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Peter Woodley and I became friends because our last names began with W. At the Navy Officers Indoctrination School men were grouped in alphabetical order, so he slept in the bunk next to mine and our schedules were identical. We got involved in a series of comic-opera episodes, and if the navy’s need for men in 1942 had not been desperate, both Woodley and I might have failed to graduate, though not for the same reason.
Woodley was twenty-one years old then, a clean-cut, good-looking blond boy. Six feet tall and weighing 190 pounds, he had played football and baseball in college. He had raced motorboats for years and he loved the sea. But he didn’t like to memorize the sub-divisions of the fleet and he couldn’t write a letter in correct navy format. I memorized all the sub-divisions and wrote a number of perfect letters, but I had trouble reassembling revolvers and I never learned how to tie a navy knot. In the eight weeks at indoctrination school I learned to tie only one kind of knot, and that proved to be a commonplace civilian knot that roused the voluble contempt of the boatswain’s mate to whom I showed it. I never did pass the knot-tying test, nor did I ever have occasion to tie any more knots during my naval career, except once when I mailed a package of souvenirs from the Aleutian Islands.
I never reassembled the revolver I had taken apart in the gunnery drill, either. It happened a long time ago and I suppose that by now someone has managed to put it together again. But I still don’t believe it was an ordinary revolver, in spite of the unsympathetic remarks of the gunner’s mate who was instructing us.
Woodley had a way with revolvers and tied knots nicely, but naval correspondence upset him. After the first class meeting he said to me indignantly, “How can you write a letter without using the first person?” “By using the third person,” I said. “I can’t talk about myself like that,” he insisted. “It’s indecent.”
I laughed but he was serious. “Look at this,” he said. “My assignment is to write an official letter to the Bureau, asking for change of duty, I’m not permitted to say that I am asking for it. Oh no. I have to say, ‘It is requested that Ensign Peter Woodley, DV-(s), 874-139, be granted a change of duty from the battleship Cleveland to a crash boat.’”
All battleships are named after states,” I told him. “There isn’t any battleship named Cleveland.” He revised his letter glumly and brooded about the principle of the third person. He spent much more time on his letters than their eventual quality merited.