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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Heading into the Unknown

Recruits heading to boot camp

A program called “Bundles for Britain” was set up in the U.S.  President Roosevelt armed the merchant ships that were participating in the convoys of foodstuff and war materials to England.  The president was still dealing with a very divided nation even after two American destroyers were sunk in the Atlantic.
Pacifists like Charles Lindbergh talked isolationism.  The German-American bunds were flourishing in the larger cities of the U.W.  Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact with Russia.  The “Axis”—Germany, Italy, and Japan—came into being.  In the newsreels Hitler ranted, Mussolini pranced and postured, and Premier Tojo of Japan grinned from behind his steel-rimmed spectacles.
Personally, I could only feel that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. would have to get into the war, just as it had happened in 1917 to stop the German Kaiser.  The thought of it starting for us in the Pacific never occurred to me in spite of the continued aggression of Japan in China.  I had paid very little attention to events in that part of the world.
It was the first day of July in 1940 when I went to the Federal Building in Portland.  The Navy recruiting office dug out my record, gave me a thorough new physical, and said they would take me.  The following week, a Chief Petty Officer came to our house and interviewed  my mother and father.  They signed the necessary consent form and on July 16th I received my orders to report on July 22nd.
I quite at the CC Store and left a recommendation with Mr. Garrison for my brother Rex.  (Rex subsequently worked there for a year when he got out of high school before the joined the Seabees.)  I said goodbye to my friends at Gearhart’s and to Patty Cross.  She cried a little bit and wished me good luck.
Breakfast was a bit strained on the morning of the 22nd.  Rex told me goodbye then he took the bicycle—his by the right of succession along with the large bedroom and my model airplane collection—to go off to mow someone’s lawn.  Little Sandra Dean, now a husky four-year-old, hugged me and could not understand why her brother Richard had to leave and now I was going also.  I promised to bring her a present when I came home and that mollified her.
I had packed a clean shirt and my toilet articles in the same little zippered bag Richard had carried when he left (it had been sent home by the Navy along with his civilian clothes).  I remember standing awkwardly in the kitchen to say goodbye to my mother.  My father had not gone to work that morning and would walk to the bus depot with me.
As I have said, we Ozark folks are not normally very demonstrative or given to displays of emotion.  My mother hugged me and smiled, although there was moisture in her blue eyes, and simply said, “You be a good boy, Conrad, and do what they tell you.  I know that both you and Richard are going to make us proud of you.  Go on new—Dad is waiting out front.”
I looked back as we walked off up the street.  Sandra was on the front porch waving to me.  I did not see my mother but I saw the curtain move in the front downstairs bedroom and knew that she was watching me go.  Mercifully, I could not see the warm tears that poured down her cheeks as she knelt there by the window.
Dad and I walked pretty much in silence, as I recall, all the way down to the depot, each with our own thoughts.  It reminded me of my drive from Bona to Fairplay with my grandfather in Missouri just three short years before.  Dad was never one to talk much, excepomwhen he had a few beers, and he had never given us advice after we got into high school unless we asked for it.  He turned to me when we got to the depot and were waiting for the Portland bus.  He held out a folded five-dollar bill.
“Here, boy, you might need this for something extra on your trip down,” he said gruffly and just as my grandfather had done three years before.
I shook my head.  “You keep it, Dad.  I got a couple of dollars of my own (I had not yet found the two-dollar bill my mother had tucked into my bag).  The Navy will take care of me when I get there.  They said that all our meals on the train would be furnished.  You keep it.”
“Never mind,” he said as he took my hand and pressed the folded bill into it.  “I give five to Richard when he left and I want you to have it.  You’ll find a use for it.”
I put the folded bill into my pocket.  He then placed a gnarled hand on my shoulder.  “Ain’t never been on to give unasked advice, Conard, and I hope me and your mother has raised you boys right.  We are proud of both of you.
“Ain’t been one to go to church, much, either, but I will tell you what my Uncle Jim told me when I left to go in the Army back in the World War.  You are liable to run into some rough times down the road there.  Just remember, a real man goes where the hand of the Lord leads him and he does what he has to do when he gets there.  Go on now son, the bus is loading.  Goodbye, boy.”
He dropped his head then, turned, and walked away down the street.  I boarded the bus and got a seat by the window.  As we pulled out, Dad had halted on the corner and was lighting his pipe.  I do not know if he saw me waving but I think he maybe did.
At the recruiting office in Portland, I quickly began to understand why they say that the military is a matter of “hurry up and wait”.  I cooled my heels all morning in an anteroom while other recruits gradually straggled in.  There was the Olsen brothers from Portland, a fellow from Astoria, two or three from the Chehalis area, one from Montana, and others I did not get a chance to talk to.  Finally, after they had sent us out with chits for lunch, we were gathered in an office and a Navy lieutenant came and administered the Oath of Allegiance.  We were now officially apprentice seamen in the United States Navy and they gave each of us a little certificate to prove it.
After we had been sworn in, we waited around for another hour or so, then we had another physical mostly to make sure we all met the height and weight requirements.  Later a yeoman came and handed out chits for a night at a hotel.  We were informed that we would not leave for San Diego until the following day after another batch of recruits arrived.  Those of us who were close to home could go home for the night if we wished.
I did not want to go back to Vancouver.  I had said my goodbyes and that was that.  I did not want to have to do it all over again.  I got together with a recruit from Montana—a tall, lanky young fellow whose name I no longer recall—and we had dinner on another Navy chit, then went to see the new movie “One Million B.C.” at the Coliseum Theater before we bedded down at a hotel.  The movie was good and, of course, I promptly fell in love with a new starlet, Raquel Welch.
The next day it was wait, wait, and wait again while more Pacific Northwest recruits straggled in from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.  Finally, around noon, we were told we would be catching the train to San Diego at twenty-two hundred hours.  It took us a minute to figure out that, on the Navy 24-hour clock, that meant ten p.m.
I had no desire for my family to come over and see me off like a kid leaving for summer camp, so I called the only one I thought of offhand that could drive a car which was Shirley Mills.  She came to Portland about eight o’clock after supper and picked me up in front of the Federal Building.
We drove to Portland Heights somewhere around the zoo and parked to talk and neck a little.  My heart was not in it, however, because I was looking eagerly forward to getting on that train.  I had her take me back to the station before nine-thirty.
I did not want Shirley hanging onto me and kissing me goodbye in front of the other recruits, so I insisted on leaving her there in front of the station so she would not have to go and park the car.  She was weeping a little bit.  I impulsively reached into my bag and produced the Oath of Allegiance I had signed.
“Here,” I said, “you can keep this for me until I get back.”
I got out of the car then and marched into the train station without looking back.  I do not know why I gave her the certificate—I should have sent it to my mother.  I most certainly was not in love with Shirley—she was just a fun date.
The Navy had provided a Pullman car for us and the porter had already made it up for the night when the thirty or so of us boarded.  I was assigned an upper bunk with only a small window beside me out of which to peer at the passing lights of the Willamette river waterfront.  It was not until the train had cleared the Portland suburbs and Oregon City and headed into the darkness of central Oregon that I began to feel the pangs of homesickness.
I lay there sleepless for a long time, thinking of home and knowing that my life would never again be the same.  I thought about what it would be like at breakfast in the morpnig, just the four of them—Mother, Dad, Rex and Sandra—with my chair and Richard’s empty and pushed out of the way from the table.
I thought, too, about the good friends I had left in Vancouver, particularly my confidant Patty Cross and lively and vivacious Elaine.  I vowed to myself to keep in touch with letters (and I did for a long time).
I was still lying awake when the train halted for a short time at Roseburg, Oregon.  This time it was not simply as if a door was closing behind me—this one seemed to literally clang shut.  There was another wide open in front of me, however.  I thought about that and the adventures to come.  When I finally fell asleep with my head on a slightly damp railroad pillow while the train was laboring up the mountain grades toward Mt. Shasta in the pre-dawn darkness, I was probably smiling because I relished the challenge of my strange new world.
(the best was yet to come.)

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