Going farther by thadeusz
My parents have a grocery shop, but both my father and my mother wanted me to "go farther” than they did. They were really pleased when I told them that I wanted to become an engineer. I was 15 at the time and I studied easily at school, with great pleasure. There was no problem for the future. Like all boys of that time, I had long hair: mine were dark and curly. I loved playing with my fingers in my curls while I was studying: turning some lock of hair around one of my ears helped me concentrate.
I had an excellent friend named Peter Kemper who hated studying but who loved sports. He always tried to pull me and to push me towards sports activities, and I helped him with his homeworks. We were both in 10th grade, despite the fact that he was already 16: he had in fact repeated his 9th grade and I had helped him to reach the 10th grade, but not without difficulties. By the way, my name is Frank, Frank Harmon.
While we were in 10th grade, Peter discovered that the Army and the Navy of my country organize sessions of military preparation. The guys and girls who go there are under no obligation to stay in the Military, but it is a good experience for those who want to become soldiers … and it is a good trick for the Military to attract young people. Anyway, I could not go because I was only 15: you must be at least 16 to be allowed to go to these camps. In fact I did not want to go, but Peter went to an Army Military Preparation. When he came back, he was really pleased. It had lasted only 5 days, full of sports and full of joy with the other participants. Peter told me that they received military uniforms, that they were taught how to march and salute according to military rules and that, he said, "Would be a great advantage for me if and when I decide to join the Army.”
That did not convince Peter to join the Military, but since he did not know what to do after the end of high school, he considered joining the Military an option. He made more researches and discovered that the Navy was also organizing Military Preparations, and that they were better and more full of fun. Instead of 5 consecutive days, it would be every other weekend, full weekends, which implied sleeping in the barracks. On top of it, there would be one whole week on a real Navy ship.
Peter convinced me that it would be fun trying to go together to the Naval Military Preparation (called NMP) during our 11th grade. I asked my parents to do this, telling them that it would not be more than a series of scouts camps during the year. In fact, that's what I thought it would be. Peter did the same, and we went together to the Naval Recruitment Office which served as office for this Preparation. We introduced our files and we were accepted, with the same dates and same place.
Peter and I started together during the first weekend of the school year. I was exactly 16 years and one month old. Everything started well. We went to a Naval base close to our place during the first weekend of September. We received our "trainee” uniform (that's how we were cold) immediately. It was simple and comfortable. For the ordinary meetings, we received a blue jean with a grey shirt in thick cotton, to be worn with well buttoned collar and cuffs, a blue cap with the letters NMP for "Naval Military Preparation”. There was also a dark blue sweater with a round neck. Both the shirt and the sweater had a red stripe on the epaulettes, as if we were real seamen with a certain rank. The officer in charge announced that there would also be ceremonies for which we would receive in due time a nicer (but less comfortable) uniform. He added that our uniformed belonged to the Navy and were only lent to us for the duration of the NMP: we had to take good care of it and bring it back at the end of our Military Preparation. Finally, each of us received a ribbon mentioning the name of our base: "Camp Maseric” : we were supposed to stick it on our sweater.
There was only one problem: the officer in charge, a Navy LT, told us that our haircut had "to be clean and not too long”. He turned towards a big and smiling guy, probably aged 19 or 20 and called Marc. Marc had very long hair, much longer than I had. The Lt told him:
"Marc, it is OK for this weekend but next time I want you to have a short haircut.”
"If that is the case, I will simply not came back.”
"Marc, you better formally resign if you want to avoid any future problem”.
But Marc simply shrugged his shoulders while the LT turned towards me saying:
"That holds also for you, Frank”.
"I will have it cut, Sir, but not too short please: I would be ridiculous at school.”
"At ear level will be enough, Frank, but your ears must be completely unobstructed so that you can listen to all my orders.”
After receiving our uniforms, we were invited to have a meal and went on learning how to march and how to salute in the Navy, and also the different ranks. Learning the different ranks and the symbols used to make the difference between them seemed to be essential: it was repeated several times that weekend and I rapidly knew them at first sight. Our officer was a young LT. He was kindly but efficiently guiding us and a Chief Petty Officer, a CPO to whom we simply said "Chief”, remained constantly with us and checked that we behaved properly. At night, we slept in the barracks, the boys occupied two room and the girls only one other one. I must confess that we spent most of the night joking, laughing and having fun. We left the base during the Sunday afternoon.
At the end of the weekend we all left the base with our uniforms. Marc did the same but he told me:
"Have a good look at me, I will never come back.”
"Marc, in that case you should not keep your uniform !”
"I take from them whatever I want ! They tried to get my hair cut !”
I went to the hairdresser to have a shorter, but still reasonable, haircut. I asked him for a simple trimming. He did a good job with his scissors, giving me a sort of Ivy league haircut. The curls my mother liked were still there, and even protruded on my forehead. My ears were no longer covered by hair, but the hairdresser had used his clippers to even up and reduce my sideburns. He had also used his clippers to completely shave my neck. That was a little bit too much for me, but he told me that all that would come back rapidly and would be nicer than my former haircut. The only problem was that I could not play as easily as before with my curls and turn my hair around my ears while I was studying. In the beginning, it gave me some concentration problems and then I got used to it.
The NMP activities went on during two good weekends, full of serious naval training, full of sports and also full of jokes and joy. Peter kept coming with me, but several boys and girls abandoned after explaining their reasons, or simply stopped coming without saying why. They all gave carefully their formal resignation and gave back their uniform to the LT. The exception was marc who never came back and who kept his uniform.
Everything changed at the beginning of October, during a sad weekend. That weekend, Peter had been punished at school and could not come for the Saturday training. He had told me that he would manage to come to the base for the Sunday training. Many other trainees were missing.
That day, as soon as we were all in the class where we were supposed to study, the LT ordered the CPO to close the doors. A higher ranking officer entered the class. He had us all seated and told us:
"My name is Commander” (CDR) "Ramon Diaz. The Navy needs more men and women as sailors and to perform other tasks. The Minister, by virtue of the law on Military Preparations, has decided that you are all mobilized to that glorious effect. As of now, you are all sailors for an initial period of 5 years. You will immediately put on your ceremony uniform.” We had not yet done that since there had not been a ceremony.
"And you will change your ribbon: it should no longer say ‘NMP Camp Maseric' but simply ‘Navy' because you all belong to the Navy for a period of at least 5 years. You will have a good solid meal here and then you will be transported to an arsenal where you will undergo some tests. All those who are fit will receive there and then their assignment. Congratulations new sailors.”
He then left. The LT immediately told us to give him our phone and watch: we were no longer allowed to communicate with the outside world as long as we had not been sent to our ship, and time had no importance anymore since our only "clock” would be the Ship or Barrack clock. The LT ordered the CPO to search us. The LT kept the door carefully locked. There was a lot of discussions because not all those who were present liked the idea that they were press-ganged that way. In any case, we all had things to do outside the Navy and none of us was ready to go that soon, not even those who really wanted to join the Navy in any case. I immediately went to the LT and I told him:
"Sir, I am only 16 and I am still at school.”
"Frank, you will tell that to the people who will evaluate you in the arsenal and they will make the right decision.”
"And what about the absents, sir ?”
"The officers in the arsenal will take care of that problem too. Now go, put on your ceremony uniform and adapt your sailor's hat to your new situation.”
I was really petrified. I was afraid of what could happen and my knees began to tremble. I was the youngest one, and Peter was not with me since he had to remain at school because the lucky bastard was punished and was thus escaping the mobilization. The LT noticed what was happening and told me:
"Frank, you cannot change it and you have work to do. If you don't want to be punished as a sailor on your first minute of service, go and do it. And stop trembling, it serves no purpose.”
I realized that the LT was right and that everything would be cleared as soon as we reached the arsenal, so I forced myself to stop trembling by concentrating on my task: changing my ribbon. I then put on for the first time my ceremony uniform.
When we all had our ceremony uniform on, each of us received a bracelet to be worn instead of watch with our Matricule number. This is how I discovered that I was no longer the "trainee Frank Harmon”, but "Seaman Mle 185.726/4 Harmon Frank” ! When that was done for each of us, we were marched to a mess hall we had never seen: our lunch was there waiting for us. The officer who had made the announcement of our "mobilization” told us that:
"The Navy welcomes its new sailors with a good lunch. Serve yourself, pick as much as you want, you don't know when you will be fed again. Sailors, have a good meal !”
We all grabbed a mess tin and filled it with the good food we could see. I must tell you that I did not feel very hungry, and some of my comrades fell like me.
After that, we were shoved, with the few things we still had, our uniforms, into three busses, two for the boys and one for the girls: we were definitely separated. When we arrived at the arsenal, we were told to go a big courtyard, a big square between four buildings. We were told to take the position of attention and another LT started to call all the names of those who had joined our NMP at the start. We were told to answer "present” when our name was called. When there was no answer, our LT added a comment such as "has resigned” or "is temporarily absent”. When that was done, and I learned soon that it was called "the roll call”, we were led to a huge hall (one for the boys and another for the girls). This hall was full of two levels bunks. The LT explained that we were very numerous, because boys (the girls were no longer with us) from all the NMP programs of the country would join us. He then told us to put on the uniform we had received for our ordinary meetings and he added:
"Wear it properly, well buttoned. It won't be long before you receive additional uniform items. Keep your sailor's hat with you and stop wearing your NMP cap.You are sailors now.”
Most of the kindness he had shown while we were simple trainees had disappeared from his voice, it had been replaced by a tone of authority. I started again to be very anxious. The LT added:
"You will now receive additional badges with your nametag and others showing that you belong to the Navy, stick them immediately in the appropriate place on your shirt and trouser. A PO will come and show you exactly what must be done.”
"Sir,” I asked, "Where is the table to do it ?”
"Frank, you are really a disappointment for me. As sailor you only have your bed. So sit there in silence and do what you are told. Unless you want to know what the arsenal brig looks like.”
I sat on my bunk and did what I had been told to do. There was a name tag, all prepared for me, and several badges saying "Navy” including one to put on top of my left sleeve. I don't know why it was only the left sleeve, but I did it because I was afraid of being sent to the "arsenal brig”. I imagined this place as a dark passage full of cells with chains in it.
When I was done, I put on that stupid uniform and I felt I was now really belonging to the Navy, exactly like a bed or another object could belong to it: I was full of labels saying where to bring me back in case I got lost !
After that, since there was nothing to do, no TV to look at, no book to read, I did like the elder boys were doing: I lied down on my bunk and I waited. The others were chatting together and discussing the situation, but I felt too lonely and abandoned to do so. If Peter had at least been with me, he who was now escaping the Navy and who had convinced me to join this "funny” NMP. After a time, thinking about home and my parents, I simply started to cry, and it lasted a long time without anybody looking at me.
During the rest of the afternoon, more and more boys and girls came from other NMP groups. Their Lieutenants gave the same orders as our had done. At the end of the afternoon we were all in the same "ordinary” uniform, full of badges and labels: we all looked alike as if there was only one individual and many copies. At about 6pm, another officer came in the big hall, he was a CWO (I know now it was Chief Warrant Officer Bartley, but I did not know his name then). He shouted:
As we did not move quickly enough, he added:
"All up, in front of your bunk. Those who occupy the upper bunk, on the left of it. Position of attention, quickly. 3rd mess.”
When we were all in the expected position, he told us to form a line and he marched us to the courtyard for a roll call: there were three of them every day, before each meal, which was called here "mess”. After the roll call, we were marched into another huge hall, with tables and chairs and a line for food. All the guys and girls from all the NMP groups came there to have their dinner (3rd mess). The CWO barked then (he did not know how to speak without shouting or barking):
"Serve yourself. Go to a table. Keep the position. Remain silent.”
When we were all ready, with food in a tin plate, in front of a chair, came the order:
"All seated. Permission to eat and speak. End of meal in 20 minutes.”
I was hungry now, so I ate the bad food provided for us by the Navy. I wanted to go back and get more, but the CWO barked:
"YOU. Seated. I did not give the order to move. So don't move and don't speak anymore.”
The other guys who were with me were slightly shocked and remained silent. After a few minutes, one of them, Sam, told me:
"That was to be expected. Don't be so shocked, he will have soon forgotten all that and leave you alone. But that will be your life during the coming years.”
I did not say a word, but I felt I had to speak with Sam (that was on his nametag) later, in the hall full of bunks.
The LT who had made the first roll call came in this mess hall at the end of the 20 minutes. The CWO barked:
And we all stood up. Those who had not finished abandoned their food. We all took the position of attention. The LT spoke to us explaining what was going to happen:
"Starting tomorrow, you will pass several tests. One by one. But there is a great number of you, so before a decision is taken you might have to wait. You remain during this period under the supervision of CWO Bartley. You will now march, in good order and in step, to your respective halls where you will spend the night. You are allowed to speak inside the hall but not on your way, and as long as it is not light out. CWO, take them now to their bunk halls.”
Back to my "bunk hall” I tried to speak with Sam, but he did not want to:
"Listen Frank, you are only a baby. You have taken the wrong turn and you landed in our NMP. You should never have been there. But now that we have all been mobilized, you have to live with it and accept the barking as part of the bargain. Now, leave me alone.” And he continued discussing with grown up members of our group.
I realized that they were no longer as shocked as before by their forced and sudden enlistment. Most had joined the NMP because they wanted to join the Navy later as sailor, and this mobilization gave them an opportunity to start earlier than expected: after the first moments, they had decided to accept it with great pleasure. Some did not want to join the Navy, but did not know what else they should do, so a sailor's life appeared as very acceptable for them. One, Robert, was really anxious because he wanted to join the Navy but as NCO: he had hoped that going through our NMP would enhance his chances for the selection committee of the Navy NCO Academy. Finally, there was me who really did not like the idea of becoming a sailor, since I wanted to become a civilian engineer specialized in bridges. But none of the eldest members of the group took any interest in what I had in mind, so I took off my shirt and my pants and, since I had nothing else, I went to bed in my undies. But I couldn't sleep because I was anxious. When lights went out at half past ten, once again I felt abandoned and I wept, without anybody taking care.
The next day was a Sunday. We were woken up early and marched to the mess hall for breakfast. CWO Bartley was now accompanied by two PO ready to help to control us. All of us thought that nothing would happen on a Sunday and that we would have to wait until the next day for the first tests. We were wrong. We were called by groups and the testing started. We had all been warned that these tests contained several times the same question in different form and at different places, so, if we tried to cheat, the Navy officer in charge would see it immediately. CWO Bartley told us:
"Should any of you, new sailors, try to cheat, he will be detected and sent immediately to military prison for treason. So don't cheat or you will pay it dearly.” I don't know if it was true, but I was afraid of the consequences and I knew that I was too young to join the Military, so I decided not to cheat. I think that some of the others did cheat … and were not detected nor sent to military prison, but it was too late for me to follow their example when I heard about it.
I was not called with the first group, which left me with some "empty” hours. Bartley immediately decided that I had to do something, so he sent me, and others, cleaning the "bunks hall” floor. He also had a good look at me and told me:
"Your hair is much too long for a sailor, you better go now to the barber or it will be worse for you.”
But I did not listen to him. I started to clean and suddenly I was pleased because Peter had arrived. In fact he arrived between two policemen and he was handcuffed, but Bartley set him immediately free and told him to done the same uniform as me. My friend did it and explained me what had happened:
"Frank, I am glad to see you here, lucky boy ! Do you remember I was punished at school and had to stay there the whole Saturday ?”
"Yes Peter, and I thought you were lucky to avoid this.”
"Well, I would say I am lucky they got me !”
"Who got you ?”
"The police. In fact immediately after my school special time, I went to the Navy base. But all the doors were closed and a guard told me that you had all left in the afternoon. So I went home hoping to arrange things next time. I did not know about the mobilization.”
"What happened next ?”
"Well, the next morning the police came home and they told my parents and me about the mobilization. They had to take me by force if needed. They told me that if I did not come voluntarily, I would be considered as AWOL and that would be bad for me since I had anyway to become a sailor. So I decided to go.”
"But you arrived handcuffed ?”
"The police explained me that it was part of their standard procedure, but that it will not have bad consequences for my Navy career. I am really thrilled to be here.”
"You are not going to try to get away from here ?”
"Certainly not. It is true that I had not thought of the Navy at first, but why not ? At least now, I don't have to study any more. And I will have a nice career as seaman. Always on the move, with another woman in every harbor and lots of alcohol to drink. Is there a bar here ?”
"No, we must stay near our ‘bunk hall'. We only get food during mess hours and the only beverage is water. And we are completely separated from the girls.”
"That's bad. But you will see, we will have a nice career and I hope they will leave us together.”
"But Peter, I don't want to stay. I am too young to become a sailor. And I want to continue my studies to become an engineer.”
Peter and I kept discussing, while doing several chores, and he tried to convince me to stay while I was considering all possibilities to go back to civilian life. Finally Peter was called for his medical test and I remained alone, sad, having only dark thoughts and fears about my future.
When Peter came back, he was very happy: after the medical examination, the doctor examining him had decided that he was fit for a Navy career. It was the time for the evening roll call, 3rd mess and free time in our bunk hall until it was light out.
The next day, the Monday after we had been told about the mobilization, I was called early for the Medical test. I had nothing special to do and could thus not cheat. The Doctor made a note saying that I was only 16 and that my physical development was not complete. That gave me some hope, but the Doctor finally concluded by "Fit for seaman's duty”. I was back to despair. During the afternoon, I was called for the sport tests which Peter had successfully past in the morning. Before we started, we were reminded that cheating was forbidden and that our performances had to agree with the expectations of the Medical examination. I did my best and was considered as "Fit for seaman's duty”. I was really tempted to cheat, but after all these warnings I did not dare do it.
During the third roll call, CWO Bartley made us wait before marching us to the mess hall. Two military police appeared then with Marc between them. Marc is the guy who had decided to leave the NMP immediately after the first weekend because he did not want to cut his hair. He was now wearing the same uniform as all of us, but he was handcuffed, with chains on his ankles. His head had been shorn but stubbles had been inelegantly left here and there, very visible: his hair seemed to have been cut by a very bad barber. He was forced to stay facing us and we were forced to look at him. CDR Diaz appeared from nowhere and gave us a short speech:
"Several trainees were absent when the mobilization was announced. The police got hold of all of them and brought them here handcuffed. They were told that they had the choice between a normal sailor's life or prison because they were AWOL. All of them chose to behave well and to join the Navy. There is only one exception.”
At that point the CDR pointed to Marc and continued:
"This man refused to do his duty and to join the Navy. He is nevertheless a sailor according to the terms of the mobilization. He is now under arrests and his head has been cleaned of the excessive hair he had. He will now go and sleep in prison. He will appear in front of the selection committee tomorrow morning and his fate will be decided then. He is now considered as a deserter and will be dealt with accordingly. Be aware that should any of you try to go away or simply to cheat during the tests to be sent home, his or her fate will be the same as that of this man. Now get him away, and march these sailors to 3rd mess.”
The Military police took Marc by the arms and forced him to go away and we were marched towards the mess hall.
After this meal, back in our "bunk hall”, as we called the place, Peter and I had a long discussion. Peter kept telling me that Marc had what he deserved:
"If he did not want to become a sailor, he should have formally resigned;”
"But Peter, I do not want to become a sailor and you told me to stay and not to resign!”
"Frank, do you remember that by signing your papers for the NMP, you had to say that you agreed with all possible legal consequences ?”
"Yes, Peter, but they told us that it was only for the insurance.”
"Well, there is a law saying that the Minister can activate trainees from the NMP and mobilize them. You should have better read your papers before signing them.”
"But it was not written on these papers in so many words.”
"Well, I am sorry if I took you here and if you consider this to be a bad place, but it is too late: you are a sailor now.”
"Not me Peter, I am only 16. That's too young. When they will realize it, they will send me home. By the way, did you see all the empty bunks this evening ?”
"Those were the bunks of guys who failed the first tests or who have already been sent to a first assignment. I want to be sent to a ship as soon as possible. I hope things will go as you hope they should, but I doubt it. If you keep complaining about becoming a sailor, I will make you feel that you are a traitor.”
After that, Peter went to a group of other new sailors who were pleased with the situation and I did as the day before: I went to bed, but I did no longer cry. There was nothing new for me and I still had hopes.
The next day, a Tuesday, I started with my IQ tests followed by a psychological evaluation. I did my best in both cases, still being afraid to cheat. Peter failed several items in the IQ test, but did well for the psychological evaluation. He then went to a room where the final interview took place, the place where the Navy decision was formulated. Peter came back from there with joy on his face:
"Frank, they told me I am in. Well, I did not do well on my IQ tests and you were not there to help me, so I am placed on a one year probation period during which I will be paid less and could be sent home disgracefully. I will be Deck Seaman on a Ship. But my psychology is good, so if I behave well, they told me that I might be promoted and confirmed in my job at the end of this probation period. I would then get a first five years ordinary contract. I hope for you you do better.”
Peter left me in a hurry, got his bag ready and went to a place where other new Seamen were waiting to be transported to their Ship.
I had to wait till the next day, a Wednesday, for my own interview. This gave me the opportunity to meet again Marc who explained what had happened:
"They came in my engineer school to arrest me and I tried to resist. That's when they put chains on my ankles and wrists. When I arrived here, I was forced to put on this uniform and I was sent to the barber. You have seen what he did to my nice haircut. Then they put me in a stinking cell and the next day I had to appear in front of a committee of three chaired by that damned CDR Diaz. They told me that I had to make a choice: either I kept refusing to serve and in that case a Military judge would sentence me to stay in prison for 5 years because I was considered as a deserter. I would then in any case have to serve my 5 years plus 2 years as penalty for being sent to prison and the sentence would remain hanging for life on my back. There was another option: I could accept to serve the initial 5 years and ask for an additional 5 years. In that case I would not be sent to prison. They sent me back to my cell to think about it. After thinking during a whole night in this stinking dirty and filthy prison cell, I told the authorities that I wanted to serve this additional 5 years. CDR Diaz congratulated me and added 3 months in the brig and 2 years of service for being AWOL. I am now a simple seaman for 12 long years. I have been assigned to ship duty and considering that I am in my third year at the engineer school, I am assigned as 3rd class mechanic on a big ship. Life can be funny ! I hope it will be better for you.”
"Marc, I hope I will not have to serve at all: I am only 16, much too young.”
"This might be the case and it would be good for you. But I don't believe it, they will invent something, like changing the law: once they have you, they don't let you go.”
"So you are now a Mechanic in the Navy ?”
"Nearly, I must first take all my tests and if I come out of them with ‘Fit for Seaman Duty', I will have to go. I might try to cheat, but it seems very difficult to do so without being taken and punished. I don't want to go to that cell anymore.”
Marc was furious and went to his bunk, well decided to speak to nobody. I could understand him: nearly an engineer and now a simple basic mechanic. I really dreaded my own interview.
Finally, the dreaded moment came. I waited with others in front of an office marked "CDR Quilton”. When my turn came, I entered. Three officers were sitting behind a table: a CDR, a LCDR and a LT. There was no chair for me, so I stood there waiting. The CDR asked me:
"They did not teach you to salute your officers ?”
"Yes sir, we made several times the movements”
"Well, salute and take your hat off.”
I saluted, took my sailor's hat off and kept it in both hands, standing uncomfortably in front of these officers. The CDR went on:
"Are you stupid or do you simulate stupidity ? You must salute with your right hand, take your hat with the left one and keep it under your left arm. You must of course remain in the position of attention. GO NOW and start again. GO immediately !”
He was now barking like all the officers in this damned arsenal. But I remembered now all the moves, I left the room after turning on my heel. Then I came back, and did all the things in the prescribed fashion.
"Good”, said the CDR, "At ease Seaman. What is your name ?”
"Frank, sir, … euh Frank Harmon Sir”
The three officers started to search through their papers to find my file.
"Navy style identification !” barked the CDR
"Heu !” and I remembered my Mle number on my bracelet, had a quick look and snapped "Mle 185.726/4 Harmon Frank, Sir.”
"Harmon, do you have a preference for the service in which you are going to serve ?”
"Sir, I am too young for that. I am only 16. I am still at school.”
The officers checked their papers and the CDR went on:
"That is indeed too young for ship duty. We might have to send him home. Do we have another option LT Morelli ?” and he was now looking at the LT sitting near him.
"Yes sir”, said the obedient LT, "he has very good results for all his tests. It would be a pity for the Navy to lose such a good element. We can send him during one year to the Naval Apprentice School.”
"That would be fine”, said the CDR, "You will like it there Harmon”
"But Sir”, I started to speak but was interrupted by the CDR.
"Harmon, a young Seaman is not here to speak when he is not question. LT, this one has a bad spirit. Keep an eye on him and get him rid of all that hair. NOW SPEAK, Harmon.”
"Sir, I heard that the Naval Apprentice School is a school for dropouts, for school leavers. Sir, please, I want to get my high school diploma.”
"Harmon you will go there. The NAS is a good school where boys and girls of your age get trained to become good seamen. And that is what you want !” He was again shouting.
"Concerning your high school”, the LCDR was also speaking, "there is a possibility: if you study well at the NAS during this year, and if your behavior is excellent, you might be allowed to stay one or two more years to get your diploma. One of my sons is there for that purpose: he wants to go to the Naval NCO Academy and I suggest you start looking in that direction.”
"So”, the CDR was speaking again, "Chin up. Have courage the NAS is a good school where you will learn a lot.” Certainly, but not what I wanted to learn. "They have also an excellent method to drill young lads like you and make them respect all disciplinary rules. UNDERSTOOD ?”
"But Sir I wanted …” The CDR interrupted me violently:
"Harmon, as Seaman Apprentice you are not allowed to say ‘I' anymore, only refer to you in the third person like ‘this SA'. And anyway, you are not to speak unless spoken to. If you really have something to say, ask first for the permission to speak. Simply say ‘Permission to speak ? Sir' and wait silently for an answer. Understood, or should I send you to the kindergarten ?”
"Sir, Yes Sir” was my answer, there was nothing else to say.
Then I continued:
"Permission to speak, Sir ?” and I waited.
"Speak, but be brief Harmon”
"Sir, this SA wanted to get his high school diploma and then go to an engineer school. He did not want to become a Seaman, Sir.”
"Well”, the CDR looked now very angry with me, "you have been selected for Seaman duty and nothing else. The law in our country says that it can be so. It also says that your time of service can be extended by unilateral decision of the Minister. So you will go to the NAS until the end of this year and your first 5 year obligation will start then. AND NOW THAT'S ENOUGH OF THIS BS. STOP DISCUSSING. YOU HAVE YOUR ORDERS, SA Harmon. LT Morelli you say it.”
I did feel well hearing that, but still now, I don't know what I could have done, except obey the orders which had been barked. The LT started then with something which sounded like a litany he had already said many times:
"Frank Harmon, you are now a Seaman and as such you must obey all the rules of our Navy. More precisely your Matricule number is 185.726/4. You must remember that number since you will have to use it whenever you must identify yourself. This number is on your bracelet. You will soon receive your official Military Identity Card. All other documents are from now on strictly forbidden. You are assigned to the NAS and your rank is Seaman Apprentice. Welcome in the Navy.”
The LT then called a Petty Officer and told him:
"PO Pollet, take SA Harmon to the clothing warehouse and get him the appropriate uniforms. Bring him also to the barber who will remove his extravagant hair and give him an appropriate and special haircut. Finally, get hold of all his civilian belongings and bring him with his Navy clothes only to the room where other Seaman Apprentices are waiting to be transferred to the NAS. MOVE and QUICKLY.” The LT finally was also barking! At least I knew his name, Morelli, and the name of the PO who was taking me to where my fate called me !
When we left the CDR's office, the LT gave a note to the PO who was now in charge of me, but I did not succeed to read what was written on that note, although I was sure that it was some indication for a special treatment to prepare for me after my attempts to speak to the CDR and my objections to be placed in the NAS.
PO Pollet took me first to a room where we were alone. He taught me how to salute properly, in a pure military fashion. He also checked if I knew the rank insignia and if I was able to march properly. This did not take more than 5 minutes. He then told me:
"My boy, you are no longer a civilian but a Seaman Apprentice. In the Navy, we have special ways to say hello. So listen. Whenever you meet a superior, you must salute him or her. If you have to introduce yourself, you do it in the following way.” He took the position of attention, saluted, took of his sailor's hat and said:
"Seaman Apprentice Harmon Frank reporting as ordered, Sir. At your command.”
He then added:
"If the superior is a female, you replace ‘Sir' by ‘Madame'. You do this every time you see your superior, even if it means introducing yourself ten times a day. And if it is the first time of the day, you say ‘SA 185.726/4 Harmon Frank, reporting as ordered Sir. At your command'. Understood ? If so, repeat now.”
The last sentence was barked at me, but I started to expect that way of speaking from any PO.
In the beginning, I said it correctly but very slowly: I was searching my words in order to avoid any mistake and any other barking. But PO Pollet kept barking:
"FASTER, say it faster.”
So I went faster, and I made mistakes. So I had to repeat it, without hesitation. This "repeating process” lasted a long time. In fact, it lasted until it had become an automatism for me whenever I saw a PO to raise my right hand to my front and start, nearly shouting, to utter the ritual words showing that I was in the Navy and no longer a civilian. PO Pollet also explained me when to keep my hat and when I was supposed to take it off, and what I was supposed to do with it then, like keeping it under my left arm while being spoken to inside a building or placing it on my desk while in a classroom at the NAS. Altogether, I hated this session but it was very helpful since it enabled me to avoid many blunders.
PO Pollet took me then to another part of this huge arsenal and said:
"It is now time to get rid of that ridiculous haircut you have. It is not appropriate for a SA. Let's go to the barber and don't protest whatever he tells you.”
"Permission to speak, PO ?”
"You learn quickly SA Harmon, it is good for your future career in the Navy. OK, speak.”
"May I ask …”
"Stop, Harmon, ‘I' does not exist anymore, it is a forbidden word for a SA”
"Sorry Sir. May this SA ask the barber not to cut his hair too short ?”
"You can ask, provided you do it in the correct form.”
At that moment of our exchange, we had arrived in front of a room with a big sign saying "Barber”. I expected the worse since about a month had passed since I had my reasonable haircut after my first weekend with the NMP. We entered the barber's domain and several new seamen were already waiting in line, all of them were standing in the position of attention. I automatically went and placed myself in the same position behind the last waiting seaman. There were six chairs and six barbers taking care of us. I could see the barbers in action and the new seamen's haircut before and after. The barbers gave each new seaman a very short induction cut, but not a complete baldy: they used their clippers with different combs and seemed to leave about 1 mm on the sides and neck and about 3 or 4 mm on the top of the head. Each time a seaman had received his haircut, he stood up and left placing his hand on his head to feel what was left. All did it, but none said a word. Some even seemed pleased with their new haircut. And each time, the file advanced one man, and I felt closer to the fate I did not want, but also that I did not know how to avoid. We were all completely silent and I was the only one to be accompanied by a PO, I was also the youngest one and the only SA to be there. PO Pollet was chatting with the CPO commanding the group of barbers. I heard Pollet calling him "Chief” and "Chief Borkheimer”. When my turn finally arrived, I should have received my induction cut from a barber who was a Seaman 1st class. CPO Borkheimer pushed this barber aside and took his place, saying:
"It's OK, this is a special case. A future SA for the NAS. I will take care of him myself. It is like porcelain, he is fragile.”
That gave me some hope and enough courage to say:
"Chief, permission to speak ?”
"SA, they did not teach you the proper way to introduce yourself ?”
I realized I had made a mistake and I promptly saluted, took of my hat and said:
"Sir, SA Mle 185.726/4 Harmon Frank, reporting as ordered Sir. At your command.”
"It is nearly good: I am a ‘Chief' and not a ‘Sir'. Did I hear you asking the permission to speak, SA Harmon ?”
"Chief, Yes Chief”
"Permission granted, BUT BE BRIEF” and he was also shouting.
"Chief, I … sorry this SA has always have curls. Is it allowed to have curls in the Navy, Chief ?”
"It is permitted, but only after a certain time. Today for you, it is induction day and not curly day. Satisfied ?”
"Chief, I … sorry this SA is only 16 and his mother likes him to keep his curls.” That was a long and difficult sentence for a first day ! But CPO Borkheimer went on:
"SA Harmon, you are no longer the little boy you were, no longer your mother's little baby. As of today you are in the Navy and you will be treated as such. Moreover I have special orders from LT Morelli for you. UNDERSTOOD ?” he finished again his sentence shouting.
"Chief, Understood, Yes Chief.”
"Go to this empty chair and sit there in silence.”
I went to the chair and sat, keeping my hat under my left arm as PO Pollet had told me to do. But Borkheimer told me to give it to the barber he was replacing. He also went to this barber and told him something that I did not hear. He continued:
"Hands on the arms of this armchair, Harmon.”
I did as I was told. Borkheimer started to comb my hair, bringing as much of it as possible on my forehead. He told me to look in the mirror, took his scissors and briskly cut the curls on my forehead, saying:
"Is this what your mother wanted you to keep in the Navy, Harmon ?”
I had raised my hand to my forehead to assess the damage when the CPO shouted:
"Hands on the arms of your armchair, Harmon.”
As soon as my hands were back in place, he made a sign to the barber and together they took some sort of leather belt and attached my hands to the armchair.
"This way, Harmon, you won't be able to misbehave. Keep looking in the mirror, so you can see what a nice Navy haircut you will get. Don't move or I will have to attach your head and maybe more than that.”
CPO Borkheimer caped me and took the clippers. He asked the barber for a #1 guard. He placed it on the clippers and put them on. He then pushed my head on my left shoulder and started to shave my right side. I could feel the pressure of the guard. He turned a long time around my ear and he then pushed briskly my head on my right shoulder and continued to shave. I could see him in the mirror, smiling. I also had time to notice that I had a very special treatment: I was the only new Seaman to be placed facing the mirror ! Then suddenly, and brutally, he pushed my head forward, my chin touching my chest. He was now shaving my neck. I hated the idea of seeing all that hair falling down on the cape. I simply hoped he would take another guard for the top of my head. That's exactly what he did. He barked in the direction of the Seaman-barber:
"Guard #3. QUICKLY” and I felt relieved because he was going to shave uniformly my head and also because he was barking towards another miserable member of the Navy.
CPO Borkheimer started to shave the upper part of my head. He pulled again in order to have an easy access to my forehead and then went towards the back, pushing by moments towards my chest, and then pulling back again. He did that several times and after a time which was much longer than the time devoted to the other new Seamen, he told me:
"Have a good look now, you have a decent haircut. Are you pleased SA Harmon ?”
I looked and I could see that there was still hair on the top of my head. This haircut was very different from all those I had had, even the one I had after the first NMP weekend. But it was after all a nice haircut: I did not look like Marc, who looked like a prisoner. Anyway, my wrists were still attached to the armchair and I had not really the choice. So I answered:
"Chief, Yes Chief” very convincingly. But the CPO commented then:
"But do you believe it is the haircut LT Morelli ordered me to give you ?”
"Chief, Yes Chief.”
"Well no, he wanted you to have another look. Let's work more on it” and then he barked again "Barber, give me the guard #1 back.”
And the CPO started to shave further parts of the upper part of my head, which implied several pulling and pushing. I could see what was happening: I was starting to get a uniform head, like a ball with small places where there were still little pikes of hair all over my head which now started to look like a used brush. When he considered that he was done with this torture, CPO Borkheimer asked me once again if I liked it as it was. Nothing could be done to repair the damage, I was still attached and I started to have no confidence at all in whatever the CPO was saying. Anyway, I knew now, after all this brisk pulling and pushing and turning, that he was a big brute who liked to make his subordinates suffer. That was also obvious from the way he spoke. So I remained quiet. But he went on in a rather kind way, speaking as if he had honey in his mouth:
"I can see that you don't like it, and you are right. This is much too complex for an induction cut. An induction cut is something you only get once in your life, it must thus be done in such a way that you will always remember it.” Then he started barking again:
"Barber, don't be so slow and so lazy. Remind me to give you some pushups for your bad functioning. TAKE ALL THE GUARDS AWAY.”
Then started my real torture. CPO Borkheimer started to move my head in all possible directions, passing on it clippers with no guard at all. He started in the middle of the forehead going to the neck, leaving a completely empty avenue. He noticed subtly:
"Well now it is too late. I have to equalize.”
And he went on and on and on. My neck was hurting because of all the brisk moves he had brutally imposed to my head. Finally, there was nothing left, except small stubbles here and there … and not everywhere, the CPO was not an excellent and very regular barber !
The CPO had forced me to look at my transformation and I hated that much what I was seeing that I started weeping like a little boy, despite my new situation. I was looking exactly like Marc and I had not really refused to join the Navy in the way he did. That's when the CPO asked me:
"Harmon, do you like it now” and sobbing I answered:
"Chief, Yes Chief”
"In that case I give you an order: you will keep your haircut exactly as it is until the end of your stay at the NAS. I will write it in your file.” I hated him more than I could say but I found the strength to say:
"Chief, Thank you Chief.”
"Are you trying to make fun of me, SA Harmon ?”
"Chief NO Chief. I am sorry Sir. This SA owes you too much respect Chief.”
"Good, because I gave you exactly what the LT had asked for you” and he showed me the LT's note which said:
"Regular induction cut, #1 on the sides and #3 on the top, except if the SA is troublesome. In that case: zero him leaving some higher stubble to make it ugly.”
I had a good look at the image in the mirror and I could only see a boy with butchered head: in most places it had been effectively shaved properly and reduced to zero, but there were still places where big stubbles could be seen and felt. In other words, I looked dreadful.
PO Borkheimer let it go at that, and did not react further to my last answer, which, from the tone I used, was nearly insubordination. The regular barber made me free and I went out of this dreadful place following PO Pollet who was having a great day looking at me. I immediately put on my sailor's hat in order to hide my shame, but it was too big now. Luckily PO Pollet showed me how to make the basis smaller using the ribbon: once it was adapted, the end of the ribbon was floating in the air like a sort of tail.
PO Pollet took me finally to the clothing warehouse. It was a huge hall full of clothes with several Seamen taking care of the new Seamen. A CPO was there waiting for us and, after receiving a little push from PO Pollet, I introduced myself as I had been told to do. The CPO took care of me and asked me to repeat my Matricule number. He later stamped this number with indelible ink on all the pieces of uniform he gave me.
The CPO had a rapid look at me and evaluated my size and then gave me three sets of uniforms, boots and shoes. I was really astonished but all these clothes were really adapted to my size.
This CPO was probably an exception: he was smiling and not barking. He first told me to take off all the clothes I was wearing: they were put in a big bag and would be sent back to the NMP where I had received them. My undies came from home and would thus be destroyed he told me. The only exception was my sailor's hat which I would keep for the Naval Apprentice School. I felt very uncomfortable being completely naked in that big hall.
I first received a set of Navy regulation undies and I was told to put them on immediately: I felt relieved as soon as I was no longer naked, even if my new undies were not as comfortable as the previous and civilian ones. But I decided to adapt as rapidly as possible: I guessed that the situation would remain as it was during my first days in the arsenal and that I would have to sleep in undies and nothing else.
I then received a big bag and whole set of clothes and I was told to fold my clothes and to put them in the bag. There were altogether three sorts of uniform: the field uniform, the duty uniform and the dress service uniform. The field uniform came first, it consisted of a blue overall with a blue ball cap with the letters NAS already on it. I wanted to put it on immediately, but PO Pollet told me to wait: this uniform was intended for field training and for very dirty chores. Pollet warned me:
"It will be hard, cold, rainy, muddy and some days you will regret to have joined the Navy”, as if I was not regretting it already, "but there will also be sunny days and you will feel the glory of belonging to us.”
Then came the duty uniform. It consisted of flared trousers of a form I had never seen: they had no zipper but a hole instead of it and that hole was covered by a piece of cloth which had to be buttoned to the rest on each side. They called this "the bridge trousers”. The whole thing was in heavy blue material, probably wool. There was also a heavy a grey shirt with epaulettes and shoulder flaps on which I was instructed to stick a label with NAS on it. With that I received a funny white "Dixie cup” sailor cap which I would have to wear whenever I was in "duty uniform” outside my building. I was told to wear the "duty uniform” for chores and when I would be in my room, studying or resting. PO Pollet added:
"If you ever have time to rest while you are at the NAS.” And he started to laugh.
Finally, I received my dress service uniform: this consisted in another pair of "bridge trousers”, a white t-shirt with four thick dark blue horizontal lines near the collar, a woolen blue sailor's "cracker jack” which consisted of a sort of jacket without front opening or buttons. You had to pass it above your head. It was a thick navy blue woolen thing with three rows of white stripes on the collar and cuffs. It was difficult to pass this sort of jacket above the head in the perfect way because there was also a sort of big square collar down the back. It was a blue and white cotton flap hanging in the back, which was difficult to iron and to fix to the rest of this sailor's vest. It was called a "tar flap." Luckily, PO Pollet, who was wearing the same uniform, helped me when I had to put it on: he pulled on this square cotton collar. With the "dress service uniform”, I was told to wear my sailor's hat, but this one had now a new ribbon saying "Naval Apprentice School”. The ribbon was longer than the previous one and once I had adjusted it in order to have a hat adapted to my shorn head, the two ends of the ribbon were floating in my neck. I found this strange, but PO Pollet told me that it was very elegant, and anyway it was part of the way I had to wear my uniform !
With all this came black socks and very heavy and solid black boots to be worn with all the types of uniform, in all circumstances except on leave. PO Pollet told me that I had to wear the "service dress uniform” with the heavy boots when I was in the classroom or mess hall.
Next to the heavy black boots the CPO gave me black shoes and gaiters: these had to be worn on leave (which had to be taken in uniform) and free time. PO Pollet told me, laughing again, that I did not need to be anxious about my clothes during leaves: I had to remain in "dress service uniform”, but that was "in case you ever get a real leave as long as you are in the NAS, maybe 2 or 4 hours free time, but not more”. He was smiling, but I had to do my best not to cry ! No leave and I was only 16 !
Next to all that I received also a sweater to wear "when told to do so” and a blue coat provided with many copper buttons that I would have to keep clean and shining. PO Pollet warned me that it was difficult and that "you will be frequently inspected, especially about these buttons; don't clean them and you will be miserable.”
The CPO gave me also a bunch of labels with NAS on it and several nametags. He told me that I was to place all these asap, which means "as soon as possible”, i.e. urgently, on the correct place on my new clothes and that I was from now on responsible of their good state: "We know they are yours because I stamped your matricule number in each item.”
PO Pollet told me to get dressed in my "dress service uniform”. I did it rapidly, with Pollet's help as mentioned above. Despite the fact that I realized that the transformation was now complete and that I was now nothing else than an ordinary Seaman, I felt much better in uniform with heavy shoes than in my undies and barefoot. Pollet, who was after all not a bad man, helped me to fold everything and put it in my Seaman bag.
I also had to give back all the pieces of uniform I had already received (except my sailor hat) and my civilian "stuff” as they said. The other pieces of uniform would be sent back to where they came, but my civilian "stuff”, including my phone and my ID, would simply be destroyed.
Next, PO Pollet lead me to a big room where other new SA were waiting to be transported to the NAS. Pollet let me enter the room and once I was in, he said:
"Good bye Harmon, be as happy as you can here. It might take you a certain time, but you will realize one day that the navy is good for its sailors. Study well and become a good Seaman.”
He left, locked the door "according instructions received”, and that was the last time I met him.
At that moment I wondered if the new world in which I was going to have to live was really what my parents had in mind when they said that they wanted me "to go farther” …