Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The First Day

So no kidding, there I was.......

I woke up about 30 minutes before the rest of the men in the room.  We'd only gotten to bed a couple of hours earlier after taking a bus from the airport in Saint Louis, but I woke up on my own.  We were on the second floor of a barracks that had been built during World War II.  The windows were wide open, and two large fans were droning their way through the night, but the air was heavy and hot.  I tried to go back to sleep, but I was too nervous and excited to drift off.  I didn't know what to expect for the rest of the day, but I knew things were going to change forever once I got out of bed.

After what seemed like no time at all, the lights flicked on.  A tall, skinny man in a camouflage uniform walked down the center of the room.

"Get up!  We've got way too much to do for you to lay around!  Get the #$!@ up!"

He wasn't a drill sergeant, he was the NCO who would shepherd us through our first few days in the Army.  He had the honor of spending his days dragging a bunch of civilians around and getting them ready to pass off to the drill sergeants who would turn them into soldiers.  After a couple of years in the Army, I truly started to pity him.

After getting everyone out of their beds, he rushed us through our morning rituals, including mandatory shaving.   Then he formed us up as best he could and walked us over to the chow hall.  We didn't march because we didn't know how to.  This poor guy was herding cats, and he kept us in line with a constant stream of 'advice' on how we should move and act.

For the first time in my life, I smelled an Army chow hall at breakfast time.  Imagine the smell of baking biscuits, frying bacon, strong coffee, and fresh fruit all melded together and so strong you can smell it half a block away.  I still get a whiff of it every so often when I go to Fort Knox, and it never fails to bring back the image of that little wooden building on Fort Leonard Wood.

After what I considered a very rushed breakfast, but was really quite leisurely, we moved off with all of our belongings to the main hall.  I had the clothes on my back, a shaving kit, and a couple extra pairs of underwear and socks in a gym bag.  Everything else I owned was at my mother's house, and I never saw it again.  By the time I got back after Basic, my brothers had looted it for what they wanted and gotten rid of everything else.  Oh well, I was leaving that life behind.

We filled out more paperwork, drew half a month's pay in advance, and got our haircuts.  I had cut my hair pretty short a few weeks before, but some of the guys had full heads of long hair.  The barbers seemed disappointed when they saw me, but the guys with shaggy hair got the full treatment of having their locks dropped in their laps as they were shorn.  The haircut cost me $2.50, and I still think it was an added kick in the ass to have to pay to have your head shaved.

We then lined up and headed off for uniform issue.  I got everything in the biggest they had.  I was tall and fat, so they just kept shoving extra large/extra long BDU's, tee shirts, socks, and underwear at me. The one snag in the process were my boots.  They didn't have a single pair in my size.  I have a size 15 in civilian sizes, which translated to a 13 in combat boots.  The biggest they had was a 10, and those didn't even let me get my toes in them.  I was told to wear my sneakers with my BDU's and two pair of black leather clown shoes were ordered for me.  They arrived about 5 weeks into basic.  For those of you paying attention, that made me the odd man out for 5 weeks in an environment where the only chance for peace is to blend into the background.  I did a lot of pushups over those 5 weeks just because of my feet.  We were also issued our uniform name tags, which we left in neat piles with our BDU tops and field jackets along with a 10 dollar bill for the nice ladies who would sew them on for us.  We changed out of our civilian clothes for the last time and put on our uniforms for the first time.

Next, we moved off for vaccinations.  Some guys came with shot records, which were officially ignored.  We lined up with an arms length between us.

"Take one step forward!"

We shuffled forward, with the first man in line centered between two medics holding air guns.

"Stand still!"

The two medics put their guns to the arms of the first man, and pulled the trigger.


"Take one step forward!"

The process continued.  There were four or five pairs of medics, each with a gun for a different immunization.  I flinched at the first one, and got a nasty cut on my bicep from the pressurized air they were using to force the vaccine through our skin.  After that, I tensed up and took it.  A few of the guys didn't make it to the end of the line on their own two feet.  Two collapsed into the arms of a medic who seemed to be waiting for it to happen, and one poor soul got to the end of the line and fell over like a sack of potatoes.

After getting all of those shots, including a new smallpox vaccination in my left arm to go with the one in my right, we went outside and stretched the muscles that were cramping from having vaccine driven into them at industrial speeds.  We picked up our uniform tops and headed off.

Next stop was lunch, even though we didn't feel much like eating.  I choked down some mashed potatoes and sweet tea, a first for me.  I'd never had tea that was basically stained sugar, but I'd learn to like it over the next few months.

That afternoon, we were led to a small PX to buy things we needed for the next few weeks.  I was forced to buy the largest pair of running shoes they had, a 14, because the basketball shoes I was wearing weren't going to cut it when we ran in basic.  I loaded up on shaving cream, razor blades, and sundry other things.  A couple of guys tried to be slick and make off with a candy bar or magazine, but that got them outside lifting big rocks over their head for a while.  Mental note - those rocks got really heavy really quick.

Next came a meeting with the training brigade chaplain.  He was a soft spoken man with a Vietnam combat patch and a Combat Infantryman's Badge to go with it.  He told us about the different services available for each of the different faiths:  Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Lutheran.  I never did figure out why the Lutherans got their own service, but the guys in my platoon who went to Lutheran services got away from the drill sergeants for several hours every Sunday, so I cursed myself for identifying as Catholic, and only getting about an hour.  The chaplain advised us against trying suicide to get out of the Army, and that we should come to church if only to get a nap during the sermon.  He then wished us luck, made sure everyone who wanted one had their camouflage bible and a rosary, and headed off for his next group. I still have that bible.  It sits in my BOB and it goes to the woods with me when I hunt.  It went on every field problem I did and deployed with me on numerous occasions.  If nothing else, it gave me something to read, and at the worst of times it gave me something to keep me sane.

By then, it was time for dinner, and I was feeling a bit better.  I wolfed down chicken fried steak, more mashed potatoes, and a huge helping of green beans cooked with ham and onions.  Everyone I knew back home told me the food in the Army sucks, but I can honestly say that I never had a bad meal in a chow hall.  Breakfasts were phenomenal, lunches were good, and dinners were at least adequate.  By the time I left Missouri, I was sick to death of chicken and catfish, but it was from over-exposure, not from bad quality.

Next was just some last minute stuff before doing clean up and going to bed.  We were issued our ID card and tags, and we were given a stencil with our name, number, and birth date on it to mark our duffel bags. We were advised to wash all of our newly issued clothing in hot water to get all of the lanolin out of the wool and the protectant chemicals out of everything else.  I'm glad I was one of the first to the washers because those who either didn't wash their clothes or were too late to get it done before lights out ended up with some hellacious sores on their feet and ankles from the chemicals and lanolin in the wool socks for the next week or so.

After a quick speech from the sergeant who had herded us around all day, we were ordered into our bunks and the lights went out.

As I lay there, I marveled at how easily and quickly the first day had gone.  I had expected Full Metal Jacket, and this was nothing like that.  Heck, this wasn't going to be that bad at all.  I wondered when I was going to get my gun.

The next morning we were put into trucks and sent off to our basic training units, and we met our drill sergeants.  It was then that I found out just how wrong I could be, but that's a story for another time.

That day was 22 years ago today.  I stayed in the Army for 9 years and change.  A lot of the days have blended together into a mishmash of impressions and fleeting memories, but some stand out in sharp focus.  This was one of them.


Julie said...

interesting read - thanks for sharing

Wilson said...

Great story! Thanks for your service.

Dan said...

Wow, that brings back memories -- good old Ft. Lost in the Woods. I was in C-3-10 back in 1992. I agree, indoctrination platoon is quite different from Full Metal Jacket. However, my drill sergeants had that damned movie memorized, and used it all the time. Good times!

I swear that if my drill sergeants called my obese, civlian ass today and said they were leading an assault on hell itself I'd still get up and follow them. They were great leaders and great men.

Borepatch said...

That was a great story, well told.

DaddyBear said...

Thanks guys. It's not exactly the most exciting story I've ever told, but it is an important one to me.

Dan, I was down the street at B/5/10. And yeah, I'd crawl naked across broken glass for my drill sergeants.

Geodkyt said...

I've never been to Fort Lost in the Woods, but I can smell that "an hour before dawn summertime" smell of western Georgia, and the lighting in the hall briefly appeared that damned orange sodium cast. . . suddenly I was paranoid I was late for PT. [chuckle]

DaddyBear said...

Geodykt, these were the same design as the barracks at Harmony Church. I stayed in those on my way to and from Bosnia in '96.

MrG's said...

Hi Daddy Bear, I was in B-5-3 in 1985, and went to Ft Devens afterwards. I was in Fort Lost in the woods in misery..or some called it "Little Korea". Yep They call Missouri the "Show me" state, well I saw Ft Leonard Woods....leaves one hell of an impression. They called Missouri "Gods Country" After seeing Missouri, I can see why, no man wants it. I would like to go back and see it again though.

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