This memoir is a fugue-like description of my very first and very last days in the US Navy and the impact a gentle and humorous corpsman had on me. The photo is of me as an old salt walking on the gangplank of the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga in 1971.
* * *
“Ferguson?” the petty officer called out at morning muster.
“It’s pronounced Fair-guson!” came the reply.
“Oh, Fair-guson, then.”
“Fair-guson?” I thought. Remaining somewhat at attention, I leaned back and looked out the corners of my eyes to see who came up with that one. I immediately fingered the hospital corpsman who flashed a guilty grin when he saw my smirk. In the near-tropical San Diego sunlight, the spherical features of his face looked like black bubbles. Still smiling, I shook my head a little in playful rebuke. Trying to stifle a laugh made his steel-rimmed glasses bob on the bubbles.
Every few days a new petty officer ending his enlistment was assigned to take roll of other personnel in transit. With each new petty officer, this character changed the pronunciation of his name.
“It’s pronounced Fah-guson, Sah!”
“Oh, Fah-guson, then.”
Ferguson and I were among a barracks full of Navy enlisted men newly graduated from boot camp or a technical school. We were in various stages of awaiting orders to our first duty station, each of us floating in limbo for a couple of weeks.
Eventually a large manila envelope containing those orders would appear, and in the ensuing days we would receive instructions and inoculations appropriate to our destination. In the summer of 1969, one scary assignment, in particular, could hide in the tell-no-tales manila.
Recipients of their new orders usually reacted with a quizzical frown of apprehension, not recognizing the base, ship or unit to which they had been assigned. A few celebrated with a smile of relief over the potential horror they avoided. Then there was the anemic look of shock that accompanied orders to river boat duty in Vietnam.
A few days later we answered roll call from yet another new guy.
“It’s pronounced Fer-GOOSE-n, Man!”
“Oh, Fer-GOOSE-n, then.”
While the Navy clearly owned our asses, Ferguson’s name game allowed him to attain a certain freedom. Plus, it got laughs, helping us avoid stewing over the near future.
Then the inevitable manilla envelope appeared.
Out of respect, I held back, watching his face for the verdict. When he smiled in relief, my expression matched his and I closed in for a look. His orders were to the USS Sanctuary, a hospital ship he would join off the coast of Vietnam.
The next day I received orders to a squadron based in Japan. After shipping out we each got caught up in our new assignments, losing touch with each other.
* * *
Two years later I pulled into Hong Kong Harbor aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Ticonderoga. Moored nearby was the Sanctuary. I called it up and asked for Robert Ferguson. A young man in his ward answered the phone.
”There’s no Robert here,” he said.
“Are you sure?” I teased.
“Wait,” he replied, “You must mean Pierre.”
* * *
Many months after catching up with “Pierre” Ferguson in Hong Kong, I gazed longingly through a porthole as the Ticonderoga pulled into San Diego. The pier almost overflowed with the families of my shipmates. Many of us were going on leave. I was going home for good.
Just the day before I had been issued the coveted pink military I.D. of reserve status, replacing my green active-duty card. According to the U.S. Military Code of Conduct, without your military I.D., you are a criminal. You cannot go onto or off of any base or ship without being arrested. I discovered harsh reality of this after forgetting my wallet in a Yamato grocery store.
A ruckus in the adjoining shop pulled me from the porthole. A pair of master-at-arms wearing holstered pistols were taking I.D. cards from one and then another of the men in my division. Then they asked for mine. I obediently handed it over while our chief loudly demanded an explanation. “It’s an investigation” was all we were told.
Our buddies tried to console those of us caught in the dragnet, but even they were angry. Mostly out of loyalty, but they also knew the anticipation of slow-coming freedom was hard enough for a short-timer like me without some petty convolution of fate.
Soon, most everyone was ashore while I just sat stunned. My subconscious spit out and started dwelling on the memory of Killer, an aviation electrician killed a few months earlier by a falling ten-ton hatch while I directed a crew taking aboard supplies at Subic Bay in the Philippines. I was among the first to respond, among the first to see his blood spread down the ladder, and among the first to hear his best friend cry out that Killer only had four days left before the end of a six-year tour of duty.
The connection added an extra layer of anxiety on top of my gloom.
A couple of hours later we were taken ashore and ushered, one at a time, into an interrogation room. When it was my turn, I sat at a table in front of two men wearing civilian clothes and the practiced, icy façades of professional lawmen. On the table was a small, screw-top jar with some sort of black goo inside.
Only one of the men spoke to me. He asked me what my job was and where I had been stationed. I told him.
Next he asked, “Do you know what’s in the jar?”
Remembering the Opium Wars in China from my high school history class, I guessed: “Opium?”
It turned out I was a little naive and more than a hundred years out of date. After news reports on the subject years later, I realized it must have been black tar heroin.
The investigator pressed on: “Do you have access to the utility space just forward of your shop?
“No,” I replied.
“Do you know an Airman Neale?”
“Well, yes.” Neale and I had been assigned to a temporary unit flying out of Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam. I did not reveal that we had shared the occasional joint out on the ramp at night, but I did tell them that he and I had shared a few terrifying minutes in a shallow ditch while some Marines and guerrillas shot it out.
That was it. When the investigators completed all the interviews, we were marched back to the ship and told to stay there until we were notified regarding release or further questioning.
That evening I sat simmering in my work area on the semi-deserted ship, my sea bag still packed and ready to go. I knew I had nothing to do with the black goo, but I was plenty aware of how ponderous and capricious military justice could be.
Beginning to succumb to the cool weight of helplessness, I suddenly remembered Ferguson and his noms de guerre.
“Well,” I thought, “Why not?”
Grabbing my gear, I walked across the hangar deck to the master-at-arms office. A bored seaman behind the counter was reading a book while reclined to an impossible degree in a taped-up office chair.
I was wearing my dress whites. My rank and, most importantly, my service ribbons were easily visible. “I am a veteran of a foreign war,” I told myself, “And I don’t have to take this shit.”
The seaman looked up from his paperback as I approached.
Not wanting to give him time to think, I barked: ”I’m Petty Officer Smith. You’re supposed to give me my I.D.”
“Uh,” he replied, not getting up. He looked a little confused.
I leaned over the counter and glared at him with stony, unforgiving eyes.
“Ah, OK,” he said, rising.
He looked around, thought about it, and finally unlocked a steel cabinet. After checking a couple of folders, he opened a small, oily box. A little shuffling through its contents produced my precious, pink I.D. card.
“This you, Smith?” he asked while placing it on the counter.
As casually as I could, I slid the card into my chest pocket and, turning toward the door, hoisted the seabag onto my shoulder.
I felt wildly over-caffeinated. I wanted to run, to get off the ship and off the base before someone figured out that, officially, I was in custody. Instead, I hesitated before taking that first step toward home, toward freedom. I needed to thank someone.
Looking back at the seaman, I said: “It’s pronounced Sm-eye-th.”
1454 words – ©2017 Scooter Smith