While I was growing up, my dad would tell my brothers and me bedtime stories about his World War II Navy days, and I would fall asleep dreaming of battleships and aircraft carriers and faraway ports. I loved those stories; they instilled a fascination for things naval.
My wife always drives now when we take the Coronado Bridge; I’d nearly killed us a few times, staring at carriers in the harbor. Out of curiosity, I decided to find out what the Navy might offer a healthy, 24-year-old college graduate like me.
I called the Navy recruiting station on Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa. Al, my recruiter, had some questions: my name, address, phone number, marital status; my age, date of birth, place of birth. Was I a high school graduate? What was the name of the school and where is it? He wanted to know the date of my high school graduation, college graduation, my major and grade point average, which at 2.5 was a bit low for officer’s school. “They generally look for a 3.0 or higher in possible officers,” Al said.
He needed my height and weight (minimum and maximum weight requirements depend on height). Did I have any medical problems? Any asthma or allergy problems? Major surgery? Broken bones? Was I taking medication? No, no, no, no, and no.
“All this information is confidential,” Al assured me over the phone. “It stays between you, me, and the Navy.”
Next, my police history, which I confessed was limited to traffic tickets. “That’s okay, as long as it’s taken care of,” he said. “All right, so far so good,” Al said, pausing, I imagined, to look over what he’d written so far. “It seems like you qualify. There are three things you need to join the Navy: first of all, we need to find out if you’re mentally qualified, which I’m sure you are. We also need to find out if there are any problems medically — that should be no problem. And we need to find out how well you would do on the ASVAB test.”
The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test is an entrance exam to the military, a two-and-a-half-hour test with math, English, and science sections. A minimum 65 percent is necessary to pass.
Al and I scheduled an appointment for the following Friday, when I would take a practice test and we’d talk more about the Navy. He offered to pick me up in a government vehicle, but I declined.
The next Friday at 10:00 a.m., I went to the Armed Forces recruiting station next to the Original Pancake House on Convoy Street. The building is split by a center hall, with the Navy office on the right and the Army, Air Force, and Marines across the hall. I asked for Al, but he was out for the day; a recruiter named Robert — tall, with trim, dark hair — sat me next to another recruiter, whom he introduced as Chief.
Chief, a short Filipino man with a thick accent, wore a tan uniform, while Robert and the two other recruiters in the office wore black. Robert explained Chief s higher rank, an E7, a seventh-level enlisted man (or chief). Hence the nickname and the tan uniform.
The three of us chatted about career programs in the Navy. When I said I was a freelance writer, both Chief and Robert took turns touting the Navy’s journalism possibilities. Chief pulled a black binder from his desk and flipped through it. If I qualified, he said. I’d go to Navy journalism school in Indianapolis, Indiana. When I mentioned an interest in submarines, Robert said I’d be sent to Groton, Connecticut, for submarine training.
“Where would my Navy career be five years from now?” I asked.
“I would assume that you would go from E3 to O3 in five years,” Robert said. “You should be a lieutenant in the Navy in five years. As soon as you get into the Navy, you get through basic training, go through your school, put in your package for officer, pass the officers’ test, and you’re going to be an officer in the Navy.” Right off the bat, I’d have a head start because of my college degree, Robert said. I’d begin an E3 and make about $1000 a month, $200 more than a recruit with just a high school education. He asked about my GPA, agreeing with Al that it was a little low for an officer.
“What you’d probably need to do,” he said, heading off my disappointment, “is take classes while you’re in the Navy and get your GPA up to around a 3.0.” Using himself as an example, he explained, “I go to Chapman College and I don’t pay a penny to go there. The Navy pays for it. I go to class right on the base at Miramar. I will be an officer. My record is good and I’m a proven leader.” As a reminder to himself and me he repeated, “I will be an officer.”
Chief asked me if I’d take a 45-minute practice test for the ASVAB. When I agreed, he whisked me off to a back room and gave me a test booklet and an answer sheet.
The test was in two parts, a ten-minute English section and a 35-minute math section. A sample of the English section follows:
Migrate most nearly means:
The math questions were multiple choice, ranging from simple word problems requiring minimal math skills to ninth-grade-level algebra questions.
If x=80, then 125% of x=
I finished the test with time to spare. When 45 minutes were up. Chief retrieved me from the testing room. After looking over the test, he said I missed 3 out of 65 and should have no problem passing the real test.
I asked Robert how he became a recruiter. “To become a recruiter, you have to become an E5 or above in the Navy. You have to be in the top one half of one percent of the Navy, which deals with your evaluation, your leadership, your records,” he explained.
“Is it a desired position?”
He wiggled his hand in a so-so gesture. “A lot of people want it for different reasons. The reason I came into recruiting is because I wanted to go in and finish up my college degree. I don’t go anywhere. I work in the office from 9 to 5 and then I go to classes in the evening. It works out great.”
Were there quotas in recruiting? Chief said yes, but December’s quota for the office was five recruits, and they’d met that goal before the month was half over. “Sometimes it’s higher, sometimes lower,” he said. “The quotas change.”
After a cold Christmas in Connecticut, I returned to sunny San Diego undecided. I called to ask Chief whether I could take the ASVAB test and make a decision afterward. This time Chief wasn’t in but Al was; he said that was fine, and we set a date for the following Thursday. The plan was to meet at the recruiting station at 7:00 a.m. for some pretest advice and forms, then drive downtown for the test. He told me to bring my ID and social security card and not to forget about the dress code: long pants, a collared shirt, and closed-toe shoes.
I arrived at the office early on Thursday, thinking I beat Al. But the door was already open, and I saw him sitting at his desk, hunched over a cup of coffee. He hopped up to greet me. Al (full name Alfonso Corpuz, Jr.) is about 5’8” and somewhat stocky, with a pleasant face full of smiles, short black hair, and a thin mustache. He speaks with inflection (“okay” bookends most of his sentences) and laughs a lot. Noticing my sleepiness — it was not yet 7:00 a.m. — he teased me for yawning. He laughed, “I’ve been up since 5:00 a.m. taking guys to get physicals.”
I asked Al where he was from.
“Originally from the Philippines,” he said. His father, a former sailor himself, relocated the family to the U.S. “He brought us on the MAC,” Al said. “You know what the MAC is?”
I shook my head.
“Military Airlift Command,” he explained. “From any military air station, you can take a free hop to wherever. It could be across the country, it could be within the state. All you’ve got to do is show your ID card and put your name on the manifest (a list of passengers), and you can fly free.”
Turning to the forms, Al asked my religious preference, if I had any children, had I done any drugs (this he almost whispered so another recruiter wouldn’t hear). I listed my past traffic and parking tickets and their corresponding fines (I’d have preferred to forget them).
The form finished, it was time for a pep talk. The test would consist of sections on general science, electronics, mechanics, coding speed, math, and English. “The most important subjects you have to concentrate on are math and English,” Al said. In the coding-speed section, you’re given a key with several words, followed by code numbers. For example, green -1495, apple-4567. The goal is to match a word with the corresponding code, quickly and accurately.
“Remember that green ends with number 5,” Al advised me. “And be careful, because some of the computers, they have four keys, just A, B, C, and D; and some have five keys and an ENTER button. If you have the five keys with the enter button, you can change your answer, as long as you haven’t pressed ENTER. But if you have the four keys, that’s it. Once you press, that’s your answer. So be careful.
“Take all of your time, man,” he added. “Don’t rush it. For each subject you get so much time. Did they show the example to you?”
“Let me refresh your memory,” he said. “General science is the first subject. It’s, like, 25 questions, and they give you 11 minutes. If you get done by 8 minutes, it will automatically go to the next subject, even though you got 3 minutes left.”
I wondered, would the three minutes be added to the next section? Al let out a belly laugh and shook his head. “Oh no, it doesn’t work that way,” he said, still laughing. “You cannot go back to the previous section.”
Al looked over the test form again, checked my wife’s maiden name, double-checked my traffic ticket and drug history before signing off. We stood up and headed for the car. “You want a cup of coffee?”
“That would be great.”
He started toward the coffeemaker but stopped halfway there, defeated by the prospect of making coffee. He turned back to me and suggested we get coffee at Carl’s Jr. down the street.
“So at what point do I need to make a decision?” I asked as we climbed into the government-plated, light-blue Plymouth Acclaim.
“Right now, if you want to,” he answered opportunistically. “It’s up to you. I’m not going to force you. I’m just letting you know what’s offered inside the program.” He said I’d have to decide “before you take your physical examination; that’s the next step. Actually, if you don’t want what is offered when you take your classification — job classification, that’s when you pick your job — you don’t have to decide on anything.”
On the way to Carl’s Jr., Al explained that job classification is the process the Navy uses to evaluate background and test scores and offer appropriate job choices. If I score high in the electronics section, for example, I might be offered a computer, radio, or other electronics job. A high total score might earn me an intelligence-related job, provided I pass a background investigation.
Al reminded me that the Navy guarantees recruits, in writing, any job chosen for which they qualify. If not, they can get out. “Breach of contract,” he said.
We pulled into Carl’s Jr. at the comer of Convoy and Kearny Mesa, next to 163, which was loud with morning traffic. Coffee in hand, we got on the freeway and headed downtown.
I asked Al if he joined the Navy in the Philippines or here in the States.
“I joined in Chicago,” he said smiling, recalling years past.
“Was your dad stationed there?” I asked.
“No, he was retired. (In the Philippines] I was fooling around in school. My dad said, ‘Hey, what do you want to do? Get to work or continue your education.’ I said, ‘I’m tired of school, and it gets worse when you go to college.’
“Dad said, ‘Okay, fine. Let’s go to the States.’ So we went to Chicago. I worked there for a couple of months, but the job was no good. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘let’s go find another job.’ We went to downtown Chicago, straight to the recruiting station, Navy. My dad talked to the recruiter and said, ‘Hey, give him a job.’ ”
Al took the ASVAB but failed (a lack of English skills, he says). He took night classes for a while. “Then I took the test again and barely made it.”
The low test score left Al with few options. “They gave me three choices,” he said, “but the thing is, I qualified for only one because the other two required citizenship — security clearance. I only had a green card at the time. So, I ended up working with jet engines. I loved that job, as a matter of fact. When I was in the Philippines, I told my dad I wanted to become an aircraft mechanic. When that was offered to me, I told them, ‘Yes, this is what I wanted to do.’ Even though I had a low score, I qualified for the job. I qualified for intelligence, something to do with deciphering codes — that’s part of intelligence. The other one was yeoman, handling classified material and working closely with the commanding officer.”
As we passed Mission Valley into the verdancy of Balboa Park, Al suggested I try to get into the nuclear field. It required a high score for entry and entailed a lot of training— more than two years — but would translate to a marketable skill in the civilian world. “The best program anybody could offer, the best program in the Navy and all of the services, is the nuclear power field. You work with nuclear-powered reactors. That’s where the money is.”
Where 163 meets I-5, we exited the freeway, crossed over I-5, and pulled up to the curb in front of the San Diego Military Entrance Processing Station. A security guard in black uniform stood in front of the building. Al said they hired security after the Oklahoma City bombing.
Al suggested I drink up because they wouldn’t let me in with coffee. I finished the last swallow, and we got out of the car. Standing on the curb, Al wished me luck and reminded me to take my time. He pointed me toward the stairs in the parking garage, under the building, and directed me to the second floor.
The test room was about 50 feet long and 20 feet wide. Along three walls and a narrow table stretching down the middle of the room sat 40 computers, a dozen of them occupied by military recruits testing their way to soldier, sailor, or airman. Near the door, the test moderator slouched in his chair behind a metal desk. I handed him my form, social security card, and driver’s license. He led me to computer 28 against the south wall of the room, opposite the door. I noticed it was a model with buttons A-E and an ENTER button. He inserted a disk into the computer, punched in an ID code, and wished me luck in a whisper.
The test began with general science, just as Al said. I was confident about most of the questions, but some I gave educated guesses.
“Noble” is a term pertaining to A) gasses, B) rocks, C) acids, D) metals, E) plants.
The math and English sections were similar to the practice test, with an additional comprehension English section and a calculation-speed math section — 60 problems to do; five minutes to do them. The questions were simple: 5+7,9-6,8x7. The object, like the coding-speed section, speed and accuracy. I finished about two-thirds. The math and English sections were easier than my high school SAT, but the ASVAB contained questions you’d never see on SATs. The electronics portion ranged from AC stands for: A) after current, B) alternating current to problems showing schematic diagrams and asking Symbol X represents a A) battery, B) resistor, C) switch.
The mechanics section included diagrams of gears and pulleys, asking, for instance, if gear A is turning clockwise, in what direction is gear H turning? Tool knowledge was tested — to tighten a nut, use a A) screwdriver, B) pliers, C) wrench. One problem listed five possible tools I’d never heard of.
I finished the test in two hours. When I turned around to get the moderator’s attention, I realized I was one of two recruits left in the room. The moderator was grading the other’s test — more accurately, waiting for the computer to do so. When the printer began to print out the score sheet, the moderator came over to my terminal, removed the disk, and told me to sit in the chair next to his desk. When the grade sheet of the other recruit, a black man around 25, finished printing, the moderator pulled it from the printer, showed it to him, and indicated with his finger where the total score was. Then he plugged my disk into his computer and pushed a few keys. The printer buzzed back and forth, and in two minutes I had my results. “This is your score,” he said pointing at the bottom line of the printout. “Tell it to your recruiter.” It was a 96.
Al had instructed me to go upstairs to the Navy office on the fourth floor after the test and have them call him. In a large room outside the office, 40 young men and 10 women sat in chairs or on the ground watching a Navy promotional video with varying degrees of attention. In the office, a blond woman in a black uniform called Al, told him I was ready and suggested I wait outside. When I got to the curb, Al was already there, picking up another recruit who looked to be about 18. From the bit of conversation I overheard, I gathered the recruit had not scored the required 65. Al asked my score. “Congratulations!” he said.
We got back into the government mobile and headed to the Kearny Mesa office. When we arrived. Chief and Robert congratulated me on my good score. Al said the next step was making my decision — which didn’t have to be right then. Then I’d have a physical exam and background investigation. Provided I passed both, I would then see a job counselor, who would explain what I qualified for, based on my test scores and education. I would then make my career choice and head off to Great Lakes, Illinois, for boot camp. Training school would follow — Indianapolis for journalism; Groton, Connecticut, for submarine training; or Orlando, Florida, for nuclear power.
At that stage, my wife and I would be eligible for full medical and dental coverage, inexpensive food and clothing at commissaries and exchanges, maybe rent-free housing. As an E3, I would earn, according to a chart Al showed me, $ 1019 per month, plus cost-of-living allowances totaling a few hundred dollars a month. And down the line, possibilities for career advancement.
Who knows? I understand Admiral Mike Boorda, head of the U.S. Navy, started his career as a seaman.