A couple weeks before I’m supposed to ship out to boot camp, I have to go overnight to Louisville for a screening medical exam and upon approval to sign the final paper work.
My recruiter picked me up outside my dorm at an ungodly early hour before the sun broke the edge of the visible horizon. He drove a non-descript American made flat gray four door sedan that might have been a decommissioned police car stripped to primer and left to speak volumes about military aesthetic sensibilities.
After a long drive wherein I largely slept while the talk skinny Dave Chappell look alike recruiter listened to morning talk news radio, we pulled up in front of a reserve center that also housed the screening and processing center. A bleak white building with a façade surfaced like plaster relief of the insides of corrugated cardboard, and inside uniformed people stalked and squeaked across uniformly tiled floors while barkers instruct arrivals where to line up, what station to muster at, until I found myself whisked up to a desk for finger printing and photos, and my recruiter had vanished like Virgil to the dawn of a new day.
Trying to clean the ink off my fingers with a moist towelette, an elbow grab later I stood in line for the physical component. I might have felt trepidation about this stage of the process had I known what it would entail.
Moments later I’m standing in a nook framed by three white pleated curtains hung from flimsy metal racks while people walked by the fourth side, a sign of things to come if there ever was one. Lincoln supposedly grew up in a house with three walls. Considering the amount of self awareness I developed while I changed into my buttless white gown while dozens upon dozens of recruits to be parade by gawking and gaffing, I call bullshit on that legendary Lincoln story. No way any prospective president grew up in a house of that amount of public disclosure.
Once I’ve swapped my street clothes for a gown and have traded my bundle of belongings for a card with a number on it, I join the queue waiting for the next circuit of medical examination. I thought it odd we had to queue up like teams of boys hoping to show off their legs instead of each attending a doctor’s office individually. I soon learned why. Even as early as the pre-screen, the military is telling you to fall in line, follow directions, be part of the whole, the heaving torso that is mustered military might.
Stripped of clothing and name, you’re standing there trying to keep the back of your robe closed with one hand while you pull the hem down with the other, Knees together now. Quickest way to make most folks conform is to make them feel exposed, vulnerable, and weak. Also quickest way to expose nut jobs with anger issues, because feeling exposed, vulnerable, and weak is for some folks like cornering a raccoon in a garage, terrifying and thereby infuriating. Weed the hotheads and emotionally underdeveloped out double time, cause the Marines have their own line across the lobby.
And when men in lab coats appear, watch boys’ eyes widen and pupils dialate, especially when they see the first boy in line get a stiff finger jabbed up behind his scrotum while a gruff voice smelling of coffee and cigarettes tells him to look left and cough. The boy winces and coughs, and we all cough with him empathetically.
I should have run at that very moment. Cough and disappear, robe trailing out behind me like a white cape of surrender. Run all the way back to Lexington. I thought about it, and then decided it was too late, the man already had my prints. This logic makes little sense, but considering how the military predominately manages to recruit its beef, what does?
The doctor reached me and gave me the two finger solute. I didn’t know you could reach that far into a person’s pelvic basin from beneath before. Like where men’s babies would come from if science ever solves that need. I thought of Chevy Chase’s line, “Are you using the whole hand, doc?” and chuckled at the back end of my cough. The doc paused and looked at me, eyes narrow. “This funny, son? Now I have to recheck. Keep looking left.” The second time the intrusive force of his digital prod managed to clear that Lifesaver candy that’d been lodged on the top of my windpipe since I was seven. I mentally thanked him for the assistance while wondering if the indention behind my balls would ever return to normal again.
After he’d look left coughed through the current queue of boys with the experienced speed of a priest selecting altar boys, he then stepped into the middle of the group of us and began to drive us through a series of moves like a dance instructor or circus ring leader.
“Hop on one foot… Now the other… Now both… OK, stop. This isn’t Easter.”
“Do a push up, as many as you’re able too… OK, that was pathetic, get up, you’re embarrassing yourselves. “
“Now run in place… Try to keep those gowns down, will you? No one wants to see how ashamed your mothers must be.”
“I want you to squat down now and walk the circumference of this room. See the yellow line there? Follow that.” Note that the military has lines on the floor for pretty much everything, leading me to believe they must have build the first hospitals, or at least, filled them.
Someone spoke up, all the more embarrassing because they didn’t raise their hand first. “Duck walk, sir?” Years of Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy, M.A.S.H., and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. have ensured we all know to call anyone of authority in the military sir. At least the kid got that part right, I thought. And I was wrong.
“Don’t call me sir, son. I work for a living.” The doc grinned at a joke I didn’t yet understand, though suspected, correctly, that it had something to do with enlisted servicemen versus officers. “But yeah, the duck walk, do that around the yellow line. Why don’t I see you moving?”
We duck walked around the rectangular room, some forty of us in the group, all dignity lost as asses hung out everywhere, as boys lost balance and went sprawling on the tile, as others tried to catch their balance on someone nearby, sent them both tumbling like toddlers. I managed to get by using my hands intermittently on the floor to steady my balance, and did all I could not to let out any nervous farts while I waddled around the circuit.
Moments later those remaining from the forty, a surprising number cut from the line-up for something given away by the waddle’s wily ways, were sent to fetch our clothes and get back into them. Once back in my own clothes I went to the waiting room to wait my turn to talk to a processing agent and sign my life away. There was a vending machine no one could afford and complimentary coffee I drank far too much of with powdered creamer forming an island chain on the skin that formed on the top of the brine as quickly as a sip or stir stick could disperse it. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade played on the large TV in the corner, the sort of massive box with colored lamps inside projecting the image up onto the screen. I found something about that choice of film played to entertain kids signing up for the armed forces vaguely ironic, though certainly something like The Last Detail would have been far more appropriate. Maybe The Final Countdown since that clearly demonstrated the might of the sea faring military, if an aircraft carrier could breach that critical 88 miles per hours to lurch back through time to confront the Japanese armada about to attack Pearl Harbor. Or how about South Pacific?
Soon I heard my name and shoot out the crap coffee cobwebs enough to jerk myself out of my metal folding chair and follow the source of the sound, a man with black framed Buddy Holly glasses stationed behind a metal desk on the far wall, chairs in front of his desk like a TV detective ready to take witness statements. Soon we’re sifting through cryptic flyers and fold outs, each whisked away whenever I appear inclined to read the text beneath one of the rows of thumbnail images invariably printed on the card-stock pages. I nearly fold beneath a barrage of questions, what am I interested in, what do I want to do with my life, wouldn’t I want to shoot this, or sail that, or hunt them?
I felt compelled to tell the man I’d been arrested once, picked up for public intoxication, spent half a night in a drunk tank. The police check had me worried a little, thought I worried more this guy wouldn’t stop talking at me if I didn’t give him something to think about. He only paused for a moment, a slight tick of hesitation. He asked me to repeat myself. I did. He signed with evident relief. Had I paid the fine? Why yes, of course. Non-issue, a misdemeanor at best, likely not even on my record. Stupid stuff most college kids do sooner or later. That’s where I noticed that he kept keying in on the college thing. I asked if going to college made a difference.
He looked around like we were sharing a conspiracy, then leaned closer and said that they were lucky most days to see a few kids that had finished high school, let alone some college. He went on to say something about clean records, though I’d already assumed as much considering his relief to learn my college boy self hadn’t done any hard time. Not that cowering beneath a urinal while an elderly Elvis rains spittle down on you like a summer rain while he recounts all the things he did to his underage cousins back in Graceland, back before the put that awful carpet into the master bedroom. Sure, it’d given him traction, but one man’s traction is another man’s rug burn, you feel me? Yes, please stop talking all over me…
So if college made a difference could I do something that would be less likely to get me killed? Well, no guarantees, he said with a nervous laugh, ships sink you know. Hearty, utterly fake laugh, a cackle really, next snapping back to the point like Dan Ackroyd pitching a trout liquefier, face all business. I should go nukes, or if I wanted to be a reservist, go SAM.
I liked the idea of nukes, Megadeth cover art dancing through my mind’s eye. What would that entail? An 8 year commitment, put you into officer candidacy, and includes 4 plus years of college in North Carolina. I felt tempted, and would later revisit this option during the latter part of bootcamp.
8 years is a long time, I thought, and said so. So what is this SAM thing? He sat back and smiled like a spider parting the tacky silk flower print kimono and uncrossing a lot of knees. Well, the SAM program is a relatively new initiative to work with students like myself, to try to appeal to our sorts, and to empower reservists with more training than they might typically have if they haven’t become reservists through re-upping (reenlisting) after serving out their initial active duty obligations. I would be able to go through bootcamp and immediately go to an advanced training school before cycling back into civilian life as a reservist. It’s a longer initial investment, however balances well with a student’s lifestyle, miss one semester and be back in time for the next one right after the holidays.
So what would I learn in advanced training? Could I learn to fly a jet? No. Drive a ship? No. Fire missiles at foreign nations? No. Well, what could I do? Sonar. Er, what? It’s the thing that goes ping, like that Pink Floyd album. I know what Sonar is, I used to watch that TV show, the one about the super submarine. The one that gets eaten by the whale? Yeah, I loved that episode. What I mean is what would I do with Sonar. Hunt submarines. Really? Yeah. Where do I sign?
I had to stay overnight in Louisville that night. I’m still unsure why. Perhaps because all the soldiers with homes to go to went to them, and we prospective recruits had the evening to sit around in shared hotel accommodations and talk amongst ourselves, see if maybe we’d cut and run before the ink dried.
I shared a room with a Hispanic guy with a suitcase full of low rider truck magazines, which struck me as more a delivery system for women with large assets, or perhaps the birth place for slang descriptive terms for those assets, like booty, junk in trunk, gas cans. He had buddies down the hall, a bunch of them had enlisted together, hoping to end up a merry band on some destroyer somewhere. Maybe they did, I never ran into any of his posse after that overnight.
I had friends in Louisville, so I called them. Sarah wasn’t around, so I called Joe Ford’s number, his sister picked up. I realize this sounds like the beginning of a Penthouse letter, to squash that thought right now. Joe had gone off to college, however she remembered me from when I’d come stay with them for a week or so during the summer, and wondered if I’d gotten a proper dinner? If by proper dinner you mean a convenience store sandwich followed by bear claws and coffee at a 24 hour Duncan Donuts, then no, I hadn’t. Already feeling as far from home as Catcher in the Rye, I hungered for some human companionship. Not the Penthouse Forum kind, this is Joe Ford’s sister we’re talking about, who turned out to both be older and more grown up than I’d remembered, and also a new mom.
We hung out all night, both with our own worlds of thoughts and problems needing ears to land in, safe ones that would only provide temporary roosts and no judgments. I learned about how she became a young single mother, how her mother who I knew helped take care of the kid. She gave me a wallet photo of the child I still have somewhere safely stashed. I talked about school, architecture, being broke all the time, the military, and feeling baffled about finding any real meaning in my life. We saw dawn break over the highway outside the Duncan Donuts, and when she dropped me off at the hotel she wished me luck, gave me a hug, and a kiss on the neck. I hugged her back, let her whisk away back into the idling automobile. I waved farewell and watched as she put the car into drive, pulled a quick U-turn in the lot, and drove away.
I wondered as I tried to sleep a bit before the recruiter would come to collect me if I’d just missed a chance to have meaning, to become a dad the way my Dad had. Years later when I worked with a woman at Harry Ritchies that also had a child that for all intents and purposes would be a child she’d have to raise alone, I sometimes wondered if a better me would call quits on my relationships and help her work things out. Idealistic, admittedly self-serving, and thankfully not an impulse I ever acted on. Joe’s sister needed someone to count on, the Harry Ritchies coworker as well; both to help raise the kids, moreover to collaboratively support the women as they empower themselves.
I’d always had mixed feelings about that night spent with Joe’s sister, and surprisingly, not for any of the typical dick driven causes. Maybe the look left and cough had left me a eunuch for the evening, or maybe the whole day of seeing all those kids with their lives ahead of them throwing themselves at the military for lack of other option. All I know is that I felt somewhat stripped raw and ready for change and sitting with her seemed like a sort of crossroads, though really she seemed simply happy to have someone impartial to talk too. And that’s totally OK too.
Now that I am a father, I’m glad I’d gotten some experience and growth under my belt before taking on the responsibility of fatherhood, of being a dad. Not to get all wistful or anything, just calling a decision on the play long after the fact. I may have made a lot of bad relationship and career calls through the years, just as I’ve made great ones, one thing is for sure, I really appreciate good company when enjoying a bear claw, coffee, and sunrise in Louisville, and thank Joe’s sister for hanging out with me so that I didn’t have to listen to my roommate trying to pry apart the pages of his magazines.
A couple hours later I’m up and showered, my low rider aficionado roommate long since disappeared, I wandered to the lobby to catch my ride. The recruiter drove me home, beaming like he’d just bought the moon, or sold me real estate on same, maybe both. He got out of the car to pat me on the back and shake my hand with the quota meeting enthusiasm of a used car salesman after a dry spell.
I’d be seeing him again in a couple weeks, this time to drive to the airport.