My first military leave went by all to quickly and it was time to return to the Navy and my first duty station, NOB Norfolk Virginia. I was on my way to Radioman "A" School to hopefully become an RM. In the 50's it was impossible to get a decent flight to Norfolk so I left Zephyrhills by train. It was to be an overnight trip to Norfolk. I remember little about the trip except that I was "a gung ho squared away sailor", and I wanted to make a good impression upon my arrival. As the train got closer to Norfolk, I noticed that my white hat was not as clean as I would have liked it to be. I went into the rest room and hand scrubbed my hat. I then stood between two coach cars and held my hat out the window so that it would dry in the wind. Not a good plan! The train's exhaust left dark spots all over my hat. I re-did my wash and let my hat dry using a much slower method, drip-drying on my head.
Upon my arrival to the Norfolk area (I believe that the train actually stopped in Portsmouth), I didn't have the slightest idea where I was or what to do next. Fortunately, I met up with two sailors who had been in the Navy for some time. They called the base and arranged for a vehicle to pick us up at the train station and deliver us to my new home, NOB Norfolk. After checking into the base, I was assigned to Barracks "M" which housed the Radioman School students. The barracks was luxurious as compared to what I stayed in while in Boot Camp. The building was a two story colonial style brick structure in the shape of the letter "H". The building had four large sleeping bays (the Navy refers to them as compartments which were the sides of the "H") stacked with metal bunks (racks). I slept on top. The compartments were connected with a corridor (the middle part of the "H") that contained toilets and showers (heads), laundry, TV room, and a snack area (gedunk). Out front (the top of the "H") was a lawn and a sidewalk leading to the building. Out back (the bottom of the "H") were the clothes lines and a place to stack the swabs (mops for you landlubbers). On the first floor was an office that housed the Petty Officer and Messenger of the Watch. While attending school, we were also required to stand watch. We were not Petty Officers so we stood either messenger, fire watch, or clothes line watch. For the non-military a watch in the Navy meant that you were on duty for approximately 4 hours. The watches were from 0800-1200, 1200-1600, 1600-2000, 2000-2400, 2400-0400, and finally 0400-0800. Since we were in school, we only stood watches starting at 1600 through 0800 during the week and at anytime during the weekend. The duties of a fire watch were to circulate amongst the sleeping compartments and insure that everything was in order. The worst watch you could be assigned was the clothes line watch. You stood for four hours outside and guarded the clothes line whether there were clothes on it or not. I remember standing that watch all to well.
Shortly after arriving, I met another sailor who had also just arrived. We decided to do a little exploring. I didn't realize it at the time but the Norfolk Naval Base housed not only the sea-side of the Navy but the air-side as well. The base has no distinct line or markings separating the two sides. We didn't realize it at the time, but we were walking in the direction of the Air Station. We soon came upon some older aircraft that had been moth balled. They caught our attention so we wandered amongst them for a spell before continuing our walk. We came upon this large empty area and proceeded to walk across it. Several SP's drove up to us and ordered us into their vehicle. We were taken to Flight Ops and questioned. They soon realized that they were dealing with a couple of "boots". They explained that not only was the moth balled air fleet off limits but that we were walking across an active helicopter landing area. After chewing us out, they released us. It didn't take me long to get into a jam.
Radioman School consisted of 16 weeks of instruction. We march from the barracks to school in the morning and return the same way in the afternoon. We were required to learn, copy, and send morse code at 22 words a minute. We also had to learn how to type the code as we listened to it. The typewriters were manual (this was the 50's and the IBM Selectric and the PC were still years away) and only typed in capital letters. Punctuation was not important. We also learned radio and communication theory. I enjoyed the typing because the exercises consisted of intersting stories of the Navy's role in the Second World War. Once you learn morse code you retain it for life. To this day, I have not forgotten how to read the code. Not as fast mind you, but still pretty good.
"Liberty Call"! A sailor's two favorite words. However, these two words would turn out to be a problem for this young sailor. I loved liberty and what it meant; the freedom to do what I wanted to do, drink 25 cent draft beers, and enjoy the night life of Norfolk's infamous East Main Street. I would go off-base every chance I could. I became a 50's party animal. The Navy of the 50's did have some unusual restrictions. We were not allowed to have a vehicle on the base; not that I could afford one making only $78 a month. We were not allowed to have civilian clothing on the base. We had to keep our "civies" off-base at one of Norfolk's well-known locker clubs. Just outside the NOB main gate was a locker club, a clothing store called the GOB Shop and several bars. Upon leaving the base, I would proceed to the locker club to change into my high priced civilian clothes which had been purchased on credit at the Gob Shop. CREDIT? NO PROBLEM!! Credit was easy, it was based upon a valid military ID card and the name of your command. But don't be late with the payment because your commanding officer would receive a letter explaining what a "deadbeat" you were. After changing clothes, I would slip a quarter in my sock and proceed to the bus stop. The quarter would be my bus fare back to the base later in the evening or early morning. We would always go in groups to town; not for protection (this was the 50's when the world was a safer place to live) but as a group of good friends bent on having a good time.
What follows is an account of a typical night of liberty, 50's style on East Main Street. The bus ride to downtown Norfolk took about 45 minutes. We would get off at Granby and City Hall Avenue. Back in the 50's, this was a busy area of Norfolk. The night life went on in this area until well after midnight. The area was reasonably safe. Within a few blocks of this same area was the YMCA which provided shelter to many a sailor during the week and on weekends. There was a large wide tunnel with stores on each side that connected City Hall Avenue with East Main Street; our objective. At the end of the tunnel, there was usually an older gentleman who played a guitar for money. He made most of his money as the evening wore on and the sailors were returning after a night of drinking. I remember often seeing him playing for a large group of obviously drunk sailors as I proceeded to the bus stop following a full night of fun. Upon leaving the tunnel and arriving on East Main Street you took a left turn towards the drinking establishments. As you walked down the street you passed many different stores. I particularly remember pawn shops, a Bank, and a Western Union office; which I did use once. The street open up into a square which I believe was called Commercial Circle. This was the beginning of the infamous sailor hangout called East Main Street.
This particular section of East Main Street was only two blocks long with bars on both sides of the street. Within Commercial Circle there was a popular spot called the Commercial Bar. Some of the other establishments further down the street had names such as "Virginian", "Golden Palomino", "Rathskeller","Ship Ahoy", "Paddock Lounge", "Red Rooster" and etc. The bars served only 25 cent draft beer. You did not order brand names in Norfolk. All the bars featured barmaids who would (if you were lonely) sit with you and listen to your sad story. However, the cost of listening was buying them a drink which consisted of ice tea at a cost of $1 which of course was equivalent to 4 beers. Boy could they drink fast! Most sailors fell for this little game only once but there were some who never learned! I remember one older women who would show you her tattoo for a dollar. This tattoo was located on her upper leg "riskee in the 50's". Many a sailor was disappointed when shown her tattoo which read US Marine Corps. About halfway down the street on the right hand side was one establishment that did not serve beer. This was the burlesque theatre. Out front there was a little old man dressed in a green doorman outfit with pants to short. His job was to coax sailors into the theatre to see the next show. When it was time to go back to the base we would retrace our steps back to the bus stop, locate your bus fare and board the bus. If you spent all your money on beer, you would be reduced to begging a quarter from your shipmates and that's why a quarter in your sock was good insurance. The bus ride back varied in quality depending on the time you left. A late return meant you road with a large group of sailors in various states of drunkeness. If you missed the last bus which left around 2 in the morning, you had to wait 3 hours before bus service resumed again and that is a long and lonely wait. The bus would enter the base and make several stops. The last stop was the piers. My stop was the first stop. However, If you fell asleep on the way back which happened all to often, you would have a long walk back from the piers.
While on East Main Street, it would often be our goal to drink one beer at each bar, starting at the upper end of one side of the street, drink our way down the street and come up the other side. Needless to say I never accomplished this goal. As a young sailor, I had a lot of good times on this street. However, I remember one night in particular that had a profound effect on my navy career. During the summer of 57, Norfolk was hosting a "Navies of the World" celebration. There were ships in port from nations from around the world. On this particular night a group of us got acquainted with some sailors from the HMS Ark Royal. We spent the evening with our new found friends toasting our countries, our navies, and our ships. At one point in the evening we decided to go to a different bar. While on the street somebody suggested that we ought to leap frog over the parking meters to the next bar. I was the first one to jump and I was immediately stopped by the Shore Patrol. Being in civilian clothes and with dog tags showing (no one said I was brilliant), I denied my military status. Unfortunately across the street were two of Norfolk's finest who told me that they would arrest me and take me down to the station; unless of course I was in the Navy. I weighed my options and then recanted my prior claims. While I was being taken into custody my new British friends protested loudly but upon being threatened with incarceration themselves, they decided to depart the scene and leave me to my ultimate fate. I was taken to a local holding area for sailors and marines. While in the holding area, several obviously very drunk marines took off their shirts, ties, and hats. They then neatly folded them prior to laying down to sleep. I asked why they bothered and they informed me that in case of sickness which of course was possible they would not foul their uniforms. Talk about squared away! This left a lasting impression on me. At daybreak, we were transported back to the base. During the trip, I still to this day remember a tense exchange between an American and a British sailor. The American said, "F--- the Queen". The British sailor thought this over a bit and replied, "F--- the President". The American without hesitation responded, "Yah F--- him too". Whereupon both sailors began to laugh along with the rest of us. However, witnessing this bit of humor was not worth what was about to happen to me and my immediate future.
Even though, I was keeping up and doing quite well in class, I was dismissed as a disciplinary problem in my 12th week. This was the result of several infractions due to tardiness and the final straw which was the SP escorted trip back to the base. I was completely devastated. I just could not believe that the punishment for my behavior would be that harsh. I pleaded to be allowed to stay in school but it was to no avail. I was to be sent to the fleet.
I have thought about my behavior over the years and now believe that I was not mature enough to handle the responsibility of my new found freedom. I could come and go as I wanted, stay out all night, drink and party with nobody to answer to. My parents were over 800 miles away and the Navy didn't care as long as I stayed out of trouble and was on time for muster in the morning. There in lies the problem, getting in trouble once and being late for muster on several occasions. I then began preparing for my ultimate fate, sea duty.