The train of buses rolled through the main gate like young bulls in a squeeze-chute about to be de-horned and neutered. A wooden sign announced “Fort Bragg Home of the Airborne.” Smartly dressed soldiers manned the gate and watched the procession go by. Joe noticed one of them turn away and shake his head—a bad omen to Joe. Sweat dripped from his arm pits; it was 8:00 AM—another bad omen.
The eight busses pulled into a large parking lot. The drivers commenced a dance of sorts that ended with the busses perfectly aligned, eight abreast, in front of a large multi-floor brick building. A six foot border of neatly trimmed grass fronted the building to the left and right of the entrance. A 2’ by 10’ sign above the double doors identified it as “Reception Center – Fort Bragg.”
Joe laughed when a big black guy sitting next to him said, “Like we’d think it was Fort Knox’s reception center.”
“Hello, I’m Jefferson Lincoln Washington. Call me JL,” the black guy said.
“Hey man, I’m Joe Appleton. Nice to meet you. Where’re you from?” Joe asked
“Long Beach California. You heard of it?”
“Shit yeah man. I’m from Huntington Beach.”
“No shit? You play ball?”
“Football. Linebacker—Go Oilers.”
“Hot damn. I played tight-end for Long Beach Poly. I bet we busted heads once or twice.”
“Could be JL, but I thought you Jackrabbits always ran from trouble.”
“No way white boy. We just couldn’t hang on to your oily bodies so we had to run around your slippery dicks.”
Joe laughed. “Call me Joe.”
The budding friendship was nipped when the driver yelled, “Get out of my bus. I’ve got better things to do than watch your sorry asses sweat.”
Everyone milled around the front of the bus hanging on to their one piece of luggage like it was a lifesaver. Most guys carried gym bags or small carry-on bags, a few guys had grocery bags, but one guy carried a new Samsonite suitcase.
The guy wore polished dress shoes, black slacks and a white shirt and tie. A black and gray plaid sport coat hung over his shoulder as if he was Frank Sinatra. Joe nudged JL. “Pretty fancy dude. Huh.”
“My ten year old sister is bigger than that little bug. Hell, my six year old brother could blow him over. That boy ain’t never gonna make it. But, he’ll look good at the funeral. Maybe Sammy Davis Jr. will sing for him.”
“Are you laughing at me surfer boy?” Joe stopped laughing when he realized he was the target of the question. A tall, trim and very black man stood in front of the group. His Dudley Do-Right hat sat perfectly parallel to the ground above an impeccably pressed uniform. Everything in its place, even his perspiration stayed out of view.
“What did you say? I’m not sure I heard you clearly.”
“I said, No sir. Sir,” Joe said louder.
“You just called me sir three times in less than one minute bird-brain. I work for a living. I’m not a sir. You and the rest of your flock can call me Drill Sergeant, Sergeant Davis or Sergeant, but you better not call me sir again.”
“Did you hear me bird-brain?”
“Yes s…ergeant Davis.”
Sergeant Davis organized the group into four rows of ten. It took longer than he liked apparently, because he screamed finally when he was satisfied with the formation. Forty tired young men stared at Sgt. Davis and awaited the unknown. His forehead wrinkled as he glanced at his watch. Joe assumed a decision had been made, “Everyone, turn to your right,” Sgt. Davis said.
Samsonite and two others turned left, but quickly corrected themselves. The sergeant shook his head and told them to stay together and follow him. They didn’t enter the Reception Center as they’d expected but instead walked a few blocks to a little clapboard white building with a red roof. A row of painted white rocks formed a curb in front of the building. Sgt. Davis lined up the formation, four abreast behind the curb and sent the first four guys into the building.
JL whispered, “What’s happening?” Joe cautiously pointed to a diminutive red blue and white barber pole hanging by the door. A few minutes later, the guys exited the shop shorn of their locks. Sgt. Davis pointed to a grassy area nearby and told them to relax, smoke if they wanted to and to be quiet. Joe waited in line.
“Oscar, looky what’s I got here—a blond beach boy,” the barber said and held Joe’s tresses up with both hands like a lions’ main.
“James. You may be today’s winner with that one,” Oscar said as he carved a deep furrow through JL’s afro. “But, if I straightened these curls the decision could be in doubt.”
Joe and JL grabbed their bags with one hand and rubbed their heads with the other as they left the shop. They sat on the lawn and sighed in unison. Joe held out a pack of Marlboros to JL, “Want a smoke?”
“Nah, I choke on them things something terrible,” JL said. “My aunt Sadie…she’s a nurse. Anyway, she told me that if I smoked, my pretty pink lungs would become as black as my big ass. I don’t know why, but the image of my lungs looking like my ass turned me off to those things forever.”
Joe took a deep draw and blew out circles within circles of blue-gray smoke and said, “Good, more for me. Hey, with your afro gone and my hair buzzed, we kind of look alike, well not twins, but more alike than before.”
When the last four shaved heads exited the barber shop, Sgt. Davis lined the four up in the roadway and yelled, “Get off of my grass you maggots and form up on me.” A chorus of moans rose from the flock as they stood and stretched. “Get your butts in line behind these guys or you’ll never see your loved ones again.”
No one doubted him.
The group headed toward the Reception center and walked right past it. Two blocks later, Sgt. Davis halted them before a windowless single story brick building. Joe guessed it was 40’ by 40’ and couldn’t figure out why an AT&T bell sign hung by the only entrance.
“Alright maggots, this is your one and only opportunity to call your family and let them know you haven’t died yet. Line up here.”
Joe waited in line behind JL and thought about who to call. His folks had died when he was fourteen. His uncle Robert, who’d raised him until he graduated high school, was serving six months for petty theft so he wasn’t a candidate and he wouldn’t give a shit anyway. His head said to call Julie, but his sense of self-preservation said let it go for now, so he planned to call Paul at Claude’s Tool & Die.
Paul Brown, Claude’s son and now the business’ owner, had been a big booster for the Oilers football team. For reasons Joe never knew, Paul had taken a liking to him and had offered him a part-time job during his sophomore year. It had changed Joe’s life in many ways, not least of which was his being able to buy food when Uncle Robert was strung-out or in jail.
The guys at the shop had become his family in a way. Paul taught him the importance of keeping your word and doing your best. Big John, the shop lead, forced him to accept responsibility for his fuck-ups. John once said, “If you screw up and hide it, the die you made could kill babies on an airplane. If you admitted your fuck-up, you’d save those babies.” Even at eighteen, Joe had known Big John was being dramatic, but the lesson stuck just the same.
He looked forward to talking to Paul, but by the time Joe got to a phone, the heat and humidity in the building was oppressive. He fed quarters into the phone. Mary, the receptionist, answered, “May I help you?”
“This is Joe. Please get Paul.”
“Oh. Hi sweetie. How are you?”
“Hot. Please get Paul.”
“Hey, Joe what’s up?”
‘Hi Paul, I’m safe. Say hi to the guys. I’m sorry but I’ve got to hang up.”
Joe staggered out of the phone barn and collapsed on the lawn. His Levi’s darkened with sweat and his eyes stinging from salt laden perspiration. He glanced at his watch; it was 11:15 AM.
The line to eat wrapped half way around the building. Joe hadn’t eaten since a bag of peanuts the night before. The mess hall looked like a school cafeteria with four food lines. Grab a tray, move down the line, take what you’re given, don’t talk, hurry, hurry. He consumed the food as fast as he could, but it wasn’t Army fast—perfectly good mash potatoes joined soggy lima beans in a trashcan on his way out.
Reception Center seemed like a misnomer to Joe when medics started poking and prodding after the paperwork was done. It wasn’t as bad as his physical in L.A. a few months before, but it wasn’t fun either. He stood in line to use the toilet. He stood in line to get boots. He stood in line to get pants and shirts and underwear. The heavy canvas duffle bag he’d been given early on filled with his civilian clothes and military gear as the day wore on and it became quite heavy.
Samsonite had a hell of a time. He couldn’t force his suitcase into the duffle bag so he had to carry both of them. An officer noticed him dragging the bag and read him the riot act for abusing government property. From then on everyone carried the bag over their shoulders.
The recruit assembly line moved in spurts. It would stop suddenly for no apparent reason and then everyone would be jogging to catch up to the guy in front of them. During one of the stops Joe watched Samsonite sneak out of line and shove his suitcase into a janitorial closet. Gutsy, Joe thought.
Joe finally exited the Reception Center and joined dozens of other recruits sitting in a field behind the building, waiting for the next unknown. Forty minutes later the building stopped producing recruits.
“On your feet,” yelled a drill sergeant that Joe hadn’t seen before. Four other drill sergeants stood next to him. “Quiet down. I’m Senior Drill Sergeant Cocker these are Sergeants Bliss, Hanner, Tonga and Edwards.” Each stepped forward as their name was called. “They will be your platoon sergeants. We don’t have time to get your platoons squared away ‘cause we got to feed you and march you to the Company barracks so’s you can get some rack time. Therefore, I want you all to line up in front of me.” He pointed to JL. “What’s your name?”
“Jefferson Lincoln Washington, sergeant.”
“That’s senior drill sergeant, Washington. Stand in front of me.”
“Yes senior drill sergeant.”
“All righty then, I want you ladies to form up on Washington.”
Joe had no idea what Cocker wanted, but he was afraid to do nothing so he stood behind JL. The other recruits followed suit and stood behind him. Within a minute, the line grew until it encroached on a busy road. Cocker’s face turned so red his freckles disappeared.
“Stop. What are you pissants doing? Form up damn you.” Cocker shook so badly that Joe though he’d collapse. Cocker forced himself to calm down and turned toward Sergeant Bliss and said, “Bliss, take over here. I’ll make sure the mess hall is ready.” He didn’t wait for a reply and walked away.
At 8:00 PM Joe lay in the bottom bunk of a bed manufactured before he’d been born, on a dilapidated mattress. He didn’t care. He was fed, showered and dead tired, yet he had trouble sleeping. His mid bounced around from his parents to Julie then to Uncle Robert and eventually settled on a conversation he’d had with Big John before he left L.A.
‘You’re a good kid. You’ll do okay in basic, but I’ll give this advice. Keep a low profile, don’t volunteer for anything and keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t get on a DI’s radar. If you do, he’ll ride you like a mustang until he breaks you. I’ve seen it happen and another….’ Fatigue took over.
Bang! Bang! Bang! The crushing sound of galvanized trashcan lids being used as cymbals shattered Joe’s dream about Julie’s thighs. Groggy and unaware of his surroundings he rolled onto his back and said to no one in particular, “What time is it?”
He opened his eyes and stared into the bloodshot whites of another human being whose nose hovered a fraction of an inch from his own.
“I ain’t no fucking alarm clock! Get up!” Sgt. Tonga screamed.
Joe’s heart stopped for an instant then he jumped out of bed. He’d been in the Army for less than twenty-four hours and had learned another lesson. He belonged to the Army and he’d better get used to it.
To be continued.
© 2015 David P. Cantrell He is a contributing member of the EWI staff.
Basic Lessons of Life – # 1