Military Stories 3 – basic training
Not too many surprises in basic training, as the military mind soon lived up to all of my expectations. The idea of basic training was to suppress any tendency toward individualism and replace it with unquestioning submission to authority. No surprises there. But in execution the results could be pretty amusing to someone who didn’t take the whole thing too seriously. The career non-commissioned officer corps has never been particularly noted as a place where folks of a high intellectual caliber could be found. Though I am sure there are a few exceptions to this rule, perhaps even a few brilliant non-coms scattered about in the military, none of them were apparent at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, home of the US Air Force’s basic military training school. Watching the antics of those who gravitated to the drill instructor positions as they attempted to mold a surly, largely uncooperative, and unruly mob into a finely honed fighting machine was a source of endless amusement.. These DIs., as they were called, typically exhibited the character of those who are drawn to minor positions of power over others, like policemen, middle level managers, and bureaucrats. That is to say they exhibited a tenacious grasp on their own opinions, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of error. They evidenced an undiscriminating dependency on an established system of rules without the slightest effort toward interpretation of those rules when the situation called for unique or innovative thinking. And, finally, a tendency to resort to threats, bluster, and attempted intimidation of their underlings when things went wrong.
Perhaps an example from the first week of basic training will help illustrate what I am talking about.
Within 24 hours of arrival we were all shorn of hair, stripped of civilian clothing and personal possessions, and issued uniforms. Each and every piece of those uniforms was to be stamped with an identifying mark consisting of the first initial of our last name and the last four digits of our social security number. That way, come laundry day all of the clothes could be thrown into a big pile and then, when returned clean, they could be sorted back out and returned to their individual owners. This was done on a ‘flight’ by ‘flight’ basis, each ‘flight’ consisting of roughly 30 men. Or women – I’m sure the women were having their own brand of fun in their enclave on the other side of the base. I suppose that in the entire history of the Air Force the laws of chance had not conspired to yield up a group containing two individuals possessed of the same last name initial AND the same last four digits of their social security numbers. (A few minutes thought and a rudimentary knowledge of the structure of social security numbers will reveal that this is not inherently a unique combination.) So the first day after laundry we were engaged in that part of the training program where it is a contest between ‘flights’ to see who can fall out in order in the designated area first. That would mean we got to march off to breakfast first or something. But not until everyone showed up. And one poor sucker from my flight was woefully late. When he finally showed up the DI started in on him: “What took you so long, BOY ?, you’re making me late for my breakfast and I don’t like to be late for breakfast …” a few seconds delay, then “And that isn’t a fresh uniform. WHERE is your fresh uniform. We wear a fresh uniform every day !!” As soon as this guy could get a word in edgewise he tried to explain that try as he might he couldn’t fit into any of his freshly laundered uniform pants. Now we were attracting a crowd of the other three drill instructors. “Go get me a pair of your uniform pants air-man !” So the guy goes off at a dead run and returns with a pair of pants obviously several sizes too small for him. They are holding up the pants and looking at them trying to figure out what went wrong. One of airmen speaks up, or tries to “um Sergeant whosis sir …” “you are at EASE air-man if I want to hear from you I’ll tell you …” I glanced over at this guy and his pants are hanging off him like he just lost about 50 pounds and 6 inches in height. Impossible to keep from choking out a short laugh. This attracted the attention of one of the other Dis, who called this guy out of the ranks. The error became apparent when these two guys were stood up side by side. Now our DI was really pissed, and starting to turn red. I’m literally biting my tongue trying not to roll on the ground laughing. “Air-man (he’s right up in the larger guy’s face now) don’t you know your own uniform code ?!” “Yes sir sergeant whosis sir!” Grabbing the back of the guy’s pants and giving him the mother of all wedgies as he folds back the top, revealing the code, “Well what is it ?” The guy rattled off his code. “That’s impossible !” turning to the guy with oversize pants “Air-man what is your uniform code ?” This guy rattles off the same number. “This is impossible. You two losers couldn’t have the same code ! Somebody has screwed up royally here ! Somebody Is Going To Jail ! (the ultimate threat)” Starts looking at me. I had been assigned to stamp the numbers in all of the uniforms, because I had let slip that my last civilian job was working in a printing shop. “Airman Ground, if you have screwed up these men’s uniforms I am personally going to send you to jail !!” No response. (what am I supposed to say?) He’s sputtering pretty good now, spitting as he talks. Face past red to beet purple, all semblance of reason gone. “Well, airman, what have you got to say for yourself ?!” Barely suppressing a giggle: “They have the same code sir. Obviously the laundry got mixed up when it was distributed.” “That is IMPOSSIBLE No Body has the same code !” He’s cooking now, pacing back and forth looking first at one of us, then the others in turn. Finally one of the other Dis, voice of reason turns to one guy: Airman Brown, what is your social security number ?” “347-25-4712, sir !” then the other “Airman Baker, what is your social security number ?” “uh, uh, 344-11-4712, sir!” “Well, I’ll be damned, he’s right they DO have the same code.” But our DI was still unconvinced. His buddies had to take him off and get him calmed down while we all stood around, waiting. Nobody got any breakfast that day.