Thursday, November 15, 2012

My First Day in Boot Camp

By Phil Gardocki

The military is well versed in new hire integration, as they take “boots” in large groups at a time. So it takes a bit of doing to throw the well-oiled machine of the processing center out of kilter, but I managed it.

It was my first long train ride, some 22 hours in a sleepover car on Amtrak from Philadelphia to Orlando. Because I tested highly in the Military Entrance Tests, I had an early promotion and was placed nominally in charge of two other recruits, and holding their records. I also had “The” phone number to call when we arrived at our destination station. We had plenty of company, because as it turned out, this train was chartered by the Navy, and was picking up recruits all the way down the eastern seaboard.

Once we disembarked, a line formed at the pay phone. There were quite a few of us “in charge” of other groups, and we all had exactly the same instructions, to call the number and get instructions. I now realize what an annoyance it must have been to the receiver at the other end to get 30 calls in a row, from the same location, asking the same question. When it was my turn, I called, and a woman simply said, “The bus would be by in an hour.”

An hour! I had an hour to look around. Maybe I can find Disneyworld! So, without telling anyone what I was doing, I took off down the road, to see what I could see.

It wasn’t much. Very boring really. There were a lot of things wrong with this decision in retrospect, but I was young and on an adventure.

I returned in about half an hour to find the station vacant save a railway porter with an amused expression on his face. He told me a bus had picked up the recruits and left already. I was indignant. That wasn’t an hour! I looked at the station clock and only thirty minutes had passed. I found a map of Orlando, and the camp was only six miles away. I studied the map carefully, noting some of the major roads to cross to use as waypoints, and set out. If I was lucky, it would only take about two hours. I did note, with some sadness, that Disneyworld did not seem to be anywhere between here and there.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me I had upset quite a number of people, and had triggered a number of events.
The most immediate people affected were the two recruits whose records I was carrying. They showed up, without papers, and uncertain of what would happen to them. And of course for them the processing center had to deal with a couple of unknowns. The second group was everyone else on the train, who looked upon this with some amusement. They thought I was deserting. It looked to them I got off of the phone, and ran for it, and that is what they reported.

The man who recruited me got a phone call to tell him of my desertion, along with some commentary along the lines of “You sure know how to pick ’em.” It must have been fairly caustic or unsettling, because he then committed what can only be referred to as a real brain fart.

He called my mother.

Now picture this. You are a parent. Saturday, you kissed your oldest child goodbye, and teary eyed, sent him into the world, in the hands of a military recruiter.

Now it’s Sunday, you haven’t slept, having spent the last 24 hours sobbing at your loss, and the phone rings.


“Mrs. Gardocki?” says a voice.

“Yes, who is this?” she replies.

“This is Dave Ladley, the recruiter.” And she thinks, “Oh my God! What’s happened?”

“Do you know where your son is?” continued the recruiter.

“I left him with YOU!” she screeched.

And still not realizing just how deep Dave has stepped in it, he continues, “We lost him.”

To which he hears, in an octave range never before achieved by any human being, “HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY HAVE LOST MY SON! Every syllable cracked in such a way as to act like a badly wobbling dentist drill applied directly to your skull.

And then it got worse, my mother went into maximum wailing, holding the phone in a death grip, repeating over and over, HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY HAVE LOST MY SON,” ignoring my Step Father’s attempts to liberate the phone to get some useful information.

“Dorothy, give me the phone!”


“Dorothy, give me the phone!”

Eventually, he gave up, put on his coat, and got in the car.

Being my Step Father, Robert was only peripherally involved in the recruitment process. He knew the recruting center was in the Century Building, the largest building in Lansdale, which at 4 stories, is not saying much, but not exactly where in the building it was. But it was a short drive, less than 2 miles.

It was Sunday, the building was vacant, but uncharacteristically opened. The ground floor map had the recruitment center listed as on the second floor.  He got in the elevator, pushed the number 2 button and when the door opened


Roberts first thought was, “How did she beat me here?” But the truth quickly dawned.

He guided in on the steadily increasing font size.


And turning the final corner, he was greeted by a miserable sight. A grown man, face flat the desk, sobbing, his hand and phone as far from his ear as possible, and pleading, “I’m sorry lady, I’m really sorry.”

“Hang up the phone”, Robert said quietly.

A tear stained face looked up, expressing both horror and relief.

“Hang up the phone”, Robert repeated.

“Are you the father”, he asked?

“Yes, I am.”

“Oh God!”

And treating the phone like a viper, the recruiter placed the phone on the cradle.


“Okay”, said Robert, “We are going to make some phone calls.”

I never fully appreciated how well connected my Step Father was. The Brantly name was well known in the South. Before the Civil War, they were quite rich, but afterwards the family went into decline in wealth, but not in name recognition, or respect.

“Yes sir, Mr Brantly”, said the Sheriff of Orlando. “I have a deputy out in that area right now, just tell me what he is wearing and I’ll have him look for him.”
Hanging up, Robert told the recruiter, “Now we will call the base commander.”

Realizing how many rungs of the chain of command he would have to jump, the recruiter balked, “I can’t do that!”

“I can.”

The base commander was not in, and they had to settle for the Duty Officer, a Lieutenant Junior Grade, who had not yet been informed that someone in his charge was missing, possibly AWOL, and now had to take a direct interest in finding a wayward recruit.

“Now we’ll call the Chief of Naval Operations on the Joint Chief’s of Staff.”

Fortunately for my naval career, that phone number was not easily available.

So it was into this bear trap, a tired, but successful Seaman Gardocki arrived at his first command, threw a sloppy salute to the gate guard, and was sent to the office.

Where the shouting began.

“Recruit!” he yelled, “Why did you walk away, what did they tell you to do?”

“SIR, they said the bus would be there in an hour, SIR!”

“No they didn’t, he told you wait!”

“No SIR, they said the bus would be there in an hour, SIR!”

“Don’t lie to me recruit, I was there and he told you to wait for the bus.”

“SIR, He was a she, SIR!”

Shocked at being caught in a lie, or having someone stand up to him, he stormed off.

At that point, things got silly, and I realized even then, that a lot of this wasn’t really personal, it was just for appearances, part of the “Boot Camp Experience.”

I was told to stand in the corner.

Like a 5 year old.

So I did. There was a mirror in the corner, and I got to watch “The Rockford Files”, till a van picked me up to take me to the barracks. There I was greeted like a minor hero with a freshly minted reputation for being crazy.

The deputy arrived a little later at the gate, found I had been signed in, and reported back to the Sheriff, who called my Step Father. Who went home to tell his wife that he had found her only son and that all was well. The base commander received a report the next day that all recruits were accounted for, even if one was a late arrival. He probably was puzzled when he got a call from his Admiral later in the day over the incident.

All other processes that were started over this incident quietly unwound.  It was more than a year before I had all the pieces of this story.  Maybe...


  1. That was absolutely outstanding. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Thank you.

    It was a pleasure to get this down on "paper."

    After hearing this story a friend of mine once said, "I now believe this."

    To which I replied, "You didn't before?"

    And he said "I have heard this story 3 times now, and you haven't changed a word of it."