Finally, I was getting my ordeal. I'd done something very painful to my shoulder while getting rag-doll tossed around the unarmed-combat sand pit, and just two days later I was off to Victory Forge, the three-day camping-and-nerve-gas excursion that was to be the soaring climax of all our training. I was medically on the sly – one bad X ray and I'd be yanked out of training and tossed into physical therapy purgatory, never to be seen again – yet there was still the matter of performing up to par out in the woods, officially healthy and expected to act like it. Get a no-go, I was told, and I could forget graduation, forget making it to my next training stop on time, forget getting back to my civilian life in time for anyone to remember my face. Failure was suddenly an option I was unable to rule out – not when I couldn't get my right hand to saluting height – and for the first time in Basic Training I called home with fear in my voice.
My drill sergeants hid their concern for my well-being extremely well. Part of their job description is obviously to never, ever encourage excuses in their soldiers, and though I had not earned any reputation as a whiner, there was admittedly no reason that an exception should be made for me. Aside from being duly taken at my word that punitive push-ups, alas, were impossible until further notice, I quickly guessed that self-pity was the only kind I was going to get. Of course it was a character-builder and all that, but you know what? Even John Wayne had a camera to grimace for. Realstoicism is tougher than you think.
But my frozen shoulder and my limping ego and I got together and gutted it out. I adrenaline-rushed it over obstacle-course walls, one-handed my way across the two- rope bridge, and even survived a bruising turn as a faux leg-wound casualty who needed to be carried back to base camp by his fellow privates. (FYI: If you lie on the ground long enough in the South Carolina woods, pretending to be wounded, real buzzards will circle overhead.) I low-crawled 100 yards under barbed wire and live fire, dragging the dead arm forward with the live one nine inches at a time, and just about cried afterward from the pain. And I sat there filling sandbags while a buddy dug our grave-sized foxhole all by himself, hearing over and over how I'd really like to help but couldn't lift a shovel.
Perhaps the worst thing about this Basic, this supposed proving ground, is how easy it is to coast through; this time it worked in my favor. Yes, I did the 16 miles of road marches (our rucksacks run about 25 pounds) in sporadic agony; yes, I made it home. So did everyone else. Our three days of simulated Balkan peacekeeping were lots of fun and breathtakingly scenic, but they weren't that well organized and they weren't that tough. My wounded wing was the best part of it, because I got to feel like a shot-up hero while everybody else yawned and wrapped blisters. By the time we got back the barracks, I was fantasizing about spraining my ankle so I'd have another story to tell. I finally got to the hospital – it turned out to be a separated joint and possible collarbone fracture. I'm out of the push-up game for awhile, but I'll graduate on time, and after all that build-up I was glad it was a little serious. You know, I think the drill sergeants are actually impressed with me – they're just hiding it really well.
He's in the Army Now. Well, Almost...
Sgt. Bilko Was Much More Fun Than These Guys
Hey! These Sweat Suits Aren't Camouflaged!
Yes, Sergeant — It Is Night and I Am Jogging
These Boots Weren't Made for Marching
Learning to Swallow the Big D — Discipline
Just in Case You Run Out of Bullets...
When Private Is the Last Thing You Can Be
Ah, the Smell of Tear Gas in the Morning...
Wrestling — a Little — With My Conscience
Sorry, Sergeant, But I Backslid a Little...
Learning a Soldier's Core Competency: How to Kill
No $500 Toilet Seats at This Old Boot Camp
Preparing to Get the Boot From Boot Camp