I never knew how difficult it could be to pee while someone stared at my crotch—until I joined the Navy. But I was a quick learner. In fact, how to urinate with an audience became my first lesson in the military.
Great Lakes Recruit Training Center, November 1987. Though my hometown of San Diego hosted one of the Navy's three boot camps, the recruit depot saw fit to send me halfway across the country for basic training: a half-hour north of Chicago, just in time for winter. I joined a busload of other nervous young men traveling from O'Hare to Great Lakes, visions of every Hollywood version of boot camp swirling through my mind. The reality (as usual) proved far less dramatic. After a couple of hours of paperwork and other bureaucratic "hurry up and wait" exercises, we sat in a large conference room while our new company commander barked at us. But before we became his children for eight weeks, we had one little task. And it involved a little plastic cup.
The Navy's zero-tolerance policy with regard to drugs meant regular, random urine tests throughout one's active duty service. Generally, a roll of a 10-sided die determined the lucky winners; anyone whose Social Security number ended in that number had to report to the Master At Arms by the end of the day and donate a specimen. For us fresh recruits, all 10 numbers came up. We'd been exhaustively prescreened before even leaving our hometowns, but we had one final hoop to jump through, in case any of us had gone a little overboard at our going-away parties.
Most of you reading this have probably had to pee in a cup at one point or another, whether for medical or pre-employment reasons. A nurse probably gave you a plastic cup and sent you off to the privacy of a bathroom. We quickly learned that privacy is a civilian luxury. Lest some dishonest recruit surreptitiously taint his urine in an effort to foil the drug test, some lucky sailor got to watch each and every one of us as we unzipped our flies and did our business right in front of him.
As might be expected, a handful of us—including yours truly—experienced performance anxiety. The stress of the day had caught up to me, and the indignity of the situation shocked my naïve sensibilities. Plus, from a practical standpoint, the tank was pretty empty. Fortunately, the sailors took pity on us and gave us some time to work ourselves up to it. I quickly downed six glasses of water and returned to the conference room.
As the company commander and other staff members alternately yelled and droned on, I felt an increasing pressure build in my lower abdomen. I looked around, wondering when I'd get my second chance to provide a sample. An officer blathered on about formations and general orders. Hello! I'm ready for my close-up now! As we watched a mind-numbingly boring training video about life aboard ship, the pressure mounted. I squirmed in my seat, trying to minimize the pain. Forget the plastic cup and lack of privacy; at this point, I could fill a bucket while a convent full of nuns looked on.
Just as I was about to raise my hand and open myself up to ridicule, the company commander blessedly announced that those of us still waiting to pee could try again. I stepped right up and got to work. As the Master At Arms watched, I filled the cup to the brim, confident I could have won an Academy Award if there had been a category for Best Performance by a Recruit in a Urination Role.
It didn't take me long to lock away my dignity at the bottom of my sea bag. Survival in the Navy required a thick skin. The episode with the plastic cup on my very first evening as a seaman recruit prepared me for other, even more undignified episodes to come: being showered by JP-5 gas turbine fuel during underway replenishment; cleaning shower drains used by sailors who had missed the comfort of female companionship for far too long; and having my bunk splattered by vomit after a shipmate had enjoyed a liberty stop a little too vigorously.
As advertised, it wasn't just a job, it was an adventure.