Every time I watch Haifuri, I can’t but recall my time in the Sea Cadets. This group can be compared to the Civil Air Patrol, but with a naval orientation. The cadets are divided into two groups: Sea Cadets proper (made up of teenagers from 13-17) and the Navy League Cadets (ages 11-14). I started at the age of eleven in the latter, and that section kept me until well into my fourteenth year due to my position as Company Commander of the Navy League Cadets. Usually, they wished to keep experienced cadets in that leadership role for as long as possible. The primary goal of the Sea Cadets was to give people a taste of Navy life so that they might join the Navy or an ROTC program after high school. In my case, it rather had the opposite effect, and the rest of this article will show why.
As to how I found myself in this program, the story begins with my father having entered the program for a time as a teenager. Like the heroines of Haifuri, he sailed in real navy destroyers or other ships for stretches of time. How glorious being a Sea Cadet in those days! Hobnobbing with sailors and observing the operations of a navy ship underway! He even claims to have been on it while a storm struck–a storm with waves taller than his ship!
Sadly, I did not get the Haifuri experience. As a timid and quiet youth, I was compelled by parental authority to experience the program among the Sea Cadets at Lakehurst. (To give an idea of how shy I was at this age, I chose Lakehurst over a closer base simply so that I could put off the experience for another twenty minutes.) The main benefit of this program counted as me becoming far less timid during my years there. As for how to survive the ordeal, I employed a paradigm gleaned from old WWII movies: 1) obey all orders; 2) don’t stand out; and 3) follow the N.A.V.Y. motto: “Never Again Volunteer Yourself.”
Unfortunately, I was to find that following the first rule naturally violated the second. I found myself soon promoted to Petty Officer 2nd Class (highest rank attainable by a cadet). On the very morning our Company Commander was bumped up to the Sea Cadets, I was the only person of this rank in the group. The other cadet of this rank was arriving late, and I felt sure that if I could only remain unnoticed until then, I should escape gaining this awful responsibility. My plan only succeeded until after colors, when an officer raised me to this position.
Now would be a good time to describe the base. History buffs will know that Lakehurst is where the Hindenburg went down. Naturally for an airbase designed to accommodate giant zeppelins, much of it was barren and flat, especially the center of the field where a plaque lay commemorating the exact spot of the Hindenburg disaster. Abutting this field was the Hindenburg’s hanger, known as Hanger One or simply the Hanger. While I was there, it contained a mock aircraft carrier on which signalmen used to train and where we would spend countless hours drilling–especially in hot weather. (It was only ever hot there about four months of the year–more on that later.)
Did we ever do a lot of drilling! That and classes, because the Sea Cadet program, along with much of the budget for the Navy, had been gutted by the Clinton administration. Do you think I was ever on a destroyer while it was underway? Or any other ship while underway? No. Drill weekends and bootcamp (a week or two week long version of the former) consisted of the following: marching, classes, marching, eating, marching, classes, marching, feeling colder than I have ever felt in my life, and more marching. Only three times a year were we taken to a coast guard station or navy dock.
When I say that it was cold, I mean military base cold, which is something along the lines of the boreal forest cold. My gloves and jacket were the most essential parts of my gear. The former mostly sufficed to prevent frostbite if not actually keep my hands warm. They were rough woolen things which never kept out the wind, and I never numbered among those fortune few to get sheaths for them. Woe betide the cadet who forgot his gloves!
Curiously, it was even colder in the cinder block barracks. According to one cadet, cinder block magnifies the cold by ten, and it felt like it! When I went to bed, I wore an undershirt, socks, sweats, and thick issue raincoat before snuggling under a sheet, thicker sheet purporting to be a blanket, and two fire blankets. At which point, I felt warm–sometimes.
During drill weekends, we quickly learned that we were only as good as the worst among us. We therefore were the worst miscreants ever to set foot on the base. One person’s failure was everyone’s failure. This lead to punishments like push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, and the ingenious posture known as the electric chair. (Punishments were so frequent, the same group of muscles could not have borne them all.) Variants of this punishment have been known since the 19th century. In our case, we put our backs against a wall, assumed a sitting posture over thin air, and held our arms stretched forward until the officer satisfied
his sadistic desires justice.
One common fault was losing or forgetting one’s hat before going outside. For even many years after I left the program, I would suddenly reach behind my belt for a cap which was not there, feel a surge of anxiety, and my face drain of color until I recalled my present circumstances.
My lowest point came during my first bootcamp. Here, I was assigned to the worst company of misfits I ever saw: Bravo company. The officers even found cause to wake us up in the middle of the night from our heavy slumbers to deliver a reprimand. The worst thing about it was that I do believe that this occasion was the sole time we were innocent! If there was a way to flunk inspection, we found it. If there was a way to fail a simple direction in marching, it happened. And, talking in ranks and general disobedience were de rigueur.
This state of affairs brought the officers to give command of our company to a real Navy Warrant Officer, who gave us the Lee Ermey treatment. I, even with my strict adherence to orders, managed to bring down his wrath during barracks inspection. I placed my towel in the wrong place, which caused him to cast the towel to the floor, me to jump to attention, and him to demand, “Are you special!?” To which the appropriate response is always “No, sir!”
This lead to more unwanted attention, but he realized after a few days that I wanted no trouble and he became fond of me. This warrant officer demanded perfection, and the rebellious cadets soon quailed before him and bowed to his orders. By the end of bootcamp, we had been commended as the best company in several inspections and conformed to military discipline. I still remember his farewell speech, where he said how proud of us he was: that we started as the bottom of the barrel and were now the equal of any other company. It was as if a scene out of a movie.
Miserable and stressed described how I felt most of the time here. But, I learned something interesting about being miserable–and mind you that I do not conflate this misery with depression: when one is miserable, humor is ridiculously easy to find. Very little could send me into guffaws. I remember one cadet who had an awesome comedic genius. From our vantage point within the ranks, we watched the CO walking to the front for colors. The cadet said, “He needs some new shoes. His soles are practically rubbed out, and he’ll be walking on his socks soon.” I vainly tried to stifle a laugh, and was fortunately not punished for my impertinence.
To give another anecdote, one of the cadets in Bravo company could never manage to start marching left foot first. So, the good warrant officer took a rock, dubbed it the cadet’s girlfriend, and told it to keep it in his left pocket at all times so that he would start with the correct foot. This worked until one session in the drill field, where the officer demanded to know why he started with his right instead of his left.
“Aren’t you listening to your girlfriend?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have her.”
“Where is she?”
“She’s in my room in my pants, sir!”
You better believe adolescents could not stop laughing when they heard that!
Well, that is enough reminiscing about the Sea Cadets. I would leave the program after I turned fifteen. My father volunteered to be an officer. (Many of the officers were parents of cadets.) He saw for himself how bad things were and allowed my brother and I to quit after he had participated in two or three drills, thus ending my four years there. At least, the program gave me more confidence and plenty of stories to tell.
So, how are my dear readers enjoying Haifuri? Anyone else a former Sea Cadet?