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Adventures of a Buffer Technician
By Gregory Ross
Let me start by saying this is a piece about my first months in the military and my experiences with two marines. Very quickly and over the rest of my four-year enlistment, I learned to respect marines, especially those I met on board ship on the "Gun Line" a mile off the coast of Vietnam. There were those who had pulled sea duty like me and those who were helicoptered to the ship from "in-country" for a few days of R and R (See article "Rest and Relaxation" in the Fall 2014 issue of The Veteran).
"Squids are for kids" shouted the diminutive "Gyrine." He was about five feet two inches and maybe 120 pounds, but surrounded by more stereotypical "Leathernecks" of muscle bulk and height. This was the first time I had heard this fish and child-based insult.
It was January 1967, the first day of Communications Technician School. Because I had taken typing in High School and could do more than "hunt and peck," I was being sent to the CTR [Radio Surveillance] division of the Naval Communications Training Center in Pensacola, Florida.
It was suggested that because of my scores on aptitude tests taken during boot camp I could be transferred to Fort Ord in Monterey, California and enrolled in language school to become a CTI: Communications Technician Interpreter. But, I was not willing to sign up for the extra two years of duty even though it would be served in California. There were two jobs I kept turning down: Medic and Interpreter. Interpreter might not have been so bad, but the only languages offered were Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese, in that order of import and any one of those languages would have put me in a combat zone. Worse, seventy-five to eighty percent of medics pulled combat duty.
The beginning weeks of "R" branch school involved learning Morse Code. First, I was part of a room full of men [if you could call an average age of 19, men] yelling out the Morse Code alphabet from "Dit Dah/Alpha to Dah Dah Dit Dit/Zulu." A few weeks later, when we could do that from memory, random slides flashed on a screen of either the "Dit Dah" combination, to which we would yell out the "letter word" or the other way around. After we got that down we were set in front of a typewriter with headphones, known as "cans" and the code, blocks of five characters made up of upper and lower case letters and numbers, came across at increasing speeds. (Example of code block: wU7mZ)
Most of the day was spent with "cans" building up your speed and accuracy, punctuated with a few classes about encoding, decoding, calibrating radios and math associated with the job. That last one led to a humorous event. A salty old Chief taught a section on how to use a mathematical formula to determine time zones in relationship to Greenwich Mean Time [in "real Navy life," you looked on a chart]. The Chief kept making basic math mistakes. A few students would correct him. Finally, he yelled out, "Shut the #uck up, that is good enough for government work." "Good enough for government work" became our catchphrase.
I was about a month from "R" branch school graduation, when my scores plummeted. At first, the Brass accused me of malingering. I was made to take code for twelve hours a day, six days a week for two weeks before I was sent to sickbay for an ear exam. It was discovered I had an eardrum defect that kept me from hearing all of one frequency. The "Dits" had disappeared.
I was reassigned to the "O" branch [Operator] school, which involved taking the info collected by the "R" and "I" branchers and transcribing it onto paper tape on a Korean War era teletype. This was called "poking" because the teletype literally poked holes, representing "Dits" and "Dahs" into the paper tape. The tapes were then transferred to the classroom where we were learning to send, receive and transcribe messages. To graduate the class you had to "poke" 70 words a minute with eighty percent accuracy. Four years later, upon discharge, I could "poke" 100-120 words per minute with 97-100% accuracy. Working 48 hours in four days in a schedule that included two 16-hour days in a row, sandwiched between 2 days of 8 hours gave you plenty of time to up your speed and accuracy. Ship duty was scheduled as 12 hours on / 12 hours off, even when in port. War is a 24/7 proposition.
The "O" Branch school had already begun, so until the next cycle, I was with other Seaman Apprentice students on cleaning duty (also known as "sh!t detail"). After a short amount of time, we became friends and referred to ourselves as "Buffer Technicians."
Our days were spent cleaning classrooms, heads, hallways, and policing the grinders. Hallway floors were a major portion of our job. We would take turns being all aspects of a crew: first, there were the "Swab Jockeys," those that stripped the floor of wax and dirt, then laid down a new coat of wax. When that dried the "buffer techs" would use a polishing pad to bring the floor up to a sheen. Due to the high volume of foot traffic, the hallways had to be buffed twice daily. The wax was usually good for about three days before it had to be stripped again. Every day at 7am and again at 1pm, the "buffer techs" would begin polishing the floors. I liked being a "buffer tech," and some people did not. I traded and got to polish a lot.
In the evenings and on weekends the "Floor Techs" hung out. One of my friends was an excellent singer/guitarist and made up a blues-inspired song that went roughly like this: "If I was a NavCad baby, would you be my NavCadette; if I was a NavCad baby would you be my little NavCorrine or you one of those women goes out with those fucking marines?" He played it at an open mic in a club in Pensacola. It almost started a riot.
There was a jarhead who thought it funny to scuff his shoes along the floor as we were buffing. I politely asked him to stop; he less politely told me "Go Fuck Yourself." The next day I suggested he could mature and stop being an "asswipe." He again suggested I could engage in intercourse with myself. The third day, as he came down the hall, scuffing and smiling, I smiled back and "lost control" of the buffer. It landed on his spit-shined shoes and took everything off down to the bare leather. I apologized and remarked that I hoped he had another pair of spit-shined shoes because those were ruined. I thought the tough guy might cry. He never again came down a hallway we were working.
I did not get the shit beat out of me. The only thing I could think was the other jarheads also viewed him as a jerk.
Gregory Ross was in the Navy, serving in Morocco, Six Day War (1967), Philippines (1968), and Vietnam, 7th Fleet, Gun Line (1969). Published in Anthology: "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace" edited by Maxine Hong Kingston.