How A Penny Changed My Life

Written by David Harbin

In the summer of 1987, I was fresh out of high school, going on dates and working a late night janitorial job for the local school board. The job wasn’t that bad but the guy who was in charge of the janitorial staff wasn’t an easy person to know. The night foreman was a great guy who would let us leave early. Of course, leaving early meant that some things either weren’t done right or weren’t done at all. I knew that being part of a group you didn’t go against the group’s decision, especially if you are the newest member. Though I may have felt a little guilt about skipping out early and not doing a good job, I said nothing.

The guy in charge let his authority go to head and assumed the cleaning staffs were lazy, worthless and liars. He knew things weren’t getting done at night and he was determined to make someone pay. So he set a trap and I ended up being the one caught.

I didn’t realize that this guy was throwing pennies on the floor. If the floor was thoroughly cleaned like it was supposed to be, there would be no pennies found on the floor. But on my detail at night, when the boss said we could all leave early, I had to let something go. That was floor cleaning, and those damn pennies pinned the blame on me. I was summoned to this guy’s office where they guy asked me why I wasn’t properly dusting the floors. Not one to rat out his fellow employees and confess we were leaving early at night, I just sat there and said nothing. After a lecture and another disciplinary write-up in my file, I was dismissed.

Rather than doing the job I was being paid to do, I started taking days off. This habit got so bad it was no time before I was once again sitting in my boss’ office. This time there was no disciplinary action; this time I was fired.

Losing this dead-end job made me realize there had to be something better in life. That’s when I decided to join the Navy. At the enlistment center I sat with the recruiters who told me about all the great things the Navy had to offer and the reasons why I should sign up. With no second thoughts, I signed the paperwork. I had joined the Navy.

When I told my Mom what I did, she didn’t believe me. Five days later, the recruiter showed up at my door to take me away to my new life in the Navy. We drove to Kentucky, where I met some other recruits. The next day, we boarded a bus which drove us to the Cincinnati Reds’ stadium. During a break in the game, our group of recruits were escorted to the field, where we raised our hands and were sworn in. In a short period of time, in front of a crowd of baseball fans, a group of naïve young men became U.S. Navy recruits.

After the swearing in ceremony, we were herded back on the bus and began the trip to Great Lakes, Illinois. Training camp was a little hard for me. I remember messing up the logbook and my punishment was in my opinion, inhumane. Punishment meant getting up at 3:30 a.m. and doing training exercises with the Navy Seals. Then it was off to chow and literally throwing up the meal you just ate.

Holding my rifle, the way the Navy wanted me to hold it did not come easy to me. I would get smacked in the head with a flag stick or the end of a rifle barrel or whatever else could be found. The Navy used a points system for each recruit. You would earn points if you didn’t do things correctly like saluting or making up your bunk. Inspections meant having someone come in and flip over the beds and dump out your footlocker in which you had carefully put your clothes. When they finished, everyone had to redo everything and if it did not meet with the Navy standards, we would do it all over again.

When I signed up, I had no idea how tough basic training was going to be for me. After the Navy wears down your body by exercising you for hours on end, in weather that was bitterly cold, they make you get up early, train for hours and never give you any time to just relax.

I had many days when I wondered if all this effort was worthwhile. All I wanted to do was just get through the endless hell without dying. The promises made by the recruiter had been broken. I signed up because I wanted to be a Navy Seal. Shortly after arriving at Great Lakes Training Center, I had been summoned and told my eyesight was not good enough to qualify as a Navy Seal. My Navy career was over before it even began. I was angry and resentful.

When you are in the Navy, everyone must have a job and I needed to choose another career. I chose being a fireman, part of the group that maintained the heating and air on a ship.

The days to graduation were getting fewer and fewer and I couldn’t wait. Those scenes in the movies where recruits are cleaning floors with a toothbrush were not something a Hollywood writer dreamed up; it really happens, and I know too well how it feels to be on your hands and knees cleaning a filthy floor with just a toothbrush.

At last graduation day was here. I had survived. Those of us who were sworn in at the Reds’ game received plaques. These plaques are in the Reds’ Hall of Fame showing our pictures and a copy of our Company 325 picture. I still have that plaque, but I don’t have it hanging up nor do I spend time looking at it. That plaque has too many bad memories of boot camp tied to it and for the sake of my PTSD it’s best if I don’t relive that time of my life.

Imagine my surprise when I found my time at Great Lakes did not end with graduation. I found out I had to stay an additional four months for fireman training. The book learning was tough for me. I had to study very, very hard to pass with a score of 70. But I am proud to say that I did it and passed the coursework.

Then it was on to the physical training. Nothing in my life prepared me for this phase. We were thrust into a new situation with no knowledge. Chances are this was done for a reason because I think if I knew what was coming next, I would have said no thanks.

I was put inside a giant furnace that was as big as a building. I remember having on my fireman suit, along with my air canister and breathing apparatus. Out of eight firemen, I was number six and together we were going inside this fiery inferno. We set our breathing canisters for fifteen minutes, stepped inside, the door gets shut and the lights go out. All around us huge flames rose. As the flames rose, so did my sense of panic. I had never felt so much anxiety.

My focus needed to be on my training from all those books. We had a tending line going into the building and the word OATH came into my mind. O = OK, 1 tug on rope,  A = Advance, 2 tugs on rope,  T = Take-up, 3 tugs on rope,  H = Help, 4 tugs on rope. In a fire it was easy to get disoriented and lose focus. Our extensive training kept all of us safe. Thankfully, we had extinguished that fire in a matter of minutes but to be honest, it seemed like forever.

When my fireman training was over, I got my orders. I was being sent to California and would be stationed on the USS Belleau, a Marine and Navy ship. I was a Navy Devil Dog – oohra. From that point on, I practiced my fireman training when General Quarters was announced. Fireman training on the ship was rough but at times, it could actually be fun. I completed my training and was promoted to FN. In a matter of six months, I had two letters of commendation and a Battle E award.

Being a fireman also gave me more days on the ship when I was assigned to a gang. On days when I was on watch my duties included checking gauges on the water supply tanks, making sure the pumps were working correctly and checking for any water entering the boat so that everyone could sleep at night. During the day, we worked on ice machines, refrigerator units and AC units. We routinely checked the fire extinguishers and the water-tight gaskets on all the door hatches. And there was always cleaning that needed to be done.

Your day ended at 16:00 hours unless you had the Duty. Duty seemed to roll around way too fast and when it did, it meant you could not leave the ship.

Finally, word came down that we were leaving dock and sailing on a cruise to Hawaii. At long last one of the reasons, I had joined the Navy was becoming a reality. I had signed up to see the world and Hawaii was first up.

Hawaii did not disappoint. It is a beautiful place and has wonderful people living there. But for all its beauty and hospitality, it was so different from what I knew. Plus, it was Christmastime and I was missing home. My son had just been born and I wanted to be with him and his mother.

We stayed in Hawaii for two weeks but being a FN, meant my pay was tight so any good times meant budgeting my money. On board there were loan sharks always eager to help out any money problems. Of course, when you borrowed $20 you had to pay back $40 on payday. Thankfully I never got involved in any of that, but I witnessed many fights with guys who did use this service.

After Hawaii, we sailed on to Acapulco. I discovered that one ocean doesn’t look much different from another ocean. Acapulco was nice but very different from Hawaii. The place was hilly which made walking around difficult. I didn’t like that I had to take a shot of tequila before I could gain entry in a bar.

The Navy did give me a chance to see some of the world. Twice I was in Hawaii, Acapulco, and Seattle. I really got to know San Diego, California. But my traveling days came to an end when we were ordered into dry dock for a complete overhaul.

Now there was nothing to do but go to the scuttlebutt to get drunk every night. San Diego is a very expensive area especially if you don’t have your own car or a friend with a car. But our time in dry dock was short-lived. After two days, we were on the move again. This time we were heading to the Gulf War to stand fast with our Marines who were on board. We were bringing helicopters and Navy Seals to support the US military that was already fighting in the area. It made me feel proud of my service to my country.

Probably the worst part of this journey was sitting in General Quarters, fully suited up in my fireman gear for two or three days. You would get a shift off to rest up for your next rotation.

We were in the Gulf for six months and then we returned to San Diego for a much-needed ship overhaul. During this time, I came to appreciate the decision I had made to join the Navy. I was happy with just about everything except my rank. Everything was so expensive for someone with a F pay grade.

Looking back over my life, I am certain that if I had not injured my back, married so young and brought my family out to San Diego, I would have made a career out of the Navy. That jerk hiding the pennies on the floor so he could catch me in the act of not doing my job, actually did me a favor. Thanks fella!

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