“A” School

  The Navy’s “Recruit Training Command” (a\k\a “Great Lakes”) lies north of Chicago on the west side of Lake Michigan.  While the winter weather was quite cold there in January and February of 1969, the only cold, damp, wind would come from the Lake Michigan  to its East, i.e., seldom.

  Newport, Rhode Island, on the other hand, is at the southern tip of a large island and, therefore, smack-dab surrounded by water.  Arriving there in mid-February, I found it to be even colder than the weather at boot camp.  One never went outside without one’s “peacoat” collar turned up. 

  As I stated in “Navy 1: Boot Camp”, I’d been assigned to Quartermaster “A” School to learn the basics of navigation.  My boot camp buddy, Ed, had also come to Newport to attend Signalman’s “A” School.  We wrongly believed that the full-time class setting would somewhat approximate what we’d experienced in college.  We’d mosey down to the classroom on our own sweet time and even run there when it was too cold to just walk.  NOPE!  That’s just not the Navy way.  We had to MARCH there in formation, just as we had in boot camp.  “Darn!” we said, “we thought we were now REAL sailors.”  I think that the real reason we had to march was the fact that the Officer Candidate Training school lie immediately next to our Quonset hut classroom.  The “OC’s” (OH-cees) marched everywhere they went and our enlisted command wanted to show that we could march as well as they.  Often our column would pass within an arm’s length of theirs and my “shipmates” would put me up to no good.  I had a strong voice and was selected to call the cadence for our column. “Hut, two, three, four” I’d sing out, but I was always sure to be about one-quarter of a beat off that of the OC’s cadence.  My cadence would override that of the OC’s leader to the extent that I could turn their entire column into a totally out-of-step “can of worms”. 

  In my senior year at King’s College, the Navy had bused me all the way from Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh to take the test for entrance to the OTC school.  While I did well enough on the test,  I wasn’t selected.  I later found out that I shouldn’t have been surprised by my non-selection.  They were turning down Eagle Scouts while I had never even joined the Boy Scouts.  We country boys in Sweet Valley didn’t need to have a troop, for we could go camping any day we chose.  From what I saw of the OC’s in Newport, they were just plain nuts and I would have quickly washed out.  Those fools had a game they played that made no sense at all.  They played “volleyball” using a medicine ball!  There was no “spiking”, just trying to toss that heavy ball, underhanded, over a standard volleyball net.  Can you say “rupture” ?  More than one fell over in pain.

  Classes in Quartermaster “A” school were pretty much like our boot camp tests, designed for the average high school grad and, therefore, quite simple to me.  We were taught to use the Loran “A”, a piece of electronic equipment that, by LOng RAnge Navigation, could tell us where on the globe we were at any given moment by comparing its readings to our charts (maps.)  We learned to use “dead reckoning” to figure out where we SHOULD be, given how long we’d been traveling on which heading from our last known position.  The curvature of the earth came into play when we could decide which of two like-colored navigational light aids (lighthouses and such)  we were seeing.  For example, given our height above the surface of the earth, we could see a given distance and, therefore, it couldn’t be that one light; it HAD to be the other one.  That training came into play later at Guantanamo Bay where we were told not to trust Cuban navigational aids that much because Castro had likely moved some of them.  We learned to be weathermen, for that duty was a collateral assignment of a quartermaster.  We used anemometers to measure wind speed and “wet-and-dry bulb” hygrometers for relative humidity.  Direction of the wind could be determined by comparing wave direction to our course. (If we were headed due North and the waves came from our starboard “right” side, then it was an easterly wind.)  Our most important instrument was the barometer, for if it fell by more than a certain amount within a certain time period, we were headed into a low which meant bad weather. In that event, we’d report it to the bridge.  We learned about chronometers, exceedingly-exact timepieces that could be used in the event we lost the signal to the National Bureau of Standards’ time-tick on WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado.  (WWV always knew the precise Greenwich Mean Time, based on atomic clocks at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.) As part of our cross-training into the realm of Signalman, we also ventured into semaphore (flag waving) and Morse Code (blinking light) but I wasn’t very good at either.  Ed said he also tried to learn some navigation.  All of this came easy to a college grad and I spent a good deal of my in-class time doodling.  I even managed an “Allan Sherman-esque” moment, writing new lyrics to Roger Miller’s “King Of the Road”. Ever the devout atheist, I titled mine “King Of the Jews” but I’ll refrain from listing those lyrics herein lest I offend my Christian audience members.

  Ex-president Dwight D. Eisenhower died on March 28, 1969, while I was in school and his death led to another learning moment for me.  Each day, before class, we were assigned to raise our “national ensign” (flag) on the flagpole outside the school.  To honor “Ike”, it was to be displayed at “half-mast”. (One can catch newscasters even today improperly saying “half-mast” when speaking about flags on buildings.  Building don’t have “masts”; only ships do. Buildings have flagstaffs and fly the ensign at “half-staff”.)  We “squids”, despite being on dry land outside our school, were learning everything we’d use on shipboard and, thus, properly said “half-mast”.)  The correct way to get to “half-mast” was to first raise the ensign to the top of the mast and then slowly lower it back down halfway.  At the end of the day, it would be returned to the top and then taken all the way back down and removed from the “lanyard” (rope). [Time for a slight diversion here while I explain a related flag-etiquette theory I’ve developed.  Why must one illuminate flags displayed at night?  I think it must be because we are plumb out of “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air” to give proof “through the night” that out flag is still there.  Nope!  We ain’t got none of those in most places like municipal buildings and such where you’ll find Old Glory unfurled 24/7.  Ergo, lest anyone doubt its presence, we MUST shine lights on it.]

  The Newport area bustles with tourists in the summertime but most of them took the tour called the Cliff Walk.

On a high overlook above the Atlantic Ocean are many mansions built by wealthy families with names like Vanderbilt and Aster.  In downtown Newport proper, one can find the Truro Synagogue, the oldest such structure in North America.   I personally visited Truro and found it quite interesting.  For the most part, the high school grads in our class lolled about central Newport.  Many were taken in by the “carnies” outside jewelry shops who’d lure them with zircons and other jewelry that likely would, under the weakest jeweler’s loupe, quickly prove to be no more than paste.  “Buy a present for your mother and girlfriend”, they’d shill.  “Easy terms and free shipping back to your hometown.”  For many youngsters, it was their first time away from home and they fell for these spiels.  They’d buy an overpriced bauble or two, signing up for payroll deductions which would likely last for their entire hitch.  The “carnies” had more than met their match in me.  I’d stop them cold with “My Mom died when I was 6.  I have no girlfriend but I DO have a B.S. in Accounting that lets me see the usurious rates you’re charging on the financing.  Get out of my face!!” Another downtown location was Thames Street, pronounced as if it rhymed with James.  I don’t recall any “carnies” along there, but there were shops selling other touristy trinkets such as scrimshaw. 

  Ed and I made a few day trips to see other sites.  Once or twice we simply lolled around the campus of Brown University over in Providence, to relive the sights and sounds of our college years.  It sure was good to see college girls again!  LOL  Just 20 miles up the road from Newport is Fall River, Massachusetts and we toured the battleship “Massachusetts” but passed on visiting Lizzie Borden’s house.   [For the record, she was acquitted.]

  Boston wasn’t that far away from Providence and we decided it warranted an overnighter.  We’d heard of a cheap Navy YMCA where we could stay.  We weren’t exactly sure of its location but we boarded a subway train and headed in its general direction.  The subway in Boston was known, at that time, by a name I’ve never encountered in any other city.  They were called “subway-surface cars” for, indeed, while they may start out underground, they eventually emerged above ground and continued their runs.  Being tourists, Ed and I weren’t aware of the fare structure and we ran smack dab into what the Kingston Trio had sung about in 1959.  In “MTA”, they sang about poor Charlie who encountered a fare hike he couldn’t cover.  Composers Bess Hawes and Jacqueline Steiner had written “When he got there, the conductor told him "one more nickel"

Charlie couldn't get off of that train”. They went on to say “Charlie's wife goes down to the Scollay Square station every day at quarter past two; and through the open window she hands Charlie a sandwich as the train comes rumblin' through… He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston; he's the man who never returned”.  Ed and I only spotted the Y after the train had emerged in daylight, made one stop, and then started up again.  We SHOULD have gotten off at that first stop, as the Y was back over our left shoulders.  As we stepped forward to get off at the second, sure ‘nuff—we had to pay another ten cents!!  Apparently, the motorman couldn’t tell from our tickets that we had NOT just climbed on at the first stop. He was charging us for the distance between the first and second stops.  Golly, you’d think the MTA would have been kinder to sailors in “full dress blues”. After all, we WERE out to make southeast Asia safe for democracy.

  “Full dress blues” were not all that different from our “undress blues” that we wore on-ship or on-base.  The bell-bottom pants remained the same and, basically, we just changed our shirt or “blouse” and added a neckerchief\tie.  The “undress blues” blouse was a simple Navy blue with no adornment but the “full dress blues” blouse had white piping on the cuffs and on the flap that hung back over the shoulders.  Navy regs decreed that one wear the “full dress blues” when traveling on orders but we were free to switch to civvies when otherwise off-station.  We had been told by other “squids” about the advantage of traveling off-station in “full dress blues”;  it entitled us to substantial discounts.  [It was also a big advantage when hitchhiking, for motorists were more likely to pick up a soldier or sailor rather than a hippie.]  Interstate buses like Greyhound gave us something like 50% off and the USO always had free tickets to any movie in town.  Ed and I did go to see a movie and we also took in a Red Sox game at Fenway Park for a reduced admission fee.  I can’t recall who they played or the final score but I do know that we had great box seats along the first-baseline.  Fenway was, and probably still is, the smallest major-league ballpark. We could nearly shake hands with a pitcher making his way in to the dugout from the right-field bullpen. 

  We also wandered about Boston on foot, enjoying its many historical sites.  We visited silversmith Paul Revere’s house and old North Church where the two lanterns had been hung (the Brits had come up the Charles River, or basically, “by sea”.)   Faneuil Hall was an interesting site, for we could stand on the very ground once trod by Samuel Adams and his Sons Of Liberty compatriots.   The USS Constitution (a\k\a “Old Ironsides”) was of particular interest because we found it to be still in commission and, thereby, manned by modern-day sailors like us.  We spotted the Bunker Hill monument, but it was way across a bridge about a mile away and our feet were sore, so we passed on getting closer.

  Boston Commons was a surprising sight.  During my four years at King’s College, I’d often hitched to New York City, chiefly to visit the porn shops on Times Square, but I had never ventured far enough north to see Central Park.  Boston Commons, therefore, was an interesting find for a country boy from Sweet Valley.  It was a HUGE green expanse, right in the middle of a major city!   The “Summer Of Love” had passed, a continent away (Haight-Ashbury, SF) and  two years earlier, but unreconstructed hippies still held sway in the park.  Playing their folk tunes, they sat on (and maybe even smoked) the grass while, nearby, families picnicked. 

  Graduation day at Quartermaster “A” school was no big deal.  Classes simply ended and we were awarded our “striker badges” to be sewn on our left arm, right above our three white stripes.  A Quartermaster’s “striker badge” consisted of an embroidered depiction of a four-spoked, eight-handled helm (steering wheel) from an old sailing ship.  In boot camp, I had been obliged to sew on my  own three stripes but now, out in the “real Navy”,  I did what all other sailors have done for time immemorial; I headed down to the nearest dry cleaners and paid them to do it.  I felt secure with my striker’s badge for it protected me.  It said “He’s been to school.  He WILL become a Quartermaster and woe betide anyone who tries to turn him into a deck ape.”  Quite satisfied with my accomplishment, I readily looked forward to my first assignment; the USS Conyngham (DDG 17)  in Norfolk, VA.  Little did I expect the treatment I’d receive there.

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

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