The torment, suffering, misery and pain of basic training subsided after the first few weeks, replaced by a maturing sense of camaraderie.
An old saw has it that soldiers don’t die for their country, but for each other. After my brief immersion with my brothers, I have no doubt in the veracity of that maxim. It’s simply astounding how quickly a group of young men of vastly differing abilities, backgrounds, ethnicities and social classes, not to mention religious and political traditions, can bond when facing a common enemy.
Up on the hill the enemy was called drill sergeants.
Until you’re completely subject to their authority, their interpretations of their mandates, and their unique prejudices, until you endure the full force of their highly refined, 24/7 combo of physical and psychic conditioning to metamorphose a bunch of ordinary Joes into fearsome warriors, it’s excusable to debate or even doubt this thesis. But after an intense immersion in their methodologies, you get an insight into why a soldier would charge a machine gun or confront such other destructive inventions in battle.
It’s not that they’re psycho or wacko or fruitcakes. They’re simply protecting, or revenging, their brothers caught in the same web of war that’s entangled them all since the dawn of time. It really comes down to that.
And it’s bloody amazing how quick you can get tight with guys you’d had nothing in common with just a few weeks earlier! Even after half a century I can remember so many of them so well.
I can recall lying on my back chatting with a close buddy early one evening. He was a Mexican field worker.
The setting around us was unusual to say the least. We were hidden by darkness and high bunkers. We reclined on our spines in full battle gear under a grid of barbed wire. M-16 rifles lay at our sides and our backpacks served as pillows. We chatted and watched tracer bullets fly overhead, creating an incredible burlesque of slender, red streaks as if handfuls of sparks were dropped from on high scattered across a sable sky.
While we talked of this and that, we witnessed all around us shadows of our colleagues slithering past us. They crawled flat on their stomachs, rifles cradled in their elbows which they dug alternately into the earth for forward propulsion, assisted by pushes from legs splayed and toes digging-in like giant frogs swimming through a dark pond.
And they were, each of them and all them in a REAL BIG HURRY! They didn’t even take a split second to behold the beauty of it all … the truly glorious scene it was!
Why even the soundtrack had a symphonic majesty to it … the piercing firecracker-pops of the machine guns, the deafening explosions of TNT, the whistle of bullets whizzing by, the grunts and howls of our comrades struggling to crawl faster and faster prodded by screaming sergeants who kneeled at both ends of the diabolical obstacle course pushing men into it at one end and retrieving them from it at the other, all the while bellowing oaths, orders and profanities at the tops of their lungs.
Overwhelming! Fabulous! Like the grand finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on steroids!
Not only did our slithering comrades forgo their ringside seat for all of this Fourth of July style glitter, they hadn’t THOUGHT the thing through! By this point in our training, experience should have taught them this one true thing … the end of one exercise is but the beginning of another … the treadmill never stops!
So take it easy! RELAX! Lay back and wait … wait ’til it’s time for the sergeants to go home. They won’t have one blessed thing for you to do then. Not one! Guaranteed! Do you honestly think the brutes would forego dinner and a cold beer just to hassle you?
Figuring out the sergeants’ agendas as a strategy always seemed to work. However I didn’t care to blab about it, for if the others caught on, its effectiveness would have rapidly diminished! So I kept mum, though I’d occasionally plot with a pal or two on a situational need-to-know basis … after all it’s always nice to be nice to friends!
It was about this time when I began to notice a somewhat troubling personal transformation. I’d started to feel something like pride metastasizing inside of me.
I felt it sneaking up on me when, weighed down by full battle dress, I’d run miles to stadiums where I’d learn to kill targets at rifle ranges, throw live grenades without jeopardizing the lives of my fellow soldiers, or how to slice the throats of enemy sentries and an amazing variety of other vital survival skills.
I felt the pride sneaking up on me when we’d double-time back to our barracks in the low sun of a late afternoon. Our boots, marching in lockstep, would strike the asphalt booming like legions of kettle drums while we chanted cadences older than our fathers that echoed off building walls and down the streets of Fort Ord.
I felt it when I was covered with sweat and encrusted by dirt. I felt it when, running for miles with forty pounds on my back, rifle slung over my shoulder, tin pot strapped on my head, I’d find myself watching the scenery move by me as effortlessly as if I had been standing on an escalator.
There was no mistaking it! I was definitely starting to take pride in my plight!
Even as a beatnik wannabe I could feel that pride swelling within. And that’s when I discovered how good being super fit felt; I knew that I could persevere the worst the army could throw at me.
And that’s when I felt something too, something called honor, the honor of being part of a ragtag bunch of grunts who’d become as close as brothers almost overnight.
Well, not quite all of us. Some hadn’t converted yet. Our NFL-sized Platoon Leader from the bad streets of Oakland was one notable holdout. Something really needed to be done about him and that lingering sense of doom we all felt whenever his huge frame rumbled through the barracks. He’d walk by us to his private quarters at the far end of our long open room filled with double bunks and footlockers, with a frown on his face laced with so many scars it looked like a crossword puzzle template.
There was no doubt about it! Something really did need to be done about him!
Coming next! How I Won The Cold War, Part 3 … POT LUCK, WEEKEND WARRIORS AND ARACHNOPHOBIA
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