When I was sixteen, I enlisted in the Delayed Entry program in the United States Navy. I was completing high school and uncertain about how to go to college and in love with the romanticized Navy life in the movies. I played clarinet, which Grandpa Al called a "licorice stick," and heard Benny Goodman play "Little Brown Jug" along with me when I practiced-though there was a great disparity between our performances. I loved the naval uniforms and wanted to wear that 1940's looking "summer blue" skirt suit before it was discontinued. Why not go into the Navy and see the world? Grandpa who was orphaned at twelve joined with falsified papers when he was fourteen years old. He said it was the best service experience that he had ,even though his secret was discovered at sixteen and consequently, he was discharged. He preferred being stationed at the Panama Canal and being exposed to malaria carrying mosquitoes to returning to no home at all. When I was finished with my four year term of service, I would have my college already pre-paid with the GI Bill education program. The recruiter promised me choice locations, a specialized school, and a bright future in the USN. I would be challenging boundaries and living up to my mother's Annie Oakley get tough principles, "Anything you can do I can do better."
I had all the high school credits I needed to graduate except for a one credit government class that was only offered in the second semester. Consequently, I was stuck taking an 8am class five days a week. I left all my "unnecessary" classes behind to the shock and displeasure of my teachers. I announced to Mr. Ludwig that no more would I be co-student leader of the Huron High School band, Mark could take it over. No more drama, choir or advanced literature classes, the school counselor said I didn't need them if I was going into the Navy. Unhappily, my teacher for all of these classes, Mr. Fawsett, would have to do without his mezzo-soprano who could sing the lower parts and dutifully act as a replacement for the usually absent boys. I was finished with high school and all of its rules!
While waiting to graduate and to earn some money, I took an all night waitressing job working at Pierre's Fine Foods on Middlebelt Road near the Detroit-Metro airport. Sometimes customers would come in either on their way or coming back from somewhere exciting- maybe New York, San Francisco, or New Orleans. I thought soon that will be me; I'll be off on a great adventure of my own. I started at 10pm and after getting off at 7am, I would ride a 350 Honda motorcycle into school each morning. While carrying my black helmet under my arm, I'd breathlessly join the class and discuss the Constitution or participate in a mock-dramatic debate taking place in the House of Representatives or Senate. I was confident and admired; the teacher would excuse me when I was late, "She works all night and is finished with school -but for a technicality." I became the moderator and deciding vote in the debates. I would graduate soon and had plans to drive across the United States for two months on a great highway adventure- which I did with my sister.
I was a "reader" and had many places I wanted to see with my own eyes. I had hoped that the Navy would provide me the chance to see Europe but for now I was determined to see what I could. Yes, my mother and father allowed me to go. I was encouraged to be independent and strong, to fearlessly take on the great challenges of life. Many times during the trip, I felt out of my safely zone but I developed an independence that strengthened my will and made me completely unfit for the USN! Enter boot camp hell, Naval Training Center, Orlando, Florida! Join the many who must obey, or else! "Drop and give me fifty! What are you doing here? Women don't belong in the Navy-especially, pretty ones- unless you're a prostitute? Are you here to cause trouble?" I had joined the tense 1970's transition Navy that was forced to include women in all non-traditional specialities. The actual WWII WAVES had been disbanded but the name lived on among service members, "Join the Navy and ride the WAVES."
Okay, from the earlier portrayal you might think that this Airman Recruit trainee could handle the pressure, but readers, I was in drama. I was pretending a lot! The final pressure that sent me to the cumulative climatic moment was a letter I received from my mother announcing the celebration of her official divorce from my father, "I'm a free woman now," she wrote. My sentimental romantic self was bruised already; I had discovered that life in the Navy was not romantic and further, I was unwelcome. It wasn't like the movies; there were no adventurous antics behind the commander's back, not to my knowledge. I fell into a depression, became chronically ill and failed the General Orders exam. I tearfully stood outside the official door standing at parade rest waiting for the evaluation committee to determine my penalty. The deciding board had asked me, "What kind of grades did you get in high school? What happened here? Why did you fail this exam?" I was sick and ashamed...my pride gone. "Do you want to stay in the Navy?" I said yes but they looked doubtful. What would happen now? Would I go home and bring shame upon my family? My family... where would that location be? Where would I live? I did not want to choose my father or mother's place of residence. I needed to stay in the Navy. I needed to go to college. Maybe the Navy did not really want me but I had to get through this period. I thought and cried until I was sure I wanted to stay. They called me in, "Airman Recruit, we've decided to give you a chance because you have done fine up to this point; however, you will be Set Back For One Week. Do not repeat this offense again." Set back for one week? The sentence repeated itself over and over in my head. I was almost finished and now I have to continue here? I returned to the barracks and shamefully collected up my possessions. "At least I wasn't kicked out," I thought as I moved down the ladder of my Naval career.
The Navy Rudder's memory book says, "The training is diligently planned and administered in order to develop in every trainee the strength of character, loyalty and patriotism necessary to prepare him to defend his country, its ideals and people, against any aggressor." I don't know about that preparation. I do know that when we marched across the graduation field and the Master of Arms said, "Eyes right," and we saluted toward the commander who sat in front of the bleachers that were filled with proud family members, mine included, that I was thoroughly humbled and relieved to be leaving. I was going on to "A" School Training in Lakehearst, New Jersey where the Hindenburg Zeppelin blew up killing 35 privileged people who were out experiencing a novelty voyage that ended badly. I had orders to Aircrew Survival Equipment School, better known as the Navy Parachute Rigger's school , which had just opened up to women and where I knew I had to succeed. Why didn't I just go to college right after high school? I felt I had no options. I was determined to make it through, though most of the service members did not want me for the Navy, I would continue. I needed to go through this experience and I would, without movie romance, if necessary.
Here is a link to a video of and information about the Hinderburg Disaster (1937)
For an entertaining look and listen to Benny Goodman, "All the Cats Join In" (1946) click here: