Saturday, April 23, 2005

Son of "Guarding Freedom's Frontier"

The big fear throughout basic training was getting kicked out. We were constantly being reminded that the Air Force was looking to lose 3,000 people and we were the most likely candidates, since there was less of an investment in us than in people who'd actually been trained to do something besides march, salute, and polish their boots. I had a pair of boots that didn't fit right. Although I lost all the hair on my shins (which never grew back) and had things growing out of my toes that looked like asparagus, I never went to sick call for treatment. A guy from our flight who broke a tonenail during a fire drill went to sick call once and wound up getting discharged; I didn't want to risk it.

Our squadron was strategically located between the school where they trained the new TI's and the one where they trained the military working dogs. We were told that if we encountered one of the dogs, which occasionally got loose while they were being trained to attack people or sniff out drugs or bombs, we should stand stock still -- definitely not try to run away. I'd seen one of the dogs attacking one of its trainers, who was wearing a protective wrap on his arm. I wasn't so sure about the wisdom of the idea of standing still while it used my arm for a chew stick. The freshly minted TI's were an interesting bunch. They would play the whole macho (including the women) intimidating routine as if they were reading it off of cards: "W-w-where you f-f-from, s-s-son?...You...mean...you...came...all the way from [insert recruit's home of record here] just...to...piss...me...off?" Not very effective.

Also pretty ineffective was Second Lieutenant Michael J. Fluty, our squadron's Deputy Commander for Operations and Training (read: "I just graduated from Officer Training School, and I'm waiting for someone to find me a _real_ job"). We were having academics one day when he came in and told us a long and pointless story about a bird and a cat in a barn in winter, the point of which was supposed to be something along the lines of "Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy, and not everyone who gets you out from under a pile of shit is your friend." It was intended to inspire us to great heights of respect for authority, I think, but managed only to confuse us.

Our real instructor that day was Sergeant Soler, a Puerto Rican from New York who deconstructed for us the recruiting ads that had brought us there, and he was bad-ass. Sometimes I wondered whether anybody ever monitored the things the academic instructors used to say to us. A lot of the NCOs were really impressive, and a lot of them were Hispanic, like Sergeant Bara, who used to amuse himself by greeting us, when we fell out for Reveille at 5am, with "Como esta usted?" delivered in his best Command Voice.

The most truly intimidating of all the TIs was also Hispanic: Sergeant Colunga. I first encountered Sergeant Colunga when Robert Miller and I were pulling dorm guard for a baby flight. I suppose some explanations are in order here. A "baby flight" was one which had just started the training cycle. "Dorm guard" was a silly and pointless duty that involved walking around the barracks after lights out, carrying a flashlight and wearing a white T-shirt and silver helmet -- exactly like Joker in Full Metal Jacket, hopefully minus the homi/suicidal maniac with the M-16. Sometimes the TIs would come and fuck with the dorm guards by trying to gain entry with a fake ID. If you let them in, you'd have to fill out a 341 -- basically a demerit slip; accrue enough of them and you were on your way out the door for "failure to adapt to military life." Most of the time, though, dorm guard was uneventful duty, consisting of making an endless circuit of the barracks, interrupted at intervals by the sound of the latrine door opening and closing. It was while pulling dorm guard for my own flight that I discovered that this guy Mincey never slept. He just sat up all night in his rack. At the time, we'd been there for almost three weeks. "I just can't sleep here," he said.

Robert Miller was a kid from Wisconsin, an earnest, sincere fellow whom I was convinced wasn't going to make it. I'd developed some quirks in basic training. Anytime I heard a sentence of seven syllables, I'd say "doo-dah, doo-dah" afterwards. I continued doing this for months after basic. I knew people that kept making hospital corner beds and folding their underwear in six-inch squares long after they didn't need to. Creepier were the ones who developed a form of "Stockholm syndrome" that caused them to model their TI's behavior, calling everyone "Son" and speaking in a Texanized form of Unaccented Military English. My other quirky habit was making up songs about people. Every time I saw Robert Miller, I'd sing, "Robert, Robert Miller, he's from Wisconsin I hear" to the tune of the Davy Crockett theme. I saw Miller a lot because we were on laundry detail together. Once, while he was venting his teenage anxiety and frustration to me in the laundry room, he accidentally put a load of whites in the washer that included somebody's squadron athletic T-shirt, which was bright red. As a result, all the guys in our flight had pink underwear for a week. Surprisingly, they didn't kick our asses.

The baby flight Miller and I were pulling dorm guard for was Sergeant Colunga's. They were an odd bunch. They seemed afraid, and very religious. Before lights out, the guys in our flight tended to occupy themselves with polishing their boots, clipping strings off their uniforms, writing letters. These guys were having a _prayer meeting_ in their dayroom, in their skivvies. A bunch of shaven-headed goons in GI T-shirts and tighty whities, getting down on their knees to pray. "Weird," I said to Miller. He nodded. As lights out approached, they scrambled to their racks. These kids were wound much too tight, Miller and I decided. Just then, the squawk box clicked on.

"GOOD EVENING, LADIES!" the intercom thundered. "I...AM...SERGEANT COLUNGA AND I...TAKE...NO...SHIT!!!" Apparently, Sergeant Colunga was the CQ that night. The CQ -- charge of quarters -- was the NCO who had to sit up in the orderly room all night, drinking coffee and watching TV, in case any of the flights called down on the intercom with a problem. He may have been a mere mortal, but he possessed the voice of an angry god. I, at least, was convinced, and made a mental note to endeavor to never give Sergeant Colunga any shit.

By the time I met Miller, I'd already experienced the event that every basic trainee feared the most (besides being kicked out): I'd been recycled. I'd already passed on the chance to bail on the third day of training, when they called in all of the guys who said they'd "experimented" with drugs and offered us the opportunity to get out with an honorable discharge (a favorable characterization of service, _not_ the way a Japanese addresses his clap symptoms). But on the 15th day of training, I'd committed an act so egregious that the powers that be decided it warranted "washing back" all the way to Day 3.

It happened like this. There was a kid in our flight called Andre. Andre was from Florida. He was 23 years old -- almost as old as me. You got the feeling that the Air Force was the end of the line for Andre. There was a problem: He couldn't do anything right. He was like our very own version of Full Metal Jacket's Private Gomer Pyle. He'd fuck up, and we'd all get punished. Because it wasn't the movies, and Vietnam had been over for a long time, and it was the Air Force, not the Marines, we weren't as brutal with Andre as Pyle's movie-cohhort were with him.

Still, I was surprised when the female TI, Airman Dubois (who'd done so well herself as a basic trainee that the powers that be elected to keep her there, pushing others through basic training, even though she'd never had a real job in the Air Force), called me into the office and told me "I want you to stick with Andre like white on rice. I want you to follow him into the shower to make sure he doesn't hang himself with his belt. Then, I want you to help him carry his bed down to the orderly room. He's going to sleep there tonight, where the CQ can watch him."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, and went to find Andre.

"Listen, man," I told him, in almost the exact words Matthew Modine would speak to Vincent D'Onofrio in Kubrick's flick five years later, "you've got to stop fucking up. Everytime you do, we all get punished. It's not cool."

"I know, I know," Andre said. He was a big hulking lump of a kid. A few days before, while we were running on the track, he'd fallen out and had to go to sick call.

"Run, Andre!" Sergeant Carr, the male TI, had exhorted him. Sergeant Carr had been a wireman in the real Air Force. "You think you've got what it takes to climb up those poles?" he'd ask us.

"But sir," Andre said, "I can't!"

"RUN, Andre!" Sergeant Carr insisted, standing there with his hands on his hips and an extremely pissed-off expression on his face.

"Ahhh, my knee!" Andre exclaimed, and fell over in the grass. It was the fakest-sounding thing any of us had ever heard, but he limped off to sick call and came back with a note from the medics putting him on quarters (meaning he didn't have to march or do any strenuous activities).

So now, I watched Andre as he took a shower, making sure not to let him hang himself with his belt. Then, after he'd dried off and put his uniform back on, I helped him carry his bed downstairs to the orderly room. As we manhandled his rack down the stairs, I tried to be positive and encouraging. "Just take it easy, man," I assured him. "You'll make it through just fine."

As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I heard a voice from behind me. "What are you men doing?" it said.

I was preoccupied with trying to help Andre with his problem. Without thinking, I replied, "What does it look like? We're carrying a bed down the stairs."

It was the wrong answer. Standing behind me in his most authoritarian stance was my favorite, Second Lieutenant Michael J. Fluty, the Deputy Commander for Operations and Training. I immediately realized that I was in Deep Shit. After filling out my 341 for Lieutenant Fluty and depositing Andre and his rack in the orderly room, I returned to the barracks to pack all of my shit, brief each of the 50 other guys in my flight individually, explaining and demonstrating the proper method for saluting and reporting to a commissioned officer, and haul ass back downstairs, where I got to stand at parade rest in front of the section supervisor's office for 45 minutes, thinking that I had really and truly fucked up and wondering what was going to happen next. While I was waiting to get my head chewed off, the Who's song "Bargain" came on the radio, and I thought about my wife.

At the end of 45 minutes I was ushered into the presence of the section supervisor, Master Sergeant Davis, who proceeded to rip me a new asshole before reassigning me to another flight that had just started training a couple of days ago. It wound up being the best thing that had happened to me in the Air Force so far.

With a couple of exceptions, the guys in my original flight were all scared and stupid. There was a mean-spiritedness about them. One of them was actually at the same base I was in Korea, in a different squadron, but we never spoke to each other there. We had nothing in common. My new flight was a little more cohesive and a little less chickenshit. Some of that I attributed to the personality of the dorm chief, Airman Parrish, a handsome black kid from Rhode Island. (I used to joke that there were three black people in Rhode Island, and I did basic training with two of them.) Parrish and I went to tech school together in Mississippi, before I got shipped off to Korea and he -- lucky bastard -- went to Hawaii. Later on I heard that he made staff sergeant before getting kicked out of the service for drugs. Actually, several of my best friends from basic training and tech school wound up leaving the service that way. In fact, a guy I officed with much later, while I was teaching at the SAC NCO Academy in Louisiana, told me he _started_ taking acid while he was working in a nuclear weapons storage area.

Also from Rhode Island was Airman Richmond, one of the squad leaders, who had enlisted with the idea of joining the Air Force boxing team and seemed as if he had already been hit in the head too many times. Besides Richmond, the guys in the flight all seemed pretty even-keel and down-to-Earth. There was Jones, who'd been recycled from another flight and appointed himself "co-chief" with Parrish, but not in an obnoxious or overbearing way -- he just wanted to share the benefit of the stuff he'd been through already with the other guys, which seemed a sane and sensible idea to me, so I endeavored to do the same.

I was on laundry detail with Miller, but my best friends were the two guys who bunked nearest to me: Goolsby and Hamlet. Goolsby was from Tennessee, the only guy in the flight who was older than me: 27. He'd washed out of a commissioning program, and was just under the maximum age to enlist. Every night before lights out, he'd do 200 situps while cracking us up with his "folksy wisdom." Hamlet was from Massachusetts, a rock'n'roll teenager and consummate wiseass. Together, the three of us formed a triad, the kind of subgroup you always find in small units. We looked out for each other. Being in the military taught me to value stuff like that. Before that, I'd always been kind of solitary.

The TIs' strategy was "breaking you down, then building you back up," so as things went along, they theoretically got easier -- unless you had five TIs in six weeks, like one of the co-ed band flights in our squadron. The males and females didn't stay in the same barracks, and they had to learn to play military music and march in addition to all the bullshit everyone else had to do. They had it so rough that after we graduated, the squadron commander came down and apologized to them for the unremittingly shitty six weeks they'd just endured. I don't know if that'd still happen today, now that we're at war again.

You learned how to work the system. Lots of guys who weren't religious went to chapel, because that meant you didn't have to take part in the "GI party," when all the guys who didn't go to chapel had to wax and buff the floors in the barracks. Myself, I liked the GI parties. I got pretty proficient at running the buffer, plus you got to listen to the radio while you were GI'ing the floors. Otherwise, we were completely cut off from the outside world, except for mail (which was opened and censored by the TI) and the rare and coveted opportunities we got to phone home: no newspapers, no TV, no radio. It was during one of those parties that I heard the first new song I'd heard since I swore in: "The Other Woman" by Raydio. I thought it sounded like Steve Miller.

I actually liked marching to appointments by myself. The enforced silence of the position of attention was like meditation to me. I'd focus on objects in the distance and let my mind drift, startling myself back to consciousness when I'd pass an officer from some African country in a brightly-colored uniform with no recognizable insignia of rank. For some reason, they didn't seem to care as much as Lieutenant Fluty when you didn't salute them.

Other relief from the dull monotony of training came in the form of base details. My favorite: KP. We worked our balls off, but it felt good to get sweaty and wet, and we felt like a team. The other base detail I worked was at clothing issue, where we got to see the new guys just off the bus with their fresh skinhead haircuts. While we were working there, I found a newspaper in the trash and hid it under my uniform to bring back to the barracks: contraband. That night we read it and discovered that John Belushi from Saturday Night Live had died from a drug overdose, and Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist Randy Rhoades had died in a plane crash.

One by one, we passed the milestones for our training. We got to wear our blue uniforms (we'd only gotten to put on the shirts, jackets, ties and hats over our fatigue pants and boots to take pictures on Day 3). We got to shoot the M-16 (I failed to qualify but graduated anyway; I had to shoot again in tech school to qualify for my overseas assignment) and run the obstacle course (which reminded me of Six Flags; you spent more time waiting in line than you did on any of the obstacles, several of which were closed). We got to go to a San Antonio Spurs basketball game and watch George Gervin's crew defeat the legendary Lakers dynasty with both Kareem and Magic still onboard.

On our town pass, we walked around in the piss-pouring rain, saw the Riverwalk and the Alamo (and a homeless guy wearing a discarded Air Force overcoat doing a dance in a market square). We wound up at some Mexican restaurant near the Alamo, where we'd finished our meal and were about to leave when what appeared to be the cast of Fame walked in: a bunch of girls in leg warmers and those little skinny headband thingies they used to wear. Probably a dance team or gymnastics squad. Goolsby, Hamlet, Miller and I looked at each other, then sat down and ordered another meal, just to give us a chance to enjoy the scenery.

Finally, we graduated. At our graduation parade, the TIs somehow managed to "park" us on top of a mound of fire ants, which caused a frenzy of itching and twitching before they finally figured out what was going on and moved us up a few yards. Afterwards, we swore life-long friendship with guys we'd never think about again.

Parrish and I got orders to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. On the bus from San Antonio to Biloxi, they gave us five dollar vouchers to use at this Furr's Cafeteria in Shreveport. I've never been a fan of cafeteria food, but at the time, it was the tastiest meal I could remember ever having eaten. I can't attest to the verity of the rumors you used to hear about the food in basic training being laced with saltpeter, to keep the guys from jerking off, but I do know this: if there was saltpeter in it, it was the only "spice" the cooks there used. Purina Geriatric Chow has never tasted so good.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

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