Why Not Join the Navy?
It was New Year's Eve, 1963. I was seventeen years old, and Bill Swanson,
a high school classmate, and I were out roaming the streets of Rockland,
Maine, trying to find somebody who would buy two underage boys some
alcohol. Our goal was Gluek Stite, a rank but strong malt liquor that came
in small six-ounce cans. The stuff would gag a maggot, but it would get us
drunk in minimum time. All of us who drank for the sole purpose of getting
hammered used it.
Earlier in the evening, as I left my house in Spruce Head, I had asked my
mother for some money so I could get something to eat and go to the
movies. Needless to say, I did neither that night.
Bill knew a Coast Guard sailor called Reb who would buy kids beer. We
found him in his room, above the Oasis Lounge in Rockland. We walked up
the outside stairs to Reb's room and gave him the money. He went to the
market across Park Street to make our purchase.
Reb came back to the room, handed us the brown sack, and we drank down the
malt liquor and waited for the buzz that would signify the first stages of
adolescent intoxication. Reb just lay back on his bed reading a magazine,
every once in a while looking at us with a big grin as we drank.
A few minutes after having downed our six-packs, we left Reb's room for
our first stop, the barroom downstairs. The operators of the place didn't
question our ages. I proposed to one woman that she might dance with me.
She gave me a quizzical look and impolitely declined the offer.
We then strode valiantly, however unsteadily, out into the street. I was
walking toward Park Street along Main when I was overcome by nausea. Right
in front of Phil's Corner, a small luncheonette, I felt the immediate urge
to throw up. To steady myself, I grabbed firmly onto a parking meter (a
long since discarded fixture on Rockland's Main Street) and proceeded to
spray yellow Gluek Stite all over my shoes and the surrounding sidewalk.
Just then a Rockland cop, Officer Hanley, walked up and asked if I was all
right. Bill had seen Hanley walking down the street and had put some
distance between us, and he shouted at me to run. In an alcohol-induced
haze, I ran as fast as I could south down Main Street. Figuring Hanley was
hot on my tail, I ducked behind Phil's and then back out onto Park Street.
Of course it wasn't the brightest choice; Phil's Corner was only about
fifty feet square and there were no buildings around it. As I ran around
the building, trying to look back and see if Hanley was following me, I
blasted around a corner and ran directly into him. He hadn't moved an inch.
"Better come with me, son," were his next words.
We drove to the Rockland Police Department, where I was placed in a cell
painted therapeutic green. It had a hole in the floor and no mattress on
the bed. My mother's cousin, Bruce Gamage, was on duty that night and he
saw some degree of humor in my situation. I knew he had done more bad shit
when he was young than I ever had, so I was quite sure I was not the first
adolescent to have this experience.
My father and Sonny Drinkwater, a lobsterman friend of his, came to bail
me out. It required some surety to obtain my release so Sonny put up his
house for bond. In those days, drinking as a minor was quite a serious
I was unceremoniously dumped into the back of Sonny's car and we drove to
Spruce Head. I made some comment to my father about never being thought of
by anybody as much more than a waste. That drew a hard slap across the
face. That was the last time I ever gave him reason to hit me.
At the time, I lived in a rented house in Spruce Head with my mother,
stepfather, and two sisters, Heather and Cheryl. My parents divorced when
I was ten years old, and I had lived with each of them for a while as they
still lived in the same town. That way, I did not have to change schools.
My father shoved me through the door with a comment directed at my mother
that he had brought "her little boy" home. I went to bed with thoughts of
impending death running through my mind. The next day I got up early and
my mother ordered me to saw a cord of firewood into stove lengths, and
then split and stack it.
The legal system in those days was not as understanding as it is now. I
was fined thirty-five dollars, given a suspended fifteen-day jail
sentence, and placed on one year's probation for my heinous crime. And I
had to visit my probation officer every week. I had visions of never being
able to get a job or vote or do any of the other things people take for
granted, and in my own mind I felt like a convict.
When I returned to school after holiday vacation, word had spread about my
run-in with the law. The Key Club (junior version of Kiwanis) had taken a
vote and expelled me from it.
To get to my probation officer in the Post Office building, I had to pass
by the military recruiters' offices. Most of the time the recruiters were
not in and a sign on the door announced when they would be. One afternoon,
a few months after my "conviction," the Navy recruiter happened to be in,
a first class boatswain's mate in a blue uniform bedecked with ribbons and
gold hash marks. A sign on his desk read "BM1 Allen, USN." I kind of liked
that. A title in front of your name. A uniform and that look in the eye
that told others you had seen things they could only dream about or see in
movies. I walked in. He looked up from filling out some forms and asked if
he could help me. I told him I was considering joining the service and
wanted to see what the Navy had to offer. He asked me if I was still in
high school. I said I was for the moment, but that it might not last much
longer. He pointed to a chair and said he would be right with me.
I looked around the room. Posters from the World War II era were all over
the walls, one showing an attractive girl and another a girl in dress
blues saying her man was in the Navy--that sort of thing. I didn't know if
she was making an offer to other sailors who weren't at sea, or if she was
just a prop to attract dumb high school kids like me into signing on the
dotted line. Around a recruiter's office there is always the implication
that you are going to have more fun, get laid more, and see more exciting
places and things in the military. They always seem to leave out
information about fighting wars, getting your ass shot off, scrubbing pots
and pans, and cleaning heads.
After a few minutes Bosun's Mate First Class Allen looked up from his
paperwork. He stood and with a smile reached out and shook my hand, and we
introduced ourselves. He asked me what I meant about not being in high
school for long. I told him I was fed up with the place and going to quit.
He said that was not a good idea because he could not guarantee me a
school if I did that. He said that he would enlist me if I passed the
Armed Forces Qualification Test, but it would be much better if I didn't
quit. Also, the Navy would give me E-2 (Airman Apprentice) out of boot
camp if I had a high school diploma. I didn't know what
that meant, but I figured it might translate into more money.
I looked over the brochures he had that described navy career fields and
told him I would like to be a photographer's mate. I was interested in
photography and diving, but I understood the Navy didn't enlist you and
send you directly to diving school.
Allen told me to talk my decision over with my parents and then come back
in a couple of days. Even though I would be eighteen when I joined, it was
always good to have the approval of the parents. I knew my chances of
going to college were just short of nonexistent. Even if I'd had the
financial means, I hated school and would never have graduated. I wouldn't
have been able to bring myself to go just to keep from being drafted. In
the 1960s the draft was in full swing and many of my schoolmates were
discussing ways to avoid serving their country in the military.
The next time I went to sign in with my probation officer, I stopped by
the Navy recruiter's office. Allen had some papers laid out on the desk.
He asked me to fill in the blanks so he could start the paperwork. I would
not be obligated to join, he just wanted to lay out the groundwork. Then
he gave me the Armed Forces Qualification Test. The test was multiple
choice and made up of questions about mechanical things, electricity,
math, language comprehension, abstract thinking, and so on. I finished it
in rapid fashion and was told I had scored a 94 percent out of a possible
99, which seemed to impress the recruiter. He told me that once I got in I
could go to any school I could physically qualify for. He then asked if I
was on probation or anything like that. I told him I was--for drinking
under age. He smiled and said that wouldn't be a problem. He would get the
judge to erase my record and it would be as though it had never existed.
That happened a lot in those days. Many young men who might otherwise have
ended up in jail joined the service. The vast majority of them never had
trouble with the law again.
The next day in school, I went to the guidance office and asked to see the
catalogs on Navy training. In Maine back then, the military was still seen
as an honorable profession, not looked down upon as a place where people
served who couldn't make it anywhere else. The guidance counselor gave me
the books I asked for, and I sat down at a desk in his office and looked
That evening I went to my girlfriend Mary's house. Her father, Roland
Ware, was always glad to see me and would drop whatever he was doing to
sit and talk with me. For some reason
I seemed to spend as much time talking to him as I did with Mary. I
imagine the conversations probably did me more good.
I couldn't figure out why a man of his stature would want to
sit and talk with me. Roland always gave good advice. He was
well-thought-of in the community and had started and still operated a
local petroleum products distribution company, Mari-
time Oil Company. At that time I owned exactly four changes
of clothes and two pairs of shoes, not counting my rubber
boots. I was the son of a chicken farmer and the stepson of a lobster
fisherman, neither one very successful, and came from a broken home.
Roland said he thought it might be good for me to go into the Navy. I
explained that I thought I could get training in photography and travel a
little and possibly learn enough so I could make a living when I got out.
He agreed that for a young man it was not the worst of options.
My next stop was to get the probation officer to expunge
my record of all criminal activity. That was not a problem. It lightened
his workload and would get another troublemaker out of town.
On June 11, 1964, I graduated from Rockland District High School about
number 80 out of 140 or so. I did not consider it a momentous occasion,
but I felt many of my classmates thought this would be the apex of their
careers. I couldn't wait to get the hell out of our little seacoast
community and get on with my life. From my standpoint, Rockland and its
surroundings had very little to offer, and I would just as soon see them
in the rearview mirror for the last time.
I still had to take a physical and this required me to go to Bangor,
Maine, to the military medical facility there, where Army and Navy medical
personnel gave preinduction physicals to draftees and volunteers.
Volunteers were quickly becoming the minority as the draft was beginning
to crank up for the Viet-
The recruiter provided a Greyhound Bus ticket to Bangor and handed me an
envelope with some papers in it. He told me to answer "no" to anything I
didn't understand. During my childhood and up into my teens I had been
bothered with asthma on occasion. There were times when I couldn't go to
school, it was so bad. He said it sounded like hay fever to him and that's
what I probably would answer on the sheet when they asked me. I took his
The physical was a typical walk-through. They noted that I had slightly
flat feet and blue eyes, and that was about it. One potential recruit had
a big scar on his chest from open-heart surgery. The corpsmen asked him
some questions and then told him he was okay. Another kid wanted to join
the Marines. He had high blood pressure, and they rejected him. I passed
with flying colors and went home on the next bus. It was almost like a
dream. All I did was sign my name on some papers and all this stuff
started happening to me. Somebody wanted to hire me and was willing to pay
to have me work for them. They would give me clothes, fly me around,
educate me, and even let me eat all I wanted. Christ, what a deal!
The day before I was to hop the "many windows" to Portland, where I would
be sworn in, I ran across Mike McNeil and David Cooper, friends of mine
from high school. They proposed we get some Gluek Stite, go to Samoset
Resort Road, and slam a few down as a going-away party for me. Sounded
like a good idea. The usual formalities of obtaining the brew were quickly
dispensed with and we were on our way to getting drunk. We drove back into
Rockland and parked on Main Street near the Central Maine Power Company
building. An alley that ran between that building and the one next to it
was a favorite place to piss. As I stood there writing my name on the
wall, just getting ready to cross the T's, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I
looked quickly around and there was Bert Snow, a Rockland cop. "Oh
Christ," I thought, "here I go again." I told Bert I was going into the
Navy the next day, the mother of one of the other guys was extremely sick
and was probably not going to live much longer, and I can't remember the
other horrible things we told them, but he let us go. David Cooper's
mother, Winola, came to the police station and got us and drove me home.
She had been my music teacher my whole career in the school system and I
was quite embarrassed to have her come and take us away in that shape. She
didn't have much to say to me on the ride to my house.
The next morning I woke with no hangover; we hadn't consumed all that much
beer. My mother had packed some of my stuff in a small gym bag and I put
on a pair of Levi's and a shirt. I'd already purchased a pair of black
shoes, standard black low-cuts like the dress shoes worn in all the
services. My mother gave me a ride to the Greyhound Bus station in
Rockland. Mary, my girlfriend, was there. Both of them kissed me good-bye.
I got on the bus, sat down, and we started up the street. As we passed out
of Rockland I thought to myself, I guess I won't be seeing this place for
I didn't have a clue as to what lay in store for me. What sort of
adventures were ahead? Would I fit in with the crowds I would meet? Where
would I end up being stationed? Would the Navy give me what I wanted for
training or had the recruiter been blowing smoke to suck me in?
All the way to Portland I thought about what I had done so far in my life
and how it hadn't amounted to much. I was never able to make any amount of
money, most girls wouldn't give me the time of day, and my parents
couldn't seem to decide where they wanted me to live. Ah, what the hell,
it was my chance to punch the reset button and start from scratch.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Why a Soldier? by Col. David G. Fitz-Enz, US Army (Ret.). Copyright © 2000 by Col. David G. Fitz-Enz, US Army (Ret.). Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.