The sun lay buried in the horizon as we marched double time through the base. The tension in the air was thick.
We arrived at the pool and stripped down to our swim shorts. An instructor said, “You are going to love this. Drown-proofing is one of my favorites. Sink or swim, sweet peas.”
I tied my feet together, and my swim partner tied my hands behind my back.
“When I give the command, the bound men will hop into the deep end of the pool,” Instructor Stoneclam said. “You must bob up and down 20 times, float for five minutes, swim to the shallow end, turn around without touching the bottom, swim back to the deep end, do a forward and backward somersault underwater, and retrieve a face mask from the bottom of the pool with your teeth.”
Although I did my duty, others didn’t. A skinny redhead jumped in the water, but instead of swimming straight, he swam in a horseshoe. The instructors found out later that Redhead was almost blind. He had forged his medical records to get to BUD/S.
After three weeks of indoctrination, we began First Phase, Basic Conditioning. Our class continued to shrink. Woe to the trainee who let the pain show. An instructor would say, “You didn’t like that? Well, do some more.” Likewise to the trainee who showed no pain. “You liked that? Here’s another kick in the crotch.”
The hardest part for me was the four-mile timed runs on the beach wearing long pants and jungle boots. After I failed one run by seconds, I was sent with four or five others to form a goon squad. I knew this was going to suck. We ran sprints up and down the sand berm, jumped into the cold water, and then rolled in the sand until our wet bodies looked like sugar cookies. Sand found its way into my eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. We did all manner of acrobatic tortures until the sand rubbed our wet skin raw and nearly every muscle in our bodies broke down. It was my first goon squad — and the only one I ever needed. I may die on the next timed run, but I ain’t doin’ this again.
One thing sucked more than the runs: Hell Week. It began late Sunday night with what is called breakout. M-60 machine guns blasted the air. We crawled out of the barracks as an instructor screamed, “Move, move, move!”
Outside on an asphalt-covered area the size of a small parking lot, artillery simulators exploded. A machine pumped fog. Green chem lights decorated the outer perimeter. Water hoses sprayed us. The smell of cordite hung in the air. Over the loudspeakers blasted AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
Terror covered the faces of many guys. Minutes into it, the bell started ringing — people quit. I thought, You can’t be serious. Yeah, instructors are running around shooting machine guns, but no one has smacked me in the face. My tough childhood [with an adoptive father who beat him] had prepared me for this moment. More than physically, I knew that mentally, I had mastered pain and hard work, and I knew I could master more.
One legendary Hell Week event began on a steel pier. We took off our boots and stuffed our socks and belts in them. Wearing our uniforms, we jumped into the bay with no life jackets. I immediately lay out in a dead man’s float. When I needed air, I’d bring my face out of the freezing water for a quick bite of oxygen, then resume my face-down position. When I started to sink, I kicked a couple of strokes. Then I pulled off my trousers and tied the ends of the legs together with a square knot, grabbed hold of the waist, and kicked until my body straightened. I lifted my pants in the air, then slammed them forward and down on the water, trapping air in the trouser legs. As my upper body hung over the valley in the V of my homemade trouser flotation device, I felt relief. I had been so concerned about drowning that I had forgotten how frigid the water felt. Now that I wasn’t drowning, I started to remember.
Some of our guys swam back to the pier. Ring, ring, ring.
Instructor Stoneclam said, “If one more of you rings the bell, the rest of you can come out of the water too. Inside the ambulance we have warm blankets and a thermos of hot coffee.”
After one more ring, Stoneclam said, “Everybody out of the water!”
We crawled onto the steel pier.
Instructor Stoneclam said, “Strip down to your undershorts and lie on the pier. If you don’t have shorts, your birthday suit is even better.”
I stripped down to my birthday suit and lay down. The instructors had prepared the pier by spraying it with water. Mother Nature had prepared the pier by blowing cool wind across it. I felt like I was lying on a block of ice. Then the instructors sprayed us with cold water. Our muscles contracted wildly. The spasms were uncontrollable.
We were in the early stages of hypothermia. I would’ve done almost anything to get warm. Mike said, “Sorry, man, I gotta pee.”
“It’s okay, man. Pee here.”
He urinated on my hands.
“Oh, thanks, buddy.” The warmth felt so good.
Most people think it’s gross — they’ve never been really cold.
Wednesday night — halfway through Hell Week — was the one time I thought about quitting. We had to paddle our inflatable boat about 250 yards to pylons, turn the boat upside down, then right side up, paddle back to shore, run half a mile, toss our paddles into the back of a truck, sit in the bay to form a human centipede, hand-paddle 400 yards, run 600 yards, grab our paddles and use them to centipede-paddle 400 yards, grab our boats, and boat-paddle out to the pylons, then back to shore. We all looked like we had stage two hypothermia. Stage one is mild to strong shivering with numb hands — most people have experienced this. Stage two is violent shivering with mild confusion and stumbling. In stage three, the core body temperature drops below 90 degrees, and shivering stops. There is no stage four — only death.
It was standing room only at the bell. The instructors had backed up ambulances and opened the doors. Inside sat my former classmates wrapped in blankets and drinking hot chocolate. Instructor Stoneclam said, “Come here, Wasdin. You’re married, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Instructor Stoneclam.” My muscles felt too exhausted to move, but they shivered violently anyway.
“You don’t need this. Come here.” He walked me to the backs of the ambulances so I could feel their warm air. “Have a cup of this hot chocolate.”
I held it in my hand.
“If we’d wanted you to have a wife, we would’ve issued you one,” he explained. “Go over there and ring that damn bell.”
I looked at the bell. Then I caught myself. “Hooyah, Instructor Stoneclam.” I gave him back his hot chocolate.
“Get back with your class.”