Sunday, October 25, 2015

Chapter 19: Private Parts

Chapter 19: Private Parts

Job 48: PFC (continued)


Now that I had “graduated” from Fitness Company to real basic training, the yelling really began in earnest. It was quite unsettling. I was bused to a distant part of the seemingly endless Fort Jackson and mustered into a large auditorium with hundreds of other nervous new recruits. Then a strange thing happened. The drill sergeants told us that if any of us were having second thoughts, now was our chance to back out, but with a catch. They said that if any of us had withheld any information that would have barred us from entering the Army, now was the time to ‘fess up, and we could be on our way, no more questions asked.
As a matter of fact, I was thinking that I had made a horrible mistake, and there was something I had withheld. I held up my hand, and joined a small group of other new-comers in another room to make our confessions. A DI (drill instructor) came up to me to ask what I hadn’t admitted. I told him I’d lied about not using hallucinogens. He told me that he hoped I started having a flashback right then and there so he could kick my ass. I appreciated his candor, despite his lack of understanding about how drugs work.
Finally I got to a table behind which sat a more reasonable-seeming DI. I told him my sin, and he basically said that it wasn’t so bad, so I was going to have to stay. I’m not sure what the point of that whole exercise had been. I guess they wanted to make sure they weren’t taking anyone really unsuitable, or just to see who the quitters were. As it was, I didn’t hear anymore about my illicit drug history (mild though it was), but I felt like I had been lied to. I was embarrassed for admitting to something uncomfortable, and it hadn’t even gotten me what I’d hoped it would. At least I never again saw that one DI who wanted to see me start gibbering and hiding from the moon or god knows what.
So began the long weeks of basic training. As time went by, I even managed to adapt to the rigors of such an existence. I still had occasional bouts of extreme depression, and even thoughts of suicide at times when I felt like it was the only way to get out of that excruciating situation In general though, there wasn’t a lot of time to dwell on one’s problems, and I even have some pleasant memories of that time. That’s the nice thing about memory: we seem to remember the good stuff more than the bad of difficult times.
One of the best memories I have from BT (and which I can’t really work into this narrative in a seamless way, so I’ll just bung it in here) is one that still makes me laugh out loud today. It happened on bivouac, which is a fancy army way of saying “camping”. We were learning what it was like to work and fight in the field and sleeping among the sparse, piney woods of the south east in tents at night. There was one private from a large city who had never been in the “woods” before. He had an unusually large concern about encountering snakes (which we never did). The rest of us found his phobia amusing, and then somewhat annoying. The first night, I was in my two-person tent with my buddy Rogers (whose first name I can’t remember because in the army we only ever addressed each other by our last names). The quiet was suddenly shattered by the sound of a huge explosion some distance away. We weren’t sure if maybe this wasn’t some drill that required a response on our parts. When we heard nothing more, I ventured to whisper, “What the fuck was that?”. After a brief pause of perfect comedic timing, Rogers said, “Maybe…it was a snake.” I couldn’t roar with laughter the way I wanted to for fear of an ass-kicking by a DI, but I giggled into my sleeping bag for the next several minutes
One thing that helped get me through BT was Vicks Formula 44-D. I was allowed to take this for my persistent “barracks lung”, even though it had a surprisingly high alcohol content. Every night just before lights out I would have my little cough syrup “night cap”, and I slept quite well until reveille, which always came way too early for my tastes.
One of my favorite parts of basic training was BRM (Basic Rifle Marksmanship). I had fired guns before, and I seemed to be a naturally good shot, but in the Army I found I had a real talent for it. I wasn’t exactly sniper quality, but I quickly got a reputation for my skills. Don’t worry – I didn’t wind up like Vincent D’Onofrio in “Full Metal Jacket”. I was just glad to have something for which I could get praise in a world full of Dads in BDUs.
One day I was at my position on the shooting range. We were taking a break, while one of our DI’s was accompanying the captain and lieutenant of our company on an inspection of our targets. The group paused at my target and looked at my tight shot grouping, and then they turned and looked admiringly at me. I was very proud, but a little nervous at all the attention. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to salute or wave or what, so I just stood still and nodded back.
Towards the end of BT, we were graded on our marksmanship, of which there were three levels (from lowest to highest): marksman, sharpshooter and expert. We were given forty bullets to shoot at forty plastic targets which popped up from behind little hillocks. They varied in their speed and distance. One was called “Fast Freddy”, and he had a cousin named “Quick Rick”. Everyone in my platoon expected me to be a “Dead Eye” and get all 40. However, I missed Fast Freddy and one of the furthest targets. I was a little disappointed at not getting them all, but it was enough to make me an expert marksman. There were actually a couple of soldiers in our battalion who got “Dead Eye”. They didn’t get a special medal for their acumen, but they got the dubious honor of the “Blood Badge”, which meant that when the DI attached their “Expert” badge to their field jacket, he slapped it into their chest before the little clips were put on the back of the pins that poked through the cloth. When I heard about that, I was quite content with my measly score of 38 out of 40.
Even more than shooting guns, my favorite part of BT was meal times. I’ve always been a fan of free food, and the Army wasn’t stingy with the vittles, and it wasn’t bad either, despite jokes you may have heard about “shit on a shingle”. The other nice thing about mess hall was that for some reason the DI’s didn’t scream at you while you were eating. Maybe too many privates had choked or thrown up from stress (or choked on their stress vomit). So meal times were like islands of peace and comfort food in a sea of stress.
Actually, there was one time when they did holler at us during mess. For some reason one day a small group of female privates were dining in our mess hall. We males kept sneaking peaks at the girls. Finally the DI’s decided to just get it over with. They made us Joes stand up, then they ordered us to either “look left” or “look right”, (depending on which way we were facing) so we could good get a good look at “Molly”, and then meal time continued on schedule.
Other than one female DI, we often went for weeks without seeing women. One day we were practicing crawling under barbed wire, which is apparently something that happens a lot in the real world of warfare. A small group of Mollies was drilling on the same field, but they were kept off to the side, away from us. I was in a line of privates on the edge of the practice field, closest to Molly, who were separated by several empty tracks. We were doing the low crawl, which meant we couldn’t really see where we were going, and we couldn’t lift our heads because of the barbed wire. I just tried to follow the guy in front of me as best I could. I kept glancing forward to keep him in sight, and I began to think, “I guess I’ve been without the company of women for too long, because this private has a really nice ass.” Then I discovered I had somehow gotten way off track and was following one of the females. I got yelled at, but it was worth it to know I wasn’t turning gay.
Getting back to the subject of meal time: somebody had to help prepare all that food. Each mess hall had a sergeant in charge of the kitchen, and a small, permanent staff of underlings, but most of the grunt work was performed by us trainees. They couldn’t get anyone to volunteer for “Kitchen Patrol” (at least, not more than once), so each day a few luckless, random privates were pulled away from whatever training was on tap that day to work in the mess. When my turn came, I was marched into the mess hall along with several others from the battalion. We lined up in front of the mess sergeant, who wrote mysterious letters upon pieces of masking tape which were placed on the front of our caps. This way everyone knew where we were supposed to be. Mine said, “P&P”, which I didn’t understand, but I was hoping it stood for something nice, like “Pies & Pastries”. No –  it meant “Pots & Pans”. For the next 16 hours, all I did was scrub pots and pans – extremely large pots and pans. After all, we were feeding an army. It was probably the toughest assignment one could land on KP.
I had a partner from my platoon helping me with the P&P, and I found I wasn’t the biggest wimp in the Army. After a few hours, this guy couldn’t stop whining about how much his feet hurt. I was tired and sore, but my feet were okay, so I regarded his complaints with disdain. Finally, after the last pot (or maybe it was a pan) had been cleaned after the evening meal, I slouched back to my platoon. After wearing my cap in the kitchen all day, I forgot it was still on my head. For some reason, under normal circumstances, you’re not supposed to wear your cap indoors. I stumbled through the door, and one of DI’s was standing there. He just looked at me. I didn’t wait to be told. I pulled off my cap and dropped and starting banging out 25 push-ups – the standard punishment for minor infractions. A great home-coming after a hard day.
You would think that with all the push-ups we did in the normal course of our days, and the extra ones doled out as punishment, that I should have been a ripped, push-up monster. Actually, I didn’t have to do a lot extra push-ups on my own account, because I was good at doing what I was told, and I didn’t make trouble. Most extra push-ups were done en masse because one private had fucked up, so we all suffered.
But despite all the opportunities for practice, push-ups were still the bane of my military existence. At the very end of BT, I didn’t graduate with my platoon because I still couldn’t quite pass the stinking push-up test. I had become friends with a few of the other guys, and all us had been through this amazing experience together (except one guy who tried to kill himself by taking an overdose of aspirin and had been discharged). I was humiliated and downcast.
I didn’t go back to Fitness Company, but I was stuck in the now mostly deserted battalion barracks with a few other weaklings. At least some of them were girls, who are always better company than guys. Over the next week or two, we did a lot of exercise, and eventually I barely managed to do enough of those damned push-ups to pass on to my AIT.
The radio operator school was at Fort Gordon, near Columbia, Georgia – which is only about 100 miles from Ft. Jackson. A private from another battalion and I were the only ones headed for Ft. Gordon at that time. We were given our orders for our change of assignment (I’m sure there was an official name for such papers, but I can’t remember what that was) and we were dropped off at the local Greyhound station. I had been hoping that we might get a little time off before having to report to our new post. On the bus ride, I noticed that although the date of our exit from Ft. Jackson was that day, the date of having to report to Ft. Gordon wasn’t until the next day. When we arrived in Columbia, I called the phone number on the orders and asked the clerk on duty if I was correct in my interpretation of the orders, which he confirmed.
So – a night of freedom, after all. My new buddy and I rented a motel room, and then we proceeded to explore the nightlife of Columbia, Georgia (which ain’t much) and get blind, stinking drunk. I won’t go into the details about some of the mayhem that occurred that night. Let’s just say that neither of us will probably ever be welcomed back at that motel. The next day we reported for duty at Ft. Gordon with massive hangovers.
Advanced Individual Training was easier than boot camp. There were still the usual obsessions with exercise and clean barracks, but most of our time was spent in class, learning our chosen specialties. The school was done in two shifts. My company’s classes were the during the second shift. We’d get up at 8 in the morning (which seemed really decadent after being rousted out of bed at 4 AM in BT), have breakfast and do our usual Army stuff for several hours, then have lunch, and then march across base to the school, where we would be stay until late in the evening. Then we’d march to a different mess hall for a late dinner, then be bused back to our barracks. Part of our march crossed a huge parade field. There was a forest on one edge of the field, and it was actually quite inspiring to hear our march songs echo back at us from the wall of trees.
I had a hard time adapting to such a schedule. Considering how late we were at school, 8 AM still seemed rather early for reveille. I’ve always been a morning person, and being in school after dark was really hard for me. I was often punished by the sergeant in charge of our class for dozing off at my desk.
Classes and our company we co-educational, but Joe and Molly slept in separate buildings. In AIT there wasn’t the draconian proscription against “fraternization” as there had been BT. There was also a lot more free time when we weren’t in class. In fact, we essentially had our weekends to ourselves. Most of the time they were spent on the base, but we could go anywhere we wanted with in that vast space. There was even a civilian-run taxi service, and a bar! With alcohol and everything! Not a great idea for a drunk like me. Sometimes we were even given passes to spend our weekends off-base. On those occasions, most soldiers rented rooms in the same motel for purposes of co-ed partying. I wasn’t interested in hanging out with the same people I’d been with all week, so when I got a weekend pass, I rented a single room at the Columbia Holiday Inn. I checked in during the wee hours of the morning, and the first thing I did was sleep. The room was dark and quiet and no one bothered me, and I slept the sleep of the dead. When I awoke it was still dark out. I thought my watch must have stopped or something, but I confirmed the date and time with the front desk. I had slept a staggering 18 hours! I guess I had a deficit to make up for.
I was well-rested, which felt great, but now I was wide awake in the middle of the night. It was too late to go anywhere. I ordered room service, watched TV, took a long bath, even got in some leisurely hobby practice in complete privacy, but mostly I was bored and lonesome, so I was actually glad to get back to the base.
All that free time and access to alcohol wasn’t really a good thing for me. Booze is a depressant, and I had more time to ruminate on what I was doing with my life, for which the answer was still, “I don’t know, but I don’t like what I’m currently doing.”
Eventually I became desperate to get out of the army. I kept trying to find a way out, but I had signed an iron-clad contract. They just weren’t going to let me out, no matter how much I begged. I finally hit upon a technique used by people much better than I, for causes more noble. I went on a hunger strike. I just stopped eating. Of course, being hungry didn’t make it any easier to do all the push-ups we were still forced to perform, but I persisted. My biggest mistake was wandering into the base PX (Post Exchange), which was a full-fledged supermarket. I felt like Robin Williams’ Russian defector in “Moscow on the Hudson” – overwhelmed by a bewildering array of food choices, and I almost passed out like he did.
Soon word of my shameful hunger strike got to the right people. I suppose that technically they could have charged me with disobeying a direct order and chucked me in the brig and force-fed me or something. They apparently didn’t want to go to all that trouble, and they grudgingly gave me my discharge.
It’s difficult for me to admit this. On one hand, I feel proud that I was able to do this thing which took a lot of will power to get out of a seemingly inescapable situation. However, I’m not proud of being essentially a pussy, when many fine people have bravely served in the military, even ones who didn’t want to go but were drafted. I don’t usually tell anyone I was in the service, especially veterans, because I don’t want to have to tell them that I got an early discharge. And I really don’t want the subject to come up of just how I achieved that rare privilege.
Of course, paper work never moves very quickly in the Army, so it took a few more weeks for my discharge to actually come through. I gladly started eating again, but meanwhile, I just banged about, going through the motions of attending class and all the other stuff – and getting drunk on the weekends.
One Sunday night I had been partying all night. It felt like my discharge was never going to come through, and as the sun came up on another day in the Army, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had just gotten paid, so I packed some civilians clothes in my duffle bag, caught a cab to the airport and boarded a flight to San Francisco.
I had sobered up a bit by the time my plane landed. I didn’t know if the army would come looking for me, but I thought it might be a good idea not to just go back to Butt County – the last known residence they had for me. Of course, this was in the “good old days” – long before 9-11 – when you didn’t have to show ID to book a domestic flight. So PFC Rimpy Rimpington got off a plane in San Francisco, and a few minutes later a person matching my description by the name of Max Rockatansky bought a ticket to Seattle. Some of you may recognize that name from a popular film franchise, but in 1986 the ticket clerk didn’t even blink, except at having to spell it.
So I winged my way northward once again - no plan in my crazy head, other than not being in the Army any more. Of course, you can’t just walk away from the military, unless you plan to stay Max Rockatansky forever and never use your social security number. Maybe some people have done that, but it sounded like an even drearier existence than I’d already led. So job #48 didn’t end when I got on that plane in Columbia. There’s a bit more to wrap that up after my escapades on the lam, but that’s a story for another chapter.

The end.

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