The first time I walked across a ship’s quarterdeck, I knew I was “home.” This was to be my life, my profession, my oeuvre.
The impact on the senses was overwhelming: the gentle rise and fall of the ship’s hull against the tide; the smell of salt water; sea gulls wheeling across the sky; the graffiti on the pier beneath the brow that only sailors could see; the ambient noises: Old Glory snapping in the wind, the thud of a garbage scow against the side of the ship, the throbbing of the auxiliary diesels.
Before that, I had been aimless, no money, no connections, no prospects, a “leaf in the wind.”
Now, I had a purpose and a dream. That dream was to become an officer in the United States Navy.
Unfortunately, when one is just a Seaman Apprentice and a member of the uncouth, unwashed, and unlettered masses, an outlier, it’s almost an impossible dream.
Generally, there are four ways to become a commissioned officer in the Navy: graduate from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; attend college on a four-year Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship; graduate from college and complete Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Newport, Rhode Island; or be nominated from the fleet to attend OCS.
For someone of my station, the first three avenues to a commission were only a fantasy.
Although, on my first ship my commanding officer did recommend me to attend the Naval Academy and I passed the admissions examination; however, when my transcript from Lumberton arrived to complete my application “package,” all bets were off.
My high school record was marginal (I was really just an “observer”) which is why I joined the Navy in the first place.
As others have learned to their chagrin, your past will eventually become your present.
Consequently, I was left with the fleet option, which took me three ships and six years at sea to finally get my seat at OCS.
I’ll never forget that first commanding officer.
He acted as if, in his mind, we were all on a whaling ship out of New Bedford, and he was Captain Ahab.
I observed many styles of leadership over the years, but his was the worst – leadership by intimidation.
It was so bad that one night while standing the bridge watch as we went through the Strait of Gibraltar, I saw him browbeat the Executive Officer so bad that the man actually cried.
During those years at sea, I prepared myself as best I could. I read whatever books I could find.
It’s amazing the books you can find on a ship, besides the normal trash.
There’s an old saying in the Navy: When checking into a new ship, you want to get to know the baker, because they make the doughnuts, and the pharmacist’s mate, because they have the ibuprofen.
I would also look up the “smart” guys, because they had books that would help me.
When I finally made it to OCS, I had high expectations and I was not disappointed.
My classmates came from across America, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters.
They were a congenial lot, all recent graduates of well-known universities, with many varsity athletes among the group.
However, as pressure was gradually applied by what sociologists would term the “total institution,” our behavior would often disintegrate to something resembling a scene from the “Lord of the Flies.”
Since I already had eight years of skin in the game, I kept my head down and my mouth shut.
That year, Simon and Garfunkel had a popular song, “I Am a Rock.” Since we were all classified as ROCs (Reserve Officer Candidates), I took that song as my inspiration: As the song says: “I am a rock, and a rock feels no pain.”
For me, it was a boot camp of the brain.
Each Saturday morning, everyone’s cumulative average would be publicly posted, and if it fell below a certain point, you couldn’t go ashore for the day to stroll up and down Bellevue Avenue, among the mansions built by the 19th century fin de siècle railroad robber barons or, worst case, you would be disenrolled.
The attrition rate was rather high, approaching 30 percent.
You could talk to a person at taps and they would be gone without a trace at reveille – like spontaneous combustion.
My nemesis was celestial navigation. I could work my sextant, but I never did understand the mathematical concepts behind it. I survived by memorizing the formulas, the sun and moon tables and plugging in the values.
It’s a good thing I never became a ship’s navigator.
Back in the early 1960s, there were at least thirty ships homeported in Newport, and we spent a good deal of class time on the various types of ships that happened to be in port.
One day, we visited one of my old ships, and as we crossed the quarterdeck, the Officer of the Deck, a Chief Petty Officer, and one of my ex-bosses who used to run me ragged spotted me.
Very surprised, he blurted out: “Hornsby, how did YOU get into an officer program?”
I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself: “That’s for me to know and for you to find out, turkey.”
That particular ship was named the Herbert R. Calcaterra (DER-390), but everyone called it the “Dirty Herbie” because it was not a happy ship.
Every ship has a nickname which reflects how the crew feels about it.
For example, USS Dubuque (LPD-8) was known as “8-Ball” or “Da Duke;” the Ticonderoga (CG-47) was ‘Psycho-Tico;” the Ranger (CV-61) was known as “Danger Ranger,” or “Queen of the Bumper Boats;” the Lexington (CVT-16 ), long out of Pensacola and now a floating museum in Corpus Christi, Texas, was known as “Lady Lex” or the “Blue Ghost.” Shore bases also had nicknames. Groton, Connecticut, the big submarine base, was known as “Rotten Groton,” and San Diego, California, a dream assignment, was known as “Club Diego.”
Many of the monikers are unprintable, bringing to recall Eleanor Roosevelt famously saying that “Sailors have the cleanest bodies and the filthiest minds.”
In the 1980s, almost 20 years after I graduated from OCS, the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman” was popular.
The protagonist, Richard Gere, plays a sailor from the fleet who comes to OCS with a chip on his shoulder.
I saw it in the wardroom of the ship I was on at the time, off Beirut, Lebanon, and I couldn’t help but feel like I had missed something as I remembered my own OCS experiences.
I didn’t pick any fights, I wasn’t a card shark, I didn’t make extra money shining other people’s shoes, and there was no beautiful girl waiting for me outside the gate.
There was nothing but a ship whose nicknames were “Haze Grey and Underway” and “Long Gone.”
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at bennyhornsby.com.