"The first six people picked up the pies and threw them at the crowd."
The war in Vietnam really touched San Diego. It was here in San Diego that the largest number of wives became West Pac widows and POW wives, where the most war-bound ships left from and returned to, and where the largest number of POWs came back to. But it was also here that the going and company of GIs and the eat-drink-and-be-merry, rollicky fatalism from 1964 to 1970 brought to some parts of town the ambience of World War II Mickey Rooney movies.
Just ask a SEAL what it was like. You know, a Navy SEAL. A Navy frogman who had been trained in parachuting and land combat. Created by President Kennedy in 1962 to form a Navy "counterinsurgency" force, the SEALs fit right into Vietnam. Along with the Green Berets Marines, army airborne troops, and Navy fliers, they were the war's heroes. If Marines could sit around their clubs at Camp Pendleton and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and talk about Dodge City and Con Thein and Khe Sanh, the SEALs could sit around their clubs in Coronado and reminisce about their assassinations of Viet Cong, and Seafloat and Dong Tam. But it seemed that the best SEAL war stories were about San Diego.
Lounging around in the lounge at the SEAL Team One's headquarters on the Strand in Coronado, two SEAL officers wanted desperately to remember the good old days. "There was this warrant officer — what was his name? — he bought a used car and drove it off the Coronado ferry just for kicks," Lieutenant Rockne offered.
"Yeah, and there was Gerry. Remember when he went to that girl's party in Mission Beach and hit off the head of one of her pet kittens. Oh, but he didn't eat it. He just spit it out on the floor," Lt. Kincaid one-upped his friend.
"And then there was that party where they killed a real hawk and hung it over the beer kegs, so you couldn't help but get blood dripped in your beer."
The two khaki-uniformed lieutenants were very nostalgic about the 1960s. They didn't want to travel back to the 1950s. Vietnam, for them, was a good experience.
They said the SEAL's intense hedonism in San Diego stemmed from the rotation between here and Vietnam every six months. "Each six months we were here, we had to get in all the life we could." The esprit d' corps was especially strong between platoon members, who rotated back and forth together. "We were so dependent on each other for our lives over there, we were really tight here." We really clung together and partied together."
"We all lived in conclaves, usually in houses in Coronado. Some of us live in the Sharp Mansion. You know, the guy the hospital's named after. He founded KFSD. We used to have the wildest parties. I remember one back in 1968. We sent out 500 invitations, bought kegs and kegs of beer, and 60 chocolate pies. The first six people in the pie-eating contest started to eat their pies but then picked them up and threw them at the crowd. Sooner or late, people were throwing all the other pies at each other. It was a mess. It was great. There was a turtle race, and one guy whose turtle was losing, picked it up and bit off its foot and ate it."
"We did a lot of wild-ass stuff. Remember Lowe" — he ran from the Beachcomber bar to Belmont Park with nothing on one night. And remember the time those guys went swimming nude in the El Cortez swimming pool?'
"Oh, and there was always the Downwinds (the officers' club at North Island). We were always throwing beer at each other there. That's how I met my wife. Throwing beer at her. I remember the time we three beer down at the bullfights in Tijuana and got thrown out. Then we went to the Downwinds and got thrown out of there three times for throwing beer. We were just having fun."
"Yeah, we sure did a lot of RF-ing. We sure did. All in fun. Course there as Hank Leehan who carried it a little too far. He's in the penitentiary now." (Lt. Leehan, a SEAL officer, and his platoon were caught last year smuggling heroin from Vietnam to the U.S. in a starlight scope (a light-intensifying device). Because the scope was a classified piece of equipment, it was not subject to the routine U.S. Customs search. But Leehan and company were caught.) "God, that was something. He was a good officer, a Stanford graduate and everything. That sort of ended everything. I guess that was carrying things a little too far."
The SEALs were archetypal male chauvinists. Instead of referring to a girlfriend, or any girl, as a "chick" or a "dolly," however, the SEALs found a proper amphibian term, a girl was called (sometimes you can still hear it in Coronado) a toad. As in "Hey, there were a lot of good lookin' toads at Bully's last Thursday" or "Hey, where's my toad; oh here you are; come on honey, let's go home." Not all "toads" were real SEAL groupies, but since I had heard a lot about "team girls," I asked. The two lieutenants claimed that only enlisted men had regular team girls. But then they started to mention a few of their old "toads" and remembered how they "were passed around." Why, there was "Swamp Woman" and "Rack Woman." The stories went on and on.
During their six months "off" in San Diego, they still exercised daily and ran through combat problems. But the six months off couldn't compare with VIetnam or the five months of basic training that Navymen) had to go through before they could qualify as a frogman (Underwater Demolitions Team) or a SEAL. That basic training was the real text. How one performed during the initial five months of training seems to be equally as important in judging a SEAL's worth as how many men lost or how many enemies he killed in Vietnam. In fact, many of the old timers chide their successors because "they didn't have it rough" in their basic training. Apparently, several years ago, the admiral in charge of amphibious training eliminated a "Hell Week" of harassment from the five months and, to hear the SEALs of five or ten years ago, the quality of the men hasn't been the same since.
Of course, there have been bigger changes. Now, with no Vietnam, the men don't seem to have their hearts in the training. "It used to be that a man would come up to me and say, 'Hey, Mr. Rockne, how come we aren't having a night problem this week? If we're going to 'nam, I want to really be ready.' Now no one says anything like that."
Another change is that most of those entering the program are already married; during the war, most of them were single. So, there's a lot less partying. "I haven't been to the Downwinds in a year and a half," confided Lt. Rockne. The two lieutenants seemed more generous in talking about women, too; they never used the word "toad."
The atmosphere is just altogether different in this part of town. "I guess we aren't charging around after good times because we know we're not going over. We know the chance for good times will be around next week or the week after, so we just put it off.... That damn Nixon. He would have to go and end the war."