Thursday, July 20, 2006

We sail at break of day-ay-ay-ay: The Life of a Golf Course Tractor Operator Is Always Intense: Part Five: The Naval Station Great Lakes Digression

(Handy linkage to first four parts: 1 2 3 4)

The Great Lakes Navy Base is big. If you want specific facts on it -- hell, I don't even know what the official name of it is this year -- you can Google it. I just want to jot down some brief impressions of what I remember from 1986.

I do want to digress to spew one small bit of actual Navy-related factomation, though -- 1986 was the year that Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was finally forced to retire from the Navy, at the age of 79. So? Well, if you don't know who Grace Hopper was, you should do a little reading. She was an interesting person. (Wikipedia.) Well, okay, maybe she's only interesting if you're a computer nerd ("she invented the first compiler? and she helped create the COBAL and FORTRAN languages? oh ... yeah ... cool ... uh ... I have to go balance my checkbook now ... see ya").

OK ... but maybe a more accessible trivia item is that she is credited by many with popularizing the term "bug" when a moth got caught in a relay (although the evidence is pretty overwhelming that she didn't actually coin the term, which had been in use to describe a mechanical defect for a long time -- but she apparently was the first to extend the term to the usage "debug," in the context of fixing a programming error). So if you are having some BUG TRAUMA lately, maybe think of Grace Hopper for a moment for some strength and inspiration. (It occurs to me that her name kind of sounds like the name of a bug itself, if you say it in a sort of an Indiana accent. And I definitely slaughtered a lot of those kinds of bugs while bush-hogging weeds in the empty "Northeast 40" of the golf course grounds ... so it all ties together, if you use your imagination.)

Also, she used to carry around foot-long pieces of wire so she could illustrate to people how far light travels in a nanosecond. She must have been a riot at Officers Club parties. Actually, she probably was. I remember her being a pretty lively talk show guest -- and, as this nifty site reminds me, she was in fact a guest on Dave Letterman's show in October 1986. (Once again proving that I never forget anything I saw on TV.)

So ... yeah. Grace Hopper. I like her. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of her birth (she died in 1992). I'm pretty sure she never served at Great Lakes, but another Navy computer-type person did. I'm referring to my dad, who came to Great Lakes from the mountains of Pennsylvania and did his whole hitch there from 1958 to 1962, getting education and experience for a career in the data processing biz. It's fair enough to say that, without Great Lakes, and without computers, I wouldn't even exist. At least not in my present form. (Great Lakes, because without it, he wouldn't have come to Illinois; and computers, because without them, they would have found other work for him and he would probably have realized his original dream of "seeing the world," and who knows where he'd have settled after discharge.)

Which brings us back to the subject of the facility itself. Great Lakes is primarily a training base -- most sailors don't spend more time there than boot camp. Since 1994, it's been the only recruit training center in the U.S. Navy. In 1986, I think one or two others were still in operation, but I'm pretty sure Great Lakes was the biggest. It also contains several specialized training centers, including its "Nuke School," where trainees learn about the reactors that propel subs and aircraft carriers.

So, in a lot of ways, Great Lakes is like a big college campus. And by big, I mean it's comparable in size to a fairly large state university -- at any given time, about 25,000 recruits live there. It also looks a lot like your average Land Grant university, with a sizeable collection of stately and beautiful old buildings housing the upper-echelon administrative offices, crumbling ugly old buildings housing the general bureaucracy, and the standard assortment of dull utilitarian modern buildings, all dispersed over lots of grassy and tree-y acreage.

But it doesn't look exactly like a regular college campus -- it's more like what, say, Northern Illinois University's campus would look like if the ROTC took over and stenciled numbers and arcane acronyms all over everything. Also, the atmosphere is considerably more muted -- more muted than NIU? Impossible! you say? Well, that's what makes it feel kind of eerie on Mainside (or huuron, even). There are no hippies playing hacky-sack on the quad, for instance (do college students still do that?) ... or anybody doing anything on the quad, for that matter -- and I guess they call it the "parade ground" or something anyway, not quad. I don't think they're allowed to go onto the grass at all except maybe to "police" the area -- which leads me to another odd factoid about life on base.

They seem to be locked into a permanent game of "pretend" there -- as in, let's all pretend it's not a base or a campus or any kind of land-lubber locale, but a big old static fleet of ships. Let's pretend we're, in navy reality, on the ocean right now -- not the shore, not port, the actual high seas -- and not squatting on a bluff over Lake Michigan about 30 miles north of the city of Chicago. In fact, the barracks and some other buildings are sometimes referred to as "ships." And they don't have "floors," they have "decks." No bathrooms, nuh uh. "Heads." Instead of walls, the ceilings are held up by "bulkheads." I can't remember if they called the doors "hatches" and the windows "portholes," but I wouldn't be surprised. I also wouldn't have been surprised to discover that the base was being commanded by Old Man Gigglesnort himself. (You have to have grown up in the Chicago area in the 1970s to stand a chance of getting this joke, sorry.)

Maybe the game of "pretend" extended to the grass. Kind of like the game we used to play all the time when we were little kids, where you had to get across the backyard without touching the grass, by jumping from the patio to the picnic table to the sandbox to a tree stump, etc. -- because the grass was "hot lava." And I dunno about your childhood pretend games, but in ours, touching "hot lava" meant instant death. So maybe instead of hot lava, the grass on base, in their pretend game, was "water" ... water that would kill you dead if you walked on it.

Over on the golf course, which was located a mile or so west of the Main Base, we weren't playing that pretend game. It would have made the job of maintaining the turf very difficult indeed.

Besides, we had enough things making that job difficult already. The main hindrance: Golf balls. A golf course requires constant work to keep it in shape, so you can't stop working just because some jerk wants to, you know, play golf on it. One of the chief reasons why The Life of a Golf Course Tractor Operator was always intense was because assholes were constantly hitting little rock-hard dimpled balls at you (OK, dear readers -- there's a set-up if there ever was one -- go!) ... anyway, more on that later, in the next part, when we meet the rest of the crew, and its Skipper. (You already know Gilligan -- you're reading his blog right now.)

Until then, join me in a rousing round of the Navy's favorite fucking song:

Stand, Navy, out to sea, Fight our battle cry;
We'll never change our course, So vicious foe steer shy-y-y-y.
Roll out the TNT, Anchors Aweigh. Sail on to victory
And sink their bones to Davy Jones, hooray!

Anchors Aweigh, my boys, Anchors Aweigh.
Farewell to college joys, we sail at break of day-ay-ay-ay.
Through our last night on shore, drink to the foam,
Until we meet once more. Here's wishing you a happy voyage home.


Feral Mom said...

If you hit the little dimpled ones hard enough...yeah. Looking forward to the Gilligan's Island Theme. And say, great description of the Great Lakes facility as ROTC college campus. We drove several times when the girls were wee and wouldn't sleep. Yeah. Just kept driving north.

Stronger Than Dirt Pete Moss said...

There are some kind of crummy pockets up there ... it's a pretty destitute, decaying mess in the town of North Chicago around that base. Unless things have changed.

Meanwhile, in other news of feral women making the rounds of the tubes on the internets this week:

Wild child

When eight-year-old Oxana Malaya was found, she was running around on all fours barking. Elizabeth Grice hears her incredible story