The hissing of air brakes woke me. My wristwatch said five in the morning and my grumbling stomach yelled for food. I shook Steve, still racked out in the seat beside me.
“Come on sweetheart,” he said, with his eyes still closed. “Let’s cuddle a few minutes longer.”
I wanted to put my arm around him to see what he would do but decided instead to shake him again. Disoriented, Steve cracked opened one eye; very disappointed to see me instead of his girlfriend.
I said, “Good morning, Sunshine. According to the entry sign, this is beautiful Fort Dix, United States Combat Training Center and Home of the Ultimate Weapon. Wait, we can’t be at the right place–I’m a bleeder.”
We didn’t have long to ponder our fate because a scowling, darkly-tanned soldier, closely resembling a giant sequoia, with limbs and trunk as thick and strong, climbed on the bus. Our welcoming committee of one, wearing fatigues, a Smoky the Bear hat, and carrying a bullet-tipped swagger stick, stood at the front and loudly announced. “Ladies, this is basic infantry training and my name is Sergeant Wolinski. My job during the next eight weeks is to turn you pansy, out-of-shape, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, brain-dead civilians into a finely tuned, physically fit, fighting machine. Now I’m sure the last few hours have been rough and you’re confused, tired and hungry–am I right?”
We nodded–what an understanding man.
“I DON”T CARE!” Wolinski’s voice blew us back into our seats. “You’ve got two minutes to hustle your sorry butts off this bus, grab your gear, and fall into formation in front of that welcome sign. “NOW MOVE!”
A slight hesitation, then thirty guys tried to cram into the aisle and out the door at the same time. Wolinski stood at the exit, encouraging each man as he stepped off the bus, by screaming, “MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!”
Sarge would alternate his supportive words. “HAUL TAIL, YOU MAGGOT!” Or my personal favorite. “GET GOING, OR I’LL STICK MY BOOT SO FAR UP YOUR ASS IT WILL COME OUT YOUR NOSE!”
We scrambled off the bus, claimed our baggage from the civilian driver (who seemed very amused by all this), and somehow made it into a ragged-looking bunch–our best collective guess as to what constituted a formation. Wolinski continued his tirade. “Straighten up those lines. Stand at attention when I’m talking to you, eyes forward shoulders back and heels together. Count off by fours, starting with the front row, the first man on the left.”
When we finished, Wolinski went eyeball-to-eyeball with a tall, gangly recruit. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Not now it isn’t. Anybody with more than 13 letters in their last name gets called Alphabet. Is that okay with you–Private Alphabet?”
Wolinski worked his way down the line, yelling insults at each guy. He reached Steve. “What are you staring at boy? You find me attractive? You want to ask me out?”
“No,” said Steve.
“NO WHAT?” screamed Wolinski.
“NO WAY!” Steve screamed back.
“NO, Drill Sergeant,” corrected Wolinski.
“NO WAY, Drill Sergeant,” mimicked Steve.
“From now on every time I tell you clowns something, I want you to respond with either, yes, drill sergeant, or no, drill sergeant. Is that clear?”
I raised my hand. “So, which is it, Sarge?”
“Which is what?”
“Yes or no?”
“Yes or no…what?” He demanded.
“Yes or no, drill sergeant,” he repeated.
“That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“Are you stupid?” Wolinski’s eyes bulged from the pressure.
“I’m not the one having trouble answering the question.”
“What question, drill sergeant–remember what you just told us.”
“I’m the drill sergeant, you idiot. I don’t have to say drill sergeant!”
“Well, that doesn’t seem fair.”
Wolinski grabbed me under my arms and lifted me until my feet no longer touched the ground. He hissed in my ear, “Look shit for brains, I hate a smartass. If you ever make fun of me again, I will bury you where they can’t find the body.” Sarge returned me to earth and barked out, “Pick up your gear. And thanks to Private…”
“Jones,” I volunteered.
“Thanks to Private Dickhead, you are going to run the final half mile to the barracks. Platoon left face. DOUBLE-TIME, MARCH!”
I managed to pick up my suitcase, tennis racquet, guitar, and golf clubs just as all the guys faced the same direction at the same time. Sarge called cadence, shouting out a number each time our left foot hit the ground. We arrived shortly without losing anything or anybody, which I’ll bet disappointed Wolinski. Nobody threw up, but all the guys were wheezing, coughing, and bent over from the effort. “Single file, on my command, enter the building, pick out a bunk and locker and then remain standing next to it at attention. MOVE OUT!”
We scrambled up the steps and through a screen door into a two-level, wooden barracks painted white with a dark roof. The building measured about sixty-by-thirty feet with several windows on both sides. There were rows of steel bunk beds perpendicular to the walls with accompanying green wall and foot lockers. A six-foot wide aisle ran down the middle and lead to a large bathroom/shower unit at the end. Steve and I grabbed the first open bunks, just past a wooden post, and threw our gear down. Wolinski strutted in last, acting like the cock of the walk. “Everyone find a spot?”
“YES, DRILL SERGEANT!” We shouted with glee.
“Secure your gear in your locker, and then fall back outside for chow.”
I raised my hand. “My stuff won’t fit in this little footlocker…uh, drill sergeant.”
Wolinski glanced at my guitar, golf clubs, and tennis racquet. “Where in the hell do you think you are–a resort hotel?”
I scratched my head. “Why do people keep asking me that?”
“GET YOUR ASS OUTSIDE!” Wolinski bellowed.
I threw everything on the lower bunk and sprinted out the door.
Once assembled, we headed out, marching past several barracks identical to ours, until we arrived at the mess hall. The cook seemed nicer than the one at the induction center, and he even smiled at us once–out of pity, I’m sure. Our gourmet breakfast consisted of runny, clear, uncooked eggs, sunny side up, burnt toast, mostly raw, chewy bacon, and a warm glass of orange-tinted water flavored with powdered Tang. I picked up my plate and sniffed the food. “My eggs are staring at me.”
“Think of all the weight we’ll lose.” Steve offered.
I agreed. “Gandhi got more calories than this.”
After swallowing what we could stomach, Wolinski dragged us back outside.
“Okay boys, time for your first G.I. Joe haircut.” I cringed. A pair of scissors had not touched my beautiful shoulder-length mane in four years. We marched to the nearest barber pole. Sarge said, “Line up, single file on the sidewalk starting with Private Jones. He looked at me and laughed like the wicked witch of the west. “Be sure to tell them how you’d like it.”
With a heavy heart, I opened the screen door and sat down in the first barber chair. An enlisted man came out of the back, put a cotton sheet over my clothes, and produced a huge electric clipper–the size Australians use to shear sheep. “Just take a little off the sides,” I hopefully requested.
“No problem,” says the barber with a snicker, and then proceeds to cut a path down the middle of my head, within a centimeter of my scalp.
“Careful, you lout!” I cried.
“Sorry sir, let me even that out.” The brute then cut a similar path next to the first one, and so forth, until my entire head had been shaved to mere peach fuzz.
I cursed my assassin. “May a crazed guitarist twang your sister.”
As I exited, the platoon stared at my missing mane with their mouths agape. “Oh my God,” said one soldier, shading his eyes from the glare, “Is that a Yul Brenner cut?”
After each new recruit took his turn getting scalped, Wolinski marched us to our next destination–another white wooden building with a sign that read, “Supply Depot.” We lined up and entered the poorly lit structure that smelled strongly of mothballs. A disinterested clerk handed me an empty duffel bag that I was supposed to take to each station and fill with Army clothing. I didn’t have to worry about color coordination because everything came in olive drab. Apparently, fit didn’t matter either because each clerk would hand me whatever size lay on the closest shelf. No place for Beau Brummel in this man’s Army.
We marched back to our barracks, put our new duds away, and then headed for lunch. My spirits had slightly recovered from this morning’s shearing–even though my head had become several hat sizes smaller. At least now I wouldn’t have to waste any time brushing my hair. I rubbed my hand on top of my head and gave a long sigh. Bastards!
That afternoon we filled out more paperwork, got more military gear, and took more tests. At five p.m. we returned to the barracks carrying our latest issue, an olive drab blanket, white sheets, and a pillowcase. Having been mostly awake since yesterday and ridden more than 800 miles on a bus, I was more than ready for the day to end. Instead, Wolinski announces bed-making training.
Now, my mother tried unsuccessfully asked me to make my bed for several years, but Wolinski turned out to be a different kind of mother. He picked my lower bunk to demonstrate the Army way of folding hospital corners and pulling the sheets and blanket as tight as possible.
“Thanks, Sarge,” I said after he finished. “I’m so tired, I think I’ll skip dinner and go right to sleep.” I flopped down on the bunk and closed my eyes.
Wolinski screamed, “MOVE YOU YO-YO!”
Leaping up, I banged my head on the upper bunk and then stood in pain watching Sarge tear up his good work and throw it on the floor.
Sarge ordered, “Now, I want each one of you pecker-heads to make those beds so tight I can bounce a quarter on them…before you go to chow.”
“Who cares,” I cried. “I’ll sleep on the bare mattress.”
Wolinski shoved me against my wall locker. “There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way. Got it numb nuts?”
“Got it,” I grumbled and began remaking my bed.
Steve whispered, “Boy, Eli, you sure know how to make friends.”
“I’m beginning to dislike this guy.”
“I’m betting he’s not too fond of you either.”
Skipping supper turned out not to be an option, but at least, Wolinski left us alone afterward. Steve and I brushed our teeth and were in bed before they gave the nine o’clock command for lights out.
Small patches of moonlight shone on the scrubbed wooden floor as I lay there trying to picture the gang at Silver Lake. I wondered. How in the blazes did I go from king of the world to bottom of the heap in less than 48 hours?
Steve peered down from the top bunk. “Homesick?”
“I miss Karen.”
“At least, you were getting laid. My girlfriend kept insisting on marriage before sex. For Christ sake, do you realize I could die a virgin?”
“Forget about dying. It’s only the first day.”
“I know we’ll have to go to ‘Nam. I’ve heard you’re damn lucky if you can make it six months in the bush without stepping on a mine or getting shot.”
I frowned. “Not everybody gets hurt, do they?”
“Don’t you pay attention to the news? The media takes great delight in describing painful ways soldiers are killed in Vietnam. The Viet Cong hide sharpened, shit-covered bamboo in deep pits, and if you don’t die from the puncture wounds, you die from the infection. They also hang bamboo stakes in trees hooked to a trip wire, so when released, it swings down and perforates your face.”
“Okay, I get the idea. You can croak a thousand different nasty ways. Thanks for eliminating my image of Karen in a bathing suit.”
“You weren’t going to flog the flagpole, were you? I could be seriously hurt if you shook me out of bed from this height.”
“Shut up you moron and go to sleep. I’ll bet morning comes real early around here.”