Navy Week Brings Events, Memories

  If you asked today’s teenagers what the draft was, they’d probably say it was a cold air current that made them move someplace else while they were texting.

  The draft, as in “your life as you know it is over,” hasn’t existed since 1973, long enough that most young people today have little or no idea that it was a call to mandatory military service. 

  Prior to 1973, the draft was something most young men dreaded. Barring a disability or other acceptable excuse, young men of my generation could expect to get “greetings” from the president and an all-expense-paid trip to the war in Vietnam.

  When my draft notice arrived, my father gave me some surprising advice. Dad had served in the Marine Corp during World War II. Expecting him to recommend the Marine Corps rather than reporting for an army physical, I was surprised when he suggested the Navy. It was some of the best advice he ever gave me.

  With Boise Navy Week coming up next week, Aug. 19-25, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic about my sailor days. And with relatively few young people from landlocked Idaho joining the Navy, or for that matter knowing little if anything about it, it seemed appropriate to share what it’s like for a young person who has never been to sea or maybe even left Idaho to be whisked off to a different world.

  I was a struggling college student when my greetings from the president  arrived. Struggling as in flunking out for lack of interest and having no idea of what to do with my life. When he read my note apologizing for doing poorly on a final exam and saying it might not matter because my future probably included Vietnam, a kindly professor took pity and gave me a passing grade.

  That was when Dad’s advice sent me to see a Navy recruiter. He signed me up and promptly administered a battery of tests. My grades were 100 percent on three of them – and 55 on the mechanical exam.

  “Son,” he said with a trace of a smile, “we don’t want you anywhere near a ship. You should think about joining Security Group.”

  “What’s that?”

  “I can’t tell you because it’s classified. But it’s good duty and almost all of it is shore-based.”

  First stop: Charleston, S.C. 

  In August! Never having been outside the western U.S., I wasn’t prepared for Charleston’s climate.

  “What’s the matter with the air?” I asked an elderly gentleman at the airport.

  “What do you mean?” he asked.

  “Why is there all this steam in the air? Did something explode?”

  “You aren’t from around here, are you?”

  “No.”

  “Well, get used to it.”

 Nothing was ever dry. Sheets, towels, clothing, everything was damp at best. But Charleston itself was seductive – tropical flowers, cobblestone streets, antebellum mansions … It was a breathtaking new world for a kid from arid Idaho, and one I would have missed if not for the Navy.

  Next came a training center in Pensacola, Fla., where we learned the finer points of low-level spying on our Cold War enemies. Before Pensacola, I wouldn’t have believed that beaches could have sand as white as sugar and water so electric blue that you couldn’t stop looking at it.

  Then Germany, where everything from cafes to cathedrals seemed  impossibly picturesque. It was there that we intercepted a message one Christmas Eve that none of us would ever forget.

  Virtually all of the messages we copied were in code, but this one was in plain English. Our work and even our presence in Germany supposedly were top secret, but the message began by listing every one of our names and ended by wishing us a Merry Christmas from the Russian Navy. It wasn’t quite the stuff of “Seal Team” (the TV show), but it was exciting enough that we talked about it for weeks.

  While stationed in Germany, I was able to visit every country in western Europe except Finland and Portugal. Without the Navy, none of that would have happened. 

  Those kinds of experiences are unknown to many of today’s young people, who don’t have to worry about the draft and know little or nothing about the Navy. Navy Week is a way to address that.

  “It’s not a recruiting tool, but it does stimulate interest in young people,” Lt. Jacqui Maxwell said.

 Young people, and people of all ages. The lead planner for Navy Week, Maxwell added that its purpose is “to reach out to the public to tell them what we do for a living. A lot of people in inland cities don’t know much about the Navy. A common misconception is that our planes are Air Force planes.”

  That can’t sit well with Navy pilots, who among other things fly the fighter jets of the famous Blue Angels aerobatic team and pride themselves on their ability to land on the pitching decks of aircraft carriers. The last I heard, the Air Force doesn’t have aircraft carriers.

  The Navy is the only branch of the military that conducts outreach weeks in cities around the country. Boise’s will include dozens of events, including performances by a Navy band and rifle team, opportunities to meet Navy reservists and crew members of the nuclear submarine USS Boise, and Navy oceanographers displaying core samples and their weather glider at the Western Idaho Fair. Sailors will be popping up everywhere from the fair and the Grove plaza to the Boys and Girls Club, Aquarium of Boise and family night at the public library. The Press will publish more details later this month.

  “We try to hit every demographic, from youth to veterans,” Maxwell said. “We love to come to Boise. It’s amazing how many Navy veterans there are there, and they’re always happy to see sailors in uniform. It’s a way for them to reminisce.”

  One of those veterans is Eric Lowe, one of only two Boiseans ever to serve aboard the nuclear submarine USS Boise.

  “It’s always great to see the Navy come to town,” Lowe said. “Navy Week does a good job of doing a Fleet Week type of community event in cities that don’t have a port and a naval presence. It energizes local veterans’ groups, it’s an opportunity for members the USS Boise crew to visit the namesake city, and for me personally it takes me back to what it was like to serve. It brings back a lot of great memories.”

  Great memories? No argument.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.