Military Stories #01

We lined up in irregular fashion. What did we know, our only experience was at the movies or the local fast food. Most of us were unaware of exactly when our drill sergeant appeared, he just stood dead center of our milling mass and said in a clear voice, “Attention”.

Looking back at it now, I can see how this might have been misinterpreted. About half of the 60 civilian-soon-to-be-soldiers stopped talking and respectfully turned their heads towards the drill sergeant. The other half tried to line up, with chest out, chin tucked, and arms ridgedly to their sides. Their thumbs were not aligned to the seams of their pant legs, but that would come later.

Seen from above it must have been a confused image of a partial organized group of young men, some eagerly awaiting some news about their status because someone had just announced “Attention”. Others, those that had seen a few war movies, were standing stock still, following their first “order”. I honestly don’t remember which group I was in. What I do remember is that the drill sergeant was unimpressed, and that in the next three seconds all of us were on our bellies trying to do the first of 30 push-ups.

This was the introduction to my first day in the Army. In summary, I was in constant fear that I did not know what was expected of me, and that sure and just punishment was coming soon after my confusion. I remained mostly confused for the next year and a half.

A “cattle-truck” soon appeared, an aluminum trailer towed by an Army vehicle that looked suspiciously like the vehicles that transported livestock. It was completely enclosed but with generous slots to let air flow through, but not large enough to allow anyone to escape. It was also very easy to power wash, in case anyone had upset or nervous stomachs, which everyone certainly had.

Within a fifteen minute ride we were at a long and low depot building with a loading dock, and a double door entrance. Our drill sergeant ordered us out with no regard to structure, speed was the only command. This was confusing because while we literally fell over each other in getting out of the “cattle-car trailer”, we were then expected to line up in alphabetical order before entering the depot.

A few minutes later each of use had drawn the full measure of our Army issued material, quickly shoved into our sturdy duffel bags. Standing outside in clumps of three or four we wondered what our next hour was going to bring. Where was our barracks? What about our haircuts? When can we get our first leave? I’m hungry, when is chow?
Before any of those questions were answered, the “cattle-car trailer” arrived. We were now trained that speed was expected so everybody was inside within a minute or two. This was complicated in that everyone now had a very large packed duffel bag that was very nearly the same size and weight of the average soldier. With our drill sergeant screaming at our efforts we were back inside in record time.

A few of us laughed how crazy that had been, and that it was sort of fun, piling in, one on top of another. Others looked a bit ashen, as this was a pretty good example of what the next few months were going to look like.
Our next stop was another depot like building where we were to take off all civilian clothes and get dressed in our issued uniform. At this point we kept our glasses, watches, and any personal jewelry. They would disappear later.
We were an odd looking bunch, all dressed in crisp, but also baggy, army green, shiny new boots; still sporting our full beards, ponytails, and civilian attitudes. With an hour all of us were again waiting outside for transportation, clean shaven, and very white, nearly bald skulls. If you looked closely you could see several young men rubbing their heads, wondering where their hair had gone. Collectively we looked very much like concentration camp inmates with better clothes, and not so emaciated.

Our transportation arrived and we responded this time with little encouragement from our drill sergeant. Within hours we had been trained in this particular military duty. About thirty minutes later we arrived at our home away from home, the B-1-1 barracks at North Fort, Ft. Lewis, WA. A two story wooden structure that could burn to the ground in less than five minutes. We were told this to impress the need for “Cigarette Patrol” at night, and it was backed up by actual test fires. It seems that every barracks had at least fifty coats of very inflammable lead-based paint.

Our day was close to ending, we were told so hit the chow hall in fifteen minutes and then straight to our bunks, and lights out. I looked around in the dimly lit barracks and wondered exactly how am I going to get through this. Here and there I saw a few guys sitting on their bunks, (something they would learn never to do) quietly rubbing their shaved heads. A stark reminder that they were not in their home towns any longer. I reached up and rubbed my own head. I immediately was shocked by the almost electric experience. There was a tingly feeling, very sensual, maybe even exciting. These people weren’t bemoaning their lost locks, they were rubbing their heads to feel better, to feel different, to feel that somehow they could escape the fear and monotony of what the army was bringing. I must admit I joined them for a few blissful moments.