The next day we got up at our normal oh-six-hundred hours, packed up everything we owned in our duffel bag (the Army had found a place for me to store my guitar, golf clubs, and tennis racquet until after basic training). We waited in formation while an officer read the new platoon assignments. They assigned Steve, Tex and me to Sergeant Wolinski, along with several new guys.
Soon as they called out the last soldier assign to our platoon, Wolinski went to work.
“You are the sorriest bunch of recruits to ever stand before me. They had to drag the bottom of the barrel to come with this bunch of misfits. How in the hell am I supposed to whip you pussies into shape? I’m no goddamn miracle worker. If you maintain any hope of graduating, then for the next seven weeks, remember, I am your god, mother, and priest all rolled into one. You don’t walk, talk, think or take a shit unless I tell you to. IS THAT CLEAR?”
“YES, DRILL SERGEANT!”
“Wonder where he wants us to take our shit?” I whispered to Tex, who only smiled, but in his row, a five-foot-three, rotund, Jewish-looking soldier, wearing an ill-fitting uniform and black round horn-rimmed glasses, broke out laughing.
Wolinski roared over and stood in front of the still chuckling, overweight recruit, “I told you attention. Lock those knees and stand up straight.”
“I am at attention, sir, my uniform is at ease.”
“Sir,” Sarge exploded. “Do I look like a fuckin wimpy officer to you? Now sound off like you’ve got a pair.”
“Yes, drill sergeant,” said the draftee in the same meek voice.
“What’s your name, dick-wad?
“Horowitz, sir. Private Harry Horowitz.”
“Well, Horowitz, it is going to give me great pleasure to grind your pansy, chubby-cheeked little body into the ground. Now drop down and give me fifty.”
“I don’t carry that much cash on me. Would you take a check?”
Wolinski went nose-to-nose with Horowitz. “No, you stupid shit…do fifty push-ups and count ’em out.”
“Fifty pushups, sir,” Horowitz said, his voice shaking, “I can’t do five.”
Sarge exploded. “NO THINKING! I told you maggots not to think. I give an order, you obey without question. I say jump, you say how high. IS THAT CLEAR? …AND QUIT CALLING ME, SIR. I WORK FOR A LIVING!”
“YES, DRILL SERGEANT!” We all shouted.
“Now, Horowitz, are you going to start doing pushups, or do I have to beat you to death with this rod.”
Harry took a deep breath and bellowed as loud as he could, “YES, DRILL SERGEANT!”
Horowitz dropped to the ground and strained to push his body off the ground, but his big stomach and short arms made it impossible. He started his quivering mound of flesh rocking back and forth, resembling a turtle on its back, struggling to right itself. It was the funniest damn thing I’d ever seen. Every time he pitched forward, Horowitz let out a whoosh and shouted, “One,” followed by “Drill Sergeant.” Even Wolinski had to turn away.
We eventually lost the front two rows to gales of laughter, which got worst when Harry looked up, his glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose. Sarge seized the opportunity to harass the rest of us. “You jokers think he is so damn funny, drop down and join him.”
“YES, DRILL SERGEANT!” We shouted in unison.
When we started knocking them out, I couldn’t resist asking the guy next to me, “Hey buddy, is that a pushup or did you lose your girl?”
With the whole platoon soon laughing so hard that tears ran down our faces, Sarge went ballistic. “Jones, you are a goddamn smartass. Pick up your duffel bag and put it over your head and hold it there until I tell you to drop it. The rest of you worthless piles of dung…ON YOUR FEET! Forget riding on a bus to your new quarters, we’re going to run. Sling those bags. RIGHT FACE! No, Horowitz, the other way. Jones, start running clockwise around the formation with your bag held high above your head–and don’t you dare drop it. DOUBLE-TIME, MARCH” The platoon moaned but moved out on command.
Sweat rolled down my forehead, and stung my eyes, as I jogged around the formation. I reached exhaustion after the first mile, but wouldn’t quit. Whenever Wolinski looked my way, I managed to give him a smile–no satisfaction from me, you bastard.
Some of the platoon members weren’t going to make it. Their heavy duffel bag kept swinging into their bodies and knocking them down. Wolinski finally called the platoon to a halt. Most fell to the ground, gasping for air. I dropped my bag, bent forward, and took long deep breaths, trying not to heave. My arms shook. No way I could have lasted much longer.
“You pukes had better take this training seriously. What you learn here just might save your sorry ass in Vietnam. Now form up ranks. Eli, back in line.”
We did as requested–without laughter this time–and arrived without further incident at our new barracks. A thin, pasty-white gentleman entered soon after, wearing Harry Potter-type glasses and carrying an official-looking clipboard. He announced, “Bravo platoon, I’m the Professor, company clerk, and the person to see if you want anything. When I call out your name, come forward and pick up a set of name tags for your lockers–Pat Riley?”
“Here, y’all,” said Tex in his southwestern drawl.
“I’m Horowitz,” the pushup champ said, sticking his head out from behind his bunk.
“Stand up when the Professor calls your name.” I joked.
“I am standing up.” Harry protested.
“And you must be Eli.” The Professor handed me my tags.
“Why did you guys laugh at me?” Harry asked as he joined the gang gathered at the foot of Steve’s bunk.
“Sorry, Harry,” said Tex. “Your pushups were too much to watch.”
“I guess I did appear pretty silly.”
“So, what’s your story, Harry?” asked the Professor. “Did your mother want you to join the Army to become a man too?”
“Heavens, no, I’m in the New York National Guard. After basic, I’m headed home to work in my father’s jewelry store.”
I smacked myself in the head. “Why didn’t I get in the National Guard?”
“Because somebody better connected took all the open spots,” said one of the new guys, a handsome Afro-American, standing nearly six-foot-two, very muscular, and weighing about two-ten.
“Greetings, fellow draftee,” I said. “Who might you be?”
“Samuel Goodwyn, if it’s any of your goddamn business.”
“Take it easy, my friend. Tex and Harry here may have beaten the system, but Steve and I are in the same stinking, sinking boat as you.”
“If we were in a boat together, you’d probably make me row.”
“Not in a thousand years,” I said.
“Me neither,” frowned Steve, “Who rained on your parade?”
“An unproportionate number of black men are dying in Vietnam…and right before I start my junior year at the University of Alabama, they draft my sorry ass into the Army. Can’t say I’m real happy about it.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, “are you the two-time, all-American, pro-scouted, a thousand yards a season, Sam Goodwyn?”
“You know me?”
“Are you kidding? Everybody in America knows you.”
“Yeah, well, the Army doesn’t give a rat’s ass about football,” said Sam. Nobody disagreed.
Our discussion broke up when Sarge ordered us outside to draw our weapons so we could practice close order drill. Off we went at a trot. “Listen up pond scum. When I sing out a line, you repeat it each time your left foot hits the ground. Ready? I don’t know, but I’ve been told.”
“I don’t know, but I’ve been told.” The platoon responded.
“Eskimo pussy’s mighty cold.”
“Eskimo pussy’s mighty cold.”
“Bring it on down–now you say…”
We nailed it on the first try, “One, two, three, four…one-two…three-four!”
Holy cow, Bravo Platoon, Charlie Company, running and singing at the same time. Next, we’d try simultaneously rubbing our stomachs and patting our heads. Our talent knew no bounds.
We sang another verse. “G.I beans and G.I gravy, gee I wished I’d join the Navy.” This time, a few guys harmonized. Sarge said we were “sounding good.”
We arrived six blocks later at the armory, a brick building with bars on all the windows. Inside we formed a line against the wall across from a metal mesh cage. They kept the rifles stored in double-deck gun racks behind a locked metal door. The sergeant had each trainee go into the cage one at a time and return with a bolt-action rifle with a wooden stock and a simple v-notch sight.
Once we all had a weapon, Wolinski stood in front of the platoon and demonstrated our new toy. “This is the M-1 carbine. It is an accurate weapon when used properly and will kill you dead anywhere within 100 to 250 yards. In combat, this baby is your favorite mistress–you will sleep with it, eat with it, and keep it by your side at all times.”
“Hey, Sarge,” said Steve. “This isn’t the gun they show on TV.”
“No oatmeal for brains, it isn’t. That weapon is an M-16–a fine killing machine that rarely jams. But first you need to learn how to break the M-1 down, reassemble it, and qualify with the weapon on the firing range, then you’ll train on the M-16. But in the meantime, understand this, the M-1 is a rifle, not a gun.”
“What’s the difference, Sarge?” Tex asked.
“I’m going to teach you a poem, so you’ll never forget. This is my rifle.” Sarge held it aloft. “This is my gun.” He grabbed his crotch. “This is for shooting.” He pumped the rifle up and down twice. “This is for fun.” Sarge squeezed his crotch twice. “All right you guys try it.”
Sarge was right. I would never forget the difference between a gun and a rifle, or he might force us to do the stupid poem and hand motions a second time.
Wolinski continued the training. “Okay, men, let’s learn some basic rifle commands. When I say dress right, extend your right arm, and turn your head right–everybody except the last man in line, who keeps his head forward. At the same time, all, except the first man, start shuffling right until your fingertips touch your buddy’s shoulder. When I say “ready front,” drop your arm and face forward. Got it?”
From the confused looks on the faces around me, I could see disaster coming, but Sarge pressed on. “Platoon, attention. Dress right, dress!”
You could only describe what followed as a first-class clusterfuck. Rifles dropped, soldiers crashed into each other, and when some guys stuck out their left hand instead of their right, they poked the eyes of guys that turned the correct way. Horowitz managed to launch his rifle in a nice arc that terminated with a thud into the back of Tex’s helmet, thereby knocking the tall recruit to the ground.
“STOP!” Wolinski screamed. The veins on his neck popped out like a weightlifter hoisting 600 pounds. We all froze in our ridiculous individual poses. Sarge pushed his way through to Harry and shook him like a terrier shakes a rat until Horowitz began to cry. “You are the dumbest fuck I have ever met.”
“Take it easy Sarge,” I said. “He made a mistake.”
Without warning, he turned and smacked me across the face with the back of his hand. “Shut up, Jones.”
The slap stung and made my jaw ache. I fought a powerful urge to hit him back–instead, settling for the most hateful stare I could muster.
When Tex recovered, the platoon managed to move an arms-length apart, execute a right should arm, a left face, becoming ready to move out. For the next several hours, we practiced left face, right face, about face, to the rear march, right and left shoulder arms and parade rest until Wolinski looked satisfied.
By the time we finished our evening chores of buffing the floors and cleaning the latrines, we were ready to hit the sack. Somebody had a transistor radio tuned to WABC in New York City and the singsong voice of deejay, Cousin Brucie. He introduced “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan and the rocking bass line soon had everybody in the barracks humming along.
Lying in our bunks, I said to Steve, “Sarge has always been mean, but today we witnessed his cruel side.”
“Harry is still upset, and I can’t believe he backhanded you.”
“The man is crazy.”
“Isn’t what he did illegal or something?” Steve asked.
“I don’t know, but he’d better not try it again–even if he does catch me sneaking out of the barracks.”
Steve shook his head. “Oh, no…what are you planning now?”
“I want to see Sarah again.”
“Is she the nurse you met when we got our shots?”
“Yeah, I’m going to ask her to play doctor.”
“You’ll never sneak past Wolinski.”
I grinned at Steve. “Wanna bet?”
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