Category Archives: E: In Limbo: After High School

Guitar Lessons

In the fall of 1964, Roy Orbison topped the charts yet again with “Pretty Woman”, Gail Garnet was singing in the sunshine, and Chad and Jeremy’s “A Summer Song” lamented that all good things must end. This was my mood as well, as I drifted along with the vaguely uncomfortable feeling of just waiting for what would come next. Despite looking forward to the coming change, and adventure I anticipated when I entered the regular Navy, I could not help a tiny feeling of unease at the thought of leaving Aurora and all that was familiar for what, at the time, seemed would be almost forever.

It was in this period that I met Andy, who despite being not much older than I, seemed infinitely more worldly wise. Andy had his own apartment on North Avenue, and importantly – to me anyway — played the electric guitar, and knew others who did so — quite well. Despite his age, Andy drank a bit, and my mother, night manager at the time at Stein’s Liquor Store and Delicatessen knew him, and his downtown friends, and disliked them quite a lot. Looking back, it must be said that deep down inside Andy was sort of a low-life. My mother saw it easily. At the time, I did not. Fortunately, I did not share in the drinking, and never met his seedier friends.

Andy quickly picked up on my interest in wanting to own, and learn to play, a guitar; in particular the rock ‘n roll electric version. At the time, my father’s nephew, George Philip – my cousin, although he was much older – owned a music store, then on S. Lake St. My cousin had “made his bones” with the accordion, an instrument that, with the exception of the Lawrence Welk Show, was from an earlier era. But one could go to his shop and purchase music lessons of all kinds, and of course the instruments as well.

But Andy assured me that he could provide the lessons, if I only had a guitar. So off we went to see my cousin who had, among others, a used cream-colored Gibson electric guitar which might just be within my budget — if I were to forgo virtually everything else on which I might spend my meager earnings.

I made a deal for the guitar, and Andy taught me a few chords and riffs — which oddly I still remember — but in truth I had neither the aptitude, nor the discipline to do what needed to be done to truly learn; that is to say, pay for professional lessons and start from scratch.

In due time, I revealed to my parents that I had a guitar and was learning to play. They listened to me proudly, but amateurishly, play the few things that I had learned. They seemed pleased at what I knew, and complementary, but nonetheless quickly sent me packing, guitar in hand, back to my cousin where I received a stern and disappointed look, along with a full refund of my deposit.

Inventory at Thor Power Tool Company – A Lesson Learned

Biding my time until I reported to the Navy, my next job, in September of 1964, was a temporary employment; helping to perform the annual physical inventory at Thor Power Tool Company, where my father was a longtime employee.

This was an era when companies counted the labor cost of producing individual component parts as an important measure in the overall cost of their products, and produced large quantities of parts, and partial assemblies, on the notion that producing in quantity reduced the cost of each individual item and would thus maintain warehouses and stock rooms full of such, waiting to be used.

The annual “Physical Inventory” was important because the government charges a tax on the value of held inventories. So everything had to be accurately counted and recorded; a task both daunting, and mind numbingly boring for those, such as I, who were hired to do so.

I had decided that because of the nature of the work, and because the  pay for any given day’s work was not all that much, taking a day off was not that great a penalty. But I knew my father would certainly not approve.

My dad and I rode together to and from work in the aging, but still sound, 50 Plymouth. On one of those days we walked from the parking lot on Claim Street to, and through, the front door of the old building, as usual. As he continued on to the department in which he worked, I reversed course and walked right back to the car; having decided via a rationale which made sense to me at the time that I just wasn’t going into work that day.

Instead I drove to the West Side, where a friend lived. We then picked up another friend and had a really fun day — made more so, I’m sure, by the fact that I was not in some dim warehouse, counting hundreds of small, oily, half completed parts.

Just before 3:30 pm I returned, re-parked the car and waited for my dad. Getting into the car he glanced at the dashboard noting the odometer, or the gas gauge, or something. He then dryly commented that he hoped that I had had a good day, seeing as how I hadn’t been at work. He said no more about the matter, but it made me feel pretty low nonetheless. Lesson learned, I never tried to fool him again.

Liberty and the Chicago Skyline

Going ashore on liberty from the reserve destroyer Daniel A. Joy meant an evening in the heart of Chicago, the nation’s second largest city. This was interesting, but didn’t really offer us very much in the way of entertainment. First, we didn’t have that much time. If we went ashore, we would always leave after dinner. The Joy was if anything, a good “feeder”; typical of smaller ships, the food was very good, plentiful, and of course, free.

Taps was at 10 PM and we were expected, actually required, to be aboard and in our bunks at “lights out”. Also, it was a time-consuming walk to the end of the pier, then up and over (in those days) Lakeshore Drive to Randolph Street and the city proper. And then back again.

In truth, in the places we could get to in that time, there really wasn’t much for us anyway. The Navy uniform notwithstanding, my new friends and I, being fairly recent high school graduates, were not welcome in the bars, legally or otherwise; and on my part at least the feeling was mutual. Usually we would get as far as Mammy’s Pancake House on Randolph Street, and stop there. We would drink coffee and hang out, chatting when appropriate with the usually friendly waitresses.

But mostly I stayed aboard with a book, or a card game, or bull session with the guys to fill the evening hours. But one thing I did every night before Lights-Out was to spend a little time alone on the foredeck gazing up at the city skyline. As a youngster from a relatively small town, this was my first solo experience in Chicago, or any other large urban setting for that matter, and I truly believe it was then and there that I discovered my love for big cities.

The nighttime autumn air was getting cold, and the evening was ending, so I would be absolutely alone as I leaned back against the forward 5-inch gun turret, taking it all in. The solitude, after sharing the cramped ship’s spaces all day was refreshing, and the buildings towering over the waterfront, decorated with a billion twinkling lights, created a fairytale vision which, while commonplace to and maybe even taken for granted by some city dwellers, was a wonder and an epiphany to me. And I loved it! (Still do)

The Boiler Room: Part Two

Warning: the following may be a bit disturbing to those who are squeamish about various bad things which can sometimes happen in the real world.

My first experience after being assigned to an engineering division aboard the reserve destroyer Daniel A. Joy is one I will never forget.

Climbing down the narrow, slippery rungs of the tiny ladder into the Forward Fireroom for the very first time, most of my attention was focused on the ladder, and trying not to slip and fall off. Thus, I was not paying much attention to what was going on at the bottom.

When I finally arrived in the cramped space between the front of the boiler and the ladder I had just descended, two of the petty officers for whom I was to work were busy removing the final bolts holding an access plate to the front of the boiler

The circular plate, though appropriately thick and somewhat large, could nonetheless be handled by the two large men, so as one removed the final bolt, the other braced himself and got a firm hold, top and bottom, to support the weight until he received help relocating the plate to the deck.

Whether the weight was more than anticipated, or the pipe just below the boiler wasn’t noticed — or perhaps both — as the plate was suddenly freed it dropped far enough to contact the pipe; with one finger precisely in between. The digit was neatly lopped off at the first knuckle. The man cried out, and spun around, shaking his hand, and spraying me with blood as he did so.

The victim was quickly removed to sick bay, and from there I know not. The care he received was no doubt excellent and I’m sure that in time he recovered and returned. But I never saw him again. The lasting result to me personally was a shocking, and unforgettable lesson in shipboard possibilities, and one white-hat which I never used again.


The Boiler Room: Part One

Having served on the deck force for three days, the remainder of my two week reserve ACDUTRA (active duty for training) aboard the USS Daniel A Joy was spent, during working hours anyway, in the ship’s Forward Fireroom, otherwise known to landlubbers as the place where one of the boilers was located. There was of course an After Fireroom somewhere behind us, but I never had occasion to go there.

Each of the two high-pressure steam turbine engines — in the Fwd and Aft Enginerooms, naturally — which supplied power to the ships screws (propellers, writ large) was provided steam by its complementary boiler. In addition, various ships machineries and amenities — winches, hoists, the steam whistle, the hot water for showers, etc. — were also powered or enabled by those boilers.

So in the grand scheme of things, the two firerooms were very important places. They were also hot, a little smelly, comparatively dirty, and more than a little grim, being located, as they of course were, at the very bottom of the ship.

Each day I would climb through a main deck Scuttle — a small, round vertical hatchway just big enough for the shoulders of a slightly more than average sized man. Once through, I would descend a narrow slippery ladder several levels down to the steel plate decking, inches above the bilge (the inside bottom of the ship’s hull).

But I was happy to be there. Working on the deck force, when not doing something interesting, like arriving or departing, was simple drudgery (mostly cleaning something) for those of the lowest rank, such as myself. I was of course a very junior unrated enlisted man, with the additional negative of being a reserve.

But in the engineering spaces (the firerooms and the enginerooms), while still a lowly reserve, I was among my kind and there was always something requiring service, or scheduled maintenance. Working in the fireroom, I was always taking something apart or putting it together, under the instruction, and watchful eyes, of the petty officers of the regular ships crew, to whom I was assigned. I was actually learning stuff, and for the most part having a nice time — The environment in which I did this, for two four-hour stretches each weekday hardly mattered.

I did however, on my very first day in the fireroom, receive an excellent lesson on the capricious nature of that environment. To be continued.


The USS Daniel A Joy – At Sea

The first full day of my training cruise aboard USS Daniel A. Joy started with a Monday midmorning departure from the Randolph Street pier. This two-week experience was not to be a cruise in the accepted sense, as we never actually went anywhere, but we did leave the pier several times for training exercises.

Today’s mission was to depart and steam for perhaps 40 miles (roughly halfway across Lake Michigan) and back again. Being assigned to the deck force for the first couple of days gave me a once ever opportunity for which I am grateful. I can say that for a two hour period I stood lookout watch on the bridge wing of a US Navy destroyer “at sea”.

I’ve always been fascinated by destroyers, as a ship type, and this experience allowed me to live out, if briefly and on a very small scale, some childhood fantasies of World War II action in the Pacific. I could, on my two hour watch, imagine as I scanned the Lake Michigan horizon that I was watching for Japanese aircraft, or the periscopes of enemy submarines. All in all this was great fun. Yes, I know, I was 18 years old and a “grown-up”, but there was, and is, a boy within me who had a wonderful time that day.

The next day we left the Randolph Street pier and glided smoothly to nearby, then empty, Navy Pier. There we spent most of the day docking and departing. We would cast off and leave Navy pier to steam perhaps a mile into the lake, only to turn back, approach the dock and tie up again. This gave the reserve officers plenty of practice at commanding the movements of the 306 foot long ship.

This practice also extended to the line handling crews of the deck force. Being assigned temporarily to the deck, my personal responsibilities were limited to pulling on a line (rope) at the appropriate time, at the bellowed order of the Bosun’s Mate who was in charge of my group.

After my brief experience as watch stander, and, line handler, and otherwise general cleaning person with the deck force, I was assigned to the engineering spaces, specifically to one of the ships two boiler rooms, where new adventures awaited.

The USS Daniel A Joy – Reporting Aboard

JOINING THE NAVAL RESERVE while still in high school set several future events into place, culminating of course with actual service in the real Navy. But first, in July of 1964, I was scheduled for an abbreviated boot camp at Great Lakes Recruit Training Center. Given the nature of the short session required of reserves, I remain grateful for not experiencing recruit training in its entirety.

Having passed through boot training and being elevated in rank to “apprentice”, — two tiny stripes — I was off in October for a two-week training cruise aboard the destroyer escort USS Daniel A. Joy (DE 585), then in service to the reserve training fleet, and moored, almost permanently, at the foot of Randolph Street in Chicago.

When the time came, I rode a Burlington commuter train from Aurora to Chicago’s Union Station, a trip I would make many times in the coming year. After walking to the lakefront, I made my way to the Randolph Street pier, and then past the World War II submarine USS Silversides, and on to the “Joy”.

World War II era destroyer escorts were not such a big deal in the grand scheme of the U.S. Navy, as it existed in the fall of 1964, but to me it was awesome. As I walked slowly past the bow of the ship and on to the quarterdeck — located amidships — I took it all in; the large 5 inch gun mount on the foredeck, the 40 mm antiaircraft guns behind and above on the next level, the Bridge on yet a higher level, the towering mast, and the overall reality of it. This wasn’t a Saturday night movie on TV, this was the real thing.

I stood on the pier beside the quarterdeck gangway, excited but for some reason not wanting to go aboard, until the petty officer who had the watch, standing on the deck just a few feet away from me, finally asked me just “what in the hell” was I doing.

At that, I scrambled aboard, remembering the formalities; first saluting the flag, then saluting the petty officer of the watch and requesting “permission to come aboard”. This was granted, and assuming correctly that I was a reserve who knew nothing, he gave me directions. The rest of that first day passed in something of a fog as first I settled in to my new environment, and then spent my time exploring.