While we are on the subject of Basic Training, I’ll share one of the more interesting training events. Not that being gassed wasn’t interesting.
One of the main focuses of basic training was learning to use the rifle. Never, under any circumstances were you to call your weapon a gun. Weapon – okay. Rifle – okay. Gun – prepare for pain. The first order of business was to learn how to take it apart, clean it, and get it back together. I knew we were in trouble when the drill walked in with a stop watch. He announced that by the end of the next day, we had to break the rifle down, get our work inspected, and then put it back together. Each part had a thirty second time limit. We had 1 minute to accomplish this feat.
“When you’re in combat,” the drill sergeant began while parading in front of us, “you’ll need to be fast.” I could almost hear music in the distance as he paced by with one hand at his back and the other extended like the great orator he had become. “When the enemy is shooting at you, you won’t have time to leisurely put your rifle together – like you’re playing jigsaw puzzles with grandma. You’ve got to be fast.”
I guess snatching your foxhole buddy’s rifle away from him wasn’t the more desirable technique. He was about to show us how easy the 1-minute disassembly-reassembly could be. The drill waltzed to a table where the M-16 autopsy was about to take place. The only slow part was when he checked the chamber to make sure it was empty. He made a point of emphasizing this important step. “You DO NOT want to shoot your buddy.” I had to agree with him on that one. You could lose a lot of friends that way. Once sure the gun- oops! I mean rifle was empty, he laid it down. A series of clinking and clanking sounds emitted from the operation, and about 15 seconds later, he stepped back from the table and placed both hands behind his back.
“By the time I’m through with you, I expect you to make me look slow.” He stepped forward again, and there was a few clinks and in another 15 seconds, the rifle was restored. We blinked in disbelief. We only had two days to learn this magic trick? You know, it’s amazing what sixteen hours of practice in two days can do. On the second day, any who felt they could meet the sixty second test lined up before the stopwatch of despair. Some folks took several tries, but we all made it through to the next part. It was time to learn to shoot.
“Squeeze, don’t pull,” the instructor barked. “You should be surprised when the trigger clicks.” To test our steadiness, they balanced a penny on the barrel. If it fell, he accused you of pulling. There were many other steps along the way, but one thing always emphasized was to put the rifle on safe, pull back the charging handle, and verify it was clear. Even though we had never even seen a bullet, we had to always follow this process for everything. This made my next story all the more interesting.
At last the day came when we stepped onto the firing range. We were all anxious to shoot some targets. They gave a few demonstrations to show the power of the round and what it can do, and the gentleness of the rifle for those afraid of the kick. The M16 is an amazing work of engineering. The recoil system is so effective that I’ve fired small weapons with more kick.
Once we reached the firing line, safety was again the most emphasized part. It took about thirty steps from the time we received our magazine of ammo until we pulled the trigger. We placed it on safety, pulled the charging handle back, locked it in place, and the drill checked every person’s weapon. Then they distributed the ammo, checked everyone’s weapons, and on and on the process went. I’ll spare you those details.
After about 15 safety checks, the drill in the tower said, “Now take your first thirty round magazine–”
The world froze. A shot had rang out and we haven’t even picked up the ammo yet. We were still ten safety checks away from releasing the charging handle to chamber our first round.
To my left, Private Melso was looking around innocently. Let me digress for a moment. Melso was a tall man. He stood about nine inches higher than the next tallest person in our platoon. Melso could not resist looking around. When we were at attention, the rule was, head forward, eyes straight ahead. But Melso couldn’t resist sight-seeing. To make matters worse, his head always bobbed when he looked from side to side. It was like a neon sign beaconing for attention. Almost every day the drill was on him. “What’re you looking around for!” the drill would scream. Either he or all of us with him, were getting dogged out because he broke formation.
Now on the range, I could see his head bobbing suspiciously. Melso had become impatient with all the delays and boring safety checks and decided to speed up his training. The shocked look on the drill’s faces caused him to realize that this might have been a mistake. He now looked at the guy on his left as if to say, “Was that you?” Then to the right as if to say, “Did anyone notice?”
Yes, that bang was noticed. And it had not escaped any of the drill sergeants’ attention. And for a brief moment, the world froze into silence. Then the stillness shattered like glass.
“Get that *blankety blank* trainee off my range!” the voice from the tower boomed. In a flash, angry hands were lurching toward Melso. The drill kicked his rifle away, grabbed the back of his collar, and dragged him off. I watched two divots from his heels cut a path across the range and around the corner. We were sure we’d seen the last of poor Melso.
That evening we were surprised to see Melso walk through the barracks door. He wouldn’t say what punishment he received, but he began to get chapped hands and often had the smell of dish soap.
Eddie Snipes – 2013