the most interesting things my dad had to say about when he was in the navy (1958-1962)

By - Jan 12, 2018

  • when he got off the bus of enlisted guys the first thing they did was shave everyone’s head. then they took them to a room where everyone got naked and their clothes and belongings were stored in bags. they were issued uniforms. on the ship, he shared a room with 50 guys. there was a table, a garbage bucket, and a radio in the middle of the room.
  • he showed me how to salute. you put the tips of the fingers of your right hand to your temple and move it fast to chest-height. the marines make a more exaggerated chopping downwards motion. dad said the general rule was ‘if it’s moving: salute it. if it’s not moving: paint it’ (they did a lot of painting on the ship).
  • dad worked his way up to be an officer in charge of 13 guys (i said ‘you told them what to do? how did that work?’ he made a face and said ‘not very well’). he was a radar technician. he had a tiny office with a door sealed with 10 latches. sometimes he would go to his office to nap, which wasn’t allowed. if someone was about to catch him, by the time all the latches opened he would be awake enough to pretend he had been working the whole time.
  • he described all the stripes and things that get added to your uniform the higher you rank, with ‘tour guide’-like interest, miming stripes on his sleeve. he said ‘and then when you’re an e-6 you get a chevron with an eagle coming out of it, you know, which is what i had, you’ve seen that picture of me.’ i thought of the photo of him in uniform on the top of his bookcase by the plastic flowers, that would be there when he came home from dinner. he inhaled and held it a moment, then shook his head like he had surrendered something and said ‘oh no, i don’t know why i’m crying, why do i do this.’ i said ‘it’s okay.’ he said ‘i don’t even know why’ and chuckled a little, crying less as he continued describing the stripes and chevrons.
  • most of the time at sea was spent playing ‘war games.’ dad’s ship would leave from rhode island and a submarine would leave from connecticut at the same time. dad’s job was to use radar to track the submarine as if it was the enemy. if the submarine crew detected someone tracking them, they were supposed to turn off the submarine to appear invisible to the radar. if the ship crew ‘caught’ the submarine before the submarine crew knew about it, they’d send depth charges (‘cap gun missiles that just made noise’) down to it. the submarine would surface and they’d say ‘hi, good job’ to each other. one time the submarine went off the radar for a long time. dad’s ship continued sending depth charges but it stayed dormant. they got worried and stopped. the submarine surfaced. it was russian. dad said ‘and then they blinked their lights, you know, morse code, they said: ‘hi how are you.’ we said ‘hi we are fine.’ and it went along on its way. it was just there, in connecticut, a russian submarine!’
  • john f. kennedy and jackie kennedy and walter cronkite were on dad’s ship, the joseph p. kennedy (‘john was on the ship because he wanted his brother’s name to be historic’), during the blockade. there were a lot of ships and jets. the whole navy, maybe. sounded really exciting, i’m not describing it well. russian ships were moving towards cuba so they could attack the u.s. and the u.s. found out. all the russian ships retreated but one merchant ship. dad said four or five guys from his ship got on a small boat (he described as ‘from here to the other side of the room’ i said ‘like one of the lifeboats on the cruise ship?’ he said ‘yeah, yeah, almost exactly like that, yeah. a little smaller’) to make sure there were no missiles on the russian merchant ship. he said ‘and then we told them to go back to russia, and they did. they didn’t really do a thorough check of the ship, the guys. everyone was nervous.’ he said something about khrushchev. jesus, wonder if i can describe…he ‘acted’ the conversation between JFK and khrushchev with a lot of attitude, like this: ‘khrushchev said ‘look at our ships, look at what we can do.’ and we said ‘oh yeah? well look at our ships, think about what we can do.’ the merchant ship was just khrushchev saying ‘don’t forget, i’m not afraid to do this, too.’ so we said ‘oh we see that you can do that. you’d better not do any more though, because look at us.’ he was giggling kind of, seemed really happy to tell this story.
  • by the time the cuban missile crisis started, dad didn’t need to be in the navy anymore, but they made everyone stay an extra six months. he really didn’t want to be there. he started growing a beard. cleanliness was big. you were not supposed to grow beards. he told his friends he was growing the beard so when he got off the boat ‘castro would be able to recognize whose side he was on.’ the guy in charge of my dad noticed and called him into his office. he said ‘boyle? get that goddamned thing off your face.’
  • drill thing: after the missile crisis, they started doing this circle thing for practice. the u.s. owns an island in the carribean near the panama canal. they test bombs there. dad’s ship was in a circular line with a lot of other ships. there were jets, too. just…it was everyone, moving in a circle around the island and the panama canal. whenever your ship or whatever reached the island you just ‘gave it all you got.’ you shot everything. some ships contained marines who would run onto the island while it was getting ‘practice-shot’ at, who would then shoot ‘giving it all they got’ at nothing (when i asked about this dad said ‘they were marines, they just knew how to not get shot’ which i don’t…jesus, i don’t know about this one). i said ‘seems like a thing kurt vonnegut would put in a book, going around in a circle to take turns shooting at nothing.’ dad did his ‘dad-style’ nose-scrunch cackle and said ‘yes! yes that’s exactly what it was like! a kurt vonnegut thing.’ he looked happy. later he said ‘it was really something, to do that. it was like all the fourth of julys, just going off, shooooom.’


we had been excitedly talking about my ‘realistic course of action’ that would result in me becoming an astronaut. dad said ‘did i ever tell you about the astronaut who put his thumb—’ i smiled and nodded and made a ‘squinched-out’ thumb gesture. dad continued ‘well, so i guess he became some kind of preacher after this. he has a following. after he figured out you can do that thing, blot out the earth with your thumb, it’s just this tiny dot.’

a little later dad said ‘this story is a little embarrassing but i’ll tell it anyway. so, the astronaut who did the thumb thing, he apparently grew up in chicago in this poor neighborhood where the walls were paper-thin, and his bedroom—he lived next to the mcmanus family—his bedroom was right next to mr. and mrs. mcmanus’ bedroom, so he heard everything. this might’ve been another astronaut, this might’ve been neil armstrong. anyway, so one night he hears mrs. mcmanus [looked away and sort of chuckled], mrs. mcmanus from the bedroom, she says ‘i’ll put that thing in my mouth the day they send a man to the moon!” dad laughed and i laughed a little less. i said ‘oh noooooo. no way. you’re making that up, that’s not real.’ dad was still laughing. he said ‘no, it’s really real—they asked him what he was thinking about when he landed on the moon, so that’s what he [continued laughing].’ i laughed a little more.





excerpted from LIVEBLOG, forthcoming from Tyrant Books 2018. CLICK HERE to pre-order.