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Basic Blues Part Tres

           Wherein there is absolutely no doubt that the majority of basic training was potpourri of terror, intimidation, tinnitus producing screaming, and of course endless sniping, there were instances that broke the day to day tedium. I will of course begin with the latter to prepare the reader for the former in order to enhance the well appreciated glory of such activities as writing letters and receiving fabled patio breaks.

            As oft mentioned before, the vast majority of our time when not waiting in lines, filling out paperwork or waiting up to 2 hours to enjoy a 5 minute meal, was spent making our immediate surroundings look as if they spontaneously manifested in a vacuum by some divine unction of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, never to be touched by our grubby worthless mitts. It was to be presumed by our inspectors, collectively known as ‘Stand Team’, that this truism applied not only to the facilities and floors, but our personal belongings as well. Where I previously described a midnight dressing down based on a hair found within the haystack of the broom and some dust on the dayroom floor, Stand Team liked to focus on well shined boots, the precise way in which our laundry bags were to be hung, and most critical, the geometric perfection of our folded tee shirts. I cannot overestimate the importance of the latter.

            For collective items, teams were formed that were responsible of the upkeep of their respective area. Least preferable of these was the latrine team headed by a chosen leader with the unfortunate designation of ‘Latrine Queen’. Trying to keep the facilities inspection ready called for drastic measures that brought much hatred upon the queen that included a banning of use of the urinals, all but two sinks and toilets, a stricture against use of the showers except after Physical Training (PT), and the wildly unpopular rule about urination in the feminine position only. Even with such draconian rules rigidly followed, the poor queen barely made it within an inch of graduation having taken hit after hit for flush residuals due to the low flows and the occasional errant short and curly.

            Personal items were our own problem and maintenance bordered on the ridiculous. Some items we found our way around such as declining to clean our razors to inspection readiness but instead spending our meager pay on using and displaying a fresh disposable every day; chucking the used one in the trash. Annoying was the rule declaring the necessity of writing down and updating the serial number of each and every paper bill in one’s possession on an ‘as changed’ basis, including singles. The concept was to be theft deterrent and if asked, one was expected to be able to produce a money list upon demand as well as the bills with matching serial number. The penalty of mistakes was grave and included disbarment from the glorious patio which will be described later. Worst and most time consuming was the folding of the tee shirts.

            Each tee shirt we owned was expected to be folded in an exact 6” X 6” square, pressed absolutely flat, and most important, with edges flush perfectly with each other. The effort expended to meet compliance was Herculean. Folding was accomplished using a ruler and iron, pressing with full steam settling each and every fold and crease made to razor precision. This involved considerable teamwork, the alleged basis for the exercise, and my partner had the misfortune to have fat fingers I burned with the iron on multiple occasions. McMahon was also the one double lefty who marched worse than I did; earning him a place of respect for both calamities. Making the edges flush required pressing the folded shirt between two books and delicately plucking at the edges with a set of tweezers. Each shirt took an estimated 8 hours of labor. Stand Team would randomly open locker drawers and inspect the shirts, maliciously flinging them to the bed when done and assuring the ultimate destruction of the effort. Those bastards nailed my locker 3 times to my enraged frustration.

            The reward for a job well done was the coveted patio break. Oh, the very sound of those words together sent us into shivers of lustful anticipation! To earn one of these unparalled treats the flight would have to pass a Stand Team inspection with 0 or fewer demerits, accomplish a perfect drill session, or unilaterally invade Iraq and successfully win the heats and minds of the people; nearly impossible stuff but it did happen. A reader’s picture of this patio is probably sufficiently inflated at this point to represent a lavish tropical result or at least a Dave & Busters. No, the object of our desire was a poured slab of concrete, roughly the area of a midsized kitchen, containing several vending machines, a picnic table, and about 10 pay phones. The typical patio break lasted about 10 minutes.

            I still remember the first time we were awarded this prestigious honor and the chaos that ensured. The time was called and we simultaneously clogged the stairs to get down in short order. With 10 phones and 50 guys it was common courtesy to keep it to 2 minutes or under talking to weepy relatives, wives, girlfriends, or one’s bookie. The presence of two flights there simultaneously halved the time. The other 8 minutes was spent either waiting in line for one of the phones or waiting in line at the machines with hopes of being able to choke down a Coke and a Snickers before time was called. Oftentimes I would find myself attempting to ingest candy and talk on the phone at the same time; such was the way things worked out. Explaining the cruelty of the place was irritatingly difficult with a mouthful of Good-n-Plenty. I found another time saver in the Josta machine; an experimental soda made by Pepsi or Coke with the great tastes of guarana, saw palmetto, and panther if one was inclined to believe the can design. Hideous, but strangely addicting.

            There were a number of rules affecting the use of the patio, enforced at all times. The first of course was don’t shake the vending machines, even if it was your last buck and that Almond Joy was just barely hanging in there. Were you so unlucky to have this happen, you prayed that a buddy was in line behind you, otherwise some sneaky fuck would wait for you go back up, then get the old two for the price of one. Enforcing the rule was a patio guard assigned from your or another flight. In one instance I recall the patio guard being from our sister flight. She stood there keeping a wary eye out when an enormous TI came striding into the area and cut to the front of the line (as they were wont to do). He looked over at the poor airman guard, grabbed the top of the machine and started vigorously rocking it back and forth. The frightened woman stood there without a clue of what to do as this cruel behemoth slammed the back of the machine into the cinder block wall behind it. “I’m shaking the vending machine!”, he’d look over at her and grin, “I’m shaaaaaking the machine!!”. I could not decide if it was more likely that she would begin to cry or the moke would topple the machine atop himself. I hoped for the giant to fall with a vague idea that free snacks would come loose when he did. Before either could happen, he suddenly stopped and strode away.

            The second rule, far more important than the first, was that all food and drink had to be consumed or left in the patio. The core reasoning for the prohibition of edibles was simply to avoid any chance of having to deal with an infestation of vermin in the barracks. The way it was presented to us, however, was that doing so would present exceptionally grave damage to our collective national security. Finding even a crumb would bring on unholy wrath and presumably 7 years of bad luck as well. We knew in our hearts that it would be less analogous to the infamous jelly donut scene from ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and more like the administrative discipline scene from film classic ‘Starship Troopers’. Our TI went so far as to tell us a parable of how dirtbag Airman Johnny (the fictional whipping boy in all cautionary tales) snuck up a candy bar, felt guilty and flushed it down the toilet. The system, he explained, was rigged with sensors that could apparently distinguish between a turd and a 5th Avenue as well as Bill Murray. He explained how they stopped the sewer system to retrieve the candy as evidence and used it to court martial poor dumbass Johnny. “Integrity”, he explained, “is doing the right thing even when no one is watching. And we are ALWAYS watching”. For the record, unlike most, I didn’t buy the tale.

            As time went on and we got more efficient at the folding, laundering, dusting, scrubbing, sewing and other 1950’s stereotypical housewife duties, we actually got just a little bit of personal time. Not that we could do much with it as we were not allowed to go anywhere or really do anything aside from extra PT, study our BTM IIs (Basic Training Manual, second edition), or write letters. I despised push ups and had the damn propaganda memorized early on, so I concentrated on my correspondence.

Each letter was specifically tailored to the recipient in order to best showcase the qualities they would best appreciate; sarcastic, profanity filled bravado to friends and emotional anguished letters to family with the appropriate levels of longing. My attention to detail in the content did not extend to the envelopes however. Naturally the two polar opposites were the ones to cross with Dan of all people receiving the dutiful son letter to my parents and they receiving a filthy diatribe filled with longing for booze, broads, beer and smokes. I was almost happy to be in Texas when the misfortune was unveiled. What also didn’t help was that a few months prior to leaving my name and address somehow (ahem, you know who you are) got submitted to all manner of pornography lists. When I changed my address to my parents to so that they could pay the last few of my bills, their mailbox was suddenly inundated with full color spreads peddling ‘Chicks with Dicks Turn Tricks’ and ‘Gang Bang Poontang’. That my 11 year old sister generally brought in the mail did nothing towards helping them see the humor in the situation. Though Dan was conveniently blamed, to this day they harbor suspicions that I am a degenerate of the sleaziest variety at heart.

While the postal system may have tarnished my image at home, it did not play favorites and gave my family a shot at making things a bit more difficult for me. On the first day we were instructed to inform our families that were not to receive packages, and certainly not packages with food in them or there would be dire consequences. One day toward the end of things we assembled in the day room for mail call. Hopkus would call our names on the envelopes, open them for contraband, view and confiscate naked shots of girlfriends and wives, and toss you your message. That day along with the mail pile was a great big package. They wouldn’t have. I told them. My stomach was clenched up in my throat through the whole mail call, Hopkus torturing us by withholding the name of the doomed fool. Please please…

“Wolf!” Fuck! He had the thing in his hands, reading off the label. Though some time had passed since I was the primary object of his ill tempered wrath, his eyes glowered dusky red in the coming twilight. His stare demanded explanation but said nothing as I rose. With a dash of flare and uncharacteristic bravado, I rose to my feet and said, “Uhhhhh…” Before I could make my way forward, he whipped out a razor sharp hunting knife, most likely to gut me like some jackass rabbit for the offense of my pedigree. He sliced the brown wrapping open and let spill forth pounds of chocolate, pistachio nuts, chips and other goodies. No one breathed, only drooled, and Hopkus stared at me with a look of bitter betrayal. Had it been 2 weeks prior, I probably would have been undone, but fortune smiled on me that day, for Hopkus must have gotten some that morning, and a good some at that. With uncharacteristic generosity, he allowed the flight to escort the booty to the patio and consume all we could in 8 minutes time, leaving the rest to the vultures. 

At the fourth week we hit an important milestone of sorts. We had crossed a threshold where the likelihood of any one of us attempting to abandon ship though a self inflicted injury or realization of homosexuality had dropped significantly. At this point the AF felt justified in fitting us with our dress blues – a substantially more expensive set of uniforms than the old BDUs. While on the outside spending the day being fitted for clothes is not exactly the cup of tea of most men, it was better than the usual grind. Making it more interesting was the explicit instructions from old Hopkus. In his experience, more than one airman would manage to fuck up some manner of his dress blues before graduation, meaning slightly more work for him. He explained this with the instruction that if it wasn’t nailed down, take it. We complied with gusto and a strength of purpose in abundant excess of anything attempted yet before. It was our first chance to stick it to the man since arriving, and we were hungry for vengeance.

I can only attribute our remarkable success to the presence of dozens of former petty thieves in our ranks. Where I was able to sneak away with an extra tie, the combined effort of the flight was inspiring when piled high upon several of the bunks once separated from the legitimate issue. Dozens of shirts, every size, pants of the same, shoes in every size, trench coats, winter coats, hats, belts and sundry. When Hopkus came in to view our tribute, he stopped dead, mouth agape. “Holy shit! You guys took all this? Shit. How the fuck am I going to explain this?” There was nothing he could say to us as we followed his explicit instructions to the letter, but in doing so left him with massive evidence of grand larceny only he could be held accountable for. He kept an odd assortment, but over the next few weeks he sent small groups back to clothing issue to return some ‘mistakes’, each time identifying themselves from a different flight.

Despite the holy terror he presented himself as during the first few weeks, SSgt Hopkus eased off a bit as time went on and the flight in general began to like him for the most part. Sure, he was still quite the asshole and enjoyed reminding us frequently, but he told asshole jokes now that given the absence of the same, were well taken.

The last installment of Basic Blues will deal with fun with small arms, the navigation of a watery Confidence Course on a frigid day, the days of liberty, a fallen hero, and the final days.


8 Responses

  1. Well, the story of the stolen blues easily tops Stay There. I nearly vomited from laughter.

  2. Stolen blues was good, but not as good as “stay there”.

    I recall hearing of a letter you sent to Matt, and I know I got a few. Damed if I was not still in the mode to erase you from my memory, I would still have them.

    Dan mailing porn is more classic Dan.

  3. He got me again with that later on in tech school, but I’ll get there eventually. I’m actually going to try to keep these in chronological order.

  4. I’ve got to tell you that I didn’t sign you up for any porn list to your parents house. I sent the other porn, but not that porn. I don’t know who did.

  5. Well, I’m inclined to believe you since you have always owned up. Maybe Aaron was getting me back for subscribing him to 17 magazine as Erin. He was bewildered at how hard it was to cancel, although would have been less so had he known that after he would try I’d send letters to them from Erin saying my ‘total bitch’ ex friend was the one trying to do it. This of course was during the time of conflict.

  6. You scurvy son of a bitch!

  7. I received a most unusual package in the mail yesterday! A package of dried out tiny crabs for my Museum of Unusual Food – excellent find! The Museum was sorely lacking anything of the crustacean variety and has taken a place of honor between the canned alligator and the kangaroo jerky. Thank you Aaron for the excellent addition! I was tempted to try them but felt they are more valuable as a conversation piece then a culinary delight. Thanks again!

  8. You can thank my wife, who spotted the crabs, and pointed out they are something you would appreciate.

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