Read an Excerpt
MILITARY HISTORY/BASIC TRAINING
As the train pulled out of the Woodstock station, I was starting to wonder if I had done the right thing. I had volunteered for the draft in February 1968. It was against my father’s wishes. We’d had several one-sided conversations on the subject, and I had always lost. I guess he feared that I might do something stupid like die or get wounded in our television war. A war that was glorified by John Wayne in The Green Berets. I went to see it twice. The first time I saw it, it stirred my imagination; the second time, I knew that I wanted to be part of it.
I was an apprentice carpenter and enjoyed building things at the time that I decided to volunteer for the draft. I received my draft notice and informed my boss. His first comment was, “Do you want to get out of it?”
Before I could answer, I thought to myself, Can this guy really get me out of the draft? With a puzzled look on my face, I said, “No, I might as well get it over with.”
He persisted. “I can get you a deferment because you’re in apprentice school.”
Again I declined; my mind was made up and my master plan of deception of volunteering for the draft would continue. In retrospect, I had it made. I was just out of high school, had an excellent job, a ’67 Corvette, and a couple of good-looking girlfriends. However, something was missing from my life. Life was too easy; there was no challenge. Maybe ’Nam was the answer.
As I came back to reality, the train was pulling into Dearborn Station in Chicago. I walked to the induction center, which was a few blocks away; there I would take my physical and the oath to my country.
The physical examination was a riot. Here, myself and fifty other warm bodies stripped to our shorts for our examinations.
A short, dark-haired older fellow introduced himself and started explaining the standard operating procedures (SOP). “Gentlemen,” he said, “you will proceed down the taped yellow line on the floor to stations one through fifteen. Give your paperwork to the gentleman at that particular station,” and so on and so on.
Each station was a real treat. I went from one to another having my ears, eyes, and nose checked, having blood taken, urinating into a bottle, et cetera. The last station was the best. Fifty guys standing on a yellow line with our BVDs around our ankles.
“All right, gentlemen, bend at the waist, grab your cheeks, and spread ’em,” came the order. Naturally one guy grabbed the cheeks on his face for a laugh. The doctor—I assumed that he was a doctor—wearing what looked like a dirty butcher’s smock, went from asshole to asshole inspecting each and every one. What a disgusting job.
As we finished dressing, names were called and we were divided into two groups. The first was made up of just the people who were taking physicals; the second was my group, the ones who were being inducted immediately. Then, more names were called off, poor bastards who’d just been drafted into the marines.
From there, my group was taken to swear the allegiance to the flag and country. Then we were informed we’d take basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I’m in for two years, I thought, I hope it gets better.
After about two hours of filling out countless forms and sitting around, an NCO (noncommissioned officer) escorted our group of thirty to a waiting bus, which went directly to O’Hare Airport (a quick trip, because by then it was about eleven o’clock in the evening and there was no traffic).
When we arrived at O’Hare the bus drove us directly to the plane that was to take us to Kentucky. It was a C-47; in fact, it was to be the first large plane I had ever been on and God, it was a World War II relic. The plane ride was short, a couple of hours at most, but extremely rough. I was relieved when my feet touched the “terra firma” of Kentucky.
Our group was then led into a hangar to await truck transportation. As we sat, I noticed two soldiers walking through the hangar wearing green berets. They were impressive. That, I thought, was what the ideal “macho fighting soldier” should look like.
The truck finally arrived and we were on our way to who knew what. I kept thinking I’d probably get a drill sergeant like Sergeant Carter on Gomer Pyle, USMC. Then the trucks pulled up in front of a long two-story building with a group of men in front of it.
Apparently, these are the drill sergeants, I thought.
All of a sudden the screaming started. “Get out of those trucks, you sorry sons of bitches. Your mama ain’t here now and you are all mine.” As we jumped, stumbled, tripped, and fell off the trucks, we were told to stand on another line.
As soon as I stood on the line with my gym bag in hand, a drill sergeant came over and knocked the bag out of my hand. “What are you smiling at, you dick-lick?” he screamed in my ear.
“Nothing,” was my reply.
“You say ‘Nothing, Sergeant,’ ” he shouted back at me.
Now, I was born with a permanent smile on my face. To this day I can see humor in just about anything. That smile was to get me in a lot of trouble in the future.
“Give me ten push-ups, shit brain,” he hollered. I got down and did the push-ups and returned to my feet. By then he was giving the others in the group a similar tongue-lashing.
The smile was still on my face when a muscular black drill sergeant appeared in front of me. On his chest was a combat infantry badge (CIB), a set of jump wings, and his right shoulder bore a patch that was probably from ’Nam. He put his face close to mine and he stared right through me. In a whisper he said, “Don’t be an asshole, fuckhead, wipe that shit-eating grin off your face or I’ll knock it off.” The smile disappeared, at least for the time being. He was the most intimidating person I’d ever met. He got his point across without screaming. He was also the meanest looking person I’d ever encountered.
We were taken to the quartermasters and issued fatigue shirts, pants, socks, underwear, T-shirts, khaki shirts, khaki pants, dress greens, low-quarter shoes, two pair of boots, ties, belts, hats, and a dress overcoat. The overcoat itself had to weigh thirty pounds, and looked like a formless lump of material.
On to the barber shop. It only took thirty seconds to dehair each of us. It was amazing how alike everyone looked when bald.
The next stop was the infirmary, for shots. Everyone received vaccinations for smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, and various other diseases. During the next few weeks I saw reactions to the smallpox vaccination, in particular, ranging from no reaction to golf-ball-sized lumps oozing pus.
After the shots, we were formed up in half-assed formation and ran back to the barracks. The drill sergeant was trying to call a running cadence to a bunch of bald street punks who didn’t know their left from their right. All while we were trying to balance a forty-five-pound duffel bag on our shoulders. Four or five of the new recruits had already fallen behind and were literally being kicked in the ass by the drill sergeant who brought up the rear. The whole time I kept smiling, thinking those poor bastards were really going to have a tough time. As the last stragglers were arriving in front of the barracks, we were formed up again. Our group was told it would be First Platoon, Echo Company, First Training Brigade.
“From this day forth, you will answer everything with, Echo One. Is that clear?” the drill sergeant shouted.
“Echo One, sir,” we replied.
Our reply became louder and louder every time he shouted back at us.
“My name is Sergeant Bozman. I will be your mother for the next eight weeks. You people will dread the day you met me. Since you pussies got your shots today, you get to rest today. This is not to say that you will smoke, joke, and shoot the shit; you will unpack and square your shit away, the army way. Is that clear?”
“Echo One, Sergeant,” came our reply.
“Fall out, dummies, and pick a bunk,” he shouted.
Unfamiliar with the command “fall out,” everyone just stood. “Get out of here, assholes,” Sergeant Bozman yelled in disgust.
When the dust settled I was standing next to a bunk bed set up with a guy I had seen at the induction center in Chicago. “Hi, I’m Don Ericson.”
“Tom Pemberton,” he replied. He was from Chicago and was about twenty-five years old. I could tell that he had street smarts. He had been drafted and already hated the bullshit.