ANOTHER ADVENTURE ALONG A ROAD WELL TRAVELLED
Regardless of how the initial military training is designated by service, boot-camp or basic training, the purpose is to extinguish some civilian habits and to indoctrinate new norms that promote the military purpose of cohesion. This function is generally assigned to a non-commissioned officer, sergeant, or petty officer. When I entered the Air Force in 1951, my trainers were called Flight Chiefs. As trainees, we just knew some of the words in their vocabulary were not in the dictionary, and no mother would ever give a child some of the names they called us.
Fortunately, all nine of us from Dasher High School were in the same training unit, along with some who were with us on the troop train and from the initial multitude at the arrival gate. Then we met our leader.
The screen door to barrack 1375 opened gently and Corporal Davis yelled “AH-TEN-HUT”. We stood erect. Sergeant Wayne Hall walked into our lives. He was a little too tall to be short, and too short to be tall. His three stripes gave him the option to be whichever he chose. For at least two minutes he paced silently. We stood and waited, each of us knowing for certain that his first words would set the tone for basic training, and that they would be directed to us personally, although delivered to the collective.
“Welcome to Lackland Air Force Base.” We actually heard him extend a greeting. We didn’t expect that. He continued, “I think basic training can be fun. It can also be a bitch. Most of you won’t do anything here harder than what you’ve done at some point in your life. Those of you not used to hard work, keeping tight schedules, doing more than one thing at a time – and doing all of them well, and if you’re used to having somebody feed you and wipe your butt, then you’ve got eight hard weeks ahead of you.”
That wasn’t such a bad speech. I caught Albert McCloud’s eye and he had the same impression. Then Sergeant Hall told us how we would be trained — so many hours in the classroom, testing what we already know and learning new skills and techniques to prepare us for our roles as airmen. He promised that we would march, and sometimes run, to take shots, for medical examinations, for more shots, to gas chamber training, to the rifle range, to KP duty, and for a few more shots. But he cautioned, “In order to do all these things in the allotted time, some of you might have to change your habits.” He continued, “There are three ways of doing things ….,” his speech was interrupted by, yes, the guitar playing cowboy we met at the gate assembly, who himself inserted, “The wrong way, the right way, and the Air Force way.” Sergeant Hall very calmly said, “Thank you private.” Then with his nose almost touching the subordinate’s, Hall added, “If you ever interrupt me again, not even your mama will recognize your ass at the family reunion.” He continued the orientation. “A lot of you have pretty good education, and you probably know how to do a lot of things right. He managed a slight smile, and added, ‘If your way of doing things is already the Air Force way, then you’re already screwed up’.” It was a nice place for relief laughter. Following a few more general remarks, Sergeant Hall pulled off his plastic pith helmet with three stripes painted to designate his rank, he wiped his brow and began our training.
Our Flight Chief started by giving us the rules of the barrack. Every rule was prefaced with “THERE WILL BE NO …” He then told one airman to walk to the barrack door and watch for visitors. Our leader continued, loudly enough for his words to reach the sentry. “The military is built on courtesies and customs. R-H-I-P means rank has its privileges.” And patting his chevrons, he added, “I worked hard for these three stripes, and so did every other non-commissioned officer and commissioned officer. So, whenever an NCO — anybody with at least two stripes — enters our barrack, the first person to see the NCO should yell, BARRACK, A-TEN-HUT.” Then we heard other voices. A second lieutenant had just arrived to give his welcome, but the sentry had allowed him to enter — without announcing his approach with BARRACK, A-TEN-HUT. Sergeant Hall and the lieutenant faced the new airman. Hall spoke. “Airman, didn’t I just tell you to call the barrack to attention when a lieutenant walks in? “No sir, er mister sergeant. You said NCO.” Hall thought for a minute, remembered his own words, then continued, “But you dip-shit, lieutenants outrank NCOs, now doesn’t that suggest that they too are entitled to the same courtesy?” The private made a promise. “Sergeant, I’m a gonna listen to every word you say for eight weeks. Whatever you tell me to do I’ll do it exactly as you say… ’cause I can’t go back and tell that judge I screwed this up too.” Some of us immediately remembered him from the troop train and that his hometown was Daytona Beach, Florida. Sergeant Hall just shook his head, looked at the lieutenant and said, “Beg your pardon sir.” Then he announced.
“Let’s form some lines and learn to march.”
Somewhere, at this very instant, at least two GI’s form that fundamental and omnipresent military symbol – a line. From the moment I arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, it seemed I was in one continuous line. There was a line to eat, a line to get fitted for clothes, and what finally told me I was in trouble was the line that formed to use the toilet — in open cubicles. That kind of thing quickly changes your behavior. Generally, lines are more efficient than random rushing for moving large numbers of persons. But civilian and military lines differ entirely in their purpose and time. Learning to march, like all military instructions, was not done for the individual’s benefit and had to be presented in repetitive stages to allow for extinction of all civilian behavior.
We had earlier been instructed that on the command of “ATTEN-HUT” we were to stop doing whatever engaged us, to stand erect and remain motionless. Our lines were in disarray. Short and tall stood next to fat and skinny, looking like a band of wanderers who had been shocked into temporary stillness. Hall deliberately allowed this mess to form, so that he could restructure us into a properly aligned unit. He started. “I want each of you to look to your right, and if the man next to you is shorter than you, trade places, and if the next man is also shorter than you, trade places with him. What I’m hoping we end up with is four long lines with the tallest men in front and the shortest in the back.” I took one look at everybody in my line and immediately took my short frame to the last position. Only a couple of the others were as short, and they followed me. After some minor disputes over who had outgrown whom, each man had a position appropriate to his height. Sergeant Hall accepted what he saw. I didn’t. From my position all I could see was the back of heads and shoulders, but it was a slight improvement from my original spot which was eye level to the butt of a much taller fellow. And I knew that wherever our destination, from my position I would be the last to know. But my concerns were not the purpose of this exercise.
For the next few minutes, we walked up and down the street in front of the barrack. We comprised four rows, each consisting of 18 men. Each row was called a squad, and the tallest man in each was the squad leader. We had taken our first steps as a unit, but the formation needed one final alteration. Wayne Hall walked to the rear where the other airmen and I stood at attention. He gave us an inspection. We all waited for something to destroy our day, not because we had done anything to deserve it, but Flight Chiefs often chew ass when they feel like it, not necessarily when its deserved. He asked our names. I was quick. “Alexander, James Edward, AF – – – – – – – -, Sir.” He was equally snappy. “Alexander, when I ask your name, just give me last name, first name, middle initial. If every man comes on with the full package of crap some mama’s hang around their children’s neck, we’ll be here all day.” He moved to the next airman, and with his nose less than two inches away from the trainee’s, he shouted, “Do you understand me, Alexander?” He almost scared me the piss out of me, and the man in whose face he shouted almost fainted and yelled out his own name — in reverse order. It was one of those rare moments when everybody present, including Hall, decided to laugh at what was truly a funny chain of events. Within that 30 second breather, Hall decided to take advantage of the moment. He looked at three of us and said we should sue the city for building the sidewalk so close to our butt.
When he was ready, he called each of us shorter airmen to the front, at attention directly in front of the right squad leader. The chief’s instructions: “Now when I say FOR-WARD-HARCH I want you to begin the march in a straight line. The flight will follow your pace. Do you understand me?” “Yes sir, sergeant.” He offered a carrot. “Now, one of you can earn the position of Right Guidon Bearer. All you gotta do is show me you’ve got some marching potential. Whoever looks best will always march up here – upwind — from all the farts.” That was enough incentive. As far as I was concerned, I had just found a job. He then offered a bonus. “And, if the Right Guide doesn’t screw up and cause me any trouble, he will automatically make PFC at the end of basic training.” I decided that I would be the Right Guide, even kick ass if those other guys tamper with my position. Finally, it was my turn and since I was the last to audition the quad leaders apparently felt I was the best of a bad batch, so they offered hushed helpful hints: “Walk a little faster.” “Slow down dammit.” “Veer to your left.” “Alexander, inch your butt to the right.” As each of us finished our performance we took our original places at the rear. We snapped to attention and resumed the march, minus a designated Right Guide. “FL-I-G-H-T–HALT. Alexander, front and in the position of Flight Right Guide.” I needed that. As I sped to the fore, I heard Nathaniel Baldwin say, “Well I’ll be damn, he saved his little ass again.” Nathaniel knew me well. He and I had walked together as friends and classmates every day of our lives from first grade, through high school, and into this same basic training flight.
Our leader said, “This is the way Flight 1607 will look every time I say fall-in.” Before resuming the instructions, he offered some possible rewards. “Now you squad leaders and the Flight Right Guide will have to do a little extra to earn those automatic stripes. You’ll have to assume duties as flight officers and take on other responsibilities as I assign. Sometimes, when the entire flight is assigned certain duties, you men will be excused. One duty you will not have to perform is – KP.” This time Nathaniel’s expletive was louder and emphatic. The sergeant continued. “Our barrack also has an extra room upstairs, and I usually let the Flight Right Guide have it, so Alexander, move upstairs.” “Yes sir, sergeant.” Franklin Williams didn’t pretend to be quiet. He also thought aloud. “This crap is getting out of hand.” Sergeant Hall hadn’t finished. This also was organization day. “Next, I need two volunteers, but I’d like one of them to have at least a high school education. We need a Flight Secretary.” Airman Bullock stepped forward and said, “I’ll do it sergeant.” Another position was vacant. “Now I need a Latrine Chief to oversee the daily cleaning of the crapper, and it’s gotta be somebody who ain’t gonna let anybody give him any crap.” Another muscular man stepped forward and announced, “My name is Schwartz. I’ll be your Latrine Chief.” Schwartz, a tall muscular man, moved to the front then confidently turned to see if anybody was stupid enough to challenge him. Sergeant Hall announced that Flight 1607 was officially organized, and the “flight officers” were the Right Guide, Squad Leaders, Secretary, and Latrine Chief.
We all knew our places. It was now time for chow. On command, I paced off in the direction of the dining hall, and to my first benefit of “rank.” I guided the flight right up to the door. It was my choice to select the squad to enter first and to guide them into the building where I was always first to enter and first to be served. That also pleased me.
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.
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