Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Back to Basics


(To commemorate Veteran's Day, here is a brief, inglorious account of my own brief, inglorious career in the US military.)

"Bumfuzzled." That is the word which best describes my experience with basic training. A poll was not necessary. I didn't need to hear what the guys next to me were thinking. Just one look at their faces . . . that was enough. It told me all I needed to know about my own face. "Bumfuzzled" . . . that is the word.

We were stunned. Even were we capable of rational thought at eighteen, there was no time to think. There was our hair, curled around the barbers' chairs like a pack of mangy coyotes. More efficient than any sheep-shearing shed, we were run through the scalping in mere seconds. This was our first reality check. At the height of Beatle-mania, when leggy chicks in mini skirts were doing chaps with the bushiest dos, here we were, Samson-like, shorn of ours; not only was our strength laying there on the floor, but so was our sex life. We weren't guys anymore; we weren't girls, either; we were just bald, stupid things that sprang and ran when someone--anyone--screamed: "NOW GET OUT OF THE BARBER'S CHAIR, YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!"

Next, chow, our first, and sure as shootin', just like Dad said, it was "s--t on a shingle" (chipped beef on toast). But Lord, that was good! Or was it? Next, more shouting and confusion as we scrambled to get our clothes and equipment. Actually, by this time I was so confused that I am not sure about the order of the above, or the time. It might have been 3 AM or 3 PM; we may have been in America or Angola, for all we knew; these were mysteries we neither knew about or asked about. I only know that we ran from pillar to post those first few hours. Sleep? I don't remember a wink.

The day of bumfuzzlement
began in Kansas City twenty hours earlier. That is where we were run through the medical mill. I have always been modest; just hated to shower with other guys in high school. On this day, however, modesty was a luxury I never even thought of, much less expressed. S
tripped to our briefs, the medical staff ran us from one station to the next just as I had seen Laplanders herd reindeer on TV. These examiners (mercifully, they weren't women!) looked into every crack, cranny, crevice, and awful orifice one body could possible contain.

I hated, hate, and always will hate,
shots and needles of any kind, but the blitz this day was so overwhelming that I don't remember feeling a thing. With a multiple-shot "gun" in each hand like Old West duelists, the medics on each side of we nearly naked creatures blazed away as we passed between them. "Don't move or it will shred your arm," they yelled. Some did move and, indeed, the docs weren't lying.

Sometime later that morning
or afternoon, there was a mass swearing in. I suppose we swore to defend the US against any and all enemies, foreign and domestic, but, in our stunned condition, for all any of us knew we were promising to sell our parents into slavery.

Somehow that day, we found ourselves aboard a big jet; my first such ride and I suppose, judging by their bewildered looks, the first for everyone else, too. Do remember looking down at sunset as we crossed into Texas and discovering that the Red River really was red. Love Field--Dallas. Wow! Kennedy shot here. Or was he? Landed in San Antonio late that night and thus began our first few hours of bumfuzzlement at Lackland Air Force Base.

Very quickly I discovered that I was not meant for the military, nor it for me. Because of the Vietnam War, our basic training covered a mere month, rather than the usual six weeks. Like the first hours, the first days were a wild, spinning, confusing time, indeed. Absolute and total bumfuzzle best sizes up our brief stay.





Within a day or less, the "ass holes" in question didn't know if the ass holes were animal, vegetable or mineral. That, of course, is precisely the condition these slave-drivers sought of their slaves. Cleaning, sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, brushing, dusting, shining, sewing, ironing, buffing--at the end of thirty days we would have made great wives for any group of men.
Running, jumping, crawling, grunting, groaning, aching, paining, coughing, gagging, spitting, sweating, and marching, Marching, MARCHING--when "lights out" came each night there was no need for the sergeant and his goons to scream at us: "NOW GET IN THOSE BUNKS AND GO TO SLEEP, YOU ASS HOLES!" All one hundred ass holes were out in five minutes. Not once did I hear an ass hole playing a harmonica like in the movies; nor did I ever hear an ass hole laying awake, wistfully wondering to his ass hole bunk mate how the ass hole's folks in Ohio were doing. Poker? Ha, ha, ha.

Somewhere in the midst of all this
we managed to go to classes where we had certain fundamentals of military law driven into our thick domes; things like, "If you are captured by the enemy, you WILL try to escape." Well, fancy that! The government also succeeded in getting our entire outfit food-poisoned one night and the misery of one hundred sick boots all trying to use a handful of cans may well be imagined. Can anyone spell "s-t-i-n-k-i-n-g n-i-g-h-t-m-a-r-e?"

One night, a squad of us were called out for guard duty. Before sending us off to our posts, the sergeant delivered a rousing war talk on the deteriorating situation with Red China and how we could expect to see human waves of Commies trying to overrun Lackland any day now. According to the sarge, with appropriate high dudgeon, Red scouts might be prowling the perimeter this very night, looking for a chance to slit our throats.

And so, with those words
rattling around in our skulls, and heavily armed with flashlights, we set out to defend the Free World from Chinese Communism. It was probably no more than five minutes after I reached my duty station that I laid down on the ground and fell fast asleep. Communist cutthroats or no Communist cutthroats, there is only so much a body can take after eighteen hours of nonstop punishment--I really didn't care if the Reds overran my position or if the Free World remained free another day. I was, however, deathly afraid of my sergeant. Somewhere in my disturbed dreams, I saw the light of a train as it roared down on me while I lay naked on the track. Almost unconscious, I jumped to my feet.

"Halt . . . who is it? I mean . . . who goes there?"

By the grace of God
and the inscrutable crossing of planets, I had avoided the sergeant's flashlight beam and the possibility of being shot at sunrise by the narrowest of margins. Even the fear of death at dawn wasn't enough to deny nature, however. After escaping one close call I eagerly embraced another by
falling fast asleep soon after the sergeant left.

No, those thirty days of basic training
pretty well convinced me that there would never be a future for me and the military. But I do think it odd that not only do I enjoy reading military histories, but many of my best friends are, or were, professional military men. No sir, I do not dislike the military; just my own Sad Sack role in it.

After the military, this "hero" went on to be a very successful hitchhiker, a so-so college student and a starving artist in New England.