It’s January and it’s cold. In certain parts of the world this past week would be considered “blue ass cold.” As a general rule I have grown past the enjoyment of extreme swings of temperature in either direction. An hour out building a snowman is all fine and well, as long as I have hot chocolate as a reward later. I have matured to the point that I not only enjoy but require a core body temperature and do my best to maintain one.
So when my hands seem frozen to my car handle, or my nose drips for hours after coming back indoors, my mind wanders back to that lovely winter in which my fate was not my own and I was truly cold. The winter of Basic Training or as I sometimes called it, where hell had truly frozen over.
Any worthwhile has a hook, and for mine it was the actual trip to basic training. So sit back, relax, and laugh, knowing that things could be worse – you could have been me.
I left home on the 3rd of January. A brand new duffle bag packed with brand new pajamas and beautiful stationary. My mom drove me as far as Big Stone Gap, at which point I was handed off to my recruiter, with whom I completed the trip to Knoxville in a soft top jeep. I was cold. I sat huddled in my lined gloves and heavy wool coat just wanting to be at the hotel and away from the cold.
The next morning started at 4 am with an unpleasant banging on the hotel door. At 4:30 we were shuffled through the lobby like cattle, or like soldiers (it’s relatively the same) and onto an unheated, and probably for insurance purposes totaled, school bus. Then we were shuffled through an unheated Waffle House across the street to eat unseasoned potatoes served by a waitress that is the very reason there are negative stereotypes about Waffle House waitresses. The cook was so obese and greasy that it made the food nearly impossible to eat, but only nearly. The place was completely filled with people in my exact situation, or maybe worse because they had spent the night drinking their fill of four months of liquor, except one booth. It was a group of directionless youth, who had obviously not yet retired for the night. They were a bit loud, a bit restless and openly disrespectful. They looked like home. In my head I made a quick list of all the fates that could befall me in their hands, rape, murder, a week living on beer and cereal. It didn’t seem so bad. But before I could slide into their booth and ask for help the barking started again and I fell into line, pulled by some invisible chain.
The actual Army facility, which is called MEPS but I forget why, was warm. The chairs however were designed to make you uncomfortable and you were dared to be caught with you head against the wall. Some of those in particular pain had their day end early, seems if you are legally drunk the military doesn’t like to put you on an airplane. I am not sure if this is actually an effective deterrent to stop pre-deployment drinking. One guy was hysterical because he was underweight. I however seemed to meet all the necessary height/weight/sobriety standards. Shortly after lunch, which was a sandwich that was tossed to me and the others by a disgruntled woman in civilian clothes, a group of us were assembled in a small classroom. A sergeant explained that we were lucky enough to be going to Fort Leonard Wood and handed out our tickets. He then unceremoniously disappeared, lest we have questions he would be able to answer. Soon we were dumped out on the curb just long enough to get cold and hungry and a new level of tired. One of the guys in the group was from Knoxville and his family had been waiting outside to take pictures. Among the group was his 5 year old son. When the bus from the airport finally arrived everyone was thrilled, except that poor guy. All 20 of the family members burst into tears, and the little boy became hysterical. When the last of the bags were backed the grandfather had to actually physically remove the child and then push his son into the van. Before the door was even closed we were off.
Perhaps because I was so mesmerized/terrorized by the family tragedy I had just witnessed I had not paid proper attention to our driver. He had side burns that were Sasquatch thick, in a failed attempt to cover his acne. The acne could very well have been caused by the liter of cheap cologne that he was wearing, another failed attempt on his behalf in the hygiene department. The only smell able to conquer the High Karate was that of pungent body odor. The two combined together in the confined space of the van and the heat on full blast made me three shots of rum followed by a bottle of wine and Gumby’s pizza nauseous.
Meanwhile the poor dad picked his head up from his lap long enough to tell me that it was his birthday before collapsing back into tears. I thought to myself, choking vomit back down my throat, this can’t get any worse, but of course . . .
That was when we hit the interstate. As we descended off the exit ramp and merged into to traffic the driver reached over and turned on the Oldies station up to a deafening level. He then placed his foot on the gas and applied pressure until the pedal touched the floor. We were careening along the edge of Knoxville, death bound for sure, with The Lion Sleeps Tonight blasting loud enough for the entire city to hear. I looked back over at the grieving dad next to me. With his head in his hands, slouched over to rest between his knees. Under different circumstances it would have been the saddest pose in the world, but at that moment it looked like the only way to survive. I dropped my head and braced for impact.
Somehow we made it to the airport alive, dropped off at the door with but another golden opportunity to fly in some other direction than Fort Leonard Wood. I was tempted, it was becoming more and more obvious that the Army was not going to be a natural fit, still I was here so why the hell not. Besides it couldn’t really get any worse. . . and of course I was wrong. Though, then again, I wasn’t. Sure I would spend the next 3 months freezing followed by a week of thunderstorms to spend the next month roasting. I would learn lots of new vocabulary, most which described how worthless I was as both a person and a soldier. I would find a host of things in which I did not only struggle with, but some of which I will never be able to wrap my head around. Still I was no longer in the van and no matter how those big angry drill sergeants screamed and threatened me, none scared me half as much as the pox faced Eastern European that drove me to the airport.