BASIC TRAINING

“GET UP!!! GET OUT OF BED!! MOVE IT MOVE IT MOVE IT!! GET UP NOWWWWW!!!!!!!!” My feet hit the floor at the same time my head hit the metal frame of the bunk above me. I fell back into the bottom bunk just in time to get tossed out of it, along with the mattress, by the rampaging whirlwind wearing a Smokey the Bear hat, frothing at the mouth. He didn’t notice. He had already moved two or three bunks downrange, leaving discombobulated recruits on the floor behind him. Good morning and welcome to the United States Air Force.

When I managed to struggle to my feet and come to attention and wipe the tears from my eyes, I noticed that it was still dark outside. In fact, it looked as though it was just as dark as it had been when we had collapsed into our assigned bunks just three hours earlier, as I later learned to my surprise.

The Training Instructor had completed his journey of destruction to the end of the two rows of bunks separated by a single pathway and was now storming back toward the front of the barracks. He made it two thirds of the way, then turned and charged back toward the rear of the barracks, where he turned again and retraced his steps. Throughout his travels, the TI made eye contact with every single recruit that stood shaking at attention to the side of his bunk.

“MOVE FORWARD. THE TIPS OF YOUR TOES WILL BE ALIGNED WITH THE FRONT OF YOUR LOCKER. WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU LOOKING AT?!!!! STAND AT ATTENTION!! FEET AT A FORTY FIVE DEGREE ANGLE!! THAT IS TWENTY TWO AND ONE HALF DEGREES FOR EACH FOOT FOR YOU UNEDUCATED NUMBNUTS!” We looked at our feet. Never, never, never, ever look at your feet on your first day of basic training.

“GET YOUR DAMN HEADS UP!!!!! LOOK STRAIGHT AHEAD. DO NOT LOOK DOWN. DO NOT LOOK UP. DO NOT LOOK TO THE SIDE. MY NAME IS STAFF SERGEANT HART. YOU WILL CALL ME SIR. YOU WILL USE SIR AT THE BEGINNING OF EVERY STATEMENT OR AT THE END OF EVERY STATEMENT. YOU WILL NOT USE SIR AT THE BEGINNING AND END. IS THAT CLEAR? SAY, “YES, SIR”.

An uncoordinated chorus of “Yes sirs” filtered out of our mouths. “I SAID, IS THAT CLEAR?!” “Yes, Sir!” came the slightly louder, but still uncoordinated reply. “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!! YOU BETTER CLEAR YOUR DAMN MOUTHS OUT. IS THAT CLEAR?” “YES, SIR!” This was better, and more coordinated, but not good enough. “LOUDER!” “YES SIR!!” “SAY IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT!!!” “YES SIR!!!!!!!” And the rafters shook. And the dead were awakened. And dogs and wolves howled. “THAT’S MORE LIKE IT!!!! NOW GET THOSE DAMN MATTRESSES UP OFF THE FLOOR. NOW!!!!” “YES SIR.” “I CAN’T HEAAARRRR YOUUUU!!” “YES SIR!!!!”

And so began our first full day in the United States Air Force. We may have only had about three hours of sleep, but, and trust me on this, we were all wide awake. Our hearts were beating at a pace that would have necessitated a trip to the emergency room if we were our fathers’ ages. We got our bunks together. Not up to official U.S. Air Force Basic Military Training standards. That would come later.

We were instructed to shave. We were instructed to shower. We were instructed to brush our teeth. We were instructed to get dressed…..in our civilian clothes. We were given next to no time to complete these tasks. We were yelled at some more. A lot more. We were yelled at most of the time. Whatever we were doing, we were doing it wrong. Tasks that we had performed for most, if not all, of our young lives were now being performed in a manner that all but guaranteed the defeat of these great United States by the Great Red Menace. The land of our fathers and mothers would suffer under the boot of Communism, and it would be all our fault because we just couldn’t manage to brush our teeth in the approved U.S. Air Force way.

We were hustled outside along with the rest of Flight 152 from the second floor of our leftover World War I, non-brand spanking new barracks. We were formed up in ranks according to height, tallest to the right and front, shortest to the left and rear. And don’t even think about discrimination or any of that nonsense. We were enlistees in the United States Air Force. We had signed away our constitutional rights. We memorized our place in the formation, as we had been instructed. And then we marched. Badly. Again.

Staff Sergeant Hart and Technical Sergeant Walters (all names are fictional, except for mine, thank you very much) maintained an eagle-eyed watch over the formation as it bounced along the side of the street. Sergeant Hart called cadence and directed the road guards, selected the previous night, out into the intersections to stop traffic as the formation passed through each intersection and across streets. Sergeant Walters screamed in the ears of any hapless recruit that wasn’t keeping in step, which was still most of us. There was a lot of screaming.

As we came to one intersection, another flight approached from the opposite direction and crossed the street ahead of us. They all wore pea green utility uniforms, fatigues they were called, and shiny boots, and crew cuts. They knew how to march. No one was screaming at them. Their TI, just one for them, called cadence loud enough for everyone to hear, calling it only occasionally. Our Instructors kept up a constant cadence call. “LEFT! LEFT! LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT! DAMN IT, YOUR OTHER LEFT! QUIT BOUNCING IN THE RANKS!!!!” Their instructor spoke in a foreign language, unfamiliar to our untrained ears. “Owr. Owr. Owr, Doo, Hree, Pour! Column Right……Har!” The other flight executed a right turn, rank after rank, and marched onto a large cement area in front of one of the brand spanking new dormitories. It may have been the same dormitory at which we had enjoyed our first Air Force meal a few short hours ago. I don’t know. They all looked alike to me at that point.

The other flight marched underneath the overhang. “Flight….Halt!” The other flight came to a smart stop as a goodly number of boot heels clicked together with the sound of one giant boot heel. Sergeant Hart marched our thundering herd underneath the overhang next to the experienced flight. “FLIGHT……HALT!” bellowed Sergeant Hart, then, “DAMMIT, WHEN I SAY HALT I MEAN HALT YOU COME TO A DAMN STOP AND I BETTER HEAR YOUR BOOTS COME TOGETHER AT THE SAME TIME YOU PEOPLE BETTER GET YOUR HEADS OUTTA YOUR ASSES I AM GOING TO MARCH YOU UNTIL YOU GOT NOTHING BUT BLOODY DAMN STUMPS AT THE ENDS OF YOUR LEGS AM I CLEAR!!!!!!”

“YES SIR!”

“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!”

“YES SIR!!!!!!!!”

My ears may have been ringing and I couldn’t hear anything, but I swear I could sense the guys in the other flight smirking. Their TI confirmed it a couple of seconds later when he said, “Let’s show this bunch of rainbows how it’s done. Flight….Razzle Daaazzzzle…..Har!” And the other flight’s columns coiled and swirled like so many snakes with boots in a complicated maneuver that wound over and around, around and over, through and around, until they returned to the original formation and clicked their boot heels together with one resounding thump.

“WHO TOLD YOU TO LOOK OVER HERE! STRAIGHTEN YOUR DAMN HEAD RAINBOW!” shouted the other flight’s TI, proving that he had lungs to match those of Sergeant Hart and Sergeant Walters. And, of course, one TI screaming set off the well known boot camp phenomenon known as the Four Hundred Crazed Screamining Banshees as Sergeants Hart and Walters joined in with “ARE YOU TRYING TO EMBARRASS ME? ARE YOU TRYING TO PISS ME OFF? DON’T YOU LOOK AT ME!!!!! EYES STRAIGHT AHEAD PISSANT!!!!! GAWD ALMIGHTY, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU BUNCH OF RAINBOWS!!!!”

By the end of that first day, we learned that “rainbow” was the term used for first day recruits because of the multi-colored civilian clothes that we all wore. That didn’t last long. We were hustled into the chow hall with the same instructions we were given a few hours previously, and with the same decibel level. We picked up our tray. We picked up our plate. We picked up our hard plastic cup. We picked up our utensils. We got our food. We marched to the next open spot at a four-top table. We stood at attention until four people had arrived at the table. We sat down, backs straight. We did not talk. We did not laugh. We did not look around. We ate. Quickly. We cleaned our plates. That was the rule. There would be no leftovers. Ever. We brought our trays to the window. We placed our utensils in the plastic tub. We placed our cups and plates in the window. We threw our trash in the receptacle. We stacked our trays. We hustled outside and got into our formation.

And then we got busy with the process of becoming Airmen. We marched. Badly. We got yelled and screamed at. A lot. We did nothing right. We came to a halt as a thundering herd in front of what looked like one of the World War I barracks, except that it was situated parallel the long way to the street rather than perpendicular to it. We were marched inside column by column. It was a barbershop. These barbers had the easiest haircutting jobs the world has ever seen. They used clippers with vacuum hoses attached to them. The barbers had one job and one job only. They were required to shave the heads of every male recruit that sat in front of them. One recruit jokingly asked for just a trim.

Sergeants Hart and Walters explained the error of the recruit’s remark. Loudly. The whole flight got to do push ups and run in place later, while the offending recruit stood to the side and watched, all the while listening to Sergeant Hart explain that we could thank said recruit for our exercise session. When we exited the barbershop, we learned the folly of our memorization technique. To memorize our place in the formation, most of us had memorized the back of the head of the guy in front of us. To our horror, we learned that it is nearly impossible to pick out the back of a bald head based on the back of a full head of hair of a person with whom you are not familiar. The simple expedient of counting our place in the formation from the front and the side never occurred to most of us. I blame all of the yelling. Our confusion triggered even more yelling and even more push ups and even more running in place. My recruiter never told me about these joyous and happy-go-lucky experiences in Today’s Air Force.

We would have had more recreational moments, except that we were on a schedule. We had to go get our wardrobes. And so we came to stand in front of a plastic tub. We held a duffel bag, one each. We had a web belt, one each. We had a plastic canteen, one each. All pea green. We were not measured. We were eyeballed. I gotta tell you, these guys were good. They got the sizes right for just about everybody. Oh sure, they got a few wrong here and there, but nothing comical like you see in the movies and television. I guess when you do something eleven or twelve thousand times a year, you get pretty good at it.

So, here we were, shortly after breakfast on our first full day in the Air Force with all of our shiny new gear and shiny new uniforms and shiny new duffel bags and we were ready to go. All we had to do was learn how to use it all. It was going to be a long, long, long day. Welcome to the United States Air Force.