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Holding My Breath...
By Gregory Ross
Unexpectedly, I smiled. The bus pulled out of the Greyhound station. I was 19. I smiled. Surprised myself. I turned my head to the window. I did not want the others to see me smile. But, the unknown and its possibilities loomed. Good or bad, I was getting out of Lancaster, out of Western New York, out of a dead end full time job days and a liberal arts night school full load. I was 19. Life had already hurt me, how much worse could it get. I was 19, provincial, ignorant, in denial of what could happen in the next four years. Naive, 19 and on my way to Great Lakes, Illinois to start Naval Boot Camp. I was 19, confident that I had beat the system. "Join the Navy and see the world..." I was mistakenly sure that would not include Vietnam.
The snow and cold and ice of Illinois in October, November and December was no surprise to a Western New York, Buffalo suburban kid. Boot camp proved to be like a combination of Catholic School, the Boy Scouts and working for my Father, but on steroids and much less sleep. I kept in line, did what I was told and sort of disappeared or so I tried. Our Company Commander, a Combat Veteran, was a small but, scary man. Hard eyes. Nicotine and whiskey gravelly voice. Tight, compact, wiry muscles. He commanded without raising his voice. He gave us the rules and told us to follow them and we would make it through, we would learn what we needed: do what you are told. He was hard, demanding but, fair.
We were bunked alphabetically. We pulled duty alphabetically. Directly after Ross came Sabe. He pulled watch right after me. Waking him up at three in the morning to relieve me and begin his watch, he lashed out in his sleep and I sustained a black eye. The truth would have probably worked but, we came up with a lie we thought would work better, even though it made me look like somewhat of an idiot. The next morning at muster, the Company Commander asked what happened. I told him I was so tired after watch that I walked into a door. He looked at me and right next to me was Sabe, looking guilty. You could see he could see. He grinned and told me to be more careful next time. No one got in trouble.
Half way through boot camp we had a base-wide inspection. We were to make everything and ourselves perfect. No slack beds, no lockers out of line, no dust, spit polished shoes, perfect dress uniforms, clean shaven and an exact knot on our World War II era spats. We stood at attention in front of our bunks as the inspector, inspected. When he got to me I kept my eyes forward, breathed as normally as I could manage, tried not to show any fear. It seemed the inspector spent an inordinate time going over my bed, locker and me. When he moved on I internally let out a sigh of relief.
When he was done he turned and said we had done well, but one of us had let the Company down. He walked up to me and said I needed to learn how to tie a correct knot on my left spat. I was the only ding. The inspector turned and crisply, militarily walked out. No one moved. We had not been dismissed. The Company Commander slowly walked over to me. His eyes were hard. His demeanor quiet, white hot, angry. I could only imagine what would happen to the only ding, to the only deficient recruit, in his company.
The Company Commander came up to me, looked me in the eyes and said, "Let's see what you did wrong, Ross" He bent down and inspected the knot. When he stood up, he looked me in the eyes again with those hard eyes and said, "There is nothing wrong with that knot. It is tradition, no company gets a four oh." His eyes still hard but the corners of his mouth slightly turned up he turned to walk away and said, firmly, "Dismissed." I did not expect to encounter compassion in the Military. I am always surprised by sympathy.
Gregory Ross: Navy, the Gun Line off coast of Viet Nam with the 7th Fleet [1968-69].Graduate of a VA drug, alcohol and PTSD program ; Acupuncturist, Detox specialty [since1989], laid off  published in "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace". Feedback: email@example.com