenant’s open office door, I heard the ensign describe what had happened as he placed the offending notebook before the man who was its satirical subject.
There was a long pause. Then I heard Cockell explode with diabolical laughter, the sort of sound Satan might produce on greeting a new arrival in Hell. “Send him in!” he commanded. Trembling, I was shown into his office and became a statue in front of his desk. He was leafing through my notebook. “Great versification, Whaley,” he said calmly, not looking up. “Scans well, rhymes are perfect.” Then he looked me directly in the eye. “Not very flattering to me, is it?” I gulped and said nothing (nothing came to mind—my brain had shut down). “ABOUT FACE!” he commanded. I swiveled and was now facing the door; there was a large clock above it. “You have twenty minutes to fetch and lay your sea bag out for inspection in the hall outside my office. Dismissed.”
I sprinted back to my barracks. Others were just coming back from Navy Driver 10 ("What’s going on, Whaley?"). Frantically I threw my possessions in the sea bag, toted it over to Regimental Headquarters, and then spread a blanket and with strict attention to the prescribed rules, laid out my possessions on top before resuming standing at attention next to the display. A series of my superiors passed me on their way in to talk to Lt. Cockell, and I could sometimes overhear their conversations. Standing at attention for a long period is hard, and the enlisted man who was Cockell’s secretary (a kind person) would occasionally tell me to relax until he gave a hiss to indicate otherwise. Finally I heard Cockell discussing my situation with the young ensign who had dragged me in originally. The latter was pushing hard for a court martial, but Cockell pooh-poohed that, saying, “It would be one thing if this sailor knew me and then wrote the ditty, but he’s just a kid clowning around.” I was rooting for Cockell in this one! Finally he called me into his office. “I’ve been looking at your file, Whaley,” he said. “You’re set to graduate next week, and your father is a Colonel in the Air Force, right?” I said yes. “Is he coming to your graduation?” Yes, again. “And what will he think about your current difficulty.”
Well, actually that was a hard one to answer truthfully. Dad had always been annoyed that I too much the goody-two-shoes who stayed out of trouble from which he might then rescue me. In his own youth he had sowed many a wild oat, but I’d planted nary a one. So the truthful answer was that Dad would be delighted, but I couldn’t, of course, say that. “He would be very disappointed in me,” I solemly told Cockell.
At that he sentenced me to five hours of detention drill (a rifle exercise which was monotonous, but not a big deal), and let me go. That would mean that I would have an extra hour each day for the drill, with the only major drawback being that following the graduation ceremony I couldn’t go into Chicago with my parents and sister (a trip most graduates routinely made with their families). The next night I was sitting in the barracks after supper when a military official came in and ordered me to follow him, putting me in a jeep and driving off. Now what? I wondered. We arrived at a motel just off base, and my family was there. It turned out that Dad, ever the charmer, had called someone in authority and arranged this special treatment. As predicted, when he heard of my near brush with a court martial Dad was pleased that I was growing up and pushing life’s limits. Somehow his phone call had also gotten him invited to sit with the Naval officers in the reviewing stand at graduation.
The following afternoon that ceremony went off without problems, but as we sailors were marching from the building, I was yanked from the lines by some military aide, and taken into the fancy large room where the officers (in Navy white uniforms, gloves, swords, and all) were gathered to have a drink of punch and talk. I gulped. Dad saw me across the room and waved for me to come over where he was standing with my mother and sister, talking to an officer. “Doug,” he said, “let me introduce you to the Base Commander, Captain Soballe.” I gulped again, but gamely shook hands. The Captain (which is a high rank in the Navy) was very friendly. “Are you going into Chicago with your parents tonight?” he asked. I stammered that I had drill detention that prevented that, but that I had been with them the night before at their motel. “I see,” he said. Then he insisted that the Navy take a picture of father and graduating son (see photo above).
When I returned to the barracks, my puzzled squadron commander informed me that (mysteriously) I was excused from further detention, and therefore could join my family after all. Dad would never have asked Captain Soballe to cancel the detention (he’d have thought it fitting I serve it), but undoubtedly his presence had solved my boot camp problem. And while I didn’t like getting special treatment this way, somehow I lived with it.
Thank goodness there’s no easy and obvious rhyme for the name “Soballe” or I’d still be in the brig.
"Strange Songs, Inc.," September29, 2010
"The Evil Big Birthday Song," November 5, 2010
"'The Carolers': A Comic Christmas Song," December 7, 2010
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013