Your Force, My force, the Air Force: Chapter 3
At the time of this writing, my time in the Air Force began 29 years, 8 months and 16 days ago. I wish I could tell you every detail about basic training, dear Reader, but time has a way of making things hazy. I remember little things. Some good. Some bad. I thought of ten things that immediately came to mind.
Eating. Forget everything you know about eating. What you ate and how much and how fast would all be decided for you. And it would no longer be a source of relaxation and flavor and rejuvenation. Nor would it be a guilty pleasure or a bad habit or a vice. Food will now be a small amount of medicine for your body to keep you going through the next stress test. Nothing more. No flavor, no large portions, no choices. And it must be consumed…
Fast. I think they gave us five minutes to eat, but maybe not at first. It might have been 120 seconds. And then the screaming to GET THE FUCK UP and put our trays away and run outside to formation. You had to run past what we called “The Snake Pit” where all of the training instructors sat watching us and eating slowly. So you walked, professional, nervously past them and…
Not fast enough. You inevitably got screamed at for something. I mean, did they not want to just sit and enjoy their meal of nothing blandness? All of this hurried eating and waiting in formation (“Hurry Up and Wait”) for them to scream at us some more was done after they came in the dormitory at an ungodly hour of something like 0445 hrs banging on shit and throwing metal trashcans around. We jumped up and ran miles before anything else in the morning. We all lost body fat those first couple of weeks because we were…
Running on water. 5 at 5. Five miles at 0500 hrs is what I remember. At first, not everyone could keep up and run in formation without slowing down or stopping to catch their breath. We were only allowed to drink water with our meals until everyone ran those 5 miles satisfactorily to SSgt Walker. A bodybuilder. Ugh. It took all 50 of us two weeks to do so. And then we started feeling it, collectively, running smoothly in cadence, a unified machine. Pleasing to the eyes of the government, our new father and mother. When we finally were allowed to drink soda, milk, coffee, anything besides water with our meals it was…fucking heaven. The best tasting Coca Cola I’ve ever had.
I was given a regular duty. Latrine queen. Yes. Cleaning the fucking bathroom. The piss off of the floor, the shit off of the toilets, the grime off of the community shower walls. Making the drain covers sparkle. And those fucking bathroom mirrors. We found newspaper and made sure that they were crystal clear with no smudges. In unison. Other than that, we had to ensure our own small spaces were perfect. I remember the great care that each of us was instructed to follow in folding socks and underwear. The Air Force way. And keeping track of every item in our drawer and keeping it locked. Writing down the serial numbers of my cash and keeping it in a small notebook for SSgt Walker to inspect, should he feel the desire to do so. He did. And he wrecked your shit and threw things and screamed if it wasn’t up to USAF standards.
My 18th birthday. I did enter the military at 17 on July 30th, but two weeks in, on August 13th, I turned 18. I told a few of the guys in my squadron it was my birthday and they all cheered and introduced me to another dude. Same as other dude. Our 18th birthday. Brought in to this world on the same day and ended up in the 4793rd in the same flight at the same time. It was nice. We never kept in touch, and honestly I can’t remember his name now, 30 years later. 30 years goes by in such a flash. That photo is me, then. 30 years ago.
On my 18th birthday I had some task that required me to go downstairs and do something meaningless, busy work, outside and upon coming back in I was a great mood and began running up the stairs to get back to my safety net of my flight. And…I tripped. I was going so fast my feet got caught up in those big ol’ combat boots and I fell UP the stairs, landing on my face. I looked up. Yes. Like out of a fucking horror movie. SSgt Walker was standing there. ANGER in his eyes, hands on his hips. I think all of his muscles were flexed, wanting to beat the fucking shit out of me. He began the tirade. The screaming. It was like you see in a film where loud things are happening but the character is in such shock that they momentarily go deaf and all they hear is a loud ringing like a bomb just went off. Oh yeah. Boom. I had tripped and landed on a grenade.
He put me in charge of guarding a side door to the entrance of our dorms. With a small window. I was to keep it locked and not let anyone in unless they showed me identification through the door. The other training instructors and various recruits would come in and out of it. I trembled and ensure everyone had identification. And if you let SSgt Walker in while he was screaming on the other side of the door without him having shown his ID…you poor soul. The instructions were simple. No ID, no entrance. No talking.
I stood there at attention for probably 8 hours as punishment. I missed a meal. I missed my Coca Cola. I missed activities. It was my 18th birthday. Happy fucking birthday, Jason.
The girls on the other side of the door. It was fun at night after our TI had put us to bed and tucked us in with violent words and gentle, but firm instruction on how to pristinely polish our boots and dress shoes. There was a locked door to the other side of the building and housed 50 female Airmen. There was an inch gap from the floor to the door and we whispered flirtations back and forth with them after getting out of bed late at night to join the guy that was assigned flashlight duty to guard us, rotating shifts with others. I did get up a couple of times and we giggled back and forth with the girls. One of them asked to see what one of the guys looked like. She asked him to pass his ID under the door so she could see his face. He did, against our wishes. She didn’t pass it back. TERROR STRUCK OUR HEARTS. TERROR. What if she turned it in to her TI? What if she WAS A TI (training instructor)??? HOLY SHIT. After several minutes of pleading an begging it appeared under the door and all six of us guys were able to breathe again. We never did that again and we never spoke of it to anyone.
The Wetting and the Flipping. When I was younger child, I had a problem with wetting the bed. A lot. I hated myself and my self-esteem was usually at zero at a young age. I couldn’t help it. I had other problems and even spent a couple of weeks in a child psychiatric facility to try and work out what was going on. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. But only to explain what happened next. Things were going well. I was in step with my flight, I was following orders day to day and I was happy. Excited. Full of hope. And I woke up one morning…having had peed. TERROR. I have never been so fucking scared in my life. I mean…WHAT IN THE HOLY FUCK??? I slid out from under my covers, grabbed a change of clothes and scurried off to the bathroom to change. SSgt Walker came in to wake us up and give us instructions on our pending inspection of our bed areas that day. Seriously? Yes. He was going to inspect my bed. I shit you not. I panicked. I thought of something. What if I flipped over the mattress? Then the sheets and blankets would dry and maybe they wouldn’t kick me out or send me to prison or hang me or whateverthefuck the military does to a young man that pissed the bed for some fucking reason.
I acted frustrated and crazed to those around me. It wasn’t a hard sell because I was. I started shouting “FUCK” and flipped my bed in anger. All of the other recruits stopped and stared at me with my mattress on the floor. Upside down. A couple came over to comfort me and tell me to get it together. It had worked. I pulled the mattress back on and made my bed again, concealing the sheets. Perfect. Hospital. Corners. This time. I couldn’t help the smell that no one seemed to notice, but at least I might get away with my plan by inspection time later that day.
I passed inspection. He was more concerned about the way my underwear weren’t folded perfectly. I could breathe again.
Longing for home. That first phone call. After a long while, we were allowed to go to a phone booth and make a collect call home. I phoned my mom. She answered and happily accepted the charges and told me how proud of me she was. I couldn’t speak. Tears flowed. I was crying so hard. I missed her. I missed my childhood. I missed my waterbed. I missed my dog, Angus. I missed my friends. I missed Amarillo. I couldn’t speak. I sobbed and sobbed and she cried with me. Eventually I managed to tell her I loved her and goodbye. I felt like that was a sort of funeral to my childhood. A brief, collect call, funeral where only my mom and I attended and said our goodbyes.
Learning: Weapons training. USAF history. Falling asleep in class. Our days were filled with instruction that we had to memorize. Every fact about the history of the Air Force, the Air Force song, the beginning from the Army Air Corps and the state of the world. We’d run everywhere in perfect formation. They handed us M16 rifles and instructed us how to break them down, clean them and assemble them. How to fire them in standing, kneeling and prone positions. How to break them down, clean them and assemble them. Again. If you fell asleep in class…you poor soul. You were allowed to quietly stand by your desk if that was an issue. Without explanation to the instructor. I did. Often.
But there was a time, near graduation, where we took our neatly organized cash, serial numbers of each bill recorded, and put them in our pockets and headed to beautiful San Antonio on an AF bus. A day pass. Off base. Without SSgt Walker. I saw The Alamo. It was a LARGE part of my learning in elementary and junior high and I’d seen the old movie and had visions of war glamour. And then I walked through The Alamo. And I said…that’s it? I was an asshole. But I still loved Texas. Ozzy Osbourne was once banned from Texas for a decade for pissing on the Alamo. I then went to the mall. I bought my mom a pretty, gold shamrock necklace and had the jewelry store mail it to her. Felt good. But she couldn’t afford to come down and see my graduation.
And then it happened. Quickly. We were in our finest dress blues, in formation, tons of friends and family had come in to see us graduate. I was alone, but not. I had my flight and I had SSgt Walker. During the ceremony, he went to each recruit in perfect military fashion and gave them a final inspection. He stood before me, looked in my eyes, shook my hand and whispered, only to me, “Good job Adams.”
I didn’t at that moment out of shock, but later, I wept. I had made him proud. Almost four years later, in a dark bar about 45 miles south of Seoul, Korea, I was two sheets to the wind with my buddies, playing darts and I walked over to the bar to get another beer. There he was sitting at the bar with a beautiful Korean girl writhing all over his still finely chiseled body. My jaw dropped, I was standing NEXT TO SSGT WALKER. IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY. But he was higher ranked then. I think five stripes by then. I started fumbling my words and could barely speak over the din and he looked at me, once again, and said, “Let me guess. I was your training instructor.”
YES. HE KNEW!!! I babbled on and on suddenly about “how he made me in to the man I was”, drunkenly, and I could see the eyes of his soul rolling back in his head. He said something about good luck and dismissed me to turn back to the girl he was obviously about to rip apart and I…
…bought him a beer. Fuck yeah, I did. I had the bartender give him another of what he was drinking, on me. And I walked away with a smile, never to see him again.
And so ended my basic military training school and began the rest of my life. But that’s another chapter(s).