Good to be King
By King Harris
Where was I when thousands of long-haired hippies from all over the country invaded my hometown of San Francisco 50-years ago this summer? Boot camp, with no hair.
The tale of how I got to boot camp which took place in July and August in San Diego’s Camp Pendleton started in the previous fall. I was just starting my junior year at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., when one morning my Mom frantically called me up telling me I had just been drafted. I had a week to deal with my1-A status.
There were a couple of immediate options. I could go to Canada, which I decided not to do when I found out there were openings in the U.S. Naval Reserve, which I thought at the time might keep me out of ground combat in Vietnam.
The military was so desperate for soldiers in 1966, they were actually drafting blind people, one of whom said when he was picked, “I always wanted be a bombardier.” My biggest problem was the Reserve wouldn’t bring me on board in either Portland or San Francisco, because they said I wouldn’t be able to receive training every month.
I finally landed at Treasure Island, when I declared with not quite a wink in my eye that I wasn’t going away to school my senior year. The Reserve didn’t buy it, and I was forced to fly down to S.F. every month for training during my senior year.
This was after my official joining of the Navy, which was supposed to occur July 4, 1967, but my hair was too long, according to Navy personnel. It wasn’t really, they were just making a point. So on July 5, after swearing in for 6 years of service, four inactive and two active, I was ordered to boot camp and shore afloat school for most of the Summer of Love.
For the first two weeks, boot camp in San Diego included a lot of bald-headed marching, strict conduct, and being yelled at a lot. I was constantly under barrage because I had a hard time keeping a smirk off my face.
One fellow seaman took it worse than I. While waiting in formation one day for lunch, he knocked a mean drill instructor off his bike after being berated for not buttoning his shirt correctly. Never saw either again. I will tell you one thing; we got in shape pretty quickly.
The next stop for us “Weekend Warriors,” as we were called (because boot camp for the regular Navy was far worse than ours), was the Camp Pendleton Marine Base for three days, an adventure I don’t recommend to anyone at any time, especially in July when it’s really hot.
There, some of us learned how to shoot at targets with an M-16, while others had no inkling of what an assault rifle could do. I think they were the same sailors who didn’t know how to swim.
Then we practiced damage control, where you were ordered into this concrete building, filled with oil, which was set on fire, duplicating what might happen on a ship. It was a miserable experience, or should I say that in plural, since we had to go through it way more than once?
After that, we all stood in a room that was filled with tear gas. Ironically, I’d had previous experiences with this stuff having been on college campuses protesting against the police. Nonetheless, it was still insufferable, as I kept saying to myself, “Is this any way to spend a summer?”
Getting away from Pendleton was a great relief, especially with Shore Afloat School in San Diego our next destination. You know what we all did there for the next two weeks? Tied knots. I never imagined that there were so many knots, all for a specific purpose. And if you failed in tying any knot, you wouldn’t get out of there until you could tie it correctly.
I, for some strange reason, managed to pass all of the requirements, and was expecting to complete my active duty as a yeoman on the destroyer, U.S.S Twining based at Treasure Island. But that was not to be.
Many of my mates in boot camp ended up on swift boats and other craft patrolling the Mekong Delta. Some didn’t survive. I did, but not as a seaman on a ship or boat. I was selected, because I majored in English, to teach our language to South Vietnamese Navy personnel, so they could take over our ships and boats. But I never planned on having my boots on the ground in Saigon for a year.
As for the Summer of 1967, boot camp was helpful. It made you realize and prepared you for what might be ahead.