“Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea?”
The desire to go to sea struck me when I was sixteen or seventeen—a time when I read the Bounty Trilogy and Hurricane by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall. In addition to the stories of the South Pacific, I loved the paintings of the French Impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin. By the time I graduated from high-school and started attending the University of Tennessee, my ambition was to become a painter, move to the Marquesas Islands, and paint nude Polynesian women as Gauguin had done. Of course, I had no idea how I would find the money or the means to get from Tennessee to a faraway island. I saw that as a minor detail at the time.
Unfortunately, when I got to the University of Tennessee, I was more interested in cameras and spending my nights doing existing-light photography with Tri-X film and hanging-out in the library reading about China and Polynesia than attending Western Civilization class. I did attend Art History, English Composition, and Art 101. I managed to squeak by in Western Civilization with a D. (In 1983, I took tests from the University of Maryland in World and US history, made an A on all three tests, and earned nine-hours college credit.)
At the end of 1967, an eighteen-year-old who left college would soon be drafted. During the next quarter, the only class I regularly attended was bowling so in May 1968, I was shown the door. It was a relief since I wanted to be somewhere far away, surrounded by palm trees. Be careful what you wish for.
The following month, a few days after Bobby Kennedy was killed, dashing hopes that he would be elected and end the war in Nam, I was summoned to the Armed Forces Entrance Examination Station in Knoxville for a physical for the draft. It was a wake-up call and I realized I would soon be cannon-fodder in Vietnam if I didn’t find an alternative to being drafted into the army. As luck would have it, I went to a drive-in movie with a couple of my high-school pals that night and saw The Sand Pebbles. It is a movie about a navy machinist’s mate assigned to an American gunboat on the Yangtze River in China in the 1920s.
Most Americans don’t know there was a American naval squadron in China from 1854 until 1949 to protect American economic interests in treaty ports—free-trade ports which were forced on the Chinese by the British and Americans. It seems Anglo-American policies haven’t changed in the last 170 years.
After seeing the movie, I decided to join the navy since being on a ship off the coast of Vietnam seemed less risky than jumping from a helicopter into a hot landing-zone. One of my buddies and I went to see the navy recruiter a couple of days later and enlisted in a delayed-entry buddy-program where the navy promised to try very hard to send us to the same boot camp and duty-station (wink-wink). It was early June and we weren’t supposed to leave until September.
My pal was happy with the arrangement since he was in love and wanted to spend the summer with his girlfriend. I had no girlfriend and wasn’t keen on spending a summer working construction with my dad who was angry that I hadn’t been interested in college and wanted to demonstrate how hard life could be for an uneducated dumbass. After a couple of weeks of humping hundred-pound bags of sand a hundred yards from a truck to the base of a TVA dam and mixing concrete to repair cracks, I called the recruiter and asked if I could leave for boot camp early. A day or two later, he phoned to say he had arranged it. At the end of July, I caught a bus and spent two days at the armed forces entrance station in Nashville waiting for other people from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas to arrive before we were all sworn-in and put on a plane for the west coast.
Perhaps I should have waited. In mid-August 1968, a couple of weeks after I got to boot camp at the Naval Recruit Training Center in San Diego, I received a letter from the draft board informing me I was 4-F (physically unfit for military service even in times of national emergency) and not eligible for the draft. My boot company commander, BMC Spivey, thought it funny when I asked if it meant I could go home. The answer was shut-up maggot and stand at attention. I took that as a no.
My favorite song from 1968: