by Dave Payson 1964-68
It was a typical summer day in San Francisco, July 1964— cloudless cobalt blue sky, sailboats tacking in a brisk wind on the bay, skyscrapers and bridges standing out in sharp relief, framing the scene. Nowadays, you’d pay probably a million dollars a year for a view like that from your million-dollar condo. But back in ‘64, it was ours for the price of a navy billet. On the day I write about here, several of us were hanging around the barracks—actually, we were sitting at a picnic table outside of it—too broke to go into the City by the Bay, even though most of us had weekend liberty. We were at Treasure Island—or “TI,” as we called it—in San Francisco Bay, attending “Class A” Radar School, learning our future trade in the Navy, which was to be radar men on fleet ships. Without money or family or friends in the city, we had decided to stay at the base to catch up on our studies. Besides, misery loves company, as they say, and we were all in this together—to pass radar school and get out to the fleet. At the ripe old age of nineteen, I was a “salt” amongst this bunch, because I had already been out to the fleet as a crewman aboard the USS Midway, CVA-41, for six months, making one West-Pac cruise to the Orient. (They called it “Pre-school Indoctrination,” which was when you went directly from boot camp to a ship for half a year or so before reporting to whatever training they had lined you up for.) Most of my radar classmates were fresh out of boot camp. But “salt” or not, I was about halfway through my course work by then and struggling with some of the basic concepts of electricity and radio signals. Most difficult for me to grasp was Ohm’s Law, which stated simply: V = I x R—V standing for voltage, I for current, and R for resistance. Learning Ohm’s Law, I knew from my instructor’s lectures, was at the very heart of understanding the principles of how radar worked. But on this sun-struck afternoon in the early 60s, I was having trouble grasping the concept. That was when, I recall, the radio, which had been playing “Sugar Shack,” the number-one pop hit in the country at the time, had cut in with a news bulletin, distracting my already wandering attention span on the workings of radar technology. In a distant country called Vietnam, in a place called the Gulf of Tonkin, North Vietnamese gunboats had attacked the U.S. destroyer Maddox, the radio announcer said. The Maddox had returned fire and sank two of the gunboats. When the report was over “Sugar Shack” resumed playing right where it had left off. We looked at each other, contemplating what we had just heard. "They better not mess with us," I remember one of my radar classmates saying, breaking the silence that had fallen over us at the table as we mulled over the radio report. The rest of us nodded in agreement, pondering for a brief moment what this naval skirmish in a distant country might mean to us down the road. And then we put it out of our minds and resumed our lazy day, land-locked sailors surrounded by an impressive body of water called San Francisco Bay.