Bluejacket (bloo-jak-it) noun: An enlisted person in the United States or British navy; a sailor
I didn't bring my toothbrush or a comb for my hair.
No extra set of clothes or pair of socks, not even a
sack lunch. I did bring my schoolbooks. I had to
bring those. Otherwise, they'd know.
I walked out the door that morning like any other,
and stole a last glance over my shoulder at the tiny
rental house we'd moved into months earlier when
my father brought us to this dusty place where he'd
found work. I walked toward Fort Davis High School,
where I'd recently began my senior year, but when I
got there, I kept walking. I wasn't going to school.
Pecos, Texas. That's where I was going. It was about
seventy-five miles to the north and if that thumb I
had in the air couldn't persuade someone to stop, it
was going to be a hell of a long walk. I kept on.
The two-lane highway stretched out in front of me. I
fixed my eyes on the horizon, but I aimed to go
much farther than that. When a man in a passing car
took pity on me and pulled onto the shoulder, I
jogged up to the passenger door, opened it and
"Where you headed?" the man asked.
"Pecos," I told him.
That was about the extent of our conversation. He didn't ask what a teenage boy was doing thumbing
down the road or what exactly was in Pecos. He only told me he wasn't going that far. I told him I'd be
obliged if he took me as far as he was going. And he did. I thanked him for that.
I spent the rest of the day kicking rocks along the side of the road and waiting for the next kind soul. I'd
covered about thirty-five miles, not quite halfway there, when another car stopped for me in Balmorhea.
This guy wasn't going to Pecos, either. He was going back to Fort Davis and something about the star on
his chest and the "Jeff Davis County Sheriff" stenciled on the side of the car told me I was going with him.
My little adventure had come to a premature end, but if I'm being honest, I was almost glad of it. I was
tired and I was hungry and I maybe should have planned it all a little better.
The drive back home passed in silence, but that silence was broken when I walked through the front door.
My mother erupted in a fierce mixture of relief and anger, the sort of combination only a mother can
conjure up when she realizes that her child has done something stupid but managed to luck his way
through it unharmed. She'd been worried sick, she told me, and how could I run off like that?
My father stood and stared while my mother ranted and raved. That's how he was. He preferred working
to talking, but we always knew what he'd say, so usually he didn't bother. When my mother had exhausted
everything on her mind, his message was brief.
"Chet, you need to think this through," he said.
The trouble was, I had thought it through. I'd thought about it until my head hurt every day for the last
ten months. I'd been bugging my parents to let me go ever since the voice on the radio told us what
happened. The president of the United States called it a day that will live in infamy and I knew that he was
I was sixteen years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I'd had some vague knowledge about
foreign armies fighting each other on the other side of the world, but until December 7, 1941, my future,
as I saw it, certainly included nothing more adventurous than a lifetime of sweating in the oil fields of West
Now I knew just as surely that we were at war and that the war could not be won without my help. I just
had to get out there and get some of those dirty, rotten Japs. And that's why I was going to Pecos that fall
day in 1942. I'd turned seventeen on September 13, but I was going to tell the recruiter there that I was
eighteen, only a small lie, and that I was ready to fight.
I had played it out in my head a thousand times. I was going to win the whole damn war singlehanded.
There was nothing that could stand in my way.
Well, almost nothing. There was the small matter of Charley and Winnie Bright, my parents.
They were tough people, hard workers, and not necessarily opposed to their oldest son going off to war.
But they were also not above sending the law after him if he ran away to do it against their wishes. When I
didn't come home from school that day and they figured out that I didn't go to school at all, they knew
exactly where I was going.
Ever since the United States entered World War II, I'd begged them to let me enlist. Once I turned
seventeen, all I needed was for them to sign a waiver allowing me to join up.
"Finish school," they insisted. "Get your education and then you can make your own decision."
I lost count of how many times I'd heard it over the course of that year. They tried to talk to me like an
adult, but usually those conversations ended with me stomping out of the house. I was no adult. But I was
young and patriotic and idealistic, three things that when put together are terribly difficult for parents to
When I got home from my failed journey to the recruiting station, I let my parents say what they had to
say. And then I took my turn. I told them that I was sorry to worry them but my mind was made up. If
they didn't let me go, I was going to run off like that again and again. Sooner or later, I was going to make it
I think they saw what they were up against and knew that I meant what I said. The next morning, they
relented. On October 17, 1942, I was sworn into the Navy for the duration of the war.
Along with a large group of young Texas boys, I boarded a train to the Great Lakes Training Center near
Chicago for basic training. Chicago being about a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, believe me this
was very basic. It lasted four weeks. We barely had time to learn how to put on our uniforms. We did a
little marching, listened to a few lectures, practiced making up our bunks and then we were deemed fit to
fight. The Navy was kind enough to give us seven days' leave to go see our parents before receiving our
orders and shipping out to God knows where.
A friend from home, J.R. Gandy, accompanied me as we headed for the train station to spend our leave in
Texas. While we waited, we spotted a serviceman coming our way. He had a lot of gold on his uniform. We
stood there, trying to figure out what that meant. Was he an officer?
To be safe, J.R. and I threw him a snappy salute. He didn't seem real happy about that. He stopped and
told us that he was not an officer, he was a chief and the gold on his uniform had been earned by spending
most of his life in the Navy. He let us know that he was totally disgusted with us, and then went on. Talk
about raw recruits.
The trip between Illinois and Texas took two days each way, leaving us with only three days at home. But
we spent those three days strutting around town in our crisp new uniforms, trying, mostly in vain, to
impress the hometown girls. Then we packed up again, said another goodbye to our families and got back
on that train.
At Great Lakes, we were ordered to board another train, this time bound for Norfolk, Virginia, where we'd
meet our troopship. We didn't know where that troopship was going to take us, but I don't remember
caring much. I was not the slightest bit nervous about going to war. I don't think any of the other boys
were, either. Burning patriotism, I'd call it, and these boys not only wanted to go to war but were eager to
go. I was proud to be among them. Sure, there were some who signed up for the Navy to avoid getting
drafted into the Army and fighting out of foxholes, but even those guys were eager.
At Norfolk, after another days-long train ride, a bus picked us up and took us to the place where our
troopship waited. When I stepped out on the pier, I saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time and it blew
my mind. The largest body of water I'd ever seen was a lake.
"There just can't be that much water in this world," I thought.
It was amazing. It was a life-changing moment. My future lay out there in those waters, in the choppy
waves and the beaches they lapped up against.
As a young man, the sea took me to war and it carried me home. It tested my will and my courage, and it
helped me fulfill a profound sense of duty. As an older man, I could not leave it. In a sailboat built from a
shell in my back yard, with three wars behind me, I spent decades chasing the distant sunset across warm,
Since that first glimpse of freedom from the pier in Norfolk, I have been incomplete on dry land. For
nearly seventy years, the sea has been my one constant. It threatened my life again and again, and it kept
me afloat when everything around me sank to the darkest depths.
I am eighty-six years old as I write these words, and almost every good thing in my life can be traced, one
way or another, back to the sea. I have given it my life. In return, it gave me these memories.