Remembering Boot Camp
by Charles C. Cole
At boot camp, known as basic training in the Air Force, I was a dedicated squad leader. After dropping out of college, I immediately chose the military, maybe not as a career, but as an opportunity to be part of a greater cause.
I was committed to making it work, to following all the rules, cutting my long hair and beard, remaining enthusiastic and avoiding cynicism (a knee-jerk reaction by libertarian civilians when awash in a sea of patriotic uniforms). I folded my underwear in 6-inch squares. I wore shower shoes in the common bathroom. I stamped the last 4 digits of my social security number on my waist band.
I also kept a little black book of all the infractions I noticed by the others, in case it should ever be needed and they knew I took it seriously. In response, they called me “the colonel,” or “Wally,” because he was our Vice-President at the time.
One of the guys, a harmless goofball, was transferred out of our unit for a “do over,” sacrificed by the T.I. (Training Instructor) to instill discipline into the rest of us; not my idea, but I had evidence to support it.
“This isn’t the real military,” someone said. “You don’t have to take it so seriously. They’re just messing with us.”
“You just have to keep your head down for eight weeks,” somebody else responded. “My brother said don’t make eye contact and don’t volunteer. I’m not staying longer than I have to.”
One Sunday afternoon, after days of constant structure, we were unwinding with down time. Some went off to see a movie. Some of us stayed in the barracks, writing letters, listening to music, folding laundry. When empty, our beds were always made with tight hospital corners “so that you can bounce a quarter on them,” and we weren’t allowed to sit on them until it was time to turn in.
One of my guys, Scott, opened his locker to get something and discovered a mess. One of the other squad leaders, Carmine, cracked up. He high-fived Tim, the guy closest to him.
“You did that?” I asked.
“It’s a joke,” he said.
Scott was the runt of the litter, a guy who inherently needed protection.
“Uncool,” someone said behind me.
Scott was close to crying. He was a good guy, no trouble, just a little slower.
“Carmine,” I said, “why do you have to be such a son of a bitch?”
Scott started to make a pile of loose clothes on his bed, to start refolding. To do otherwise, he would surely get a dreaded demerit from Sergeant Pascuzzi. He never looked over at Carmine. With the flat of his hand, Carmine started bouncing the bed springs. Some underwear fell to the tile floor.
“That’s enough,” I said. “Or I’ll be going to the T.I. in the morning.”
“It’s just a game,” said Carmine, “like chess is to you nerd types.”
“I know your mother’s poor,” I said, “but I’ll bet she still managed to raise you to do the right thing.”
Tim whispered to Carmine. “What did you call my mother?” Carmine asked.
“Why?” I asked. “What did you think I called her? I said she’s poor.”
“Before that,” he said, “you called her a dog or something.” He stepped toward me, chest-first.
“Time to de-escalate, man,” I said. “Disengage, do you hear me?”
“You called my mother the B-word,” he said. “I heard you. Everyone did.”
“It’s an expression,” I said. “I wasn’t slamming your mother.”
“I’m going to get even,” he said, “I’m just telling you. Not now, but I’ll find you when you least expect it. I’m a Catholic and we don’t lie.”
“Lighten up, Carmine,” someone called out.
Our last night before being shipped out to technical training, there was a rumor that I was scheduled for a blanket party, when the guys cover your face and take turns throwing punches. Another rumor, more likely, was I’d wake up to shaving cream in my boots. I hinted loudly, in the only defense I had, that I was a light sleeper. Nothing happened.
With the Internet and various people-finding websites, sometimes I wonder if Carmine will one day show up at my door, filled with simmering righteous indignation. Does anybody else recall the grudge and fateful revenge from the movie Slaughterhouse Five?
Carmine, if you’re out there reviewing your life’s to-do list and my name is on it, please know that I never meant any disrespect toward your mother. And to the others, who thought I took boot camp too seriously, I just want to say I listened: I finally threw away my little black book. What happens at basic training stays at basic training. Right?
Copyright © 2013 by Charles C. Cole