The bright overhead lights, combined with Wolinski yelling in my ear, rudely woke me. “Get your lazy ass out of bed. This isn’t summer camp. Every swinging dick shit, shower, shave, and be outside in uniform in ten minutes.”
Ten minutes? I can’t get one eye open in ten minutes. “What the hell time is it?”
“Oh-six-hundred hours, college puke–practically mid-morning,” Sarge said. “Now get going!”
I rolled out of bed, narrowly missing getting my head crushed by Steve leaping from the top bunk at the same time. As the other recruits raced toward the bathroom with toilet kit and towel in hand, I started groping in my footlocker for my prescription lenses.
“What are you looking for?” Steve asked.
“Help me find my sunglasses.”
“Sunglasses? Are you crazy? It’s pitch black outside.”
“I can’t put my contacts in yet. My eyes are still bloodshot from yesterday.”
By the time I found my glasses and reached the head, the ten available sinks were already filled with recruits shaving, or spitting out toothpaste. The open shower area featured another dozen bare-ass boys scrubbing under streaming nozzles. The rest of the gang were taking a leak at the six-foot long open trough or making poo in the white porcelain stalls. Steve and I waited for an opening.
We didn’t make it in ten minutes. “Nice of you to join us,” yelled Wolinski. Then he spotted my sunglasses. “What are you…some kind of goddamn celebrity?”
“Yeah, I’m Greta Garbo. These are prescription.” I yawned and pulled out the eye doctor’s note. “Here’s an officer’s excuse.”
“You just look for ways to piss me off, don’t you? I’m going to make your life so miserable…”
“Shucks, Sarge, you don’t have to treat me special. I am already blessed by the mere warmth of your presence.”
“Shut up, Jones.”
The sun still hadn’t come up yet. I could barely make out all the soldiers standing around a parade ground where Sarge had called our platoon to a halt. A distant shadow in the center of the open area shouted “Battalion!”
A second, closer figure, hollered, “Company!”
Wolinski followed with “Platoon!”
Then the first shadow man yelled again, “Atten-hut.”
With that command, 180 soldiers snapped to attention. This required a leap of faith on our part because we had to assume that “Atten-hut” and “Attention” were the same word. We repeated the process, but this time, the commander said, “Hand Salute,” as they hoisted the American flag.
Each soldier raised his right hand to his baseball cap brim. After twenty seconds of silence, we heard a needle skip, at earsplitting volume, work its way across a record; and then repetitively thump, thump, thump when it reached the inside ring. “Damn it,” cursed our unseen disc jockey through the four bullhorn speakers mounted on poles surrounding the parade ground. He tried again. The needle hit the groove and a bugle blared out the strains of reveille amidst the pops and crackles of a well-worn recording.
At the conclusion of the music, shadow man yelled “Two.” Two what I wondered, but dropped my salute with the others. Wolinski told us “At Ease” and showed us how to stand with our feet shoulder width apart and our hands behind our backs–one hand holding the opposite wrist.
This is at ease? I reminisced. No, at ease is leaning back in my lifeguard chair with the warm sun on my body, checking out the babes, and watching a colorful butterfly flap his wings while perched on my big toe. Sarge’s voice brought me back to reality.
“Tomorrow you will receive your final platoon assignments, and begin basic infantry training. Some of you will stay with me. Others will be assigned to different barracks. You jokers have any questions?”
“I’m going to miss you, Sarge,” I said.
“Oh no, Jones…I made sure you were assigned to my platoon.”
Lucky me, I thought, as Wolinski escorted us once again to chow.
When everyone finished eating, Sarge marched us to a building that resembled a high school gymnasium. “At ease,” grumbled Wolinski, “Smoke ’em if you got ’em…and don’t forget to field strip your butts.”
“Oh, I like the sound of that,” said one soldier.
“Who is that guy?” Steve asked.
“Not sure, but I suggest not dropping the soap in the shower when he’s around.”
We entered the gym and joined a lengthy green military conga line that terminated at a gauntlet of medical corpsmen, three on a side, each holding a pneumatic needle gun with a small glass vial of medicine sitting on top. The corpsmen looked really bored doing 200 guys without a break, one right after another. I prayed they were changing the needle often, or it would be very dull by our turn.
Thirty minutes later, we were told to take off our fatigue shirt and roll up our T-shirt sleeves on both sides–like the hoods used to do in high school. I watched one man jerk when he felt the gun, causing the needle to punch a series of holes across his arm and leave a trail of blood in its wake. Ugh!
I have been never too keen on getting shots. Once as a kid, during a free polio vaccination, a nurse hit a muscle and broke the needle off in my arm. It happened at the Clark County health clinic in 110-degree heat with no air conditioning. I’m standing there in pain while the staff frantically looked for something to pull it out. A janitor finally produced a pair of pliers and removed the three-inch sliver of metal, followed by a spurt of blood. I made it to the top of the stairs before fainting dead away.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one appearing woozy today. A dozen cots had been set up on the far side of the gym and a lovely group of Army nurses attended several prone soldiers.
A loud, tall, skinny drink of water just ahead of me in line temporarily distracted my attention from the nurses. “This ain’t nothing to worry ’bout. Why my grandfather fought at the Alamo. Now there was a good fight. I’ve had wildcats scratch me worst then this while inspecting our oil wells. No little bitty shot can scare any Texan worth his salt. Bring it on. Hook ’em horns.” He extended his arms and fingers in a University of Texas pose.
One glance at old Tex’s round baby face and I could tell he was scared shitless, but to his credit, he never dropped his bravado. “Everything is going to be just fine. Trust me, boys.” Tex turned to the first medic and held a single bill aloft. “One hundred dollars for whoever does the best job.”
“Yes sir,” the corpsmen responded in unison and proceeded to ease him through the line, using regular needles instead of the guns. Of course, they switched right back after Tex went through. One guy almost shot me twice in the side of the head. You can’t blame them. A hundred bucks is nearly a whole month’s salary for a lot of soldiers.
Tex said, “See, not so bad.” Then his eyes rolled back and he fainted dead away. Fortunately, we caught him, before he dashed out his brains on the gym floor.
A nurse came over, knelt down, and felt Tex’s pulse. “Please pick him up and put him on that empty cot over there.”
“Where’s my hundred?” One of the corpsmen cried out.
“You’ll have to wait until he’s conscious,” I yelled back.
The nurse laughed. I asked her, “So, what’s your name?”
“Lieutenant Clark,” she said, “and thanks for helping.”
Lieutenant Clark was blond, about five-foot-five, with very shapely legs and dressed in a white nurse’s uniform and cap. She had small features, but full lips and a slightly upturned nose. I could easily be in love and couldn’t help staring as she applied a cold compress to Tex’s forehead.
“Why don’t you take a picture, it’ll last longer,” she smiled.
“I would if I had a camera, and then keep it next to my heart always,” I replied.
“Aren’t you the smooth talker? It couldn’t have been that long since you’ve been with a woman.”
“No, it hasn’t, but all others pale in comparison. Do you think I could visit you sometime and maybe share an ice cream cone, or a shower?”
She laughed again. “Maybe…after your hair grows back, cue ball.” She patted me where my hair used to be. Embarrassed, I started to respond but got interrupted when Tex opened his eyes and sat up.
“What happened?” Tex asked. “Everything went black.”
“You bit the dust, but this pretty little filly brought you back to life,” I said.
“How are you, soldier?” Sara asked.
“I’m just fine, ma’am,” Tex replied. “Let me give you a hundred for taking such exquisite care of me.”
“Not necessary…besides, these two gentlemen are the ones who kept you from cracking your skull open.”
Tex reached into his pocket and pulled out the biggest roll of hundred-dollar bills I had ever seen. “Well then, here’s a hundred for each of you too.”
“Why not,” said Steve, taking the bill offered. I did the same.
“There’s plenty more where that came from.” He extended his hand to me. “Howdy, I’m Pat Riley from Midlands, Texas, and the richest, orneriest, best lookin’, son-of-a-gun west of the Mississippi. You two guys are my new best friends.”
“Thanks, Tex,” I said. “Hope you don’t faint the first time Charlie takes a shot at you. He might miss and hit me.”
“Hell, I’m not going to Vietnam, boy. Senator Lucas got me in the Texas National Guard. I do my eight weeks here, one meeting a month, two weeks at camp each summer, and in five years, I’m a free man.”
“Son-of-a-bitch, why didn’t I think of that?” I related to Tex and Sarah my draft board story of woe.
“Look, partner,” proposed Tex, “If you keep me out of trouble for the rest of basic training, I’ll see what Senator Lucas can do for you.”
“Why would a Texas Senator help me?” I asked.
“If my daddy said so, Senator Lucas would run naked through the streets of Dallas crying, Save the Alamo.”
“Pat, I believe you’re right. We are going to be best friends.”
I said goodbye to Sara, with a promise to see her later, and then we went outside to wait for the others to finish. I suggested Tex use some of his cash to make sure he got assigned to Sergeant Wolinski so I could keep an eye on him. Tex said he’d make the arrangements with the Professor.
“Who’s that?” Steve asked.
Tex explained, “He’s our company clerk. He got the nickname because he holds a Ph.D. in English.”
“What the heck is he doing in the Army?” I asked.
Tex said, “That’s the good part of the story. The Professor had always been a mama’s boy–you know, thirty years old, a virgin, and still living at home. One day, his mom kicks him out and tells him, time to become a man. So, instead of moving into an apartment and getting laid, he has a brain fart and joins the Army. After he failed basic training three times straight, the Army assigned him permanently to Fort Dix as a clerk.”
“Unbelievable,” said Steve.
Wolinski had begun gathering his flock, so we bid Tex adios, and rejoined our platoon. After chow, we got fitted for our class “A” dress uniforms and issued our combat web harness complete with canteen, ammo pouch, compass, and rain poncho. Sarge next marched us to the Post Exchange (PX) to pick up a few personal supplies.
Later after lights out, Steve said, “You know, Eli, so far the Army isn’t so bad. We’re paid a salary, given three square meals a day, free housing, clothing and laundry service, and all we have to do is sit around or stand in line.”
“Yeah, just like prison. And someday soon, somebody, somewhere, will order you to kill another human being, before they kill you.”
Steve sighed, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that part.”