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A significant rite of passage for young men back in the 1960’s involved military service. Once one turned 18, all males were required to register for the draft. You reported to your draft board, and after a physical, you were classified with a draft status. I never knew how these were assigned their meaning, but most of us were classified “1A”, which meant full eligibility for service (self included). On the other hand, you could be classified “4F”, which meant you were ineligible for physical reasons (I never could find a doctor willing to sign off on my bone spurs…)

Having passed my pre-induction physical with the proverbial flying colors, I had several options to serve my “military obligation”. The default was service as a draftee in the Army. I had done some ROTC at City College, where I learned at least a couple of things. As one instructor noted, “when generals screw up, privates die”. Another aphorism I learned from a sergeant was that second lieutenants had the highest mortality rate in the Army. Not for me.

A friend of mine decided to join the Naval Reserve. Meetings one night per week, and active duty for training two weeks. Not a bad deal. As a Vietnam vet friend of mine put it, “3 hots and a cot”. Sure beats K rations and a tent. My first two weeks of training was boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois. There had to be a better way! Since I was a college graduate, why not go to Officer Candidate School, get a commision and go in style. The only trade-off was that I had to serve three years, instead of two. I became a 90-day wonder! Ensign, USNR.

My first duty station was line officer on a ship whose mission involved laying acoustical cable on the ocean floor, enabling us to track movement of Soviet submarines. My billet on the ship was Ship’s Boatswain. One day, I took several enlisted men and a motor whaleboat on a little job in the coastal waters off Newfoundland. I actually had command of something for a workday. I don’t even remember what we did, but around quitting time, we set a course back to the ship. The channel involved a straight run for maybe an hour, then a 90 degree turn to starboard for another hour or so. Couldn’t we just take a short cut and go from Point A to Point B? I don’t remember whose bright idea this was, but it was irrelevant, since I was in command. When we ran aground, I learned that channels were marked that way for a reason. I took some well deserved ribbing around the wardroom (not to mention a scolding from my department head).

Sometime later, I was standing a bridge midwatch as Officer of the Deck (OOD). We were returning to home port (Kittery, Maine) from a deployment. The job of a OOD was to drive the ship, so to speak, while the captain slept. We had standing orders to notify the skipper (wake him up if needed) of certain potential tactical threats: a ship coming within a spcified distance (potential for a collision), sudden appearance of a Soviet warship (!), a significant drop in barometric pressure (harbinger of a storm). Also included was spotting a navigation aid (buoy or lighthouse) before or after we expected to sight it. In this instance, we failed to spot a buoy when we were supposed to. It didn’t seem of much importance to awaken the captain at 2:30 in the morning. I did, however, need to notify him later of another vessel appraching too closely. When he arrived on the bridge, he found out from the quartermaster of the watch about the missed sighting. Apparently, the ship had wandered off course (this is several decades before GPS, remember). After making the appropriate course correction, he chewed me out big-time, and ordered me to spend the next watch on the focsle (front of the ship) watching out for navigaton aids, instead of going to bed.

In the foolishness of youth, I resented having to interrupt my promising career as a chemist in the Food and Drug Administration to serve my country. In retrospect (which is often 20-20), this was one of the most rewarding times of my life. Imaging being given responsibility for driving a large Navy ship at the age of 25 or so. I learned valuable lessons in leadership and paying attention to detail (I’m not there yet, but its better than it was). Years later, I used to tell chemistry grads I was recruiting that although the salary was somewhat paltry, where else could one identify illegal drugs, and then be trusted to render expert testimony in courts of law. People often thank me for my service, a stark contrast to how it was when I mustered out in 1966. Thank me for what? Wouldn’t have missed it for anything!

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