My Language Barriers


March 17, 1999


Final Revision


It all started on a cold and rainy night in Great Lakes, Illinois. A group of us had just arrived from O’Hare Airport, in Chicago, Illinois. Upon our arrival at the gate of the facility, our company commander greeted us. This person is in charge of making civilians into sailors in a period of nine weeks. I believe our company commander thought his job was to make our lives as unpleasant as possible. Immediately, he started yelling orders at us. “Follow the arrows on the bulkhead!” “Watch you step!” “Be careful, the deck is wet!” “If any of you sissies need to use the head, it’s forward of us on the port side.” Being an eighteen-year-old kid just out of high school, I had no idea what it was that man just said to me: “bulkhead, port side, forward, and head.” I was surely confused. I quickly learned, if I didn’t understand what it was he was telling us, he would make sure everyone around knew just how ignorant I was, by using his Navy lingo and expletives.


Our company commander had a diligent method in helping those who were unable to adapt to the new “lingo” being taught. It was simple, if you were having trouble remembering the terminology, he would tell you to “get strong,” which meant to drop and give fifty push-ups. Or when he really felt like being a jerk, he would order the recruit to do push-ups until “he got tired.” Possibly this was the commander’s way of mentally breaking us down, since we were never given any kind of classroom instruction on the terminology. My first week of basic training was the most difficult, since I probably did a thousand push-ups. In reality the sailor terminology wasn’t difficult to learn. Since all of us recruits were speaking the same lingo, or at least making an attempt.


Don’t be misled, though. There are many other naval terms I haven’t yet mentioned. For example, we couldn’t call each other by our names. We had to refer to each other as “shipmate,” or “mate.” Then there was rank structure. The lower ranking workers were called seaman. After a seaman gained some responsibility and leadership he became a petty officer. The highest of the enlisted were the chiefs. Port side meant left, and starboard side meant right. Aft and stern was a term used for back, and forward was a term used for front. Bulkhead was a wall, overhead was the ceiling, while the steel floor was called a deck? A stairwell was called a ladder. I really didn’t understand that term until I boarded my first ship. Then it all made sense.


I remember one snowy evening we had mail call, when I went to pick up my mail I had made the mistake of calling the chief who was in charge of handing out packages, a “petty officer.” That was the saddest night in “Boot Camp” for me. I had to do push-ups until the chief and his friends had eaten all of the Christmas cookies my mother had sent me. I learned my lesson, and never called a chief a petty officer again. At least with me his method was successful.


I was now just a few days away from graduating basic training. I was so excited. I could speak the navy lingo like a “salty sailor.” After graduation I arrived home for my first humble visit with my family. It seemed strange to again refer to the floor as a floor, and not a deck. During a visit at my mother’s new house, I asked her where the head was. When I saw a confused look on her face I swiftly corrected myself and asked for the rest room. Everything that came from my mouth was in naval terminology. Since both my grandfathers and my father were “ex-salts,” they were the only ones who understood what I was saying. I soon discovered that wasn’t the end of my inability to converse with someone who spoke a different language. Actually it was just the beginning.


After I arrived at my first duty station, the USS Essex, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, we journeyed off to our