You are on a bus. It is the middle of the night. You have been awake for twenty hours, and as the bus pulls through a gate guarded by men with machine guns and faces hidden by the shadows from their strangely shaped caps, you see a bizarre line of buildings that appear to have been built upside down. Their ground floor is about half the area of the three upper floors, making it look like a layer cake dropped on its top - a cake made of pale brick with pill-box windows placed high up on the walls. Spotlighting from the ground gives it all an eerie, alien illumination. This will be your home for two months.
The bus pulls up in front of a modular trailer, and you are shuffled off, along with the other riders. You have an envelope with six names on it. The other five people gather loosely around you; strangers who have been told to stay with you because you hold their identities. You are all herded into lines, which slowly file into the short, narrow building full of uniformed men with bulldog faces, bristly haircuts, and a walk that speaks of violence. They don't look at your faces, and if you make eye contact, they will react as if you have physically challenged them. They constantly shout or sneer because you have failed to do something expected of you, or you have done something wrong.
It's as if you are incapable of doing anything right. You stand wrong, you sit wrong, you get up when you are supposed to sit - and don't even think about leaning against a wall or on a table. You try a sheepish grin, hoping for someone to say, "It's alright... just do this." Instead, the person at the desk - Holy Cats, is that supposed to be a woman? - bellows at you: "Are you LAUGHING at me? Get your meat handlers off my desk!"
After another eternity of hurried waiting - going on hour twenty-two - you are herded once again outside. You move in an amorphous mob, like an amoeba with scuffed sneakers and slept-in hair, sheepdogs in camouflage and smokey-the-bear hats nipping at your heels. "Keep moving!" "Hurry UP!" "That way, that way, that way! Did your mother have any children that lived?" Their voices are ice, and their words are chipped stone. Hard, cold edges welcoming you to your new life.
They are ushering your group toward the upside down buildings, cutting out smaller groups and lining them up on the asphalt pads under the overhanging ceilings. Someone barks a number, and it matches the number printed on a card in your hand, so you follow the barking and line up with 49 other dazed sheep in jeans and various T-shirts. Now they start the games.
"Pick up your bags! NO! Not fast enough! Put 'em down! Now, all at the SAME TIME... Pick 'em up...NO!"
"Stand at attention! Do you know HOW to stand at attention? YOU CALL ME 'SIR'! Everything you say will begin with 'Sir'! Sir, yes, SIR! Sir, no, SIR!"
"What does your shirt say? SHUTTUP! I can read! 'Co-ed Naked Firefighter; Find 'Em Hot and Leave 'Em Wet?'... What is THAT supposed to mean?"
Three of them gather around the guy with the Co-ed Naked Shirt. They pepper him with questions, and you stare straight ahead, thanking any god up at this hour that you wore a plain, solid blue shirt today. Yesterday. Whatever. The other guy is flustered, which is the point of this exercise, but he keeps his bearing. He stays at attention, and doesn't look any of them in the eye; they hate that. Unfortunately, he claims not to know what his shirt "means." Why did he wear it? He is slow to answer, and they harangue him.
"Why would you wear a shirt when you don't know what it means?" "Are you dumb? Can't you read it?" "Why would you buy a shirt you can't read? Why would anyone buy a shirt like that?"
"PEER PRESSURE, SIR!"
There is a hanging silence as they all stop yelling, and try to stifle a laugh. He has scored a small point, but one of your fellow newbies fails to hold back a snort, and they are on him like hyenas on a sick zebra. "What are YOU laughing at? Who gave you that haircut? You didn't PAY for that, did you?"
It surprises people when I tell them that I didn't speak for 17 days. I answered questions, and I called cadence. I spoke when spoken to, and gave my reporting statement when required. "Sir, Airman Blogs reports as ordered." They called that the Six Little Words. They made us write it on a slip of paper and repeat it about a thousand times the first morning. For most of us, the boredom was just another test; one of the ongoing mind games, the point usually being to teach us Self-Discipline and Attention to Detail. But, there were still guys that didn't get it.
"Airman Reams reporting as ordered, Sir!"
"WRONG!! Reams, do it again!"
"Sir," Reams flustered, "Airman Reams reporting as ordered!"
"NO! Are you working for a newspaper? No 'reporting'! Do it again!"
"I don't know what you want!" wailed Reams.
"GODDAMMIT, REAMS! YOU CALL ME 'SIR'!!"
No, I didn't speak for 17 days. That was how long it took for them to decide to get rid of Reams.
The Six Little Words weren't the only words Reams had trouble with. He was constantly drawing fire for making dumb little mistakes, and when they came after him, his eyes rolled in his head, and he wailed like a whipped dog. He was nervous all the time, always casting paranoid looks at the rest of us. We tried to help him, but he seemed to blame us for watching his disgrace, and he reacted with defensiveness and suspicion. It was like trying to free a dog with a paw caught in a chain-link fence; he snaps at you and won't let you near him, and whines because you won't set him loose.
He wasn't entirely a victim. They gave him every chance to get with it. I heard the sergeant pull him aside and talk to him in the Calm Voice - the voice of an actual human coming from someone in authority almost brought me to tears as he explained to Reams, "We aren't trying to hurt you. We're putting you under stress so you can learn to function as if you were in combat. You need to learn to take orders and do your job no matter what. We have to be sure you won't fold under pressure. You haven't shown me that you get it, yet."
It was nothing we hadn't been told before; they made no effort to conceal the fact that this was one long, grinding mind game. Marines have to be tough, so they run. The Army has to be combat ready, so they yell "hoo-ah" a lot. Navy guys have to deal with ship-life, so they are taught to swim. We in the Air Force were mostly headed for "behind the lines" duty; administrative support, medical, intelligence, even flight line is well back from the "front" in modern warfare. They wanted to pick at us, needle us, erode our patience, just so they could be sure we weren't going to go nuts someday and kill everyone in our office over some small thing.
We had it better than the other branches of service, and we knew it; but we all needed some basic training in dealing with authority and working under pressure, and that was what they were giving us. (Not to mention some valuable lessons in hygiene and living among other people, which some needed more than others!) Everyone seemed to understand that. Except for Reams.
It was as if he refused to understand what he was supposed to be doing. He wouldn't talk to anyone, except to complain. He wouldn't do his details, never made his bed right, always left something unlocked or unsecured. If we pointed out a mistake he would grow sly, sneer at us and accuse us of picking on him; if we let him get caught making a mistake, he would cry - literally, with real tears - that we weren't watching out for him. The final straw came the day we went to the medical center for blood testing.
Our flight was fifth or sixth in line that day, standing in formation in front of the building in the hot, San Antonio sunshine. The medical center was across the street from the shoppette, where we had been allowed to go our first week to buy essentials; toothpaste, razors, small uniform items, etc. Reams kept glancing over at the vending machines and pay phones, muttering under his breath. Finally, when all of the instructors had their backs turned at the same time, he made his move.
"I've gotta call my mom," he said, and set out straight for the little building across the street. Two hundred and fifty silent airmen stood at attention, no one quite sure what to do. We couldn't stop him without getting into trouble ourselves, and no one wanted to be the one to rat him out. But someone finally uttered a timid "Sir?" A familiar bulldog face turned back toward us, annoyed... and spotted the tall, gangling form of Reams as he disappeared into the shoppette.
We expected quite a show; shouting, running, perhaps even some physical violence. Instead, our sergeant quietly asked one of the other instructors to keep an eye on us, and left. We filed through the building, gave up our blood, and were marched home, where we went straight to our day room and sat quietly on the floor, waiting.
For us, the worse thing that could be done to us, among all of the punishments at their disposal, was Recycling. To be Recycled, taken out of your flight and put back with a "younger" one - people who were two weeks behind yours, and thus, two weeks further from graduating from Basic Military Training - that was considered the ultimate horrible fate. We had received two Recyclees from older flights ourselves; they were pathetic, broken little men. They were obviously simple, terrified, and dismal at their duties. But they had tried harder than Reams had, and we had done our best to make them welcome.
We couldn't imagine anything worse that Recycling, except, perversely, being kicked out. There had been rumors about those few who had disappeared after only one or two nights. Utter losers who hadn't been able to handle even Air Force basic training, and had quietly gone to the commander and asked to be released. Prevailing opinion was that they shouldn't have signed up if they couldn't go the distance; this was a game for adults, not little children who changed their minds and ran home to mommy! The only thing left for that kind of loser - and this opinion was expressed by everyone up to and including the squadron commander - would be a job in a paper hat, serving fried food to people for the rest of said loser's miserable life. Even Recycling was better than that.
After an hour or so of intense silence, broken by uncomfortable whispers, we heard the door guard let someone in. We heard the taps on his boots as he strode down the hall. He burst into the room, a look on his face that was a mixture of irked annoyance, and minor triumph. "Well, Flight, Airman Reams will not be joining us for chow tonight. He has decided that learning the Six Little Words was just too hard. He will have to learn a different Six Little Words."
We were stunned. We felt partially responsible, maybe out of a sense of duty to a 'comrade at arms'; maybe just because we couldn't save him. We also felt relief that we wouldn't have to put up with his crap any more. I think it was this relief that tripped me up. Relief loosened my tongue, and after maintaining a low profile with my 17-day silence, I hazarded a guess as to which Six Little Words Reams would have to learn: "Would you like fries with that?"
Forty-nine airmen and one sergeant burst into laughter, and all eyes focused on me. For a brief moment, I basked in the bonhomie, and the attention, but my blood ran cold the next moment, as the sergeant leveled his glittering, rattlesnake eyes at mine and said, "A funny guy, huh? I'll have to keep my eye on YOU, now!"
To be continued...