On this date 35 years ago, I left home for the United States Air Force (USAF) and started six weeks of basic training. I will admit that six weeks of Air Force basic training is probably not as difficult as the other branches of the military but for an 18-year-old, 120 pound introvert who had a strict, Pentecostal upbringing leaving home for the first time, it is quite a culture shock.
This was the day that my parents took me to the bus station in Savannah, Georgia and we said our goodbyes as I rolled away to Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina to the Armed Forces Entrance Examination Station. At the time, it was where all branches of the services in the region entered for active duty with physical exams and getting sworn in. Speaking of physical exams, this was the one I dreaded standing in a room with 50 other recruits while the meanest doctor the Air Force could buy, came by and examined certain parts while telling us to turn our head and cough. Seriously, why wouldn’t a doctor be mean if that was his job?
After a couple of days, I was on my way to San Antonio, Texas as I had my first experience flying on an airplane. When we finally arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, it was late at night. We were all tired and nervous as new recruits meeting our drill instructor for the first time.
It was eerily quiet until we heard the footsteps of our drill instructor. We could hear the taps on his heels grind into the cement ground as he looked us all over for the first time. He yelled for us to pick up our luggage then put them down. It was some mind game he was playing with us We went through this a few times before he singled one guy out. No, it wasn’t me but it was the recruit directly behind me.
The exchange went like this:
“Boy where you from?”
“Cleveland, Ohio sir”
“Well Cleveland, what I want to know is why do you touch your face every time I tell everyone to put down their luggage?”
“My glasses keep falling sir.”
Apparently “Cleveland” did the unthinkable as he looked directly at the instructor.
“Don’t look at me boy. I’ll put this cigarette out in your eye!”
When we finally able to pick up our luggage and enter the barracks we lined up facing our lockers. Then the real fun began as several drill instructors took turns going through our things and yelling at us for various reasons. I was so nervous that I nearly choked myself with the key around my neck as I got it stuck in the locker while I was being yelled at.
Basic training was an experience I will never forget. I had never slept in the same room with various personalities or taken showers with anyone else before. Yes, not the ideal experienced for an introvert.
During the first week I was offered an opportunity to leave when the job I had reserved for me was no longer available. I had entered the Delayed Enlistment Program a year prior to going on active duty. My original job choice was as an Aircraft Armament Systems Specialist which was more commonly known as a bomb loader. Looking back on that now, I’m not sure how I could have transferred that to a civilian career now. With that job no longer available, I was given the choice to leave or pick another job. I did think about it a long few minutes before I decided to go through with it an pick another job. Among my choices were Fire Specialist (Fireman), Security Police, Cook and then the one I decided to pick – Administration Specialist. Yes, it was a boring choice but I really didn’t see myself in any of the others but the choice lead me to where I am today.
My hope for the rest of basic training was that I could simply blend in and not draw attention to myself by doing anything stupid or get yelled at by an instructor.
I did not succeed.
Early in the training when we were learning to march, one of the instructors picked me to be the guide. The guide was a position that led the entire flight in marching and guiding the columns in the proper direction following the commands. After guiding the flight into a pole and off the marching pad a couple of times I was fired rather forcefully with “Get the hell to the back of my flight!” Those were orders I could follow.
Each airman had a job to do. One was called a “chow runner” who keep track of the times when we were to eat our meals. Another was the “latrine queen” who was in charge of keeping the bathroom clean. My job was the “shoe aligner”. My job was to make sure everyone’s shoes were in line with their bunks for the daily inspections. Fortunately I carried that duty successfully without any incidents.
I still did not avoid situations where I was called out. No one did.
When one of our colleagues was feeling sick, the procedure was for two other airmen to assist the sick airman to sick call. When we arrived, the instructor yelled at me for not following proper sick call procedures. To this day I have no idea what I did wrong. Instead, he asked for a “341”. A 341 was a form we carried in our pocket which hovered over us like a black cloud. If we did anything wrong, an instructor would take it from us and write us up. If we had a certain amount pulled, we were in jeopardy of being recycled. That meant we would have to repeat earlier weeks of basic training.
Fortunately, I only had three pulled during my time in basic training. One time for not shaving close enough – I mean – I had just started shaving before I got to basic training yet somehow I didn’t shave close enough for the instructor. I don’t remember what the other one was for. It seems like it had something to do with the entire group doing something wrong.
Perhaps the duty I dreaded the most was doing a shift as the “dorm guard”. As a dorm guard, you were responsible for checking identification and allowing entry into the dormitory as well as making sure everything in the dorm was in order. I always requested the night shift because there was usually less traffic and activity during those times. On one of my shifts I was at the front door studying my basic training manual when I heard “Open the damn door!” booming up the stairwell. Well, I was in a dilemma. Was this a test or was I supposed to do as the instructor was saying without checking his identification. When I peaked out the window and met his eyeballs, I decided to take the gamble and let him in. He came in and grunted as he passed by. I had apparently made the right decision.
I made it through my six weeks and graduated. Those were the longest six weeks of my life (until I was stationed in Thule, Greenland for a year later in my career). From Lackland, I went to my technical school in Keesler Air Force Base near Biloxi, Mississippi. I ended up spending eight years on active duty before I separated in December 1990. Today, I remember my journey from my home in Savannah, Georgia into my future that it is now. I sat down with my basic training book and looked at the photos and things my fellow airman wrote before we graduated. I haven’t kept in touch with any of them but I can’t help to wonder about them today.