On these cool and beautiful days of October here in east Texas, my thoughts go back to the beginning of my military service. The Korean conflict had begun in June of 1950; I had been working for United Fruit Company for just about three months after graduating from college. But my work had to be interrupted—terminated, actually—by the military. On October 18 I enlisted in the navy to avoid being drafted into the army, and that night I left in a troop train for San Diego. However, the following night, we pulled into the railroad station in Kansas City, Missouri! I thought: whoever routed this train from New Orleans to Kansas City on the way to San Diego doesn’t know much about geography. But then, there were other factors which entered into our itinerary, I suppose. In any case, after about four days of seemingly endless train-riding, we pulled into the Los Angeles train station, were transferred to another train for San Diego, and made the last part of our journey. I could look out over the Pacific Ocean to our right as we came to know something of the state of California—so filled with natural beauty. Then came all the feverish activity of arrival at boot camp: organization into companies (I was assigned to company 50-472, which meant that I belonged to the 472nd company of 80 men that had begun its brief existence at the naval training center in the year 1950. That came to 37,760 men, and before the year was out, there were another 6000 men, more or less, to join the navy there. Then the assignment of a barracks, the distribution of our new clothing, bedding, towels, the sea bag which was our luggage, and of course the first naval haircut that left all of us looking like plucked chickens. Then eleven weeks of military drill, classes in all sorts of naval lore, doing our own laundry, learning to shoot a gun (for the first and last time in my life), jumping off high diving boards to practice abandoning ship should that ever be necessary, fire-fighting, and eating. The long and strenuous daily routine gave all of us ravenous appetites; I was embarrassed at how much I ate, and also gained about 20 pounds during those weeks. I lost them again when life returned to a more normal routine.
One of my main concerns upon joining the navy was whether I would be able to get to Mass regularly. I knew that that was not always possible in the military. But, to my great happiness, even in boot camp, I was able to attend Mass every day between the end of the work day and the evening meal—about 5:30 p.m. And never, at any time during the four following years, did I have to be without daily Mass. What a blessing! In fact, I became one of the regular servers at Mass and a sort of unofficial assistant to the Catholic chaplain.
Few things bring back memories more graphically than does music, and in boot camp, there was always a radio on somewhere playing the sort of twangy, unappealing (to me) music that was popular among most of my fellow recruits. I discovered that it was called either “country,” or “bluegrass,” or “rhythm and blues.” Two of the immensely popular songs of those last months of 1950 were “Goodnight Irene” and “the Tennessee Waltz.” I can never hear them without being brought back to the early days in San Diego; they now hold a special place in my heart, but then I thought of them as simply trashy and ugly—having been raised on Irving Berlin, Sigmund Romberg, Cole Porter, and Rogers and Hammerstein.
Life is beautiful, but sometimes more in retrospect than at the time it’s being experienced. Remember: sometime in the future, these are going to be “the good old days.” God is good to us always. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.