Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Handsome Sailor

This is my favorite memory of Navy boot camp.
Long before Melville wrote Billy Budd, the handsome sailor was the ubiquitous grace note of every fleet of sailors. In a field of neatness the handsome sailor is noticeably neat. He is trig, Not always, but frequently he is -- not small -- but compact. He packs a pound in a three-quarter pound tin. Where all are in uniform, he is the one remembered. But with all this incentive to arrogance, the handsome sailor is most noted for his open friendship to his mates and his enthusiastic cheerfulness.
Ray was the handsome sailor of my platoon in Navy boot camp. In his peacoat and boondockers he might have passed a hundred pounds. He was pure black sunshine from South Carolina. Everyone wanted him to succeed.
He did until we had our morning in the swimming pool. It is an oddity of humanity that landlocked Midwesterners join the Navy while coastal dwellers seem to prefer the Army. The Navy does not have time to teach swimming in boot camp. The brief morning in the pool is merely the needful step to create a record entry of each sailor's minimum qualification. One jumps in -- no diving as that would be suicidal from the decks of most ships. One moves a small distance however one can flail. One floats on the back for a minute. That's all.
Ray couldn't float.
He settled about six inches under the surface and had to break to the top when his breath ran out. He was ordered to spend his evenings, when everyone else could wash and polish, in the pool until he could pass the test. Otherwise he would be held over to graduate with a later company. As his platoon recruit petty officer I was ordered to accompany him to the pool and back.
The deadline approached with no change in Ray's flotation. There was no question of Ray's effort, he was as committed as anyone could be. So on the last chance the petty officer third class running the test called the Chief Petty Officer in charge of the pool over to watch.
"See," said the Third. "How can I pass him?"
After a brief look at Ray's submerged form the Chief took the clipboard and signed Ray as passed.
"He can float'" said the Chief. "He just has negative buoyancy."
-- ml

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