Psychologists have long noted the ability of anniversaries to elicit powerful emotions in people, even in instances when they are not consciously aware that an anniversary date has been reached. I can’t cop to the subconscious part; I will always remember Oct. 22, 1968.
Forty years ago I boarded a plane in Albany, N.Y., en route to boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago. I was all of 18 years old, and I was nervous, and not just because in those days air travel was new enough that it was pretty commonplace for people to be leery of flying. The sense of the unknown that faced us was exceeded only by the even more compelling realization that this was a situation without a Plan B. If it turned out you couldn’t hack it, the conventional wisdom was at the time that you lifetime employment opportunities would be essentially extinguished. The phrase wasn’t in vogue at the time, but failure was not an option.
The anxiety only grew as we got off the plane (I can’t remember if it was Midway or O’Hare) and boarded a bus for Waukegan. By the time we got to a barracks, it was about 3 a.m., and somebody in uniform started screaming at me and calling me things that would have warranted a punch in the snout only a day earlier. Welcome to boot camp.
I’m kind of a nervous Nellie by nature anyway, so the first three or four weeks were really tough. This was no way to put an exclamation point on a summer spent working, drinking beer and singing “Hey, Jude,” while I waited for Oct. 22 to arrive.
Early on, we were being administered penicilin shots en masse in a gymnasium, with spooked sailors ordered to step up to an “X” marked on the floor in adhesive tape, drop your trousers and await a less-than-elegant injection in the butt. There were three “X’s” marked in front of us in an effort to move things along quickly, but one sorry sailor got flustered and presented his backside at all three locations, one right after another. He keeled over after shot No. 3, and presumably got screamed at even as they carried him away to sick bay.
By early December, they had us doing truly insane stuff, like hanging up freshly washed sheets on a line in the courtyard when it was 20 degrees outside. Did I mention we had to do this in our underwear? The sheets would freeze solid almost instantly, and would clack against one another in the wind.
Like virtually everbody else, I was a smoker back then, and we got about 45 minutes a day to huddle in one disgusting room at the barracks and puff away like mad, filling the tiny room with a haze that would produce apoplexy today but didn’t cause anyone to even bat an eye in 1968. Maybe just rub the eyes a bit as the smoke would cause some difficulties.
And the only thing that kept us going was the realization that it would end someday and that, presumably, the remaining four years of Navy life wouldn’t be anything nearly so ghastly. It did, and it wasn’t, thank heavens.
But 40 years later the importance of the date has yielded little in the way of its initial primacy. Few other anniversaries that have come along in four decades have managed to trump that one by much of a margin. Aug. 22, 1972, comes to mind, and I suspect I don’t have to explain what it is, other than to note that I got out a tad early to go to college.
After all this time, I can’t remember if I actually was that eager to go to college or simply wanted to get out a tad early. Moot point now.