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Basic Blues Part 1

       Having finally had my fill of Comstockery and other foolishness it was with a light heart and filthy conscience that I bade goodbye to weeping family and strode down the gateway of the Buffalo International Airport. The prestige of the ‘international’ designation mind you was on the basis of a small independent outfit that would fly you to Toronto if persuaded by the right price. I was a man now, military bound, and was more than ready to put the silliness behind me for good and deal exclusively with crisp professionals who respected and admired my finer qualities. The videos shown to me by my recruiter set high expectations.

            My first assignment, upon arrival at the airport, was to take charge of the contingent headed to Lackland AFB in San Antonio via Chicago. Military structure dictates that the person of the highest rank, being graded on a scale of E1 to E9 with time in rank being the deciding factor in a tie, always is saddled with the responsibility over the lesser scum around them. As I came in E3 due to my college pedigree and had actually signed up a full 6 months before my departure date, I was the lucky fellow. Having no idea of the extent of my authority, my head swam with the delicious giddiness of the power mad. Sensing a general unruliness about me, specifically centered around several chattering females who had no concept of the gravity of the situation I dynamically gave my first order, “It’s about time to board, so let’s move it on out!”. I should not have been surprised, yet was, that my declaration only brought some disinterested momentary stares from non-military travelers.

            Through some careful cajoling, albeit with significant protest from the female contingent who were not generally in tears, plus some critical backup from the flight attendant on the loudspeaker, the group lackadaisically boarded the plane. It was a smooth ride to Chicago and once arrived had a dual mission. The first of course was to find a way to get one of my few remaining smokes in as I knew it was disallowed in basic. True, the recruiter heavily advised me to quit well in advance making the process much easier, I eschewed his moronic advice choosing instead to procrastinate indefinitely to ensure a more hellacious adjustment to military life. Like all desperate smokers after a flight, I was able to find the exit (no smoking lounge in the dreaded O’Hare) and led a contingent of the other smokers safely to satisfaction.

            Having satiated my cravings I returned to conduct one of the mandatory head counts I was advised to carry out and was determined not to fail in my first mission. The head count came up short sending me into a bit of a tizzy. It was not unknown for trainees to get cold feet and high tail it out of the connecting airport to hitch on home or engage in other AWOL activities. In the military there are always at least two responsible parties for such behavior; one being offender who’s actions may be explained away and the schmuck with the clip board who’s may not. As the latter party I was quite apprehensive having seen enough military movies to understand that I would either be hunted down and attacked with German shepherds or placed in a brig with wacky international types with a penchant for buggery. “All right, who knows where these three ran off to?”

            The missing persons, coincidentally from the gaggle of females who already had given me so much trouble, were revealed by one of their co-conspirators to have traveled down to baggage claim for the purpose of transferring their luggage. They did not have the understanding that the airlines generally will do this for you, with varying degrees of success, and thought it was their responsibility. Idiots. Further questioning unearthed interesting facts such as none of the rest thought this needed to be accomplished and furthermore that there was no need to advise the clueless three of this fact. My acquaintanceship with ‘not my problem’ had indeed not been severed as I had hoped. I found them in baggage claim 10 minutes before boarding and with the help of an airline employee was able to convince them that their luggage was in good hands.

            At the San Antonio airport we were greeted by two Amazons wearing the traditional Smokey the Bear hats indicative of drill sergeants (known as ‘technical instructors’ or ‘TI’s’ in the AF). One gruffly took my clipboard, gave it a cursory glance and tossed it to the side without comment. We were bid to sit in the same tone one would address a mutt who had gotten into the trash. To my delight, one of the two took exception to a look given to her by one of the gaggle I had grown to hate and castigated her with no reserve until the difficult doxie was reduced to sullen moist eyed silence. I was elated that her naivety allowed her to take the gag so seriously.

            Allow me to take a moment to explain that I was under the mistaken impression that all the ‘Full Metal Jacket’ treatment was pretty much tongue in cheek and just a bit of hazing by the exclusive club I was invited to join. The videos shown to me by the rat bastard recruiter portrayed basic trainees giggling in formation, eating sumptuous leisurely meals and even riding go-karts. Because of this I was able to get through the first 2 days feeling part of a big inside joke that the others had not been privy too. Smirking inwardly, I went with the flow.

            The rest of the day and into the evening we were introduced to the famous ‘hurry up and wait’ concept the military so enjoys. There was much standing in line, filling out forms, and general standing about until about 3:00 AM. Finally, as we were falling asleep on our feet, we were divided into groups of 55 to 60 and carted off on busses, group by group. In the darkness my group, or ‘flight’ as it was called, exited the bus under the overhang of an enormous building with a brown door squarely in the middle. The door opened and we could see two individuals in the STB hats silhouetted in the dim light conversing. One of them approached and Kasparek to my right muttered, “I guess now is when the yelling begins”.

            Before us stood SrA Dan …., resembling a grown version of the bully in ‘Christmas Story’. His first order of business was to line us up in 4 columns by height using the time honored ‘taller tap’ method. Everyone faces forward and you tap the shoulder of the person in front of you if you are taller. Next everyone turns to the right and does the same thing. It was never explained why it was so critical to order the flight by size, and in such a way that the tallest people were at the front making it impossible for the rest of us to see, but the TI’s evidently found it very important and would fly into legendary rages if things weren’t just so. Doing it the first time, we naturally fucked it up royally bringing forth the first dirge of verbal violence. He followed this up with a threat to one of the more clueless individuals that if he didn’t get with the program, SrA…. would stick his boot so far up the fellow’s ass that he would taste Kiwi. He was shortly after heard to whisper, “What’s kiwi anyway?”

            Tired as all hell we were marched up into the barracks and brought to a halt each before a metal frame bed topped with a mattress nearly as thick as a sheet of plywood with scratchy woolen blankets stretched over them with the tautness of a snare drum. “Get in the goddamn beds and get to sleep!” We were all too eager to comply but thwarted by the complex cover scheme which brought forth panicked struggling from the troops and vitriolic cursing from the angry hatted fellow. Once all had managed to get beneath the covers the lights went out. In the darkness I could hear the sniffs and gentle sobs of the overtired younger guys away from home for the first time. Rolling my eyes, I tried to get some sleep, though already pinging from nicotine withdrawal.

            I had been asleep for a full 20 minutes when I dreamed that someone was screaming for us to get up out of the beds. No dream this but SSgt Jeff Hopkus, our official TI. Tall, loud and resembling a meaner looking Major Dad, Hopkus shouted us out of the beds. We stood there confused and sleepy as he walked up and down the aisle between the rows berating us soundly and barking nearly incomprehensive orders. “Was that how the goddamn beds looked when you got in them you fucking geniuses?” It wasn’t but we’d be damned if we recalled the complicated folding scheme configuration from a half hour prior. We did our best as we were treated to a profane diatribe about how much we truly sucked. And this was the prevailing theme of basic; we were the early Israelites, not the savvy ones but the dumb ones with the golden calf, beset by a furious deity who was presumably working for our own good in an angry drunken stepfather kind of way. If you were doing anything but standing at attention, it was almost certainly wrong.

            Some of the guys were wrong more often then other and I fell firmly in the former lot and had the unwelcome distinction of having Hopkus learn my name first. Never a good sign in any military circumstance. “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” could only have been based on idea that they knew what to call poor dead asshole. I’m getting ahead of things here as I want to touch on some of the more pleasant aspects of the first few days.

            First thing we learned was chow procedure – the most wonderfully fulfilling yet pants soiling frightening event to happen three times every day. At the right time of day, all the flights in the squadron building would form up outside the chow hall door and wait to be called. We’d send in a specially designated individual called the chow runner, who would announce to the powers inside that Flight number whatever we were was ready to eat, and they’d give him a number based not on the order of arrival, but how well he announced our presence. Apparently he pleased them very little as he would emerge most of the time with the bad news that we were to go in last or next to last. So for a good hour we would wait there, standing silently at ease and reviewing our training manuals. When it was time to eat, we would line up heel to toe and file in. In case you wondered, yes, heel to toe generally meant that if the fellow in front of you had a fat ass, well, that’s what your boys were pressed up against.

            So, bum to nuts we’d file in, make complex facing movements to grab the tray and silverware and move on down the line making our selections of the fare that meal. Generally speaking, the food was surprisingly good. We were allowed to take all we wanted, but leaned the first day of that folly. Taking our trays to the beverage center the temptation of cola and coffee beckoned but were only a tease as we were not allowed caffeine. Water or bug juice was the only two options and none were brave enough to test the restrictions. Glasses full, we’d sit four to a table, in order, with all four present before anyone could sit. Once allowed, we could dig in to the grub in silence. I still recall that first meal when I had my first fork full on its way to my mouth when Hopkus barked, “Hydrate and get out!” On this occasion and many after, if he felt we would arrive at our next appointment less than an hour early, he would order the whole flight out as soon as the last person was seated. We were given only enough time to drink our juice before dumping the taxpayer provided grub into the garbage. More on the wonders of the chow hall further along.

            After the first non-meal we were marched over to the barbers for the well known ritual shaving. One by one we sat silently in the chair while the cantankerous old barber would slam the clippers against your skull attempting to get as close to the skin as possible. Within seconds I completely bald for the first time; a condition I would soon adjust to much to my dismay. Next it was off to uniform processing where we shed our civilian clothes in favor of Battle Dress Uniform (BDUs) for the next 7 weeks. The boots were stiff and inflexible at first, creating magnificent painful blisters on my feet and ankles. Everything we were to touch was to be official military issue from our dog tags to tighty-whities. We were given part of our first paycheck in advance, only to turn it over to buy supplies at the BX – toiletries, stationary, stamps, pantyhose and absolutely NO candy or other foods. Yes, I did say pantyhose. As it turns out, in an environment where we had to keep the barracks looking as if no one lived there nor had anyone ever been there, they made fantastic dust rags, picking up each and every spec of dust. To my knowledge no one wore them, at least there anyway, even to take advantage of the flattering control top.

            Within a day or so we were set in our routine. At 4:30 AM sharp reveille would start over the loudspeaker and we would be up like a shot, with 30 seconds to get dressed and form up outside. Once there we would receive the safety briefing of the day, with favorites being the “use the goddamn fucking hand rails on the stairs” spiel and the “change and wash your motherfucking underwear before you get swamp crotch” lecture. Then for reasons still obscure to me, we were required to sing the Air Force song. The first couple days of that were rough as no one could remember the words accurately. The TI’s, like everything else, had very strong feelings about that song and would stomp around and throw things with every mistake. Fully awake after that (also because we were in short sleeves outside in Jan which is about 30 degrees even in San Antonio), we marched back up to do the morning routine.

            Morning routine was to make the beds to quarter bouncing perfection, brush teeth, shave, clean the joint so that it looked like no one had ever been there, then form up for breakfast. We usually had up to 15 minutes to get all of this done. On the second day I shaved so fast that I took off a dime sized piece of skin. Because I had to shave just as fast every day after and always hit that same spot, I had a constant trail of dried blood running down my face for the duration. Then came breakfast, followed by PT (physical training), shower, appointments, lunch, more appointments, classroom lectures, dinner, chores, cleaning and then the most blessed time of all, bed. By the end of the second day, my initial thought that this was a big put on was revised and locked away in my hefty file of things was I was unquestionably very wrong about.

            It is clear to me that the basic experience is going to take a few entries to get though. Next time I will recount the chow time terrors, why he learned my name first, and introduce a few new characters.


2 Responses

  1. Who does not know the airline transfers your bags to your connecting flight! I did not think it was possible to fathom that! “Mr. Mike, this is Mr. Karma gently rapping at your chamber door.”

    I find it hilarious that the door to you barracks was BROWN! Even more ironic is that your CO was named DAN!

    What is kiwi? Did SrA Dan have Kiwi-toed boots as opposed to the far more popular steel-toed variety?

    What happened to your civilian clothes?

    I find it ironic, given the military’s stance on gays, that they provide you pantyhose.

    An awesome beginning to a new era of your stories, all of which are new to you. Perhaps all soldiers need to start a blog as therapy.

  2. Kiwi is the brand of shoe polish we used. The threat indicated that SrA Dans boot would be shoved so far up the guys ass he would taste the polish.

    Our civilian clothes were taken and locked up the day we arrived, not to appear again until graduation. The theory was the same as prison – hard to escape and run away in a very recognizable uniform. There were actually signs near the base on the roads that warned against picking up anyone wearing BDUs.

    The pantyhose, like I said, was simply for cleaning! Though I think some of the guys continued to buy them anyway.

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