Basic’s Lessons of Life – Number Four

latrineSweat seeped from every pore of Joe’s body. The sun hadn’t reached its zenith, yet the temperature was nearly ninety degrees. And, he had two more commodes to police.

It had taken two hours to please Tonga with their beds and footlockers. Tonga had picked random footlockers to inspect. Samsonite’s must have been perfect because Tonga appointed him platoon leader after looking at it and told him to move his gear to a two man billet across from his room.

Robert (Bubba) Roberson, from Alabama, stood proudly next to his footlocker. Tonga glanced under the lid and then picked up the locker and slammed it down so hard a hinge pin flew across the barracks and hit Samsonite’s pinky finger as he reached for his duffle bag. Samsonite emitted a Guinea pig squeal. The crime: socks should be folded, not rolled.

Policing the barracks came next. Policing meant something different in North Carolina than in California, or maybe it was the army, Joe wasn’t sure. But in his new world, police meant to clean or keep clean. Joe became the toilet policeman for the day.

Forty-odd men had paid homage to the six porcelain thrones since reveille some with less reverence than others. Joe scrubbed with a rust-stained bowl brush, a cellulose sponge, and copious amounts of cleanser. He finished the last commode, wiped his hands and stood to admire his work.

Tonga walked into the latrine, and Joe froze. The DI lifted each toilet seat, wiped its top and bottom with tissue and peered at the results. He wiped the underside of each porcelain rim and studied the tissue. Finally, he wiped the caulking around the base of each toilet. Joe stood by at attention waiting for the inevitable berating.

Tonga turned and looked at the name patch above Joe’s right pocket.

“Appleton!” he barked.

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”

“Fine job, recruit.” Tonga left. Joe beamed. The last time he’d felt so pleased with himself was when his hand had laid on Julies’ thigh for the first time.


Over the course of the morning, Tonga explained that the platoon consisted of four squads and that the bunk assignment determined which squad they were in. He also selected a recruit from each squad to be its leader. Joe was in the first squad, and JL was the squad leader. Joe didn’t know it at the time, but his squad would become more important to him than Julie and his uncle, or even Paul Brown.

Lunch was fried chicken, mashed potatoes with white gravy and succotash. Joe didn’t much care for the lima beans in the succotash, but he loved the chicken. Served two thighs and two legs, he’d have asked for seconds if allowed. After lunch, Tonga instructed the newly appointed squad leaders to take their men to the assembly area next to the barracks and wait for him.

Tonga arrived a few minutes later and ordered the four squad leaders to form a line in front of him. He told JL, as the first squad leader, to extend his left arm to his side and hold it parallel to the ground. The second squad leader aligned his right shoulder to JL’s extended fingertips and raised his left arm. The third and fourth squad leaders followed suit. The remaining recruits lined up behind their squad leaders, each of them one arm length behind the one in front of them and one arm length to the left of the man on their right except for the first squad.

“Platoon. Attention. You’re now in formation. Remember how to do it. When I order Fall In or Form Up this is what I expect.” Tonga said. He surveyed the group carefully. “You, the third man in the third squad. What’s your name?”

“Dalton McMasters, Drill Sergeant,” he said in an Alabama drawl.

“You’re not my friend, maggot. I don’t care what your first name is. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”

“McMasters, don’t lock your knees. Stand straight, but keep your knees slightly loose.”

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”

Tonga waited a moment before continuing. “Recruits have very small brains. If you lock your knees, the blood in your pea-brains becomes trapped in your ankles. Do you know what happens then?”

“No, Drill Sergeant,” chorused the platoon.

“You’ll faint faster than Fay Wray meeting King Kong for the first time.”

Several recruits laughed, including Joe. The laughter died quickly, but the damage was done, and everyone knew it. An evil smile formed on Tonga’s face.

“Some of you laughed at me, but not all of you. Therefore, I’ll be kind. Squad Leaders stay at attention. Everybody else, take two steps backward, drop and give me twenty pushups. Do it now!”

The men complied, but more than one mumbled, “Keep your mouth shut,” to someone that had laughed.

Tonga reassembled platoon and said, “This afternoon you’ll learn how little you know about marching called drill in the Army. Over the next several weeks you’ll learn to move as one, turn as one and halt as one.”

Tonga started with Mark Time, marching in place to Joe. He explained that every drill command contained two elements, the preparatory order, and an execution order. The preparatory order warned the recruits to listen up while the execution order told them what to do. The preparatory order took many forms the simplest ones merely identified the target for the execution order such as platoon or squad. Joe suspected Tonga was hard of hearing because he shouted every order.

“Platoon. Mark Time,” Tonga yelled. It took ten minutes to get everyone in step then he ordered, “Platoon. Halt.” And they did. Tonga looked pleased, but not for long. He never looked pleased for long.

Over the course of the afternoon, the platoon worked in squads and took turns learning various commands. A mistake by an individual resulted in a series of pushups performed by the entire squad. Usually, ten pushups satisfied Tonga’s sadistic needs, but now and then he demanded twenty.

The sun was well past noon, and the temperature had dropped to the mid-eighties.  The squads were practicing in-line marching, halting and executing an about-face when a thundershower blew through. Tonga must have expected it because he stood under the eaves of the barracks as the rain soaked the platoon. The shower ended minutes later, and the temperature quickly climbed back into the nineties. The drilling never stopped.

At 16:50 Tonga marched the platoon to the mess hall. He told them to hang-out in the assembly area after their dinner and that he’d join them there.


The guys milled around after their dinner of ham, mashed potatoes, and green beans, several men lit up cigarettes.

David Johnston and John Davidson from the third squad were called the New York brothers because of their accents and propensity to stick together, rubbed their cigarette butts into the ground. Bubba Roberson saw them.

“Y’all better pick them butts up, or Sarge’s gonna shit a brick. My Pa showed me how to field strip ‘em by pushing the cherry and the tobacco outta the paper and keeping the paper and filter in my pocket till I could throw ‘em away.” Roberson said in an Alabama drawl.

Johnston at 5’10” was nearly as tall as Roberson but outweighed him by at least fifty pounds. He got nose to nose with Roberson and said, “I couldn’t care less what your Pa showed you, hayseed. Stay out of my business.”

Roberson wasn’t intimidated by Johnston and clenched his fists in preparation for his next move. But his friend, McMasters, pulled him back from the brink when he said to the gathered crowd, “Some dogs gotta get castrated before they can learn a thing.”

Roberson stepped back and turned to his friend. “You’re right Donnie. Let’s see how this hunt ends.”

The deescalation disappointed a few observers, but not many, and soon everybody drifted back to their individual groups. The New York brothers received a wide berth.

Senior Drill Sergeant Cocker seemed to be in a hurry given his pace as he walked through the second platoon’s assembly area. He had almost cleared the area when he spun around like a fish caught on a hook. Cocker yelled, “Who left cigarette butts on my earth?”

Johnston and Davidson were the closest to the butts, but they didn’t speak up.  Joe looked at Samsonite, their supposed platoon leader. He was studying his boots. Joe realized things were going to get out of hand and said, “I did, Senior Drill Sergeant.”

“There are two butts here.”

“Yes, Senior Drill Sergeant.”

“Pick them up.”

“Yes, Senior Drill Sergeant.”

“Eat them. Then give me fifty.”

Joe gaped at the sergeant and considered refusing but thought better of it. “Yes, Senior Drill Sergeant.”

Joe made a big deal of chewing the butts but actually pushed the filters between his gums and cheeks. He dropped down and counted off each pushup.

Cocker watched Joe but kept glancing at his watch. When Joe grunted thirty-five, Cocker stopped him and said, “Get up maggot, you owe me fifteen more, but I can’t wait. You field-strip those butts next time. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Senior Drill Sergeant.”

Cocker hurried away. When he was out of sight, Joe spit the filters into his hand. A crowd formed around him but stayed quiet. Finally, JL asked, “Why’d you do that? They weren’t your butts.”

“Because Cocker would have gone ballistic if nobody spoke up,” Joe said.

JL shook his head and started to say something but stopped. He smiled and said, “You’re one crazy white boy.”


Joe lay in bed after lights-out at 21:00 and thought of home. Home, where Julie’s selfless love glowed in his mind and Big John’s support and Paul Brown’s wise counsel gave him strength. He clung to those thoughts, but tears welled in his eyes. The world he’d known was gone, replaced by a crazy one filled with evil people. He’d learned the meaning of homesick.

To Be Continued…

(c) 2016 David P. Cantrell is a contributor and staff member of EWI.

Want more? You’ll find links to previous episodes at the following site, Basic’s Lessons of Life Series



Author: David P. Cantrell

I'm a retired baby-boomer enjoying life.

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