I arrived at boot camp on May 15, 1989. There were too many people to remember, mostly my father and his friends, who told me how to handle the Drill Instructors. Mostly, the advice I received was “let them scream at you. Look at their nose.. in one ear, out the other”. The advice was extremely helpful. We flew in from all over the country to Lawton Oklahoma, the town that hosts Ft. Sill. We were ushered into an old army barracks for chow and sleep. The following morning we brought our “one small carry on bag” to a commercial bus that would take us inside the gates of Ft. Sill. There were some cocky kids, some quiet kids, fat kids, skinny kids, all different ethnic backgrounds.. yet only one guy who caught my eye. A dark skinned Asian looking kid who looked old. He had a mullet. He was kind of standoffish and wouldn’t let anyone sit next to him on the bus. One big black kid, with a look of determination in his eye, pushed him gently over and sat next to him. I found the distraction helpful because my adrenaline was pumping so fast I couldn’t swallow. My hands were sweating and I was looking around for guys who looked like I felt…
We pulled up outside a small, tan colored, non descript one level building with soldiers standing in a row in front of it. Each soldier had a round brimmed, brown, hard wool felt hat on.. to me it resembled the hat that Ranger Smith wore in the Yogi Bear cartoons. Nobody told me anything about Ranger Smiths in the Army. Some kid in the back of the bus sternly advised us to not look those round hats in the eye… “they hate when you look them in the eye”. That turned out to be good advice.
As soon as the doors of the bus opened and the conditioned air from it poured out we began to feel the scorching Oklahoma heat. As I looked out at the round hats standing there in perfect formation I had the feeling I can only assume small rodents feel as they are about to walk into a small field of blood thirsty lions. I “eyeballed” one round hat through the sweaty window glass… he appeared to be drooling and smiling. As we exited the bus, one by one, we entered the loudest, fiercest arena of angry men I have ever witnessed. Screaming and spitting as they erupted commands from their thirsty mouths… none of which made sense. I followed the kid in front of me, who in turn, followed the kid in front of him.. a dumb philosophy as it turned out. We were soon surrounded by round hats telling us to stand in a single line, shoulder to shoulder. I thought to myself, “Gee guys. if you would slow down and talk clearly we would understand you better.” I am eternally grateful for my dads friend who told me never ever EVER correct a drill instructor. Keep all criticism to yourself. I watched kids cry, stutter, panic, trip… one kid tripped over his “one small carry on bag” seven times. Seven times. I will never forget that number. For the next 9 weeks the round hats refered to him as Private Seven.
The next several hours were a painful, exhausting, humiliating lesson in how to stand. I never thought about standing before.. I just kinda always stood up and expected my body to hold up my head. I never worried about my droopy shoulders … or the way my toes kind of point outward in a relaxed stance. Above all else.. I took for granted the placement of my hands. I mean.. they were just hands, before this day, for Pete’s sake. I used them as I needed. I never had to answer so many questions about my hands. As I tried to explain myself to the round hats I learned A LOT of other lessons. How to address them… how to speak.. how to stop talking and do push ups when I answered rhetorical questions. NO ONE ever asked me if my mother had square nipples before.. ive never seen my mothers nipples. “How the heck do I know what shape they are.. “. I have never regretted an answer so much as that answer to my mothers nipples shape.. before or since that day. I don’t expect I will for the rest of my life.
That first day was the longest day of my life. By nights end I was at what I now know to be called “muscle failure”. As we were given bunk assignments we were also assigned “battle buddies”. Your “battle buddy” is the other half of you. If one half fucks up.. both halves suffer consequences. If your battle buddy failed a test, you both failed the test. If your battle buddy couldn’t qualify with a rifle.. you were both “potatoes”. We would be sharing a bunk bed with our newly assigned battle buddy for the next 9 weeks … if we didn’t die first. However, as in all things with battle buddies, if one half of the battle buddy dies.. the other “better be fucking dead right next to him”. My new battle buddy’s name was Frank Lifang. The Asian guy with the mullet on the bus. Upon receiving news of this I experienced what is called “shrinkage”. I found that odd because we had no air conditioning in our barracks.