“You’re in the Army Now!” was beginning to register with me as the olive drab bus took us from the L.A. induction center out to Los Angeles International Airport where we flew a commercial airliner to Seattle.
<feature photo by aahabershaw.com
It was the first time I had ever flown on a jet airplane. The deep pain in my gut wasn’t caused by the flight, or the food on the flight, but by the fear of the unknown. After the weird induction incident (see “You’re in the Army Now” post) I wondered what the U.S. Army had in store for me next at what they called basic training.
The recruiters in Torrance told me that from the Los Angeles area all recruits completed basic training at Fort Ord, California, south of San Francisco. However, recent allegations of cruelty to recruits had caused the army to temporarily shut down Fort Ord’s basic training activities. As a result we were the first group of Californians sent to Fort Lewis, Washington.
The flight landed in Seattle in the early hours of the morning. We were herded into large trucks that I would later get to know intimately as a “Deuce-and-a-Half” (an M35 two and a half ton military vehicle). The guard waved us through a large screened rear gate. I felt as if we were being smuggled in.
A fierce voice yelled, “Recruits, remove yourselves from the rear of that deuce-and-a half ASAP, if not sooner.”
“Out NOW, I said.”
I soon learned that once inside Fort Lewis I had entered another world separate from the United States. For the first time in my life I felt like a prisoner.
The professional looking Caucasian soldier who called himself Drill Sergeant Leroy Gratts, called out, “You California girls line up in front of me here, four rows deep. Come on now, get your tired asses in gear. Four times twelve, that’s forty-eight.”
“You heard him,” screamed Drill Sergeant Theodore Gaines, an imposing six and a half foot tall ebony skinned warrior, also dressed in starched khakis that fit his muscle-clad exterior perfectly. He barked at a slacker, “Get down and give me fifty.”
The slightly overweight recruit who had sat next to me on the plane made it up to ten pushups and then labored. Drill Sergeant Gaines dropped beside the recruit and performed a one-armed push up while yelling into his ear, “That’s not good enough recruit.”
The recruit couldn’t lift up after seventeen. His entire body trembled and fell to the earth.
I would soon see the reflection of my distraught face in the shine of the drill sergeant’s boots on several occasions when I heard the dreaded words, “Get down and give me fifty.”
Sergeant Gaines informed the recruits that he had just returned from a second tour in ‘Nam. He barked over at Sergeant Gratts, “I told ‘em not to allow these California girls at Lewis. Would you want one of these babies lookin’ after yo’ back in ‘Nam with Charlie lying in the bushes up ahead?”
Drill Sergeant Leroy Gratts considered Sergeant Gaines’s observation and said, “Listen up girls.” He waited until he had everyone’s attention. “I’m only going to tell y’all once…”
Sergeant Gratts gazed left-to-right and then right-to-left. He lifted his head followed by a bulbous right cheek and said, “It will BEHOOVE each and everyone of you swingin’ dicks to keep your head out of your ass… The way to do that is to keep your eyes and ears open. When Sergeant Gaines or me gives you an order you best well do it. Now…”
Sgt. Gratts caught the eye of a tall recruit in the front row. “What’s your name recruit?”
“My name’s Stevens, Sergeant.”
“You call me sir until you gain my respect. You get that Stevens?”
Stevens barked out, “Yes, sir.”
Sergeant Gratts stared at the ground like something was going to crawl out of it before he continued, “Because ‘y’all are such tired ass individuals I’m going to have to give you some time to ponder your situation here. You have an opportunity to become men…”
Gratts gave his statement time to sink in before he said, “Sergeant Gaines and I are headed back to the barracks. When we return at sunrise I expect every swingin’ dick to be standing right where you are now. Oh, and don’t anybody get the idea you can crawl over the fence and run back home to mommy. You will be caught, you will be persecuted.”
I think he meant prosecuted, but I wasn’t going to say anything. I figured I’d stay here in the back row and stay out of trouble. Boy would I be wrong.
After the two drill instructors marched off as if they were still at attention a few of the brave recruits lit up. One of them, Henderson, said he was checking out of here as soon as he had the opportunity. A guy in front of him that was maybe ten years older than the rest of us said, “There’s the fence hot shot.”
Henderson looked him over and said, “You’re a little old to be playing soldier aren’t you?”
The old guy—he must have been thirty—smiled and said, “I’m going to enjoy this.”
I could see it coming. This was going to be the worst six weeks in my life.
(To be continued)