On Thursday, the hard part the Army I signed up for began. As we sat on the bus waiting to leave Reception Camp for Basic Training, our heads down so we wouldn't be able to find our way back, a drill sergeant popped his head in to say a hearty good-bye. "Y'all can make it," he said. "But y'all gonna get scuffed up."
Our platoon was about half white, another third Hispanic, and the rest black. All classes (except rich kids), all ages (17-28), all parts of the country, from the Bronx to North Dakota to Southern California. Some smart kids, most who didn't have "school" but wanted it, some who'd gone there and dropped out for all the usual follies.
Plenty of them were looking forward to big salaries once they'd finished their years in green, learning computers or communications or whatever. The commercials aren't all lies, at least, not so far you can use this place to get someplace else. It's not a last resort. Yes, it's for trailer trash and teenage urban desperadoes, out of options and desperate for a job and some health insurance for families they'd started way too early. But it's also for 18-year-old troublemakers from Houston looking for a head start on a career as a chef, and for 20-year-old Peace Corps types looking for a way into a traveling brand of journalism.
Want to know what it's like to be in the Army? Try standing in one place, ramrod straight and perfectly still. If a mosquito bites you, don't slap it. If sweat rolls into your eye, don't wipe it away. And if you scratch your thigh, do 20 push-ups and jump back into position.
For a while, a few days maybe, that's incredibly difficult and, worse yet, incredibly ridiculous. You move just to move, not only because you get tired but because you're in this free country of ours, and ought to be allowed to. You'll stand still for no man. But then it begins to dawn, as it did on me Monday, in a warm sun in an unremarkable parking lot outside the Px. You stand still because at some point someone told you to, someone with power. But it's also because you can. You get hooked on the discipline the Big D, as it's known to us in-house cynics on the idea that you got an order, from the Army, and you're straighter and taller and tougher than the average schmuck back home on the block.
Pride enters into it, and you start to get good at it, and after nine weeks you can follow any order they give you, with a stone face and an inner glow, just because they said so and because the Big D sure will come in handy if you ever have to start shooting people. At least that's the plan, and the drill sergeants, more than anyone, seem to buy it with all their hearts.
The drill sergeants have one saying for pretty much all of this "Too easy." To which we are to gustily reply, "Too easy, drill sergeant," and when he walks by in his big-brim hat, a guy who's not only done all his asking but jumped out of airplanes besides, it really is difficult to tell him it's too hard. But that little saying is still a taunt. The time runs too long when it's theirs and much too short when it's yours (shine boots, clean locker, floss). Monday, they always promise you, it's going to get really tough. But it seems true that if you do what they tell you, when they tell you, and as many times as you possibly can without passing out, there's only so much they can do to you.
And you'll turn out to be a hell of a soldier.
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