“The Grinder, 1963”

by Robert Andersen

Naval Training Center San Diego, recruit training, a.k.a. boot camp, prep school for The Fleet, the place where civilians become sailors, hirsute to skinhead, ragtag to lockstep, your left… your left… your left hop hah! Welcome to The Grinder, an endless parade ground where recruit company 312 learns the art of close-order drill from an imposing WWII veteran, a hard-as-nails bantam, an impressively hash-marked Chief Petty Officer, whose tough-love tutelage, day in and day out – Right oblique! Left oblique! To the rear march! – succeeds in his oft-stated mission of burning out the civilian “cobwebs,” aided and abetted by the fierce soleil, on loan from the Baja, 110 in the shade in the dog days of September.

Hence the manual of arms and ROAD GUARDS POST, a landlocked exercise that leaves you thirsting for salt water, anything but the same old cadence count, for weeks on end, left shoulder arms! ball caps to white hats, dungarees to whites, ceaseless preparation for the Pass in Review on graduation day — GUIDON SALUTE PRESENT ARMS – the whaleboat crew your only adventure on water, the race against the boat from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot across the channel a dead heat, who says Navy boot camp isn’t physically demanding. The Marine DI is not pleased: take that Jarheads. In August 1963 I don the uniform age eighteen, looking to serve on a Polaris submarine before earning my commission thanks to the Navy Engineering And Scientific Program (NESEP), four years of college and the career of a naval officer.

But first things first, which means shutting out the siren-song of civilian life, awfully hard in that endless summer of 1963, Soldier Boy, I’ll Be True To You, doubly hard when that doleful song comes wafting from the busy waterside road just outside the NTC fence, bikini-clad teen angels in convertibles flitting by, little deuce coupes and surfboard laden woodies, the SoCal dolce far niente staring you in the face, everybody’s gone surfin except you, why oh why are you here and not there having the time of your young life, the New Frontier indeed, all those houses on the hillside fronting on The Grinder oblivious to your lockstep distress, your unrequited longing, your deep-seated summertime blues: OH TO BE ON THE BEACH, ANYWHERE BUT HERE.

Beached instead you are, locked inside the Garrison State, quarantined even, for the three months it takes to complete recruit training, with only one afternoon allotted for “liberty.” The meningitis outbreak that killed several and shut the base for several weeks pushed back the long-awaited day of deliverance, that Week 12 adios NTC salute, your orders in hand, a squared-away seaman apprentice hoisting his seabag, ready for his first duty station three thousand miles away. And judging from all the Dear John letters that pile up in the barracks that cloying refrain is a sucker punch, siren song indeed, out of sight out of sweetheart, good luck with that sailor boyz.  

Which means The Fleet beckons, all those gray vessels standing out in the channel, half the Pacific Fleet, putting Point Loma to starboard and dropping over the sundown horizon. Better to be shipping out than mark time mark. The Golden State is off limits but the Pacific awaits. Anchors Aweigh, but not for the USS Recruit, stuck in the cement of the NTC, clamber aboard and play pretend, single up those mooring lines. The week spent at Fire Fighting School however says for respiratory real, and “snapping in” on the firing range at Camp Mathews marks the baptism of live fire. You really are in the armed forces. And woe to he who nods off during prep school, those TV classes in first aid and shipboard nomenclature and naval gunnery sheer torture, soporific in the extreme, too heavy on the eyelids, sleep deficit the bane of the recruit, succumb and find yourself on the deck, lights out sailor. The Company Commander—a Senior Chief Boilermaker—wields a wicked mule kick, and his colleagues mete out corporal punishment with  relish. The tall disciplinarian in particular pushes his company to best the others—or else. Indeed, run afoul of the competitive standing in the Company pecking order—be a scrounge or a screwup—and find yourself hauled into the head for a GI Shower administered by wire brush, or—as I witnessed in the adjacent barracks —be thrown inside a full dumpster on a 95 degree day for 20 minutes—four recruits jumping up and down atop the hermetic steel structure—to emerge unconscious, shipped away in an ambulance. Fistfights are surprisingly few, though bloody, and considering that the company is a mongrel motley, hailing from California and Texas and Louisiana and New Jersey and Brooklyn, there is a surprising degree of fraternal bonding, though no one can quite fathom swamp cajun, and the mean streets of Brooklyn come across as a B-movie patois.

Slowly but surely the Company becomes a unit, thanks to the incessant close order drill, the manual of arms performed with stacking swivel precision. Five And Dive. You stand fire watch and recite your general orders and tie your figure-eights and police the area and swab the deck and shine your boondockers and scrub your fart-sack and layout your seabag for inspection and hit the deck at reveille and spread them for pool inspection and chow down at the mess hall and attend obligatory three flavor—(C)atholic (P)rotestant or (J)ewish stamped on your dogtags—Sunday Service. No infidels in this Navy. Mostly you yearn to be done with the The Grinder and the asshole-to-belly-button plight of the seaman recruit.

Irish pennants and other uniform infractions invite a dressing-down from the Company Commander, the punitive nose-just-above-the-deck stance, and that head better be spotless, shitters shining and washbasins gleaming, the deck clean enough to lick. Day in and day out, in skivvies and shower shoes, you perform prodigies of cleanup, swabbing, waxing, buffing, turning the barracks into a showcase of hygiene, personal and communal. Very little time for grab-ass, none for liberty call. Finally you do go “ashore” shortly before graduation, the afternoon spent at the Balboa Zoo and downtown on Broadway, in the locker clubs and tattoo parlors of Navy Town, DAGO  the capital of the Garrison State—just as FRISCO is the great liberty port to the north, watch out for the Shore Patrol.

San Diego would begin the 60s as THE Navy Town and end the decade as the City Of The Sun, the completion of the 5 heralding the breakout, the badlands and vacant mesas to the north turned in the 70s into subdivisions galore, the economy cutting the longstanding umbilical to the Navy Department. Ergo the summer of 1963 proved the last heyday of that martial bastion, the Dago of gobs on the town, the Gibraltar of the Pacific yielding to the encroachment of the Coast of Dreams, the annexation signified by the closing of Camp Mathews and the construction of the University of California on the Torrey Pines Mesa.

The three months of The Grinder separated the high school grad from the too-young sailor, the San Franciscan and Northern Californian from the California Native, the four years of the enlistment—farewell to college days, on second thought no commission for this swabbie—spent on the East Coast, nine months of school in Bainbridge MD and three years aboard a destroyer out of Norfolk VA.

When I return to San Diego in the fall of 1967, to matriculate at UCSD, to throw in my lot with The Southland, I will venture to Navy Town for one last look, my former ship just returned from Operation Sea Dragon in the South China Sea, in port for a short visit before heading to the Panama Canal. The Grinder remained off-limits however, indelibly captured in the minds eye in that cadence-count summer of 1963, when I was eighteen, in the best shape of my life, and when I was marching to a drummer who thought that perimeter fence circumnavigated the watery parts of the world all the years of my naval career. It lasted but four years, that fence another thirty-four. Behold Liberty Station, and the condos that lineup across Preble Field with graduation precision. COMPANY 312 HAND SALUTE.