I remember a sunny Saturday morning in Newport, Rhode Island — graduation day for Class 48 at the U.S. Naval School, Officer Candidate. That was its official name; to us it was just OCS. And few who experience OCS ever quite forget it.
Unless they flunk out.
I failed to flunk out because I did something that no one in the military is supposed to do — ever — and because classmates helped me.
Graduation was June 10, 1960 — fixed in memory along with my enlisted serial number (540-86-10) and my officer file number (639882). We formed up in the company street as usual, just as we had every morning for the previous 16 weeks. But with a difference — we wore double-breasted blue uniforms with a gold star and one stripe on the sleeves. Bell-bottom trousers and pea coats were history.
We were worn out — minds more than bodies. Navy OCS was not physically punishing. We had shoveled snow, played volleyball, marched, gone swimming and endured one horrible afternoon when the instructors tried to drown us in a training device that simulated — all too accurately — a sinking ship.
The academic rigor of OCS, however, was worse than wicked; we force-marched through 32 textbooks in four months. Attrition erased 50 or 60 men from our original cohort of over 300. The missing either “rolled back,” into Class 49 for an eight-week shot at redemption or got sent to the fleet as seaman apprentices. Most, if not all, of these ex-classmates washed out because they couldn’t learn under pressure.
To me, learning under stress was old news. Half of the homework I ever turned in, I finished minutes before class. No essay or paper assignment got done on time. One teacher threatened to tattoo a “P” on my forehead for procrastinator. I ranked as a black-belt crammer.
Most of the OCS curriculum made sense. Orientation and operations revealed how the Navy and its ships worked. If you could read a Texaco map, you could comprehend navigation. The engineering instructors demonstrated how propulsion systems propulsed. The seamanship course converted civilian corridors, walls and stairways into Navy passages, bulkheads and ladders.
But Weapons — also called gunnery — was a horror capable of reducing John Paul Jones to cringing pacifism. Gunnery’s incomprehensible trigonometric witchcraft tortured and confused me.
Fortunately, when I arrived at OCS in February, a friend of a friend gave me career-saving advice. Fred Lickfold III, from Grenada, was in the OCS class set to graduate in April. This eight-week veteran, to a rookie, had more credibility than the Oracle of Delphi.
“Forget that business of never volunteering,” said Fred. “Just know what to volunteer for.” He recommended becoming company mail orderly.
“You can go to the post office for mail anytime you want, and nobody says a word. Everybody wants mail.” I took Fred’s counsel and volunteered to be Alfa Company’s mail orderly. Only my hand went up, and I got the job. For 16 weeks I collected the mail and distributed it room by room to the heartsick and the homesick.
Fred was right — freedom of movement let you avoid inspections, plus the post office had a pool table. Further, my mates not only lusted after mail, they took pains to befriend the letter carrier who might make an extra trip to the post office seeking letters from a girl about to run off with a golf pro.
So it was that I, serving my country as Cupid’s assistant, devised a way to pass gunnery, which I was on the edge of failing. The Weapons Department, I reasoned, would use questions from previous tests on the final exam, so I asked every letter recipient to write down questions he remembered from earlier gunnery quizzes.
The company combined to produce 30 or 40 questions, which I pored over with a dedication known only to the desperate. And guess what, shipmates? Twenty of the old questions reappeared on the final.
I passed gunnery and became an officer and a gentleman on time, if somewhat under stress. And I learned two lessons that have stayed with me for 59 years: volunteering isn’t always bad, and pleasing people rarely stings you. I did not learn how the USS Intrepid, when I reported aboard, knew to put me in the Gunnery Department.
William Jeanes is a Northsider.