Fun with Navy SEALs; or, That’s Seaman Floaty Pants to You, Mister

There are two things I don’t remember learning how to do, the first of which is reading. This makes sense because my mom was a kindergarten teacher, and she made sure I was an early reader, probably before I got around to hauling myself up from the floor and bumping into furniture.

The other skill I don’t recall learning is the art of swimming. This also makes sense, especially when you consider I grew up on the Gulf Coast, where many parents are disciples of the “throw it in and see if it floats” school of aquatic pedagogy. My mom and dad weren’t that hardcore, but I’m sure at some point a family member—an uncle or second cousin, probably—heaved a tiny me into a body of water and watched with interest to see what would happen.

Because of my comfort with swimming, I was relieved when it came time for swim qualifications during my time in navy boot camp. This was early on, in week two, right after we’d been fitted with our one-size-fits-all underwear and scratchy dungarees and had our heads shaved to look like a fresh crop of peaches. It was a perfect time for a break.

Finally, it seemed I’d found something easier than the other things we’d been learning during our first week. For example, it turned out the navy had its own word for everything under the actual sun: The ceiling was an overhead, the floor was the deck, port turned out to actually mean left, and starboard was right. And that’s not even touching on all the acronyms.

The morning of swim training, the mood in the barracks was different than it had been previously. Before, when we’d been getting ready to go out and run or march, everyone was nervous but excited, but on swim day, most of the company was quiet and subdued. I wondered if perhaps my fellow recruits knew something I didn’t. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

At around eight a.m., we arrived at the pool, a body of water that looked like it could’ve held an aircraft carrier, and our company commanders handed us off to a group of SEALs. We’d heard stories about these guys. SEALs were the elite special forces arm of the U.S. Navy, famous the world over for their heroic missions, but if our company commanders’ stories were to be believed, of all things in existence, SEALs hated two most of all: U.S. Marines and second-week navy bootcampers.

The guy in charge of the proceedings, a Tom Selleck-esque looking guy named Chief Barnes, considered us with an expression that suggested he’d begun the morning by winning and then immediately losing the lottery.

“How many of you jerks are afraid of water?” he asked.

No hands went up.

“You’re a bunch of damned liars,” he said.

(Full Disclosure: Chief Barnes didn’t settle for just calling us “jerks” or “damned liars.” In fact, the string of curse words he used to make his point was both impressive and surprisingly lengthy, and I’d recount them all here, if only I could remember what they were. I could make them up, but where’s the fun in that? Remember, this is a true story.)

“Come on!” he said. “Who’s afraid of water?”

Still, no one raised a hand. To be fair, during our short navy careers, my companions and I had already discovered that volunteering anything was a mistake, so raising any appendage felt like a bad idea. For that matter, even answering a question seemed problematic. We waited.

Barnes grinned. “You will be when we’re done here.”

This navy life was still new to me, but I couldn’t help taking that as a threat. As it turned out, it was one of many similar predictions we’d hear over the next seven weeks, repeated at various times during training sessions for shipboard firefighting, abandoning ship, and avoiding venereal disease. And in case you’re wondering, there is no acceptable answer to the question “Who’s afraid of gonorrhea?”  

There at the pool that day, Barnes was only getting started.

“How many of you can’t swim?” he asked.

Now that was just stupid, I thought. Who in his right mind would join the U.S. Navy—an organization well-known for its affinity for large bodies of water—not knowing how to swim? That would be like joining the air force with a fear of flying.

Marveling, I watched as about twenty non-swimming recruits began to self-identify. Maybe it was the proximity of the water, or it could’ve been the realization that they were about to drown in front of fortyish other humans. Maybe the chlorine had finally gotten to them.

Whatever had caused it, hands began to go up, and Barnes and his minions moved at least twenty guys off to the side, managing to act both unsurprised and outraged at their insolence. After a few minutes of being berated and ridiculed, our unfortunate shipmates were herded off through a door at the end of the building. As far as where they were going, we had no idea. 

For the next two hours, the rest of us took to the frigid pool and treaded water, swam, and held our breath for inappropriate lengths of time, all while Barnes and his SEAL buddies screamed at random, poking and prodding us with long sticks. We even swam in military formation for what seemed like days. Don’t get the wrong idea. This wasn’t anything close to synchronized swimming. It was more along the lines of a bunch of inebriated sea cows trying in vain to avoid a school of sharks.

All things considered, though, that day at the pool, I learned three things that stuck with me.

One was that as long as there was someone who had it worse off than me (in this case, the non-swimmers) I was able to feel good about myself. I wasn’t proud of it then, and I’m still not, but there it is. I don’t know what happened to the non-swimmers, and I don’t think we ever asked them, but I’m sure it was something inconvenient and embarrassing.

The second lesson I walked away with was that I only thought I knew how to swim, and Barnes and his SEALs disabused me of that notion with great gusto. When we finally finished qualifying, our arms were so exhausted that we couldn’t lift ourselves up out of the pool. After bouncing in the shallow end for a bit, we had to settle for flopping up onto the concrete, rolling over on our backs and feeling helpless. A few of us even vomited, but not me. Vomiting would come later, under different circumstances.

The third thing that sticks with me, probably the coolest thing I learned in navy boot camp, was that I could use my pants as a flotation device. Of course, our dungarees were specially made of non-porous material suitable for keeping water in or out, and it only worked if you could manage to tread water while knotting the ends of your pant legs, but floaty pants are a practical tool, no matter how you slice it.

Years later, it would occur to me that teaching recruits how to swim The Navy Way™ probably wasn’t a plum duty assignment for SEALs. Surely, they’d have rather been out planting explosives on an oil rig, rescuing hostages, or racing dolphins in the ocean.

Who knows? Maybe we were their punishment.