August 23rd

Until 1972 the twenty-third day of that month had no special meaning. However on this day in 1972 I left my home in Arcade, New York drove to Buffalo Airport and boarded an American Airlines Boeing 727 and made an all expenses paid trip to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. I was anxious and my future was uncertain. One of my seatmates was a sister from a religious order. We talked as we climbed out of Buffalo and made the one hour plus trip to Chicago. I don’t remember what she said, but her mere presence was a comfort to a young man on his way to the US Navy Recruit Training Command at Great Lakes, IL.

After finishing the freshman year of college at State University College at Oswego my parents handed me a letter that contained a letter notifying me that I had been drafted and the need to report for a pre-induction physical. That notice frightened me and I set to work immediately considering my options. Would I abandon my country and flee to Canada? Would I be drafted into the US Army and go to Vietnam? All of this seemed like a death sentence to a nineteen year old. I began to visit recruiters and take some battery tests which determined what skills I had that might be useful to the military. One of those recruiters and tests was at the United States Naval Reserve Center in Jamestown, New York. The test showed an aptitude for details and mathematics. The recruiter, Mr. Leonard Tullar, told me that my test results would qualify my for dental technician, personnelman and hospital corpsman.

I liked the idea of becoming a hospital corpsman. If I was going to war I wanted to go where I’d be helping people to survive. Becoming a hospital corpsman was voluntary because of the inherent danger of possibly being assigned to the US Marines as a field medical technician. I enlisted on June 21, 1972 and deferred going to recruit training until August 23.

That day had arrived and after deplaning in Chicago I followed a group of other young men who were also headed to Great Lakes. We all rode a “green” official US government bus from the airport to Camp Barry. There we were checked in and assigned a numbered square to sit on. Anyone who’s ever served will appreciate “hurry up and wait.’ That’s how we spent most of August 23 until we finally had our first navy chow which was forgettable. It was probably spam or ‘shit on a shingle.’ We got to bed late that night and up very early the next morning. It was the beginning of a great transformation from civilian to military life. I never did go to Vietnam. I graduated from recruit training after serving as our company’s education petty officer. I went on to “A” school and became a hospital corpsman. I served in labor & delivery, newborn nursery, became an ambulance driver, worked for four surgeons as their lead corpsman in the surgical clinic at the Naval Submarine Medical Center in New London, CT.

Every year since then my mind wanders back to Great Lakes and my initiation into the US Navy. I remember the men I went to recruit training with and the men and women I served with. I cannot remember the day I started kindergarten nor the date of my high school graduation but I will never forget August 23 nor Friday October 13 when I carried the American flag at the head of the 13th battalion of the Naval Training Center as we graduated and followed the orders to our new assignments.

I returned to Great Lakes in 2008 to see my nephew graduate from the recruit training command and even fell asleep under a tree near the “grinder” where we marched that day in October 1972. I saw a quote that day that had meaning then and now.

“Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction, ‘I served in the United States Navy,'” – John F. Kennedy.

About Don Watkins

I'm a FOSS advocate, writer, educator, Python coder, Linux user, US Navy Veteran, Secular Franciscan, husband,father and grandfather. I blog about my life and experiences that give it meaning.
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