Not having any other place to be, and given that I recently bombed out of my first semester in college, I joined the Navy and went to Boot camp on April 8, 1968.
Boot camp was interesting, as were the times. Those who are old enough will remember the raw emotion of Vietnam and how volatile and alive the 60’s were. My company was comprised of 100 or so of us, with 80 being from New York. This assured a healthy dose of attitude, humor, and drama. As part of that New York mix, I was comfortable and amused, but also singled out by the company commander as someone with attitude. He would take me aside to tell me so but never actually punished me. As those kinds of guys go, he was actually soft and I believe he secretly respected me.
The weeks crawled by and mostly we marched for hours and hours. As it grew hotter outside with very high humidity (Great Lakes, Illinois), all that marching became real work and my body was growing fit and trim. We would also attend classes that were very boring. The only one I remember was about how to guard against venereal disease. That involved washing repeatedly from your knees to your belly button. By now all of us were dreaming of the chance to wash between our knees and belly buttons and sometime in early June we were given day passes to finally get off base.
At 19 I was still shy and unsure of myself. Some of this was covered up by bravado, and even though I almost always had a girlfriend, I was, and am, naturally introverted. On one of these passes late in Boot camp, I took a train alone into Chicago. On the way to wherever I was going to end up, I stopped into a small seedy sausage shop and bought a quick and delicious sausage I could eat while walking. Continuing my easy and long walk I eventually made my way into downtown Chicago and took a seat in a plaza surrounded by tall shiny buildings.
It was then that I saw a very pretty girl, about my age, sitting alone on a bench across from me. She had long curly blonde hair, a blue dress, and a real sweet face. She was so pretty that I anguished about getting up and approaching her. Somehow I mustered the courage and walked over to her. We sat together and talked for awhile and all too soon she said she had to get back to work, but enjoyed our conversation. I asked her if we could meet again next week and she quickly agreed so we set up a time to meet in this same place. I know I was happy and excited as I made my way back to the train station.
At 19, a week is still a long time. How long? Just long enough for a shy and uncertain sailor to begin to have doubts. I did not doubt that she would be there, but I did wonder if she would continue to find me interesting, what we would talk about, and what the point might be since Boot camp would be ending in a few weeks. So I did what shy boys do….I did nothing. I didn’t go, and instead went with some friends to Milwaukee.
While it is true that I am happily married for 44 years, it is also true that it is the things never done that haunt us as we get older. Perhaps I am at an age when these lost opportunities grow larger, while the time I have left grows shorter. And maybe, just maybe, there is a fine looking woman, about my age, who wonders why that nice boy never showed up the following week.