Friday, May 8, 2009


“Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose”

The thing that struck me was the greenery. Everywhere I looked, there was lush, verdant foliage. Tall Grass. Thick bushes. Trees. Leaves. Vines. And the water. Water was everywhere. Pools of it along the roadside. Every so often a glimpse of the bay between all the greenery.

It was all a bit claustrophobic to a young man fresh out of the plains of West Texas. Where I lived, you could see a car coming down dead-straight highways for 10-15 minutes before you passed them. The road between Levelland and Lubbock, TX (25 miles) has only 2 or 3 slight bends. And everywhere you look, you can see for at least 5 miles without obstruction. The land is dry and flat, the brush spars, the trees all planted – and not too many of them at all.

The West Texas skies are vast and the sunsets spectacular – especially after a dust storm. Any time the wind kicks up above 10-15 mph, so does the arid ground. The sky turns brown. The sand gets into everything – even through the vents in your car. And nothing tastes quite like oilfield dirt after it blows into your mouth and nose! There would be no dust storms here, though.

“Here” was Rhode Island – a place whose name I had heard but had never seen. Until I left the airport in Providence, that is, in the shuttle in which I was now embarked, and immediately saw strange types of houses and buildings (there is, after all, very little in common between plains architecture and that of New England), the greenery, the water, and the humidity. So began the trek to Newport.

And what, some would ask, was a West Texas farm boy doing in Newport? Newport had been, for 100 years, the playground of New York’s ultra-rich – the summer dwelling place of the arch-capitalists with names like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Lodge. Before that it was a sailing center and a whaling village. The houses remain. The quaint fishing village façade remains. The cool sea breezes remain. Only the barons and sea captains are gone. Some would call them robber barons, but not me. I was, however, like a narwhal ashore in this place.

I had made a few trips to the shore, but of course, the beach at San Diego or Corpus Christi did not prepare me at all for the sight of Narraganset Bay. I had never seen water so blue or sky so clear. Every curve we went around seemed to expose a different aspect of the bay. Gulls were everywhere. Then we heaved around a corner, paid the bridge toll, and crossed over to Jamestown, a small village completely ensconced on an island between the mainland and Newport. It is, as you might figure, an upper-class community, with New-England shingle homes overhanging rocky, bluff shores. Everything is swathed in the greenery I have mentioned. The water is deep at this point of the bay, and very dark blue. I have seen few things so beautiful. Then, over the bridge! And into Newport – more of the same, only even more so. And a new revelation around every corner.

I had just been graduated from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX. A grand old southern school, with one of the prettiest campuses I have ever seen outside New England – the buildings are predominantly Spanish in style due to the rich Spanish heritage in Texas, and a leading university in its own right. I had been a member of the Naval ROTC unit (in fact, a plank owner), and was now off to initial officer training in Newport. I would have had to add a year to my degree plan to be commissioned through the ROTC, so off to Newport I went to do my summer training and get commissioned as an Ensign.

Unfortunately, I was about as sophisticated as an old feed sack, it turns out, and even though I thought I was going to be something special because of this little adventure, I soon found out otherwise. An Ensign may be a naval officer, but he is still a bucket head – as I was to find out.

Military basic training is not fun. In fact, it is probably not even possible to make it fun. And there I stood, carrying a small bag and a change of clothes (not many, though – I would not need them). With hay in my teeth and manure on my boots – figuratively – I stood on the naval base at Newport, which contains the Naval War College. Admirals and Captains come through here – ship commanders and air wing commanders and lawyers and doctors and executive officers.

“Where do I go?”

“Wah’ ah yah ea fo’?”

I beg your pardon? It probably came across more like “Huh?”

He repeated – I think – “Whea ya wanna go?”

I think I was actually answering the question when I told him I was headed for the Officer Candidate School (OCS).

“Gotta cah?”

Again – “Huh?”

“Do. You. Have. A. Cah.?”

“A car? Is that what you mean?”


Oh, OK. Now we were on familiar territory. “No – I came on the shuttle”.

“Fine,” came the reply. “Steady as she goes until you come to the bulwark. Turn to starboard and steam past the BOQ. When you get to NEX, hard to port. Dead ahead past the grinder until you get to Mitchell Hall. Report to the OOD. He will assign your company and your berth.”

Or words to that effect.

“Pardon me, but BOQ? NEX? Grinder? OOD?” Again my remarkable wit and perspicaciousness – “Huh?”

After a few minutes, we sorted it out and I began the walk.

Later I was to learn that, in New England, one does not park their car, but rather they “paaaahk the caaaah”. File it away. We will have to translate things up here. Great.

Shortly I arrived at my berth. The first stateroom in Alfa Company. No one else was there. I, of course, had shown up early in the afternoon – I love to be early – and the conventional wisdom is to show up at the end of the day. Less time to sit staring at the wall while waiting for something to happen. I did not know this, and so I put on a stunning display of ignorance by showing up so early.

Naval OCS indoctrinees (INDOCS) are administered and trained by upperclassmen, similar to the academy systems. And so, it being a Sunday, most of the upperclassmen were out on liberty. The one who had been stuck with the watch greeted me warmly outside my stateroom door.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE SO EARLY SLIMY INDOC?” he bellowed at the top of his lungs. And here I learned how one is actually supposed to execute naval orders – literally. If they say report prior to 0800 Monday, then you report at 0759 on Monday. Not at 1345 on Sunday.

Note: I have always been nothing if not quick on the uptake.

“I have orders to OCS, sir” I whispered. Well, actually I spoke, but it was like a whisper by comparison. This, I learned was called a command voice in the Navy. Being naturally soft-spoken, it took me a while to develop one. But some of the sailors from my first ship can testify at the final court martial that develop one I did.


The hallways were cinder block and tile. Everything echoed. Everything was so clean as to make a hospital look frowzy and disheveled. What was I doing here? This had been described as a gentleman’s school by a recruiter. And now I knew how much to trust a recruiter.

I entered the room and stowed my gear. I sat down on my desk chair. I looked out the window. I could find nothing in the stateroom that could possibly be referred to as a SORM. I heard gulls outside my window. They were everywhere. I heard the sea buoy bell in the distance.

Approximately 1 hour passed. Suddenly, he appeared in my hatch (doorway to the unitiated).


Here I made my second sterling impression. “Uh,…sir? What is a SORM?”

He slammed a book down on my desk – it had been there all along. It was entitled Standard Organization and Regulations Manual – US Navy.


He left.

In another half-hour or so, Berth 2 was filled with my roommate for the duration. In came the INDOC, looking confused. In came the upperclassman, bellowing. Down sat the other INDOC. Out went the upperclassman.

We introduced ourselves. And I was asked: “What’s a SORM?” So – I showed him.

And here I developed the Commander’s first two dicta of Naval leadership:

1. The leader, the one out front, the first to arrive - has no one to help him, he must develop his own reserves of self-reliance and ingenuity;
2. Experience and leadership is often defined simply by the fact that one has been dragged through the bilge water only slightly ahead of the rest of les miserables.

We were both later selected to be company officers by the rest of the company.

No comments: