You’re not qualified to be a Radioman, but you’ve got thirty seconds to decide what to do with the next four years of you life.
Those weren’t the Navy Personnelman's exact words, but that’s what they amounted to, as I sat stunned and angry in the Personnel Office of Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Illinois.
It was August 1968 and hotter than blue hell in Chicago, as I sat recalling, for the first time, what my Navy Recruiter in Boston really said.
Son, you can have any school you want after Boot Camp, - if you qualify.
It didn’t seem important at the time. Hell, at eighteen, and just plain full of myself, I was tempted to say, “Look. Just give me a ship to command, - I’ll work out the details later.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t one of my options, but when I asked the Personnelman what my options were, he said, “Well, you have the aptitude for mechanics. We can send you to Aviation Jet Mechanic School.”
I knew he was blowing smoke, then. I couldn’t even replace the battery in my car without the damn thing blowing up in my face, - but that’s another story for another time.
“What else have you got, Sir?” We had to call everybody Sir. Even the guys in the company who were smart enough to have gone to college, but somehow too stupid to avoid military service. I found out later that ‘aptitude’ equated to ‘whichever Navy ratings needed people at the time’.
The PN seemed chagrined when I didn’t bite. “Well, if you’re really set on becoming a Radioman, you can go OJT.”
“What’s that, Sir?”
“On the job training. During your spare time, you study for the rate that you want, and when you’re ready, you can take the test for it.”
Without batting an eye I said, “I’ll take that, Sir.”
He knew he was putting the screws to me, but since I ruined his day by not accepting his first offer, he smiled. “Very good. Next!”
I spent the next six months in Charleston, South Carolina. It wasn’t as hot as Chicago, but the humidity made it feel much hotter. This was especially true while spending twelve hours a day chipping paint and scrubbing decks, then another four hours standing a fire watch. Don’t drift off on a fire watch. You could end up in the brig, - a situation which I was somehow able to avoid. For some reason, the only way I wanted to spend my ‘spare time’ was in finding the quietest place that I could to get some sleep, which on a ship in the yards, is nearly impossible.
My sorry butt got saved In January of 1969. Another ship was going to the yards, this time in Seattle, and the Chief called us all together. “We need volunteers to cross-deck.” Another lesson my feeble brain had missed, - ‘never volunteer for anything’.
I still don’t know what made me raise my hand. I guess that I hated my first ship so much that I would have done anything to get off. Even the almost certain realization that I would be doing the same thing for another year didn’t stop me. By then, it might have even been a death wish. I don’t know.
They lined us up after two weeks of indoctrination onboard our new home, and began making assignments. I waited, resigned to hearing my name called, followed by the words ‘deck division’. That didn’t happen, but I thought what did happen would be just as bad.
“Corbin, you’ve got a high school diploma, right?” the Chief asked.
He glared at me. “Don’t call me Sir, my parents were married to each other.”
“We need a striker in Fox Division. Report to the Fire Control Officer.”
“Yes, Chief.” Damn! I’m going to spend the rest of my enlistment putting out fires!
It took me about three weeks to realize that, though I would still be swabbing decks and chipping paint for a while, if I applied myself there was actually a future in advanced electronics, and God, you never saw anyone apply themselves like I did.
One thing led to another and eventually the Navy paid for my education. Looking back, it’s easy to see how things might have been different, and certainly could have been much worse. Many of my friends were dying in Viet Nam.