Basic by Brad Bennett
The time of my life: writing prompt entry
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of 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 breakfast. Instead, we were hustled off the bus and formed into a ragtag lineup. I felt awkwardly conspicuous in my orange sweater and pegger pants in this world of green-gray sameness. There was noise and confusion everywhere. Off 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 had gazed around, looking for some guidance, and made accidental eye contact with one of the DI's. 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 tried to focus on the shiny silver emblem pinned to his round, green 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. My ears were ringing, and I began to shake; real fear began to rise in my gut. This was the US Air Force! Supersonic jet fighters carrying nuclear weapons, and this guy was no lunch bag-carrying pansy-ass high school teacher but a highly trained military soldier. Out of his mouth came a blast of four-letter words that left the realm of ordinary expletives and strayed into the bizarre. Before now, it would have been absurdly laughable. Now it was gut-wrenching 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 was helpless and confused; I didn't know what he wanted from me. There seemed no escape.
Then 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—the DI searched him out. I breathed the long sigh of the gratefully forgiven. It was a stay of execution, I had been pardoned from my evil sins and granted new life. I thanked him over and over for sparing me. I can only imagine that poor devil is still in counseling today.
I was an 18-year-old kid—fresh from the farm in Oregon. I had volunteered for a glamorous life in the Air Force—now, I was ready to quit.
On an overcast cold evening in November 1962, a passenger train with new enlistees left Portland, Oregon, and rolled south down the western seacoast. The train would stop to pick up more recruits at Los Angeles and then swing east to make the long trek across the southern desert. We were all 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 my 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 own turning point.
So here I was on that train, a fresh recruit filled with both 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, work 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 than 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.
In the evening, somewhere in the long stretch of desert in southern Arizona, I met one of the Latino kids. His name was Angel.
I didn't actually meet him; I was out strolling the train when I discovered him sitting dangerously close to the rails between the 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. I was a little unsettled by the knife, but he seemed friendly. I squatted down to hear him over the clamor of the wheels.
"Someone told me I'd be discharged if they found this on me." He announced, his face pale from the cold night air that whistled through the guideway.
"They might," I replied, not really knowing.
He had the greasy ducktail haircut and black leather jacket of a tough street kid. But now, he was more fearful than anything, someone out of their element, afraid, unsure. He told me his name was Angel. He mentioned his gang, his pretty girlfriend, his fancy car, and a father in jail. I sensed that some of what he said was more pretense than reality—a life that maybe he could have had, but circumstance hadn't dealt 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 following day. I walked the train, hoping I might run across him. Maybe he was in the sleeping car. Perhaps he was with his friends; they didn't hang with the white guys. Later that afternoon, I sat in the vista dome car, looking out across the passing desert. I wondered if Angel was out there somewhere walking a dusty road, looking for a new life somewhere. I glanced down at the jagged rocks girding the railway—the train was rolling fast, it was a chilling thought.
In the military, you meet so many people, make short acquaintances, then go on to never see them again. You wonder where they are, how are they doing, and in some instances, did they survive?
After our brutal, butt chewing introduction to Lackland, we enjoyed a brief respite from the barking DI's when we were assigned to the giant base induction building. There we received our shots, physicals, buzz cuts, and uniforms. First, of course, 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.' A teacher in high school had told us to use that term.
"You're WHITE!" she spat at me. "Don't you know who you are?" She tossed the forms back across the desk for me to re-sign.
It was like a slap in the face. I felt anger and confusion—anger for her crude reaction, and confusion why anyone could have this much hatred for something so trivial? I penciled in 'White' and moved on. That was my first encounter with racism. There would be many more.
Finally, we lined up outside in our new greens. We were now US military, mind, body, and clothes. Our first attempt at marching was a slap-stick farce of confusion. 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. Soon another instructor appeared and briefed us on the proper mess hall procedure.
"You will remain at attention at all times." He yelled in a high-pitched voice. He was thin and gawky and looked precisely like Barney Fife, the comic character played by Don Knots.
"You will address the food counter, THUSLY." He brought out a food tray and held it up as if it were a piece of highly technical equipment. "In the chow line, you will sidestep like THIS." He began moving sideways, clicking his heels together briskly. "As you sidestep, the tray will be held at the vertical. Then, when you reach a server, flip the tray to the horizontal and extend it to receive your food."
"NEXT!" he went on. "Pull it 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 the mess hall. Once inside, we were greeted by a 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 the guy ahead of me seemed overly animated in his sidestepping. Evidently, he had been inspired by Barney's presentation.
When the guy reached the first server, he snapped his tray down to the horizontal and thrust it forward. The server eyed him cautiously, then sat a big bowl of soup on it. The guy snapped the tray back, but THEN for some unexplainable reason, he flipped the tray back up to the VERTICLE.
The bowl hit him square in the face!
There was a loud crash as it smashed to the floor and shattered into a dozen pieces, spilling hot soup all over him, and unfortunately, the DI standing right behind him.
"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 as he kicked him in the butt. The kid raced for the door.
Next, all of us were all ordered back outside to stand at attention. The DI came out mad as hell and stood before us, a big wet spot on his nice clean greens.
"Because of this shit head," he announced, pointing to the Soup Kid. "You will get no chow, AND will spend the rest of the day marching!"
So all afternoon, we trudged around the airbase. First, we went through the long dusty prairie grass, over an endless stretch of tarmac, and then 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 had become 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.
From the mess hall, we were marched over to our barracks. There 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 watchman's club and began smacking it into his palm, projecting the personification of a sadistic male bondage dominator.
"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 started assembling the contents as close as we could to the prototype. Unfortunately, the ten minutes flew by much too fast, and my gear was barely in place when a whistle blew.
"ATTENTION!" Shouted the Bulldog.
He began walking down the line of trembling men 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 only slightly better reviews—one turned over—the other kicked clear down the aisle.
Then he came to a pudgy overweight kid's locker.
"What in the hell is THIS"? He was pointing to a small package of cookies the kid had evidently smuggled in.
"My personal items, Sir!" the poor kid answered meekly.
"Nothing. 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 then flipped it back up again.
"Get IN IT!" He ordered.
We all looked incredulously at the locker. Surely He 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, by twisting and scrunching his limbs together, squeezed into a lung-gasping fetal position. 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 overpacked suitcase, he placed his full weight on it until finally, it snapped shut.
"Is there anyone else who has PERSONAL items?" the Bulldog announced to the stunned barracks.
Real terror was now 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 the last 18 years. "Bless my locker and make it right."
But, at the front of the barracks, the assistant DI appeared alarmed over the kid in the locker. He motioned to the Bulldog, but he was ignored. 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. When he was done, there standing before us was a magnificent, white billowy snowman.
Suddenly an awful commotion arose from the fat kid's box! The assistant DI raced down between the bunks and drew 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 bright red, tears were 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 smack from the club for a wayward toothbrush.
At last, the inspection was finally over. Now the Bulldog ordered us into our bunks. "Except for you, MAGGOT." He boomed, pointing to the standing 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. I wondered what the hell I got myself into. Now 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.
It was early morning. I hadn't even realized I had gone to sleep. It was as if I had just lain down, then ordered right 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 didn't stop 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 later vocational training as an illustrator. Still, I always wondered why basic training had to be so brutal.
When basic was over, I was assigned to Amarillo Air Force base Texas. After three years there, I finally managed to reach the same three-stripe rank of the DI's in Basic.
I went to the Base Exchange and bought a green hat just like the one's the DI's at Lackland wore. I pinned my shiny new stripes on it, perched it on my head, and strutted around the base with a bit of a swagger, trying to look tough.
I took it back, put it in my locker, and never wore it again.
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