Carved Through Naval Experience
A Native Musician's Inspiration
The sun slowly ascends over the Arizona horizon. Crickets, locusts, bees and flies buzz around world-renowned Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai. Cacti stand tall, and thorn bushes and tumble weeds soak up the warm morning light. Nakai begins playing his flute, and the soothing melody echoes through the hills.
Nakai, of Ute, Navajo and Zuni descent, is from northern Arizona. Most of his fans don't know that he is also a Vietnam-era Navy veteran. He laughed as he recalled the day he was drafted into the U.S. military during his freshman year as a music major at Northern Arizona University.
“I got my draft notice in 1966,” he said. “I was with the Northern Arizona University marching band on the band practice field. The director and all of us watched this little golf cart coming down the street, a postal cart. It delivered two brown envelopes and kicked two of us out of the band that very evening. I looked at it and it said, 'Welcome.'”
When he got home, he told his mother and asked her to take him to the recruiting station in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although his father had served in the Navy as a store keeper, he wanted to join the Marine Corps like his uncles, who had served as code talkers during World War II.
When he walked into the recruiting office, he weighed only 117 pounds.
“The two fat old guys sitting in there said, 'Oh, you're so slender! I'm afraid we would kill you in the Marines.' I said, 'No you won't. My tribes were known for being able to run great distances; maybe I will challenge you. Let's go outside behind the office, run up the hill and come down. Let's see who gets back here first.' They wouldn't do it,” Nakai said.
Meanwhile, a Navy recruiter was listening nearby, and pulled Nakai into his office. Nakai chuckled as he remembered the Sailor selling the benefits of joining the Navy, mentioning that the service had good food and nice beds with the sheets changed every week. Nakai signed up.
He attended boot camp in San Diego in early 1967, then “A” school for the radioman (RM) rating. Nakai was assigned to Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMSTA) Honolulu and message center Makalapa (CINCPACFLT).
There, Nakai tuned radios by hand and maintained World War II-era communications equipment. At one point during the Vietnam War, he attempted voice communications over the radio with commands along the Pacific Rim, using the Navajo language to communicate — code talking like his uncles, essentially. The plan did not work as expected, however, as the members receiving the messages did not understand the code words.
The radioman rating was overmanned at the time, and some Sailors were temporarily assigned to different duties. “I turned into a stenographer, a typist, file clerk and official coffee maker,” said Nakai. He was interviewed and selected for a drafting position at CINCPACFLT, responsible for drawing maps of antenna fields on the island.
“I would have to make blueprint copies for all the offices and send them down to Pearl Harbor at the end of each month. That was my first real duty and duty station. RM3 Nakai — coffee maker and draftsman,” he chuckled. “But I enjoyed it.”