This story was first presented in my second book, Forks in the Road. It is again presented here to fix the time and conditions during a significant period of my life, when and where I was hastily being conditioned to transition from childhood to manhood in the United States Air Force.
Where to Go and What to Do
As we marched one morning during our sixth week of training, we saw in the distance another flight of newcomers, still dressed in civilian clothes. Their flight chief saw our approach and ordered the new arrivals to halt, so that they could see what he would soon demand of them. Seeing our audience, one squad leader said, “Let’s show out.” Sergeant Hall responded, “Shut up,” then hesitated and softly added, “Just do it.” We made him proud of us. At this stage of training the thud of the 72 pairs of boots following me had new meaning. It was a sound of harmony which signaled how men of such diversity had created a new connected entity. Marching was our manner of sharing synchronized pulses.
We came to a halt at a large green building and stood briefly at attention in the hot Texas sun. Inside, clerks and counselors awaited us to review our scores on the battery of Air Force Qualifying Tests (AFQT), that were administered in those buildings that I guarded as Post 24. My preference was to be a medic, to serve four years, after which I would use the GI Bill to fund my education to eventually become a doctor. Just before we entered the building, a second lieutenant stood in a shaded area and announced, “Those of you who want to become medical technicians follow me.” Chester Fowler, a Minnesotan, and I followed the officer inside. It was as though God whispered to the officer the words and timing to offer an escape from the heat, a bypass from the speculation of what career field I would be assigned based on the test scores, and a direct pipeline to where I wanted to go. He examined our scores and confirmed our eligibility to be medics. We would begin our careers at Lackland, in the largest Air Force hospital.
There was general excitement when we reassembled at the barrack. Our spirits were boosted by the thought of leaving basic training and joining the “real” Air Force. All nine Valdosta’s huddled in my room to announce our destinations.
Most of our time during the last two weeks of training was spent insuring that we had our full allocation of clothing, completing medical and dental examinations, affirming the accuracy of personnel records to list our next of kin, and seeing that our dog tags showed blood type and religious preference. After all, some of that information might be useful, sooner than later, in Korea.
The other prominent activity during this final period of training was serving as gofers and general helpers anywhere a strong back was needed. One day I was assigned to an office to do whatever anyone with at least one stripe told me to do from 0700 to 1600 hours. Of course, I reported on time. When a major entered, I clicked my heels together and came to attention, although I didn’t call the building to ‘A-TTEN-HUT’. He gave me the command “at ease” and asked where I was from. “Valdosta, Georgia, Sir,” was my snappy reply.
He said, “Airman, we’re both going to get tired of this attention and sir stuff, so just relax and make a pot of coffee.” I did that with haste. Then, a sergeant told me to find a lawnmower and cut the grass. I did that with haste. At approximately 0915 hours, the major asked me what I would do if he released me.
I told him, “I will salute, do an about face and — haul ass, I mean depart – – sir.”
He said, “Do it.” I did that with haste.
For the next six hours and 45 minutes I was free to wander about the base, to do, or not do, almost anything I wanted. My first choice was a visit to the parade field, to the spot where I left tears a few weeks earlier. I reaffirmed my promise, that with the help of God and the Library of Congress, I would educate myself.
A few days later, on Friday, August 10, 1951, Sergeant Hall walked out of his room across from mine and yelled, “Flight 1607, fall in.” We took our positions, by now, almost as Pavlovian subjects. Hall then reached into the pocket of his starched fatigues and withdrew a paper, and commanded, “ATTEN-HUT. The following personnel are hereby promoted to the rank of Private First Class (PFC).” Even though the military was gradually transitioning into a racially integrated force, on the promotion roster that Sergeant read there appeared the notation (N) next to the names of all Negro airmen. We congratulated ourselves and each other. Over the next couple of days, each man stenciled his name and rank on his duffle bag, packed and awaited traveling orders. We were preparing to go separate ways into the unknown.
Basic training was over. Eight weeks ago, men who stood shoulder-to-shoulder as strangers had waded across chasms of culture, religion, ethnicity, race, and regionalism, were shaking hands, and exchanging hearty farewells. For some, the parting evoked that most un-manly expression of the day, a final hug. When some men thought no one was watching, a few even wiped their eyes. I gave one traveler a special send-off. On our second day of training, Airman Hernandez greeted me: “Buenos Dias, Senor Santiago Alexandro.” When another man translated his greeting from Spanish to English, it was a gesture that touched me deeply, for it was the first time I heard my name in a foreign language and delivered by a man from the tongue of his mother. So, on the day of his departure I asked another Spanish-speaking Airman to translate my words, and I saluted PFC Hernandez, Antonio, and bade him farewell: “Adios, Senor Hernandez, mi amigo.”
Two hours later I hoisted the duffle bag on my shoulder and walked about two miles to the headquarters 3700th Medical Group. Shortly thereafter I entered another barrack. Approximately six men lounged on their bunks or stirred about, almost ignoring my approach. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. A corporal said in a very loud voice, “Alexander, where the hell have you been? I’ve been waiting for you.” Another corporal joined him: “Yeah, Alexander, where the hell have you been?” It was a frightening start for a person who had left basic training less than four hours ago. Finally, a third corporal approached and identified himself as Malone. Seeing that I was frozen with the duffle bag still on my shoulder, Malone said, “Alexander, these two vocal, crazy asses are Shelton and Grant. They never saw you before, but with ALEXANDER stenciled on your duffle bag, they simply couldn’t resist giving you a bullshit welcome to scare the piss outta you.” It worked. Malone removed my duffle bag, and I went to the latrine. When I returned, corporals Shelton and Grant had invited everybody in the barrack to the lower floor (bay), and one-by-one they shook my hand and individually welcomed me to what one of them said was: “The sickest bunch of SOBs in the Air Force, and the best barrack in the armed forces.”
My new home was across the street from the parade field.
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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