Friday, May 29, 2009

An Anniversary of Sorts

It's hard to believe that it was 30 years ago today. May 29, 1979 was the "official" date of my discharge from the U. S. Navy. After 9 years 6 months and 15 days of service, it was time to move on to another phase in my life.

With three weeks of leave still on the books I departed Yokosuka, Japan on May 1st for separation at Treasure Island, California. After spending a week there (having a final physical, dental checkup, seeing a recruiter who tried to convince me to stay in the Navy, and doing other things that I don't recall) I was bid adieu on May 7th. The next two months were spent traveling and living in my car, a dark blue AMC Hornet Hatchback that I had purchased brand new when I left Iceland in January 1974. "Old Blue" had been put in storage in California for two years. We had an amazing summer and then it was back to "real" life.

My Navy career began on November 14, 1969 with the swearing-in ceremony in Indianapolis and the journey to Bainbridge, Maryland for basic training. But the process had started months before. Since my early teenage years I've struggled with my weight and I had to lose some of those "extra" pounds in order to meet the Navy's enlistment requirements. It wasn't easy and it took a long time, but I finally reached their goal. And then I was on my way towards a "grand adventure" that would take me to many wondrous places and to some places where I really didn't want to be. Such is life, and especially life in the military.

Why the Navy? Well, partially because my older brother had spent three years in the Navy having been discharged in March of 1968, and my younger brother had joined a year later, in the spring of '69. There were other reasons, too, which I wrote about a bit in Two roads diverged... but it mostly had to do with wanting to be somewhere else and the yearning for a change.

And was it ever a change! Like nothing I had experienced before or since. It had it's ups and downs as all things seem to have but I was able to see and do things that I had only dreamed of and some things that I'd never even thought about. It's a cliché to say that a certain experience was life-changing, but it was. I gained confidence in my abilities. I was challenged. I learned a lot about human behavior. Especially when it came to men having to take orders from a woman ;-)

Basic Training was at the Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland where Waves had been trained since World War II. I was nominated and served as an officer of my company, was a member of the Drill Team, and was honored to carry the Stars and Stripes as part of the Regimental Staff during my company’s graduation ceremony. When I enlisted I was “guaranteed” that I’d receive training as a photographer or a journalist upon completion of boot camp – but as I soon learned, there were no guarantees in the military!

After graduation from Basic Training I was sent to the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia and was assigned to Barracks Duty. This consisted of keeping the public areas of the women’s barracks clean (toilet areas, showers, community rooms, etc.) and serving as a receptionist answering the phone. Certainly not what I had in mind when signing up!

After about three months I was assigned to Special Services, also known as the Recreation Department. I worked in the base library for a while, then as administrative assistant to the Chief in charge. Some of my other duties included popping and selling popcorn, seating patrons at the base theater, and running the projectors to show the movies. They even sent me to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center for two weeks of schooling to learn how to run the old carbon arc projectors. (YouTube video) Now that was quite an experience! You really had to pay attention to what was going on. More than once the film broke, portions sometimes melted, and then it would take a while to patch the film to get it running again. Believe me, a theater full of rowdy, impatient sailors is not a good thing!

In the spring of 1971, I finally started the training that had been promised when I enlisted - a time I thought would never come! I was sent to Pensacola, Florida to attend the Naval School of Photography. After completion of training in August I found myself back at the Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland assigned to the base photo lab and one of two photographers for the base newspaper. In January 1973, I was transferred once again, this time to the Naval Station in Keflavik, Iceland. The Naval Station was just a small part of the NATO base, which included personnel from the U.S. Air Force as well as some international military forces.

Just a week after my arrival in Keflavik, Mother Nature’s wrath was felt with the eruption of a volcano on the Island of Heimay on January 23rd. The various military forces from the NATO base stepped in and helped airlift out many of the residents, human as well as the animals. After the main eruptions, military personnel were sent to the island to help shovel volcanic ash off of the roofs of the houses and other buildings in an attempt to prevent them from caving in. Several women, myself included, volunteered for this duty but we were not allowed to participate. However, I did make it to the island to take photographs several times over the next couple of months to help document the damage and recovery process.

It was mid-winter when I arrived in Keflavik and the daylight hours consisted of about an hour of twilight – the sun would come up over the horizon and then almost immediately set. There were blizzards and whiteouts and times when you went to the mess hall hanging onto a rope strung between the buildings. A normal tour of duty in Iceland was one year. At the time I didn’t think arriving in the middle of winter was such a great thing, but after spending a year there, I felt that I was quite fortunate because I didn’t have to spend a full winter there. Summer in Iceland meant 18-22 hours of daylight. Believe me, it was really strange to be playing softball outdoors at 10 p.m. without lights!

I purchased a clunker of a car and, along with a couple of friends, would take day or weekend excursions to see the sights in Iceland. We went to various towns, visited the hot springs and the glaciers and the black sand beaches. All in all it was quite a year.

In January 1974, I returned to the states, taking about a months leave to go home and then to Pensacola, Florida for two months schooling at the Advanced Naval School of Photography. Then it was to Point Mugu Naval Air Station near Oxnard, California. The Photo Lab there was quite large, with about 45 personnel. The lab performed the same basic functions as any commercial photography studio along with tasks that were unique to a military environment. This included some flight crew training, missile testing, and investigative photography. Duties included the gamut of tasks ranging from taking pictures to developing and printing. For the most part, workdays were routine.

One of the assignments I had during this time was to photograph weapons-handling techniques for audio-visual training for Navy personnel. I was assigned to two weeks temporary duty onboard the U.S.S. Enterprise while it was in port in Oakland. This was before women were routinely assigned to shipboard duty, so, technically, I guess that I was the first woman assigned to an aircraft carrier. Days were spent onboard the ship while nights were spent at the women’s barracks at the Naval Station. I did eat lunches in the ship mess hall, and, needless to say, got my fair share of odd looks from many of the sailors. There were also a few times when I had to show my orders when reporting for duty in the mornings when the officer of the day didn’t believe what I told him. Most days there was an escort from the ship’s photo lab waiting to take me to the days work site, partially so that I wouldn’t get lost on the ship but also to “protect” me from inquiring sailors.

In May 1977 my tour of duty at Point Mugu ended and I was transferred to the photo lab at the Naval Station in Yokosuka, Japan. Here again, the duties were similar to a commercial civilian photo lab. A year later, an opportunity at the base newspaper became available and I was assigned to the staff of “The Seahawk”. This was a really rough job, part of which entailed traveling to various sites in Japan, photographing them and writing about my experiences in getting there and describing the attractions. I climbed Mt. Fuji, went to the winter festival in Sapporo, visited a Sumo wrestling stable, and other attractions, all courtesy of the U. S. Navy! In addition to taking photographs and writing articles, I was also involved with layout and design of the newspaper and occasionally taking it to Tokyo for printing at the office of the Stars and Stripes. The department put together a booklet titled “How to Get There” that included many of my articles and photographs that had been printed in the base newspaper. The booklet was made available to new arrivals at the base.

All in all, I'd say I had a rather interesting career. I've never regretted my decision to leave the Navy and certainly never regretted the decision to join. But, I'll admit, there were times when I wondered what the heck I was doing there! It's still hard to believe that it's been 30 years since I got out. Some days it seems like it was yesterday although other days it seems so long ago, another lifetime. It was the best of times, and yet, it was the worst of times. There are some things that happened that I'd like to be able to forget but so many other memories of my time in the service that I treasure. As with most things in life you have to take the bad along with the good, perhaps so you can appreciate the good stuff even more!


Cheryl Fleming Palmer said...

Thank you for sharing with us! Very interesting indeed! The experiences you had that you probably never would have had otherwise!Not so sure I could have ever done it! And, time does fly so fast...your official departure date is the day before one of my daughters was born!

Brenda Joyce Jerome, CG said...

Fascinating reading, Becky. You have had a life of such varied experiences.