March 17, 1999
It all started on a cold and rainy night in Great Lakes, Illinois. A group of us had just arrived from OHare Airport, in Chicago, Illinois. Upon our arrival at the gate of the facility, our company commander greeted us. This person is in charge of making civilians into sailors in a period of nine weeks. I believe our company commander thought his job was to make our lives as unpleasant as possible. Immediately, he started yelling orders at us. Follow the arrows on the bulkhead! Watch you step! Be careful, the deck is wet! If any of you sissies need to use the head, its forward of us on the port side. Being an eighteen-year-old kid just out of high school, I had no idea what it was that man just said to me: bulkhead, port side, forward, and head. I was surely confused. I quickly learned, if I didnt understand what it was he was telling us, he would make sure everyone around knew just how ignorant I was, by using his Navy lingo and expletives.
Our company commander had a diligent method in helping those who were unable to adapt to the new lingo being taught. It was simple, if you were having trouble remembering the terminology, he would tell you to get strong, which meant to drop and give fifty push-ups. Or when he really felt like being a jerk, he would order the recruit to do push-ups until he got tired. Possibly this was the commanders way of mentally breaking us down, since we were never given any kind of classroom instruction on the terminology. My first week of basic training was the most difficult, since I probably did a thousand push-ups. In reality the sailor terminology wasnt difficult to learn. Since all of us recruits were speaking the same lingo, or at least making an attempt.
Dont be misled, though. There are many other naval terms I havent yet mentioned. For example, we couldnt call each other by our names. We had to refer to each other as shipmate, or mate. Then there was rank structure. The lower ranking workers were called seaman. After a seaman gained some responsibility and leadership he became a petty officer. The highest of the enlisted were the chiefs. Port side meant left, and starboard side meant right. Aft and stern was a term used for back, and forward was a term used for front. Bulkhead was a wall, overhead was the ceiling, while the steel floor was called a deck? A stairwell was called a ladder. I really didnt understand that term until I boarded my first ship. Then it all made sense.
I remember one snowy evening we had mail call, when I went to pick up my mail I had made the mistake of calling the chief who was in charge of handing out packages, a petty officer. That was the saddest night in Boot Camp for me. I had to do push-ups until the chief and his friends had eaten all of the Christmas cookies my mother had sent me. I learned my lesson, and never called a chief a petty officer again. At least with me his method was successful.
I was now just a few days away from graduating basic training. I was so excited. I could speak the navy lingo like a salty sailor. After graduation I arrived home for my first humble visit with my family. It seemed strange to again refer to the floor as a floor, and not a deck. During a visit at my mothers new house, I asked her where the head was. When I saw a confused look on her face I swiftly corrected myself and asked for the rest room. Everything that came from my mouth was in naval terminology. Since both my grandfathers and my father were ex-salts, they were the only ones who understood what I was saying. I soon discovered that wasnt the end of my inability to converse with someone who spoke a different language. Actually it was just the beginning.
After I arrived at my first duty station, the USS Essex, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, we journeyed off to our mighty adventure across the Pacific Ocean. Our first stop was Hong Kong. Since this was a British colony, I thought it would be easy to converse with the locals, but I was wrong. I was also introduced to the land of negotiation. Everything purchased had to be bargained for. The currency rate is different so the local vendors tried to rip you off if you werent paying attention. Since Hong Kong is known for their high quality inexpensive silk, I decided to buy some. After hours of shopping, I decided to stop for Chinese food. I thought who would have better Chinese food than the Chinese themselves. I stopped at a nearby restaurant and was seated promptly and courteously by the nice lady employee.Graciously she handed me a menu. Upon opening it I discovered everything on the menu was printed in Mandarin. If it hadnt been for the pictures, I would never have been able to order what I wanted. I asked the nice lady employee where the head was. Observing the confused look on her face. I realized what I said and asked for the toilet. Once again I encountered a language barrier using my navy lingo in Hong Kong, but I overcame the situation and continued on with my adventure.
After the ship departed Hong Kong, we visited several other ports before our six-month journey was over. We stopped at Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. All three countries were similar being located in Eastern Asia. Singapore especially similar to Hong Kong since it had been a British Colony until 1965. Thailand and Malaysia were both scenic, but the English that was spoken was even worse than that of the other two countries I previously visited. I recall sitting at a bar in Thailand an outside bar with lots of flowers and pictures on the bulkhead. I ask the young lady behind the counter if she worshiped the Buddha on the bulkhead.
She responded in terrible English, What you say?
I said, do you worship the Buddha on the bulkhead?
I no cannot. I no cannot.
I was just as confused as she was. I didnt know if she meant she cant worship Buddha, or she cant understand me. I realized what I had said so I corrected myself and repeated, The Buddha, do you worship him, over there, on the wall?
Oh yes, he my friend, he protect me, happy smiley Buddha.
The language barrier between the U.S. Sailors and the Thai was immense. It was very difficult to understand each other, and of course it didnt help much when we spoke in navy lingo. But Thailand was one of the best ports we pulled into during our six-month deployment.
We left the Asian countries, en route to the Persian Gulf. Once we arrived in Bahrain, I determined there was no place like home. I felt as if I was in a concentration camp. An intercom system all over the city that came on every hour and it was spooky. I had no idea what was being said. It was loud and creepy. At first I thought it was an air attack. Eventually I realized the people were being called to prayer. I will never forget those loudspeakers.
Once finished conducting business in the Persian Gulf, it was time for us sailors to head home to our families. The return cruise seemed to be the longest forty-five days of my life. But it was worth it. We stopped and visited many exciting places, learned different customs, and constructed memories that will last a lifetime. The time I served in the navy was by far the most memorable time of my life. I encountered language barriers and learned to deal with them, in basic training, at home and across the globe.