Humor Non-Fiction posted May 23, 2020

This work has reached the exceptional level
A Comedy of Terrors.


by Brad Bennett

The author has placed a warning on this post for language.

I stood like a wooden post in the dimly lit parking lot. The early dawn air was cold and damp, amplifying the Drill Instructor's screaming even more. His red, contorted face was inches from my nose. Spittle sprinkled my face.

We had just arrived from San Antonio, tired, very hungry, and expecting some sort of warm meal. Instead, we were hustled off the bus and formed into a ragtag lineup. I felt awkwardly conspicuous in my orange sweater and pegger pants standing in this world of green-gray sameness. There was noise and confusion everywhere. In the darkness came strange sounds, loud voices barking out cadence to invisible marchers. Their swinging red flashlights, and the crunching thud of boots on gravel, was all that betrayed their existence. A pungent odor emanated from a nearby mess hall, hanging over the entire scene like a pall.

I gazed around, looking for some guidance, and made accidental eye contact with one of the DIs. Instantly he came forward as if he were an actor taking his cue for a dramatic scene.

"Stand at attention!" He yelled in a sharp southern twang. I tried to assume a posture I could only guess was correct.

"You do not look at me," he barked again. He had that fierce GI look I had seen in a dozen old war movies. His fatigues were starched and immaculate. I focused on the shiny emblem pinned to his round, black hat.

"You are whale shit," he barked again. "There is nothing lower than you!" I imagined myself lying prone on the bottom of the ocean, looking upward, subservient to all the fishes above me.

"Do you know how low you are?" he went on.

"I am the lowest there is!" I replied rather flippantly, playing along with the joke.

"YOU GOD DAMN IDIOT!" He exploded in my face. "You will address me as SIR!"

The sudden outburst was like a bomb going off—ringing my ears. Then, a blast of four-letter words came out of his mouth, leaving the realm of ordinary expletives and straying into the bizarre. Real fear rose in my gut; this was in the United States Air Force. Supersonic jet bombers loaded with thermonuclear weapons, and this guy was no pansy-ass high school teacher but a highly trained military soldier. It all would have been absurdly laughable on the bus coming in. Now it was gut-wrenchingly terrifying.

I tried everything to escape from this onslaught—I groveled—he ridiculed my weakness. I tried to be strong—he gave me a violent shove that sent me sprawling on my butt. I quickly jumped back up with gravel embedded in my pants, pathetically muttering, "I'm sorry, Sir!" But he would not stop.

I stood there helpless and confused, not knowing what he wanted from me. There seemed no escape. Then suddenly, out of nowhere came my salvation. It came in a short burst of snickering snorts! Someone, somewhere, was trying desperately to hold in his laughter. But despite all his willpower, it exploded out like a blast of air escaping from a released balloon—betraying him like a Judas. I was instantly forgotten as the DI searched him out. I breathed the long sigh of the gratefully forgiven. I thanked that kid repeatedly for sparing me. I was an 18-year-old kid, fresh from the farm in Oregon, who had volunteered for a glamorous life in the Air Force. Now, I was ready to quit.

In November 1962, a passenger train with seven new enlistees left Portland, Oregon. It began rolling south down the western seaboard on an overcast cold evening. The train would stop to pick up more recruits at Los Angeles, then swing east to make the long trek across the southern desert. I was bound for San Antonio, Texas, and eventually the vast military training center at Lackland Air Force base. 1962 was an uneventful year—a dead calm in a flat sea, a transition period, a brief time out, while unseen forces just over the horizon were quietly building up into a mighty storm. The present generation, which survived the great depression, and fought World War II, would soon be wrenched from their moralistic past and flung headlong into a confrontation with a new ideology. A culture of open sexuality, drugs, and distrust for everything they held sacred.

But I was part of the in-between generation. We were too young to know our parents' hard times, but we were close enough to those years to understand its impact. So we didn't question or complain. Instead, we were the stay cool—rock and roll, whiskey and rye—cruising in our Chevy crowd. A throwback to the waning 50's that Don McLean would later describe accurately in his ballad, Goodbye American Pie. However, when I graduated high school in 62, that all ended for me, and as the times I was in, I began my turning point.

So here I was on that train, a fresh recruit filled with excitement and apprehension for the new life I had plunged myself into. We were all from the Pacific Northwest. We had joined to avoid the beer gulping, working in the woods, red neck life many of our parents had. We wanted to see the rest of the world beyond the mountains and fir trees. Each leg of the trip was a new adventure for us, none more so when we reached Las Angeles.
In contrast to our lives, the LA recruits who boarded there were mostly Latinos from the Barrio. They had joined up to avoid jail or to get away from a life of poverty and violence. They hated authority--uniforms reminded them of the LA cops who patrolled their neighborhoods, shaking them down, treating everyone like criminals. But now, they would become a part of the white man's world and everything they had disdained.

So it was that in the evening, somewhere along the bare stretch of desert in southern Arizona, I met one of the Latino kids. His name was Angel. I was strolling the train when I discovered him sitting dangerously close to the rails between two swaying cars. When he saw me, he quickly pulled back to the safety of the platform.

"Hey man," he said to me, "I was just thinking of throwing this away."

He then flashed a large switchblade knife towards me—a little unsettling, but he seemed friendly. I squatted down to hear him over the clamor of the wheels.

"This guy told me I'd be discharged if they found this on me." He announced, his body shivering from the cold night air whistling through the guideway.

"They might," I replied, not really knowing.

He had the greasy ducktail haircut and black leather jacket of a tough Barrio street kid. But now, he projected more fear than bravado, someone out of their element, afraid, unsure.

He told me his name was Angel. He mentioned his gang, his sexy girlfriend—a fancy customized car. I sensed that much of it was more pretense than reality—a life that circumstance hadn't granted him that opportunity. When I finally got up to leave, he stood up also and gave me his hand to shake. Then he turned and tossed the knife out into the night.

I didn't see Angel the next day. I walked the train, hoping I might run across him. Maybe he was in his sleeping car. Perhaps he was with his friends; they didn't hang with us white guys.
Later that afternoon, I sat up in the vista dome car, gazing out across the passing desert. I wondered if Angel was out there somewhere, walking a dusty road, looking for a new life away from this trip to the unknown? Then I glanced down at the jagged rocks girding the railway—the train was rolling fast. It was a chilling thought. You meet so many people in the military, make short acquaintances, then go on never seeing them again. You wonder where they are, how are they doing, and in some instances, did they survive?

After our terrifyingly brutal, butt chewing introduction at Lackland, we were assigned to the giant base induction building. We enjoyed a brief respite from the barking DIs to receive our shots, physicals, buzz cuts, and uniforms. First of all, though, we had to sign for everything. A civilian clerk behind a little desk gave me the papers to fill out. When I returned them to her, she angrily erased an entry. Then she pointed to the box where I had put Caucasian under the classification Race.

"You're white, don't you know who you are?" she spat at me. Then she tossed the forms back across the desk for me to re-sign.

It was like a slap in the face. I felt both anger and confusion for the woman's crude reaction. Why would anyone have such hatred for something so trivial? I felt like I had just stepped in dog feces and needed something to scrap it off. But I penciled in White and moved on. That was my first encounter with racism. There would be many more.

Finally, we were lined up outside in our new greens. Now we were US military, mind, body, and clothes. Our first attempt at marching was a comedy of errors. The DI's circled us, waving their arms in exasperation, but there wasn't anyone they could single out. We were one giant, clumsy, out-of-control monster with 100 feet and no head. Somehow they managed to herd us over to the mess hall for our noon chow. Then another instructor appeared and began briefing us on proper mess hall procedure.

"While in the Chow hall, you will remain at attention at all times, "He yelled in a high-pitched voice. He was thin and gawky and looked amazingly like the comedian Barney Fife.

He brought out a food tray and held it up as if it were a piece of highly technical equipment.

"While in the chow line, you will address the food counter with your tray thusly"! He snapped the tray up and held it at the vertical. "Then, you will sidestep like THIS." He began moving sideways, clicking his heels together briskly. "As you sidestep, the tray will remain at the vertical. Then, when you reach a server, flip the tray to the horizontal, and extend it to receive your food."

"NEXT!" He barked, "Pull the tray back and side step on." He then put the tray smartly behind his back. "Are there any questions?" His voice failed him on "questions," ending in a squeaking falsetto. We stood in shaky silence. It was our biggest test yet not to laugh.

Another DI quickly came forward and ordered us into a single file for entering the mess hall. Once inside, we were greeted by the chaos of swarming cooks, servers, and the clattering of dishes and pots. I took my tray, held it to the vertical as instructed, and began waiting for my turn. I noticed this guy ahead of me seemed overly animated in his sidestepping. Evidently, Barney's presentation had greatly inspired him.

When he reached the first server, the kid snapped his tray down to the horizontal and thrust it forward. The server eyed him cautiously as he sat a big bowl of soup on it. The kid then snapped the tray back. Then,  for some unexplained reason, he flipped the tray back to the vertical? The bowl hit him square in the chest! There was a loud crash as it smashed to the floor, shattering into a dozen pieces, spilling hot soup all over him, and, unfortunately, the DI standing right behind.

"You god damn—IDIOT!" The DI screamed. The poor kid could only stand there with noodles, carrots, and celery on his head drenched with soup from head to toe.

"Get outside, dick head!" The DI shouted again, he kicked him in the butt, and the kid lit out for the door.

Next, we were all ordered outside to stand at attention. The DI came out mad as hell. He stood before us, a big wet spot on his smartly clean greens. "Because of this shit head," he announced, pointing to the Soup kid. "You will get no chow and spend the rest of the day marching!"
So all afternoon, we trudged around the Airbase. First, we trod through the long dusty prairie grass, then over an endless stretch of tarmac down the long base highway, with cars and trucks zooming dangerously close. With each step, our anger grew more and more towards Soup kid, who by now reeked like an open garbage bin.

We returned late that afternoon, completely exhausted. The only good thing to come from the whole endeavor was to gain some resemblance to a marching unit. Then, finally, we arrived back at the mess hall for dinner. The nauseating bouquet of odors that exuded from this place before now became a beckoning feast. Every eye was on Soup kid as he sidestepped through the chow line. If he screwed up this time, there would be no place on the base he could hide because we had explored every inch of it.

After dinner, we were marched over to our barracks, where I hopefully assumed we would, at last, be allowed to rest and recuperate from the day's ordeal. Instead, we were assigned our bunks, and then another instructor took over. He had a footlocker neatly arrayed on the floor in front of him, with examples of toiletries.

This DI was short, stout, and muscular with a bulldog face—the exact opposite of Barney. He carried a black night watch man's club, which he began smacking into his palm, projecting the personification of a sadistic male dominatrix.

"You WILL," he began, chopping off each word menacingly. "Stow your lockers precisely like this one."

He then proceeded to go over every item in the locker. He showed how toothbrushes, combs, and shaving gear should be carefully displayed as if they were valuable artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian.

"You have ten minutes," he barked. "Then you will stand at attention for an inspection. NOW DO IT!"

There was a mad scramble to our bunks; footlockers began banging open as we struggled to assemble the contents as close as possible to the prototype. But unfortunately, the ten minutes flew by much too fast, and my gear was barely in place when the whistle blew.

"ATTENTION!" Shouted the Bulldog.

He began walking down the line tapping the club against his stubby leg. As he approached the first locker, he eyed it suspiciously. Then he bent down to inspect it—dead silence fell over the barracks.

"This is a DISGRACE!" he snarled. He picked up the locker and turned it upside down with a horrendous crash.

The following lockers got slightly better reviews—one turned over, the other kicked clear down the aisle. Then the Bulldog came to a pudgy overweight kid's locker.

"What in the hell is THIS"? He pointed to a small package of cookies the kid had evidently smuggled in.

"My personal items, Sir!" the poor kid answered meekly.

"Nothing!" The Bulldog yelled, "I repeat, NOTHING is personal in this barracks! You and every shit face in here belong to ME." He turned over the kid's locker and flipped it back up again.

"Get IN IT!" He ordered.

We all looked incredulously at the locker. Surely The Bulldog couldn't be serious! There seemed no way this kid would fit in that small wooden box.

"I said get in it, lard ass!" He ordered again. The poor kid jumped into the locker and somehow squeezed into a lung-gasping fetal position by twisting and scrunching his limbs together. However, his backside was still way out of the box. The Bulldog shoved the lid down over him. Then, like a traveler trying to close an over-packed suitcase, he placed his total weight on top of it until it finally snapped shut.

"Is there anyone else who has PERSONAL items?" the Bulldog announced to the stunned barracks.

Now, absolute terror was introduced into the importance of footlocker presentation. I was never particularly religious, but now I found myself converted. "Please, God," I whispered to the almighty, who hadn't heard diddly-squat out of me for 18 years. "Please bless my locker and make it right."

The assistant DI, who had remained quiet during this tirade, now appeared alarmed about the kid in the locker. He motioned to the Bulldog, but the man ignored him. The Bulldog now had his sights on another discrepancy.

"You call that ready for inspection!" he shouted to the locker's owner. He reached down and brought out the offending evidence. It was a can of shaving cream. "Where is this can's lid, Airman?"

"I don't know, Sir!" the poor guy stammered.

The Bulldog placed the can over the kid's head and began spraying foam over his entire body, starting from the top down. Now, standing before us was a magnificent, white billowy snowman.

Suddenly an awful commotion arose from the fat kid's box! The assistant DI quickly raced down between the bunks and pulled the Bulldog aside. He whispered something to the man, and they began arguing.

"All right, shit!" The Bulldog allowed. Then he reluctantly went over and unsnapped the kid's locker. The poor kid popped out, gasping for air. His face was a bright red, tear running down his face.

I stood trembling as the Bulldog finally got to me. I received the expected tirade, but somehow I survived with only a whack from the club for a wayward toothbrush. Maybe the poor fat kids' ordeal had softened the man's demeanor.

At last, the inspection was finally over. Then the Bulldog ordered us into our bunks. "Except for you, MAGGOT," the Bulldog announced, pointing to the Snowman.

The assistant DI blew a whistle, and we all climbed into our beds for lights out.

In the darkness, I could just make out the outline of the Snowman still standing at attention like a white ghost. I lay there in a dismal depression. I had been told that Air Force basic training was as a Boy Scout camp compared to the Army. Now, I wondered what the hell I got myself into. I longed for the peaceful mountains and fir trees back home.

Suddenly a loud piercing whistle shrieked through the barracks. "GET YOUR ASSE'S UP, shitheads," came a booming voice.

I hadn't even realized I had gone to sleep. It was as if I had just lain down, then ordered back up again.

Thus ended my first day of basic training. There would be six more weeks to follow. As we went along, the mistreatment eased back until we finally became competent and sure of ourselves. I soon realized that the training we learned in basic had shaped us into a respectable military unit. We had matured beyond undisciplined high school kids to grown men. I owe a lot to the Air Force, including my vocational training as a technical illustrator. Still, I always wondered why basic training had to be so brutal.

I was assigned to Amarillo Air Force base Texas when my six weeks were over. After three more years working there as a graphics artist on the flight line, I finally had managed to reach the same three-stripe rank of the DI's in Basic. So I went to the BX (Base Exchange) and bought myself a black Drill Instructor's hat like the ones at Lackland wore. I pinned my new rank emblem on it, perched it on my head, and strutted around the base with a bit of a swagger, trying my best to look tough.

Nobody noticed.

I took it back to my locker and never wore it again.


The time of my life: writing prompt entry
Writing Prompt
Write a short story. The topic is: The best time you ever had in your life. It can be as an adult or as a child. Please keep it clean. Minimum length 100 words. Maximum Length 4,000 words.


I owe so much to my military stint for all the great memories it gave me. This one especially, because it was my coming out into the world. The punishing treatment I received in this piece, seems at odds for my favorite story, but it gave me purpose and guidance in my early life. It truly is one of my most cherished memories. Although, for others, it may not have been.
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