They shear your hair like a sheep and send you through a series of lines to pick up your uniforms and other gear such as backpacks, canteens and mess kits. By the time you stuff everything into a giant duffel bag and get assigned to a bunk bed, you're beginning to wonder if this was such a great idea...thrown together with a bunch of strangers and at the mercy of Drill Sargents who, every time they appear you expect to hear the banjo music from Deliverance. The Corporal in charge of our barracks is a tall, skinny Southerner named Lance Livesay. (He later becomes a great protector of mine after tasting the pepperoni my mother used to send in her care packages.) It was like I removed a thorn from his paw and he left me alone while he tortured non-pepperoni owners.
For seven weeks they pushed us. Daily close order drill, calisthenics in the hot sun, rifle practice at the firing range, twenty-mile night hikes with full back packs in the rain...I was in pretty good shape when I joined up, but after all this I was lean and mean with a 33 inch waist; I could take anything they threw at me. Some of the older, more out-of-shape guys didn't have it so easy. Most of them had joined the reserves to avoid the draft, thinking it would be an easier gig. Wrong. Basic training was the same grind for everybody, whether reservist or regular army. Unlike joining a gym where you can go or not at will, basic training is not optional.
The whole time we went through our training, the rednecks kept threatening us with the 'final exam' we would have to pass at the end of our 8 weeks. They painted a nightmare picture of the physical trials they would put us through, and then dropped the ultimate threat: those who failed would be 'recycled' or doomed to repeat the 8 weeks of basic training instead of going on to their next assignments. This hung over our heads like a black cloud. Who could stand to do this again without jumping off a building! Some guys who struggled with the physical challenges of the training spent many a sleepless night until the fateful day finally came. We were broken up into small groups and put through a series of obstacles to test our readiness.
The first scary stop was to put on our gas masks and run into a building where a tear gas canister was exploded. We then had to remove our masks and scream out our names and army serial numbers before we were allowed to put the masks back on and exit the building. Next, while carrying our rifles, we had to get down on our bellies and shimmy under a canopy of barbed wire that was maybe 18 inches above our heads. To make this little game even more fun, they fired live ammunition over our heads to simulate combat conditions! And on it went...scaling a 30 foot wall with full backpacks, attacking straw-filled sacks with fixed bayonets, swinging on a rope across open trenches...you began to wonder if war could be that much worse.
The relief we all felt was immense when we found out we had passed. Even the guys who failed were allowed to try again until they did what was required, so that whole recycle business turned out to be an empty threat to motivate us. I must confess looking back that as harrowing as it was, I think all young men could benefit from a year in the military, if for no other reason than as an incentive to stay in school or learn a useful trade.
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