I graduated from High School on June 11th and on June 23rd I was winging my way to Cape May, NJ for Coast Guard Boot Camp. I was all of 17 years old, never been on a plane before, never away from home for more than a night or two, and I was scared as hell!
However, I also knew that I had to leave when I did, things were not great for me at home and going in the Coast Guard all those years ago, was probably one of the best and most important decisions that I have made in my life.
I know that there is not a day that goes by, since the day I raised my hand and said:
“I, Harold L. Shaw, Jr., do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
Voluntarily giving that oath changed my life completely and still affects it.
I really hate to think what my life would have been like if had not decided to go into the Coast Guard that summer – I would have probably ended up…well it doesn’t matter does it, because I did. Still it scares me to think of how different my life would have been.
Once I got to Boot Camp and became a member Uniform 26, I did my best to follow my grandfather’s advice: never volunteer, don’t stand-out, don’t be a dirt bag, don’t be first, don’t be last, keep your mouth shut and try to become invisible.
I followed that advice enough so that my 6th week into boot camp, my Company Commander – Chief Chambers (who was replaced by BM1 Terry, the ACC after week 7 if I remember correctly) asked me what I was doing in his squad bay, what Company did I belong to and was serious about it. When I responded “Uniform 26, sir!” He said “bullshit, come with me” and took me into the Company’s office and looked me up on the rolls, when he saw that I was in his company, he just sat down and started laughing.
After he stopped laughing, he told me to get to hell out of there, but I was in his spotlight for the next week and did more pushups, dying cockroaches and earned more demerits than I had in all my previous weeks put together. This was until I was able to go back to being invisible again, when others in the Company needed his attention more than I did.
One thing about boot camp – if you were not in formation, you were “on the bounce”, running where ever it was you needed to go.
The morning formation runs were pretty easy, but what we had to run in really sucked. We were issued the old white canvas, rubber bottom sneakers for running (true minimalist running shoes – if they would have only fit decently) and then when it wasn’t PE, we had to wear steel toed boondockers (which totally sucked and caused way too many blisters), especially when running with a rifle at high port on the beach or Marlborough country, which our company seemed to visit way too often.
So I actually ran more during the 10 weeks in boot camp than I had my whole last year in High School.
The only time I didn’t really listen to my grandfather’s great advice was twice – during the 300 yard shuttle runs in our PE phase testing.
During the 2nd week PE test, I almost beat this big guy from Philly in the 300 yard shuttle run. He was pissed that a scrawny little kid from Maine had almost beat him. A lot of his “friends” gave him a lot of grief for that and I quickly learned to avoid him, if I didn’t want to deal with his attitude.
During our 8th week we had our last PE progress test, which included another 300 yard shuttle run. That day we ran the elimination heats and finally it came down to the 2 of us and 3 other guys. Before the last heat, he told me he was going to kick “my ass – bad” this time and if I beat him it would even be worse!
He was definitely trying to intimidate me (it was working too, he had gotten in trouble a couple of times for fighting in the squad bay and definitely had some problems with his temper) and I know he would have hurt me bad if he wanted to. However, I was the only one who was running that day, that had a prayer of beating him in the 300 yard shuttle and we both knew it.
During the race it was one of those times when everything just comes together perfectly and we were side-by-side coming off the last shuttle. At that point I found another gear and just kicked it in, I beat him by a good 10 yards and kept running for what felt like another 200, before I stopped and looked around.
I was actually scared he might try to kick my ass for beating him right then and there.
After all he had told everyone that if “anyone” beat him in a race, that he would take care of the problem.
When I jogged back up to the finish line, one of the PE instructors told me I had broken the base record for the 300 yard shuttle (no idea what the time was) and that my name was going on a plaque in the base gym – never saw it???
The guy from Philly came over, because he had been “ordered” to be a good sport, he glowered at me and shook my hand (he damn near broke it – on purpose) and said he had never seen anyone run like that before and that we would talk about it “later”. That kind of ruined the moment for me a little and later I learned that a “bit” of money had changed hands on that race with 10:1 odds against me winning. I ate free that night at the little liberty shack we were allowed to go to.
He got assigned to “red belts” later that afternoon for something he said to the Assistant Company Commander, which was probably a good thing for me.
The next day during our morning formation run, I stepped in a sewer drain wrong and almost broke my left ankle. I was in the hospital for a week and a half, and barely got to graduate with my Company. I don’t know if it was true or not but a couple of guys told me it was a probably a good thing I was in the hospital ward until right before we graduated, because certain people had looked for me to give me a “blanket party” for winning that race.
The reality is that
Boot Camp taught me a lot about life, introduced me to new ideas and people (not always good things); that doing things differently didn’t mean that you were wrong, but just that you were doing them differently; and that the stereotypes, that I had of other people were just that – stereotypes that I had learned from watching TV shows, the news and what was in the newspapers at the time and didn’t have much resemblance to reality.
Boot Camp was the first time in my life I had actually the opportunity to sit down and talk to any other race. Back then there was only one black family in the town where I grew up and they didn’t have any kids, no Asians, no Hispanic, etc., pretty much everyone was of white Anglo-Saxon heritage or pretended to be (things were different back then).
Needless to say, there was just a little culture shock for me!
Coming from a small town in Maine, to the melting pot of boot camp in the mid-70’s. Especially, when I met and talked to so many people who didn’t fit the stereotypes that I had before I got there.
It was a definite learning experience and taught me that it doesn’t matter if someone is black, white, yellow, red, green or purple, it is how people treat you and how you treat them that matters the most and that is a lesson that I still use to this day.
I did a LOT of running in Boot Camp and while most of it wasn’t competitive, it was still running. When I left, I could run long distances better than I ever could and couldn’t wait to get to the ship I had been assigned to – back in South Portland, Maine.
I wouldn’t trade the experiences that I had that summer, they helped make me the person that I am today.
If you would like to see other posts in this series check out the My Story tab.