Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by David Gardner
Wasn’t my fault I was late for basic training. The bus that was to pick up me and a guy named Stu at the recruiting station was two hours late, our first taste of “hurry up and wait.” We didn’t get to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio until 7:15 PM. By then, some sixty other recruits had already been formed into a “flight” and taken through orientation. They’d picked up their uniforms and bedding and were marched to the barracks.
When Stu and I arrived, it was too late for orientation so we picked up our uniforms and bedding and were marched—more like bum-rushed—to the barracks. We didn’t get there until close to 9:00 PM, lights out time. All the other new recruits had their beds made and were busy stowing their things in footlockers at the end of each bunk. Tech Sgt. Ainsworth, our Drill Instructor (DI), let Stu and me know in no uncertain terms we were late, he didn’t like it, and he wasn’t going to forget it. “You better damn well never be late to anything again you morons!” he screamed in our faces. “Get to your bunks, jerks, and start making them! Now!”
He didn’t indicate which were our bunks, he just stomped off to yell at someone else. Stu and I looked around and spotted an empty double bunk toward the back of the barracks. We scrambled over to it and hurriedly started to make the beds, me on top and Stu on the bottom. In seconds we heard Sgt. Ainsworth yell at us from the other end of the barracks, “Not that bunk you fucking morons! The one next to it!” We quickly moved over a bunk and again started to make the beds. After two run-ins with the DI, you’d think out of sight, out of mind would be a good plan to stick to. But no, I decided this might be a good time to ask permission to smoke.
Sgt. Ainsworth had retreated to his office so I walked over and knocked quietly. He glared at me but said nothing. I took that as a good sign and said, “Sir! Is it permissible to smoke?”
The sergeant’s response was immediate and fierce. “Are you fucking out of your mind?” he shouted, his face pushed to within half an inch of mine. “No! It’s not permissible to smoke and if I ever see you with a god-damned cigarette, it’ll be the last one you ever smoke! Get the fuck back to your bunk!”
More than a little chastened, I scurried back, enduring the smirks and barely concealed smiles of the other guys who were glad to see someone other than themselves get a dressing down.
I hastily threw my bunk together and climbed into it just as the lights went out and taps began to play. I lay there, wondering what I had gotten myself into.
Every flight also had an assistant DI and ours was Staff Sgt. Short, appropriately named because he must have just barely met the minimum height requirement for enlisting. One evening before lights out, we short-sheeted his bed. Short-sheeting, a common service prank, is untucking the two sheets at the foot of the bed, folding them over on themselves halfway up the bed, and then tucking the sheets back in and putting the blanket back in place. You can’t tell if you’ve been short-sheeted until you try to get in bed; then you have to take your bed apart and remake it. We’d been doing that a lot to each other, something Sgt. Short was aware of. He came in just before lights out one night, undressed down to his skivvies and, just before getting into bed he growled, “You bastards better not have short-sheeted my bed!” From somewhere deep in the dark another voice drawled back, “Sheeyit! He so short wouldn’t notice nohow!” We didn’t hear Short’s response over the laughter.
The next morning arrived at 0500 and I wasn’t the only one who thought that an ungodly hour to be doing anything. Sgt. Ainsworth and Sgt. Short stifled the grumbling in short order. They came stomping through the barracks, turning on lights, and yelling at all us lazy SOBs to get the hell up, did we think we were guests in a five-star hotel? Somehow, we all managed to get up, make our beds in a half-assed way, shower, dress, fall out for flight formation, and march to the mess hall for breakfast.
We had to go through the chow line sideways, standing at attention, our food trays held flat against our chest until we reached the point where we flipped them down and food was flung onto them. Once I had my food, I went to a table. If there was no one else at the table, I put my tray down, stood at attention and raised my hand with three fingers showing to indicate three openings. One-by-one, as others joined me, I reduced the number of fingers. No talking was allowed other than requests to pass the salt or whatever.
We next marched to the barbershop where our hair was mowed by an assembly line of ten barbers. There were a few guys with the popular upswept Elvis pompadour who genuinely grieved getting out of the chair with an eighth of an inch left, wistfully eyeing their late curly locks on the floor; they looked ready to cry. Next, we were marched to the dental unit where there was a very long wait for three dentists to examine and treat sixty recruits. The next stop was the medical unit, where we were weighed, measured, given three shots, bent over and coughed and sent on to have our vision checked. Then it was off to the mess hall for lunch. The rest of the day was spent in lectures: Do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that, fill out these papers, learn your insignia of rank, know your Air Force history, and other equally urgent subjects.
We returned to the barracks late afternoon where we were shown how to arrange the items in our footlockers just so, and how to make our beds. The covers on the bed had to be so taut you could bounce a quarter.
One of the first things I learned in basic training was not to stand out. Guys who stood out were more likely to be “volunteered” for some typically unpleasant task, to be yelled at, to demonstrate something, or to answer questions on what we had just been told. Four guys who stood out were called on to be squad leaders, a position I most assuredly did not want.
I relied in part on the advice I was given by a retired Marine Corps major before I enlisted: “Keep your eyes open, your mouth shut, and never volunteer.” It also helped that, physically, I didn’t stand out. I wasn’t among the biggest or the smallest; my last name began with G, which, because we lined up alphabetically, allowed me the advantage of seeing what others did before I had to do it. When we marched in formation, I was never in the outside columns or the first two or three ranks. I was well camouflaged.
One indication that I was surviving was that I never accumulated too many “gigs,” the Air Force’s term for demerits. You could be gigged for almost anything: bed not made properly, uniforms not hung straight, foot locker messy, shoes not shined, failing to salute an officer, late to formation, and the most commonly gigged offense: a crooked gig line. This was the line that started with where your shirt buttoned, continued along the edge of your belt buckle, and then down the zipper line. If those three didn’t line up perfectly, you were gigged. We went around every day casting furtive glances at our crotches. We also had to carry a supply of gig slips in our pocket. Not having a gig slip was a giggable offense. If you accumulated a certain number of gigs in a week (I think it was five), you were set back a week, which meant being reassigned to a flight in a different barracks that was a week behind your flight. Then you had to break in to already-established cliques in the new flight, where they’d probably consider you a fuck-up for being set back a week. Worse, it meant an additional week of basic training.
Our daily routine was simple. Up at 0500, half an hour to shave, shower, dress, make your bed, and fall out for formation. Then we marched to the mess hall for breakfast, followed by classes and drilling. After lunch, more classes, more drilling until dinner, sometime between 0500 and 0600. Following dinner, unless the whole flight had screwed up during the day, we had a couple of hours of free time. We could go to the library, the rec hall, the BX (base exchange), or just stay in the barracks doing nothing. By 0800 we had to be back and spent the final hour shining shoes, writing letters, reading, There was footlocker inspection every night just before lights out. Socks and skivvies had to be folded perfectly. There was a designated place for everything and everything had to be in its designated place. If not, the DI simply flipped over the footlocker, spilling all the carefully folded socks and skivvies and everything else to the floor. Then you had to pick it all up and refold and repack everything in the few minutes before lights out or it would all be dumped again. Then you’d have to restore order to your footlocker in the dark.
There were barracks inspections once a week. Everything had to be dust-free and spotless. In the latrine, commodes and sinks had to shine, mirrors gleam, and toilet lids stood up to attention. Usually the DI and assistant DI both inspected. There was one inspection where everything was not dust-free, spotless, gleaming, and standing at attention. Curiously, there was no reaction from the DI or his assistant and we all breathed a sigh of relief. We went outside, fell into formation, and marched off to class. When we returned, the barracks had been torn upside-down: Footlockers had all been dumped, bunks torn apart, uniforms thrown to the floor. It was like a hurricane had blown through to the tune of DIs shouting, “Okay, you little shits! Ten minutes to make this barracks perfect! Move!”
Another inspection incident involved Mick, a guy who regretted his decision to enlist and desperately wanted out. He’d already been set back twice and this incident probably cinched his case. This inspection was particularly important as it was being conducted by a full colonel, accompanied by other officers. They started in the latrine. I stood at attention by the first of the long line of sinks I’d spent half an hour cleaning. The colonel walked slowly past them, saying nothing. I relaxed. Then came the inspection of the commodes. Mick had spent at least as much time on these as I had on the sinks. They were gleaming and all the lids were at attention. Unbeknownst to us, however, Mick had put a dab of peanut butter on the upright lid of the final commode, where he was standing. The colonel appeared to be satisfied with our efforts until he saw the dab of peanut butter. “What the hell is that, airman?” he bellowed, his face turning red.
Mick bent over, scooped up a bit of the peanut butter onto his finger, and put it in his mouth. “Tastes like shit, sir!” he said. We didn’t see Mick again after that.
Most of the flight hated drilling twice a day, every day. I actually enjoyed it. I liked the rhythm of marching and the challenge of keeping step through intricate maneuvers while maintaining flight formation. On the other hand, Stu, my bus mate, hated drilling and he used to give the DI fits. On the command, “To the rear, march!” he’d do it a step late. When the DI barked out, “To the right, march!” Stu would instead execute a right flank maneuver or turn to the left. These gaffes resulted in his running into the guy next to him and throwing everyone behind him out of step and out of line. He could never remember the difference between “To the right, march,” “Right oblique, march,” and “Right flank, march.” It was like watching a Laurel and Hardy film.
An unpleasant fact of life in basic training was guard duty, and there were two kinds: barracks guard and patio guard. We all regularly had each of those duties. Barracks guards were on duty in four shifts from 1800 hours to 0500, reveille. Their only responsibility was to make sure no one left the barracks and that no unauthorized personnel entered. On one occasion, I was tested by a major who demanded entrance to the barracks. I refused because his name wasn’t on the “authorized” list. And also because I was more afraid of Sgt. Ainsworth than I was of the major. He stormed and ranted, and I trembled and sweated. Then, all of a sudden, he relaxed, smiled, and said, “Good job, son,” and walked off.
I dreaded patio duty, as did all of us. This was winter and San Antonio gets cold in winter, very cold, even with our heavy wool overcoats. We had to stand outside in that cold for three hours having nothing to do but guard a candy bar machine and two dryers. Having lived all my life in the warm climes of Los Angeles and Mexico, the cold was just this side of unbearable. And sometimes just the other side of unbearable. It was during one of these that I came up with a solution: those two dryers. They were tall and stood not quite side-by-side with maybe eighteen inches between them. The next time I was on patio guard duty, I arrived with a pocket full of dimes. As soon as I started getting cold, I dropped two dimes into each machine and stood between them, soaking up the warmth they started pumping out. I have no idea what would have happened had I been caught. I kept this idea to myself, knowing that as soon as I told someone, everyone would start doing it, someone would be caught, and everyone would pay, and not with dimes.
About five weeks into basic there was a blanket party in the barracks. This is not the festive occasion it might sound like. It involved a bunch of guys with a blanket, and a victim, usually someone who either got the whole flight in trouble, was a constant screw-up or, as in this case, someone most of the flight didn’t like for whatever reason. The intended victim was James Foster. He was small, a little effeminate, and the only seventeen-year-old besides me. I think the hostility was in part because he was thought to be gay, though that term was not yet in use.
Blanket parties always took place in the middle of the night. The “party givers” would quietly approach the victim’s bunk, throw the blanket over his head and then proceed to pummel him. The victim usually was not seriously hurt, as this would spur punishment for everyone.
I knew about the planned pummeling of James, as did many others, but refused to be a part of it. What worried me, though, was the fact that James’s bunk was right next to mine. What should I do? My common sense told me that when I heard them coming to get up and head to the latrine until it was all over. But I didn’t think James deserved what was coming and it didn’t seem right to turn my back and ignore it. I made up my mind, however reluctantly, to try to stop it.
Around 0230 I heard several guys whispering as they approached. I threw back my covers, jumped down between the bunks, and blocked the narrow passage between James’s bunk and mine. “Stop!” was all I could think of to say. Now, I weighed no more than 130 pounds and I was standing against guys who outweighed me by 50-100 pounds. But my unexpected appearance, the defiance I displayed apparently unnerved them. They stopped at the foot of my bed, stood silently for maybe fifteen seconds, turned, and went back to their bunks. End of incident—no repercussions the next day for me, no subsequent attempts at another blanket party.
Another incident involved an African-American named Vincent. Vincent was big, over six feet tall and two-hundred-plus pounds. He was friendly but quiet, keeping to himself most of the time. One night before lights out, a bunch of us were sitting around talking when someone made reference to pulling guard duty on the “N-shit shift.” Vince was not part of the group but was close enough to overhear the remark. He got up off his bunk and slowly walked over to where we were gathered. We pretended to ignore him. He looked us over. Then, in his slow and quiet manner, he said, “Which one of you white boys said that?” No one owned up or fingered the culprit, probably because we all knew Vincent could take any one of us with ease. “Okay,” he said, “the white boy goes free this time. Next time, won’t none of you white boys go free.” The N-word was undoubtedly used many more times, but never where Vincent could overhear it.
I entered basic training at seventeen, immature, and a ninth-grade dropout. Before that, the only battles I had fought were with my mother at home, battles that left both of us desperately unhappy. It was my decision to go into the Air Force and she reluctantly agreed. I’m sure she thought that even if they took me I’d flunk out after a couple of weeks and we’d both be worse off than before. Nonetheless, she signed for me and I was in. To this day, I’m amazed the Air Force even took me. Not only was I in, I made it through the two months and came out the other end with a stripe on my sleeve, Airman Third Class.
I look back and that decision still stands as the most important I’ve ever made and basic training the best thing ever to happen to me. I went from being an irresponsible teen with no work or social skills to learning about self-discipline and responsibility. It changed my life. And probably my mother’s, as well.