I walked into the Army office with my best friend, Ron. My recruiter promised us the world and even told us about how exciting it was in Germany. At this point in my life, Panama City, Florida was the farthest I had ever been from home. But Germany sounded like a great place. He locked our reservations in the system, gave us what sounded like a good army job and scheduled to pick us up in November. He was such a nice man. And he found us all sorts of benefits we didn’t know the army had. With our future committed, we set out to bid farewells to our friends and family.
Two doors down from the church I attended lived a sweet old lady named Mrs. Davis. She was almost ninety, but active as someone half her age. I often dropped by to visit her. Mrs. Davis always said the same thing, “If I had known you were coming, I’d have baked a pie.” The thought tempted me to call and pre-announce my visit. But I never did. She made the best apple turnovers I have eaten to this day. At the church dinners, everyone skipped the main courses and rushed to the desserts. Otherwise, you’d never get a taste of her pies.
I knew her for years, but I never heard her call me by name. I’m not sure she could remember it. She just referred to me as ‘her little boy’. Just before I left for the Army, I visited Mrs. Davis to say my goodbyes. We talked about all types of things, but especially about the topic of her Christmas Cactuses. She loved these plants, and being a plant lover myself, it made for good conversation. When I got up to leave, she put her hand on my forearm and patted it. “I want to tell you something,” she said in a serious tone. “You can go to Germany and have your fun, but don’t you go and marry one of them German girls. We have women in America who need husbands just as much.”
I laughed and assured her I wouldn’t be wife hunting in Germany.
As I reached the front door, she said, “I’m serious now. Don’t let me see you coming back with a German wife.”
After giving her a little reassurance, I left. It was the last time I saw Mrs. Davis. She passed away before I left the Army.
The weekend before leaving for basic training, we had one last game of football. Our games were rough. We’d gather twenty guys together and see who could take the most bruising before the game ended. The day after each game, I could hardly move, but somehow it still felt good. I guess I was a strange bird. But something happened this Saturday. I caught the ball and ran through a crowd of hungry tacklers. I saw an open area to my left, so I planted my foot and cut in that direction. My foot dug in, but the rest of me kept going right. Pain shot through my ankle and I was down for the count.
My ankle swelled like a grapefruit. I hobbled off the field and made my way home. Just great. I’m going into basic training in a week, and now I have a nasty sprained ankle. I iced it, but it was a good hour before I could do so. By then it was black and blue. I just knew my army life was going to be thwarted.
In November of 1986 I stepped into an Army in-processing center in Atlanta with my friend Ron. We first had to sign papers and then stand in front of a flag and swear an oath to serve to defend it. The very nice man who led us into the room had an instant change. His church-boy face grew sinister and his lips curled into an evil smile. He laughed as he rubbed his hands together and trotted to the door on his tiptoes. I looked at Ron and said, “That doesn’t look like a good sign.”
“Shut up, you dirt-bag!” the man shouted. “I’m now turning you over to Sergeant Killjoy.”
The next thing I knew, we were standing in a room with thirty other recruits. Some were quaking when we entered the room. Didn’t they know we were here out of our own free will? They should be thanking us for volunteering. But my thoughts were interrupted by a bullhorn-like voice calling us to attention. We were lined up to see a physician who looked for any signs of problems. He asked if we had any injuries that could affect us in basic training. I thought about my ankle, but then remembered how my recruiter warned me not to mention it until I got to Fort Jackson. I said, “No.”
The examination was a bit humiliating, and I wondered what type of person would want this job. This was the first time I heard the words, “Turn your head and cough.” Never mind what happened next. After the cattle inspection, we were marched to a bus. Somehow we ended up with a green duffle bag, which we had to label with our name and put in a compartment under the bus.
A sergeant in fatigues spoke soothing words to us as we rode the three hour drive to Ft. Jackson. Words like, “You ain’t with yore momma now. You ain’t a civilian now. You ain’t even a soldier. Yore a trainee. Trainee. A trainee is a wannabe. But we’re gonna whip you into shape. Either that, or we’re gonna whip yore…” well, you get the picture.
He made a special point of telling us about the shots. The army loves to give shots. Lots of shots. Big shots. Painful shots. According to this guy, we wouldn’t be able to lift our arms up after tomorrow. But they were still going to dog us out with pushups, running, and other forms of torture. I looked at Ron. He had a thousand-yard stare in his eyes. “Our recruiter made this sound easy.”
“Shuttup, Trainee!” the drill sergeant bellowed. “No one told you to talk. You’re a trainee now. You speak when spoken to. The only words I want to hear out of you is, ‘Yes Drill Sergeant.’ You hear me?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant,” I muttered.
“I can’t hear you,” he screamed.
Well now. This wasn’t quite what I expected. I had to answer him with a little gusto. Apparently, drill instructors have hearing loss.
When the bus stopped, a new drill instructor stepped on. He made our tour guide seem friendly. This guy was screaming before he hit the bottom step of the bus. He was screaming, “Get off the bus! You should have already been off by now. This ain’t no vacation trip. Get moving! Move it! Move it!”
It looked like a fox had burst into a hen house. Recruits were scattering like endangered hens. Our bags were already laid out and voices were screaming for us to grab one. It didn’t matter whose name, just grab one and run. Afterwards they yelled at us for not grabbing the right ones. They yelled at us for moving too slow, then they yelled at us for moving.
At last, a moment of peace arrived and we stood in formation waiting for the drill sergeant to return. I whispered to Ron that it seemed bad, but my theory was that they didn’t want us to quit right off the bat, so once we settled in, things would be more routine. I always had a theory. I was always wrong, as you will see. I had one slight oversight. My theories involved logic. None of this was based on logic.
By this time it was well after dark and we were marched to temporary housing. After getting the bedding for our bunks, it was well after midnight and I was ready for a rest. Before bed, they said we were going to have a party. It was called a GI party.
A party? At midnight? I looked at Ron and gave him a ‘see I told you’ look. But what is a GI Party? Within a few minutes someone arrived and dumped a container full of scrub brushes, mops, powdered cleaner, and other fun items. It was party time! Before we could sleep, we had to scrub the entire barracks down, polish the floors, and pass inspection. Each time we thought we were finished, a drill would find something wrong, yell at us, and tell us to do it right.
Two hours later, the drill tired of the game and told us to line up for a pill. A medic arrived, gave us a pill, and we were instructed to take it. They wouldn’t tell us what it was, but they made sure we took it before letting the next trainee step forward.
When the doping up was done, we were sent to make up our bunks and prepare for lights out. Guys were sharing their theories of what we had been given and what it does. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that no theory was pleasant. It was amazing how many guys had inside knowledge and knew what it was, yet none of their stories agreed.
Not to worry. Tomorrow is the in-processing at Ft. Jackson. What could be more fun? I theorized that this all-day event would be a break from the stress. How much harassment could they do while trying to process hundreds of guys through dozens of lines? Creating unnecessary chaos would slow them down. Surely they don’t want to interfere with in-processing. The clock showed just after 2am. I hope they don’t wake us up too early.
Eddie Snipes 2012
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