When we landed in Kansas City, everything was a jumble of confusion, but when the dust had settled, it turned out that the military charter that was to take us to Fort Leonard Wood, had twelve fewer seats than it had passengers. So six of us had to fly in a little twin engine commuter to the army base, while the final six had to spend the night, and grab a commuter the following morning. I don't know how the decision was made as to how to divide us up, but I ended up on the little plane which left shortly afterward, and arrived at the army base about two in the morning.
We were assigned bunks for the night, and hooked up with the rest of the guys the following morning, when we were all moved across the base in a couple of deuce and a half trucks, the most common form of troop transport at Fort Leonard Wood. They hauled us to Reception, where we would be housed for the following week, while we fulfilled a plethora of logistical requirements before we could commence our military training.
Our arrival at the compound for incoming recruits, coincided with the arrival of around 160 other recruits from all around the country. Altogether, in our company, there were about 200 men and no women. Those of us guys from LA, were divided alphabetically and mixed in with the rest of the guys to form five platoons, of which mine was Echo, and we would eventually settle into the top floor of a three-story, red brick barracks. Being in Echo Company, meant that we were our own island in the midst of five platoons. We rarely interacted as an assembled company, 200 strong, except in times of convenience (inoculations, chow) or ceremony. These barracks were not left over from the original base but, rather, had been built in that second wave of construction in the late fifties, so they were reasonably modern, comfortably warm and a vast improvement over the open bay models, in which we were housed that first week. We were divided into rooms with six or seven recruits in each, with a couple of smaller rooms at the end of the hall, that remained empty for the moment, but that would come into play a little later on in the ten weeks that we were there.
Each room was divided into four equal squares, by two five-foot-high ledges, which extended off of each the left and the right walls, and ended up four feet shy of the center of the room. Each square contained one or two cots, with a maximum of seven men per room. While lying on our cots, at least there were only two of the four squares within our line of vision. Being very agile, and quickly tiring of the floor as a resting spot (The cots were strictly off-limits, until ten minutes before lights out those first two weeks.) I began to perch on one of the two ledges within our room. I found it a comfortable pose in which to write letters. I wrote a lot of letters. In fact, I was incensed one night, to hear DI Tanksley screaming that he needed three volunteers.
“No way,” I said to no one in particular, and opened my locker. I swept the contents off of the base platform, about thirty-six inches off of the floor, above the set of drawers, and quickly folded myself up within the locker. My head and shoulders conveniently chilling, nestled within my dress greens and starched fatigues, I waited as the DI gathered up the needed trainees. The door was open three or four inches to permit light, but not enough to see into. Sighing contentedly, I continued my correspondence, hoping that DI Tanksley was back in his office, and no longer roaming the hall.
Drill Instructor Tanksley, our lead drill instructor was a weathered veteran, of indeterminable age, who was grizzled and crusty, but whose bark was considerably worse than his bite. He had fifteen years in the army, so he was probably in his mid-thirties, but to me he was my father, just able to yell a lot louder. His job was to make “soldiers” out of us, but his mission was to get us successfully through basic training, so as not to have to repeat it. He was infinitely more approachable those first two weeks, than any of the other drill sergeants.
It turned out that the army followed a formula, wherein recruits were only allowed to miss a certain percentage of the training (about five days) before being “recycled” through the entire eight-week training period. That's why I refused to go on sick call any of the three different times that I developed cold/sore throat symptoms during the ten weeks I was there. After all, it had not been the most practical thing to pack up forty guys from Los Angeles, and ship them off to a climate where the temperature is as likely to be below freezing as above it during the winter months. However, the threat of having to retake the eight-week course was enough to propel me through those long weeks of not only having to train for active military duty, but having to do it with a cold and sore throat.
The first week was a blur with all of the moving around from station to station, being outfitted with the clothes and tools of the trade. We took those standardized tests again, twice, and each time I applied myself industriously to answering the questions accurately. Long about the third day, they lined us all up for haircuts, a symbolic enough of a ritual, associated with countless books and films depicting military life. I should mention that my beard, which I had worn so proudly on that first day at the AFEES, turned out to cause me some serious grief. I didn't think anyone even noticed it or cared the first couple days, but then came Haircut/Picture Day.
They made it a hat trick of logistical accomplishments, by requiring us to stop by for a quick, friendly inoculation or two on the way to the barber shop. We had to get the standard set of inoculations that one would expect, entering such an establishment. Injecting each of the two hundred recruits in our company required some logistical shuffling, so as not to have to have us marking time, when there were so many available opportunities for us to shine. We could shine the stainless steel counters in the mess hall, we could shine the floors in the barracks, and we could shine our boots, but we could do none of the three while standing in line.
In an effort to keep us from spending too much time in line, the army developed a tool for inoculating troops at an efficient rate. The tool was a gun which pneumatically injected one's arm, just below the shoulder, with the desired vaccine. The gun never comes into contact with the skin, simply sending a jet of vaccine into your arm with no need to be careful about precisely where it enters the system. No needles, and minimal danger of getting light-headed, due to the nature of the task. I hated the shots, but I hated needles more, so it was a step in the right direction. These were the kind of logistics that consumed us the two weeks we spent prior to beginning the actual basic training course. After that first week of Reception, we were moved to our permanent barracks for the duration of the nine weeks. The next week was known as “zero week,” as we continued to assemble our needed army-issued supplies, and fulfilled a number of logistical requirements around the post. The permanent staff referred to it as a time for zeroes; that would be us recruits. I hated the fact that these personnel, no older than us, lorded over us, merely by virtue of the fact that they had entered the service at least ten weeks before us.
“Come here, Trainee. Pick up that cigarette butt, Trainee. Hey, you, Trainee, get back to work before I ask the master sergeant if you can clean out the head too, once you're done with the floor in the day room.” It wasn't worth an Article Fifteen, but it sure fueled my imagination to think of how a bucket of dirty mop water, would take the starch right out of that guy's fatigues. The arbitrary nature of having a platoon of forty capable, strong-backed, weak-brained recruits, available to fulfill any and all necessary tasks, was a great temptation. We were the truffles in the chocolate box of available opportunities, for the Commander of FLW. Any time the chapel needed cleaning, we were on call. Gravel needed at the Officers' baseball complex? No problem. E-3-2, Third Herd, was ready for action, ready for danger. Make us aware of your dirty, your scuffed, your dull floors to buff and polish; no job is too insignificant or too demeaning for trainees.
So there I was, standing in a line of close to two hundred guys, when along came this drill instructor for one of the other platoons, and he noticed my beard and went ballistic. Of course, I was mortified; my whole program in these early days was to stay unnoticed, and therefore be in the best position to survive this disaster.
Positioning himself directly in front of me, with his toes touching my toes, or rather his toes doing a little tap dance on my toes, he commenced to make conversation.
“What in the Sam hell is that on your face?” His roar sounded worse than his bite might have been.
“SIR! What do I look like to you? SIR! Don't you ever call me SIR again. I work for a living in this man's army, and I WILL BE GODDAMNED IF I WILL LET A PISS ANT SORRY EXAMPLE OF A SACK OF SHIT TRAINEE INSULT ME! YOU WILL ADDRESS ME AS DRILL INSTRUCTOR!”
“Yes, Drill Instructor!”
“I asked you, 'What in the hell is that on your face, Soldier?'”
Probably fear. Either that, or egg yolk from breakfast. “Drill Instructor?” There was a split second there when I thought he was going to lose it completely, but it was all an act. Later, I could see that. Right now, all I could see was his flaring nostrils. He perched on the balls of his feet, the better to be able to glare down at me, while he tried to figure me out.
“WHAT IS ON YOUR FACE?”
His cheeks began to turn beet red, as he geared up for some serious “in your face” dialogue, except that there was only one of us currently speaking.
“Whiskers, Drill Instructor?”
“I ask the questions around here, and I asked you what the hell that was on your face, and why is it there?”
“WHISKERS, DRILL INSTRUCTOR! SHALL I SHAVE THEM?”
“There you go asking questions again.” His face was all of two inches from mine, and his eyes bulged out comically, only no one was laughing.
“NO, DRILL INSTRUCTOR ”
“Are you calling me a liar?” he roared.
Inside I could rationally see that it was all a game, and one that he had played countless times before with countless numbers of new recruits, and one for which there was no victory in store for me.
“No, Drill Instructor. I need to shave.”
“You're damn right you need to shave. You needed to shave yesterday! You need to shave right now, before I do it for you, and if I do it, I won't need a razor, 'cause I will rip it out by the roots! Am I making myself clear?”
“Yes, Drill Instructor.”
“I CAN'T HEAR YOU!” How many times I was to hear that refrain over the next ten weeks I can't even be able to guess, but there was only one way to respond.
“YES! DRILL INSTRUCTOR!”
He heard me this time. “You got exactly five minutes to get into your barracks and get that rat fuzz off your chin.”
.”YES! DRILL INSTRUCTOR!”
“When you're done, you will get your shaved self back out here so that you will have plenty of time to push up Missouri, while you wait for your own personal hair stylist to beautify yourself.”
Push up Missouri? How do I do that? “YES! DRILL INSTRUCTOR!”
“WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?”
I shifted into overdrive, and scuttled back to the quonset hut that served as a temporary barracks, until we moved into the permanent ones on the other side of the base. I had never in my life had the experience of shaving more than a day or two's stubble from my face, and whereas, if I were still at home, with all of the time in the world, I don't think I would have had any issues. Now, I was in a world of hurt. I actually did bring a razor and a can of shaving cream with me in my travel case, but the actual task of shaving proved to be very challenging. I was a novice in this art, and my hands were having a hard time remaining steady, a decidedly questionable strategy for the delicate operation of removing whiskers with a sharp object.
The amazing thing is, that even in the midst of my fear and embarrassment, my little pea-brain was still sifting and sorting the previous exchange between me and Drill Sergeant Gaines. His specific words were, “...get that rat fuzz off your chin...”
First of all, I never saw a red rat before. I say red, because, even though I have brown hair, my beard comes out red, especially if I spend time in the sun. “...off your chin...” He didn't say anything about shaving the “rat fuzz” off of my upper lip. “Hmmm...”
So it was that, when I went to have my picture taken for my military identification, I still had a mustache. The guys clipping hair (actually they were shaving heads, and it took them all of about sixty seconds apiece) were not paid to notice facial hair, and since Drill Instructor Gaines had vacated the premises with his platoon in the interim I had been gone, there was no one who now seemed to care one way or another. That was then, but the following morning, when we were at parade rest after having come from the chow hall, I drew the notice of Drill Instructor Stephen C. Fletcher, our junior drill instructor, who couldn't have been more than twenty-three.
DI Fletcher was not a big man, but his physique reflected the fact that he was in the best possible shape a guy could be in, an obvious effect of working at a job which required tremendous physical stamina, and a tenacious approach to the habitually frigid environment in which we all existed. He stood about six feet, and weighed about one eighty, with a compactness about him that suggested that in an endurance race, he would outlast anyone. He was as light on his feet as Muhammad Ali, and his “Smokey the Bear” hat was tipped slightly forward in a jaunty sort of manner that belied his intensity.
It was never hard to draw the attention of the drill instructors. Each of the recruits was a veritable fountain of available opportunities for attention to manifest itself. Drill instructors were funny guys. When Drill Instructor Fletcher was calling role, and he got to “Trout, Stephen C,” he stopped and brought Private Trout into his frame of reference. Poor Trainee Trout, he thought he was going to get reamed, but all DI Fletcher said was, “Stephen C...that has a nice ring to it.” So, by virtue of the fact that he shared common initials with the drill sergeant, Stephen C. Trout wore a cloak of invincibility throughout the ten weeks of boot camp.
Unfortunately, cloaks came in all shapes and sizes, and served different purposes. Before I return to the saga of the mustache, I want to tell you about poor Charley Buckles. He was a guy who pretty much existed in his own little world. He was taller than most of us, and skinny as a signpost. And since I'm in that vein, I'll add that his mental capacity could also be compared to that of a signpost. if that seems cruel, I can only tell you that whether it was or not, Charley would never have known or cared about it. He was incapable of determining whether or not someone was poking fun at him; he would just stand there grinning, assuming that whatever joke was being shared, was good enough for him, even if it was at his expense.
It was the constant grin that brought Charley the attention of DI Fletcher: that, and the freckles. Charley Buckles had freckles and there was no getting around them, at least not for DI Fletcher. “Private Buckles, would you mind sharing with the rest of us just exactly what is so funny?”
Charley's grin remained in place, but there was an uncertainty to it now. “Nothing, Drill Instructor.” At least Charley had learned how to address the drill instructors, and he had me to thank for that.
“Well, then, why are you still grinning like a monkey?”
“I don't know, Drill Instructor.” Honesty once again proved to be the best policy.
“Come up front, Private Buckles, so I can get a better look at you.”
The thing about Charley is that everything seemed to be in its proper place, but nothing was just right. His boots were polished, but the laces were not properly interlaced; his jacket was buttoned up with the left side unevenly matched with the right side because the snaps were not properly aligned. His cap was pushed to the back of his head, so that his forehead was prominently revealed. His shaved head did not improve matters, and his slow speech pattern hinted at his lack of quick mental ability.
DI Fletcher walked pensively around Charley, while the rest of us held our collective breath. You see, even in this short time, we all thought of Charley as the platoon mascot, and no one disliked the guy, so we all sort of looked after him. It may seem funny that a guy that low, intellectually, would be allowed into the army. The truth is, Charley might have bombed the tests, but at least he tried as hard as he could, and that makes up for a lot of faults. In some ways, Charley was the prototypical army trainee: somewhat dumb, but very malleable.
“Private Buckles. Private Buckles. What are we going to do with you?”
Figuring that DI Fletcher wanted a reply, Charley said, “I don't know, Drill Instructor.”
“Private Buckles, what is your first name?”
“Charley, Drill Instructor.”
“Charley. Charley. Charley...May I call you Charles?”
The unexpected nature of the question removed whatever was left of the grin. Charley looked around at his comrades, as if hoping for guidance, and when seeing that several of us were nodding encouragingly, he said, “Yes, Drill Instructor.”
“Charles, What is wrong with your jacket?”
For whatever reason Charley looked back, craning his long neck to see if there was something stuck on his backside. Straightening up and returning to attention, he said, “Nothing, Drill Instructor.”
“Nothing.” DI Fletcher paused. “Are you blind as well as being stupid? Can't you see that you snapped up your jacket unevenly? Do you need help in the morning getting dressed? Can you rectify the situation?” Too many questions. He had drawn out the word “rectify,” increasing Charley's discomfort.
I did a mental check on the answers to the questions: blind? No; see the uneven jacket? probably not; need help? probably yes; and rectify? even money on this one.
Charley remained motionless, as if the predator would get bored and go away, if Charley just remained still long enough.
“Yes, Drill Instructor!” Damn, I hadn't even seen that as an option, and yet, by sheer luck, Charley had given him the one answer that mattered. That was the part about fixing the problem, even if Charley didn't understand the word, rectify. Obviously DI Fletcher had sought out this word for use in this exact situation, because new recruits had a lot of rectifying to do in the early going.
“BUTTON UP YOUR GOD-DAMNED JACKET PROPERLY SOLDIER, BEFORE I BUTTON IT UP FOR YOU. BECAUSE [long pause] IF I BUTTON IT UP FOR YOU, I WILL DO SO WITH MY BOOT HEELS.”
Charley looked straight down at the hem of his jacket and, being a frequent flier in this area, rectified the situation.
Calm was restored in a heartbeat. DI Fletcher wasn't finished. “Charles, you seem to me like a bright guy...” My opinion of DI Fletcher's judgmental capabilities took a serious hit at this moment, until I made the connection that it was all a performance, and DI Fletcher was the star. “What's a bright guy like you doing here?” A facetious drill instructor?
Rhetorical questions worked out pretty well for Charley. Instead of parroting the immortal words, uttered by Hawkeye in M*A*S*H*, and responding “I was drafted,” Charley just stood there.
Seeing that there was nothing more to be gained at this moment, DI Fletcher motioned Charley back into formation with a dismissive wave of his arm and moved on to more entertainment. Like my mustache.
Stopping in mid-sentence of his outline for the day's agenda, he directed his gaze at me and stared. His eyes widened and he extended his index finger and crooked it toward himself, in the unmistakable gesture that means, “Front and center, Trainee.”
When I had scurried up to the front of formation, and positioned myself in front of him at attention, he stood transfixed and ogled my face. I could have sworn I saw a twinkle in his eye. Of course, it might have been a reflection from the sun, which had made a rare cameo appearance at that moment, as DI Fletcher let the moment hang in the air
“What is that on your lip?”
Uh-oh. I had a real bad feeling about my hasty decision to follow DI Gaines's instructions so literally. “Nothing, Drill Instructor!”
His face began to turn pink. “Nothing? Are you telling me that there is nothing on your upper lip, except snot?”
“No Drill Instructor!”
“NO?” he bellowed. “No? Then, tell me Private O'Neill, is that a god-damned caterpillar? Do you have an unauthorized pet in my platoon, Private O'Neill?” His face began to turn red.
“NO!, Drill Instructor.”
“Well, now, I just think you do, because I can see it crawling there on your upper lip.”
“No Drill Instructor!”
“If that is not a caterpillar, what is it?”
“It is a mustache, Drill Instructor.”
“Were you issued that mustache, Private O'Neill?”
All of this was happening at warp speed, and I never do well in the spotlight, but still I could see that DI Fletcher was enjoying himself, and I wanted him to understand that I was not Charley Buckles.
“Yes, Drill Instructor.”
That wasn't in the script. “Who issued you the mustache?” Parry, thrust.
“Drill Instructor Gaines issued me the mustache, Drill Instructor Fletcher.”
DI Fletcher's eyes went from amused detachment, to amused interest.
“What do you mean Drill Instructor Gaines issued you a mustache? That is a load of shark shit.”
“I mean that DI Gaines specifically ordered me to shave the whiskers off my chin, but he did not order me to shave the whiskers off of my upper lip. Drill Instructor! According to the company clerk, once your military identification picture has been taken with the mustache, it's part of your I.D. and it can't be required that I shave it off.” Ah, the perfect application of the nebulous passive voice. Note that I didn't tell DI Fletcher that he couldn't tell me to shave it off, only that I couldn't be told.
Yes, I was a smart-mouthed trainee, a slimy newcomer to his world, and a short-time visitor at that, but I had tickled his funny bone, and that was a key factor in determining the success or failure of any given day for DI Fletcher. He liked humor, and he appreciated it when it was presented to him, as long as it was not perceived by the troops as humor. It was just as crucial to him to have an appreciative audience for his wit. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, one that was to come into play a great deal in the following nine weeks.
“You are the one who came in with the beard.” Unconsciously, he brushed the fingers of one hand across the neatly trimmed mustache on his own face as he studied the razor cuts and burns on my face. “How'd that work out for you?”“Pretty well, Drill Instructor. I got a mustache issued to me.”