Building A Movement
by Jim Dorenkott
The not-very-happy petty officer in charge of billeting and his colleague threatened to keep me in boot camp for four years if I didn’t change my last selection to something a little more “common” – just to “make his paperwork easier.” He assured me with the deepest sincerity he could muster he was “absolutely certain that I would get my first or second choice”; it was “only a formality” they were asking. But they should have known that someone who subscribes to Time Magazine in boot camp is not likely to be intimidated by stale “good cop – bad cop” routines. Actually, when Uncle Sam found out I was subscribing to a newsmagazine, they wanted me to get rid of them.
When I didn’t back down to their threats, I lost my position as educational petty officer. But that was almost inevitable anyhow, because I was holding study groups with the boys during our “free time” after dinner to help them decide what skills they wanted to learn during their four-year commitment. (Many were unfortunately deciding their career training based on the color of the stripes)
The chief petty officer of our boot camp company wanted them to be practicing drills with their rifles; he didn’t really care how much information these guys had when they made a decision which would last them their entire career. He wanted the best company award, and he had made it clear to me previously that he wasn’t happy with the boys wasting their time at my study sessions. I of course continued the sessions, partly because I benefited as well. Since I was given the school of my choice, studying the various options in great detail was logical, and dialoguing with the others made it more real.
When I joined the Navy in February of 1963, I hadn’t realized that the United States was already covertly invested in Vietnam and had lots of bases around the world. I naively thought as I signed up to “do my patriotic duty” that I was joining in a moment of peace. Get in, get it over with, and get out was my thought.
The first clue of how out of control we were came in the early 1960s with the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we and the Soviet Union played chicken on the high seas. I was in college, unsuccessfully trying to become an industrial engineer to please my father. As the drama unfolded, I was so frightened by the prospect of war that I began reading Time Magazine stories out loud to my fellow drinkers in one of the bars I frequented. Until that incident I hadn’t taken much interest in politics, but this was too close to home to ignore.
Still, it was a momentary focus. Even this harrowing brush with nuclear war didn’t rescue my grades, and my shot at completing the “normal” sequence of high school to college ended. Unfortunately, my choices at that point were to join the military and get it over with, or take a job and resign myself to that fate for the rest of my life. Given those dismal choices, I figured that travel on Uncle Sam’s tab in peacetime would be interesting, I would get the obligation out of the way, get the GI Bill to return to college, and perhaps be more ready to benefit from school by then. I took tests for all the services except the Marines; I had no intention of living in a foxhole. The Navy’s deal was best; it included going to the Navy school of my choice and so I took it.
Boot camp in San Diego got me to the promised land – the West Coast. For a midwesterner there was a mystique about that place, and it called to me.
By the time I got out of boot camp, they regretted giving me the school of my choice. I had chosen Russian interpreter, Chinese interpreter, and journalist as my 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choices. I didn’t know it at the time but they happened to be among the smallest ratings in the Navy. The officers in charge weren’t happy about having to keep their promise, and so when I didn’t buckle under their intimidation, they threatened to keep me in boot camp for my full enlistment.
Fortunately they didn’t do that. After a brief spell I was assigned to the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard, which was scheduled for a WestPac tour. During our first stop in Hawaii I discovered the benefits of being on a cruise. Renting a motor scooter, I checked out the sights and drank at the various clubs available to us. Drinking was dirt cheap in Navy base clubs, and many of the sailors would drink a few at these cheap rates before heading into the port towns, which were mostly clubs and brothels.
After we left Hawaii, we went to our first foreign port of call, a huge naval base called Subic Bay in the Philippines. Next to the base is the Philippine town of Olangapo, which was notorious for its bars and prostitutes. Most sailors, I learned, never left these bar towns and seldom saw the rest of the country or met people outside them. Even though I wasn’t all that excited about seeing this reputedly dingy place, I was curious. As I left the ship, I walked with a certain bounce. I was going on an adventure, perhaps to have more fun than I’d ever had in the states. I couldn’t wait to get ashore, and so I didn’t even stop to have a drink at the Navy enlisted clubs. I was flying with excitement. I was nineteen and out of the United States for the first time. I wanted to sample everything.
Between the Subic Bay base and the city of Olangapo was a big creek, almost a river. Since this was my first visit outside the continental United States, I stopped before walking over the bridge. I wanted to deepen the experience of stepping on foreign soil. All eyes, I noticed a sailor hanging over the guard rail, tossing quarters into the river where boys were diving for them.
I walked over to join him in the fun. I tossed a quarter in the air, and a kid dived for it. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. The kids and the sailor were laughing. I joined in the laughter, reached into my pocket, and pulled out another quarter. As I started my toss, I noticed a long brown oblong object in the river and asked the sailor, “What’s that, man?” It looked familiar, but also out of place, and even though I was beginning to think I knew what it was, I was asking for confirmation.
He replied to me rather matter of factly, as if it was obvious, “It’s a turd, man!” My stomach did cartwheels and I froze in revulsion, involuntarily watching the quarter turning over and over as it arced through the air. My mind starting racing a mile a minute and time seemed frozen. Now, I didn’t want the boys to dive for the coin; I wanted them to get out of the polluted river. Spinning around this thought was an internal dialogue about the nature of poverty; I’d never felt this before. Just then a few kids dived into the shit-filled river to get the quarter I had tossed.
I have no idea how long I stayed in suspended animation while this deep knowledge forced its way past all my superficiality. It was very frightening to realize that such a dimension of awareness existed and that I was in it. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to explain it to anyone on the ship and that they wouldn’t even want to know about it. It felt like once you know, you know and you are responsible. I felt all that but I didn’t know how far the responsibility went or what was expected. I knew I wouldn’t forget it easily, and that it would have an impact on how I saw the various ports we were going to visit.
When I found my feet beneath me again, I headed into town. Part of me cursed. The bounce in my step was gone, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get it back. That frightened me even more. The dirt roads, bars, and hookers reminded me of everything I wanted to forget.. I wanted the bounce, the joie de vivre back; I felt I had lost an innocence, a naïveté I wanted to hang onto. I just wanted to play and have a good time, like I saw all the other sailors doing. I didn’t want to know about this and have to worry or take responsibility, especially one which seemed to have no bounds. I wanted to put it out of my mind or failing that, at least, lessen the impact of the experience. I was uneasy. I didn’t understand what had happened to me.
I knew that in some strange way I had just received some kind of calling to understand the nature of poverty. How it occurs, what perpetuates it, and what can be done to eradicate it. And since I was so young and I knew nothing about it, I kept wondering “why me?” In town I tried discussing it, but everyone wanted to party. At first, I couldn’t get into the spirit with them. I was not comfortable with the superficiality, but having been to sea for several weeks, I definitely didn’t want to go back to the dreary ship. I started drinking, trying forget the experience. But down deep I knew my life had changed.
I was introduced – really introduced for the first time – to responsibility. Forty years later I still think about it sometimes when I handle a quarter, you know, to buy a cup of coffee.
This piece was first published in the San Francisco Call on 8/23/02.