I CARRY WITH ME the naïve and romantic notion from books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen that I will join the military and become an officer and a gentleman. My college transcript quickly torpedoes the officer idea. A private I will be. Life, I’m learning, seems to consist of starts, stops, and, mostly, beginnings. Starting from scratch.
I’m not sure which branch of the military I should join, but the Navy seems promising, or at least the safest and least stressful. One day, in 1966, as senior year at the University of Kentucky comes to an end, I sit across from a stone-faced Navy recruiter who pores over pages of forms that he’s told me I will momentarily sign. He’s wearing a uniform and appears to be an officer, but based on his gruff demeanor, I don’t figure him for a gentleman. He grunts, does his own head shake—never a good sign—and then laughs, hard, jarring me. I realize then that he’s looking at my transcript. He shakes his head again and sifts through a few other forms.
“Looking to fit you into the right slot,” he says, after yet another head shake. “Your grades are—”
“Abysmal,” I say, helpfully.
It’s only a matter of time before I will learn the meaning of that word.
“Correct,” he says, scowling at the form. “You want to be an electrician?”
“I’m not good with wiring or that sort of thing. I majored in English.”
“We speak English. What about a boatswain’s mate? You want to be a boatswain’s mate?”
“Uh, okay, maybe, I’m not quite sure what that—”
“You do basically ...