One of my most frightening experiences occurred when, as a new Army recruit, I was marched off for Basic Training.
When I first arrived at Fort Knox, Kentucky, on a cold January day in 1965 all recruits were assigned to the Reception Station. We ate and slept there but no one knew our names. The NCO’s (non-commissioned officers, noncoms for short) in charge often asked for volunteers for clean-up or kitchen duty. If you didn’t look anyone in the eye, chances were pretty good you could avoid being selected.
After a few futile days, the reverie ended early on a frosty morning when “They” came to get us for Basic Combat Training, known as “boot camp!” No one had to ask. We knew “They” were Drill Instructors (DI’s) – well-trained specialists at introducing us to Army service to learn the tactics, techniques and traditions of becoming a soldier. Each DI looked the part: mean, impatient and serious-minded! The DI’s were dressed in clean, sharply-pressed uniforms with shiny helmets and boots, and impressive service stripes on their arms. From the first moment we saw them, we could tell “They” meant business!
We quickly were lined up in ranks and marched off into the unknown of the vast military post. Throughout the hike the DI’s barked commands and called us some rather unfaltering names. “I ain’t your mother,” they often repeated. “Your left, your left, your left, right, left!” they intoned ad nauseum to us tenderfoots.
To make the whole episode more unpleasant, “They” somehow arranged for a penetrating rain to begin. Eventually, we came to several wooden, supply buildings and were trooped inside one after another. First, our last names were stenciled on a large duffle bag. Then as we passed from one supply counter to the next, the noncoms reviewed us individually, literally sizing us up, and threw a variety of olive drab clothing at us. We seldom were asked our size, weight or height. They just guessed as fatigues, socks, boots, belts, underwear, jackets, helmets, caps and other Army gear came flying our way to stuff in our duffle bag.
Exhausted, we finally were halted outside a long, white barracks and were told rather emphatically, “This ain’t no dining hall! Eat and get out!” I was sort of amused at the remark because it looked and smelled like a dining hall to me, and I was hungry!
Suddenly, a voice out of nowhere yelled at me, “What are ya doin’ wearing that good field jacket, boy?” Then I noticed the other recruits had on older, frayed and faded field jackets. Mine was new and a deeper olive drab green. “You get in thar an eat and then git that field jacket off, do ya hear?” he bellowed.
I was petrified. I rushed into the “dining hall,” grabbed a tray and didn’t even look at what was dished-up to me. I sat down at a table with other silent strangers and tried to eat. But I was so nervous the food just wouldn’t go down. I chewed and chewed the meat, whatever it was, but I couldn’t swallow it. All the while that familiar voice kept yelling: “This ain’t no dining hall! Eat and get out!”
Anxious to put on the correct field jacket, my nerves finally got the best of me and I looked for a way out. But there was a DI standing next to the garbage can. If a trainee tried to turn in his tray with any food left on it, the DI rejected it and sent him back to finish his meal. So, I dumped my food under my table and headed for the DI.
As I returned my tray, he yelled, “Hey!” I froze. “Now here’s a recruit who finished his grub,” he shouted as he held up my empty tray for all to notice. But I could still see the steaming pile of my lunch beneath my table. I prayed the DI would not see it, as I beat feet for the exit.
I rushed to the sea of duffel bags now sitting in puddles. I opened the bag and frantically began searching for that so-called old field jacket. As I franticly looked through the gear, much of the contents spilled onto the rain-soaked sidewalk. The next thing I knew the recruits had returned and we were about to begin trudging off to our next destination.
That’s when I noticed the name on the bag I had been unsuccessfully searching through. It read: JOHNSON. O my gosh! Wrong bag! I spotted mine, opened it and miraculously there was the old field jacket right on top. Then I heard a DI’s voice shout:
“Johnson! What’s the contents of your bag doin’ in the water?”
“I don’t know, sir.” Johnson replied. “I think someone got into my stuff!”
“Who got into Johnson’s bag?” the DI roared.
I remained silent! “My apologies to Private Johnson, where ever you are!”
My wife doesn’t like me to tell that story, and rightfully so. It often gets a laugh but shouldn’t. What’s the worst thing that could have happened to me? Being yelled at some more? Maybe forced to help Private Johnson pick up his clothing or the DI allowing him to dump my gear on the wet sidewalk?
The fear I had that day was only temporary, but I still feel the regret. Author Robin Sharma wrote, “The fears we don’t face become our limits.” He added, “Know that the thing that is easiest to do is rarely the thing that is best to do.”