Smiling, sunny southern California can be a pretty lonely place. Even for the long-term resident, whose neighbors move every five years, possibly for the tourist, unless he has relatives or friends here, but certainly for the sailor, who only has his weekend liberty here and doesn’t have the money to be a full-fledged tourist.
“You, you must be in the Navy. What do you boys do here on the week-ends? How do you meet young girls?” Thus begins a conversation on the “R” bus between two women (who both strangely look like Golda Meir) and me. They are sisters, they are from “crime ridden” Chicago, and they now live in a safe apartment in Pacific Beach.
“Well,” I reply, “I imagine it’s pretty rough. I’m not in the Navy. I know a lot of 'em go to topless places, some of the younger ones go to JJ’s (I point out JJ’s, as we pass it on Pacific Highway), a lot of them hang around Broadway or Belmont Park. I imagine it’s pretty hard for them to meet girls.”
“Don’t the churches provide a way? Isn’t there some nice way for them to meet, you know, nice girls?’
In 1861 when neither the Union Army nor the Confederate Army had chaplains, the YMCA formed the U.S. Christian Commission “to bring Christianity into the military.” That was the birth of the Armed Forces YMCA. In 1924, the Armed Services YMCA built the present building on Broadway and India Streets, and during World War II. 20,000 sailors and marines a day came through the doors of this building; the granite steps in front had to be replaced twice. Now the traffic has slowed to 2,000 a day.
In 1941, F.D.R. founded the United Service Organization (U.S.O.) to make the seryiceman’s leisure time activity more wholesome. In San Diego during World War II, the U.S.O. occupied the Spreckels Building. And in 1969, after a huge fundraising campaign spurred by an appearance by Bob Hope, the U.S.O. moved into a new, one-story, concrete and glass building on F Street two blocks below the Armed Services Y.
So there are these two wholesome places, each of them engaged in friendly competition with each other and in unfriendly competition with the fleshpots of lower Broadway. What things do the Y.M.C.A. and the U.S.O. dangle in front of the sailors' eyes to get them away from places like the Blue Door Massage Parlor?
For one thing, there are the “nice” girls. At the U.S.O., they are the Junior Volunteers; at the “Y”, it’s the Girls Service Organization. In both groups, these are San Diego girls between the ages of 17 and 25 who undergo a “thorough screening”; they have to fill out an application and list three references. “And we check ’em,” say Pete Elkin of U.S.O. and Bob Swaringen of Y.M.C.A. “We have to, we don't want the wrong kind of girl in here.” In both places, the girls have to attend a certain quota of dances and parties per month, and if they come to a dance, they are not allowed to leave during the evening. “We don’t want the hustlers, the hotel-room type.” At the U.S.O a girl is not supposed to dance more than three times with the same sailor. “If I notice one girl staying with the same fella, I ask them to break it up. But most of ’em are pretty good about circulating — they have to ‘cause of the 2-1 men-women ratio. We used to have a rule about not dating the Junior Volunteers. But not any longer. I figure it’s their business what they want to do with their spare time.” explains Elkin.
Youngish Pete Elkin has been director at the new U.S.O. for 3 and a half years now. He went to San Jose State, served the Air Force for two years, worked at the U.S.O. in Los Angeles, worked as a recreation director at Rancho Bernardo, and now he and his two women assistants comprise the entire paid staff of San Diego's U.S.O.
Elkin seems to worry most about recruiting these female Junior Volunteers: “It is a problem. There's a lot of anti-military feeling even here in San Diego. The girls just don’t realize that U.S.O. is not the military, or that the average guy here wasn’t the one who caused Vietnam. Phyllis (one of Elkin’s assistants) goes out to high school seniors or to sororities at San Diego State, and tries to get girls to volunteer. We especially have problems with minorities. But I’ve sent stuff to XSOL to appeal to black ‘sister’ and stuff to the Chicano Federation.”
Both the U.S.O. and the Armed Services Y have an astonishing variety of activities to offer the lonely sailor. There are movies, dances, free meals (every Tuesday night at the U.S.O. there is a free dinner), pool and ping pong tournaments, Hawaiian luaus, Monte Carlo nights, camping trips, bowling, variety shows (every Saturday night at the Y), handwriting analysis, rap sessions, karate lessons, guitar lessons, free tickets to San Diego area events. And the list seems to go on forever.
The U.S.O.’s new, clean building and its superior organizational skills seem to give it an overwhelming advantage over the Y. The Y seems old and pockmarked by the scuzziness of its Broadway location: the bus exhaust. the dirty newspaper racks in front, the prostitutes across the street. And the people of the Y seem to lack the energy of the U.S.O. staff. But the Y has its advantages, too. One is the hotel. For $4 a night, any serviceman can stay in the hotel and use its facilities. And that saves the long haul back to the base when the bars close at 2 in the morning. (As of recently these $4 rooms are open to civilians, and civilians make up a third of the hotel’s population).
Another incentive the YMCA uses to get sailors there is the Sunday morning Java Club meeting. For these meetings the new recruit gets out of the base two hours early on Sunday liberty. The Y sends a bus over to N.T.C. to get any who have signed up for the meetings. The recruits are brought in the huge auditorium at the Y, they get to see a slide show of the sights to see in San Diego, and the places to avoid, and they get to join in a sing-along with a pianist who has been at the Y for over 30 years. Then they're taken out by bus to attend services at the “church of their choice.”
“If they don't want to go to church, we take 'em to Balboa Park.”
Swaringen of the Y seems satisfied to have had the number of recruits coming to Java meetings grow to 85. But clearly, the Y has seen better days. Swaringen himself said the hotel has had to rely on the civilian occupants partly because the recruits’ basic pay now is over S350 a month. “Why would he want to stay here if he can afford to stay somewhere else, at a motel for instance, in town?”
Elkin is more optimistic about the U.S.O. He is very conscious of the number of people who walk through the door. (You can even hear them counting you — “click, click” — as soon as you enter the front door.) “All we have to do is get someone in the door and they come back. Phyllis has been visiting each new class of recruits at N.T.C. Since she has, 50 per cent of them have visited us once, and 80 percent of those return. And the Master Chief over at N.T.C. says 90 per cent of the discipline problem has been cut down since then.”