Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chapter 18: PFC Rimpy

Chapter 18: PFC Rimpy

It's nothing like this.

Job 48: Private First Class, United States Army

1985 - 1986

I arrived back in Butt County during a period of very pleasant warmish weather, which is not unusual in November. It was a wonderful feeling after the chill and wet of Seattle, but that was  the only good thing about my situation. I had no job, no money and worst of all, no place to stay. I’d sleep on friends’ couches when I could, but I was beginning to wear out my welcome most places I went, because I had developed a bit of a drinking problem. If I could get my hands on some booze, I’d drink to excess, and then I became extremely obnoxious.

It wasn’t long until I found myself having to take shelter under a bridge for the night. I had become a bum. There weren’t any billy goats in the neighborhood, so I couldn’t even make a living as a troll. My father, during one of his innumerable lectures on the importance of finding a vocation and becoming very good at it, once said that even if I was going to be a bum, to be the best bum I could be. I’ve never been sure if “the best bum” would be the most pathetic bum, or the one with the best cardboard box, shopping cart and other accoutrements of bum-dom.  I seemed to fall into the former category, because despite having gone on numerous guided backpacking trips in my teens, I had no experience with urban camping. However, I did pick a pretty good bridge, so maybe my dad would have been a little proud of me.

I had the bridge to myself, because it was a bit off the usual paths beaten by College Town’s homeless, whose population wasn’t nearly as large in those days as it is now. The flat part of the embankment was only about three feet from the underside of the concrete bridge, so it was actually very dry under there. One rainy night, though, I couldn’t fall asleep because I had this irrational fear that the creek would rise and sweep me away to a cold and watery death.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and by the time morning finally arrived, I had made a desperate decision. Perhaps my father’s phrase “be the best bum you can be” was banging around in my head and reminding me of “Be all you can be”, for I went to the local U.S. military recruiting office and volunteered for job number 48: the United States Army (the toughest job you'll ever love). I settled on the Army because I didn’t qualify for the Air Force, and I had heard horror stories about the Navy. The Coast Guard was also out of the question, because, honestly, I don’t like boats. Of course, I didn’t even consider the Marines, since I’m not a tough guy, not by any stretch of the imagination. As it turns out, I was barely tough enough for even the Army.

I wanted to make a good impression on my future employer, Uncle Sam, so I went to the library and studied for the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), a series of tests to determine what MOS (Military Occupational Specialty – the military really likes acronyms and initialisms) you’re suited for, and I got a good score. However, I was in dire need of money, food and shelter, so I wasn’t choosey about which MOS I selected. I went with the unglamorous Single Channel Radio Operator because it was the soonest one available. Additionally, because I had some college credits, I was able to enter the service as a Private First Class, which is the third level of privacy.

 As it was, I wouldn’t be departing for basic training until January, so I still had the problem of where I was going to stay until then. Fortunately, just the fact that I was entering the military made people feel more kindly toward me than the average bum. I went to the state employment office to see if I could get Unemployment Insurance Benefits from my rash of jobs in Washington. Technically, I didn’t quite qualify, but the lady who interviewed me had been in the service, so she approved my claim. Also, the Catholic Ladies Relief Society took pity on this nice young man who was about to serve his country, and they put me up for a few nights at a flea-bag motel.

Then the best thing of all happened. I had to go to O-Town to take care of some sort of official document business in relation to going into the service. As I was leaving the county clerk’s office, I ran into my dear old friend “J”. You remember me saying a few chapters back that Mrs. Rimpington’s first named started with “J”? You remember me mentioning in the last chapter having had a brief romantic  interlude with the future Mrs. Rimpington? Yes! They are one and the same woman! We had been close friends since high school, but I had lost contact with her for a couple of years, what with all my gallivanting off to Washington and general instability. And suddenly here she was, in what some may call a chance meeting, but which I call “fate”. I look back on that moment as probably the most important in my life. It feels like that was when my life truly began.

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. It’s not like romance was instantly rekindled. We were just old friends who were happy to see each other. I caught her up on all I had been up to in the last couple of years, and more importantly, what I was about to do. She was surprised by my choice of the military. In fact, all my friends who knew me well were a little incredulous when they heard the news. They knew I wasn’t really the army type. I should have listened to them, but once again I’m getting ahead of myself!

J invited me to stay with her for a few weeks. I then relocated to my brother’s house in Sacramento for the last few weeks until it was time for me to fly off to South Carolina for basic training. J was sharing a rental house with our old friend Lurleen. J had an 8 year old daughter from a previous marriage named…hmm…what to call her here? Now I usually call her Step-Rimpyette in my writings, but she wasn’t a step-child yet. I’ll just call her “B” for now.

Lurleen had a little boy we shall call “Z”, with her estranged husband Scoop. J also had her young cousin “C” living with her. It was a happy, crowded little house, and I was welcomed warmly. It was wonderfully soothing to someone who was between the recent unpleasant experience of sleeping under a bridge, and an uncertain future in the military.

As the weeks passed, true affection began to develop between me and J. Silly boy about love that I was, I don’t think I knew exactly what I was feeling. I was also afraid to try to take it further because I was  leaving soon for my brother’s house and then on to the army. I knew I couldn’t stay indefinitely with J and the gang, but it made me sad to have to leave this group of loving people.

Eventually the day came when I boarded a plane in Sacramento for Columbia, South Carolina. During the flight, I reflected that all I knew about “boot camp” was what I had seen in movies. I fully expected that the screaming of orders and calls of “maggot” would start as soon as I stepped off the bus at Fort Jackson. The recruiting office had given us a little practice in marching and about-facing and whatnot so that we wouldn’t look like total morons when we entered training. I was surprised to find that I knew the drill sergeant who led us in those drills. He was the older brother of one of my former roommates (the who worked at the rice cake factory). When I knew him then, he was just a guy, going nowhere and having occasional run-ins with the law. Now here he was, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and looking very comfortable in his new profession. It made me wonder if there was hope for me.

At the airport in South Carolina, I forget how they rounded up us handful of recruits, who had arrived from various places around the country. The staffers from Fort Jackson who herded us weren’t yelly drill sergeant types, but they were somewhat impatient with us. Instead of a bus, we piled into a couple of olive-drab vans for the ride to the base. We arrived in the middle of the night, so nothing was really going on. We would have to wait until the morning to receive our gear, so we were simply assigned some bunks for the remainder of the night.

There wasn’t much remainder of the night, since the Army likes to get an early start on its day. We were rousted out of bed, and then the yelling started in earnest. Seems like you could never move fast enough for the liking of anyone with power over you. That first full day was a blur, especially after some 29 years. It was basically (pun intended) the sort of things which, if you’ve never done it yourself, you’ve probably seen at the movies: a fast and severe haircut, the issuance of uniforms, et cetera, all accompanied by hollering non-commissioned officers. One important part of that day, which I had not seen depicted in any popular entertainment, was a test of our fitness to see if we were really fit for basic training.

I had already passed the Army’s physical, which was admittedly rather perfunctory, so I was a little confused by this new test. I thought that the point of basic training was to get you into shape for service. Why did we need to prove fitness for getting fit? The test mainly consisted of “how many push-ups can you do?” My result was “not many”. I’ve never much of a physical type, and push-ups had always been a bit of a bug-bear for me in PE classes in school. I had certainly not kept up on them in the years since.

I quickly found out what happened to those recruits who didn’t pass the test: Fitness Company. Apparently the new, all-volunteer army had realized that too many recruits were washing out of basic training because of the physical rigors. So, if you weren’t already reasonably fit, they put you in Fitness Company, which was like BT Lite. We didn’t get to do any of the fun stuff like shooting guns or throwing grenades. We just spent most of our days exercising to get our flabby bodies into the minimum condition needed for real BT. Every other day was a “hard” day, full of calisthenics, running and other PT.  Alternate days were “easy”, which usually consisted of slightly more enjoyable physical activities, like volley ball. Great. I hated volley ball in high school, now I was playing it for my country.

To their credit, the drill sergeants in charge of Fitness Company didn’t make us feel bad about not being in “real” BT. It’s funny to think that they it’s likely that they were teased by their peers in the rest of the camp for their assignment to a bunch of sissies. They just wanted to get us through it and on to the rest of our military training. A popular song sung during marches and runs goes along the lines of, “from the east to the west, [insert name of company here] is the best”. I thought it was ironic that we sang that song in Fitness Company, because we so obviously weren’t the best.

Fitness Company was also pretty chill in that it was more gender-mixed than the rest of BT. The guys and gals had separate quarters, of course, but we were all in the same multi-story building, and we did our training together, so I least I got to see and occasionally talk to females. One day, during the dreaded volley ball, I noticed that one of the girls on the opposing team always ducked when the ball came towards her. Oddly enough, one of my few athletic skills is being good at “serving” a volley ball and sending it exactly where I want to. When it came my turn to serve, I just served it every time at that girl, who of course threw her hands over her head and hunkered down rather hitting it back. Her teammates were reluctant to knock her over to get to the ball before it hit the ground. My team won by a wide margin thanks to my dastardly Scorpio “win at all costs” ploy.

Despite the the Fitness Company's co-ed training,  the Army strictly forbade fraternization between the sexes (which is a weird choice of words because it literally means “turning people into brothers”). One Sunday we were allowed to relax at a nearby base recreation center, but the frivolity (such as it was) was brought to a screeching halt because a sergeant spotted a “Joe” playing checkers with a “Molly”. Despite this rather overweening proscription, I knew of some privates who risked punishment to engage in late-night assignations in areas out of view of roving non-coms. I wasn’t one of them, even though there was a girl who would have been willing - I was thinking of the girl I’d left behind. Actually, the girl I’d left behind probably wouldn’t have minded, since we hadn’t made any commitments to each other yet. I was still just a total dork when it came to the opposite sex. This young female private  had sidled up next to me one day when we were all standing around, listening to some wisdom from some sergeant. She slyly slid the side of her foot against mine. I knew this meant something, but I was too terrified to follow up on it. It’s a wonder I’m not still single.

One thing I didn’t expect about being in “the South” was how cold it was in January. One night we were blasted out of bed by a fire drill. We just had time to throw on our barracks version of leisure wear, which were sweat pants, before running outside, but other than that I only had on socks and a t-shirt. We were out there for quite a while before the all-clear was given. Those tough-as-nails drill sergeants were similarly attired, but seemed unfazed. One of them tried to talk us through putting mind over matter by picturing warm scenes, in which effort I was like Dickens’ Bob Cratchit: not being a man of strong imagination, I failed.

Another thing about the Army for which I was not prepared was the never-ending lung infection which I acquired practically on my first night of sleeping in a closed room with dozens of other humans, and which plagued me for the rest of my time in the service (which was mercifully shorter than originally intended, but I’m getting ahead of myself again).

There is one funny memory I have of my time in Fitness Company. I was standing outside our barracks one day, when a middle-aged female sergeant walked by. I had never seen her before, and I experienced the utmost confusion, because this woman was a dead-ringer for my mother! I thought I must be losing my mind, to be seeing my mother walking about Fort Jackson in battle dress fatigues. She saw me staring at her and bellowed, “What are you looking at, Rimpington?” In panic I wondered how, if she weren’t my mother, she could possibly know my name, until I remembered that it was written in big letters above the right pocket of my field jacket.

I was probably in Fitness Company for no more than a couple of weeks, but it seemed like an eternity. Eventually I was able to do enough precious pushups to pass on to actual BT. Even though we were all going to different parts of the same base, so vast was it that I never saw again saw any of the people I had come to know during that brief time. I soon found out that Fitness Company was a breeze compared to actual BT.  My trouble with push-ups continued to be a problem for me through-out the remainder of basic training and into AIT (Advanced Individual Training), where you learn your MOS (have you been paying attention?)

Wow. This is the first (and hopefully only) job in this long list which it will take more than one chapter to tell, with the exception of the Osmosis Saga, which was written several years ago. Even though my time there wasn’t much more than about half a year, there are so many memories from an intense experience like military training, that it requires more space than your average job. We should be able to wrap this up in the next chapter, and then I can move onto what I consider my real life, where I was more than just a holder of a string of jobs.

The end.

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