MY LIFE IN THE NAVY

CHAPTER 8

HOSPITAL

If you happen to stumble across this page not knowing to what else it is connected, go to My Life In The Navy and start at the beginning with “Chapter 1- Boot Camp”.

Around the middle of July, 1970, my back began to give me a lot of trouble.  Perhaps it had been the Charlie working parties carrying foodstuffs aboard Hammerberg or else toting LORAN C all the way up to the chart house.  Whatever the cause, my back hurt so danged bad that I often could barely walk.  I’d gone down to the ship’s sick bay once but didn’t get much relief there.  A DE only rates one corpsman and ours was a goofy fellow who was an HMC (Hospitalman Chief).  A tall and lanky lifer who favored wearing cowboy boots, he refused to believe that I was seriously hurt.  Back problems were far beyond his ken, for he was limited to CPR and other emergency procedures that might save one’s life.  He gave me a shot of a muscle relaxant and sent me on my way.

The pain grew more severe.  I recall one mid watch on the quarterdeck where my job was as Messenger Of the Watch.  I was awakened about 2300 by the current messenger but skipped my chance to go to the mess deck for “mid rats” (mid watch rations), which was a light meal prepared for those about to stand the mid watch from 2400 to 0400.  Instead of eating, I spent the better part of an hour trying to get dressed in my darkened berthing space.  Getting my socks on was the hardest part and I spent about 15 minutes sitting on the hard steel deck nearly crying because I hurt so much.  I made it through that watch somehow but the very next morning I eased my way EVER SO SLOWLY down the ladder to sick bay again.

The “doc” gave me some pain pills but, as soon as I walked out his door, I collapsed on the deck, unable to stand up again.  Doc muttered “Damned goldbricker!” and called for the stretcher crew, figuring their appearance would embarrass me into standing.  I fooled him, as it were. They struggled mightily, about 4 guys, and got me out onto the pier.  A Navy ambulance came and hauled me off to a “sick bay” ashore on the Naval Base rather than the official Naval Hospital. 

The base sick bay ashore was staffed by many more corpsmen and even a few doctors.  They took an X-ray of my spine but, seeing no obvious damage, put me back aboard the ambulance.  This time I was headed for our tender, the USS Puget Sound, which had a much larger sick bay than did Hammerberg.  Heck, I don’t think OUR sick bay had a bed for even one patient and the Puget Sound had several.  The corpsmen unloaded the gurney on the pier and then tried to get me to stand up and walk to the tender.  I screamed and cursed so severely at them that they soon abandoned that plan.  “Off to the hospital with him” was the new order.

The route to the Naval Hospital took us off-base and on civilian roads before re-entering the base.  I had little, if any, pain as long as I was lying flat and I could even raise my head a bit.  I looked out the rear window of the ambulance at one point and saw two nuns following us in a car.  As is human nature, they were straining their necks to catch a glimpse of the poor wounded soul inside the ambulance.  Ever the little devil, I flashed them a  peace sign and they danged near ran off the road.  LOL

At the hospital, my gurney was placed in the hallway outside X-ray and promptly forgotten.  I must have lain there for 45 minutes but it was not time wasted.  I concocted another bit of joviality.  I’d pull the sheet completely over my head, lie very, very still, and wait until someone came along.  I’d hear their footsteps stop as they took me to be a corpse and then I’d let out a hearty “BOO!”  I caught about 3 victims before a corpsman came to wheel me into X-ray.

It was decided that I needed what passed for an MRI in those days.  It was FAR from what we know today.  They first needed to inject some sort of dye into my spinal column and, to do so, had to have the column fully extended outward so they could find the exact injection point.  Two corpsmen dang near killed me as they parked me on the side of the table and proceeded to lean on my shoulders.  DAMN, that hurt!  Once the fluid was injected, they tilted the table so I went from head-down to nearly standing up and a doctor watched the progress of the fluid on a live fluoroscopic picture.  “Yep” he said, “I see a little detour around L5-SI.  Put him on complete bed rest.”  I was admitted to the orthopedic (ortho) ward.

The ward had about 20 beds, with 10 on each side of a long room.  It was staffed 24/7 by shifts of enlisted corpsmen, none higher than HM3 and a staff of nurses who were either Ensigns or Lieutenant JG’s.  (I think their head nurse was a full-fledged Lieutenant.)  An ortho doc would stop by to see me daily but, other than that, I just laid there on muscle relaxants, having no need of pain pills as long as I could lie still.  The worst part of being bedridden was having to use a bed pan but I found myself less and less in need of one as the days passed.  It seems that gravity plays a big role in helping one’s peristalsis [“successive waves of involuntary contraction passing along the walls of a hollow muscular structure (as the esophagus or intestine) and forcing the contents onward”], per http://m-w.com/  Absent the pull of gravity that standing would have provided, things DO tend to get backed up.  After about of week of severe constipation, they finally gave me some Ex-Lax and I filled three bedpans!

The corpsmen themselves were pains in the butt.  At the end of the ward was a sunroom where the coffee maker was located but, no matter how much we wheedled and cajoled them, they simply wouldn’t bring us as much java as we wanted.  I firmly resolved to the rest of the ward that, when I got back on my feet, we’d have plenty of coffee.

The nurses were, for the most part, awfully nice but I did have a minor problem with one or two of them.  They let their rank go to their heads and seemed to lord it over us poor enlisted men.  I was quite perturbed and let them know that they didn’t have THAT much more education (if any) than I did.

During my initial bed rest, I learned two important items.  The most important was that good ole Smitty, who had initially disliked me, had recommended me for third class!!  I think it was related to the second thing I learned, that Hammerberg was being re-home ported to Naples, Italy!  It would make a swell place from whence to launch searches for Russian subs with our new equipment.  Smitty had, up till now, been getting by with just us four QMSN’s and it would look better to go to the Med with at least one QM3 aboard.  I don’t think either Yarashas or Wolfe flat out gave a damn about advancing and I’m not sure if either one had ever even done the correspondence course as I had had, way back on the Conyngham a year earlier.  Coggins, as I’ve said, was fresh out of both high school and boot camp.  As it turned out, I was the only one of the four that Smitty had recommended.  My division officer, who was only a few months older than me, got special permission to bring the QM3 test to the hospital and I took it while lying flat on my back.

I spent nearly 3 weeks in bed before the decision was made that I needed an operation.  Once that was decided, it took place quite quickly, on my 24th birthday, August 17, 1970.  My ortho surgeon was one Dr. Burton Pearl, who must have been from somewhere around Philly for he told me he’d done some work for the Philadelphia Eagles.  I told him “If you can operate on millions of dollars worth of football flesh, you certainly can cut on me” and I readily signed the consent form.  As I was wheeled into surgery, I told the corpsmen that, since it was my birthday, I deserved a present.  I chose the green cloth surgery cap that would keep my hair in place.  It was washable and, thereby, could be sterilized and re-used but I figured they could spare one.

Dr. Pearl performed what was known as a laminectomy http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-laminectomy.htm between the  5th lumbar and 1st sacral vertebrae (L5-S1) on the right side of my spinal column.  That definition may not match exactly how things were done in 1970 but it ought to be close to correct.  In laymen’s terms, he “removed my ruptured disk”.  When I came to in the recovery room, the first thing I noted was the little green surgery cap lying at my side.  The corpsmen HAD remembered!  (I still have that cap in a drawer somewhere.) Then I immediately noticed that I had no feeling at all below both knees.  “Ohmigod, you’ve paralyzed me!” I cried out.  “Not to worry—we’ve just wrapped you with ace bandages to prevent clots.”  Gosh, you think they COULD have warned me about that.

The very day after the surgery, I was back in my bed on the ward.  Dr. Pearl, maybe two other ortho docs, and two corpsmen and one nurse all surrounded my bedside.  They told me I was going to stand up, an idea that wasn’t too appealing since I could never forget how much it’d had hurt when I came onto the ward.  They certainly knew their stuff, though, namely that my leg muscles would have atrophied some after weeks in bed and I might fall.  One corpsman took hold of each of my arms and the docs stood closely by to help if needed.  They slowly got me up and HOORAY!  I felt no pain whatsoever.  They walked me back and forth for a total of maybe 20 paces and then let me lie down again.  Enough for one day.  Dr. Pearl asked “How long have you been in this man’s Navy?” and I told him “about 18 months, why?”  He said “We found some scar tissue in there but you haven’t been walking around with that disk for that long.  It’s definitely a service-connected injury.”  I gave him more ammo on which to base that decision; that my record should reflect my having gone to sick bay once in Gitmo with a back complaint.  The next day, the corpsmen were back twice and we did the walking over again absent any docs.  By the third day, although I was supposed to wait for the corpsmen, I started taking unaccompanied strolls down the length of the ward. Though they saw me, they raised no objections.   By the fourth day, the entire ward was overflowing with coffee as I kept my promise.  I’d meander down to the sunroom, make about 8 pots a day, and hand it out to all who wanted it.

Several other patients on the ortho ward were memorable.  One younger fellow had the exact same surgery a few days before I did but he apparently didn’t believe it wouldn’t hurt to get up.  Despite the docs’ strong urgings, he was content to lie there and bat his little “trapeze” back and forth all day.  I volunteered to help.  I went over to his bed and harangued him all to he**.  “You damn sad sack!  I stood up the next day and you’ve been there a week!  If you don’t get up now, you’ll NEVER get up!  You wanna spend the rest of your life there or in a wheelchair?”  After about my third visit, he agreed.  We got the corpsmen and he stood, pain-free!  He and the docs later thanked me immensely.

The knee injuries were the oddest lot.  For the first few days after surgery, they’d nearly scream in pain if the doc even LOOKED real hard at their leg.  Within three weeks, they’d be having wheelchair races up and down the ward.

Wilkonski was another interesting patient who’d been on the ward for quite some time when I arrived.  He’d been in one helluva car wreck and sustained serious spinal injuries to the extent that, even now, he couldn’t be rolled over in bed the usual way.   He was confined to a Stryker frame bed http://www.public.asu.edu/~gimpy/Circle8.jpg which we all just called a “Merry-Go-‘round” bed.  He wasn’t a very heavy fellow to begin with, having never weighed, I guess, more than 130 pounds.  After such a long period of being confined to bed, he’d lost even more weight and was barely more than skin and bones.  We all cheered for him the day when he’d finally recovered enough to get into a wheelchair and move about the ward.  Sick to death of using a bedpan, the first place he headed to off-ward was the head, to use a normal commode.  Inside of ten minutes, we heard  the poor S.O.B. hollering for help.  His butt had shrunken so much that he got stuck on the john and two corpsmen had to lift him out!  I and another college boy on the ward, Tyrkleson, quickly assigned Wilkonski the nickname “Gluteus MINIMUS”, a name that made him mad as all get out.

Tyrkleson had been in a car wreck, too, but his main injury involved his right forearm, on which he wore a brace.  Like my earlier buddy, Ed, from boot camp and “A” school days, Tyrkleson and I found quite a bit in common.  I don’t recall his college major but, in the Navy, he was a yeoman on a submarine (a “sub-human” he called himself) and the forearm injury severely hindered his typing ability.  When we got off the ward and lived in an outbuilding, we’d take a bus to downtown Newport to see movies and just hang around among civilians.  The bus passed a cemetery which Tyrkleson referred to as a “rock garden”.

Smitty had come to see me when I was first hospitalized back in July, before it had been determined how badly I was hurt.  (None of the other three QMSN’s bothered to stop by.)  As I have said, my Division Officer also came by to administer my QM3 exam.  From one or the other (and maybe both), I learned that Hammerberg was leaving in late August for her new home port in Naples.  When it turned out that I needed an operation, it quickly became evident that I wouldn’t be aboard when she left.  Following my operation, I worked daily at building up the strength in my legs, traipsing up and down the ward, and, eventually, outside.  I had one main goal, to salute goodbye to Hammerberg as she left, sailing under the Newport bridge within sight of the lawn of the hospital.  I called the ship and learned the departure date was August 26, a mere 9 days after my surgery. I worked daily at building up the strength in my legs, traipsing up and down the ward serving coffee, and, eventually, outside.  I hadn’t practiced on stairs yet so I found my way outside by heading down a wheelchair ramp.  Merely climbing over a curb onto the lawn proved to be a challenge but I mastered it.  (I didn’t bothered to ask Dr. Pearl if I should try this.)  I’d made arrangements with the signalmen and they knew where to look onshore as they passed.  Using semaphore with no flags to wave, I sent them a three-letter farewell, using the same three letters (A, M, and F) as the deck apes had inscribed on the balloon they’d released as we left Gitmo.  The signalmen responded in kind with their signal light.  Other former Hammerbergers were less kind, throwing eggs from the Newport Bridge.

I believe I stayed on the orthopedic ward for about 3 weeks, until early September, 1970.  The Navy called in a civilian specialist who measured me for a back brace and then I got to go home for a week or ten days.  During that leave, I reverted to my old ways, “chasin’ wimmin’” with my buddy Jess Peiffer.  I found that the females took a great deal of pity on a poor, wounded, sailor so I made sure to wear my dress blues over my brace.  I was hesitant to try the fast dances but each slow dance would find me snuggled against the largest bosom I could spot!  I took up with a Polish gal from Glen Lyon, a relationship that lasted until I returned to civilian life, and Jess went out for a while with her girlfriend. 

Upon my return from leave, I received my next assignment.  I was to go work on “limited shore duty” at the Port Control office of the Newport Naval Base.  I’d be back and forth between there and the hospital compound several times over the next 8 months, for further checkups. 

“Port Control-Newport” was located in an office on the third deck of a building on the base and my legs got even stronger as I traversed the steps just going to work. Port Control was just as the name implies.  We were in charge of everything that moved into and out of the waterways of Newport.  The office was headed up by two Warrant Officers (WO’s) who, in Navy lingo, were “mustangs”, i.e., enlisted men who had worked their way up to officer rank.  Even still, while senior to the “MCPO’s “ (Master Chief Petty Officers – E9), the WO’s were junior to the lowest true officer rank, that of a “JG” (Lieutenant, Junior Grade). We had one “SCPO” (Senior Chief Petty Officer – E8), a first-class radarman (RD1), two PO2’s whose rating I don’t recall, and me.  We worked an 8-to-4 normal 40-hour work week with a 3-section overnight duty schedule about which I will speak later. 

Our major duty was making sure that tugs were available at the proper time to assist ships getting underway or coming in to be moored.  We monitored two radio channels, one for the ships and one for the tugs.  Generally, there’d only be 4 or 5 ships’ movements a week and the daily office work was fairly hum-drum. One thing that was constant was the continuing demand by the moored ships to have a tug bring an ODR (Oil Disposal Rig) alongside so that the snipes could rid their bilge tanks of excess oily water.  [As mentioned in my previous chapter, the Navy COULD have invented a PDR (Poop Disposal Rig) to dispose of sewage, too, but they didn’t.]  There always seemed to be a waiting list for the ODR’s and we “office sailors” used that to our advantage.  As seen in 90% of war movies, we were noted “scroungers”.  For a couple of large tins of coffee, we could be persuaded to move a ship up on the waiting list.  I don’t think we ever bought any coffee, just such creamer and sugar as we needed.  Ships headed for Newport would radio in a day or two ahead of their arrival time and we’d schedule the tugs to assist.  A radio shack on the second deck of our building would also receive the ship’s “grocery list” of stores they’d need when they got in.  The radiomen would print it out and deliver it up to our office.  We’d call over to the warehouse and read it off to the storekeepers.

During my initial assignment to Port Control, the word came through; I had been promoted to QM3 effective November 1, 1970!  I still had my “USS Hammerberg” patch on my right shoulder but now my left upper arm could swap its three white diagonal stripes and striker’s badge for an official third-class red chevron.  In boot camp we’d had to manually sew our stripes on but now, “out in the real Navy”, I hied on down to the local dry cleaners and had my  chevron professionally sewn on.  Back at the office, I dreaded what I KNEW was to come.  It is traditional that PO’s senior to you get to “tack on your crow” (the eagle above the chevron) by winding up and punching the insignia as hard as they could.  I swear that the one second-class darned near broke my arm!

Port Control was, by necessity, manned 24/7 which meant that some of us had to stay overnight.  The WO’s and the chief always got to go home at 1600 while we junior enlisted covered the overnights with whatever officer (a JG or Ensign) the base sent over.  With the 3-section duty, every third day I and the first-class Radarman come in at 0800, work the full day, stay overnight, and then work the next day, too.  On the third weekend, the duty ran from 0800 on Friday until 0800 on Monday and then we’d have Monday off.  There were two bunk rooms adjacent to our office; one for the officer, and the other with two bunks for us enlisted.  The Radarman and I would take turns sleeping during the night because manning the radio required only one man. 

About 95% of the ships coming into Newport were US Navy vessels and they knew the routine.  They would hardly ever schedule their arrival for a weekend because they knew the tug crews liked to work just a 40-hour week.  [Like in Port Control, there was always one tug on duty for the weekend but mooring generally required two tugs.] The Coasties were a bit different and sometimes they’d forget.  A third type of vessel was in a class by itself.  These were the USNS ships, owned by the Navy but operated by the Merchant Marines.  Typically, they were coming back from McMurdo Station down in the Antarctic and, having traveled so far, they would darn well come in WHENEVER they got home.  These latter two types of vessels ran into a conflict one Sunday morning while I was the only one awake.  The radio blurted “Port Control Newport, this is Coast Guard Cutter Sassafras.  Request permission to enter port.”  It didn’t take me long to realize that there was only one real answer to give them, “NO!” I didn’t even bother to wake up the officer or the third-class.  I simply radioed back “Uh, Sassafras, request you remain vicinity of Block Island.  I have no tugs to assist you; they’re all up river at Davisville (a Seabee base) assisting the USNS that just came in.  Will advise when tugs available.”  I then got on the tug radio and told them to give me a heads-up when they started back down river.  When they came back with an ETA, I relayed that to the Coasties and all went well.  Gee, I felt all-powerful.  I, a mere QM3, had stopped an entire Coastie cutter!  Both the officer and the third-class, when they woke up, commended me for doing the only thing that could have been done. 

The building that housed Port Control Newport sat on a small island on the Naval Base, not far from the Naval War College and the base movie theater.  It was about a one-quarter mile walk back across a little bridge to my barracks and the base mess hall, a walk that was enjoyable in nice weather.  Some of my fellow office mates had cars and, on colder weekdays, I could hitch a ride with them to lunch.  The officers who came to stay overnight with me and the Radarman on weekends always had an official car that we enlisted weren’t supposed to drive but we could usually con the Ensign or JG into letting us take it to meals.  Had we had an accident, we probably would have been court-martialed.

During my assignment to Port Control I lived in a really nice new, cinder-block barracks in a 3-man room.  I’m not sure to what duties my roommates were assigned.  One, a third-class named Larkin, was a fine fellow but the other guy, a second-class high school dropout, was a rowdy drunk. He’d come in raising hell, picking on me about my education, and, since he outranked me, try to order me to shine his shoes.  I was lucky that Larkin was always able to settle him down.  

In that same barracks were some Filipinos, all of whom were stewards attending the commissary “A” school, learning how to cook for the officers they’d be serving.  Since I have an affinity for languages, I hung around with them and learned a few phrases in their national dialect, Tagalog.  It was amazingly similar to Spanish from, I reckon, Magellan having sailed through the Philippines.  Initially, I felt very sorry for them because it seemed they were subject to severe discrimination.  EVERY Filipino could only be a steward, or essentially, an officer’s valet; cooking his meals, doing his laundry, making his bed, and other menial tasks.  NONE ever got to be a quartermaster like me, or a signalman.  They quickly corrected that mistaken impression.  They were all extremely HAPPY with their lot in life!  They had come from extreme poverty back in the islands and had been given such a wonderful opportunity.  If they’d serve 20 years as a steward, they would get around the usual immigration quota and be granted US citizenship.  With their Navy retirement pay in hand, they could then go home and live in the upper middle class.  They DID suffer one wee bit of discrimination, however, but it was no worse than for any other Resident Alien.  As I discovered while helping them file their Federal Income Tax, I had to use a column other than the one I used for mine.  They paid a higher tax rate. 

Thanksgiving, 1970, rolled around while I was still on my initial assignment to Port Control.  Things were looking up for me.  As a QM3, I had more money than ever in my pocket and, living in a new nice barracks, I had more room for personal items than I’d had aboard ship. The WT Grant store was running a special: spend at least $100 and get a free turkey.  I decided I needed a new stereo system to replace the $5 cheapo I’d bought from a roommate back at King’s College.   My new steward buddies stashed the turkey in their school freezer for a day or two until I was ready to head home for the holiday.  I caught a ride with a fellow headed for Hazleton, PA and, with the turkey in my sea bag, I headed home for the holiday.  I’d called my sister-in-law to tell her I had the turkey coming.  My foolish brother, Cliff, insisted on coming to meet me along the highway.  I tried to dissuade him by saying “You don’t know squat about the Intestate Highway system.  You’ll get lost.  I’ll be hitching and can’t tell WHEN I’ll reach the intersection of I-81 and I-80.”  He wasn’t convinced.  I reached the appointed site well after dark and there was no trace of his car.  I figured he might be sitting on the wrong ramp of the cloverleaf but it was too dangerous to go climbing over guardrails and trying to cross several busy lanes of traffic in the dark while wearing my dress blues, so I didn’t even try.  A trucker picked me up and took me a bit out of his way, down into East End Wilkes-Barre.  It was way too late to try to get to Sweet Valley and I decided to try to hole in the King’s dorm for the night.  I called Cliff’s house to tell of my plan and my sister-in-law was all upset “Ohmigod!  They didn’t come home yet!  They must have been in an accident!  He had your Dad and the kids with him!”  All I could say was “I TOLD that damn fool not to try it.”    From a pay phone booth I called a cab.  The taxi driver, hearing of my destination, had a better plan.  He knew some folks from Hunlock Creek who owned a bar in Wilkes-Barre and he took me there.  I hung around there and then those kind folks took me all the way to Dad’s house after they closed at 2 AM.    Dad didn’t have a freezer large enough for the turkey so we just left it sit on the table.  It needed to thaw anyway.

In December, I was re-assigned back to the hospital for a re-evaluation.  This time, I lived in an outbuilding barracks on the hospital grounds rather than in the orthopedic ward.  There were maybe 20 other fellows there and we spent our time doing whatever our injuries would allow.  Guys who could push brooms did so and even those in wheelchairs would dust whatever they could reach. One fellow was most memorable.  He was an “old” (I was only 24) black guy of maybe 45 or 50 year old.  He had only one or two stripes so it was obvious he must have been busted along the way.  His name was Crosby and his story was that he was the father of Bill Cosby.  I found the story to be quite unbelievable for, at that time, Bill Cosby was well into his career, with several best-selling comedy LP’s.  Most athletes\entertainers will run right out and buy new home and cars for their folks with the first money they earn.  No way Bill’s Dad could still be in the Navy!  “Cosby” was a nice chap and I didn’t challenge his story.  I did, however, slide in one little trick question.  I asked “What are ya doin’ for Christmas, Cosby?  Goin’ back to Philly?” I calculated that a phony would not know that Bill Cosby’s home town was Philadelphia.  He replied “No, I’m going out to LA to visit my son.”  Again, I didn’t challenge him.  I went home to Sweet Valley on leave and, as it happened, was watching late-night TV.  Sonuvagun!  Seated right next to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show was none other than Bill Cosby!  How COULD  a phony have known that Bill was going to be in LA at that time or, maybe, lived there?  [As this is written in February, 2008, I await a response from Bill to a letter I sent him by way of his publisher about 3 weeks ago.  I made it clear that I didn’t expect him to tell me WHY his Dad would have still been in the Navy in 1970; only to confirm that if it was truly his Dad I met.  I really don’t expect him to answer but, nonetheless, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.]

SEE UPDATE AT THE END OF THIS CHAPTER

My recovery from surgery was progressing nicely so, in January, 1971, I went back to Port Control.  The day-to-day office routine had stayed as described above and one great facet of my duty there hasn’t yet been told.  I’ve mentioned the 3-setion duty that had me spending every third weekend at the office from Friday morning until Monday morning.  At the other extreme, the opposite third weekend saw me with five consecutive days off, days that weren’t even charged as leave.  As an E-4 with two years of service, I was making $312.90 a month and could afford to go to Sweet Valley often.  I was never in a hurry to get there, so I’d hitch home and then fly back most of the time.  If I chose to take the slow way back to Newport, I’d hitch into New York City and loiter around the Port Authority bus terminal in downtown Manhattan.  Port Authority on a late Sunday afternoon would be filled with squids looking for a ride.  I’d buy a $9 bus ticket to be safe and then hang around.  Sailors living in the NCY or northern NJ areas would drive to Port Authority and call out “Anybody for Boston?  Anybody for Charleston or Norfolk?”  I’d find a guy who had room for me, go trade in my bus ticket, give him $5, and jump in with maybe 3 or 4 other riders.  It was during one of these trips that I first encountered marijuana.  [In my four years at King’s College, I’d HEARD of guys who smoked pot but I never met any.]  One or two riders offered me a toke as they lit up but I politely declined.  Mistaking pot’s effect for that of LSD, I told them “No, I’ll just stay straight and catch you as you try to jump out of the window.”  They never did get that crazy as the car filled with that sweet aroma.  They’d just get all giggly and silly and then drift off to sleep.

Back at the new barracks on the base, I met another memorable character. His story proved to me that, no matter HOW bad off you think you are, you can always find someone who’s worse off.  This first-class PO had had some sort of “ostomy” surgery but yet, he thought I was in REALLY sad shape with my back brace.  Amazed, I asked “You’re poopin’ in a bag and you think __I__ have it bad?”

It must have been February or March of 1971 when I reported back to the hospital for the final time.  Dr. Pearl looked me over, was satisfied with my recovery, and asked me the BIG question: “Well, Hontz, do you want to get out or go back to duty?”  I pondered it for only 30 seconds and decided it was safe to choose the discharge option.  There was no way I could be faulted as a goldbricker any more, not after having had major back surgery.  Additionally, I didn’t think the docs would take a chance on sending me back to duty against my wishes.  If I got hurt again it would look bad on their records.  I told him “Doc, you gotta be ****in’ kiddin’ me!  You know how good the money is on the outside.  I had just graduated from King’s College and had $50 or $60 in my pocket for the first time in my life.  Then BAM! Back on the bottom as an enlisted man. Let me go back to where the real money is.”  He fully understood that position for, I think, he, too, had been “drafted” by the Navy.  There was a war on, after all.  Pearl said “OK” and told me he had to get Dr. Lindsey and another of his cohorts to sign the paperwork. 

I believe it took about another week for the papers to get finished and then I had a meeting with a Veterans’ Administration rep.  I must give the Navy and the VA credit.  They can screw up a lot of things but, on this point, they totally had their act together.  I would get the application for VA benefits started even before I got my medical discharge.  A VA man came to the hospital once a week to do just that.  I met with him in a basement office and he explained how the money would work.  I hadn’t served long enough to earn a pension from the Navy. I think only lifers got that.  Instead, the Navy would give me lump-sum severance pay equal to two months’ base pay for each year I had served and then the VA would pay me monthly after I got out.  My severance pay would be right around $1,200.  The VA rated my service-connected injury as 40%, which would be $100 a month.  One couldn’t double-collect for any period of time, so the Navy’s $1,200 lump sum would count as being the VA’s first 12 months’ worth of payment. Then, in the 13th month after discharge, the VA would start their $100.  As an accounting major, I understood fully and happily signed the papers.

I went back to the base and Port Control for what I thought would be a fairly short period of time.  The Navy takes great care to make sure its departing sailors are in as fine a shape as possible.  In my case, that meant dental appointments as they fixed what they could, pulled what they couldn’t fix, and, eventually, gave me both upper and lower partials.  Initially, I didn’t mind all that much, for, as I have described, work in Port Control was easy and I got to go home every third weekend.  Knowing that only retired lifers have post-discharge access to the Navy Exchange, I made sure I stocked up on things I could use in civvie life.  One item I recall was a good supply of bath towels, which cost only about a quarter each.  I was still using those Navy towels some twenty years later.

As the weeks wore on, though, I started getting itchy as I could smell the good money “on the outside” calling me.  I tracked down the office where my discharge papers were being prepared and proceeded to make a nuisance of myself.  One lady got sick of seeing me every other day and she told me so in no uncertain terms.  I responded with “What are you, a GS-3 clerk\typist?  Well I’m a GS-7out in the world, so I outrank you!”

The paperwork was finally finished and I was handed my DD 214N form on May 4, 1971.  It said that I had served a total of 2 years, 1 month, and 25 days, which didn’t count the “bad time” from July 31 to October 18,1969 (2 months and 18 days) when I had been AWOL.   It cited that I was being discharged under honorable conditions due to physical disability and had received severance pay.  The “reenlistment code” given was “RE-3P” which I was told meant I couldn’t reenlist absent written permission of the Secretary Of the Navy.  I told them “Don’t worry, you WON’T see me ever again!” and headed home to Sweet Valley.

The very day after I got home, I headed over to my draft board in Kingston, PA; the very same board that had sought to make cannon fodder of me in 1968.  I showed them my DD 214N and they said “OK, you’re being reclassified as 4A.”  [Draft classifications were two-part; the number indicated the order in which you’d be called (1 and then 2, 3, and 4) and the letter described your physical profile.  A 4F would be the ultimate “bottom of the barrel”.]  I immediately protested, saying “Wait a sec!  There’s NO WAY I’m an A profile!  I’m missing a piece of my back and can’t come back unless the Secretary Of the Navy approves!  What’s this 4A crap?”  They said that 4A, to them, meant “has sufficient prior service to warrant further deferment” and I had to accept that.  Still, to be on the absolutely safe side, I headed over to the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre to put my discharge on record there.  On Public Square in Wilkes-Barre a demonstration was being held.  Just four days earlier, there had been a large anti-war rally in Washington, DC http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Day_Protests_1971 and the protesters on the square sought to raise funds to raise bail for the ones held at RFK Stadium.  During my latter days at King’s College, I had been known to carry some signs in anti-war protests but now, just 3 years later, my position had hardened somewhat.  I brushed off their entreaties with “Hey, next time get a parade permit!”

Thus ended my Navy “career”. I had attained my initial 1968 goal; I hadn’t been killed in ‘nam.  On the flip side, I had saved my country; no Cong swam ashore on my watch.

Written in January, 2008 by

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com

JUNE, 2015 - COSBY UPDATE: As expected, I received no response to my 2008 letter but, ever the detective; I sent another one in 2012. This time, I did hear back from his assistant.  She said that, while his father had been in the Navy, he had left home when Bill was very young and, therefore, doesn’t know if he could have been my barracks mate.

That caused me to dig even deeper. On the Philadelphia census taken on April 15, 1940, I found one William H. Cosby, Sr., age 27, indicating he’d been born in 1913. Also in the home was William H. Jr., age 2.  Senior therefore, would have been 28 at the time of Pearl Harbor and junior only 3.. I borrowed, via inter-library loan, a huge (484 pages) tome entitled “Black submariners in the United States Navy, 1940-1975”. It listed William Cosby as serving as a steward on, I think, 3 different submarines during WW2. I went farther and even obtained a transcription of a death certificate for one William H. Cosby, age 61-plus of Dorchester, MA, an age that would agree with having been born in 1913.  [The parents listed on the death certificate match what I had found one earlier censuses.] He died on of lung cancer in a Boston VA hospital on November 28, 1974, roughly 3 when I met him but I had been too polite to ask. Dying in a Boston VA hospital would jibe with military service and it isn’t hard to guess that he had remained in the New England area following his discharge.  I initially even tracked down his exact grave site in the Boston area using findagrave.com  and sought to get a picture of his tombstone. I never did get it and, unfortunately, I lost all my research notes in a computer crash. I remain, however, totally convinced that I DID meet Bill Cosby’s father.

 

 

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