3. Basic Training
These began as posts but have been shifted to pages.
Our trip to Lackland AFB was First Class on Northwest Orient Airlines for the first leg. I even had Bob Hope sitting in front of me. Our first day there is mercifully hazy in my memory since it involved having my head shaved and being screamed at for eight straight hours. It was a long way from First Class. Lackland is outside San Antonio Texas and it wasn’t long before we decided that, if the world ever needed an enema, they would have to get the tube through San Antonio. I have read all sorts of nice travel articles since, about the river walk and the great attractions but I don’t think they were there when I was. And I haven’t been back.
The weather was also an attraction. Strongly negative. Some days it was so hot that the red flag flew over the obstacle course. A kid died of heat stroke there while I was in basic-basic, the first four weeks. Then, of course, there were the nights on guard duty a little later in the fall when it was below freezing.
Our first DI was one of the more interesting characters I have ever met. He and his girlfriend owned a bar just off the base. He rode a motor scooter, sort of like a Vespa, back and forth from the barracks to the bar. We called it “The Iron Horse.” He was big and mean and, after a night at the bar, drunk. He would walk from the Iron Horse to the barracks door and, as he approached the steps, he would roar “Barracks Guard !” We all had to stand fire watch, as they call it in some services. At that time, in the USAF, it was called “Barracks Guard,” just as squads and platoons were called “flights” and other terms I can’t remember.
Rumor had it that one night the barracks guard did not get the screen door open fast enough and the DI walked right through it. He was a sight to see at 5 AM, or rather one I’d rather not see. He was hung over which was the only thing that could possibly make him meaner. We formed up out on the street and did calisthenics after making our bunks in 30 seconds flat. Then, we had a short period to clean up and march to the mess hall. The Air Force is not as hard core as the Marines, for example, but they did a pretty good imitation for the first four weeks.
Fortunately, I qualified on the firing range and kept out of trouble. My bunkmate, on the lower bunk, was a complete fuckup and got all the rest of us in trouble. It began with his refusal to shower. He stank. The rest of us told him to shower or we would do it for him. Finally, one night after lights out, he was dragged to the shower and scrubbed with various brushes, along with a few taps to remind him to do it the next time, too.
He couldn’t make his bunk or arrange his footlocker or wall locker. Eventually, each of us took one task, like shining his boots, and did it to keep the whole squad out of trouble. It turned out that he had spent his life on an Idaho hay farm and told us that he knew a college education was worthless as college boys working summers on the farm didn’t even know how to stack hay. Imagine the dumbest hayseed from a war movie and that guy would be a genius compared to my bunkmate.
Then we had another problem trainee. This one was from New York and he couldn’t poop. He tried and tried and, short of going to sick call (with results we could all imagine), it looked hopeless. Several of us sat down with him and had a long talk. It turned out he was, literally, so uptight about doing well and pleasing everyone that he could not get his bowels to work. Well, we gave him some advice that did him a lot of good. We told him to stop keeping all his fears and anxieties inside and let them out. Talk about his troubles and tell us what was bothering him. Well, it worked like a charm, He was pooping up a storm and he became the most obnoxious son-of-a-bitch in the unit. It wasn’t that he was aggressive or anything. He was just a constant whiner. What could we say ? He was taking our advice.
The physical training was the usual running and calisthenics and nothing special except the trainer was a weirdo. Maybe they all are. Of course, he was a body builder and ran with us. He also told us that he slept on the floor at his home to keep fit. We all wondered what his wife thought about that. We soon figured out that there was shoe shop that would polish our boots to the necessary shine for a few bucks and was a hell of a lot better plan than trying to do it ourselves. The first four weeks was the Air Force basic-basic and, after that short period, the regulars would go on to schools where they would learn their specialty. There are no infantry in the Air Force. As reservists (We eventually figured out that our average years of post high school education was 5.3), we stayed for another five weeks. Of course, we all had to do KP, which was a miserable job, but we got some harmless fun by ordering the 17 year old recruits around like we were DIs. I suspect our average age was about 23. After the first four weeks, we were allowed to leave the barracks and one place we could go was the library. I used to go over there after duty hours and read and listen to classical music with ear phones.
The last few days of our basic-basic, the DI turned out to be a funny guy and nice in a kind of rough hewn way. He sat us all down in the barracks on one of our last days and just talked. He asked us to guess how old he was. He was 27, about ten years less than the lowest guess. He talked about how he had fucked up his life (He’d been in the Air Force 10 years) and was pretty much a reprobate. He said he’d been married but “I was such a bad husband that when I wanted a strange piece of tail, I went home.” As we were all sitting there having this unique bull session, one of the guys in the squad walked out from behind a bunk. The DI (He was actually called a TI, as I remember) did a double take and then said to the group, “There is the smartest guy in this flight. I have never seen him before !” His first rule was to stay out of trouble and staying invisible was one good way to accomplish that.
We now moved to a different barracks and got two new DIs. One was very sharp, a no nonsense guy whose wife was a DI for women in basic training elsewhere on the base. His fatigues were pressed with sharp creases, he was fair and smart and we had no problem with him at all. We later found out he sold vacuum cleaners at night for a second job. The other guy was an exact double for Gomer Pyle except he wasn’t as smart. God, he was an asshole ! He thought that, by being tough, which is a useful tactic the first couple of weeks to get recruits in shape, he would impress the hell out of us. What he hadn’t figured out was that we were reserves and we all (except my bunkmate and few others) were college graduates. We should have been in OCS except most of us had other plans. Gomer never figured that out until the crisis.
One morning, he decided to really sock it to us. The two DIs took turns with reveille and calisthenics. When the sharp guy took it, there was no problem at all. One the day of the crisis, Gomer outdid himself as a jerk. We made our bunks and dashed out into the street to form up. The program was that an officer was working his way down the formations and would inspect us in about five minutes. Gomer decided to show us who was boss. He went into the barracks, then marched out and ordered us to go back and remake those bunks. They were a disgrace, the wall lockers were sloppy, etc., etc. We ran into the barracks and decided we had had enough of his bullshit. Nobody actually made the decision; we just did it. We trashed the barracks. We tied sheets and blankets around the pillars supporting the second floor. The place was a mess. We then ran back out into the street and formed up. The officer was about two barracks away.
Gomer marched into the barracks to inspect again and came out a broken man. He asked us to please just go back and straighten it out. We did and we were back in formation before the inspecting officer got there. He never gave us any more shit. I don’t know what would have happened to us if the inspector had seen the mess. I do know that Gomer did not want to find out what would happen to him. This, of course, would never happen in the marines or probably even the army. The fact that we were reservists and didn’t care was a big part of it. Secondly, we had thought the BS was over. We were happy to spend five more weeks learning to march in formation and going to various tests and classes but we had had it with the BS.
Come December 2, the Air Force flew us back to Spokane commercial, which lost my duffle bag. It showed up a couple of months later. We picked up my roommates car, which had blown a freeze plug in the block but fortunately, had not cracked the block, and we drove back to Los Angeles. A couple of weeks later, we went out to the Van Nuys Airport where the 186th Air Transport Squadron was based and transferred from the Washington ANG. It was January 1960 and nobody was very uptight about those things.
I discovered that, while I had been in basic training, Congress had passed the National Defense Student Loan Program and I could go back to school full time.