Basic Blues Part Deux

            As I’ve already indoctrinated the 3 or 4 people likely to read this drivel into the mechanics of how I arrived at Basic and the lay of the land, I’ll skip the preliminaries and go right into why life sucked so badly those first few weeks. The reasons are nearly countless, but I will try to cram as many as possible in for your consideration in the hopes my tales of woe buy some grudging admiration, or barring that, a good laugh.

            The best and worst times of day were chow times. The majority of this time was spent in relative peace, standing in formation waiting for the call to come in. Heel to toe we would file though and select a meal that was the easiest to shovel down in the sparse time we were allotted. Chili mac was a perpetual favorite for this, as was any kind of stew or casserole, no matter how heinous. The worst of concoctions in the belly was much preferred to the alternative one was guaranteed upon selecting a piece of meat that required cutting and chewing. A savvy gobbler could easily consume 12 ounces of chili mac in the time it took the thick skulled doofus next to him to cut and consume 2 bites of chicken or 1 of steak. In the first couple weeks, the object was to fill up as much as possible in as little time as possible and get the hell out before the next last person in your flight did. To be last was certain verbal abuse.

            The majority of the abuse came from the series of tables lined up at the front of the hall where an assemblage of TI’s sat on one side in banquet honoree or television show configuration with one side left empty. This area was known as the snakepit and like its namesake; it was simply somewhere you just didn’t want to be. The snakepit served one primary purpose – a strategic vantage point whereby the TI’s could view and terrorize all diners equally. Like a pack of hyenas, however, they preferred to collectively attack anyone separated from the herd. A typical situation was like this. An airman planned the completion of his or her meal poorly and found themselves marching toward the door when both no other diners were and no one was being abused at the pit that very moment. Hungry for fresh meat, they would call the unlucky person over, who would always look around hoping it wasn’t them, followed by the dejected approach once there was no hope of the alternative. The poor fool would stand at attention before the pit and be asked a barrage of questions formulated as such that any possible answer would drive the inquisitors into ever escalating levels of outraged fury. Red faced and shrieking they brought the wrath of the almighty down upon the quivering wreck of an airman until they were finally released teary eyed and broken to go tremble in formation outside.

            The trick of course was to first never leave alone; safety in numbers and all that, and to try to time your departure to when they already had a fish on the line and were busy gutting the bastard. I was pretty good about this, but for one time. I completed my meal without thinking and got up to bus my tray and headed for the door. I suddenly realized there was no one before me and no one before the snakepit either. Fuck. I had the door in my sights and was marching rapidly toward it when I heard “Airman!” Fuuuuuck. OK, there was a good possibility that someone was behind me and they were talking to him. “Airman! You, headed toward the door!” Fuuuck! Fuckity fuck fuck fuck! As if in a trance, I never looked around, never looked back and just kept on going. Here is the way I saw it. I’m either royally screwed for ignoring them to begin with if I turn around because then I will know they mean me. If I play dumb, there is a chance they will either buy my ignorance shtick or better yet, not come after me. I increased my pace. “AIRMAN! You with the bouncing walk and exaggerated arm swings!! Get back here!!!!” Ohhh yeah, they meant me all right! I pushed open the door and marched on out into the cool February air. They never followed.

            For the next 10 meals I dreaded the moment of recognition when they pinpointed me in the crowd and make me really pay for my direct disobedience, but the moment never came. The advantage to having them dress us alike and cut out hair alike was that it’s hard to tell us apart. I think some other poor schnook probably got netted and destroyed in my stead for daring to mimic my gait (which I make every effort to change after that), but that was a chance I was willing to take.

            A second area of chow related risk manifested sometime in the fourth week. As the flight became more efficient about doing things, slightly more time was allotted for meals and we eventually reached a place where it was possible for one to actually finish a meal with time to spare. The TI’s had anticipated this and set their insidious traps accordingly. The Mecca of the chow hall was located directly between the beverage counter and the snakepit and took the form of an enclosed desert carousel bursting with delicious pies, cakes, puddings and other tasty treats. After 4 weeks of chili mac and squishy dinner rolls, it sure presented a tempting package. We asked our own TI at some point if it was allowed for us to partake and he said that it was! A few days later a brave fellow named Gaulky took the plunge. With brass balls knocking around his military issue skivvies, he walked right up to the thing, selected a piece of pie, and sat back down unmolested. Not one of us breathed when he did it. This of course meant open season.

            The TI’s were clever you see and knew if they picked off the first few of the heard at the watering hole the rest would fear to follow. Instead, they waited and let us cultivate a real jonesing for the sweets and began the assault soon thereafter. The trick of course, like anything there, was to get your timing right. First, you eye up the carousel from afar, calculating when the item you wanted would come around to the door for quick pickings. No sense presenting more of a target than necessary. Glances would be exchanged between tables and at the right moment, several of us would get up at once and descend on the case. If no one was getting chewed out, it was certain that one of you would get picked off, but 4:1 odds were acceptable risk when the reward was so great. In some bizarre sense I always had the impression that the carousel was placed where it was in order to teach a lesson of war. The statement was always made that everything in Basic meant something and this was probably no exception. By the end, however, we were allowed access unmolested as we had reached a point where being screamed at was the least of worries.

            Being screamed at was, however, a significant worry for some time. It was also something I became rapidly immune to given my predilection for receiving more furious words of cussing more than the rest of the flight combined in the first week or so. You see, I was Element Leader 1, which meant that when marching in formation I was at the head of the line to the far left where it was impossible to see what anyone else was doing. An innocuous circumstance seemingly, but pair that with an individual who bounces when he walks, has a 50% success rate in distinguishing left from right, a tendency to wool gather in boring situations, and the immense importance the military attaches to perfect marching and you got yourself a situation.

            I mentioned earlier on that SSgt Hopkus learned my name first and it was in a marching circumstance that this information was revealed to me. Before that morning, myself and anyone else who screwed up were referred to as “genius”, “dumbass”, and “fucking cocksucking motherfucker”. We didn’t have nametags sewn to our shirts just yet so he had no real way of telling us apart. That morning, however, I was marching along thinking I was doing pretty good for a change. Suddenly I felt a presence directly behind me and could see the silhouette of the Smokey the Bear hat over my left shoulder. “Wolf, you better get your head out of your ass before I shove it so far up there it’s never coming back”, he hissed into my ear. It was the start of a great week especially knowing that he must have actually looked my name up to be ready in that instance.

            The following day was worse. We had been taught the correct procedure for breaking off column by column (or elements as they called them) to go to single file to march up stairs or anywhere narrow. The correct procedure was that Hopkus would call out “Forward from the right!”, and element leaders 1 through 3 were supposed to turn to the right and shout “Stand fast!” to the folks behind him while element 4 peeled off and went forward. I had completely missed that conversation somehow and had probably daydreamed though it. On the first go around everything went smoothly aside from my part. Having no idea what we were doing, I stared ahead blankly. I knew this was wrong when I saw the rage in his eyes and he strode right up to me and started screaming. At that moment I knew that I was supposed to have done something when he called the command and God help me if I failed to do so next time. He called it from the top once again, and as he did, I suddenly became aware that I still had no idea what I was supposed to do. Asking seemed like a bad idea, so instead I looked around to see what the other guys were doing. He was not pleased at all.

            I knew then that I was supposed to turn to the side and shout something, but my hearing being what it is, I was unable to discern exactly what. I was ruminating about this as he was simultaneously screaming directly into my face while banging the brim of his hat hard onto the bridge of my nose. Somewhere amidst the swearing and promises to bring upon my head and those of my children’s children the worst that military discipline had to offer were likely the words I was supposed to be shouting. Having tuned him out to try to recall when this was originally briefed, I missed the boat again. Third time now, from the top. “Forward from the right!!” I turned my head and shouted “Stay there!” For the first time since entering the military, the possibility of death in the line of duty became very real for me. I had never before seen anyone, in any circumstance, become that mad. Not in movies, TV, any sort of dramatic enactment, and certainly not in person. All I could think was, “Wow, he’s really pissed!” Given my nature I was momentarily tempted to fuck it up one more time just to see what would happen, but the ashen scared faces of the boys around me gave me enough pause to get it right. I got it on the fourth run and he glared at me with pure smoldering hatred as my element filed past him.

            Later that day I did the same thing, allowing for an even more furious outburst than the one earlier. When we got back up to the barracks several of the guys pulled me aside and said I had to get that right from now one as they couldn’t take hearing him go off like that again. They considerately helped me practice and I was spot on for the duration of my tenure. It was by no means the last time I royally screwed the pooch while marching, but the last time at least with that specific error. Drill practice was a nightmare as I constant let my element off in the wrong direction or worse yet, turned right instead of left and banged full force into the element leader to my side. I believe I still have a case of tinnitus from the outbursts that caused. The worst instance of such was right after lunch. Hopkus evidently had rice as part of his meal and managed to spit a piece right into my eye as he was screaming at me. I was unable to move and unable to blink it out. I’m very confident that he knew and continued to stare at me for a good 10 minutes leaving me unable to sneak my hand up and brush it out.

            Just when I thought I couldn’t be more on this guys bad side, by luck of the draw I ended up the front man on a random inspection. Backing up a moment, I should point out that the military is pretty tight on security. One of the measures used for the barracks is the constant present of a round the clock door guard who verifies each and every person who comes though the door via a written procedure. One of the ways the TI’s use to see if the person at the door would be trustworthy in time of war is to attempt to trick or threaten their way in. Overnight the door guards are the 4 element leaders, each taking a 2 hour shift. The duties of the door guard overnight is to both watch the door, but also wander the premises to ensure each and every thing is in inspection order; that being defined as looking as if created in a vacuum and never before been in the presence of anything organic. I was wandering the dark floor, tired as hell (nothing like having a 2:00 AM to 4:00 AM shift doing this crap every night) when a sudden furious pounding began at the door. Shit.

            I ran to the door and there was Hopkus, his Major Dad face framed in the tiny window, and looking pissed as all hell. I got the book out and ran though the paces. “Sir, please produce identification.” He held up a golf ball. Man, this mo-fo thought pretty highly of me! I referred him to the orderly room where after he produced a military ID with the same mean ornery expression. With great foreboding I let him in. He pushed right past me and had me follow him around the barracks for his inspection. From a hair found in the broom, a speck of dust on the day room floor, to a scuff in the tile (that I think he made) I was personally responsible for all of it. The threats started with him keeping an eye on me to being disallowed to eat that day, then that week, to him finally starting the paperwork to write me up to go away. Though the threat process initially gave me some worry, the sheer ludicrousness off his increasingly theatrical promises became somewhat comical. I hadn’t been in the military long, but it was my understanding that dishonorable discharges usually weren’t handed out for a water spot on the underside of a toilet seat. Wisely I kept this understanding to myself and exhibited the appropriate amount of chagrin. As expected, nothing came of it.

            The final straw came about the third week in. Although I had only been beaten up as door guard the once, the marching mistakes were a daily occurrence and despite my suspicion that the enraged hysterics expressed each time I screwed it up were nothing but drama, I think the energy he expended each day going though the routine began to wear on him. One day at the evening dayroom briefing he made a quick announcement that I was relieved of my position as Element leader 1 and that I would now be part of the dayroom cleaning crew. He turned to me, just a little apologetic, and said, “Son, you just can’t march.” This was the most joyous day in basic up until that moment! From there on in, things were coming up roses.

            I will leave you here, gentle reader, as I feel there are about 2 more installments to this story before it is all told.

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2 Responses

  1. Nice escape of the snakepit. I expect the usual prey of younger, naive airmen were not bold enough to try the old ignore trick. A favorite of mine, as it served me well over the years.

    Desert war games! I was just wondering it it was a lesson when you wrote it! Still I have no desire to suffer through this crap. Kudos for making it through, but then again, what was the alternative once you arrived? Life on the run? As much as something like this was romanticized during the Comstock Era, I have not doubt reality would be far worse than imagination.

    Classic Wolf. Daydreaming during instruction and no idea what to do the second time. LOL! “Stay there!” I almost peed my pants reading that. If only this SSgt is the next person to find this blog. I wish i could have been there to see you march into another column. Maxium you are not.

    The funniest thing I have read in some time. I can’t wait to hear of the screw up who trumped you.

    Thanks Mike.

  2. I cried over the “Stay there” as well.

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