Tuesday, January 10, 2012

HOWDY, HOWDY, HOWDY!

Welcome... to the site, the blog, the book(s)-to-be, entitled "A Sheep In Wolf's Clothing."

It's the story of a guy -- namely, me -- who went into the United States Air Force in 1977 a "98-pound weakling" who just wanted to "play with airplanes" for a living, but who found himself, a year later, jumping out of airplanes instead. How did such a socially inept, unscarred, high school marching band geek, Chess Club nerd, piano-playin', teetotalin' mama's boy wind up with a parachute on his back, a knife in his teeth, and a team of America's finest warriors following him out of the aircraft's jump door into the night? That's what this story is all about.

In its final published form (and this little 'opus' is still under construction), this will be a collection -- or 'anthology' -- of chronologically sequential short stories that cover the entire process of this life-changing transition, from leaving my pampered civilian life and getting "broken in" at Basic Training, to physically re-inventing myself, and fighting my way into the ranks of America's military elite. I never belonged there -- I never really fit in or felt comfortable there -- but I had GOTTEN there somehow, and had to daily prove myself worthy of being there... a challenge for anyone, the trial of a lifetime for me.

And somewhere in there, I felt there was a story to share.

The "Table of Contents" is over there in the right-side margin, under "SHORT STORIES: in chronological order." Each story has been listed sequentially, so reading them in numerical order will give you the full straight-through storyline. Just click on each title to go directly there. The most recent posting is listed just above this Table of Contents under "This ain't your daddy's blog," so if you just want to check into what's new, click on that title.

You'll find the story behind this project described just below the Table of Contents under "JUST SO'S YA' KNOW," and the background story about me laid out in the "002 - Author's Note," listed in the Table of Contents. A few of the individual short stories even have pictures.
I've still got a bunch of writing left to go, and, without some major wholesale editing, this project, in its entirety, will likely wind up in the 900- to 1,000-page range. Hence the reason for breaking it up into individual short stories -- I'll be able to break the total anthology up into a series of smaller anthologies: maybe a trilogy of 300-pagers. Who knows!

Please feel free to leave comments on any or all of the stories. I need all the input I can get on what works and what doesn't, what can go and what can stay, and trust me, I'll read them all.

In the meantime, thanks for visiting.

What an honor, for me.



Steve Stipp (a.k.a. GreatHairySilverback)
February 22nd, 2009







Saturday, December 31, 2011

1 - PROLOGUE




CASE IN POINT
A Prologue

So, I stumble back into our campsite, numbed as much from boredom as from the wet cold of mid-December in the Ozarks. The ten surviving members of our original sixteen-man Combat Control School class have just spent the last two stultifying hours huddled around a field-portable TACAN—that’s a TACtical Air Navigation beacon—learning how to tote, assemble, and operate the huge God be-damned monstrosity under a day-long freezing overcast. As for me, the only thing I think I’ve gotten out of the whole miserable exercise is about an hour-and-a-half of a standing nap.
I am exhausted and utterly demoralized. The only thing that’s gotten me through this day at all is the fact that it’s the eighth day out of the final ten that we have to spend in the field before graduation. And even that is something I couldn’t possibly care less about anymore.
My feet are wet and frozen into muddy popsicles. My camouflaged fatigues are crusted and torn and damp—both sets—which makes changing my sodden clothes a completely useless gesture. I’m hungry, sore, cold, wet, and dead tired, and I’ve only taken a shit twice in the eight days we’ve been out here. All I want to do right now is get off my feet, and slip off into blessed oblivion, mentally reciting the last of my desperate mantras, “In three days this will all be a memory. In three days this will all be a memory. In three days…”
But it is not to be.
As I shuffle up to the dead coals of our abandoned fire, one of the instructors marches into our circle of tents. His weapons and web gear, canteens and ammo pouches clank and clatter proudly. His cammies still have their starched creases, for cryin’ out loud. Mine don’t look that good when I first pick them up at the dry cleaners.
Now, I’m about as low on the student food chain as you can get, and I am grateful for that anonymity at times like these. Apparently, one of our poor, abused student NCOs is about to get him a Grand Atomic Wedgy for some trivial oversight—one of us lower ranking slobs probably has his socks on inside-out, or something critical like that—and, as usual, it will be a public spectacle. I don’t have the energy to pay it any attention though, and I begin the slow, groaning, creaking descent to my sitting spot on the log beside the charcoal mud of our late great “campfire.”
But the instructor grabs my elbow just as I’m reaching the half-stooped phase of my hunker, and announces, loudly enough for anyone within gunshot range to hear, “Airman Stipp! Your frag! The truck leaves in twenty minutes! Better hustle!”
He stuffs a piece of paper into my hand—my Fragmentary Order, or “frag”—claps me hard on the back (everybody in gunshot range probably heard that too), and marches off into the mists again.
Wha’? Is this some kind of joke?
In the center of a slowly contracting circle of fellow classmates then, I stare dumbfounded at the dirty wad of Xerox paper in my hand. These are mission orders. The kind that high commanders hand to lower commanders, but commanders all! This is a clinical summary of a tactical situation that must be resolved immediately, by a team of “elite specialists”—namely, us—led by…who? Me? They’re giving me the frag? I look around like they’ve just dropped a dead rat into my palm. What am I supposed to do with this? A lowly airman. The lowliest airman in the bunch, in fact. I’m the class joke, the clueless FNG, the annoying deadweight that keeps pulling down the grade curve.
And now they’ve decided to hand this, the final and most difficult frag of the curriculum, to me?
Of course! That’s precisely why they’ve chosen me to hand it to.
“Well, what’s it say?” It’s Greg Dorn, one of the three rookies that came here with me from the McChord Team—my home base—trying to goose me out of my stupor. I mentally stumble back on track, and read aloud from the paper.
“Southeast Command advises: Green Beret team egressing from hostile territory with multiple prisoners and wounded. Will require mass evac at earliest possible time. Insert one ten-man Combat Control Team (that’s us) to Drop Zone Delta (map insert 1), ingress overland five kilometers to Rendezvous Point Echo (map insert 2). Make contact with friendlies, establish a secure perimeter, and set up a 3,500 foot LZ (that’s a Landing Zone—basically just a dirt runway), with full lighting and UHF comm for night recovery ops. CCT will direct and protect the C-130 extraction aircraft through landing, loading, and departure, then police the area and egress on foot. Action to commence immediately.”
I look up, my mouth hanging open. Most of the class—the other lowly airmen, at least—are watching me, waiting for words to issue forth. The four student NCOs (sergeants)—by rank, the official class leaders—just scowl at me, as if this was all some scheme of mine to steal their moment of glory. I am fully prepared to hand it over to them though, while I go trotting off into the woods to take my third crap of the week, which has suddenly become an urgent priority for me again. But that will not happen.
“Okay then,” says Greg, trying to jump-start me again, “Tell us what to do.”
God bless his enthusiastic little heart.
My mind whirls into action—in much the same way a helicopter might spin up to speed if none of its moving parts were actually bolted together—and I start fumbling through impromptu assignments. Fortunately, a couple of my fellow Little Fish are right beside me the whole way, offering suggestions.
“You’ll need two pricks,” says Goebler (by which he means PRC-77s… heavy backpack radios) “one primary, one back-up.”
“Uh, yeh,” I reply.
“I’ll take one,” says Torrero, volunteering from the back of the circle.
“Okay,” I answer, really taking the bull by the horns now.
I half-heartedly get everyone moving, rummaging through their gear for their standard combat loads while I formulate a rough outline of a plan. Greg says he’ll pack my stuff up for me, since I’m going to be real busy, then he disappears with the rest, leaving me standing by the dead campfire, scribbling notes on the back of the frag.

With five minutes left to go, and the big deuce-and-a-half truck idling noisily nearby, I finally complete my computations. Several of the guys have already tossed their gear onto the canvas-shelled bed of the truck, and are now hopping and stomping and chuffing great skirls of steam into the chilly air in front of me. I notice none of the NCOs are among them. Now, referring constantly to my notes, I send them running to gather up the mission-specific stuff. I’ve calculated exactly how many lights we’ll need to sufficiently outline a 3,500 foot runway, and figured out how many each man will have to carry in his own rucksack to get them all to the LZ without killing anybody. I know how many red and green lens covers we’ll need to mark the approach and departure ends of the runway. We’ll need extra batteries for the PRCs, pen flares, and some fundamental weather gear for the air traffic control part of the operation… defused Claymores, trip flares, and extra ammo for the perimeter defense part. As I call out each item—over the protestations of the impatient instructors waiting by the truck—someone darts out of the crowd, and rounds it up. Until, at last, everything on my list has been called and loaded.
And twenty-two minutes after receiving the frag, all ten of us, along with a small mountain of equipment, are huddled under the tarp canopy of the truck, and the tailgate is being slammed shut. The truck jerks into gear with a whistling diesel sound, and we pull out through the bushes onto the nearby dirt road.
It’s a forty-five minute drive from our field encampment to the airfield at Little Rock Air Force Base, forty-five minutes that I spend trying to finalize my calculations while we barrel down the road, rifling a fifty-mile-an-hour wind chill through the group. I am shivering violently, and my penchant for motion sickness is making it tough to look at my list for longer than a few seconds at a time while the truck is rolling. I finally give up, still about a half hour out from the base, and concentrate instead on fending off the razor-edged cut of the wind.
And that’s when it really hits me. I mean, I’d understood it before, but now it’s really starting to sink in. I, Airman Steve Stipp, the lowliest of the low in this hardcore, cutthroat class of ate-up warrior wannabes, have just been given a frag, the last frag of the course. And they’ve given me only twenty minutes to prepare for it—plus these forty-five nearly useless minutes of hurtling through the snow-dappled Ozarks on the way to the base. And that’s just plain unfair!
Granted, they had warned us at the beginning of this final field portion of the class that during these ten days, we would have to get in five combat-load parachute jumps in order to graduate, two of them night jumps. Each of these jumps would then play a component role in each of the five frag scenarios they’d be handing out during that time. And in each case, 24 hours before each scheduled jump, a frag would be issued to one of our class leaders—one of our valiant non-commissioned officers, or NCOs—who would then have those 24 hours to thoroughly plan their op prior to actually executing it the following day. Ten days, five jumps, two days for each.
But we only have four NCOs in our class now. You do the math.
We used to have five, but the senior and most team-spirited among them—Sergeant Cooper, our original “class leader”—self-eliminated when, in only his second week at the school, he went and played racquetball without goggles, but with his contacts in. Naturally—almost invariably—he took a shot right in the eye, damaged it, and was med-evac’ed home. And then there were four.
We had presumed that one of those remaining NCOs—probably Sergeant Haley, the next most senior among them—would just have to handle a second frag, whether he wanted to or not, just to meet our quota of five frags and five jumps. That had seemed reasonable. One of the few advantages of being the resident cannon fodder in a group like this is that you never have to worry about this level of crap. It’s all above your pay grade.
So much for that tonight.
In a fit of creative spite apparently, the instructors have decided that this last one should go to the dweeb at the bottom of the totem pole instead. C’est moi. The weather’s been bad all day, so probably no jump will happen anyway, and higher winds are expected with the fall of night. That should clear out the fog and the overcast, but will probably cancel the parachute portion of the program precisely because of the higher wind velocity. So, as long as the jump itself isn’t going to happen, wouldn’t it be fun to watch the class goober flounder and drown as the anvils are tossed in on him?
And why stop with a mere LZ establishment? Let’s make it a night drop! In surly weather! On short notice! Incredibly short notice—twenty minutes instead of twenty-four hours! And let’s throw in a five-mile covert overland march to get from the DZ (Drop Zone) to the LZ (the Landing Zone)! Just for the hell of it! Let’s really bury this dork! And that’s exactly what they’ve done… stood me at the bottom of the silo, and dumped in the fertilizer. Apparently they’re planning on filling it all the way up to the top too.

The gray sunset fades to darkness as we lumber through the base and onto the flightline. Our classrooms and parachute rigging tables are in a hangar right off the main parking apron. Everyone is frozen and stiff as the tailgate bangs open and we clamber down onto the pavement. I “order” a chain of men to pass the gear from the truck to the warm hangar, and the unloading passes quickly.
Inside, the instructors graciously allow us ten minutes to thaw out and take a leak, to fill our canteens and batten down our equipment. I spend this time furiously scribbling more notes, and allocating gear and tasks to each individual man, including myself. Greg nobly volunteers to prep my parachute for me. Just as well. Since I’m the one who originally packed it—seven weeks ago in the parachute-packing phase of the class—I’m probably going to die tonight anyway.
When at last the instructor bellows for silence and calls me up to the blackboard to give my briefing, I’m still scribbling as I walk up the aisle. But I’ve got a rough battle plan assembled in my head, and by the time I reach the podium, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Again I recap the mission, state our objectives, draw a little map on the board, and point out our landmarks.
At 2130 (that’s 9:30pm, for the unenlightened), our C-130 drop ship will put us out over this DZ (a big open field within sight of our camp). Once on the ground, we will form up and head out, southbound, through these dense woods, for about five klicks (kilometers), until we reach this little dirt road here. If our night nav is on-target, we should hit the road right about here, where it runs straight as an arrow for a little over a mile. We just need 3,500 feet of that straightaway. Here the team will spread out, forming a rough defensive perimeter around our runway-to-be, five men to a side.
Each man will have X-amount of Elco lights (the portable runway lights) that he will be responsible for placing at the appropriate interval down the length of the runway before assuming his defensive position. The lights will remain off until radio contact has been made with the inbound aircraft, at which time, in sequence (so as not to completely abandon all our defensive positions at the same time), each man will return to activate his assigned lights.
I address each man on the team individually, one by one, by name, telling him specifically what he’ll be carrying, what he’ll need to do with it when he gets there, and where his defensive station will be. I lay out our order of march, assigning a point man, a rear guard, two flankers, a second radioman, a compass man, and a pacer (the guy who counts our steps, and keeps track of the distance we’ve traveled on foot).
It takes just under fifteen minutes to deliver my little oratory. But when it’s done, I’m actually feeling pretty damned good about it. It’s a viable plan—downright brilliant, considering the absurd time constraints on my preparations—and everyone seems to have absorbed it well, if not a little grimly. Even the instructors have nothing to say when I’m done except, “All right ladies, let’s mount up.”
I let out a shaky sigh of relief, and head back to my seat. Greg claps me on the shoulder, and hands me my readied parachute. Good old Greg.
For most of another fifteen minutes then, the room fills with all the snapping, clicking, bonking, shuffling, stomping sounds of a military machine assembling itself, as the gear is disseminated per my instructions, and each man packs it up and dons his individual battle armor.
And when I’m done, I’m one heavy little bastard myself.
In addition to my fifty pound parachute, harness, and reserve, I’ve got all my web gear hanging from its own belt and harness, including a red-lensed flashlight, a K-Bar combat knife, two pouches of .22 blank ammunition (three banana-clips of thirty rounds each to a pouch), a compass and med kit, plus a canteen that I don’t notice (until too late) is empty. In addition, almost thirty pounds of runway lights, lens covers, and flares fill my rucksack to bursting.
My GAU-5 (which rhymes with “cow-drive,” by the way)—the chopped down Special Forces variant of the ubiquitous M-16 assault rifle—is slung over one shoulder, barrel-down, flash suppressor pointed down my leg and tied to my rigging with what amounts to a thin shoestring. And because I’m to be the glorious commander of this ship of fools, I also get to carry one of the two PRC-77s, which will ride on my back like a car battery once I’m on the ground. And don’t forget the layers of cold weather jackets and thermies, plus my field cap, jump helmet, and goggles. I’ve also painted my face to look like a freshly tossed salad.
If nothing else, I certainly look the part of a real Action Jackson field commander.
I’m exhausted and dazed and nervous, but I’ve got a tenuous feeling that I actually might have pulled this one off, despite all their efforts to overwhelm me, and despite the fact that nothing has actually happened yet. And when, at last, we troop out the doors, through a sharp and stiffening wind—under abruptly clear skies, studded with stars and fast moving cotton puffs of clouds torn from the previous overcast—I’m marching, with no small amount of pride, at the head of this column of noble lunatics.
My noble lunatics, at least for the next couple of hours.
It’s the only good moment of the day for me. And the last one of the night. Unbeknownst to me, one great fistful of Cosmic Shit is, at this very moment, hitting one huge Karmic Fan somewhere. And guess who’s standing downrange, innocently looking the wrong direction.
As I tromp up the C-130’s troop ramp, that all too familiar stench of JP-4 jet fuel wafts out of the windowless cargo hold, and reminds me to take some Dramamine before the flight. This is when I discover that my canteen is empty. I’d been too busy back in the hangar to fill it up. So I toss the vile things down my throat now, dry, bitter, and sticking to the back of my tongue.
Only the beginning, my friend. Only the beginning.
One by one, the flight crew cranks over each of the four propellers, and soon the open cargo bay is reverberating with their heavy turbine roar. Escorted by one of the instructors, I make the rounds of “my men”—most of whom are still glowering impatiently at me—checking their straps and connections. I feel ridiculous.
At last I am back at my end of the troop seat—an appallingly uncomfortable cloth-and-pipe “bench” that runs the length of each side of the compartment—and belted in. We start to taxi, the ramp whines closed, the lights dim to red, and I close my eyes (yet another defense mechanism to fend off the inevitable motion sickness). We trundle and bump over the uneven pavement for several minutes, then we rock to a stop, run the engines up through their final checks, and taxi into position on the runway.
For some reason, we sit there an inordinately long time. But I don’t care. My eyes are closed, my earplugs are in, and I’m breathing deep and slow… until two of our instructors burst into the middle of the compartment, screaming for everyone to get up and out. Now!
Did we take-off already?
No, but we are abandoning ship, right here, right now.
I don’t feel quite as bad about my own stupidity when I see nearly every other man on the plane bouncing up and down in their seats for the next several seconds. For we’ve all managed to release at least one wrong buckle in our haste to unbelt and evacuate. We’re covered in buckles after all, and just about everyone seems to be getting repeatedly yanked back down into their seats as they pop connectors, only to discover that it’s not their seatbelt clasps they’ve released. After several embarrassing failed attempts to stand up, I finally release myself, snatch up my rucksack from the center pile, and join the queue for the exit door.
But there are no inflatable slides on a military aircraft. No ladders or rolling stairs either. Just a six foot drop to the concrete, wearing over a hundred pounds of gear, in the dark, and on legs (and arches) stiff from the cold. I crunch to the ground next to the guy in front of me, and we both limp off the runway into the grass. Fire trucks are already wailing their way out to us.
What the hell?
They sit us in the grass with our backs against our chutes and rucks, and we watch as the little Keystone Kop parody plays out in front of us. It lasts for more than half an hour, until they declare the aircraft safe enough to be towed back to the parking apron. A blue “bread van” pulls up, and takes the flight crew back to the ramp to crank up another C-130. We, on the other hand, are left to chill even further in the tall wet grass.
A tug drags the first plane away—smoke in the cockpit, they finally tell us—the fire trucks pack up and leave, and we’re left alone under the stars. The wind is brisk and uneven, almost hesitant, but still full of frigid bluster. And the grass is wet. But it’s now after 10:00pm, and no other aircraft are due in or out, so they leave us right where we are to await our new aircraft.
Eventually, a new C-130 thrums and drones over to us, stopping, once again, in take-off position on the runway. I stagger to my feet, and join the others in their slow shuffle over to the lowered cargo ramp. I don’t even pretend to be interested in my team’s snaps and buckles this time, and plop down immediately into my rearmost seat.
At something like a quarter till eleven then, we finally lumber into the sky, and turn toward our drop zone. It should be a ridiculously short flight—after all, it only took forty-five minutes to drive it in a loaded deuce-and-a-half—but the repercussions from that cosmic collision of feces and fan have only just begun to reveal themselves.
As predicted by our resident pessimists back at the camp, the wind has stiffened yet again, ricocheting through the mountains and chopping up the skies into turbulent pockets of twenty and thirty mile an hour gusts. The legal wind “speed limit” for jumping with the standard round parachutes that we are wearing is thirteen miles an hour. And the winds are way over that. But the instructors are yet hopeful, and decide to keep circling until some magical lull presents itself. Our tactical static-line jump altitude is only 1,500 feet—barely above the dark mountaintops, and plowing right through the worsening turbulence—so the ride has now not only lengthened, but it has noticeably roughened as well. And there’s only so much my closed eyes and a pair of dry Dramamine can handle.
Now, as time stretches out, and the ten-minute flight slowly elongates to twenty, then thirty, then forty minutes, “matter” finally triumphs over “mind,” and my scrumptious lunch decides to return for an encore (I’d missed dinner in the scramble to set up this glorious mission). I am prepared for this, at least. And after about ten minutes of my usual futile attempts at resistance—which really only drags out the misery while things rise to their inevitable conclusion—I toss my cookies into the requisite bag and lean back, sweating and pasty faced, but at last relieved of that burden. We are required to carry our barf out the door with us though, so I spend a moment securing my little treasure so that it can be easily reached at jump time.
Fifteen minutes later, we’re still battering our way through the invisible moguls with no end in sight, and I’m begging the loadmaster for another bag. Having witnessed my previous performance, he is able to locate several more, and gives them all to me.
I use one almost immediately. A little liquid, but mostly dry heaves. The effort leaves me weak, dizzy, and thirsty though, and all I can think about is how much I’d really like the instructors to just give up on this one. Let’s just turn around and land. Either that or shoot me. Give me some live ammo, and I’ll do it myself.
But no. If they put off this mission until tomorrow night, I’ll have too much time to perfect my dazzling marching orders, and what kind of fun would that be?
Twenty more wretched minutes jostle by as this blind, stinking, droning machine blunders through the bumpy skies. And I am audibly moaning now. Though the vibration of a good gentle moan is usually fairly therapeutic in the quelling of an upset stomach, tonight it’s doing nothing. But the fact is, I just don’t care anymore. I am miserable with a capitol F, and I can’t believe my gut is boiling yet again, preparing for yet another reprise of its trademark Technicolor Yawn®.
This time it’s all dry heaves and spastic abdominal muscles. I twitch and convulse for another couple of minutes, and finally collapse with my empty barf bag in hand. I am utterly drained, sweating like a triathlete, and tumbling at the nexus of a world that is now spinning wildly around me. I want to weep, but I haven’t got the energy. Or the fluids.
So, naturally, this is when the more malicious of our instructor cadre marches into the middle of the bouncing cargo bay, and, holding up three fingers on one hand, and a closed fist on the other (to show us what 13 looks like), announces that the winds are now at “thirteen knots!” His sinister grin belies the rather amazing coincidence that the winds should just happen to be at exactly the maximum allowable jump velocity—because, of course, they aren’t. They haven’t lessened a single knot. We’re still slamming through the same twenty-mile-an-hour buffets we have been for the last hour-and-a-half. Our instructors have simply tired of the circling, not to mention the re-runs of me blowing phantom chunks into that same empty bag, and have opted to just get this over with.
Hook up!” he yells.
I swoon to my feet, somehow fumble my leaden rucksack onto its hooks under my reserve chute, tighten my helmet strap, snap my static line onto the anchor cable overhead, collect up my barf bags, and lurch my way down the bucking floor to the side jump door.
The lead instructor hauls the door open as I approach, unleashing a raw shaft of hurricane-force wind into the compartment, and thrusts his head out into the thundering slipstream. Hands clutching both sides of the combing, he scans the pitch black universe outside. I watch him as if in a trance. The freezing torrent of air seems to have placated my stomach somewhat, but the dizziness is slow to subside.
The instructor waves me over to the door beside him.
Since I’m the dashing designated leader of this motley crew, this is the part where he shows me how to sight and time the exact moment of exit. The standard technique is for me, as the Head Honcho here, to wait for just the right instant, then signal my men to “Go! Go! Go!” I’ll stand on the opposite side of the doorway—right where the instructor is now, in the core of the wind tunnel—and usher each man out, following the last man into the void myself. Such was our teaching.
Still bleary-eyed and dopey though, I wobble into place next to the instructor, and follow his pointed finger out into the darkness. He’s shouting something about lights, but I lose most of it in the maelstrom. I can see what he’s pointing at though—a broad rectangle of four red lights, sliding through the solid black nothingness out there—the four corners of our drop zone, marked out by the instructors on the ground. It’s interesting to watch, but right now I’m mostly fixated on the revivifying effect of that screaming Arctic slipstream tearing past me in the doorway. It’s slowly clearing my head and scouring away the deep nausea. I do notice, however, that the drift of those four points is not bringing them any closer. Rather, they seem to be floating past us, like cars on the opposite side of a freeway divider. I’m puzzling this over in my swirling brain, when the instructor smacks my shoulder and shouts “Go!
By this he means, “Get your men going!
In my fading delirium however, I take it quite literally. And in a mindless lunge, I hurl myself bodily into the freezing ether. I am now, officially, a complete fucking idiot.
What the hell did I just do?!!
Rather than being the last out the door, I am the first.
For three seconds, I tumble through the hard, slick, icy air. Then I am hoisted upward, abruptly but smoothly, by the risers above my shoulders and the straps between my legs (never underestimate the importance of proper testicular placement prior to any jump). The savage roar of the wind is instantly snuffed, replaced by the snap, pop, and ruffle of an unfurling parachute canopy overhead.
And just like that, I am cured of all maladies and imbalances. I am invigorated, breathlessly alive, clear-headed—and most of a damned MILE away from the four red lights to my left! A mile! Okay, maybe a kilometer. I’m barely a thousand feet up in the air by now, sinking at 22 feet per second, under a chute that will contribute only 10 mph of forward speed to my travel over the ground. And I’m over the frappin’ Ozark Mountains and forests at nearly midnight, a kilometer from the damned DZ!
I am dead! And the rest of “my men” are probably all crowded around the jump door right now, laughing and pointing, drinking champagne, and watching my lonely, unbelievably stupid parachute recede into the abyss by itself.
Well, the least I can do is turn myself toward the distant drop zone, and try to get as close as I can before plowing into some invisible cliff face in the dark. I line myself up with the little red lights—which seem to be mysteriously winking on and off now, as if something were passing in front of them—then turn my attentions to my pack release (the so-called “Red Apple,” a big, red, wooden knob located under the reserve chute on my chest). I find it, and give it a vigorous heave upward. It releases, and my 75-pound rucksack falls away, jerking to a stop at the end of its 20-foot tether.
I am looking straight down, watching it plunge into the inky blackness below, when something huge whooshes by my feet going the other way… fast. I twist around in my harness to see what it was. And in the feeble starlight, I barely make out the soft, tree-studded swayback of a ridgeline, backing away and rising steadily above me.
I have just swooped over the top of a ridgeline separating our drop zone from the next valley over! They put me out over the wrong valley! Couldn’t that pilot see how far away the DZ lights were when he hit the “Go” button?
Jesus, I am really screw…
Then it dawns on me. The speed with which the ridgeline shot past me has given it away.
They put me out “over there” because the winds are still howling at over twenty F’ing miles an hour! They put me out way upwind to allow the winds to carry me back to where I was supposed to be. That ridgeline flashed by me so fast because my chute’s built-in 10 mph forward speed was being added to the wind’s twenty- to twenty-five mph velocity. I have to slow the fudge down, right now, before I slam into the ground at over thirty horizontal miles an hour!
Quickly, I haul down on my right toggle-line, and the parachute responds with a languid turn to the right. And once the red lights are at my back, I let go of the line. I’m traveling backwards now. The wind is still shoving me towards the DZ at at least 20 mph, but my chute is now countering it with its own 10 mph. Which means I’m still going to hit the invisible ground at more than 10 mph, dropping at 22 feet per second, and going backwards!
Oh, this is going to leave a mark.
But I’ve now done all that I can do, and I look back down between my frozen feet in one last desperate effort to forewarn myself of the impending impact. It’s just darkness down there though. I can barely make out my toes, and with a little imagination, I think I can see my rucksack swinging like a pendulum twenty feet further below.
Suddenly, I hear a distant crunch, and my attention is momentarily transfixed by my rucksack, which is now bouncing away ahead of me—behind me—pulling its line taut in the process. It has found the ground first. Of course! I should have…
WHAM!!!
My heels catch something, and an instant later, my ass and head (apparently interchangeable on this night) smash into it in turn. With a bone-jarring crash and a bounce, I smack the ground like a great big camouflaged sack of loose change.
I hit and roll onto my side, most of the air bashed from my lungs. Ahead of me, I see my chute still fully and firmly inflated, dragging me towards the dark trees. My heavy rucksack is acting like an anchor though, furrowing its way along behind me, and slowing me down. And as I drag along between them, my stunned senses return enough for me to fumble for the riser-release buckles at each of my shoulders. They’re always such sticky sons-of-bitches, especially when there’s any tension on them. But tonight, the one on the left lets go right away. My chute goes limp, and flutters to the ground.
So do I.
Oh… God… damn,” I gasp.
I don’t tarry long, though. One thing that’s been thoroughly hammered into us since the start of this school is to “Never Be The Last.” There are a hundred push-ups waiting for the last man to the rally point—for the last man to do anything, really. And even though I suspect I may well be the only person from that C-130 that is not still on board it right now, well… a hundred push-ups is a hundred push-ups.
I struggle to my feet, assessing my every ache and pain as I start to disconnect things. First, my chute. I withdraw the folded B-4 bag I’d stowed among my crotch straps, and drop it on the ground. I unhook my rucksack tether, and toss the cord into the bag. Then, swooping one arm under the chute’s risers, I start to march towards the deflated canopy, alternating the swoops until the entire length of suspension lines and silken folds are daisy-chained around my arms, from pits to wrists. I’m only halfway through the process though, when I hear a curious sound wafting across the grain of the wind. A snapping, fluttering sound, followed by a discreet “oh shit,” and that flaccid bag-o-meat ka-flump! that goes along with a body slamming to earth. A string of “ow’s” and “shits” and other gut-punched four-letter utterances accompany a bumping, scuffing, scraping sound, all of which implies another arrival—comparable to mine—of another gallant sky-trooper. At least it looks like I didn’t leap alone.
I hurry my post-jump ministrations, dump my gathered chute into the B-4 bag, break the shoestring moorings of my GAU-5 and set it aside, then shuck my harness and helmet, and zip them up with the rest of the parachute paraphernalia in the bag. Only my reserve chute—a tight little “loaf” of green bundled material, about the size of an over-stuffed shoebox—remains outside the bag. I take it now, and hook its two clips onto the handles of the loaded B-4 bag.
Thump! Crunch! “Aw Christ!” Scuffle, drag, bump. “Son of a…”
Ah, another valiant ally. I shrug my way, painfully, into my bloated rucksack, slap my field cap on my head, chamber a round, and sling the GAU. Then I heave the stuffed B-4 bag over my head, with the connected reserve chute pulled down under my chin, and begin the long tromp over to the instructor’s jeep, idling at the rally point.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh…” Ka-flump! Bump-da bump! “Ouch! Mother…!” Draaaag.
Just six more heroes to go. I accelerate to a jouncing, jangling, flopping trot. Don’t want to do no push-ups. Not tonight. Everything hurts enough as it is.
The continuing arrivals fade in volume as I near the cluster of vehicles, where they sit purring steam into the frosty breeze. A jeep (for the instructors), a deuce-and-a-half (to carry off our bags), and the obligatory Meat Wagon or “Field Ambulance” (in case of injuries). It’s the rules.
Whump! “Ah, fuck!” Somewhere behind me.
Swish! Crunch! Ba-wump! “Aaauurrgggh! Shit!”
Oh yes, the professionals are on the job tonight.
I jog right up to the deuce, and heft my B-4 bag onto its bed. And suddenly, the remaining weapons and bullets and canteens and coats and radios and rucksacks still hanging on my body don’t seem so heavy anymore. Just to impress the observers with my mission focus then, I immediately drop to one knee, shed the ruck, unlatch its top-flap, exposing the PRC, and begin to set it up. A distant “son of a bitch!” trickles through the engine noises, and another “shit!” or two.
Yes indeedy, the gang’s all here.
The radio powers up, and once its little foot-long antenna has been attached, I find our mission freq and make a little signal check, knowing that no one’s going to answer it. Then, demonstrably satisfied with the state of my communications, I hook the handset onto a D-ring on my web gear, package everything back up, and pitch it all back onto my aching shoulders again. As I do, a thin and lonely shout filters in from the outfield.
“Medic! Medic!”
Damn! And things were going so well.
Cigarette embers arc out of the Meat Wagon’s windows as they drop the thing into gear, and trundle off into the darkness. Its headlights come on a moment later.
In the meantime, a couple more of my guys jog into the rally point, heave their bags onto the deuce, and plod over to me, trying gamely to stifle their puffing and panting in front of the instructors. Nobody says a thing about my premature ejection from the aircraft.
“Son of a bitch,” a somewhat less than reverent shadow gasps, “There’s no way that was thirteen knots of wind up there.”
“Thirteen?” the instructor behind the wheel of the jeep chuckles, “More like twenty-three, probably twenty-five when you went out that door. What the hell’s wrong with you dumbasses?”
We all stare at him, dumbstruck and speechless, while the steam chugs from our mouths. Like it was our idea or something! Clearly he’s kidding, in a cruel kind of way, but I know he’s seriously testing Rocky’s self-restraint. Little Rocky—Ricky Spradlin—our class’s designated feisty runt. Barely five feet tall, wired and wiry, fun but volatile. It figures he’s one of the first to the rally point. But right now he’s glaring at the instructor as if debating between decapitation, castration, or just a good old country ass-whoopin’. Trained, experienced, or not, I’d be hard-put to give the instructor even odds against a wound-up-and-wailing Little Rocky.
Another heavily burdened figure lumbers out of the darkness, and collapses against the truck’s tailgate. It’s Percy Hackett, my designated pacer, and the class’s official bitcher.
“Jesus… Christ,” he wheezes, “That about t’ killed me.”
“Almost,” somebody behind me sighs, evidently disappointed.
In the distance, twin spears of red light flare to life and begin to spin. The Meat Wagon’s emergency lights. Uh-oh. The instructor in the jeep’s right seat fumbles with his own radio for a moment, then mumbles something into the mike that’s buried deep in the meat of his huge fist.
“What’s up?” Hackett sniffs.
Silence for a moment, while the radio squawks and crackles behind us. Then Rocky speaks up for the rest of us. “What? You think we know something you don’t?”
“Looks like Torrero broke his leg,” the big instructor mutters disgustedly, tossing the radio mike onto the floorboard. Then, turning to face me, “Better figure out what he’s carrying, and start divvying it up among the rest of you.” His compassion is just breathtaking.
I don’t have to say the word “shit.” Hackett does it for me. Then he slaps the side of his GAU-5 in frustration, and fires a round into the dirt.
BANG!
Everybody jumps. Even the horse-with-no-name sitting in the jeep.
“What the…! Awww…” Hackett knows what’s coming next.
“Well now, that was just fucking brilliant,” the instructor—now standing—barks. “You know the drill, airman. Drop!”
“But… I…”
“Drop! And give me four-hundred!”
Four-hundred?!
“You heard me. You’re number eight. Now drop. And count it off, loud.”
“Shit.” Hackett snatches the errant GAU off his shoulder, and, thinking better of it only at the last second, refrains from spiking it into the ground, choosing instead to prop it delicately against one of the deuce’s tires.
“For some reason, I just don’t think that safety’s on, airman!”
Hackett stops, halfway to the ground, and swivels to snap the weapon’s safety on. You can hear his teeth grinding from clear over here. Then he’s on his hands and toes, pumping and counting.
“One, two, three, four, five…!”
Four-hundred push-ups. Jesus. But everybody knows the CCS Prime Directive: “There’s no excuse for a weapon going off unexpectedly. It’s loud. Bad guys can hear it. Good guys can get shot. So you will never, ever allow it to happen.” The first man to cap off an unscheduled round owed fifty push-ups, and each subsequent bonehead thereafter had to add fifty more to that of the one before (on the presumption that the only thing stupider than a moron banging one off like that, is another moron doing the same thing after he just saw somebody else doing a million push-ups). Hackett is the eighth bonehead in as many days to accidentally do it.
I was the second bonehead of the class, back on the afternoon of the second day in the field. Looking back on it now, it’s a trade-off I’m only too happy to have made—the humiliation of being one of the first to screw up, in lieu of being one of the last, and having to do push-ups for the rest of my military career.
From out of the midnight gloom comes an impossible silhouette; what appears to be an eight-foot-high mountain of luggage, swaying up to the deuce, and crumpling onto its bed. It turns out to be good old Greg Dorn, staggering under the burden of his own load plus a second B-4 bag bloated with Torrero’s discarded jump gear. He’s breathing hard, but still radiating enough gung-ho calmness and bottled energy to carry it all right back out there again.
“… twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two…” says Hackett.
Greg doesn’t even look down as he steps towards me around Hackett’s pumping form. He straightens his field cap—God forbid he should appear mussed after the diversions of the last two hours—and drops his gloved hands to his hips. “Torrero landed right after me. Landed with the wind. Almost overshot the whole DZ in the dark. Hit hard, and headfirst. I could hear the bone snap from clear over where I was standing. They’re gonna’ have to evac him to Little Rock General.”
“Shit,” we all reply in unison.
“Forty, forty-one, forty-two…” says Hackett.
Great. I haven’t even started the night overland portion of the frag, and I’m already down to 80% of my original force. One guy’s getting a bumpy ride off the DZ with his leg in a splint—and, as luck would have it, he’s the guy that volunteered to carry the other damned prick—and another’s just begun an hour’s worth of push-ups. The mission clock’s about to start ticking as soon as the last ambulatory member of the team reaches the RP and finishes his push-ups for being last. I’m freezing, and hopping back and forth on clubfeet. It’s after midnight in the shivering depths of an Arkansas December, and I can no longer remember why I’m here.
Dammit!
Right now—at this very moment in time—I’ve got friends, going to college down in Gainesville, Florida, that are probably getting laid, right now, even as we speak! Well, truth be told, knowing them, they’re probably playing Dungeons & Dragons or something equally geekish. But that’s not the point. The point is that they—and the rest of the world, for that matter—are comfortable right now, zoned out in front of the TV, rolling dice, or making the bed springs squeak—whatever—even as we wage our miserable little pretend-war out here on this wind-whipped field, debating alternatives to my brilliant mission plan and ignoring Hackett’s push-ups as they slow and quiet behind us. He’s barely finished his first fifty.
Fuck me.
Two more human pack-mules stagger out of the darkness, shrug their bags onto the truck, chuckle at Hackett’s fading exertions, and approach our huddle with Torrero’s rucksack carried between them. The divvying up begins—his lights and lens covers, the anemometer, and of course, that goddamned prick. As if everyone’s loads were not absurdly heavy enough already.
Hackett is on his hands and knees, cursing and gasping furiously—he hasn’t quite reached eighty yet, and this is already his third pause—when the last two guys finally barrel out of the darkness, racing each other to avoid the ignominy of being the dreaded Last Guy. The Head Instructor decides they’re both a couple of losers, and now we have three exhausted people counting off push-ups together.
As they’re pumping, another instructor announces that the mission clock has just been started. We now have two hours to be completely set up and lit up on our anonymous little stretch of dirt backroad, which is still five klicks away. I sigh, and call for everyone to saddle up and start moving. We’ve got several minutes of marching just to get to the edge of the DZ where I’d designated our overland to begin. Our two last-place pusher-uppers can catch up to us before we reach the trees. Hackett is just going to have to be a write-off. We can’t wait for him.
Rocky, my point man, takes the cue, and immediately starts trotting towards the DZ’s southeast corner. The rest of us are hard-pressed to even keep him in sight, as it’s always been throughout the entire course whenever Li’l Rocky has taken the lead. Behind us, the two Last Guys finish their respective fifty each, and scramble back into their gear to follow us. Hackett is a limp rag, paused yet again and gasping, his own count stalled at just over a hundred. The instructors though, taking all things into account, decide to waive the rest of his calisthenic debt, and release him to join us.
And so begins the overland odyssey.

The last two arrivals catch up to us before we’ve even moved fifty yards. Hackett comes wheezing up to our little parade just before we reach the tree line, and slumps into the number four slot, right behind me, puffing, panting, and cussing up a storm. In a hushed tone, I interrupt his fuming to remind him that (a) this is supposed to be a covert move, so keep it down—the instructors are still with us—and (b) here’s the edge of the DZ, so start your pace count now.
It’s the latter point that re-focuses his seething energy, moreso than the former, and the profanity fades into the darkness along with the rest of us.
We seem then, for the moment at least, to finally be on-track. Everybody together—well, all but one, anyway—everything in place. Nothing to do now but cover the distance discreetly, and call it a night.
Sometimes I can just be so naïve.
For starters, I now see that I have “over-tacticalized” the move. What can I say? This is the first tactical overnight land march we’ve done since the class began. I have no precedent to follow. Considering the distance to be covered, and the time constraints under which we’re operating, it’s overkill to keep nine heavily burdened men in a tree-to-tree half-crouch the whole way. Probably not accomplishing much with those two flankers that I’ve got paralleling us either, about ten yards out on either side of the column. Just begging to lose them somewhere along the line. But right now, with three instructors strolling among us in the pitch black of the forest, and so little time to get where we want to go, I can’t think of a good “tactical” way to undo what’s been overdone. So we forge ahead as is.
Then Hackett starts to bitch again. Despite the silence we’re all striving so hard for here, not to mention the omnipresence of the instructors, he’s just at the end of his tether. He’s so pissed off, so exhausted, and now so utterly beside himself, what with the frustration of not being able to keep a current pace count with all the stopping and starting, ducking and darting, circumnavigating low hills and clambering over invisible fallen logs, that he just can’t help himself. But I’m feeling battered enough myself—so sore, cold, shaky-kneed weak, and deeply bone-tired—that I’m no longer willing to let that kind of shittiness go unchecked. And after a couple more sharp whispers at him to keep it down, I finally rap the side of my weapon twice—the signal to drop and freeze—and scamper back beside him.
One of the instructors ambles up next to us like a curious cow.
“What’s the count up to right now?” I ask Hackett.
“I don’t know,” he fusses, “Somethin’ like nineteen-fifty.”
Good. 1,950 paces. At roughly 11 paces per 10 yards—my own personal measured standard—that’s roughly a mile. 1.6 klicks out of 5. That’s good enough for me. “Fine. You’re fired.”
“What?”
“You’re fired. I’ll take the pace count from here. You go relieve Sgt. Donado at rear-guard.”
“What the hell do you think you’re…?”
“Shut up. I’m sick of your bitching. Go to the rear… now.” Then, without waiting for his next response, I stand up, rap my weapon again, and signal a forward march. Nobody else says a word. Even Hackett’s receding outrage is subdued. I’ve never done anything like that before in my life, and I’m too mentally obliterated to take any pride or relief from it right now. But the rigors of the evening finally feel a little less trying without the incessant sparks flying off the man behind me. The march itself doesn’t get even a little bit easier.
We cross several dirt roads along the way. In each case, Rocky brings us to a stop, and silently signals me with the nature of the problem. I invariably signal him to do a quick reconnoiter, then make the crossing once he’s sure it’s clear. We all know there’s not going to be anybody out on these roads at two in the morning, but you never know what the instructors might pull. Maybe I’m not being too tactical about all this.
Then one by one—with each of us acting “terribly intent” about not being observed—we dart across the road into the far side scrub. It takes a few minutes to get everybody across this way, and that’s annoying for everybody, including me. But I’m not willing to drop our guard now, just because we’re all dead exhausted and fed up with this nightmare deployment. After all, the instructors are with us for a reason. If they weren’t, we could all just be crashing through the woods, flashlights waving all over the place, shouting dirty jokes at one another, and it wouldn’t make any difference, as long as we made the LZ in good time. So there’s a legitimate purpose to all this super-stealthy play-acting.
A couple of small clearings break up the march as well, but we can’t just blithely stroll across the open areas just because it’d be easier. People get killed when they make themselves an easy target. So we have to circle each clearing, just inside the trees, and that delays things even more. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at estimating distances, even when they’re not line-of-sight. I’m also pretty adept at picking a notable landmark on the far side of each clearing from which to resume our straight march, and this precludes me having to “estimate” when we’ve circled far enough. And as a final bonus, I’m the only one in the group who seems to understand “celestial navigation” on night maneuvers, which means I don’t have to keep my eyes on my compass all the damned time. The result of all this is a strong inner confidence that, despite the detours and diversions, we are still on-track, and accurately on pace. I have a very clear picture in my head of the map from which this mission was derived, and I’m certain I could pinpoint our exact location on it at any time.
Crossing the open strip beneath a promenade of high-tension power lines confirms all this for me. We’re a little later getting to it than I’d presumed, but I know right where we are, and it seems there’s finally a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

On the pro side of the ledger, my navigational confidence pays off when we finally break out of the woods right at the beginning (or end) of the straightaway portion of our target road. Our “LZ.” On the con side, thanks to all my hyper-consciousness on max-tactical movement, it has taken us an hour-and-fifty minutes just to get here. And the instructors had only given us two hours in which to finish the entire mission.
Time to scramble.
I call the team into a huddle, set up a quick, close, temporary perimeter, and have the guy carrying Torrero’s anemometer take a fast wind reading. While he’s doing that, I have another guy shoot a quick compass bearing down the edge of the road. And when both of them give me their findings, the numbers vary by only ten-to-fifteen degrees. The road is running northeast-to-southwest, with us hunkered down at its northeast end. And the wind is slicing through us from behind, running almost straight down the road itself. So the decision is easy.
Okay, this is the departure end of the runway,” I whisper. “We’ll deploy in reverse order from this point, heading that way.” I refer to the pencil markings on my map, waving my red-lensed flashlight at it. And based on our pre-planned runway placement—which takes into account the positions of the tallest trees relative to the aircraft’s approach and departure routes—I determine that our approach end lights will wind up right about where our fictional Green Beret team is supposed to be waiting.
Command Post will be down there, at the approach end, on this side. Corbin, since you’ve got Torrero’s ‘prick’ now, you switch with Haley, and drop your lights here, on the far side of the road. Over there. Haley, you just drop yours further down, in this area. Just follow the obvious sequence.” Haley grunts disgustedly. He’s the senior-most of the four remaining NCOs, and is clearly pissed at having to take my orders. Right now though, I just don’t give the intercourse of a flying rodent. “I’ll call for lights-on on team channel five as soon as the aircraft calls ten minutes out. Any questions?
Nothing but sulking and heavy breathing. “Okay. Let’s go.”
With the instructors moseying casually right down the middle of the road then, we head out. Half the team scampers across to the far side of the road, while my half parallels it on the near side. Every so many hundred feet, one of the guys appears at the road’s edge, drops an Elco light in place, then ducks back into the shadows. And after so many lights, with his own supply depleted, he drops off from the moving pack altogether and waits in the weeds, watching over his lights. It takes almost fifteen painstaking minutes to work our way all the way down to the opposite end of the LZ this way, but when we finally get there, it’s just Sgt. Donado, two instructors, and me. I hustle to set up my radio and establish a defensible position, while Sal drops a perpendicular line of three lights, stepping away from each side of the runway, and caps them all with green “approach end” lens covers.
One of the instructors—clearly as eager as the rest of us to call it a night already—walks up to me, and immediately starts talking like an inbound pilot calling on my radio.
“Padlock Control, this is Coil Zero-One on point-seven, radio check, over.”
I feel pretty danged stupid talking into my dead handset and pretending like it’s not my instructor I’m addressing, but I do it anyway. “Coil Zero-One, this is Padlock Control. You’re loud and clear. Go ahead.”
“Padlock,” the instructor answers, “We’ve been holding out here about fifteen minutes now. What’s your status, over?”
This is bullshit, of course. If an aircraft had actually arrived in our vicinity before we were fully set up, its pilot wouldn’t have waited until now to contact us. This is just a jab at me personally, pointing out the fact that I’ve already blown the deadline by five minutes. And right now, that just pisses me off. I act as though he never said anything about it at all.
“Coil 01, LZ and assets are in place. Runway zero-five in use. Wind zero-six-zero at one-five, gusting to two-zero. Altimeter unknown. Ready for lights-on at your call.”
“Roger that, Padlock. We’re three minutes out, on wide downwind to runway zero-five right now. Lights on, please.”
This instructor is definitely ready to get this night over with. I am only too happy to oblige. I quickly rechannelize to Team Channel five, and make one short transmission. “Lights on, lights on.” Then Sal and I both hustle over to our own Elcos, and one by one, start snapping them on. At the far distant end of the runway, where Airman Corbin has heard me on the other PRC, lights begin to wink on at the same time. And shortly thereafter, one by one, the lights in between start to fill in.
I’m too preoccupied at first to notice it, but by the time Sal and I are hunkered down around the radio again, our weapons aimed outward as if we’re actually thinking about defending our position, it becomes apparent that something’s gone wrong.
All the runway lights—with the exception of the lines of green approach lights next to Sal and me, and a single dim red light at the departure end—are white. Uncapped. There should be two strands of red rollout lights, similar to our green ones, running perpendicular away from either side of the runway’s far end. But there’s not. The lights are all there, but with that one dull red exception, they’re all white.
Shit. The instructor has noticed it too. Where are the colored lights?
I call Corbin on the PRC, and he says he’ll go check. More time passes. In fact, six more minutes transpire, running us further and further over the deadline. But no one can find the missing red lenses… until someone goes and looks at that lone red-capped light on the far left. And there they find all six of the red lenses, stacked atop that one light. This explains why the light had appeared so dim, but doesn’t explain how anyone could have not noticed an eight-inch-tall stack of lenses towering above a single light.
Everybody’s pissed. The instructors are downright abusive. But the lenses finally get distributed, and our runway is officially declared operative… two hours and eleven minutes after the clock started.
We have failed. I have failed.
Now I’m depressed. On top of everything else, now I’m feeling like whale shit too. No longer just cold, aching, dog tired, and overwhelmed by the sudden leap in my responsibilities, I am now mortified and weighed down by guilt as well. Because, bottom line, I have dropped the ball. For everybody. Which means we’ve all failed, and will have to do the whole damned thing all over again.
Shuffling around like zombies, we gather up our scattered equipment, and haul it back to the deuce-and-a-half that has magically appeared on our runway. Everything is dumped aboard, the exhausted team clambers up after it, and I find my own seat among them, silent and alone in the gloomy crowd. We are trucked back to our dark campsite, somewhere between two and three o’clock in the frigid, blustery morning, and retreat to our individual tents.
I don’t even undress. I just claw my way into my sleeping bag, coats, gloves, and boots still soaked and frozen to me, and collapse into the death sleep of the emotionally riven.

Remind me again—what the hell am I doing here?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2 - AUTHOR'S NOTE



A LITTLE BACKGROUND IN THE FOREGROUND
Author’s Note


Everything you’re about to read is true. All of it.
I made none of these stories up, nor any of the characters in them.
Everything really happened as described. Really…
… to the best of my memory, anyway.

Granted, a single person’s recollection of events is never a perfect resource, especially mine, but that’s the only resource I called upon in the writing of this account. So, yes, it will come with all the slanted perspectives, embellishments of time, and paraphrased dialogue of the world as viewed first through my 19- and 20-year-old eyes, then later retold through my 50-year-old filters. For these events occurred in 1977 and 1978, but weren’t committed to paper until the early to mid 2000s.
And yes, I’ve taken the usual step of changing the names of the very real people that were involved, not only to protect their innocence and anonymity, but also because, for the most part, I’ve forgotten most of their real names by now anyway. To tell you the truth, I’m actually more concerned that some of the fictitious names I’ve chosen for them might have come precariously close to their real names. And if that did happen, then allow me to apologize in advance—I didn’t mean to do that.
But I’ve also taken the additional step of trying to imbue this memoir with not only all of the original emotion, reasoning and rationales of these moments in time, but also with every bit of my own frequently appalling ignorance as well. Sure, I can look back now and understand what happened in the context of unfolding history, or with the 20/20 hindsight of the future looking back on the past. And I could portray these events—and especially these amazing characters—with all the depth and generosity afforded by time and my own evolving maturity.


But I’ve chosen not to do that here.


I’ve made it a point to relive these adventures in the dim, narrow, and often shortsighted light of the moment. And I did this not only out of a personal desire for truth in this depiction, but also because, well—so many of the choices I made and the actions I took at the time were based on that very ignorance, and as such, cannot be explained any other way.
So here it all is, warts, boogers, zits and tears, and everything in between.
All of it. I promise.

Secondly, let’s set the record straight about something else that’s even more important to me than all the “biased honesty” mentioned above. And that is this…
Though this most definitely is the story of my brief but eventful membership in the elite fraternity of America’s special forces, what it is not is a suggestion about my suitability for the job. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Because, to put it succinctly, I sucked at it. And I knew it.
Hence the title of this book.
So let me make sure that everyone gets that, especially the real Spec Ops troops out there who have dedicated their lives—and I do mean their lives—to this very dangerous but vital and noble career choice:

I do not count myself among your ranks.

I am not, and never was, in your league. Not even at the peak of my involvement or enthusiasm. I was a dabbler, and nothing more, a curious onlooker who stuck his nose far enough in the door that I wound up getting completely sucked in, and spent the next year-and-a-half just hanging on for dear life. This wasn’t some gallant crusade on my part, some lifelong dream, or a grand quest for a cause that I deeply believed in. It was just a chance for me to play G.I. Joe to the extreme, to jump out of some airplanes, and to play with some loud toys. That’s all. And I took it. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did. And now… well… now there’s this story to tell.
The funny part is—at least for the purposes of this book—the extent to which I was so monumentally unqualified for the job of Air Force Combat Controller is precisely the extent to which I am so very qualified to describe it now. This is simply because, unlike my dedicated classmates and mission-oriented teammates at the time, I was more of a “regular guy” than they ever were, more of a band nerd than a jock, more of a wannabe than an oughta-be, and everybody knew it. None moreso than me.
They were GREAT. I was just THERE.
So, if you, dear reader, are or ever were a member of this fraternal elite yourself, be you Ranger, Recon or SEAL, Green Beret, CCT or Delta—if this is or ever was your true calling in life—then you have my undying respect and admiration. Truly. I am proud and honored to have known such people as you, to have worked beside you, and I am exalted to have been (however inappropriately) counted among you.
But you probably won’t enjoy this little collection of reminiscences very much.
For one thing, it was a weird time historically. And for another, as I might have mentioned already, I sucked at it.
Sure, our equipment and methodologies were relatively primitive compared to today, but worst of all, I personally wasn’t in it for the right reasons. I wasn’t focused or properly motivated, I had no objective other than to ‘see what it was like,’ and bottom line, I just wasn’t very good at it. I was just in it for the ride… as you’ll soon enough see.
If, however, you are not a member of this elite brotherhood—if everything you know and appreciate about this nation’s finest warriors is what you’ve read in books, or seen in the movies or on the Discovery Channel—well, you might like this a little better. Because this is what it looks like from the inside (or looked like back in the 70s, anyway) through the eyes of someone more like you. Namely, me. If your curiosity had pushed you that one extra step further, and you’d ventured into this arena yourself—just for a bit, just for a taste—this is what you would have seen and done.
This is the story of a regular old slightly weird everyday guyme, a moderately intelligent and athletic, but otherwise unheroic, ignoble, and generally clueless standard-issue guy—who crossed over, briefly, into a realm of silent greatness, who had to push himself far beyond his every boundary just to even exist among these people, and who, in his very brief exposure to this lifestyle, saw and did more than he ever believed himself capable.
This is the story of A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing.

And finally, one last thing that I think it’s important you know before we get started here—namely, who and what I was before all this happened.

Have you ever seen the movie Empire of the Sun, directed by Steven Spielberg? It’s a fabulous movie—one of his best, in my opinion, and my personal favorite from his vast catalog of stunning masterpieces. It starred a young Christian Bale—who would later grow up to play Batman, in Batman Returns—in an absolutely astonishing tour de force of acting, especially for a kid in his early teens at the time.
For those of you who’ve never seen this film, Christian played the pampered son—or perhaps more like the “spoiled-rotten heir”—to a wealthy British diplomat, in China, just before the Japanese invasion and the outbreak of World War II. He’d always lived in exotic locales around the world, had never known personal hardship, and had always had doting parents, servants, expensive toys, and a thorough, tutored education. He wasn’t a bad kid—he was bright, inquisitive, intelligent, and polite—he was a Boy Scout, and he was big into aviation. But he’d never known suffering, denial or privation, nor violence or loss in his lifetime. And he’d sure as hell never had to survive.
So, he was basically a good-natured but unscarred mama’s boy… just like me.
In the movie, the Japanese invaded mainland China, and in the panicked rush of civilians clogging the streets and bridges of Shanghai, trying to escape ahead of the rolling tanks, our child-hero got separated from his parents, and suddenly found himself alone in a terrifying and hostile world… parents gone, house empty, no servants or even neighbors to call upon—they’d all been rounded up by the Japanese—and with the last of the food rotting in the dead refrigerator.
Then, on the verge of starvation and madness, he was befriended by a pair of scrappy Americans, scroungers laying low and flying under the Japanese radar, played by Jon Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano. And he was with them when they too were rounded up by the Japanese, and sent off to a prison camp outside the city… where they remained for the next 5, 6, 7 years or so, until the end of the war and the surrender of the Japanese.
It’s an amazing story, following this coddled kid’s painful growth into a worldly and self-sufficient survivor. Combined with his love of all things aeronautic—and his absolute worship of the P-51 Mustang, “the Cadillac of the Skies!”—the whole thing just resonated with me like a tuning fork struck right between my eyes.
Because that kid was me at that age.

Although my mother and father were by no means wealthy during my childhood and adolescence—quite the opposite, in fact—they were still loving, attentive, and protective, and had created a home, a “safe zone,” that I could always return to for comfort and security. My mother was a hands-on full-time home-maker, and, with four kids (spanning ten years) in the brood by the time I’d “come of age,” she was a busy and dedicated steward of our developing lives. My father, on the other hand, was a Professor of Geology at the University of Miami, a co-inventor of the modern carbon-14 dating process, a workaholic, and a logical and erudite atheist. So, between Mom’s loving, compassionate, and nurturing encouragement, and Dad’s intelligence, his ability to explain the complex, and his dry and blistering sarcastic wit, I got the best of both barrels all the way up into adulthood.
But I’d never once been in a fight. Not once. I’d never so much as thrown a punch—not even in the near-daily scraps with my punky younger brother—and, truth be told, I didn’t even like contact sports much. I was athletic as hell, mind you—I was nimble, fast (second-fastest in my entire large high school, in fact), strong, and coordinated—but I never liked anything that was “high-impact,” like tackle football… or fighting. So I simply never did those.
I was smart, though—relatively speaking—got good grades (at least until my senior year, when I just quit trying), enjoyed “public speaking,” played the guitar, piano and trombone, and was a member of both the AV and Chess Teams.
Yes, I was that high a degree of nerd, my friends.
I never learned to “drink.” Nothing ‘moral’ about it; just a set of taste buds that utterly rebelled at the horrifically bitter taste of alcohol, in any form. Period. Couldn’t even stand the smell of it. The same with drugs. And that missing piece from the puzzle of my youth, combined with my natural tendency to overthink and fret over everything, meant that I never knew an uninhibited moment in any social situations… so I never got comfortable with them. I never went to any parties, never learned (or wanted to learn) to dance, was ridiculously slow and cautious in developing the few close friendships I ever had, and was terrible with women. I couldn’t get a date with a girl at gunpoint, and I was a virgin until I was 19, when—as Neil Diamond put it—“I became a man at the hands of a woman almost twice my age.”
(Actually, she was exactly twice my age)
So, I was a social oaf and a self-imposed outcast, a teetotaler (except that I hated tea as well), an atheist, and a band geek, all wrapped up in a strong, nimble, six-foot-tall, broad-shouldered, greasy-haired, blue-eyed body. I wasn’t hard to look at, I could be funny at times, and I was even fairly artistic, but in just a few too many ways, I didn’t fit in anywhere. And when my senior year finally rolled around, I needed somewhere to go.

My family had taken a huge roadtrip—from Miami to San Francisco to Seattle, then on to Butte, Denver and Chicago, with a long haul back home again—in the summer of ’74, between my junior and senior years in high school. And one of the stops along the way was a tour of the Air Force Academy outside Boulder, Colorado. I’d always thought that flying fighters would be cool (although, in reality, what I really wanted to be was an arcade pilot, where the job was little more than a competitive and abstract test of skills, not an actual life-and-death struggle for aerial supremacy or the defense of a nation), and Dad was desperate to motivate me to improve my grade point average somehow.
Unfortunately, the gesture backfired… for both of us. The campus, while lovely, was austere and intimidating to me. The curriculum was daunting, to say the least, and the rigid discipline and martial ardor had me ready to bolt down the mountain—on foot, if need be—long before the tour was over. And as it turned out, the loss of this central aspiration of mine really unhinged what little work ethic I had left. Throughout my miserable senior year then, my grades just plummeted. Fact is, I came one “special project” short of failing 12th grade altogether.
But graduate I did, and I left high school at a sprint, determined to never look back. I also forgot all about my dreams of becoming the world’s greatest fighter ace, and concentrated instead on struggling through my first year in college.
I hated college too, though. Most people find that appalling, especially considering that, since my father was a professor at the local university—just one leisurely mile from our house, through the shaded streets of Coral Gables—my tuition (and housing) were free! All my poor, struggling parents had to pay for was my books! And all I had to do was show up interested!
But I just friggin’ hated it. I had no interest in anything, career-wise, never did figure out what my major should be, and after only a semester-and-a-half, in February of 1976, I just quit going.
I fully understood the meaning of The Bigger Picture when my father repeatedly shouted, “But it’s FREE!,” but that didn’t make me want it any more. And when, later that year, I quit the unique job I’d held for some time at the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, he reached the end of his tether, and laid down an ultimatum: if you’re not working or going to school by September, you’ll be paying rent here.
I celebrated this pronouncement by taking the last of what little money I’d managed to save, pooled it with that of my best friend “Eldon” (yes, his name’s been changed as well), and we headed out in my tired old '70 Ford Maverick on a “Last Fling” kind of roadtrip up the east coast. No real plan, other than to see if we could push it all the way up to Montreal, Canada, where they were holding the Olympics that year, before we ran out of money. And though, in hindsight, it wound up being a “funny story”—full of stupid misadventures, the inconvenient repercussions of thundering off into the void without a plan, and limping home, exhausted, broke, blatting along on a blown exhaust gasket, sick to death of that lone ABBA cassette that we’d played over and over and over again in a desperate bid to stay awake, and dead tired of each other—at the time it didn’t seem “funny” at all.
I was actually pretty damned angry and disgusted with myself.
What a loser I was!
Well, one day, a week or two before we’d left Miami on that cursed odyssey, I’d dropped in on an Air Force recruiter, entirely on an offhanded whim, and looking to have just one last question answered by him… namely; was there any way at all for me to become a fighter pilot without a college degree? Maybe some semi-secret “backdoor route,” where you’re judged on your innate flying skills, or your hand-eye coordination, or your spatial recognition and split-second decision-making prowess, or anything other than your ability to maintain a C+ average in school.
The recruiter thought that was pretty funny.
No. In order to be a pilot, you had to be an officer. And in order to be an officer, you had to have a college degree. Period. No special handshakes or secret words or winks from your Congressman—just get that pigskin, then come talk to us.
Fine. Good enough for me. That was all I needed to hear. My flying career in the U.S. Air Force was gone, and I could accept that.
I was rising to head out the door then, when he slapped a long piece of paper, slathered top to bottom in small print, on his desktop, and said, “But why don’t you see what kind of jobs you would be qualified for? Come on. Just for curiosity’s sake. It’ll take you two minutes.”
And I, being the unassertive tower of jello that I was, just couldn’t think of a polite (or believably fictitious) way to squirm out of it (heaven forefend that I should just say 'no thanks,' and leave), and I sat back down to read through the list.
Over 200 different enlisted jobs, 99.5% of which were entirely unappealing. But, since he was waiting and staring into my face while I read, I finally pointed to the .5% one, and said, “That might be interesting.”
He spun the paper around, and read it out loud. “Air Traffic Control. Oo, good one. A tough one. Wanna’ see if you’d qualify?”
“Well, no, I… I’ve got this… thing I’ve got to…”
“Come on. What could it hurt? Go take a written test—it’s free, you pick the date, and they’ll provide the boxed lunch. No strings attached, no signature required on nuttin’! Just for curiosity’s sake… just to see how you stack up.”
He apparently knew an easily cornered weenie when he saw one, because, just to get that visit over with, I knuckled under and agreed to take the damned test. Two weeks later, I slogged through the four-hour knowledge and skill test, and without waiting to learn the results, I headed out with Eldon on our ill-fated road trip the very next day.
And I forgot all about that test… until the day we sputtered and wheezed back into my driveway, and shut down that nasty, cat-piss-smellin’, bulldozer-soundin’ Maverick for the last time… finally… after two hellish weeks on the road.
By then—at the depths of my exhaustion, disgust and self-loathing—I was ready to do something… anything to put my loser-life back on track again. And that’s when that test came back to mind.
They should have the results back by now!
The very next day, I returned to that recruiter’s office. And sure enough, the results were back… and my overall score was high enough that I’d qualified for all BUT two jobs—the two rejects being Vehicle Maintenance, and Accounting (no surprises there). So, if I wanted it, I could sign up that day, and be a full-time practicing air traffic controller by that same time next year! Maybe not quite the same as being a pilot, but I’d get to tell pilots where to go, and at the end of four years, I’d have a whole career waiting for me with the FAA.
Sold!

The point of all this is, I didn’t go into the Air Force following a lifelong dream, or seeking some noble “higher ground” for which to strive. I wasn’t trying to better myself, or dedicate myself to the defense of my homeland. I went in because, at the time, I hated myself too much to keep doing what I was doing, and I didn’t have any other “outs” lined up as an alternative.
Within a month, I was sworn in on Delayed Enlistment, and six months after that, I was headed off for Basic Training—right where this story begins.
On the day that I left Miami for good, I’d never even heard of “Combat Control,” didn’t even know the Air Force had its own “special forces,” and had no inclination toward doing anything other than learning how to talk to airplanes, and telling officers where to go. I’d still never been in a fight, still never lived anywhere other than my parents’ house, and was scared shitless as the day of departure marched closer.

Yep, that was me. That was the guy that “led” those nine other men out the door of that C-130 into the night skies north of Little Rock ten months later.

How the hell did that happen?

That ought to make one hell of a story… don’t you think?




Steve Stipp
December 26th, 2008

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Story I: PARADIGM SHIFT

I
PARADIGM SHIFT

1
March, 1977
Miami, Florida
AN ABYSSAL THRESHOLD

So…
I’m cool. I’m terrified. Take your pick. It all seems to depend on whether I’m inhaling or exhaling at the moment. But I’m definitely “there,” baby.
I’m cruising—we’re cruising—just me, my Mom, and my baby brother Gavin. He’s nine, going on ten, but to me he’s still my little “baby” brother. And we’re cruising through the streets of Miami at eight in the morning, in our two-tone white-over-blue ’76 AMC Pacer. We’re on our way to the Military Induction Center off Bird Road. I’m wearing my best tan polyester slacks, a dark brown faux-silk shirt festooned with writhing tape measures—go figure—and white deck shoes.
How do you get any cooler than that?
What had seemed so simple and trivial—more like casual, even cavalier, actually—just six months ago when I’d first signed up with the Air Force on their Delayed Enlistment Program, has now suddenly become unnervingly real. And huge! Too big to face with a full bladder, in fact.
Today I’m going into the friggin’ military, for Criminy sakes! Well, the Air Force, anyway. Vanishing into The Machine. For some reason that I can no longer remember, I’m voluntarily abandoning the warm, comfortable, familiar womb of home—cutting the proverbial umbilical—and striking out on my own. Or something like that.
So why does it feel like the womb’s abandoning me?
We’re a family of six—three boys, one girl, and two parents—yet only half of us are present in this car right now. This is one hell of a momentous occasion for me, the crossing of an abyssal threshold. Yet there’s just Mom behind the wheel, and baby brother Gavin sitting stony quiet in the back seat, along for the ride to see me off. You’d think the event would warrant at least a token family gesture—five bored hands waving at the curbside—something! Anything!
But this is it. Amazing.
At a time like this, why can’t anybody in this car think of anything to talk about?

We pass Coral Gables High School on the right. All my closest friends went there. One of them still does—he’s probably in there right now, in fact. The rest are all off at college.
Damn. What the hell am I doing?
As we cross Le Jeune Road, I point out our turn, coming up on the right in three blocks. It’s a crappy little two-block-long “street,” little more than a cracked two-lane alleyway between the back doors of some ugly, old, whitewashed, windowless, square buildings. And among them is the Military Induction Center. I know this because this is where I had to go, first, to take my Qualification Test some nine months ago (which determined what Air Force jobs I was even eligible for), and second, to take my physical and get sworn in six months ago. I’ve been on Delayed Enlistment ever since, marking time at home, and awaiting my slot into their Air Traffic Control School. Theoretically now, presuming all goes as planned, I should finish Basic Training just in time for that slot to open up, and be able to step right into it on the next class cycle.
Theoretically.

Mom wheels the Pacer onto that shitty little side street, and snuggles against the curb, idling warily up to the Center’s doors. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels more like we’re rolling up on the back door of some seedy old speakeasy or something. And it’s only now that I realize just how rapidly I’m breathing. Hell, I’m almost hyperventilating!
I’ve decided that I want to delay my enlistment some more. A whole lot more.
I’m flashing back to my first time on a high-dive platform—those final pulse-pounding seconds, balanced atop the flexing board, looking down at the distant surface of the pool as if it were the Atlantic Ocean viewed from orbit—weighing the pros and cons of Retreat versus The Plunge, The Humiliation versus The Terror.
I’ve gotten this far on momentum alone, it seems, moving forward on the abstract impetus of “Going To Be A Soldier Some Day.” Some day. But now that day is here. There’s The Door, right there. Right now. The mouth of the beast. The feeder port of the machine. And there ain’t nothin’ abstract about that.
The Pacer crunches to a stop. Two guys, sharing one last smoke just outside “The Door,” grant us only a passing glance before returning to their own final rites of freedom. It’s not yet 8:00am, and this entire ugly, blank, sun-bleached backstreet is empty—deserted—save for the two smokers, my Mom, my baby brother, this doofy-looking Pacer… and me.
And the next move is all mine.

Nobody moves to follow me out the door. No last curbside hug for Stevie. We covered all that back at the house. Got places to go, things to do. Mom offers some final words of love and encouragement—for some reason, I can’t seem to read her emotions right now—but she doesn’t move from behind the wheel. Then Gavin hands me an envelope with “To Steve” written on the front of it in his childish scrawl, and tells me to read it later when I’ve got the time. He’s still being uncharacteristically quiet.
And then we’re done. Apparently. A couple of awkward seconds spent staring at each other makes that painfully clear. Then I’m out of the car.
I guess the umbilical has just been snipped.

2
A GOOFY KINDERGARTNER AGAIN

It’s noon. We’re now four hours into the process of in-processing, and they’re finally letting us take a break. I’m hunched on a metal folding chair, one of roughly thirty that fill the building’s large central room like the seating for an AA meeting. I’ve got a boxed lunch gutted in my lap, and I’m gnawing on a flaccid, triangle-cut, ham-and-cheese sandwich. A mini-bag of chips is splayed open in the box, an apple is balanced between my knees, and a one-pint carton of milk is sitting atop my paperwork stacked on the seat next to me. And I feel stupid. I feel like a goofy kindergartner again.
I’ve spent the entire morning making the circuit of the smaller rooms that surround this big “hub room,” interviewing with recruiters, getting briefed by what I presume are military lawyers, and saying “ah” for medical corpsmen… filling out paperwork, affixing signatures, wiping fingerprinting ink off my fingers, and of course, “droppin’ ‘em and spreadin’ ‘em.” Oh yeah, there’s nothing more life-affirming and ego-building than standing naked in a chorus line of skinny hippies, and doing the conveyor-belt version of “turn your head and cough.” And I’m here to tell you, a bored male nurse tasked with doing nothing but hernia checks all morning, a half dozen guys at a time, is none too gentle when he gets around to ramming those fingers up behind your hairy sack.
If you’ll pardon my Lebanese.
But the point is, I don’t feel one step closer to the military now than I did when I first came through That Door. I still look like a shaggy civilian—all the more so among these confident, organized, razor-sharp, machine-like Military Personnel that have been herding us around like cattle. And this artless, soulless building, with its buffed-but-yellowing checkerboard floor, scuffed white baseboards, and stock airplane/submarine/ aircraft carrier/tank photographs dangling from every wall, just depresses me.
Not unlike most of these other scraggly looking specimens, I’m sure, I… well, truth be told, I miss my mommy. In a grown-up, macho sorta’ way, of course.
I just feel alone.
Not lonely. Just “alone”… isolated, a little lost. And a lot overwhelmed.
We’ve got another half hour before the final round begins, culminating with our official swearing-in ceremony, and our exodus to the buses. All my paperwork’s done—everything’s filled out, stamped, initialed, and signed on every line—and, with the exception of one last red-tape reviewer, I’ve got no one else to see. Just time to kill. And nothing to read.
No, wait a minute. I’ve got that envelope from Gavin.
I dust the potato chip residue from my fingers, wrestle the letter from my one and only piece of “luggage,” and open it up.

The little bastard.
Maybe now wasn’t the best time for me to read this. But I’m past the point of no return.
Somehow, despite the years of cruelty and torment, harassment and neglect, he’s chosen to remember me in only the most glowing of terms. How? I just don’t get it. He’s always just been my pain-in-the-ass Little Brother, the little annoyance that I’ve spared no quarter talking down to, shoving him out of my inner circle, and denying him access to my “busy life.” Even I know what a complete asshole I’ve always been with him. So does everyone else. I ought to be clubbed to my knees for it. This letter should be filled with condemnation and vitriol.
So why does he call me a “great brother?” Why does he list, in his clumsy juvenile prose, all the ways that I’ve “amazed” him, or made him proud? It just doesn’t make any sense.
And how… (shit)… how can he say that he already misses me?
Goddammit, I don’t need this right now.
I fold the single sheet back into its envelope, and slip it out of sight in my luggage.
Shit.

3
STRANGERS BOUND FOR BROTHERHOOD

The swearing-in ceremony is nothing more than a repeat of the ritual I went through last September. Forty or fifty clueless recruits, standing, in all their widely varied forms of fashion outrage, at some semblance of attention, right hands raised (most of them), and repeating after the officer at the front of the room—a female lieutenant—who stands behind a podium flanked by flags. We mumble, in at least five different accents, and with as little zeal as possible, the words she recites for us.
And then it’s over.
“Congratulations,” she says, in a way that sounds suspiciously malevolent, “and welcome to the United States Armed Forces.”
There will be five or six different buses circulating through the pick-up point out back of the building over the next three or four hours or so, at least one for each branch of the service—the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Since each has a different Basic Training base, located at different corners of the country, the new recruits will be flying out of Miami International on different flights, leaving at different times, and therefore requiring separate departures on the buses. The load of scrawny, pimply-faced Air Force conscripts—of which I am now a charter member—will be the third to leave, somewhere around 2:30 in the afternoon.
And we’ve got nothing else to do now but wait.
We wave goodbye to a handful of new Marines-to-be—the first busload—as they stumble out into the blinding Florida sunshine and vanish. Gone. To Parris Island, of all places. The poor bastards. The first to be consumed by The Beast.
The rest of us find our own corners to huddle into—whether in packs or alone, taking solace from either the communion or the anonymity—and settle in to wait out the ticking clock. Some of the “squids”—wow, I’m insulting my sister services already—whose bus will be the last one out, around five, actually curl up on the floor, using their luggage as pillows, and go to sleep. The magazine rack is emptied in seconds.
I, for one, pull a Snickers bar out of my pocket—smuggled from my boxed lunch—find as much privacy as I can among the crowded folding chairs, and return to Gavin’s letter.
Amazing.

Oh, the bus ride is fine. A generic military-white touring bus, traveling empty save for the dozen or so of us headed to Air Force Basic on the 3:15 flight—one or two cautious conversations between strangers-bound-for-brotherhood, none of them including me. My choice.
At the Continental Airlines curb, the only guy in uniform besides the driver ushers us off the bus, and escorts us to the gate like a mother duck leading her badly dressed ducklings across a busy street. Once he confirms that we’re at the right place and there’s an actual aircraft waiting there for us to board, he hands us our tickets, wishes us a safe flight and good luck in our huge and looming future, then walks away. And here we are, alone—on our own—for the first time today.
Aside from the obvious, what now?

Sitting here now, in my window seat on this beautiful DC-10—my first time ever on this gorgeous new model of aircraft, by the way, which is pretty cool—I look out at the baggage handlers scrambling to get out of the way, and the marshalers strolling in circles, twirling their orange batons in boredom. And I’m thinking about those fifteen wasted minutes at the gate when our last hope of escape had been squandered. There’d been no one there to keep us from just walking off, and forgetting about this whole crazy idea called “military service.” But, after a day of being led around by the nose hairs, we are sheep. We are cattle, just milling around and looking for the next chute to open up.
Now I notice the ground marshaler centering himself, holding his little glow-sticks over his head. I feel the brakes release, and Miami backs away from me.
Damn. I’ve really done it to myself this time.

4
Lackland Air Force Base
THIS AIN’T KANSAS ANYMORE, TOTO

After bouncing out of the airport at Houston, our DC-10 has finally landed in San Antonio, having drifted into skies burnt orange. Sunset swells on the horizon as we taxi in. I’m in no great rush to stand once we reach the gate though—and apparently, with each of the guys in my group watching each other for behavioral clues, neither is anyone else—but soon enough the passenger stampede moves past us and we’re out of excuses.
Now plodding up the jetway, I wonder about who’s going to catch us at this end of the Induction Center’s long bomb, knowing that no matter how gentle the reception, this ain’t Kansas anymore, Toto. We’re in the wind now, blowing into alien territory, and hoping that the aliens don’t offend too easily.
The guy in the blue uniform at the gate is pretty conspicuous. And I’m sure our stunned expressions, mixed with wary curiosity, are familiar to him as well. He introduces himself, counts heads, and leads us straight to a small, private, USO lounge between the concourses. None of us has any checked baggage—we were told to only bring what we could fit into the equivalent of a gym bag—so there’s no diversion through baggage claim. He points out the magazine rack, the coffee machine, and the restrooms, and tells us to make ourselves comfortable. There’re two more flights we have to wait for before heading out to the bus.
Oh goody. More time to spend contemplating the consequences of our casual—and in some cases, spontaneous—choices. I mean, it’s March 2nd, 1977. I’m a nineteen-year-old college dropout, with only two months left before turning twenty. I’ve quit a good—and unique—job at the Miami Planetarium, and abandoned a free college education—a free one, as my Dad has often repeated—to come and do… “this.”
Nobody else I know is doing “this.” They’re all off at various colleges and universities scattered around the country—most of them moving on in the company of their old high school buddies—putting up with academia for a few more years, and extending their adolescence just that much longer at the same time. I’m going the other direction, for some reason, severing all my ties at once. And that’s left me with a real feeling of working without a net. And not as a tightrope walker either. No, I’m more like a Human Cannonball, launching myself into the void, hoping somebody values me enough to slide some mattresses into my path before I hit.
Another gaggle of hesitant, wide-eyed hippies is ushered into the room, nodding nervously and seeking out their own seats. One more planeload to go, our escort assures us, then he disappears out the door again.
I think I’ve got the shortest hair of anyone here, a lingering after-effect of my ROTC days at the University of Miami. And, looking at some of the meticulous coifs surrounding me, I suspect I’m going to have it the easiest whenever they get around to shaving our heads with those infamous fleecing shears. Some of these guys look like they could lose a leg easier than their hair. I try to imagine what each of these Love Children is going to look like with stubbled scalps.
This last group was flown in from New York. One of them sits down next to me, and introduces himself as “Mouse.” I’m not sure why—sure, he’s a skinny little guy, a little short, and his eyes are a little beady, though not uniquely so—but he says that’s just what everyone’s always called him. His real name is Grzeszak, pronounced “Gretchack.”
Yes, “Mouse” is much easier.
He makes note of my shorter hair. I explain about AFROTC—or “FARTC,” as my Dad preferred to call it. He talks about joining just to get into the medical field, I talk about air traffic control. It’s all rather perfunctory—pretend-curiosity—but it kills another twenty minutes or so until the last group wanders in, this one from Seattle. Then, with a wave, our escort leads us all out into the airport again, through the terminal like pre-schoolers holding hands, and out to our waiting blue bus.
Twilit night has fallen. A dull molten glow is shriveling behind us to the west. San Antonio is lit up like Las Vegas to the south. And I’m not seeing a net—or a mattress—anywhere.

From the freeway, at night, San Antonio looks like any other modern American city. Sodium-lit boulevards crowded with fast-food joints, liquor stores, and low-end hotels, drifting past the bus windows like irradiated fish in a polluted river. It’s almost as if the city wants you to see all the reasons for leaving before you even think about staying.
Well, they don’t need to oversell that point to me.
Forty-five silent minutes later, we exit onto a dimly lit overpass, and approach a guarded gate that looks exactly like a prison guard shack.
And behind that is Lackland Air Force Base… which looks exactly like a prison.
What a coincidence.
Okay, I learned my lesson. You can take me home now.

The bus never has to stop. The gate guard just waves us through, then steps back into the light and warmth of his little shack.
We can’t see much in the evening darkness, but every face is pressed to the glass. We pass a full-scale fighter, frozen in an aggressive climbing bank, atop a concrete pedestal. I recognize it as a Korean War vintage F-86 Saber. Then, as if it exhausted its entire aesthetic palette with that one static display, Lackland surrenders to its governmental functionality, and becomes just another depressing flatland grid of streets. It’s winter in central Texas, so the rare tree or two is pretty much denuded, the grass looks dry and sparse, and there’s a cold, barren starkness to everything. Or is it just me?
From this level, trundling through the grid layout in alternating left and right turns—following a seemingly random stair-step path to some nondescript building in the midst of all these chilly shadows—I feel like I’m aboard a tiny bus full of ants, crawling across a giant chess board. The pieces—the buildings—are scattered, one to a square, as if poised in mid-battle and waiting for the next move. It’s creepy. Each pocket of the grid seems to have one of only two things in it: either a single building with a small parking lot, or just an empty field of dying grass. That’s it. It’s as if they designed the street grid first, then realized too late that they didn’t have anywhere near enough structures to fill it. So they just sprinkled what they had as evenly as they could, and left it at that.
I’m sure it’s just my own uneasiness speaking here, but there is something fundamentally wrong about this place.

5
THE GRAND ANTI-CLIMAX

The bus pulls up to the curb in front of the in-processing facility, but the driver tells us to stay seated and wait. The facility is a single-story, ribbed-concrete shoebox of a building. It looks like a small elementary school, with a brightly illuminated lobby, crowded with desk-chairs that take up the middle third of the building behind floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. The lobby’s light spills out over the stairs and the walkway that cascade down to us, and a lone blue-suited figure is parting that light as he trots down to meet us.
Oh shit, here it comes. The scene with the screaming bull-sergeant standing at the front of the bus, barking insults to our dubious lineages, and roaring at us to get our sorry asses off his goddamned bus right-the-hell NOW! I’ve always known this moment was coming, but it’s arrived far too fast for me to prepare myself. Everyone sits up straight, and braces for the impact.
But when the bus door opens, it’s only a young, baby-faced kid from Iowa (or Idaho, or Indiana, or Illinois… some place that starts with an “I,” I’m sure)—a mere two-striper, if I’m reading the pins on his jacket collar correctly—who smiles broadly, introduces himself, and asks us to please gather up our belongings and join him inside the building, where it’s nice and warm. Yes, he actually says “please.” And “nice.” Then he turns and scampers back up into the light without looking back.
What the hell was that?
Who cares? Whatever it was, I can live with it.
We scramble after him, and scurry up the steps into the lobby.

More paperwork.
The Grand Anti-Climax.
“Start memorizing your Social Security number now,” he advises, as he wades through the rows of desk-chairs, collecting and passing out one piece of paper after the next, “You’re going to be using it for everything.” This guy’s just chock full of helpful little homilies.
It seems that, much like at the airport, we’re waiting on yet another busload of shaggy recruits—collected from several more flights—to arrive and complete the evening’s festivities. In the meantime, let us fill out and gather what we may.
At the front of the room, behind a cheap folding table, sit three lowly airmen—our first contacts with The Real Working Military—clerks one and all, furrowing through the stacks of our paperwork like bored rodents. Alternately, one or the other of them gets up and walks among the unshaven and unwashed sitting in the desk-chairs, and either returns some shred of red-tape that they’ve typed on, stamped, and signed themselves, or gathers up whatever address card or medical waiver or Next of Kin form they’ve just had us fill out. And each time, while handing-out and picking-up, they pass on yet another little tidbit of worldly advice.
“Don’t let ‘em catch you with your hands in your pockets,” says Airman I-State, “They’ll hurt your pride.”
What? They’ll hurt my “pride?”
At just after 9:00, the other busload squeals to a stop outside, right at the edge of the light, and that same baby-faced Iowa/Idaho/Indiana/Illinois Guy trots out to greet them. A cold spill of air skirls in through the open door, and the chill reminds me of just where I am.
As these new guys pour into the room, the clerks filter through them, collecting more file folders, and disseminating more paperwork of their own. And the ritual resumes, unbroken.
“Don’t worry, guys. The first night’s bad, but then it’s all downhill from there.”
What? Does that mean it’s going to get better or worse than this? “This” meaning the unrelenting “nightmare” of sitting at a desk-chair filling out forms? God, I sure hope it gets better than this.
Sarcasm does not become me.
Yes it does.

By 9:30, even the later guys are done with the Triplicate Shuffle, and we’re all tucking the last of our records back into our folders. The kid from the “I” state gets up, and addresses us once more as he moseys toward the door, zipping up his little blue waistcoat.
“Okay, I know you guys have had a long day. You’re probably tired and a little bit hungry. So, now we’re going to take you to get some chow. Then you’ll meet your Training Instructors, and we’ll let you get some sleep. Okay? All right then, let’s go.”
Training Instructors,” for the love of Mike. “T.I.s.” Not Drill Instructors, or “D.I.s,” like the Army or Marines, but “T.I.s.” Even the initials sound wimpy.
In a riot of squealing, groaning, barking desk-chairs-on-tile, we shuffle out of the nice warm lobby, all our worldly possessions and all of our paperwork in hand, and pile back onto the same two buses that brought us here. Then we’re off again, into the darkened grid of the alien world known as Lackland Air Force Base.

6
FLAMING ANVILS FROM HELL

I can’t believe this.
You know, you come to something like this with certain expectations. You’ve heard all the rumors, seen all the movies, talked to people who’ve been there. So you’re expecting stuff like… your “quarters” being little more than rustic old wooden hillbilly shacks filled with stacked bunks and locked trunks, bellowing red-faced Drill Instructors, push-ups for every wrong answer, and “chow” meaning “slop,” “mush,” or “gruel.”
But this place is just not living up to those expectations. So far, Lackland—and the Air Force in general—has been more like a Third World luxury hotel. The staff is polite and courteous, they’ll answer your questions and show you to your room, but you’ve got to carry your own luggage. And though the place may be spotless, it’s still basically just a functional government facility, ugly, unimaginative, and minimalist, but polished and buffed to within an inch of its life. And the same goes for this chow hall.
Set inside a dull, white-washed crate of a building, this is a full-blown cafeteria—gleaming waxed tile floors, sparkling chrome bins, racks, and serving counters, immaculate silverware wrapped in napkins, glimmering ranks of dishes, plates and glassware, and a serving staff dressed in unstained white aprons and caps. Desserts and drinks are laid out at the end of the chrome countertop, and each of the steam trays is filled with mouth-watering heaps of meat, smashed taters, and several different types of veggies. Nothing anywhere that even distantly resembles “gruel,” or even canned food, for that matter. I feel like I’m at a Morrison’s.
This is fabulous!
And I am definitely hungry. But I just don’t know what to make of this place. More surreal than grim, it’s still been an unsettling transition. I feel like I should be more nervous than I am, but I’m just not. I’m tired, maybe getting a little punch-drunk, but maybe I’m just settling in already.
I load up several plates, check them through the guy at the register—the food’s free, but I guess they need to account for it all—then take a seat with three other hippies around a square table, and dig in. Conversation, and eventually even laughter, is cautious and quiet, but it slowly builds. It seems that everybody’s a little stunned. Nothing is like what we’ve been anticipating and dreading all these months. We keep expecting a flaming anvil-from-hell to drop on us at any second, but… the crickets still chirp, the stars still twinkle, and damn, that’s good pot roast.
It’s almost 10:30 by the time they finally get us all herded back onto the buses, openly laughing and goofing with each other. And as we pull away, out of the light and onto the darkened chessboard again, our escort has to stand up and wave us to silence just to be heard.
“All right, gentlemen. Now we’re going to take you to your permanent barracks. This is where you’ll be living for the next six weeks. When we get there, you’ll see a lighted area under an overhang. We’ll need you to form up there in Flight order, four lines to a Flight. Okay? Just put your bags down next to your feet, and wait there. Your T.I.s will be down shortly, and they’ll take you from there. Get a good night’s sleep, and enjoy your stay with us here at Lackland.”
Then he sits down again.
What is this? A museum tour? Did I get on the right flight out of Miami?
The bus pivots around another empty corner, and there before us, lit up like a rocket gantry, is “home.”

Lackland is a confusing and very bland amalgam of the old—to the point of being downright decrepit—and the relatively new—meaning, “made of concrete and brick” rather than rotting wood. Recruits fill every barracks building apparently, the newest trainees simply rotating into whatever billets—old or new—the most recent graduates have vacated. Luckily for us, the latest batch had occupied one of the newest structures, bequeathing it to us with their departures.
From directly above, this building would look like a huge pound sign (#), with two extra crossbars in the middle and the center filled in solid. Each of its twelve wings is elevated, hiked about fifteen feet up off the ground on stilts—well, thick blue I-beams, anyway—with only that solid middle block actually resting on the ground. And each of those wings is two-stories deep, starting on the second floor, of course. One floor, of one wing, equals one barracks room, with bedding for fifty. Multiply that by twelve wings, and two floors per wing—that’s twenty-four barracks rooms, filled with twelve hundred recruits, in just one building! And that’s not even counting the classrooms, admin offices, and the large cafeteria that make up the central core.
It’s an imposing structure, with the concrete pad under its nearest wing almost ablaze with light. It quickly becomes apparent that that pad is where we’re headed.
The buses swing around, and park with their doors pointed towards the light. Cold air gasps into the bus as our escort stands once more, and points at the brightly illuminated pad.
“That’s where we need you to form up, gentlemen—under that roof, facing that stairwell door, in Flight order, four lines to a Flight, bags at your feet. Got it? Okay. Have a nice night, and welcome to the Air Force.”
Stop doing that! I shout inside my head. This ain’t Disneyland!
We stream out of the buses, unescorted this time, and wander towards the light like lost spirits. Behind us, we hear air brakes releasing, followed by the diesel roar of our buses pulling out into the night. And we are alone. I actually catch myself thinking, “Jeez, I hope our T.I.s get here soon.”
Milling around under the lights, we start seeking out people with similar Flight numbers to our own. Back at the In-Processing Facility, our clerical hosts had written numbers on our folders that corresponded with our Training Squadrons and Flights. Though none of us knows the meaning of the numbers themselves, we quickly discover that everyone has a "3723”—apparently the Squadron number—but there’s two different Flight numbers. I jostle into place among the other “260s,” and the clumps soon melt into lines. Four lines per Flight.
It’s pretty chilly, and we’re feeling kind of conspicuous, standing around in our long hair and mismatched civilian clothes, fidgeting and giggling and murmuring in hushed tones in the only pool of light in the area. Until, somewhere deep in the bowels of the building—somewhere up inside that stairwell—we hear a muffled boom, followed immediately by an echoed muddle of shouting voices. And they’re getting louder. They’re coming down the stairs.
Our T.I.s are here.
We shut up and straighten up—as much as a ragtag bunch of clueless losers can, anyway—and turn to face the stairwell door.
It’s about time. I was starting to get cold.

7
MY MOTHER, MY DADDY, MY PRIEST, AND MY GOD

The door explodes open, slamming against the side of the building with shattering force, despite its pneumatic resistance arm. Out fly two furious sergeants—I presume they’re sergeants anyway. They charge straight into our ranks, bellowing as if we’re all responsible for wrecking their cars on the same mass blind date or something.
“What the hell are you lookin’ at, maggot! EYES FRONT!!!
God, am I glad I’m not at the front of this line.
“Stand at attention! NOW!
“Get your heels together! FISTS AT YOUR SIDES! FISTS AT YOUR SIDES!!!
“You call this a line?! Straighten this mess up! NOW!
“What’s your name, bwah?!”
“Um… John Roo….”
Don’t look at me, goddammit! EYES FRONT!
“Sorry… I, uh…”
WHAT did you just say to me, bwah?”
“I said… uh… John…”
Shut the hell up! And how many times have I gotta’ tell you EYES FUCKIN’ FRONT!!!
Jesus, the man’s got the brim of his Smoky Bear hat jammed against the kid’s forehead so hard that it’s bent down. How can he even tell which way the recruit’s eyes are looking with that brim blocking his…?
What the hell are you lookin’ at, dirtbag?!” The words burst into my ear at point blank range like a cherry bomb going off on my shoulder. It’s the other T.I. He’s somehow managed to barge right up beside me, unseen, and is now shoving against me with his chest and screaming at the side of my head. Out of sheer reflex, I flinch and turn my head towards the voice.
DON’CHOO LOOKIT ME, SHITHEAD! You’re at attention! Put your eyes on the back of that dumbshit’s head in front of you, AND KEEP ‘EM THERE!
“Yessir,” I warble, trying to reassemble my scattered wits.
“Did I tell you to SAY somethin’?!”
“No sir. I…”
SIR no sir! You will not address me without starting AND ending every sentence with SIR! Is that clear, maggot?!”
“Y-yessir.”
WHAT?!!!
SIR! Yes SIR!
Without a second’s hesitation, he whirls away from me, butting brims and brows with the next guy in his sights.
What are you smilin’ at, lard-ass?!
And so it goes, for at least three hours—well, ten, fifteen minutes anyway—with the two of them storming through our ranks like enraged football coaches, shrieking and shoving, swearing and brow-beating, doing everything short of physically pounding us into the pavement. And when at last our motley crew has shaped up enough to resemble eight lines of mismatched wooden soldiers, frozen ramrod stiff and staring straight ahead, the two T.I.s stroll menacingly back to the front of the formation, then simultaneously turn to face us. Together, and without speaking, they first slam to attention, then snap right into a lethally sharp pair of parade rests—feet spread, arms locked behind their backs—at ease at attention.
Jesus. What are these guys wearing? They look like regular green fatigues, but there’s not a wrinkle in ‘em. Anywhere! Not even at the backs of their knees, at the folds of their elbows, or even at the belt lines where their shirts are tucked in. They look like they’re wearing the olive-drab equivalent of the Tin Man’s costume. These guys must have had their uniforms pressed and starched right on their bodies.
“God damn, if you ain’t the sorriest bunch of brain-dead stupid-fucks I’ve ever seen in my life!”
Ah, now that re-centers my attention.
The shorter one—the wiry, ferret-faced one who’s wearing sunglasses at almost eleven o’clock at night—scans us slowly with his dark opaque eyes, then shakes his head. “Lord give me stren’th. I just got rid of one worthless load of civvy trash, the worst I thought I’d ever seen. But this mangy-lookin’ bunch of… HEY! What’d I tell you about lookin’ at me?! EYES FRONT!
I don’t even want to know to whom he’s shouting.
The bigger beefier one—he’s got the angry, jowly look of an old bulldog—picks up where the first one left off. “My name is Sergeant Lawson! Staff Sergeant Marshall Lawson! ‘Sir’ to you! And over my strongest objections, I have been assigned as the Training Instructor for Flight 260!”
Oh great. I’m in 260.
“This…” and he bobs his head toward the runt beside him, “… is Staff Sergeant Renfro, who you will also address as either Sgt. Renfro or ‘sir.’ He’ll be in charge of Flight 261. As of this moment, you are ours. Starting right now,” he bellows, stepping toward us poor bastards in Flight 260 and getting louder, “and for the next forty-two days, I will be your mother, I will be your daddy, your priest, and your god! Whatever I say goes! Period! And it goes now! You don’t hesitate, you don’t question, you don’t ask for a second opinion! Anything I say is a lawful order! And that means that failure to comply constitutes a courts martial offense, and carries the weight of incarceration and/or dishonorable discharge with it! And the same goes for Staff Sergeant Renfro here! IS THAT CLEAR?!!!
A stunned smattering of ‘yesses’ and ‘sirs,’ plus a few extra ‘sirs’ (just in case) ripple through our shivering columns.
“What the fuck was THAT?!!,” the two T.I.s bray in unison. Renfro lunges back into the group, hopping from man to man like an agitated Chihuahua.
“What did I just tell you was the proper way to address me?!” Lawson barks at the second kid in line specifically, as if it was all his fault.
“Sir, yes SIR!”
“I can’t hear you!”
SIR YES SIR!
“Does everybody understand that?!”
This time we’ve got it. This time we’re ready for it.
SIR YES SIR!
If anyone had been asleep in this building, I guarantee they’re up now for sure. The two sergeants skulk back to the front, Renfro prowling through the scroungy bunch as if looking for the man who just raped his sister. Lawson continues on, undistracted.
“You’re going to go upstairs to your barracks now. When I give the command, you will pick up your bags, and march through that door—single file, one line at a time, starting with this line (indicating mine). At the first landing—that’s the second floor, for all you math wizzes—you will see two doors. Flight 260 will enter the door on the right, Flight 261 the left. That’s the right door for 260, the left door for 261. You will go inside, find a bunk, put your bag on it, then stand at the head of the bed, at attention, and wait for Sgt. Renfro or myself! Is that clear?!”
SIR YES SIR!
“Then MOVE!
We lunge for our bags, faces bumping asses, stumbling over our own feet, then start a series of rear-end collisions as everyone shoves toward the door at once.
“What the fuck are you doing?!” shouts Sgt. Lawson. “Get back in line, and drop your bags! NOW!
We turn around and fumble back into our original positions… quickly.
“Now, goddammit, when I tell you to move, you pick up your bags in one simple motion… like this!” His hand lashes out and snatches the first kid’s gym bag off the concrete in a lightning strike. “Then—IN AN ORDERLY MANNER—you will quick-march up those goddamned stairs and find yourselves a goddamned bunk before I gotta’ start planting my size-12 boots up some goddamned asses! Now DO YOU THINK YOU CAN DO THAT MUCH, LADIES?!!!”
“SIR YES SIR!”
“What the hell are you laughin’ at, airman?!” Sgt. Renfro again, out of sight to my left. I hear something that sounds like somebody’s luggage being kicked aside, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to look to find out. “You see something funny over there, Chuckles?!”
“No sir.”
WHAT DID YOU SAY?!!!
SIR! No SIR!
While Sgt. Renfro continues to flay the kid alive with that machete-tongue of his, Sgt. Lawson suddenly snarls, “Pick up your bags!”
We dive for our luggage, and straighten right back up.
“Goddammit! My grandmother can do better than that! DROP ‘EM!
Crumpita-bump-flumpita… bump!
It sounds like somebody just tipped over a bin full of watermelons. Sgt. Renfro is still railing away on his own “troops” as if there was nobody else around but him and them. Sgt. Lawson marches into our midst, similarly ignoring his fellow T.I.’s ranting, his bulldog face jabbing toward each man he passes.
“Did I not JUST SHOW YOU how to do this?! Is this rocket-science or something?!”
One kid starts to answer “sir yes sir,” but quickly realizes he’s the only one responding, and cuts himself off.
“I’m talkin’ to all you geniuses! Was I not clear on what I wanted you to do?!”
SIR YES SIR!
“Then goddammit, DO IT! Pick ‘em up!”
We snatch our bags up again.
THAT SUCKED! Drop ‘em!”
Flump… bumpita-crump!
“Pick ‘em up!”
We bend and snatch.
“Again!”
Blump-bumpita… flump!
DID I SAY ANYTHING ABOUT DROPPIN’ EM?!!!”
And so it goes for another five minutes. Sgt. Renfro even gets his own crew in on the fun, and now we’re all enjoying the Pick-em-Up, Put-em-Down game. Until, just as we’re settling into the rhythm of the exercise, Sgt. Lawson abruptly yells, “Now get upstairs!”
Caught by surprise, half of us drop our bags again out of sheer repetition, while the rest of us jump forward and stumble into each other. I’m beginning to believe we really are as pathetic as they say we are.
“You useless bunch of pussies! Get back in line, and drop your damned bags!”
Sgt. Renfro releases a huge exasperated sigh, drops his fists to his hips, and starts pacing in a circle. Silence lands on us like a collapsed tent. Sgt. Lawson just stands there, glaring at us as if we were the scum floating on the surface of the gene pool. Then he throws his arms up, and turns to Renfro.
“Do you see what they’re giving me to work with here?”
“I know it,” Renfro agrees theatrically, waving his own hand at Flight 261, “Look what they made me step in. I ain’t never gonna’ get this shit scraped off my shoe.”
Somebody snickers at that, and Renfro hurls himself into the group.
Who the FUCK is laughin’!
And while he tears through his rigid formation again, screaming for a confession that even he must know will never come, Sgt. Lawson just stands there, arms folded, glaring at us as though it’s taking all the self-control he can muster just to keep from tossing a grenade into the middle of us and walking away. Then, without warning, he suddenly barks, “Pick ‘em up!”
As a single desperate organism, we bend and straighten as one, and every bag is off the ground.
Damn! In just twenty minutes, we’ve mastered picking our bags up. I’m so proud.
Sgt. Lawson just keeps staring at us in malevolent silence though. But at least we’re not resuming The Game. He has to shout to be heard over Renfro’s blistering diatribe, but amazingly enough, we all hear him.
“Get upstairs! Now!”
Somehow my line manages to move off evenly, and before I know it, I’m inside the concrete stairwell, following right behind the bell-bottomed ass of the guy in front of me. Until…
Get back down here!
Aw, now what? We spin wearily, and bumble back down the stairs.
Out in the cold night air again, we reassemble under the din of Sgt. Renfro still playing “Pick-em-up, Put-em-down” with the poor bastards of Flight 261.
But Sgt. Lawson does not deign to explain our recall. He just holds us in a smoldering scowl for a moment, then snaps “Get up those stairs… now!”
Expecting to be called back again at any second, we storm the stairs once more. But this time we manage to make it all the way into our room unimpeded.
Like Musical Chairs though, I don’t want to be the only one left hunting for a bunk when Sgt. Lawson comes charging into the room. So I foolishly grab one of the first beds I come to, pitch my bag into the middle of it, and whirl back to attention. The forty other guys in my Flight stampede past me like a concert crowd fleeing a fire, skidding and scrabbling for position, heaving luggage, and snapping to sloppy braces at the heads of their beds. In probably thirty seconds, every bunk is claimed, and the room—save for the heavy breathing that’s snorting from all four corners—goes quiet.
But Sgt. Lawson is nowhere in sight.
Outside, in the stairwell, we can hear 261 assaulting the steps, then retreating, then assaulting again—playing a whole new game that, thankfully, we have been spared. Perhaps Sgt. Lawson is unable to get past them. No, he could walk down the center of a busy freeway, and the world would part to go around him. He’s just biding his time, letting us sweat—probably standing next to Sgt. Renfro, and trying not to pee his pants laughing at us.
Oh yes indeed. Welcome to the real Lackland Air Force Base.

8
DOESN’T ANYONE KNOW HOW TO TURN ON A GODDAMNED LIGHT?

Our barracks room is on the first level of one wing of the building. Our sister flight’s is in the next wing around the corner, angling ninety degrees away from ours. The shared stairway occupies the corner between us.
Essentially, the room is just a stretched rectangle, split into two long narrow halves by a wall running lengthwise down the center. At the far end of the room, the wall stops short of completing the division, creating instead a gap that leaves the bunking area in a sort of long, squared-off U-shape. Tall, vertical, gunmetal-gray lockers line every inch of the inside and outside walls, with the beds—and their attendant foot lockers—running down the middle of the room. High, narrow windows run along the horizontal space between the tops of the lockers and the ceiling, letting in the wash of the street- and pad-lights outside.
When I’d first scampered in the door, I’d noticed that I was facing straight down a dark hallway that cut across the root of our wing. The first bay of the barracks had opened up immediately on my left, the second bay at the opposite end of the hall, with a small T.I.’s office sandwiched in between them. I chose the third bed, in the first row, of the first bay, being the military brainchild that I am. No way I’ll be drawing any unwanted attention in this location. No sir-ree Bob.
On the right side of the hallway as I’d first come in, were three doorways leading into unknown darkened rooms. I’m still wondering what those are for, when Sgt. Lawson steamrolls through the door, fast and mad, as if on his way to spank a belligerent child. He stops so abruptly that he actually slides a short distance, and stares into the gloom of our bay. He peruses us for a moment—looking at us like we’re all wearing chicken suits and flippers—then slaps at a switch on the inside wall. The room fills with sputtering fluorescent light.
“Doesn’t anyone know how to turn on a goddamned light?” He starts to walk away, then pauses to add, “Leave your shit on the bed, and wait for me in the Day Room.”
What’s a Day Room?
“This is the Day Room over here. The one with the lights on! Come on! Move it!”
We pour across the hall, while he shouts identical orders to the occupants of the second bay, and we enter the middle of the three lesser rooms on that side. It’s basically just a small square room, white-tiled and cold, without a lick of furniture save for a single wooden podium. A forest of model airplanes dangles from the ceiling.
With nothing to sit on though, we all just stand around sheepishly, looking a little chilled and scared. Outside, in the stairwell, Sgt. Renfro’s still running his flight up and down the steps.
On my watch, it shows 11:10.

Sgt. Lawson seems bored and tired now. Though his expression is still grim, his voice never rises again. Even Flight 261 has gone quiet outside, following the slamming of their door.
Lawson takes a quick roll call, mangling and mispronouncing one name after the next. My ass, knees, and ankles are killing me from sitting on this hard naked floor. Then Lawson growls his way through a quick description of our situation here, pointing out a few highlights of our lovely barracks.
On this side of the hallway, opposing our bunk bays, the Day Room we’re sitting in is the middle of three rooms. The first—the closest to the entrance door—is our bathroom (officially referred to as “the latrine”), a large, spotlessly clean, fully tiled chamber, with eight sinks, four shitter stalls, four urinals, and a big open communal shower, with something like ten shower heads around its walls. We’ll be expected to keep it immaculate, under penalty of being bludgeoned to death, I’m guessing.
The room on the other side of the Day Room is just general equipment storage.
There’s also a large closet that takes up one whole wall of the Day Room right behind us. That is where we’ll be storing our luggage and any personal gear that we might have brought along with us, starting tomorrow, once we’ve been issued our uniforms. That closet will be padlocked, and will not be reopened again until graduation day, a month-and-a-half from now.
“So say goodbye to all the electric razors, pictures of Mom, books and porn magazines that we specifically told you not to bring here. All you’re supposed to have in those bags is one change of clothes, any prescription medicines, and your paperwork. You wasted your time and effort bringing anything else along.
“All right,” he sighs, straightening up and ambling toward the door, “out in the hallway there is a pile of field jackets of all different sizes. When I tell you to, I want you to get out there, find one that fits you, put it on, then come back in here and sit down. Is that clear?”
Nodding heads and mumbled ‘sirs’ and ‘yesses’ confirm for him that we are, in fact, still a herd of idiots. He drops his head, draws a deep breath, and “patiently” tries again. “Is that clear?”
SIR YES SIR!
“On your feet!”
We jump like the floor’s been electrified.
“Now go!”
We jam ourselves through the doorway like The Fifty Stooges… and find ourselves in pitch darkness. With the exception of the afterglow spilling into the hall from the Day Room, we are standing in deep shadow. And no one—including me—dares to take the singular initiative of throwing the light switch, no matter what Lawson says, at least not without having been specifically told to do so. So, we grope in the dark.
I can feel—and smell the mothball aroma of—the field jackets, heaped at my feet. But I have no way of reading the labels. So, like everyone else, I just snatch up one after another, and jam my arms through the sleeves, checking the fit. It’s amazing that, with all the flying arms in that darkened hallway, we aren’t continuously punching each other out.
Hurry the fuck up!” the Day Room roars.
This is taking me way too long. But nothing I’ve been able to grab so far has fit. Once the crowd starts to thin though, there’s a little more light, and fewer jackets to choose from. And I finally find what I need. I’m not the last one to re-enter the Day Room, but I’m one of the last, and Lawson glowers at me like he just found out my real name is Steve Hitler.
Again, he wonders aloud at the mental midgetry of the rabble before him, at the level of skull density that would preclude even one person out of fifty from figuring out how to throw a fucking light switch.
The welcoming harangue goes on for another ten minutes or so, until he’s finally as fed up with the process as we are. He tells us where to hang up our ratty civilian clothes, gives us fifteen minutes to use the facilities, then promises lights-out, whether we’re ready or not.
We bolt for our bags, grab our toiletries, and pile into the Latrine as a mob. With a limited number of sinks, mirrors and toilets though, we have to rotate through the various stations, and double up one behind another at the sinks. The room resounds with squeaking sneakers, mumbled apologies, flushing toilets and hissing faucets, then the thunder of our exodus back out into the bays.
I shed clothing down to my underwear—Sgt. Lawson had specifically informed us that there would be no pajamas, no T-shirts, and sure as hell no nude sleeping in his barracks—pitch everything into my wall locker, and leap into bed. Once the tumult has died down, Sgt. Lawson slaps off the lights, and stands there, big and dangerous, hands on hips, backlit in the entranceway.
“Lights-out means you go to sleep! Now! No talkin’ and no getting’ out of bed. Understood?”
“Sir yes sir.”
He decides not to focus on our sloppy, half-hearted response this time. “So… lights-out! Get some sleep. You’re gonna’ need it tomorrow.” And he slams the door behind him.

Now that the tornado has finally passed, I lay here in the silence and the semi-darkness, staring up at the ceiling, dimly lit as it is by the glow of streetlights leaking in through the high windows. And I wonder at my self-inflicted plight.
I feel like a virgin on my first night in prison, suddenly very aware of the frightening consequences of my choices, and the permanence of those consequences. Everybody here is a stranger to me, all of them either as uncomfortable and terrified as I am, or downright overtly hostile to me. There will exist no such thing as “leisure” for a long time to come. There will be only work, work, and more work, an endless striving to please an unpleasable host. And all without reward, save for the opportunity to keep doing more of the same.
It’s a little tough to remember the up-side to all this, or what could have possibly led me to even consider such a role in the first place. I just feel lost, out of control, like I’m accelerating down a steepening slide that ends twenty feet above a dumpster. Anything could happen—bad or good—but it’s the idea that nothing’s in my hands anymore, that this first simple little step has doomed me to a complete multi-year course of action that I am no longer capable of altering.
Again, it’s not that I’m “lonely,” per se—that simply is not an aspect of my personality—and besides, in this case, there are clearly a lot of other refugees in this boat with me. But I do feel alone, simply because of how all the familiar aspects of my life are now gone. All of them. Everything, from the people I know, love, and trust, to the social codes by which I’ve always lived. Even the tempo at which my world has always danced. All gone—to be replaced with a slap to the face, a hard shove through a forbidding door, and a harsh screaming introduction to this unfriendly, unforgiving new cast of characters.
It’s scary. Of course it is. But I find my own crumbling resolve being bolstered somewhat by the subdued sniffles and whimpers that I can hear rising from other distant bunks.
Someone here is weaker than I am.
I can handle this better than at least one other person here.
I can do this.