In answer to my question, “What is Basic Training like?” the recruiter had said, “Six weeks of harassment.” I thought that was very candid, and then didn’t think of it again. I was certainly going to be cooperative and do my best to fit in, so I didn’t think I’d have a problem.
All of the young men who were entering the service that day assembled and waited there, and there was another physical. (It was not as much fun as the draft physical; at that time, when we were ordered to strip to underpants, shoes and socks, a young man from Canada — yes, their were Canadian youth who wanted to enlist in the U.S. Army — was revealed to be wearing boxer shorts decorated with cowboys & Indians.) An aging career officer was rude to us. We were led into a small room and sworn in, with the soon-to-be Marines in the front row, then the Army recruits, then the Navy, and then the Air Force in the last row, kind of a graphic depiction of the class system, running from lower up front to middle class at the back. The upper class of course being absent. Everyone wearing glasses was in the last row.
We waited at the Buffalo airport, and then in the Chicago airport, then we waited for a bus at the San Antonio airport. The bus took us to Lackland Air Force Base. The driver was wearing green fatigues, and said to us all, “If you’ve got any wise-assing to do, you’d better do it now.” That was the first threat. I didn’t understand it. We had a long wait at the receiving station, sitting in rows of chairs in the order in which fifty of us would be taken to create one “flight,” while NCO’s shuffled papers at a table up front. When we got to the barracks, it was about midnight, a clear night, warm, and very quiet. We’d been up since 5 or 6 a.m.
:: Welcome ::
Two men in Smoky Bear hats, our Training Instructors (T.I.’s), arranged us by height into a rough formation. Our bags were at our feet. They showed us the position of “Attention.” Heels together, toes slightly out, back straight, shoulders back, thumb and forefinger touching pant seam, eyes straight ahead, no motion, no sound, staring at the back of the head of the man in front of you.
“You will not move while at the position of Attention. There will be no picking of the nose while at the position of Attention.” Ah, I thought, a little humor; this won’t be so bad. “Cooperate and you graduate.” Okay, I was fine with that.
The two men introduced themselves as Sgt. Boyd and Sgt. Barber. They said if anybody thought they could whip their ass they’d better step up front right now. I didn’t understand that. No one moved. We counted off, went inside, no, ran inside, to the appropriate bunk and stood there at Attention. And then it started.
Sgt. Barber just picked him up by the shirt and slammed him into the wall. Screaming into his face. No reason we could see. What was happening? Why was he so angry? What had we done? Something was terribly wrong. ‘Wrong from right,’ I knew that. What was wrong?
“You miserable little wise-ass. What are you looking at?”
“What were you looking at?”
“I don’t know,” the tears welling up in his eyes, shaking all over.
“You don’t know, SIR.”
“I don’t know, Sir.”
“I can’t hear you!”
“I don’t know, SIR.”
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”
“I DON’T KNOW, SIR.”
And then he was on the floor where he’d been dropped, trying to straighten up to the position of Attention, and Sgt. Barber had gone on to someone else whose expression betrayed God knows what forbidden emotion.
They taught us how to make the beds and turned out the lights at 3 a.m.
I had never cried in my ears before. But we couldn’t move, and you couldn’t let anyone know you were crying, not an American male in 1968, about to become a Man, they didn’t cry. So I laid perfectly still on my back and tears ran into my ears. And since I was being perfectly still, I could hear five or ten or maybe it was 25 others crying too. I prayed, “God, let me close my eyes here and open them and be in Syracuse, New York, in Phil Kennedy’s apartment and I’ll believe in you for the rest of my life.” I closed my eyes and held them shut very hard, pressing and letting the roar in my ears drown out all the sound. And then I opened them, and I was in the top bunk, third bed in the left-hand row, Flight 1274 of the 3701 Squadron, Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas. With tears in my ears. It wasn’t going to be that easy.
:: Sunrise ::
We had to leave the barracks in Inspection Order every morning, before we could go to breakfast. This involved getting up, dressing, making the beds and then taking care of our details, whether one was in charge of bathrooms, hallways or the outside grounds. We arose at 5 a.m. We were in formation outside the barracks, in perfect order, at 5:05 a.m. Five minutes being a long period of time in Basic Training, we soon got it down to 5:03. Perhaps you are saying, “That’s impossible.” Oh no, that’s the first or second thing you learn; nothing is impossible.
At 4:59, the T.I. would walk quietly to the doorway of our bay, put one hand on the light switch, and tick off the seconds. At 5:00:00 he hit the lights and shouted “GET UP!” He could probably be heard half a mile away. Inside the confines of the barracks, the noise was deafening. “GEEEEETUUUP!” In the first second, you sucked in an enormous breath of air, head coming up off the pillow, arms flailing, legs pumping, heart pounding, from sleep to bright panic in one second. You had to be on the floor instantly, or you’d be thrown onto the floor by the T.I. I saw one man sleep through the wake-up call; Sgt. Barber pushed over his bunk, knocking two more beds down like dominoes, sending the man to the floor and creating a real mess that had to be cleaned up immediately. Twice, I literally woke up on mid-air, already moving before I was conscious. Once I landed on the guy in the lower bunk, Phil Dzubinski from Pittsburgh, also trying to get up and out before disaster struck.
In the next few seconds we pulled on our clothes, left lying the night before in perfect order on top of our footlocker. The shirt was already buttoned; we pulled it over our heads; there was no time for buttons. We were dressed inside 30 seconds, unless we had to lace up combat boots and then it would take a full minute. The second minute was spent making the bed. We learned to sleep without moving, our knees high, so we wouldn’t have to remake the corners at the bottom. The bed would be perfect before the end of the second minute and then we had one minute to clean our detail. You could throw in a run to the bathroom if you were in agony, but that screwed up the latrine crew. At two minutes and forty-five seconds, most everybody was outside, and I, being the Outside Man, could sweep any dust they’d raised off my concrete steps, carefully replace the broom in the rack, and slip into the formation as we were called to Attention. We were all perfectly dressed; the barracks was spotless; we’d been awake for three minutes exactly. In the dark, we marched to breakfast. Quite often our flight was the third or fourth in line.
Flocks of large birds roosted in the trees outside the dining hall. We stood at Attention, in line, and the birds shat on us, while the T.I.’s stood under the eaves and laughed as the warm, heavy, white shit plopped down on our caps and our shoulders like fitful rain. We stood perfectly still.
:: The Chow Hall ::
In the chow hall, after we had side-stepped through the line and gotten our food, we sat at tables of four. There was a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce on every table. A Louisiana cayenne standard (first sold in New Iberia in 1920), Frank’s was a stranger to me, and I could not fathom why it would be on every table. Granted, it was Frank’s that was used on the original Buffalo Wings, invented in Buffalo at the Anchor Bar in 1964, but their fame had not reached me. I remember a T.I. challenging one recruit to drink the whole bottle; he passed on the offer.
I sometimes said grace, aloud, before meals. I believe the text of my prayer ran like this, “Dear God, give us the strength to get through this day.”
:: Locking Up ::
The first thing they gave us was a key. We had a lock on our footlocker, and it was always kept locked. We wore the key on a chain around our neck. The chain was kept inside the shirt. A key outside the collar drew quick punishment.
Any temptation placed in the path of a fellow Airman was a Security Violation. An unlocked footlocker was a big Security Violation. Indeed, one dime left in a shirt pocket outside the locked footlocker was a terrible provocation. For that offense, one could get Correctional Custody (CC), a barracks set aside from the others, a real horror show for the hard-core.
(My future Monterey classmate George Egan — who was in Flight 1269 — left his foot locker unlocked one morning, while he was aligning everyone’s shoes under their bunks, and was sent to CC for two long hours, which he spent either running or at the position of attention.)
It seemed to us that people were always taken to CC after dark. In the middle of the night, the T.I. on Squadron duty would tour each barracks looking for Security Violations, walking the outside aisles, rattling locks on foot lockers, checking shirt pockets. Most T.I.’s wore a cleat on their left shoe, to keep time while marching. We’d wake and hear the cleat on the floor, clicking. We couldn’t look up; that invited attention. So we held still, listening to the sound of the cleat moving around the room, coming closer.
I wore glasses. Glasses were “valuables.” I could not lock them up in my footlocker because there was no time in the morning to unlock, open, close and lock a footlocker. So, like everyone else who wore glasses, I had to find a place to hide them. You couldn’t sleep with them, because they might break. That left the laundry bag, inside some socks maybe, or hidden in your clothes. Inside a pocket was no good, because they checked to see if the pockets were buttoned. If not, that was out of inspection order, and they’d drag you out of bed for that, too. So the glasses were very carefully folded in the pant leg, where we could find them in the morning but too carefully folded for a T.I. to bother with in the dark, or so you hoped. And you’d lay in bed, frozen, listening to him going through your clothes, praying, sometimes just too scared to pray.
The only other thing we heard at night was the barking of dogs, mean dogs, trained attack dogs at the nearby K-9 facility. It was a wet, malevolent bark, and it haunted us.
:: Hair ::
I don’t remember when we got the haircut. I had already had my hair trimmed way, way down, so as not to draw attention. But I remember the room, the linoleum floor and mounds of hair, six or more barber chairs across and rows of facing folding chairs that we snaked through as we waited, rising every minute or less to move forward. Most or all of the barbers were Mexicans, and when one of their number shaved off a portion of a dime-sized mole from the back of one recruit’s head, they laughed and bantered in Spanish. I remember how oily my head was afterwards, cut to a buzz but slick with the accumulated oil and hair dressing of the day’s earlier customers. I also remember how glad I was to take a shower that night, using the shared bar of soap as “shampoo,” and our shared amazement at how fast our hair dried.
:: Green ::
The first few days, we wore gold t-shirts with U.S. AIR FORCE on the front, along with the pants we arrived in, and our own sneakers or shoes. Because of our mixed attire, we were called Rainbows. One recruit from Kentucky was walking out of what had once been shoes, and was looking forward to his first new pair ever. We marched a lot. We only saw the front of the barracks, and the back of the head of the man in front of us. The men in front of the formation must have seen something, but I never spoke with any of them.
One day, we marched to a building called “The Green Monster.” It was a huge building wherein one was fitted for the complete uniform issue. Very simply, you started at the beginning stripped, and put on clothes, carrying what you didn’t wear. We started with white boxer shorts; two men out of every fifty put them on backwards; apparently that was routine because the man in charge of shorts had some very tired jokes for us.
One man who got the shorts wrong was also the first to wet his bed, the first to fall out of it (different night) and, that evening when we marked our clothes with indelible ink and a rubber stamp, he was the worst fuck-up, marking everything in the wrong place until the T.I. picked up the lad’s rubber stamp and stamped him indelibly from waist to face with his own serial number.
We were sized by sight — “Stand up… 36 long, next… 42 regular, next!” — all the way through. Some of the airmen asked us where we were from. I heard one of them say he was from my girlfriend’s hometown, and I spoke up, asking him if he knew her. He paused, leered, and said, “Yeah, I knew her.” Few people missed an opportunity to inflict pain.
At the end we stood with a mountain of clothes and were given a heavy canvas duffel, green like almost everything else, to fill. The duffel stood in a little rack, and one very short-tempered sergeant gave rapid instructions. “Boots, soles out in opposite directions, on their sides; dress blue pants; dress blouse (frantic whispers of “What’s a blouse?”); shirts, three, blue dress…” When it was over, if you had something left over, that’s how they knew. Your entire flight had to wait for you while you re-packed with the next group, and you were given Dorm Guard duty from 12 midnight to 3 a.m. that night.
Clothing Fit came next, in the barracks. The day everyone tried on their “measured by sight” clothing, I was on Dorm Guard, standing by the screen door at the front of the barracks. So my clothes were accepted as they were. Thus the pants on my winter blues had a 28″ cuff, as large as the waist. However, the crease fell to my shoe top without breaking at the knee, and at my next base the Army officers loved that.
:: Vulnerable ::
Part of the process of stripping away our personality involved the complete removal of all possessions, including clothes, that belonged to our previous selves. And one of the most telling losses came at the moment we gave up our own underwear and pulled on uniform boxer shorts. White, wispy, loose. No longer were our most sensitive parts held close to the body. They hung, they swung in the breeze. Unable to heed the Old Testament call to “gird our loins,” we went into battle feeling exposed.
:: Our New Identity ::
A day, or perhaps just hours, after we received our uniforms, we were marched to a building where scores of middle-aged women, mostly Mexican, perspired over sewing machines. The room was long, hot and noisy, and we were not a welcome interruption. We wrote down our names and handed over our green fatigue shirts and when we returned, a few days later, each of our three shirts had a broad blue cloth strip over the pocket bearing our name in white, capital letters. No stripe on the sleeve yet; that would come at the end of Basic. I imagine there are rooms like this at military bases all over the world, where women sew on stripes, take off stripes, and make name strips for the likes of Airman WINSHIP.
The T.I.’s were probably more familiar with the sewing ladies, as most had their uniforms tailored. And they were certainly more familiar with the laundry; every morning they appeared in a fresh uniform, pressed, starched, the seams ironed razor sharp. Even at our best, we looked dumpy in comparison.
:: Cover Down ::
In formation, we had to “dress right” with a raised left elbow to even the intervals between men, and then “cover down,” looking quickly left and right, without moving our heads, to be sure each row was straight. I had trouble covering down because I was near-sighted; my glasses did not wrap around; when I swiveled my eyes left and right, I saw nothing. I heard “Winship, cover down!” more than once.
:: The Gig Line ::
One of the ways we stayed tied together was by observing our gig line, an imaginary line running down the center of our shirt and pants that met at the waist, where the descending button placket of our shirt had to align perfectly with the fly of our trousers. If your gig line wasn’t straight, you were gigged one demerit, in an inspection, or made to hand over a 341 out in the wild. My gig line, something I was never aware of before Basic Training, was always straight. I am embarrassed to say that I still check it every morning as I dress, and yes, it is always straight, whether I am on my way to church or the hardware store.
:: The ID Card ::
One day we were sent to a building and lined up, heel to toe as always, for fingerprinting and photography for our military identity card. For the picture, we were ordered not to smile, which was not hard, but I tried to look defiant. Instead, I just looked like I felt.
The fingerprinting, which was forwarded to the FBI’s central file in case any of us chose a life of crime, was more interesting. A fingerprint technician, who probably didn’t really enlist for this job, held our fingers and rolled them first on an inked plate of glass, and then on a card, one finger at a time. Any smudges and you started over, so you didn’t want to smudge. The key to the process was relaxing your hand. For some trainees, a fear of screwing up and the foreign feeling of someone else guiding their fingers caused their hands to stiffen and tremble. And so, periodically, you’d see the fingerprint technician take someone’s hand and repeatedly smash it on the countertop, boom, boom, boom, until they loosened up. We all tried very hard to relax.
:: The Bible ::
My recruiter, an honest man, had told me that if I wanted to take any addresses or photos with me, to tuck them into a Bible, because that was the only thing they wouldn’t confiscate. He was right. One of the first nights, a T.I. we didn’t know came through, assisted by two recruits carrying pillow cases. He went from man to man and searched each foot locker. He pulled out my copy of The Hobbit. “What’s this?” he said. “Fantasy,” I said. “Well, you won’t be needing that here,” and into a pillow case it went. “What’s this?” he said, holding up my other book, a copy of Good News for Modern Man. In the back were all the addresses of my friends and a photo of my girlfriend. “That’s the Bible,” I said. It was like magic. He looked at it for a moment longer, snorted with frustration, handed it back to me and moved on to the next man.
:: Like a Rock ::
We quickly became terrified of movement, our own movement. A blink was okay, but a sniffle, a lick of the lips, a squint, those displays invited attention of the worst kind. With 50 people standing at Attention, frozen solid, even the slightest movement stood out. You didn’t want to stand out. You wanted to disappear.
The fear of motion very quickly became internalized. The first two days in the barracks, no one used the bathroom except for a quick stop at the lone urinal. (There was more than one, but the rest were off limits, kept pristine so only one would have to be cleaned thoroughly before inspection.) The average time after arrival before one thought to sit down on the toilet was five days. Cases of a two-week wait for the first bowel movement were very common.
I had been in Basic about four weeks, and one Saturday had to go to Sick Call. (If you went during the week, you might miss a Training Day and be set back to another flight, lengthening your stay.) They sent me alone, with directions to a hospital that had closed months before; it looked like an abandoned barracks, only whiter. Finally, I found the new Health Center. As I sat in the lobby, horrible moaning noises began drifting out from the treatment rooms in the back. The moans became cries, the cries became screams, long, uncontrolled screams. This went on steadily for 20 minutes. About a half an hour later, I was processed to a line back in the hallway outside the treatment rooms. As I got to the head of the line, at a doorway, I saw another airman on the opposite side of the doorway, facing me. He was wearing fatigues, like everyone else, but was pale and covered with sweat, and holding a white towel. He was wearing a tag that said ‘Dorm Chief,’ meaning he was the highest ranking Airman Basic in his flight.
I whispered, “What was all that screaming?”
“That was me,” he said softly.
“My God, what did they do to you?”
“Well, I haven’t been able to go to the bathroom since I got here.”
“How long have you been here?”
“About six weeks; I’m supposed to get out on Tuesday.”
“What did they do?”
“They gave me eight enemas, but nothing budged. So the doctor put on a glove and tried to remove some ‘manually.’ It didn’t work. They took x-rays and said I’m ‘impacted.’ They might have to operate.”
I heard my name called, and went into the room. I never saw the constipated airman again, but my mind was taken off his plight quickly. The intern who saw me was angry because I had chosen to appear on a Saturday, just for a painful swelling in my scrotum. “Do you really think this is an emergency?” “It’s kind of an important area,” I said. His aide chuckled; the intern snorted in disgust, gave me two Darvon and sent me back to the barracks.
:: Piling On ::
When I returned from Sick Call, my flight was not in the barracks, so I went to the Day Room to ask what I should do.
“What are you smiling at?” the sergeant said.
“I beg your pardon, Sir?”
“Are you smiling at me? You think I’m funny?!”
Everyone was in on it. The day we had our new glasses fitted, we were ordered to remove the old ones, put them on a shelf, step back and read a sign. I couldn’t see the sign to read it, so the white-smocked optometrist spun me around, grabbed a big piece of my shirt with a clenched fist, pushed me up against the wall and demanded to know if I was “some kind of hippie wise-ass.” I quavered, “No.” My compatriots looked at me as if I were some kind of hippie wise-ass trying to get everyone in trouble.
I was out one day with three or four others, maybe to buy supplies for the common good, and as we crossed a road to go to the PX, Airman West ran out and did a mock road guard, right down to imitating the whistle. I smiled and laughed and within a second I was face to face with a T.I., one I’d never seen before, who said, “What are you laughing at?” I stood at attention and the conversation took its typical “Are you laughing at me?!” course with me saying “No, sir” and the T.I. calling me a liar and telling me that he was coming to the barracks in a few minutes to beat the shit out of me. Upon our return to the barracks, someone passed the news on to Sgt. Barber, who said no, he didn’t think anyone was coming to beat the shit out of Winship, with a weariness that suggested he resented other T.I.’s terrorizing his men; that was his job.
When we lined up for dinner, moving sideways through the line, eyes straight ahead, the servers threatened us; among the worst was a guy with just one stripe. At the end of our first meal, T.I.’s lay in wait at the tray window and any food left on our plates had to be eaten right then and there, stuffed into our mouths before we left the dining hall. After that, we all cleaned our plates. One night, we had Dixie Cups of ice-cream. The flavor was Pink Champagne. It tasted the way bubble-bath smells. We ate it all.
We even took abuse from recruits who’d been there a few weeks longer. One Airman Basic I met at a KP informed me that the shots got worse each week, and in the fourth week, “You get a needle in the nuts… a square needle.” We must have turned white, because one of his companions said, “Oh, come on,” and we realized he was jerking us around. I looked at his smirk, and thought, “I hope I never meet this asshole again.” So far, so good.
:: Dorm Guard ::
One of us always stood as a silent sentry at the front door of the barracks, to “observe everything within sight or hearing,” always ready to challenge any strangers who might approach and apprehend anyone who attempted to cross our post (open the screen-door) without proper authority. T.I.’s from other barracks used to come to the door and demand entry, shouting until the Dorm Guard shook in his chukka boots. If the Dorm Guard responded to the direct order and let the T.I. pass, that was a violation of security, and then the shouting really began. The hardest part about being Dorm Guard was Rule 7, “I will not talk to anyone except in the line of duty.” Three hours of standing still, unable to speak, with nothing to read but George Washington’s order on profanity tacked on the bulletin board by the door.
“The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing (a Vice heretofore little known in an American Army) is growing into fashion; he hopes the officers will, by example, as well as influence, endeavour to check it, and that both they and the men will reflect that we can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our Arms, if we insult it by our impiety and folly; added to this, it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense, and character, detests and despises it.” — August 3rd 1776
One of the Dorm Guard’s functions was to act as doorman when Sgt. Boyd or Sgt. Barber came in or out. I snapped the door open so quickly one day, that Sgt. Barber was prompted to say, “Greased lightning!” as he passed. It was the only compliment I received in Basic Training.
:: Night Moves ::
You could tell who had grown up with their own room, because they masturbated so loudly. In a room with 25 guys, somebody else had to be awake, and if you weren’t, the slapping noises – and I still don’t know what that’s all about – would wake you up. Most of us simply gave up the practice entirely, although in two or three weeks we found we were being revisited by Wet Dreams, a phase of our lives we all thought long past. In a world where your laundry was public knowledge, it was embarrassing.
For me, Lights Out meant it was time to use the latrine. I asked one evening if it was all right to get up to use the bathroom during the night, and the T.I. said, “Yes.” So I got up at 9:01 p.m. every evening and used the bathroom in peace. It was technically legal, and a lot easier than trying to answer nature’s call in 30 seconds while others stood in line.
:: Accents ::
We came from different worlds and one of the hard parts was in translating from northern English to southern. And it was important. One day in the barracks, I heard Will Lunn shout, “Far! Far! Far!” He sounded genuinely impassioned. I recalled that if the barracks was ablaze, one person was to shout “Fire! Fire! Fire!” as we all exited on the double. Over the next two or three tenths of a second, a number of us looked at each other, and mulled it over, had internal dialogues like, “It’s a similar word, it doesn’t make much sense as ‘far,’ he did shout it three times, he sounds sincere, could really be a fire, let’s go.” And so we sprinted outdoors and fell into ranks so the T.I. could tell if anyone was missing. Fortunately, it was not a blaze, perhaps just some smoke from the clothes dryer, but we all got high marks for fleeing the barracks in such an orderly and instantaneous fashion.
The word “cock” was more of a cultural divide. To us northern boys, “cock” meant “penis,” drawn, we assumed, from the rooster, very masculine. So when one of our southern brothers, in the shower of all places, said, “I can’t wait to get me some cock,” well, he was suddenly showering alone. Then he and some others who shared his upbringing tried to convince us that in the south, “cock” meant “pussy.” That just sounded too weird to be true. At the next opportunity, we asked Sgt. Barber if the same word could indeed have such diametrically opposed meanings. He looked at us with a weariness born of answering this same question every six weeks. “Yes,” he said, “that’s what it means in the south.” You can imagine everyone’s relief, especially the guy who’d momentarily been cast as a shower cruiser.
:: Shots ::
Every week we marched to a medical unit somewhere and got shots, one in each arm. The lads giving the shots were using “the gun,” blowing vaccine into our arms with compressed air. They warmed up by shooting at shower curtains hung about 15 feet away. The gun, when held firmly against the arm and at the correct angle, delivered its payload almost painlessly. But at a distance or an angle, it tore the flesh, or the injection popped up like a baseball, and blood ran down and dripped off our elbows, or even our fingertips, and it hurt like hell. At the end of the line, we were given two cotton balls to place over any damage; they were either unnecessary or nowhere near enough.
The men giving the shots talked to each other constantly, and did not look at what they were doing. The gun made a little fweeping noise to punctuate their chatter, “…and so we went to the La Pasa Drive-In (fweep) and opened some beer (fweep) and things were just going right (fweep) when she said…” and so on. I found the best thing was to step up quickly, hold very still and then move away quickly. Those who waited to be excused got the same shot again. They usually moved after that. Our flight of 50 men passed through the shot line in about 90 seconds. The highest fever came from plague and flu shots together; it was 90 degrees that afternoon and none of us felt too good.
:: KP ::
Of course, no military experience is complete without KP. It was predictably awful, a matter of preparing three meals and cleaning the kitchen and dining room to inspection order after every meal. The worst for us was at Hell’s Kitchen which stayed open around the clock. We began work at 3:30 a.m. and were ordered to leave all personal possessions behind, including wedding rings. Some newlyweds balked at this and Sgt. Boyd, the afternoon before, intoned, “If you take it off, she won’t die. If it worked, I’d have done it years ago.”
I remember the briefing at Hell’s Kitchen. A sergeant told us that the wash water was 170 degrees and would take the flesh off our hands and arms if we didn’t wear the gloves. We wore the gloves. He didn’t tell us that Amazon Pine Oil would take the polish off our boots, though, and it did. The heat from pans and wash water swelled our hands. The garbage cans full of slop (marked “edible” and sold to pig farmers) pulled our ligaments loose from their moorings as we hauled them away, and occasionally scraped across our toes or landed directly on them.
:: The Study Guide ::
Everyone received a Student Study Guide, a small book that contained everything we needed to know. The introduction assured us that all this was for the best. “The training will be rigorous and demanding. At times, it may appear to be difficult, but you should not become discouraged.” The suggested budget contained several gems of unintentional humor, including $3 to be budgeted every two weeks for tobacco, one pack a day, and $5 every two weeks for “dates.” Our next four years promised to be filled with social highlights.
:: For Display ::
Sgt. Boyd sat on a chair in front of a foot locker and showed us how to arrange each item, how to roll our socks. “Now,” he said, to begin each lesson. He had sweat on his curled upper lip. A tight brow. An intense stare. We leaned forward. We hung on every word.
Things had to be perfect for inspection. Far too perfect to be used. Hence the top tray of our footlocker was filled with items “for display.” The soap had to be used once, then dried and polished. The toothpaste tube, if used, could have no wrinkles, could not be rolled, but rather flattened, and no toothpaste could be in the neck of the tube, or in the cap. We cleaned those out with a Q-tip. (In the bathrooms, the threads of the pipes under the sinks had to be cleaned with Q-tips; I was glad I was not on the bathroom detail.)
A small stationery box held any paper we were allowed to keep. The recruiter told me to take my Syracuse University diploma to Basic Training, so I would receive credit in my “file” for being a college graduate. The diploma was bigger than the stationery box, so I had to either fold it in quarters or cut it down to the edges of the letters. I have a very small S.U. diploma.
(Two years later, at Fort Meade, an officer in Records called. A diploma was no longer enough; they wanted transcripts. “But Syracuse is going to charge me for those,” I said. “Not our problem,” he replied. “Have them send transcripts or I will remove the fact that you are a college graduate from your record.” I thought about it. “Let me get this right. You want me to pay so your records are correct.” He said, “Yes.” And I said, “You can be incorrect, sir.”)
To save ourselves constant cleaning of display items, we shared all toilet items except toothbrushes. (It was suggested, but voted down.) Soap, razors, toothpaste were all used in common and hidden in a plastic bag that disappeared into the T.I.’s office during inspection. Everything else was for display only.
:: Butt Cans ::
Until Basic Training, I had never seen a butt can. They were made from one-quart metal juice cans, the top removed, the can painted red, and mounted on the wooden pillars that ran down the center aisle. There were maybe three or four pillars on each side of the aisle, so there were like six or eight butt cans. They were held in place with a hook & eye arrangement, and filled with water. Of course, there was no smoking in the barracks, and so the butt cans were vestigial, ornamental, useless, and very important to the people charged with their care. Even more important to the people in charge of the floor, because if a T.I. chose to knock one down, the floor people had to mop up the water and polish the floor again.
:: Shaving ::
Shaving with a blade was a new experience for many of us and there was no time for learning. The first night, we all had “safety razors” provided by the Salvation Army. Things had been so bad that day that bleeding provided comic relief; we were all victims of a common disaster, and felt like brothers as we quickly cut ourselves to ribbons. The next night we had new razors from the PX, and they were a little more forgiving.
All such activity took place in the evening and with three mirrors for 25 men (on each floor), we each had about 60 seconds to shave “inspection close.” I do remember our asking the T.I. for advice on shaving. “Shave against the grain,” he said, and we all nodded gravely as if someone had just given us the meaning of life.
:: The Outside Man ::
Everyone had a Detail. They were assigned one morning while we sat in a semi-circle in front of Sgt. Boyd. My main priority was avoiding the Latrine Detail. Sgt. Boyd said, “Who wants to be Outside Man?” I raised my hand. “You,” he shouted, his eyes lighting up, “You’ll make a great Outside Man.” After the meeting, he escorted me outside to the mop stand. The mops hung in a row. They were never used. Two garbage cans sat upside down with their lids on top, never used. Brushes and a broom, and a garden hose hung next to the mops, never used.
“You see how that is?” he said. “Take notes.”
“Yes, Sir.” I quickly drew the arrangement in my notebook.
“Your mother make your bed for you?”
“Then you wouldn’t expect me to do this for you, now would you.”
A garbage can lid floated out over the lawn like a Frisbee; its companion flew in the opposite direction. The hose snaked out onto the lawn; the brooms and mops followed.
“I’ll be back in five minutes and this had better be perfect.” The door slammed behind him.
I was alone outside; that was enough right there to terrify me. I began chasing down the items and reconstructing the arrangement. I was almost done when Sgt. Kimbrough appeared from the barracks next door. He was about to catch me on a fine point of etiquette. In his Flight, the first word out of your mouth was “Sir.” Hence, the “Yes, Sir,” which we’d been taught became “Sir, yes, Sir.” I didn’t know this. He called me to Attention and began shouting.
“What are you doing? You think this is some kind of joke? Some kind of party?”
“What?!” He leaned in, his face getting redder and closer.
“What did you say?!”
He took a step back and threw a broom at me. It missed. He got really red, picked up a johnny brush and cracked me across the mouth with the wooden handle, letting go just as he connected. It fell at my feet. I could taste the blood in my mouth and feel my lips burning.
“What’s the first word out of your mouth?!”
“Will you remember that?!”
“Sir, Sir, Yes, Sir.”
He stormed back to his barracks and I finished hanging my mops and brushes, my lips swelling.
The Outside Detail had other hazards. The mops had to be combed by hand, each strand hanging perfectly straight, so that any passing Sergeant could pass his fingers though them without a snag. I combed them with my fingers at every opportunity. I was responsible for policing the lawn that surrounded the barracks. Every morning I policed the lawn in the dark, and as autumn wore on, it grew darker and darker. The first place to check was the exhaust vent of the dryer. I had to pick all the lint out of the grass. The men policing the inside of the barracks would throw things – thread, woolly boogers, whatever – out through the exhaust fans, and I had to find all those items as well. In back of the barracks were two rose bushes; I had to pick up any petals that fell to the ground. When I tired of rose petals, I began pulling the blooms off by the handful and stuffing them into my pockets.
Because we could not use the garbage cans, I had to keep whatever I found – rose petals, cigarette butts, thread, dust balls – in my pockets. Once a day, I could empty my pockets into a can that was going to the dumpster. The rose petals always got a laugh.
:: The Reluctant Gourmet ::
Anything found on the lawn by Sgt. Boyd or Barber was given to me to eat. I was very thorough, so the T.I.’s had to do a lot of looking to find the right morsel. One morning, with the Flight at Attention, Sgt. Barber dug into the grassroots next to the concrete porch and found a wad of dust, pubic hair and mop string. He called me out of the formation and in full view of my cohorts said, “Chew.”
I took the wad in my hand and struggled to drag some saliva into my mouth.
“Chew!” he said.
I popped it in and chewed. It was gritty.
“Now get back and take care of those rose bushes. Dismissed.”
I ran behind the barracks, stumbled back to the rose bushes and fell down on my hands and knees and gagged the wad back up, coughed it into the dirt and buried it. “I’m never going to smile again,” I thought. “I’m never going to be happy again.” I really believed that. I could see no future.
But the T.I.’s never bothered me again after that, and Sgt. Barber had given me an opportunity to get rid of the wad out of everyone’s sight. A dead blackbird turned up on the lawn the following morning. I put it on a garbage can lid and brought it to them. Sgt. Boyd smiled and said, “You’re lucky you found that first.” “Yes, Sir,” I said. He allowed me to run it over to the dumpster unescorted.
:: Other Details ::
The Latrine Detail, led by the Latrine Queen, was every bit as bad as I thought it might be. I remember the collective shudder that ran through the Flight the night the Latrine Queen was summoned to the head and shown a speck of feces on the inside of a toilet bowl, which he was ordered to lick out. He did.
Lint was found in the dryer one evening, and the lad in charge, a good man named Spoon, was given a ride inside. I don’t know how long he tumbled, but he too got the point.
:: Shine ::
We shined the floors with Trewax – made in Texas with Brazilian Carnauba, the world’s hardest natural wax – a highly flammable paste wax that the T.I.’s hid in their office. Then we polished the Trewax shine with Lemon Pledge. It was illegal and mandatory. No one ever walked on the center aisle, except for the inspecting officer. During one cleaning frenzy, we screwed the caps off the pipes that formed our clothes racks, and found a kitchen knife inside one of them. Apparently some bad boys had occupied the barracks previously.
During inspections, every detail of the barracks, every nook, cranny and crevice, inside and out, was looked over – our foot lockers, our clothes, our floors, our beds, our uniforms, my Outside Detail, all of it. And we were quizzed, one by one, on our “Memory Work,” things like the chain of command (“Sir, Sgt. Barber, Sgt. Boyd, Master Sgt. Clinkenbeard, Senior Master Sgt. Ray, 2nd Lt. Louis, 1st Lt. Glanzer, Col. Warren, Col. Etchemendy, Maj. Gen. Green.”) or our serial number (“Sir, AF one one six four six four five O.” Which prompted Sgt. Boyd to smile slightly, saying, “Well, you’ve got an easy one.”). After the officer left, our T.I.’s would inform us of the number of demerits we had accumulated and cancel that evening’s ‘patio break.’ We learned, from rare conversations with other trainees, that our demerits were far lower than the average number. But our T.I.’s liked to refer to the barracks as “Little West Point” and that was that.
I think we went to the patio twice in six weeks. There was a juke box and a soda machine and some picnic tables. There was one soda called Pommac, in a clear bottle with white lettering, “the soft drink of the continent,” one of the elegant touches at Lackland. It had a faint apple-like flavor with a hint of ginger ale. One grizzled veteran of Basic told us that left to warm, it tasted a little like beer; I got to try it once, and it was too little.
:: Chapel ::
On Sundays, we were given the choice of marching to church or staying in the barracks and waxing the floors. I chose the march to the chapel, where I prayed for deliverance. I don’t recall any of the sermons, but I do remember that the chaplain, who preached in his dress blue uniform, seemed like a very nice man.
:: No Shortage of Irony ::
Early one morning, we were running near the base roller skating rink. The person cleaning up was playing the juke box at top volume. The sky was an extraordinary purple, and we all ran to the Little Rascals’ “Beautiful Morning.”
:: As Serious as a Heart Attack ::
PC was harder on some than others. I believe five young men died of heart failure while running that summer. Sgt. Barber told us it was due to a flaw in one of the vaccines, which caused hearts to speed up during exercise when the temperature was over 95°F. Later, in Language School, I met an airman who saw one of them die. The young man, 19 years old, had been running for a half a mile when he fell over and rolled over on his back. The T.I. came over, yelling at him to get up, to finish running. The T.I. yelled louder, leaning over his face, telling him what a miserable little bastard he was, how he was going to be in a world of shit if he didn’t move, “and now!”
Then an ambulance pulled up and the orderlies ran over. The T.I. stepped aside, and an orderly began mouth-to-mouth. As the other trainees completed their last lap, one orderly was walking back to the ambulance for the stretcher, and the other was putting a handkerchief over the young man’s face.
:: Spit ::
We were not allowed to spit during Physical Conditioning (PC). Sometimes, after calisthenics and running, we were tempted. But those who spat into the grass were ordered to find their spit, pick it up and eat it. They did.
:: Motivation ::
During PC, we ran in ankle-high chukka boots. We had to run a mile in less than eight minutes in order to leave Basic Training. I averaged 7:15. The day of our test, the sergeant with the stopwatch, a new face, said, “Those of you who think you can pace yourselves, forget about it. You’d better run as fast as you can, and when you’re out of gas, keep running. Or you’re going to be here another six weeks.” I ran the mile in 6:36, with energy to spare. Fear is a tremendous motivator.
:: “Give Me a 341″ ::
If we screwed up and got caught, we immediately had to hand over a Form 341, a Discrepancy Report, that stated our name, flight, and the details of our blunder. We carried the forms, already filled in with everything but the “discrepancy.” If you got three 341’s in one week, you would be “set back” – sent to a new flight that was not as far along in its training, a flight that cleared later, adding a week or more to your time in Basic. T.I.’s hated rejects from other flights and would set them back again, just to be rid of them. It was not a cycle any of us wanted to start. Sgt. Barber tagged me for two 341’s in just five minutes one day, and I lived in terror for the rest of the week, on the razor’s edge.
:: Sign Here ::
One day, we lined up inside the barracks, in the front hall by the stairs. At the head of the line, the first person signed a form. We were told that if anybody’s signature touched any of the lines, we would have to start all over. We were toe to heel, single file, at Attention, but I chanced a whisper. “What are we doing?” The man in front of me hissed back, “We’re getting paid.” I was stunned. Until that moment, I had no idea you got paid for being in the service.
:: Sgt. Boyd’s Medal ::
Sgt. Boyd was gone one day, to receive a medal for saving a trainee’s life. We asked Sgt. Barber what had happened. He told us that in a previous flight, a trainee had cut his wrists in the latrine. Sgt. Boyd found him, not breathing, but with a faint heartbeat. He stopped the bleeding and gave him mouth-to-mouth. The trainee lived. But someone, perhaps a psychologist, determined that the cuts were not deep enough, the attempt was not sincere but rather “a gesture.” The trainee was sent to Correctional Custody, where he cut his wrists again. This time the cuts were very shallow, it was clearly a gesture, and he was court-martialed and sent to a military prison.
:: “Okay” ::
One afternoon in the barracks, I was summoned up to the T.I.’s second floor office for instructions. He spoke to me very quietly, which was unusual, and as we finished, I said, “Okay.” He exploded. “What?! ‘Okay’? What did you say?!” “Yes, sir!” I said, but it was too late. I was picked up by my shirt front, dragged halfway downstairs and thrown the rest of the way, bouncing and sprawling into the bay. I never said “Okay” again.
:: Square Corners ::
We all carried notebooks (with our 341’s tucked inside). I have one page from my notebook. I see, in my own handwriting, these notes:
- Airman Hall is asst. fire warden.
- Keep footlocker locked, keys around neck and under shirt.
- First word out of mouth is SIR.
- Square corners while walking.
- There is always a T.I. around. Don’t laugh in formation. Don’t smile.
- Sweep and police the detail every day before and after PC.
- Put out during PC.
- Put out during Drill.
Class was used for a number of things, mostly to detail the things we couldn’t do, and the penalties for error. There was the USMJ lecture, in which we were introduced to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There was some elementary citizenship and some military history. During one lecture, Master Sgt. Latson said, “Every day, we have bombers over Vietnam.” Except with his accent, it came out, “Every day, we have bummers over Vietnam.” We all nodded.
I remember a class where a trainee fell asleep. He was spotted and dragged up to the front to stand at attention for the rest of the lecture. The T.I. leaned into his face and shouted, “You’re in a world of shit!” I wanted to cry out, “It’s your world.” But I restrained myself.
During one lecture, we were informed that no homosexual behavior, and that included any kind of oral sex, even with a woman, would be tolerated in the United States Air Force, and if anyone had ever engaged in such behavior, he had better say so right now. One hand sort of rose. “Yes?” “Sir, do you mean eating a girl?” The instructor frowned and nodded. “Has anyone here done that?” Absolute silence.
:: The Good T.I. ::
After a few weeks, it became apparent that the Basic Training experience could vary from barracks to barracks. There was more screaming in the barracks next to ours, and the airmen shouted “Sir” loudly at the beginning of every sentence. But farther down the way, closer to the PX, was a barracks that seemed to be in a different movie altogether. The men seemed rumpled, directionless. We heard that after one inspection they had been gigged for more than 120 demerits. We lost our patio breaks for 5 demerits. I remember the moment it became clear to me what had happened. The T.I. in charge of the sloppy barracks was being replaced abruptly, in the middle of the six week’s training. It was late afternoon; a few airmen were helping him move his possessions out of the barracks. A tall man with a sad face, he was walking down the sidewalk for the last time, carrying a very large oil painting of Christ crucified, and he carried it as if he alone could bear its weight.
:: Sorting ::
About three weeks into Basic, the routine was varied and we were marched to a huge building to fill out forms and take aptitude tests. Such moments gave us hope that there was a better future in store. On one such day, I was filling out a form; the entire upper right-hand corner was blank, except for a box and a tiny caption that read, “Would you accept language training?” I thought the wording was odd, but, like, why not? A week or two later, a group of us were marched off to a building for a language test. It was an artificial language, and you had to learn a few basic things about it and then translate some sentences. I test well, because it is not a skill that makes money, and in this case I came away feeling as though I’d done a good job.
:: Laughter ::
We had some laughs. One evening we were in formation in front of the Orderly Room. Sgt. Boyd looked up from something he was reading.
“Guess how much I weigh,” he said.
“One hundred and twenty six?” someone ventured.
“One hundred and twenty six pounds?! That’s just my peeter!”
Everyone laughed, that laugh you laugh when you’ve been wanting to laugh for a week but haven’t had the permission, just all kinds of emotion coming out, get out all the noise because it’s okay to scream for the next 15 seconds, maybe 20.
“See,” he said, “we can have fun, but we’ve got to get the work done first.” His face hardened, and he called us to Attention. It was, of course, dead quiet.
:: Dorm Guard ::
At night, three people had Dorm Guard – on shifts from 9-12, 12-3 and 3-5 – standing awake and alert at the front door. The worst stretch was midnight to three. I never pulled that. The T.I.’s used it to break people. We needed our sleep. Even in odd moments when we were not training, we could not rest. It was against the rules to close your eyes or lie on the beds between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. Even the hardest cases caved in quickly after a few nights on the midnight to three shift.
One night during my the six weeks, I had to guard the entire squadron, laden with “necessary equipment” – a whistle, ammo belt with reflectors, carrying a clip board and flash light. One person from each barracks met at the Orderly Room at 9 p.m., and the T.I. actually told jokes. He was famous for it. “I love to eat by candlelight,” he said, “but my wife hates the wax on her stomach.” And then we went off to pace different quadrants. I passed by the patio in the dark, and the juke box, still fueled by someone’s last-minute dime, played “White Room” by Cream. The fire lights in each barracks glowed red and there was a soft breeze. It was otherworldly. When the music stopped, there was only the sound of the barking from the K-9 barracks and the soft clanking of all my equipment.
My tour as a guard was uneventful, except for a drunken airman who was due to leave Basic Training the next day. His flight had been allowed off base into San Antonio, and he had returned late and incoherent, now lying half in and half out of his barrack’s back door. I turned off my flashlight and said to his keepers, “Just get him inside and out of sight before I come back again.” They did.
:: Marching & Drill ::
On the drill pad, a large area of flat, rough-textured cement, we learned the difference between column left and to the left, learned left face, right face, about face, learned to dress right and cover down to straighten and square the formation. I can still remember marching and Sgt. Boyd calling out, “Get some pride about you!” And, when he sensed the formation was falling apart, he would throw out commands with every step, until all of us were traveling in separate directions, running into each other, before calling a halt to it all, calling us to Attention, and starting over.
Every day, we marched, some times for miles. Looking neither to the right or left, not up or down, all you saw was the neck of the man in front of you, sometimes for miles. The rhythmic footfalls were hypnotic after a while. We marched in the dark; we marched in blazing sunlight.
One dark morning, Bob Baker was at the front of the flight as we marched. A T.I. from an oncoming flight ordered a column right; Bob took the command and disappeared into the blackness, plunging into a drainage ditch.
One chilly Saturday, about dawn, we were marching somewhere and Sgt. Barber had a hangover. He was treating it with Coca-Cola, drinking as he marched, hiding the bottle in his jacket the rest of the time. I snuck a look at him. “Winship! Eyes front!” It only took a second to get caught.
The airmen at the four corners of the flight were “road guards.” At intersections, the T.I. would call “Road guards out!” and they would sprint out, hold up their hands, stop traffic and allow the rest of us to march on. The front road guards would be replaced by the rear road guards, and when we were safely clear, the T.I. would call, “Road guards in” and in they came. It was kind of cool. One day, we were “at ease” at a roadside, silent but standing with legs spread and hands behind the back, when another flight marched in front of us and stopped. The rear road guard was David Taylor, a Delta Tau Delta fraternity brother from Syracuse University. I was six feet away from him, but couldn’t call out. Nor could he turn his head. So I just stood and looked at him, trying to will him to see me.
Somehow I got his flight number, and found him during a rare moment of freedom on a Saturday afternoon. He couldn’t leave his barracks, but spoke for a minute through the screen door. It was an extraordinary relief to hear a familiar voice.
:: Smuggling ::
We had to smuggle our letters out. We were required to write to our parents, but were told to shine our shoes or the floor in any remaining free time. Letters to girlfriends had to be written secretly, and a discovered letter to a girlfriend was proof of malingering at a previous time. If you wanted to mail one during the week, it had to be smuggled to the mail box, directly in front of the T.I’s Day Room.
We took turns. As the Outside Man, I was closest to the mail box in the normal course of my duties, so while policing the lawn under cover of early morning darkness I would creep farther and farther out, to the edge of our lawn and then across the road, until I was picking up litter right in front of the mail box where I would lift my shirt, pull out the letters, a dozen at a time, and deposit them as quietly as I could, tuck my shirt in and, still bent over looking for imaginary litter, serpentine back to the barracks.
The Day Room seemed very, very far from our barracks, and if a T.I. found you policing the area there, your day hung suspended on his mood. Once across the road, all you could really do was pray for invisibility.
One morning, our designated smuggler could not get to the mail box, and ended up carrying the load of letters all through PC, praying they would not fly out during his exertions. We were convinced our letters were randomly steamed open in the Day Room, so we never said anything bad about Basic Training.
:: Mail Call ::
To receive mail was heaven. To see the last letter handed out without hearing your name, that was difficult. Because I thought my mail was being read, and thus never said anything bad about Basic Training, my girlfriend thought I was changing into someone she didn’t know or like, and thus wrote less and less. I went six days once without a letter from anyone; it seemed like an eternity. But I did get mail that I still treasure. Pam Ralph, who I knew from the women’s cottage next door to my fraternity house, sent me this poem on October 5, 1968:
Enjoy the pleasure
bestowed on you,
and bear the pain
bestowed on you,
wait patiently for
what time brings,
as does the farmer
with the fruit
And my girlfriend sent this, which she had written:
It is the first
wanted to be hand/hand
soft white icy
wet on the lips
You can imagine how that made me yearn for her, and for home.
Marianne Montgomery, another friend, sent me two picture postcards (both the same photo of Lawrinson Hall, Dormitory for Men), with the messages written in a very neat, prim hand. One read, “My dear Winship, I have found an old diary among Heathcliff’s papers. Our worst fears have been confirmed. I must hide it from the ignorant public masses if we hope to keep his name and his good work alive.” And the one I treasure most, “Kim – The famine has already sapped the crops stored last spring in the silos. I don’t know what our people will do. Our rations have been cut in half so breakfast was only a generous nurdle of mint-flavored toothpaste.” Such nonsense kept me sane.
Phil Dzubinski, who was in the bunk below me, had a girlfriend who wrote often and sent clippings of Phil’s favorite comic strips. Phil shared them, and I appreciated it.
:: A Distant Voice ::
On a Saturday or Sunday, we would sometimes be allowed to go to the PX, to eat garbage food, and go to the phone center and call home. I would call my girlfriend. It was a very complicated procedure. You’d write down your name and the name and telephone number of the person you wanted to call and give it to one of the women at the raised desk. Then you sat on a bench in a room surrounded by phone booths. A voice would come over the speaker, “Winship, Booth 19,” and I and everyone else whose name sounded like that would converge on Booth 19 and shout over the wire until it was established who indeed the call was for. I’d get in the booth, and sit down and say “Jo?” and she would say “Kihm” and as soon as I heard her voice I would fall apart, and start sobbing. Occasionally I would get a sentence out, and then start crying again when I heard her reply. After five minutes of this, I would have to say goodbye and go to pay the phone ladies, trying not to look like someone who had been crying. And then the walk back to the barracks.
:: The Opposite Sex ::
Speaking of girlfriends, once in our six weeks we had a “base pass,” which allowed us to roam freely over Lackland AFB. There was a barn-like structure with music and soda machines. WAFs trained at Lackland, and this was where you found them. But there was no place on this base to be alone, no privacy. While I was in Basic, word got to us that one couple was caught having sex in a dumpster behind a chow hall.
We did get close to WAFs once. We were marching to some distant point and a flight of WAFs was stopped in the road. Our T.I. didn’t give the order to halt until our front road guards were inches from their rear road guards. And there they stood, at Attention, while we all trembled.
:: The Obstacle Course ::
At 5′ 6″ and 105 pounds, I was not exactly a stand-out in high school gym, but I never failed to astound my classmates in the rope climb and obstacle course. I could flee like a hunted animal. And so it was that on my flight’s day for the obstacle course, I felt that Basic Training might at last hold some joy for me. And it did. A childhood diet of war movies had fine-tuned that part of my brain where “flight under fire” lives, and I had a great time. High on the rope tower, four weeks of abuse and fear exploded into rage as I threatened to hurl a fellow trainee to his death if he didn’t move. He was frozen; I thawed him. I certainly didn’t want any T.I. thinking I was slowing things down.
Then another man froze up as we crawled through the chicken wire tunnel across the field with live ammo streaking over our heads and satchel charges making the ground rise up to slap our chests. The guy in front of my crawled right over him, and that looked like a good idea. I crawled right up his fat, trembling ass and would have used his head and shoulders as a springboard if a T.I. hadn’t told me to back off and prodded the tortoise back into action.
At the rope swing, the man crossing ahead of me sent the rope back across the pool with absolutely nothing on it, forcing me to generate all my own distance as I leapt; I made the swing by inches, got one boot wet but refused to fall in as we had been told (“If you touch water, you might as well let go.”). No, I was not getting dunked because of that wimp, and after sending the rope back with plenty of snap, I turned and fixed him with a stare I hope he still remembers. Wearing a gas mask and running through a house filled with tear gas, I did not slow down.
At the top of the rope wall, I had a moment’s qualm as I had to let go with one hand and reach over the top of the wall for what was left of the rope, but I am here to tell the tale.
:: Not for Valor ::
Within the first six weeks of my military career, I had been decorated twice. My first ribbon – everybody’s first ribbon – was the National Defense Service Medal, given to those who enlisted during a time of national emergency, in this case, between 1961 and 1974. It was also known as the PX Ribbon, because all you had to do to wear it was buy it at the Post Exchange.
Next came my Small Arms Expert Marksmanship ribbon for shooting “expert” with the M-16.
As a Winship, I have hunter DNA, and was not surprised. I also had help. To shoot expert, one had to put at least 59 out of 60 rounds into the target. I think it was 100 yards away. Some of the rounds had to be fired from a sitting position, some lying down, and some standing. When they counted the holes in my target, I had 61. The guy next to me took credit for two of those, and I believed him, because I’d been a little shaky from the standing position. But then another airman overheard, and took credit for five more, and I did not believe him. Farther down, one airman had 75 holes in his target, so I did not get the highest count of the day. But I did get a second ribbon, and two ribbons looked so much snappier than one on a dress blue uniform.
(I received a third ribbon while at Fort Meade, the Good Conduct Medal, given to those with exemplary conduct for three years, which means I had not gotten in trouble. The award came from a conversation on the elevator, when I asked an Air Force officer what his red, white and blue ribbon was for. He explained and asked if we lads qualified. We said yes, and he said, “Drop by my office and I’ll put you in for it,” and a couple of weeks later we walked into our office with a new ribbon. One of the reigning non-commissioned officers, a Napoleonic little number who irritated even the other career NCOs, went ballistic and demanded to know where we got the ribbon. We told him and he said, “I’m going to look into this!” To his bitter disappointment, he could find no reason to strip us of the honor, so I finished my career as a thrice-decorated airman. Never for valor, though.)
:: The Movies ::
Our last weekend, we were allowed to leave the base and visit San Antonio. I was afraid to leave the base, and I’d seen at least one man come back so drunk he almost did Basic all over again, so instead I went to the movies on the post. The theater was a mile or two from our squadron. We walked, of course, stopping at each intersection, hands on outside pant seams, looking one way, then the other, until we got to the theater. The movie was a George Peppard film, P.J., “Gun in one hand… Woman in the other!”, with George playing P.J. Detweiler, a tired but rugged private detective. It was sufficient for the occasion. We were in our khakis, I think, a rare departure from our fatigues. We behaved well, and returned to the barracks in plenty of time.
:: Officer Material ::
Near the end of our stay, the T.I.’s called the college grads upstairs and informed them that they might be officers someday and that they hoped there were no hard feelings. I missed the meeting. I don’t know where I was or what I was doing. Maybe I was on Dorm Guard. Maybe it was just clear to them that I was not officer material. They also told the assembled men that they would be “welcome in our homes.” Kind of a prophylactic peace offering I guess. One man from that group did go on to OTS; I thought he was an odd choice, but they were not exactly looking for Philosopher Kings.
:: The Group Photo ::
I still have the group photo. We are all smiling. I’m not sure what the photographer said to prompt that, although I remember a string of cheerful vulgarities. Including one directed at Jack Brennan who was standing next to Sgt. Boyd, when the T.I. said, “Brennan, do you have your hand in your pocket again?”
:: Orders ::
On one of the last days of Basic, we were marched from office to office, all over the base, to get our orders. At each new building, Sgt. Boyd or Sgt. Barber would call out names. Those named would fall out and march into the building to get their orders. To maximize the day’s pain, those getting bad duty found out immediately, so they could be devastated all day, and those getting good duty had to wait, so they could be in suspense all day.
The first stop was for those who were going to train as Security Police. They had six more weeks of Basic. Next came the cooks, who would be getting up in the dark, perspiring and gaining weight for the next four years. And so on. By the end of the day, there were only three of us left in suspense. The flight marched up to the last building. “Baker, Brennan, Winship,” Sgt. Boyd called out. We fell out, marched in and stood at attention, heel to toe, at a desk where an NCO sat with a short stack of computer cards. He peeled three off the top and told us we were going to language school. “Serbo-Croatian,” he said. I could not control my feet or my emotions. I levitated. “You wanted to learn that language?” he asked. “It isn’t Vietnamese,” I said. I am sure my companions were horrified at my honesty. On a bad day, it could have doomed me. But this NCO just shook his head, wrote out our orders and away we went.
Outside, Sgt. Boyd said, “Where you going?” “Monterey,” one of us said, “Is it nice?” “It’s nice,” he said. Then we were called to attention and marched back to the barracks.
I went to the Phone Center and called Syracuse. I didn’t cry.
That evening, we were given a Patio Break, and Bob, Jack and I talked. We had lived together for six weeks but didn’t know each other, where we were from, where we went to school. We spent the rest of our military careers together.
:: The Eternal Knot ::
The morning we left, we wore our dress uniforms, our winter blues. The upper bay was the only place where they had posted instructions on how to tie a Windsor knot, so I was allowed upstairs to tie my tie, for the first time. It was also the first time I saw the upper bay; I had been up to the T.I.’s office a few times, rapping on a board by the door until my knuckles stung, but never into the upper bay. The tie chart was simple; the knot and length were perfect on the first try. So for the next three and a half years, I left it tied, loosening it and taking it off over my head at the end of the day, dropping it back over my head and tightening it each morning.
:: Farewell to Basic ::
It was a gray and cold morning. We ate our last meal in the chow hall. One of our T.I.’s was there, but would not look at us. A base bus picked up Bob, Jack and I in the Squadron area. We carried everything in the green duffel. We rode to other squadrons and picked up other airmen, two and three at a time, meeting our fellow language students for the first time. We sat very stiffly, still in the thrall of the place. I later heard of an airman who thought he had it made and raised his middle finger to a Sergeant who was walking outside the bus. The Sergeant glowered at him, strode to the bus door, got on, found the lad and dragged him outside. “You obviously haven’t learned a thing, so you’re going to stay here six more weeks to see if you can get it right.” And he did.
We behaved ourselves. Everyone thought that at least one of the people on the bus was a spy, sent to watch us. They couldn’t really be letting us go. The bus dropped us off at the Base Bus Station, and the next bus took us to the San Antonio airport. It was getting dark outside and beginning to snow. Waiting for a flight at one of the gates was a large group of servicemen, who looked oddly un-military, even in uniform. They all sat with their backs to the window, a lot of eyeglasses and innocent faces. We learned they were Conscientious Objectors, trained as Medical Corpsmen at Fort Sam Houston, bound for Vietnam.
On the plane, the stewardess smiled as she gave us headphones in plastic bags. I opened mine, plugged them in and heard Jeff Beck playing “Shapes” as the lights of San Antonio fell away below us. The stewardess brought us 7-Up and we moved off into the night, still terrified but shaking with the excitement of the music, the lights, the nice people, the freedom and the miracle of each other, hairless survivors in clean blue suits, headed for San Francisco.
:: What I Learned ::
In six weeks, I was changed forever, in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse. I will always be impatient with people who do no move as fast as I want them to. I will always roll my eyes when people say, “I can’t do that.” Oh yes you can. I learned that you leap first and figure out how to come down while you’re in the air, and that you can do almost anything if you don’t hold yourself back. In the fifth week of Basic, I believed with all my heart that I could never run a mile in less than 7 minutes. In the sixth week, I ran it in 6:36, with energy to spare, because the T.I. recording the times scared me to death. I had indeed sold myself short.
I learned, as I was supposed to, that self discipline can spare you imposed discipline. I learned that sometimes a kind word, good advice and the best intentions are useless in teaching someone how to do something, and that screaming and the threat of bodily harm can open the mind wonderfully to new learning and achievement. I did not want to know this. I’m stuck with the knowledge now. It does not make me a nicer person to be around. I have no idea how much of my present behavior is influenced by Basic Training, or how many of the skills are still mine, waiting to be summoned up by a shout. I do know that three years after Basic, at Fort Meade, we were herded out into the parking lot at our office, a few hundred men who had never stood in formation together and called to Attention. To a man, we snapped straight. I could easily do it today.
* * *
In February 2003, Jack Brennan of Flight 1274, wrote to add these memories, for which I am grateful.
“I thought of a few Basic moments that you did not have in your memoirs. The first — and I have never forgotten this — was the fact that when we arrived on the bus late at night from the airport they drove us around numerous blocks on the base after we entered the gate. As it turned out, we were not far at all from the gate when we finally stopped. I remember how disorienting it was — and I guess that was the point — to drive around and around before stopping. I suppose the point was to ensure that if any did decide to bolt, he would really have no idea which way to go. Quite effective.
“The second thing happened the first night (I think). Boyd was instructing us in how to make the bed. (Barber was probably doing the same thing with the other half of the squad.) This, of course, was in the midst of all the yelling and screaming. To emphasize some point (I can’t remember what), Boyd picked up a foot locker and threw it on the bed. But he threw it too hard and it glanced off the metal railing at the foot of the bed and hit and broke the window at the end of the bed. I think the sound of that glass breaking was the height of my fright that night. But then Boyd did and said something that helped me to calm down and to know that the TIs had limits they could not cross. When the window broke, he stopped for a few seconds, looked a little scared himself, and then said somewhat sheepishly to us, ‘Nobody ever has to know how that window was broken.’ At that point, I felt relieved. My immediate thought was ‘if these guys can get in trouble for breaking a window — even accidentally — surely they have limits when it comes to abusing us.’ I didn’t know where these limits were, but at least they existed.
“The third thing was kind of comical actually. Were you there when we were standing in line in the mess hall for lunch one day rather early in training and two TIs sitting at a table started yelling ‘Airman’ to get the attention of anyone standing in line? Of course we were not allowed to turn our head to see who they were talking to (‘Don’t take your eyes off the back of the head in front of you’). But they kept yelling louder and louder ‘Airman, I’m talking to you.’ Of course we all knew that to turn and look was a big mistake, but after about 30 seconds of this hounding we were more afraid not to look. Finally, Don Searles — the one who went on to OTS and probably the most military minded guy in the squad — turned and looked. And these 2 TIs were just merciless when he finally turned his head.
“Finally, a gig line story. Probably during the last two weeks of training, we were standing out in formation somewhere waiting our turn to do something. Boyd was standing off to the side of the formation and things were quiet. One of the guys (I don’t remember who) then said ‘Sgt. Boyd, Sir,’ and Boyd responded gruffly, ‘What?’ The airman then said ‘Your gig line’s not straight, Sir.’ My heart was in my throat. Had we not learned any respect? Were we all going back to the first week of training for mouthing off? Only one guy said it, but we were all going to take the hit. I just knew this was a major blunder. Boyd looked slowly down at his gig line, straightened it, looked up slowly, took a breath and said ‘Thank you.’ Thank you? That was it? We didn’t have to run a mile, do push-ups or shine the floor for that comment? We had made it. We were safe. We’d be leaving in a couple weeks. We were human beings again. Life was okay.”
And in a January 2003 letter, Jack wrote:
“I went back to San Antonio in April 2000 for the first time since 1968 and made a point of driving through Lackland. I couldn’t get on the base of course, but a public highway runs through it. (I think it’s called Military Highway). I couldn’t stop on the highway, but I made about 3 passes through the base. I’d like to believe that I located where our barracks were. All the old buildings we used are gone now, and most of the dorms are very modern. But if you recall the then-new barracks that were across the street from us, I believe I could see them not more than about 200 yards from the road. They’re old now, but their appearance was very familiar. I also saw some very young men in T-shirts and shorts exercising under the direction of two men wearing Smokey Bear hats. I was immediately carried back 32 years and honestly felt weak-kneed. Oddly, it revived some very unusual feelings and fears. But this time I was able to hit the accelerator in my rental car and drive away at 65 miles an hour — which I did.”
* * *
In the fall of 1968, my fellow S.U. grad and fraternity brother David Taylor faced the same questions and challenges as I had. He followed a similar path. Here are his memories, sent to me in July of 2003:
“My journey into the military began before graduation from Syracuse when I was called for a Draft physical. This was a major clue to my immediate career prospects. I went to the Navy recruiting office in Syracuse and was immediately told that they had no openings or use for me. Years later, when I was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, I went to Mobile, Alabama, and toured the battleship there. I was instantly and profoundly grateful for their earlier rejection. But now it just left me one step closer to a rifle and jungle fatigues.
“I next went to the Air Force recruiter in Niagara Falls. He was a short, stocky Sergeant who chewed a cigar. He looked liked Curtis LeMay with stripes. He asked if I would like to be an officer and a pilot and I said that, of all my current career choices, that would be my favorite. I took a test where I scored 80-something on the pilot portion and 90-something on the navigator section. My name was submitted for acceptance to a Board of Review that would meet two months later. My future looked secure, but I worried about being drafted in the meantime. I took my concerns to my friend and fraternity brother Ernie Curto, who took them to his father who was an alderman for Niagara Falls. Ernie came back and said that I should write a letter to my local draft board explaining that I was enlisting and to please leave me alone until I learned if I was accepted. This caused an immediate and urgent response from the draft board in the form of a draft notice.
“Less than an hour later, I was showing the letter to the Air Force recruiter whose response was hearty laughter. This so stunned me that I was physically unable to act on my otherwise overwhelming urge to choke the life out of him. He threw the letter back and said, “You could enlist.” My mind slowly chewed over the possibilities. Four years in the Air Force as a grunt vs. two years in the Army. Four years in the Air Force vs. two years in the Army, one of which would involve being shot in Viet Nam. The choice was simple, but he sweetened it anyway. The application for OTS and pilot training would continue and if I was accepted, I would simply be transferred from one organization to another. It sounded ideal and actually worked out that way. However, if I knew then what I learned later about the number of lies the recruiter told me, I would have worried more. As it was, I signed up with, as Twain put it, the confidence of a Christian holding four Aces.
“My first day in the Air Force began at about 9:00 AM on a Sunday in October 1968. I had arranged to meet my girlfriend Elaine at Syracuse that weekend to see a Simon and Garfunkel concert on Sunday. The day was generally unremarkable, but the concert was all that I could wish for. The concert ended near midnight and, after saying good-bye to Elaine, I headed for home in a torrential rainstorm. Because of the weather, I could rarely go faster than 40 mph. I arrived home to meet my furious mother and have about 45 minutes to get from Niagara Falls to the recruiting station in Buffalo. It was almost exactly enough time.
“The waiting room was nondescript and generally run-down, but it was the scene of two interesting events. As I was clearly the oldest inductee in the room, I was assigned to shepherd the paperwork for all the Air Force recruits going to Lackland that day. The second occurred when al the draftees were told to line up. About six or seven were counted off and were told they were assigned to the Marines. This war was the Marines’ first and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to use draftees. I felt I had dodged my first bullet when I enlisted in the Air Force.
“We were driven to the airport and flown to San Antonio via Chicago. I hoped to get some sleep on the flight, but it proved impossible. We arrived in San Antonio in the early evening. Most of the passengers were new recruits so the arrival gate was filled with young men looking simultaneously nervous and bored. It was a look that would become very familiar over the next few weeks. As time passed, T.I.,s would arrive and take a dozen or so recruits and lead them of to an unknown destination. This continued until there were only a handful of us left. When 11:00 came we began to think about where we could get some sleep, but a TI finally claimed us.
“We were put into a small bus with all of the windows closed where I learned that I was probably the only person on board that was not interested in smoking a cigarette a minute for the duration of the trip. We disembarked at what seemed to be a loading dock on base where the T.I.s collected paperwork and took inventory. We were then put back on the bus and taken to an all-night mess hall and told we had to eat. Eating was the last thing on my mind at this point, but apparently some mother’s son didn’t get fed for X hours and some father’s Congressman heard about it, so we all has to suffer for the sins of a few.
“We were given the greasiest, most unappetizing plate of sausage and fried eggs that I have seen to this day. The line held hundreds of Innocents and the room held dozens of picnic tables and the operation functioned as a vast (or should I say half-vast) assembly line. At one end, recruits were sitting down with their trays at a rate of about one every three seconds. At the other end, they were standing up and returning their trays at the same rate. It resembled the current fad of “the wave.” It was just as mindless, but lacked the enthusiasm. As the ripple approached, you felt an intense pressure to maintain the pace as any disruption would be immediately evident to the entire building. Faced with this, I quickly shoveled the food, into my mouth and only later realized that I could have as easily shoveled the garbage into the can that it so richly merited.
“Back on the bus, we were taken to our barracks for an imperfectly remembered lecture by the TI. At 2:00 AM, we were told to go to sleep. My first day was 42 hours long and a Grateful Nation permitted me a full three hours sleep.
“Morning comes early in Basic Training. I held a slim hope that the first day would not begin until seven since we arrived so late, but one of the functions of Basic training was to crush Hope and it is very efficient at it.
“My T.I. was much better than yours in every conceivable way. I got the same level of discipline without the occasional trip into the unethical and unlawful. (One story I remember from our short conversation was about a recruit who was put into a foot locker and kicked down stairs. This did not make your article. Am I misremembering this and confusing it with one of your other stories or did you feel you had provided enough tales of brutality and thuggery and any more would be gilding the lily? )
“In our first real lecture by our T.I., he made several points that I remember to this day. First, he honestly told us he was not allowed to hit us, but that we should not be too concerned about this restriction as he had ways to make us pray for the relief of physical punishment. He was not wrong in this. Second, he made it clear that, whatever our motivations were for joining the Air Force, he considered all of us to be volunteers and therefore heroes and patriots in his eyes. Thirdly, he told us to throw away any weapons along with all the other unnecessary accouterments we had brought. He explained that men in the Air Force were technicians and lovers, not fighters, and we would be very sorry if we broke with this tradition. Other than the normal barking, I can only remember three events where he came close to losing control and one of them involved me.
“We were told he had business to attend to, but to be ready for inspection when he got back. The minutes stretched into hours and the waiting became oppressive even for military standards. I found that the foot locker exactly fit me from the base of my spine to my head, so I laid down on it. My bunk was at the far end of the barracks and he had at least one hundred feet to travel before he would notice me. This was plenty of time to snap to attention. Unfortunately, this was the only day in my entire sojourn in Basic that he used the back door.
“I heard a noise, rolled my eyes backward and saw the meanest look that I have ever seen on another human. He screamed for me and my flight leader to come to his office immediately where he gave us grades of Unsatisfactory for the week. Unlike the lies you were told, it took two Unsatisfactory weekly grades to get you sent back, for two weeks and I was halfway there. You could be sent back, one more time. The third time got you a General Discharge. The punishment squadrons you were sent back, to were the Air Force’s way of discouraging you from slacking off to get an easy discharge. To this day, I still don’t know why he reacted that way. There may be some subtle difference in a T.I.’s mind between sitting down and laying down and they never seem to need to justify their behavior, but I still think it had to do with why it took him so long to get back to barracks. If it was your sergeant, I would have expected that response, but my sergeant was different.
“The other two events involved a big, dumb country boy with a huge heart and absolutely no skills. Left and right were esoteric concepts to him with no application to his life. One day during Drill, we were halted and the Sergeant strolled to the back of the squadron. He then came running noiselessly to a point 3 millimeters from this guy’s ear and asked him in his loudest voice, “What the Hell are you doing?” If the boy had a weak heart, he would have died on the spot. He leapt a clear foot into the air and trembled so much for the rest of the day that he had even more trouble walking than before. The Sergeant continued to yell, but it was piling Pelion upon Ossa because the effect was complete with the first shout.
“The last event was the Sergeant’s way of saying good-bye. After a foot locker inspection where our boy got more demerits (all deserved) than the rest of the squadron combined, Sarge took the foot locker by the hasp and threw it in the air hitting the ceiling. He then told him that he had ten minutes to make the foot locker inspection perfect. Now this boy wouldn’t have a perfect inspection if he was given till the Second Coming, so his flight told him to sit down while they put his stuff back together. A couple of days later, he was sent back,, where the process would be repeated. It is a shame that two rounds of punishment squadrons was the only way out because more punishment was not going to help – and even the Sergeant knew this. The boy was doing his best, but his best was woefully inadequate. If you’ve seen Full Metal Jacket, you will recognize the character.
“We had much more time in the morning than you, but it didn’t seem like much time then. We got up at five and assembled at five-thirty. We could use the whole bathroom except for just before special inspections. I slept at attention, but the guy across from me faced Demons in his sleep and every sheet he had was wrapped around him by morning every morning. His bunk was next to the butt can and he managed to knock it down at least twice a week. He had a long, hard row to hoe. With a couple of minor exceptions, I found Basic to be very easy. I understood the psychology and learned the tricks and generally managed to keep a low profile and avoid trouble. Here some illustrative anecdotes.
“As I said, I slept at attention so my bunk only needed 15 to 30 seconds of tightening in the morning.
“I would routinely get no demerits for my foot locker, which caused my Sergeant profound distress. The answer was simple. To a T.I., results were what mattered and he would remain cheerfully ignorant of the technique as long as you were discreet and caused him no trouble and embarrassment. I kept a spare razor and toothbrush in the detergent box in the laundry room. The Sergeant himself suggested we pool our money by flight so there were only four large boxes of detergent to make inspection preparations easier. These boxes held a multitude of contraband. As in your squadron, everyone would borrow, toothpaste from the first fool to open his, so cleaning toothpaste tubes was a minor problem for members of our flight.
“The laundry bags had a drawstring closure at the top and a zipper at the bottom. I kept my clean laundry in it. I would put dirty laundry in the top and pull clean laundry out of the bottom. One day, we had an inspection the day I did laundry so I polished the floor with my clean laundry to avoid getting caught. This allowed me to never have to learn their tricky folding patterns or remember precise positions in the foot locker. Once my foot locker finally passed an inspection, it was never changed and remained in perfect order. The Sergeant had trouble understanding this and would spend more and more time checking my locker, but to no avail. One day, after he spent about five minutes staring at it, he began to walk past and grudgingly said, ‘Good foot locker, Taylor.’ I replied, ‘Thank you, sir.’ A half step later, he froze and I could see the dawn of recognition in his face. He came back, gently pushed my t-shirts back, pointed at the foot locker and exclaimed, ‘DUST!’ He immediately got into my face and said, in no uncertain terms, “I never want to see dust in that foot locker again.” I just as immediately replied, ‘No, sir.’ And I kept to my word. It bothered him that he couldn’t figure out how I did it, but once he knew, he didn’t tell me I couldn’t do it. He merely gave me advice on how to improve my technique in his own inimitable way.
“I spent most of time in Basic fighting the Law of Entropy. Once a desired order is attained, you do not disturb that order unless absolutely required and then only disturb it to the minimum amount necessary. Fortunately, this left plenty of time to write letters and ruminate on the chaos that surrounded most of my compatriots.
“You talked about foot lockers and Security Violations. Our Dorm Chief once left his foot locker unlocked. The night watch noticed this and mercifully locked it for him, but less mercifully filled the tray with shaving lather. The next morning, the Dorm Chief came unglued. I agree that the shaving lather was a little over the top, but considering what he was saved from, he should have been more grateful than he was.
“I lost a lot of weight in Basic and when they came for the second clothing fit, my uniform was clearly too baggy. Since I was only a slick sleeve, they passed it anyway but it came back to haunt them. In OTS and at my duty posts, it was suggested that I get my uniform tailored, but I replied that it had been inspected and approved by the Air Force and I was satisfied with their decision.
“No foreign sergeant ever threatened to beat the shit out of me, but I did have a run-in with one once. Our T.I. was inspecting us after drill and another T.I. walking by decided to join the fun. I assume he was a friend of our T.I. since he never asked, but went straight to work. He was at least four inches shorter than me, but I would match his attitude against any giant’s. I was about the fourth person he inspected. He placed his face about three inches from mine and bellowed, ‘When was the last time you shaved?’ This was a common question since we had people who only shaved once a week whether they needed to or not and were having trouble getting used shaving every day. ‘This morning, sir!’ ‘This morning? How old are you?’ ‘Twenty-two, sir!’ ‘Oh.’
“I never made Outside Man. I was designated Chow Runner. My main duty was to see how long the lines were at the mess hall and report to the Sergeant. I also operated as a general gofer. The duty was easy and I felt that the Sergeant considered me to be an occasionally amusing pet.
“We were given several opportunities to apply for OTS. By now, I had plumbed the depths of the recruiter’s credibility and took every opportunity to improve my chances. I may not be a Philosopher King, but I am officially designated an Officer and Gentleman. This also gave me the ability to avoid some unpleasant duties.
“I only participated in three major duties in Basic. One was K.P at lunch. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but I got to scrape the plates and it filled me with a burning desire to take all the cigarettes left in the mashed potatoes and feed them to the people who left them there. The other was mowing the lawn around our mess hall. I was given clippers and told to trim the hedges. I started to clip a circular hedge around a banana tree. I noticed there was a gap between the tree and the hedge, so I pushed through the hedge and began clipping from the inside. When I was sure no one was looking, I sat down. This worked well until another airman started clipping the hedge and saw me. I signaled him to say nothing and waved him inside. He then sat down when the coast was clear. For obvious reasons we couldn’t talk, but we did bond. When we heard the Sergeant shouting to finish up, we began clipping the hedge, slowly standing up and moving to the outside again.
“The last was cleaning the Sergeants’ Orderly Room. There were three of us and it was easy duty. What made the job interesting were the three sergeants that were playing poker while we were there. I never felt so invisible in my life. Our presence was never acknowledged. I thought this must be similar to a slave experience minus the absolute power of Life and Death and the compulsory lifetime commitment.
“I had guard duty once when the barracks was empty. A sergeant from another squadron came by and asked to talk to my T.I. I told him no one was here. He asked if we had guidons as he needed one for a parade. I allowed that we had one, but that without my Sergeant,s instructions, I couldn’t give it to him. I felt sorry for him because he didn’t give me a hard time. It clearly wasn’t a trick; he really needed the guidon and he knew I couldn’t give it to him.
“The Confidence Course was interesting. The guy in front of me stopped while crawling under the chicken wire. While waiting for him to move, my mind wandered — dangerous behavior in Basic. I was brought back to the present by an explosion next to my ear. I found that I was fifteen feet behind. Those fifteen feet of broken concrete covered by chicken wire were traversed in three seconds.
“Bivouac was Hell. We had to casually walk about three miles, sleep on cots in tents with concrete floors and eat (shudder!) in-flight rations. I currently work with several Marines and enjoy describing the hardships of being in the Air Force.
“Unlike you, I did not get a marksmanship medal. All of my shots were in the center of the target with about an eight inch spread and about a 1/2 inch ragged hole. The sergeant couldn’t count enough individual holes to qualify me for the medal, so instead of assuming that the additional shots necessary for qualification went through the large hole, he assumed (against my protestation, I have always been a Protestant) that they not only went out of my eight inch spread, but went so far as to completely miss the target. I had another chance for the medal in OTS, but failed again, this time legitimately. We had to shoot a 38 cal. pistol several different ways. One of them was single-handed, double-action (you couldn’t cock the pistol beforehand). The pull on the pistol I had was so strong that it pulled hand to the right and four of those six shots clearly missed the upper right of the outer ring by less than an inch. Thus I lost my last chance to be confirmed as a Steely-Eyed Killer.
“My last day in Basic Training was the infamous Day of Evaluation. At the end of the day, our T.I. had everyone on the first floor. He put a foot locker in the doorway to sit on while we waited for the results. About then, the loudspeaker ordered Airman Taylor to report to the orderly room. When I got there the desk sergeant told me to report tomorrow at 8:00 with all my possessions. I had submerged my personality so well to survive Basic Training that I didn’t even question this and started to leave. Then I realized that this was an unusual order, even in Basic training. I turned and asked him why. He didn’t know, but checked the clip board and told me that I was being sent to OTS.
“When I returned to barracks, I felt it would be impolite to push by the Sergeant interrupting his monologue so I stood by his side, waiting to be noticed. He was bragging about himself. The results had arrived and he was saying that he could recognize quality in recruits. Of the three grades (pass, fail and excellent), the Dorm Chief and three of the four flight leaders had gotten excellent. But then he allowed that sometimes people surprised him. He turned to me and said, ‘You got an excellent, Taylor.’ ‘Thank you, sir!’ ‘By the way, what did the Orderly Room want?’ ‘They are sending me to OTS tomorrow, sir.’
It was one of the two most glorious moments in my life. The Sergeant was immediately transformed. He began listing things I would need to do and grabbed the first poor airman that passed by and told him to carry gear wherever I needed to go tomorrow. It was embarrassing, but I was grateful for the help.”