Less than 12 hours after reporting to Navy boot camp I disobeyed my first — and, to the best of my recollection, only — direct order. In the two decades that followed I would, from time to time, make choices that were not strictly keeping with existing rules and regulations, but never again did I ignore what I was specifically directed to do by a superior.
I was in line with hundreds of other recruits for the first of many haircuts we would receive as Sailors. Your first Navy haircut can be a memorable experience, but for me it looked to be especially so. I was dog tired after getting to boot camp earlier the same day, and my company, still wearing the civilian clothes we arrived in, had been hustled from our barracks to breakfast and then on to the barber shop.
Having gotten little sleep and faced with stony stares and smirks from other recruits farther along in the pipeline, as a group we were nervous and unsure of what we had gotten ourselves into. Our instructors yelled at us and used words we did not fully understand — “bulkhead” “head” “port” “starboard” “deck” — as they herded us from one building to the other in the chilly November air of Orlando, Florida.
While waiting for our turn to enter the barbershop we were lined up in formation, smallest to tallest, and taught the first two parade ground stances we needed to know: “stand at attention” and “parade rest.” When it was our turn to go into the barbershop, we were ordered to stand at attention in ranks facing the barber chairs: “YOU WILL NOT MOVE WHILE STANDING AT ATTENTION, THAT IS AN ORDER! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” To which we yelled: “SIR, YES SIR!”
Any movement in the ranks would result in punishment for the entire company. Unfortunately, just then I remembered something … something that if found would be a whole lot worse for me personally.
I had a small stud earring in my left ear lobe.
* * *
The purpose of boot camp and officer candidate school — which I later attended — is to eliminate the individual and create a member of the team. Physically, this is done in various ways; everyone dresses alike, eats the same food, marches in formation, lives in the same quarters, etc. Mentally, all are taught to use a specialized language and are intensively indoctrinated in the traditions and history of the organization.
Both physically and mentally, compliance is rewarded and mistakes are punished. Adding to the pressure, in most cases punishment for the error of an individual is visited upon the group as a whole. One of the favorite methods my boot camp instructors had was to make my company do jumping jacks, clapping hands together over our heads every fifth one. Done properly, the barracks resounded with a thunderous sound every few seconds; we would be allowed to stop after doing 100 jumping jacks perfectly.
Unfortunately the more we did, the more tired we became and keeping track became harder. After six or seven cycles our thunderous clap would be followed seconds later by the lonely clap of a recruit who had fallen off the pace or had lost track of how many he had done. Of course, that meant we started over from the beginning, and it wasn’t long before the scattered single claps were coming after two or three cycles.
* * *
The “buzz cut” haircut — more or less shaving the head of the male recruit, leaving just stubble — is one of the first and most effective tools at reducing individuals to members of the team. Women recruits also have to go through the process of having their hair meet standards, but obviously no buzz cuts are administered.
When I enlisted in 1982 longer hair was the style for men. Not “60s Summer of Love” long, mind you, but still my hair upon arrival in Orlando was probably collar length. I had a beard as well, and hidden under all that hair was that earring. It had been a “what the hell” decision made with a good friend (who also later enlisted in the Navy) after a few beers. Many young men wore earrings even then, although having it in the “correct” ear was important as an outward sign to other men that you were/weren’t interested.
Even though a single earring was acceptable fashion back then, my recruiter took pains to advise me to remove it before making the trip from Illinois to Florida for boot camp. The rules had recently changed, he told me, and boot camp instructors were no longer allowed to touch recruits as part of the “teaching and/or disciplining” process — this change coming about as the result of an investigation into physical abuse —but that likely wouldn’t stop them from ripping the stud out of my ear.
At the very least, the earring would single me out in the eyes of my instructors, and the recruiter told me earnestly that what I really wanted to do was blend in, not stand out.
But having forgotten that wise counsel until that moment, there I was: standing at attention in the boot camp barbershop, waiting for my turn in the chair and the eventual discovery of something that deeply offended the sensibilities of many career Sailors of that day.
* * *
There were ten barber chairs and standing next to each was an older man wearing a white smock. Even though it was early in the morning, I remember them as looking tired; buzzing most of the hair off hundreds of heads each day probably didn’t result in much joy.
The process was factory-like: as a chair became available one of the instructors pointed at the next recruit in formation and then he pointed to the chair. The haircut itself took just moments, the clippers passed over the top of the head and then the sides, the hair fell away in clumps and then it was time for the next man.
As I inched closer to my turn and eventual discovery and ridicule or worse, I was desperately trying to think of a way to unobtrusively pull the stud from my ear. What saved me was a fairly common phenomenon: the desire we all felt to rub our head after leaving the chair. Most of the men in my company had not worn their hair that short since they were very small, if ever, and the soft bristly feel was irresistible.
My company’s two instructor petty officers had been walking around and through the ranks, telling us in no uncertain terms how bad we would look with our heads shaved (using some interesting anatomical comparisons that I’ll skip here), when suddenly they noticed the “after” men standing in a group, rubbing their heads and grinning like confused children.
Both converged on the rubbing group and I used the diversion to quickly pull the earring from my left ear using my left hand — which was away from the commotion that attracted the instructors. As the man behind me laughed nervously at seeing what I had done, the clasp dropped harmlessly to the floor. I held the stud tightly between two fingers throughout the haircut and subsequent march back to our barracks, dropping it discreetly into a garbage can when we were given a break to use the head (it was very cheap jewelry).
* * *
Years later this scene was repeated for me on the first full day of Officer Candidate School — less the earring, of course. As a first class petty officer, I knew exactly what to expect during those early days at OCS: the tearing down of the individual to create a team member.
The barber shop at OCS had just four chairs, but there was only a barber at one of them. This man was smiling, probably because the workload was less but also he could use his training for more than buzz cuts: after the initial haircut, as officer candidates we were allowed to grow out and wear our hair longer than boot camp recruits. We still got weekly haircuts, but you could visually track a man’s progress through the 16-week course by how long his hair was.
We were still put in formation in front of the chairs, however, but that allowed enlisted men such as myself to enjoy the sight of the “civilians” in our group being indoctrinated in the Navy’s “hair club for men” as it were.
As the first man stepped up and sat in the chair, the smiling barber looked at him and asked: “How do you want it?” This brought peals of laughter from the Chief Petty Officer who was assigned as our instructor. The dumbfounded officer candidate clearly had not expected this, and he asked in a shaking voice what his choices were.
“You can have the Mr. Onion Head or the Mr. Potato Head,” the barber told him with a serious look on his face. “With your head shape I’d advise the Mr. Potato Head.” The man nodded and asked for the Mr. Potato Head and the barber proceeded to buzz cut his hair off, taking the same few moments I remembered from boot camp.
The next man in the chair didn’t wait to be asked; instead, as sat down he told the barber he’d prefer the Mr. Onion Head. Moments later his buzz cut was also complete and he stood off to the side, rubbing his head.
The man next to me in formation was a civilian and as the next officer candidate climbed into the barber chair I heard him whisper: “I don’t think there is any difference between the Mr. Potato Head and the Mr. Onion Head.”
I laughed, as did all the other enlisted men in my company. The only thing that kept us from being punished was the Chief also heard the comment, and he laughed, too. We were already members of the same team.