The “head rub” sensation lingered for several days, fading faster for those who indulged in it excessively.
At an ungodly hour – 4:30 am, to be precise – our drill sergeant roused us with the relentless clang of a small bat against a garbage can. He looked capable of shifting his purpose from wake-up calls to disciplinary action at a moment’s notice. We stumbled out of our bunks, trying to stand at attention.
The first challenge was finding our footing, as we landed haphazardly in the barracks. The layout was straightforward, a long rectangle with a shared bathroom at one end, a staircase leading to the second floor, and bunk beds lining the side walls. There was a narrow aisle between the bunks and the windowed wall, too tight to pass through comfortably if someone was in the way.
In the dim morning, we learned that no one was allowed in the central aisle unless they were operating a buffing machine. Those who defied this rule found themselves crawling outside in the chilly Washington state November mist, clad only in long johns.
As the days passed, we discovered that this weather was just a taste of what was to come. In December, record snowfall would blanket the area, but for now, it was cold and rainy.
We were informed that after PT (physical training), we’d head to breakfast. PT consisted of formation exercises that felt like intensified versions of our high school PE class. The Army had introduced a few new torture exercises for good measure. After this ordeal, we embarked on a morning run, a three-mile circuit around the company area. It was just the beginning of our rigorous training.
A select few who managed to follow the drill sergeant all the way to the dining hall faced another obstacle. To enter, you had to swing from rung to rung across a muddy swamp right in front of the door. The ladder-like contraption stood ten feet off the ground, with a few steps leading to the jumping-off point. With rubbery legs from the run, staying upright was almost impossible. Only a handful made it to the door without falling, making breakfast a muddy affair. Cleaning up fell to us, or rather, the drill sergeants.
Later that day, I was promoted to corporal and designated first squad leader, primarily because of my age. The platoon leader was the oldest by a year or so, and our leadership hierarchy was age-based, not merit-based. I was relieved it was just an arm band I had to wear, not sewn-on stripes that could be ripped off and thrown in my face.
A mid-morning meeting defined the roles of the platoon guide and squad leaders. In case the platoon guide couldn’t perform his duties, the first squad leader would step in – that was me. All duty assignments were to be made by squad leaders. If anyone failed in their duties, the squad leaders were to report it and then either handle the task themselves or delegate it. It seemed like a lot to juggle, but at least I had a single bunk and was exempt from “cigarette watch,” a small consolation.
In the afternoon, following strenuous PT and the usual acrobatics to reach lunch, we marched to a large depot-like building. We were joined by other platoons from our company, along with several companies from the battalion. The spacious gymnasium-like structure was filled with new soldiers, all waiting their turn. It was the epitome of “hurry up and wait.” the Gymnasium
When our turn came up I could see that we were to enter a dozen checkout lines, similar to what you might find at a supermarket. Upon entering you were supposed to hand a soldier (clerk) a piece of paper that had been given to you. The paper had your name, social security, your blood type and a blank where you were to enter your religion (or keep blank for no preference).
I looked at the blank and then I was directed to the back wall of the gym, where every possible religion was there with a special shorten acronym that could easily fit on a dog tag. Yes, this was the place where I would be issued two dog tags, two special rubber bumpers to deaden the noise of them clanging together, and finally, a beefy chain to fit every around your neck.
Fulfilling my role as squad leader I was trying to help my twelve men to navigate the big wall and find every obscure denomination available. I had no atheists, and only two Roman Catholics, so the process took quite awhile and I had little time to ponder my own form. Suddenly, I was at the clerk while he was pounding out the information on those metal tags. When he got to religion he saw that it was blank so he asked me my choice. I considered myself a Christian but I really didn’t have a church or a denomination. I had heard of non-denominations, but that required a choice and some thought. After a thirty second pause he typed “No pref”, and said “Next!”
I found myself shoved out into the drizzle, pondering what was now typed on my dog tags. We had been told that it was very important to always have both dog tags around your neck. The rubber bumper was to silence the jingle because Viet Cong snipers were trained to fire at the sound of dog tags tinkling. Gruesome thought! Even more gruesome is that we were ordered to pull off the dog tags of our fellow soldiers when they were killed. Then we should put one in our pocket, and place the other dog tag between the front teeth of our casualty, and then kick them in the jaw. That would guarantee that the body would be marked for later. “Don’t leave your buddies behind without a tag jammed in their teeth!”
This was way more information then I wanted.
My current problem was that if these tags were ever used, I would be laying there with “No pref” between my teeth. Providing I had teeth, or a jaw. Time to get serious!
Just about then, my drill sergeant came by to rip me a new one and get me in formation. I may have failed to describe this fireplug of a man, wider than he was tall, loud, black, and a part-time Southern baptist minister. I’m not sure how we new all this about him, but we did. He asked me what was my problem, and I quickly replied that I was a Christian but my tag said “No Pref”. He immediately saw the problem, and was dragging me back to the clerk for a correction. The clerk withstood the barrage from the drill sergeant and explained that I hadn’t picked from the wall behind him. At that point the glare from the drill sergeant was on me. Somehow I managed to mutter that my choice wasn’t there, I was simply a Christian. The glare softened and then shifted back to the clerk, “Type it!”
As I pondered the potential tag between my teeth, I knew I was identified as the only “Christian” in the Army. Then I reread the entire dog tag, it had my name, my social security, then my blood type (should I need blood). The last two lines read…
” A Neg
I still hope this is not true.
Ps. I lost my last original dog tag somewhere in a London cab about twenty years ago. I have since reordered my exact dog tags, although I no longer fear Viet Cong snipers so I don’t have the rubber bumpers, and they periodically tinkle.
That evening at chow, after the monkey bars, I began to notice that there might be a reason to why we all shouted just before being served. As soon as you grabbed your tray for your meal, you were to shout in a clear loud voice “US”. Not the word, but the letters, “U” and “S”. We all did, and it was kind of fun, competing to be the loudest. But that evening we had a visiting squad from the next company and about half of them shouted “RA”. I noticed the difference, “RA” got almost twice the food. A little later someone yelled “NG” and they got about half of what “US” did, and no dessert. “US” was draftees, “RA” was regular army, and “NG” was National Guard. Everyone thought National Guards were cowards, good for hurricanes and shooting protesting students. No food for you.
Before lights out we talked about the mess hall and we realized there was only one very young man who had actually joined the Army. All of us were draftees and he didn’t want to be different so he shouted “US” like the rest of us. Some one had the idea of collecting our draft cards, and we lit them with cigarettes and placed the ashes in the various butt cans (painted bright red install throughout the barracks. It was meant almost as an act of cleansing, like burning sage to sanctify a space.
The next day, after PT, after monkey bar, after shouting “US”, after eating SOS for breakfast ( shorthand for something on a shingle), we were marched to yet another even larger gymnasium. As we lined up inside, we saw thousands of military job titles, called MOS, and then the schools that taught the specialty, and then how many weeks the schools were. I thought, wow, here is my chance to work the system. Pick a field that won’t go to Viet Nam, and find something that won’t shoot someone else.
My hopes were dashed almost immediately because it was announced that this was only for soldiers who had enlisted for three years. The draftees were only to serve for two years, and they were told to go to the next building to get tested in order to place them in the MOS of the Army’s choosing. We were all draftees except one, so I thought we we would all leave in order to take tests. At that point an officer asked if anyone wanted to get discharged, and then re-enlist as a regular soldier, then you could either pick a country or an MOS. Your choice!
I noticed several of the brighter members of my platoon remained sitting. They were considering enlisting. I wanted to be bright, so I remained as well. I sat next to my platoon guide, Carl. He was a year older, already had a BA, and he didn’t have a death wish. I asked what he planned to do. He replied that an extra year might not be too bad if it was spent in school, learning something useful, and brand new. I agreed, and I looked to see literally hundreds of electronic schools, many of them six or seven months long. Then I saw one 56 weeks long, Fixed Ciphony Repair, 32F20. What about that one?
I also noticed that more than half the job titles had the word “Tactical” somewhere in the title. That can’t be good. I politely asked the officer what “Fixed” meant. He looked at the board and suggested that it probably meant a building, and if it was electronics, it probably meant air-conditioned. Well, that was certainly good news, an extra year spent in air-conditioned building doing some repair to “Ciphony”. “Sign me up!”
I had no idea what Ciphony was and neither did my platoon leader, but we both signed on the dotted line. Later we were told it was a secret and more information would be coming as you needed to know. The main thing was to pass the basic electronic school for eight weeks, then qualify for all the security clearances necessary. Fail at any of these and we would be in the infantry for the next three years. But since we had prior service for two weeks, we had higher pay, and we would be considered professional soldiers once out of school. Hmmm,