My life had changed so much in the past year since I had joined the Navy. Not even a year earlier, I had left my small hometown where I grew up without looking too far ahead into the future, but even in the dark, the big, gray destroyer leader guided missile frigate appeared longer than any future I saw possible a year earlier.
Our arrival in Bath was the end of a daylong journey that began that morning in San Diego. I don’t remember boarding the charter flight, or taking off. That was my third flight, so by that time they were no longer special. Once in the air, I do remember thinking the stewardesses didn’t seem very happy. I didn’t know if it was because they didn’t like their job, or if they knew something about the mechanical condition of the plane that was secret to us. The nonstop flight finally ended safely at Boston’s Logan International Airport.
I was relieved.
The stewardesses were still unhappy. I’m not sure I blamed them too much because I already knew enough about airplanes (based on the one I saw crash in a cemetery) to know I didn’t like airplanes and though I had never set foot on a ship, I was sure floating was much more preferable than flying.
Until joining the Navy, I hadn’t traveled very far and didn’t know too much about people outside the 400 residents of my hometown. But soon after arriving in San Diego, I quickly learned that probably none of the men on the streets back home who asked for bus fare so they could visit their poor sick mother in Oklahoma City were telling me the truth.
Some people are just not honest — that was among the first culture shocks I experienced in California. Another was that not all people speak with a Texas drawl and there were a lot of those who didn’t who thought those who did were dumb.
My first culture shock in Boston came when I ordered tea at a restaurant in the airport. It was hot.
Excuse me, I said to the waitress, there’s no ice in my tea.
What did you want? she asked.
Iced tea, I said. Whoever heard of drinking hot tea?
That’s how we drink it here in the wintertime, she said.
But, she deferred to my desire and after a very bad glass of iced tea, we boarded the bus that would deliver us to our new home aboard the Halsey. I don’t remember much about the ride other than the streets of Boston seemed very narrow compared to the dirt roads around my hometown. I also remember being disappointed that it was dark during my first visit to such an historic city.
It didn’t take long in my career to learn that as a fresh air snipe, Boston and the New England countryside would be the first of many places I would visit without ever seeing. (A fresh air snipe is a sailor who works in both engineering spaces where hole snipes dwell, but is equally as comfortable in non-engineering spaces and topside in the fresh air).
As the bus came to a stop next to the ship, several division-leading petty officers dressed in olive green, foul-weather gear held signs above their heads.
I looked for the one that read “DI Division.” The sign I was looking for was held by a man with a black beard. Up until then, I didn’t know anyone who wore a beard in the Navy. They had only been authorized a short while by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who began serving as Chief of Naval Operations on July 1, 1970. He made a series of changes in personnel policy intended to reduce racism and sexism in the Navy. These were disseminated in Navy-wide communications known as “Z-grams.” These included orders authorizing beards, sideburns, mustaches and longer groomed hair.
This man had a full beard with no mustache. I didn’t have a good first impression of my new boss and the word “swarthy” came to mind as I studied him from the window.
Dressed in the olive green, foul-weather jacket and cap, he reminded me of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
As I stepped off the bus, and walked toward my new LPO, I remember asking myself, “David, what have you gotten yourself into?”