We said our good by’s at the house. Mom had tears in her eyes all morning. Every time she passed me, she hugged me again. Dad kept yelling for me to get ready or I was going to miss the bus. This only helped confirm what I had been thinking over this last month. Actually, I didn’t blame him. We were more than a handful. My not being there would make a difference. Just how much, I never could have imagined!
As I was stacking my suitcase and bag by the front door, I heard a sobbing and looked in the living room. Lynn was huddled in the corner behind the couch, holding tissues to each of her eyes. I didn’t really know what to say to her. After all, this was not the Walton family. I’ve told her to “Shut-up” Knock it off,” and “Leave me alone” more times than I told her “good night.”
But, this was the new, older me and for the first time I can remember I felt like an older brother. I walked over, sat down and put my arm around her. I felt that loyal, faithful, trustworthy, reliable, steadfast, and confident feeling, and was certain that from then on it would happen more. This time, I was the bigger brother who was going to “fix it!”
“Why are you crying Lynn?”
I was as calm and patient as I could sound.
“I am only going to Basic Training! I will be back in eight weeks!”
I was ready with more reassuring words, if needed. She stopped crying for a second, looked up at me and gave me her best “Pissy” look.
“I'm not crying about you!”
Then she raised her voice, obviously trying to reach the ear of a parent, if one was near by.
“Steve has my doll, and he’s squeezing her neck!”
“Well Dad, you about ready?”
I stood at the door, trying to make like it was that last look around, not really getting into it. Everyone came to the door, Lynn with her doll, Steve grinning, Doug standing in the background. I shook both the guys hands and said I’d see them soon then gave Lynn a hug. She squeezed me really hard. That felt a little better. I looked at Mom. She was a wreck!
“Mom! I’ll be back in just eight weeks! Think of it as me going to summer camp!”
That wasn’t going to convince her. I gave her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, the first one I ever gave her. For that moment I felt like I could protect her, if I had to. Wow! A strong emotion surged through my body and I felt energized realizing what it was. Everything made sense, and I liked it. I was going to think some more on these things, when there was more time.
One more hug and I was in the car. Dad drove. When he was in the car, he drove. As soon as we pulled out of the driveway, I started thinking of things we could talk about. I was still trying to think of something as we pulled into the bus station twenty minutes later. He pulled into a space right next to a bus marked “Fort Wayne” turned the car off and sat there for a moment. I froze. I had no idea what to do or say at this moment. I had no idea that a moment like this would ever happen.
He turned to face me and hesitated for a second. I could tell he had a lot of things to tell me and probably wasn’t sure where to start. My Dad knew a lot, about a lot of things and always seemed calmly in control of whatever situation he was in.
He had been in the Army Air-Force during WW-II. He was a Radio Direction Finder. For much of the time he was stationed on some small island in a little radio hut, sometimes in hostile territory, waiting for any lost plane in the area to call. My Dad, along with two other little radio huts, on two other small islands, could triangulate their position, and save lost pilots, with pretty good accuracy.
That was all I knew about it. He didn’t talk about it much. If he ever started to, Mom would change the subject as soon as she could. It was only when all the aunts and uncles, many veterans themselves, would get together at grandmas, and the beer would flow. Then he got to tell some stories.
Whatever advice he would give me now would certainly be followed to the letter. I had probably fifteen minutes and was ready to listen to whatever he had to say. I was interested too, another first.
“Just keep an open mind!”
He nodded, and turned back to open his door.
“I sure will Dad!”
He went back and opened the trunk. I followed. If this was “The Talk” I wanted to make sure to be a part of it.
I grabbed the bag out of the trunk with my left hand, and stuck my right hand out to shake. He smiled.
“I’ll walk up there with you! You have a few minutes yet!”
He grabbed one of my bags and we started walking up to where I had to check in.
“Just make the best of it!”
He continued, like he had been talking to me all along.
Of course I will make the best of it. I had seen the posters. I was going to make the very best of it!
“I will Dad!”
I was mad at myself for not making better conversation but really did not know what more I was supposed to say.
Then, I saw it again! When he turned to look at me there was a look, a gleam in his eye and it was a satisfied, prideful look, like maybe I was starting to turn out okay after all. Again, it felt good!
Then, he reached into his pocket and pulled out something and stuck it in my hand.
“Your mother and I thought you might need this!”
It was a fifty-dollar bill, totally unexpected! I had not thought much about money. I had exactly twenty-four dollars in my wallet and figured that would hold me for at least a month. What did I know about anything? What I didn’t make at my job, and chores, Mom usually made up the difference. That was my total financial expertise.
“Now, don’t just go out and blow this! You know how money burns a hole in your pocket! Hold on to it for when you need it!”
“I will Dad! And Thanks! Thanks a lot! Tell Mom thanks for me too!”
“I will David!”
He smiled. So did I. I liked this time we were having together. We never just stood and smiled together. He was a handsome man, my Dad, and at that moment, I felt closer to him than ever before. But, I didn’t know what to do or say about it, and I don’t think he did either, so we just stood there smiling.
A couple more minutes passed and nothing more was said. We both realized that this was about it. I wasn’t disappointed at all in how it went. This was just how he was. He was an only child and grew up in the country, so he didn’t really know how to talk to kids, especially his own. We all knew he loved us and deep down we knew he only wanted what was best for us. But, what I have learned from my Dad, I learned by watching the way he lived his life.
“Well! See you in a couple months!”
He stuck out his hand. I grabbed it with a firm grip. This was a rite of passage thing here, and I knew he hated a “dishrag” handshake. He smiled as he realized what I just did, probably because it was quite firm.
Then I thought I saw his eyes water over, just a tiny bit, but will never know, because he quickly turned and walked away. It was like something sucked the feelings right out of me. It pulled everything I knew I could depend on right out of me, leaving me feeling empty inside.
I was in a totally new situation, with brand new surroundings, and have to admit that I'm more than a little frightened, not at all sure of myself. Was all of my confidence and strength, coming from where I was, not who I was? Now that I am on my own will I have to start all over? I realized, quite sarcastically, that it was a little late to worry about that now. The bus was starting, and a sergeant was yelling at all of us to get on board.
I found a window seat by myself, letting anyone know that if they wanted to sit with me it was okay. Looking around at my fellow adventurers. I found it really hard to picture that this motley group would be future soldiers. Long hairs! Really short hairs! Backwards baseball hats! Tattoos!
I must have got on the circus bus, by mistake. Even though most of these guys looked young to me, none of them looked as young as I was feeling. Some were older, maybe nineteen or twenty. Most didn’t look too pleased to be here. They were probably the draftees. They just sat there, resigned to their fate.
“Anyone sitting here?”
It was a tall skinny kid, pretty close to my age. He was grinning ear-to-ear.
“Sure, go ahead!”
I smiled back.
“Want to hang together?”
He looked like he needed a friend. Did I look this desperate?
I stuck my firm grip out and he took it. I felt a little better now, and was beginning to understand what holds the Army, and all services together, your buddy’s.
We arrived at the fort, which wasn’t really a fort. There was a fort nearby, where some soldiers had defended Detroit way back when, but that was for tourists. This was a dark dank cement building with passageways going everywhere. We were given a map, told to strip to our shorts, and report back when we were finished going to all the places marked on the map.
All I remember was “Stick your arm up! Stick your arm up! Stick your arm up! Bend over! Then, someone stuck their finger up my butt, and I was done! We were free to go until the following morning, with several warnings to stay out of certain areas, and out of trouble. We were reminded that this was downtown Detroit.
There wasn’t much I wanted to do right away, at least until my arms started working again, and the greasy feeling in my butt went away. Bruce met up with me back in the room we shared, which was an actual hotel before the Army got a hold of it. One look told me he was as sore as I was and in no hurry to go out. We agreed to go out later that evening and see the sights.
We woke up later than planned and decided to go out anyway, but stick close to the hotel. Bruce was from Tennessee. We weren’t totally ignorant about what went on in big cities, but knew little more about it than what we saw on Dragnet, and the news.
We walked outside the front door and stood there looking up. I got dizzy after a few seconds and leaned back against the front of the building. Neither one of us was in any hurry to venture too far away from the protection of the lights right in front of our building.
I heard sirens in three different places all at once. Someone was giving someone else a good cussing out, somewhere around the corner. Signs and lights were everywhere! Most of them were advertising ladies, from half dressed to not dressed. Shows twenty-four hours a day! Club next to club, all up and down the strip. And some guy in front of each one, yelling out that his show was better than all the other shows, passing out pieces of paper to anyone passing by saying they were for a free drink inside.
And there, right in the middle of it all was a little church with one little light in front, and a sign over the door saying “Always open!
Anyone welcome! I smiled as I thought of “The little mouse that roared!” It reminded me that there was one place of refuge I could always turn to, no matter how bad it seemed all around me.
I hadn’t been paying much attention to what was happening around me, and before I realized it there was a tall skinny black man standing close enough to hear, but not invading any personal space. He caught my eye and smiled. I smiled back, not wanting to appear afraid or anything, even though I was just a little.
Then he introduced himself. He had a quiet voice and a gentle air about him so I relaxed a little. I was pretty sure that muggers did not introduce themselves first. In the light of the hotel I was not thinking that we were about to be mugged or anything, but was a little curious about why he would bother talking to us.
It’s always safe to talk about the weather. Besides, what else could we ever have in common? That seemed to be his cue. He flicked his cigarette to the ground and moved closer.
“You men look like you could use a little entertainment!”
I liked the “Men” part and was about to explain that we weren't when he started talking about, a show.
“A show?” I asked.
“Oh Man! You just got to see this!”
He said all excitedly. Then, he proceeded to explain to us that there was this hotel room right up the street where all kinds of very exciting things were going on, at this very minute!
“What kind of exciting things?”
He had my interest. He moved a little closer and talked a little softer.
“Every kind of sexual thing you can imagine, sometimes two or three things at a time! And!”
He added with a wicked grin.
“You can stay as long as you want and watch it over and over again!”
Bruce started, then hesitated.
“What about what my man?”
Then the guy smiled.
“Oh! You want to know can you get in on the act. Is that what you wanted to know? Could daddy get him a little action?”
Bruce blushed. The guy had him pegged.
I thought Bruce was pretty bold in asking his question, but I won’t lie and say I wasn’t curious. Just curious though!
By now the guy was right up in our faces like he was taking us into his confidence.
“Listen here! I'm not supposed to tell you this but these girls just can’t seem to get enough! I think they give them Spanish fly or something cause they are always horny! Here’s a little tip! If you guys act like gentlemen, your more than likely gonna leave there very happy!”
I had heard about Spanish fly, so he had to be telling the truth.
“What's the catch?” Bruce asked.
Good question! I thought. I had to start acting like I wasn’t so in the dark about things.
The man replied, looking like he was hurt.
I looked at Bruce with a look that said “cool it!” I didn’t want to scare this guy and a “memorable evening” away. It didn’t seem to bother him and he went on.
“All you gentleman got to do… is come up with!”
He hesitated for just a second, sizing us up with professional expertise.
"A hundred bucks!"
Then, after taking another look he added.
I saw any chance the possibility of my first real venture in the sexual world fly right out the window. And I was very disappointed.
“I'm sorry! I don't have that much!”
I started to walk away.
“Not so fast gentlemen!” He ran to catch up with us.
“Hold on! Okay! I’ll tell you what!”
We stopped and let him catch up. We looked at each other. Maybe there was still a chance. He had this look on his face like we were about to take advantage of him. I didn’t feel a bit sorry for him. We were just being good businessmen. As much as we both wanted to see this “show” we were going to hold out for the best deal.
“Are you men going in the service?”
I wondered if it was that obvious.
Then he said, with a resigned tone in his voice.
“I'm not supposed to do this and I am probably gonna get in a lot of trouble with my boss!
He hesitated again, looking us over, apparently trying to decide if we were worth his sacrifice.
“Awww what the heck! How much you got?”
Now that's more like it! Feeling like a great negotiator, I dug out my wallet. Bruce did the same. The first thing I saw was the fifty-dollar bill that my Father had recently pressed into my hand, and his words came back to me.
“Don’t just go out and blow this!”
For a moment I could hear common sense telling me that he was right and I should just hold on to my money. I would probably need it before long. But that didn’t last long! There was another feeling, much stronger, that was going to dominate this conversation. After all, what am I going to need it for? The Army supplies everything we need!
And, as if I needed more convincing, what better thing could I spend it on? I thought again about the wonders we would see, and just maybe, the things we might do!
I thought about trying to say I only had fifty, but Bruce spoke first.
“I got eighty bucks!”
I thought that if I went much less he would turn me down. The only excitement I would have then would be Bruce’s tales of his experience.
“I got seventy four!”
I blurted that out, wishing I had saved at least four dollars for something to eat before we got to Kentucky. The free meals didn’t start until then.
The guy looked at us briefly before answering.
“Well, there goes my commission! Just think of it as my gift to you two soldiers on your way to defend our country!”
Well! Another perk!
“Okay, give me what you got and the show of the century is yours!”
I looked at Bruce. He was looking very excited. This guy had hit all the buttons.
“Why the heck not!”
I reached into my wallet and pulled out the bill that had come with good advice, and, the twenty-four dollars that had taken me a few weeks to save. After a few seconds of contemplation I handed it to the guy and watched as Bruce did the same.
The guy pocketed the cash and produced a key with one of those egg shaped plastic things attached to it. It was a well-worn hotel key, but how could he have a room key without actually having a room there? He handed it to me and pointed to a tall building about a block away.
“Its right there boys, right in that building! The room number is on the key! Go enjoy yourselves! I know you will! Better hurry! You don’t want to miss a thing!”
I wanted to ask him whether we were supposed to knock first or just use the key but when I turned around he was already walking away and had put quite a distance between us already. We figured we would just use the key. Otherwise he wouldn't have given us one, just told us the room number. I looked at Bruce.
We walked the block to the building he pointed out. Probably at one time, many years ago, it had been a classy place. As we headed for the elevator the desk clerk watched us. He didn’t say anything. I figured he was in on it. How else could they continue to operate something like this? I was getting a little excited, trying to picture some of the things he described, things that I hadn’t even seen in pictures.
I pushed the button for the ninth floor. The door closed and when it opened again there was Nine-One-Four. The number on the key was just down the hall. I took a breath. I was right there on the edge of my first sexual experience of any kind that involved more than one person. As we walked up to the door I looked at Bruce. He had this foolish grin frozen on his face.
I smacked him on his arm.
“What about you?”
I had one too and couldn’t get rid of it either. I hoped we didn't look that silly when we walked in. I put on my best “been here before” look and put the key in the lock.
It didn't fit! It wouldn't even go all the way in the lock! I looked a little closer at the name on the key, something I hadn’t thought to do before. It wasn't even the same name as the hotel we were in!
I heard some noises coming from inside the room and got scared. Someone inside heard us because it got real quiet in there. I had a strong feeling that they weren't the kind of people that we just paid one hundred and fifty four dollars to see. I looked at Bruce. He was looking real pissed!
“We better get out of here, before we get in trouble!”
I agreed and we headed for the elevator.
Dang it! I just got screwed... and I was still a virgin!
The elevator came to rest at the lobby. We walked out and I noticed the desk clerk watching us again. This time he had a slight look of disgust on his face. Apparently we were not the first suckers to come through his lobby.
We ran back to where we last saw the guy but he was nowhere in sight. Not that I expected him to be. Crap! Is this what the outside world is like? I was feeling both mad and really, really stupid. We spent the rest of the night sitting on the front steps hoping to see that guy again, perhaps waiting on his next “victim.” It was hard to even look each other in the face. When we finally did we broke out in a smile. It did nothing to erase the feeling of being such an easy a mark. I made a mental note to myself to not to ever get caught like that again.
I thought about what I would tell my Dad if he ever asked me what I spent it on. Would he still feel proud of me if he knew? I just paid for the right to feel older and wiser now, and promised myself to be just that in the future. After that night Bruce and I never saw each other again. Each one of us knew we needed someone a little more street-wise to hang with.
The next morning we all boarded busses to Fort Knox Kentucky where we would spend the next eight weeks of our lives going through basic training. I couldn’t wait to get there. I was very hungry and walking by the restaurant in the hotel and seeing everyone else eating sure didn’t help.
The people boarding us were pleasant. I was surprised they even talked to us. The night before, we heard that a TV had actually been thrown out a window down on to the streets. Some people’s attitudes were “What are they going to do, send me to the Army?” Anyway the send off was nice.
The bus stopped and the door opened. We had been chatting comfortably to ourselves when a sergeant, with a big hat that came down just above his eyes, stormed up the stairs, and stood there for a second looking us over. The next thing I knew we had ten seconds to “Un-ass this bus!”
It was sudden pandemonium, mob mentality, as thirty people climbed over, stepped on, and pushed their way off that bus. The sergeant pushed his way through the crowd, shoving people faster towards the front door. Woe unto anyone that was still sitting when he got to their seat. That was when we found out he had this “list” and you did not want to be on it.
Finally, after taking way too much time getting off the bus, they lined us up, yelling at us the entire time. I was going to have trouble understanding them. Each one of them had this speech problem and they had to take a breath in between each word.
We were immediately surrounded by several sergeants who were jumping up and down in their excitement, screaming at first one, then another of our now very confused group.
“Stand up straight maggot! Eyes front! Hands to your side! DO NOT look at me!”
Was it going to happen like this every day? I sure hoped not.
What ever happened to gentlemen?
One of them was screaming at me, about an inch from my ear.
“All right…listen up!”
There were more people yelling than people being yelled at.
“Line up on me, at arms length! Move it!”
We lined up at arms length, the best we knew how anyway. Some of the guys had dropped their bags. Immediately the sergeants were on them.
“Who told you to drop your stuff douche bag?
“No one!” the guy replied.
He was one of those that had long hair. I was glad not to be him. He was really going to get picked on.
“Get down and give me twenty!”
Yep, this was going to be no picnic for him. It made me smile. Wrong thing to do!
“What are you smiling at maggot!”
The words exploded in my ear. Where had he come from?
I was screaming, only as a reaction to him.
“Who are you calling sir?” he screeched. “Do I look like I don’t have to work for a living?”
“No! Uh… No!”
I didn’t know what to call him.
“Listen up pukes! From now on you will refer to us as “drill sergeant” do you understand?”
“Yes drill ser-geant!”
It was a half -hearted reply, not what they wanted
Dang! They were all hard of hearing too.
“Yes drill ser-geant!”
Louder this time, but apparently not loud enough.
“YES drill ser-geant!”
We were all screaming at the top of our lungs.
“That will do… for now!”
Just as I thought I had escaped his wrath he turned back to me.
“Drop and give me twenty!”
He was snarling.
“And count them off!”
I dropped to my knees, assumed the position and started doing what my gym teacher had once been totally satisfied with. Unfortunately, the Army wasn’t.
“Straighten out that back maggot!”
Came a different voice from somewhere behind me.
“Are you a girl maggot?”
“No drill sergeant!”
I screamed as best I could. Push-ups were not easy, not the way they wanted us to do them. I was on my fourth or fifth, I think. I forgot to count them off.
“I can’t hear you maggot! Start over!”
“One!… two!… three”
“One WHAT maggot? Do you mean One drill sergeant! Two drill sergeant! Is that what you mean girlie?”
Why did he wait till I already did about half of them? I should have some credits here!
“One, drill sergeant!”
I took a breath. How many did he say?
“Twwooooo, drill sergeant!”
I collapsed on the ground and very quickly found out that this tactic does not work in the Army.
After fumbling through several more, they let us rest a minute. We stood there with our bags back in our hands. Another sergeant walked by and told us to set them down, which we all did. A moment later the first drill sergeant came back. There was a look of pure astonishment on his face, like how could we possibly have done this very bad thing. He screamed at us.
“Who told you to put those bags down? Everyone! Drop and give me twenty! Then pick them bags back up!”
And he left.
I was sure that they couldn’t expect us to be able to do that many push-ups, not back to back. Since no one seemed to be watching us I did my best to look like I was giving it my all, then crawled back up from a kneeling position and picked my bags back up. I wondered when lunch was.
Then, as if on cue, the first sergeant walked back around the corner. He stopped and stared at us like he just could not believe what he was seeing.
“Who told you pukes to pick up those bags? What are you trying to do? Piss me off! Do you like to do push-ups? It must be you do! Okay! Drop those bags and give me twenty more!”
I was beginning to see what they were up to, but there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. What's the saying “Can’t win for losing?” I crawled back down to the push up position, actually did one real one and lifted my butt nineteen times. Even that was getting hard to do. It took all I had just to get back on my feet.
I just stood there, not having enough strength to stand at any kind of attention, when who should show up?
I don’t remember getting assigned a bunk. I only remember flopping down on it and just starting to doze off, when my bliss was rudely interrupted.
I jumped up so quick I almost fell off the bunk.
“Get this gear stowed away! I want this barracks looking tight! Move it!… Move it!”
I had no idea what tight meant, so I just stuffed everything out of sight, like I did at home. That should do for now. The sergeant had a different idea. He opened up my newly assigned footlocker and took one look. Okay, maybe I should have taken a little more time with it.
I like the Army very much! Today I learned some new Army code. I learned what KP means. Its top secret Army stuff and I can’t tell you what it means, but I can tell you I’m getting real good at it.
Love, Your Son!
They marched us over to another building where a line had already formed. The other door was spitting out people rubbing their bald heads. Then, it was my turn. I barely got situated in the seat when this guy with a large pair of clippers threw a plastic sheet around my neck and pulled it tight. He grabbed the top of my head and made a clean buzz right down the middle, and a clump of nice jet-black hair fell to the ground, joining the growing pile beneath his stool. With just four more buzzes I was groomed and on my way out. I sure felt that wind I used to think about.
As soon as the last bald guy returned to the formation I had to laugh. Even the hippies looked like just the rest of us. They marched us over to another building where we were to get our Government Issue clothing. Army clothes. This was a good thing. It meant that I was a soldier now, or at least would look like one.
That excitement soon faded. Everything was one size fits all but nothing fit right, especially the boots. They bit into and pinched at every tender spot on my feet. They will give us some time for these to get broke in before they start marching us all over…They will… Wont they?
They had a better idea. We would break them in by marching. They marched us back to our barracks, told us to fall out, stash our gear on our bunks and get back in formation, and they wanted us to do it “yesterday!” I was so glad to have my hands free. Much of my hair had not made it to the floor. It was inside my shirt and driving me crazy. I wasn’t alone. Guys were brushing hair from around their necks, reaching down their backs and pulling out little clumps and letting them go all over the floor. We found out that we should have waited until we got back outside before shedding.
Before we could relax, the sergeant appeared. We didn’t hear him coming. We never did. It was kind of spooky.
We scrambled to stand at the foot of our bunks. After a bit of shuffling we stood there, some still in their underwear, as he walked by. He looked at our bunks, footlockers and buttons, especially buttons. Any button found not fastened or, heaven forbid in the wrong hole, was torn off and carefully put in our pocket so we could sew it back on. That was to help us remember where it went next time. He was not looking for perfect military correctness, just to see how neat we were trying to make it look for him. It was obvious which ones he thought didn’t put enough effort into it. Their stuff was all scattered in the middle of the aisle.
Chow time! Take as much as you want. But, eat all you take. I could do that. That was the rule at home. I didn’t have just ten minutes to do so at home but the idea was the same. It wasn’t all that bad either. It wasn’t Mom’s meatloaf. I’m not really sure what it was, but I could get used to the eating part.
There was a “rumor” going around. Enough people were saying it so it had to be the truth. They put “extra” things in the food. One of those things was called Saltpeter, the stuff they used to make gunpowder. It was to make us mean. They also gave it to the fighting dogs. That didn’t bother me too much. I could stand to be a little meaner.
It was the other effect they talked about that worried me. It was supposed to suppress any “urges” a man might have, especially a testosterone filled young man. With nothing but young men all around you it was probably a good thing. What bothered me was what if it never stopped working, even after I got out?
The next eight weeks were mostly a blur. Mostly running, or marching, somewhere, just to turn around and run or march back. And the words they had us chant as we did that.
“Over the hill!… Around the hill!… Under the hill!… Through the hill!”
They still ring somewhere in the back of my mind. If we were only going to come right back why didn’t we just stay put to begin with?
And while I'm on the subject, is there really any reason to wake me up that early in the morning? It wasn't even light out yet! They could show a little consideration, especially since they kept me out so late.
And exercise! The first thing? Things would go so much better after a cup of coffee, maybe a cigarette or two. I thought that was kind of funny and mentioned it to the drill sergeant. He didn’t actually say he didn't like it. He didn't have to. The twenty-five extra push-ups spoke volumes.
He never slept either, and he hated us because we did. He was always waking us up in the middle of the night for some real important reason, like to see if our footlockers were still neatly arraigned. I’d learned that lesson and mine always was.
For the most part I was learning to keep my mouth shut. And I was able to do twenty-five without much problem and with my back almost straight.
One thing I have to say was that they were fair. No one was left out. Someone might even have to do twenty just because he was standing next to the guy who messed up. It was just his time.
We are marching like a group now and they weren’t yelling at us quite as much. I was doing fairly well at keeping my stuff into “tight little balls.” At least that’s what I told the sergeant every time he asked. I did understand that it had nothing to do with bowel movements.
I also learned not to try to second-guess things. Just let it happen. It was going to anyway, and soon enough, it did. I’d given no thought about the training school I’d signed up for when I enlisted. It was supposed to be a given and that bridge would be crossed when the time came. That time came.
I was polishing my boots when someone came into the barracks and yelled.
“Private Turner! Report to the orderly room! ASAP!”
That meant run. I arrived there, not out of breath and marveled at my new ability.
“Reporting as ordered”, I searched the sergeant’s face for a sign that something bad had happened. He was smiling, a little, and I assumed there was nothing wrong back home. Still, I had my mental guard up.
“Turner, I have some unfortunate news for you. Missile training school is all booked. You’re not going to get in there. So pick another training school.”
At first, I was upset. I didn’t know why, other than I wouldn’t get my way. I hadn’t thought about it, not since I signed that “Enlistment Promise.”
Wait a minute here! That's right! They gave me a guarantee, and I have it in writing!
When I first signed up they let me pick the type of job I wanted to have in the Army, what school they would send me to. They gave be a little piece of paper that stated what school I chose right there on it. Chisel face told me if for any reason they did not give me that specific training they would have to let out of the Army. Hence the name Enlistment Promise.
“So, what else do you want to be?”
After a slight pause, and another grin, he continued.
I didn’t like the grin. It was smug, and now that he was no longer my boss I would let him know. I had the paper tucked safely in my wallet and with it I was about to wipe that smile right off his face.
I started, looking for a place to sit.
“I guess I’m out of here!”
I grabbed the back of a nearby chair, pulled it around and had just started to plant my cheeks.
“What do you mean out of here?”
The grin was gone and he was screaming again
He could hardly believe what I just did.
“Exactly what do you think you're doing with my chair?”
He was so worked up he was spitting more than yelling.
In an instant everything was right back where it was supposed to be, and I was standing at attention in front of his desk.
“Sergeant, I have my Enlistment Promise!”
I tried to explain how the Army would now have to give me a choice whether or not I wanted to stay when he interrupted me.
“Enlistment promise? I’ve never heard of any Enlistment Promise! Where is it? You have it with you?”
His voice was in a definite hurry.
“Yes Sergeant, I do!”
My hopes were holding strong as I carefully dug in my wallet, into that special pocket, and came up with the piece of paper about the size of a baseball card folded carefully in half.
“Let me see it!”
His voice got more impatient. I hurried to hand the only proof I had of that guarantee into the trusted hands of my drill sergeant, the same one that told me time and time again he was here for my “best interest!”
“You see there, where it says Army Air Defense Command!”
I reached over to point out where it said so, when he interrupted me.
“This ain’t no good! It ain’t even signed!”
I watched in disbelief as he ripped it up in tiny little pieces and tossed it in the trash!
“So, what else do you want to do?”
That grin was back.
“Come on Turner! I ain’t got all day to mess with you!”
I was still not over the shock of what just happened. My first instinct was to grab the pieces out of the trash and see if it really hadn’t been signed. I wasn’t sure he even looked at it, and couldn’t remember if there even was a place for a signature. If I did grab the pieces out and they weren’t signed I would be doing that secret KP for the rest of my time in the Army, which was now looking like it would be the full three years.
Of all the crap that had been pulled on me so far, this one bothered me the most. Even though they were in charge of me I had always thought that, in the end, we were all on the same side. I began to wonder.
The look on the sergeant’s face told me that his patience was growing thin. I hurried to think of what other fun things the Army had to offer. They wouldn’t have let me play with the launch button anyway. I would probably have just been the sweeper in the button room. Who knows anymore? I was becoming somewhat disillusioned by a lot of things lately.
My thoughts drifted back to Dad telling me to keep that open mind. That was becoming hard to do. I remembered that he was in communications. If it was good enough for Dad it was good enough for me. He might actually feel a bit more of that pride towards me, knowing that I had followed in his footsteps, somewhat anyway.
I chose radio. I was certainly not going to choose medic. The thought of a bleeding person depending on me to save his life was more than I could comprehend. It also scared me to death!
All I had to do was write 05-B in the space provided and sign my name. Everything else had been typed in already but I would read it through completely this time.
“It’s all there! Just sign it Turner! I DO NOT have all day to waste on you!”
My signature made it official. Of course they wanted mine, and made sure I signed it too. It was becoming clear not everyone in the Army did have my best interest in mind and I hadn’t seen any of this “Brothers in Arms” stuff yet.
“That is all Turner!”
I turned, without speaking, and headed back to the barracks and flopped down on my bunk. I would not finish polishing my boots! That will show them!
One morning, about half way through my training, the sergeant asked for three volunteers. I know you’re told never to volunteer, but many times it was easy work, like sweeping out the orderly room while the rest of the company ran five miles. I took a chance and raised my hand. Only one other hand was in the air. The D.I. looked around, picked some guy and told him to raise his hand.
“Good! You volunteered!”
The three of us were taken over to the arms room. We were going to clean the rifles they would issue us. Cool! This was one part of the Army I thought would be fun.
It didn’t take long before I regretted sticking my hand up. After only a few minutes my hands burned like crazy and I knew the exact location of every cut and scratch on my hands.
We were on the obstacle course the day before. They set the wire way too low. There was no way anyone could get through it, not without cutting or scratching something. But it wasn’t going to be me that told them. They did not appreciate anyone suggesting they might have made a mistake.
The corporal who had been watching me walked over and handed me the gloves that were sitting right in front of me all the time. I smiled, my stupid smile, and put them on. My hands still burned. Maybe I goofed by volunteering this time. I was sure my hands wouldn’t heal for a long time, and hoped we wouldn’t have to clean them each time they were used.
Just then, I heard all kinds of noise. I got up and walked around the corner to see the rest of the company. They were all bent over spitting, coughing, wiping at their faces, all while sergeants yelled at them not to. Tears and snot was dripping out of every opening in their faces. I had no idea what they just went through when the wind changed. Immediately my eyes burned like crazy, my nose just started running and I couldn’t breath right.
Tear Gas! They just went through the gas chamber! We knew we were eventually going there but they never told us when, so no one would go on sick call. Sometimes, even in spite of myself, things do go right. I went back to my cleaning, not wanting to attract any attention that I had not taken my turn.
That week, we were issued our rifles. It was the M-14, heavy, but I liked the feel of it in my hands. It was the first time I held a rifle or any kind of real weapon. I learned, at the cost of a few push-ups, never to call it a “gun” There was a cadence to call as you did your twenty-five if you made this mistake.
“This is my weapon!”
Referring to the rifle…. Push-up! Push-up!
“This is my gun!”
Referring to “male parts.”… Push-up! Push-up!
“This is for killing!”
“And this is for fun!”
They marched us to the rifle range. This was very exciting and there was even a little more spring in my step. Things were starting to look more like the posters. I couldn’t wait to start shooting, and listened intently to the instructor explaining the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of handling and firing our weapons.
I also thought about what shooting in the Army meant. Things had been pretty hectic and I hadn’t much time to think about “things.” Holding my rifle, number 0810, woke some of these feelings again.
I still had not seen enough of anything to have any real idea what lay ahead for me, but I could imagine, and in my imagination I didn’t want a rifle. I wanted a machine gun! I’d seen the M-60 machine gun being fired with over at the range. Them babies were what you would call firepower!
For now I would be satisfied with my rifle. It could be switched over to fire on full automatic but we were told they were too inaccurate and wasted too much ammo that way.
It came time to shoot. I assumed in the prone position and waited to hear what to do next before moving a muscle. I did not want to be kicked off the range for being unsafe. Three guys already had. The sergeants had no desire to be shot by some trigger-happy trainee. No medals in that.
My instructor kneeled at my side and dropped a round into the chamber. Making sure my safety was on I pushed the bolt closed then rolled over on my belly and pointed the rifle at a tiny little target, one hundred yards away. Only when completely ready did I take the safety off. At that moment something seemed to change. It had a different feel to it. It felt serious and it was hard not to be intimidated by it.
I settled into position and lined my sights up with the target, pulling the butt tight into my shoulder. I took a deep breath and started to slowly let it out. This was where I was supposed to gently squeeze the trigger. I didn’t. I jerked it, anticipating the recoil. I wasn’t supposed to do that. The rifle jerked, but nothing happened. They put dummy rounds in occasionally just for that reason. Done right and there will just be a click and nothing will move.
“Okay Turner, lets try it one more time!”
The sergeant’s voice was very patient with me, and it helped to keep me calm.
Actually, no one was yelling, except to be heard above the noise. These were live rounds. No one ranked any higher than a bullet fired in anger.
I tried again, without a round in the chamber, squeezing just like he said.
Click. Nothing moved. I was listening and getting results.
“Good! Now, let’s try it for real!”
He gave me a live round this time. I chambered it, assumed my position, clicked the safety off, looked down the sights and started to squeeze.
The sound shocked me. The recoil bit into my shoulder. I had no idea it would be that strong. I laid there, slightly in shock.
“Not bad Turner! You at least hit the target!”
I hit the target? I liked hitting the target, a lot!
That was good. These weapons had not been sighted in yet. That was our job. I would fire a round and the sergeant would look through his glasses tell me to how to “adjust it. I would fire once more and he would adjust me again.
This kept up until I hit the center of the target three times in a row. I was then sighted in, and in just nine rounds. Other than the fact my shoulder was getting sore, I was having a great time. I just couldn’t imagine someone firing this weapon all day, like in combat.
Once sighted in we were sent to the practice range to prepare for our rating test. There were three ratings, novice, marksman, and expert. This was a permanent rating. And, they gave out medals!
I really wanted to fire expert. Not only were the medals the nicest looking, a silver wreath, there was also the word “Expert” right underneath it so everyone, especially civilians, would know. There were also little clips at the bottom of it where you could attach little shiny bars. There were bars for every weapon that was used by the Army. I pictured myself with a half dozen or so dangling from my silver wreath.
If they had something this interesting back in high school I probably wouldn't be here. I took a breath, held it for a second and slowly let it out as I squeezed the trigger. The blast from the shot no longer startled me.
I thought about full automatic and pictured myself standing there during some battle, spraying hot lead at the enemy, dropping them like flies. But, I needed to learn to shoot one at a time first and I shook myself out of my daydream and back to the matter at hand.
Out of thirty rounds, I hit the center of the target twenty-seven times. Twenty-five and above was expert. My first medal! My uniform would not be so plain. I wanted to fire more weapons, lots more.
There was a new rifle the Army was just beginning to use called an M-16. It was smaller, a lot lighter, and didn’t have much kick. To me it was not hitting the target as much as feeling the power of the rifle. Feeling that made me feel powerful, and I couldn’t get enough of it. So I wasn’t interested in that new one.
I cleaned the weapon, this time with the gloves. I started feeling an attachment to mine and made sure to clean it very carefully, forgetting what I thought before. All soldiers must feel the same way. After all, this could save our lives in combat. I couldn’t wait until they assigned me to my permanent duty station where I would be able to keep one with me all the time.
To put basic training in a nutshell, it mostly consisted of doing things together. We woke up at the same time, unless of course the sergeant felt we were sleeping too comfortably. We drilled alike, exercised the same, ate at the same time, and even polished our boots at the same time and the same way. It was all designed to make us a cohesive unit before they split us up to send us off to our individual training. When we got to our permanent unit we would know how to blend in.
If we needed anything, we got it. Our clothes, food and medical, whatever we could possibly need, they took care of. We had nothing to think about but what they told us. As long as we did, things went smooth. If we didn’t, they had ways!
By the time they were finished with me, I was much improved. I had much more energy, was considerably stronger, and felt much better. So far, I was getting ahead, going in the right direction. The good cards were coming my way.
It seemed like basic was taking forever but before I knew it eight weeks had passed and it was time to graduate. The drill sergeants were actually talking to us. It still wasn’t courteous but at least we weren’t maggots anymore. That was a good thing. I had questions that had been growing in my mind ever since the rifle range that wanted an answer and there was a sergeant in our company that could answer them.
He was an assistant drill instructor and had just recently come back from being in combat. And, I heard he had been wounded.
I was sweeping the orderly room. I volunteered to do it, knowing he was there during the day, hoping against hope for a chance to talk to him. I accidentally dropped my broom and it startled him. He stopped what he was writing, his train of thought now broken. He looked over at me and I froze for a second. I heard stuff about these guys.
"So...What brings you into this mans Army, Turner?"
He was asking in a much nicer tone than I had ever heard out of him. They must get tired of yelling at us all the time, and it was near time to start yelling at a brand new group of maggots. We were almost soldiers now.
"I was given a choice sergeant!"
"What did you do, forget to pay your parking tickets?"
He was referring to the common practice of judges offering those with misdemeanor charges against them the choice, jail, or the service. It was cleaning up the streets. That practice would start again years later, the difference being they were putting these same men in jail, to get them off the streets.
I had a choice. One of them was telling him that my Mom tricked me.
"Yea, something like that!"
I smiled and then got serious. I had things on my mind.
“Sergeant. Can I ask you a question?”
He looked at me. The look in his eyes told me that he had a pretty good idea what I was going to ask. He had probably heard it before. After all, his past was many of these soldier’s futures.
I got right to the point.
“Someone told me that you were wounded in Viet Nam. Is that true?”
He was a little surprised at how direct my question was. I wanted to see if there was any sort of satisfaction in his eyes when he thought about it. Instead, there was a look that made me regret asking, one I had never seen before. He was staring miles beyond me. I didn't like this feeling and was sorry I caused it.
“Never mind. Sorry asked sergeant.”
“Come over here."
He was pulling his pant leg up.
“You wanna see?”
I did. So much so I forgot about upsetting him. Now were getting somewhere! I set the broom down and walked over. He yanked his leg up on the desk and I could see it hurt him to do so. He grimaced and helped it up by pulling on his pant leg. As the trouser leg came up over his knee I stared in awe at four, still red, dime size holes in his leg, just below the knee. They weren’t all that old and still healing. I thought about what might have happened but I wasn't going to press my luck.
“Caught me in mid air as I was jumping off an APC! Spun me right around!”
I was totally caught up in what he was saying and had a million new questions. This might be my only chance to ask someone.
“Did it hurt?”
What a stupid question! Out of all the things I wanted to know, I wasted it on that one. But if you don’t ask…
He looked at me like I was nuts, then he laughed, shaking his head as he carefully pointed to each one.
“That hurt!… That hurt!… And that hurt! Take a guess about that one!”
He was pointing to the biggest reddest one. I could do nothing but stand there and stare. They represented something I had only just started to think about. They were war wounds! I was absolutely impressed, maybe a little jealous. No, I was jealous for sure.
“That is so cool!”
I blurted that out. I completely forgot where I was in the reality of the moment.
He was yelling again. My stupid reaction just ruined anything that may have followed.
“Is that what you think it is? Is that…?”
He must have remembered I had absolutely no idea what he had gone through to have those marks and I understood nothing of the very real fear and terrible agony he had so recently experienced. He stopped talking. The look in his eyes changed and he was looking right through me again.
“Any more questions Turner?”
He rolled the pant leg gently back down over those red holes. The tone in his voice reminded me I was still a trainee. It also said that he was done talking.
I went back to my work, but this feeling, the one that first started on that rifle range, had been stirring inside me. It was about the possibility of being wounded. I knew why the sergeant was so frustrated with me. I hadn’t thought much about the possibility of even being in combat, not yet. If you were not eighteen when they issued you the orders for your permanent duty station, it would not be to a war zone. But, the Army didn’t always do as they said. I was still a little bummed out from that recent disappointment with my promise. Still, why would I be thinking about being wounded?
If I ever did go onto actual combat, and was wounded, it would be proof that I had faced the enemy. Facing an enemy, in combat, was one way to prove to others and myself that I was something and did something beyond what normal people did. It would make me a somebody! Why I needed that proof, the scar, or scars, was so that no one could ever doubt me or look down at me, for what I was, or what I’ve done.
Ever since that day in class, when everyone stared at me like I was nothing, I’ve harbored the need to never be scorned again. So far in my life it has seemed like everyone has looked at me in every other way but with any kind of respect. And, so far, I could think of no other way to change that.
I put the broom away and went back to my barracks without another word to the sergeant. Going over my not-so-long list of accomplishments, I realized that going into combat, and even possibly being wounded would be a pretty good way to show I paid my dues. Nothing more would ever have to be do prove myself.
I had no idea why being wounded suddenly became something I would actually want to happen. Maybe it was the fact that it was the only opportunity, I could see anyway, that the Army had to offer, to achieve that goal. I have seen the respect this country has shown its Veterans. I felt that respect myself towards those in my family that answered the call. There is a form of admiration people have for them, and I wanted someone to show that to me.
Sure, I could say I had been in the service, even say I had been in combat. Other than those that had been there with me what proof would I have? I didn’t think it as being egotistical. I just wanted someone to look up to me. I am being so honest here it hurts. But is that too much to ask?
I felt a small taste of it in the way some of the group at home looked up to me when told what I was about to do, but that thrill quickly faded. You have to respect the people you desire respect from. This would be the real thing. If I could somehow do something to find that kind of esteem the rest of my life would be, well, definitely a lot nicer when I got back.
This was "The Cup" for which a faint spark began to glow.
I wanted a little respect that's all, for someone to think that I was cool and I was prepared to make a sacrifice to earn it. Prepared that is, as long as it was in the legs, or maybe the arms. I wasn't too sure about the arms, definitely not through the bone. In the rear would be most embarrassing and something I couldn’t show off. I absolutely ruled out headshots, body shots, and mortar rounds. If it was to happen, I wanted it to be the "perfect wound” just like the sergeants.
We were in our last few days and almost soldiers. I was adjusting well. I could do twenty-five push ups without any problem and remembered my five general orders, even though no one ever asked me to repeat them. I was certain they would have if I hadn’t bothered to.
Right at the point where not much could happen that would upset the balance, I was told to report to the orderly room. What the heck could it be this time?
The last time they ordered me to report they took away my occupation. I hadn’t done anything wrong, that I knew of anyway, but the Army had its very own rules for right and wrong and I usually had no idea what that was until they told me, along with how many push-ups it was worth.
There were five officers and my sergeant in there when I arrived. They were all being quite polite and it made me very suspicious. No one had any reason to be nice to me.
The major spoke first. It took a major to handle this business with me? That alone was enough to make me feel I was in real trouble.
“We have been going over the test scores of the company.”
Crap! They knew I was a drop out before I signed up. Maybe they’re going to throw me out. I felt ready to give up. Let them do what they wanted. I was in the middle of feeling sorry for myself, when…
He paused for a second.
“Are among the highest in the entire company! Son, your G.T. score is one of the highest I’ve seen in a while!”
Well! Shut the door! I told the principal I wasn’t learning anything. I was in the middle of mentally patting myself on the back when something told me to watch out. It was my new internal warning system and I was starting to pay attention to it, learning to be skeptical much more often. I thought about that fifty bucks often and was determined not to be ripped off or taken advantage of any more. I knew they didn’t call me in here just to tell me how smart I was.
“Do you know what that means?”
The fact they were being so nice made me feel even more suspicious.
“It means you qualified to go to West Point Academy!”
When they didn’t see me jump for joy right away like they expected they seemed a little let down. I still wasn’t sure what all that meant.
“If you choose to that is!”
Well, would you imagine that? Me! Qualifying for West Point, the most prestigious military academy maybe in the whole world. I knew it was a college, but it was also a military college!
That meant along with all of the courses I would have to study for, there would also be drilling and marching. I did know that to graduate automatically made you an officer but it sounded more like a really long basic training and I didn’t know if I had it in me.
Making sure I said nothing that might commit myself to anything, I decided to question them a little more while I toyed with the idea. Imagine what my Father would think if I were to be a graduate of West Point. It was almost too much to consider.
“What do I have to do?”
“Just sign up and we will take care of the rest.”
It sounded way too easy and that made me even more suspicious. He went on to explain further and in the middle somewhere, casually mentioned that I would be re-enlisting for four more years.
I wasn’t sure I heard right.
“Four more years?”
There must have been a tone of disappointment in my voice.
The Major answered, rather harshly this time.
“I thought you knew that.”
Why he would think I would know that? It isn’t like it was the goal of every soldier to go there.
I was trying to be polite. Maybe there is a penalty for not wanting to go. Heck, I didn’t know anymore.
“Well? What do you want to do?”
He was now sounding more his usual impatient self, like why did he have to deal with the likes of me?
“These men don’t have all day Turner! Make up you're mind!”
My mind was already made up before I heard about the extra four years. I was already in for three and I’ve barely made a dent in that. I may not have truly understood myself at this point in my life. I did know that I was not grown up enough to be that disciplined, certainly not for something like West Point.
“I’m gonna pass on it sir. I really don’t feel I am West Point material.”
I noticed the look at the assistant drill sergeant’s face, the one with the holes. He had that “No kidding” look. I saw it plainly but I wouldn’t let him dampen this moment. Even if there was no way I could last even a week there, it was nice to be asked.
I went back to my barracks feeling pretty good about myself, and my newfound control of my life. It wasn’t as hard as I originally thought.
Still, something was bothering me. It was the brotherhood that everyone always talked about, that closeness military men are supposed to have. Firemen and police have it. Any group of people, usually men who face perilous times together. Women, I was finding out, already had some form of communication with each other, but I am not even going to start with that.
I saw nothing of that here. True, we had not seen anything even remotely dangerous yet but we were all being trained for it. That should count for something. Even though we all came from totally different backgrounds, everything we had done in the last few weeks had been exactly the same. But the feeling that I had looked forward to being a part of was nowhere to be found. As a matter of fact, sometimes it was exactly the opposite.
It was during our second week. There was a black guy named Robert. I thought Robert was a nice guy. He never bothered anyone. But Robert was more than a little heavy set. That wasn’t the bad part. Robert didn’t like to bathe. That didn’t bother me. I didn’t have to sleep with the guy.
But it bothered Rico. Rico was a short wiry guy about nineteen years old from Latin America. Being short, I guess he felt the need to be that much tougher just to make up for it.
At one time or another he had challenged almost everyone who was taller than him, including myself, to see if they would back down. Everyone, including myself did. He knew karate or some kind of fancy fighting. No one wanted to go head to head with him in any of the sparring exercises. He took it way too serious and the guy up against him usually got hurt. So most of the guys went along with everything he said.
One day Rico and his gang of followers were over in the corner planning something in hushed voices mixed with bursts of laughter. I didn’t join in. I wasn’t interested in anything he had in mind.
That night there was a commotion at the other end of the barracks. I heard a muffled scream and looked up from my bunk in time to see Robert's head being covered by a pillowcase. Around him were about a dozen guys, standing there with their socks in their hands and they were filled with bars of soap.
At Rico’s command, they all started flailing away at Robert, beating him about the head and body, anywhere they saw a lump under the covers. I lay there frozen, unable to believe what I was watching. Robert squirmed under the covers trying to avoid the onslaught, all the time screaming for his Mother.
If that wasn’t enough, they dragged him off the bunk, took him into the showers and stripped him down. Someone turned on the water, only the hot water. Steam rolled outside the latrine door. A couple of them grabbed the stiff scrub brushes we used to scrub the floors, and everything else nasty. Someone else grabbed a shampoo bottle and emptied it over his head. Then the first two started scrubbing Robert’s fat naked body as he screamed and begged for them to stop.
I was sick to my stomach. I’d never seen anyone be so cruel to another person, not like this! I thought about telling the sergeant and looked over at the door to his room at the other end of the barracks. It was open just a crack. He was there. He had to hear it. He knew all along what was going to happen. He might have even instigated the whole thing.
That whole thing gave me a rotten taste in my mouth for the Army. I might be just a kid, but I knew what sticking together and watching out for friends meant, and this was not it!
Finally satisfied, they dropped their brushes in the shower and everyone returned to their bunks. Robert stayed in there for an hour or more, sobbing uncontrollably, muttering something about quitting. All the while I heard giggles coming from some of the bunks.
I hated these people! I was not raised this way and it felt uncomfortable just being around them. Maybe it would be different once I get assigned to a regular unit. I really hoped so. If not, this was going to be a long, long tour.
Once again I had to re-think my priorities. One of the biggest reasons I joined was to find that togetherness, that brotherhood I heard my Dad and Uncles talk about. I wanted to know that those around me would do whatever possible to help or even save me should the need ever arise. I would like to think that I could do the same, but I’m not making any promises yet. I was learning fast just how comfortable and cozy my life had been and how young and defenseless I really was away from that life. I was seeing first hand just how little I had been through.
We all wore the same uniform. We were all on the same side, the good side by the way. The last thing we were supposed to be doing was causing any pain to those on our side. This display of soldier hurting a fellow soldier troubled me for a long time.
It had to happen eventually, and it did. One morning we woke up and it was graduation day. We were soon to become official soldiers. My whole family came to the ceremony and I felt real proud marching by them. I turned my head, just slightly, so I could see them a little better. A glance from the sergeant let me know that if I wanted to make it all the way through the ceremony, I shouldn’t do it again. I didn’t.
After much more than a few words about how well we did and what traditions we were carrying on, and on how we were now the guardians of freedom, you know, grand words, we were graduated and dismissed. We threw our hats in the air and then spent the next half hour looking for one that fit.
I looked for my family. They were still sitting on the bleachers and I hurried over to join them. I couldn’t wait to show them something. Well, actually to see if I could get away with it in front of them. I still was not that sure exactly what freedoms I had achieved so far.
As soon as I got done with all the hugging, including the extra ones for Mom, I reached into my shirt pocket. Hands shaking just a little, I brought out a cigarette. Without looking for anyone’s reaction yet I dug into my pants for my brand new shiny lighter, flicked it open and struck it on my pant leg like I saw others do. I had tried to do it by snapping my fingers on the little wheel once and ended up cutting myself.
The lighter did light but I pushed too far and closed it back up. I decided to light it and get it over with. I took a drag, a little too much and choked, making my eyes water as I blew out a lung full of smoke. It looked like a smoke stack. It wasn’t all that smooth but that wasn’t what counted. I was more interested in my parent’s reaction.
Mom was on it right away and called over to Dad who was showing Doug and Steve the tank parked near-by for this occasion.
“David’s smoking a cigarette!”
It was almost comical. She reminded me of us kids telling on each other. Only she was supposed to be the one we told, not the one telling.
Without so much as a glance in my direction, and much to Mom’s surprise.
“He can do that now Mitzie. He’s in the Army.”
That pretty much settles it. I get to smoke in front of them. It felt pretty grown-up. But, after the fourth or fifth one in a row, he took me aside.
“David! We know you can smoke. Save some for after we leave.”
There was a different way everyone looked at me that day. We all lost a little of that being familiar with each other. They still had it with each other but with me it was different. What we lacked in that was made up by something new, and pretty cool. The way they all looked at me, and the uniform, actually made me feel, well, maybe a little important. I had a purpose, still no real idea what it was, but I had one, and that made a difference. In all the backs and forth I had gone through to get where I was, it seemed like the forth was finally getting the upper hand.