New Part 1 Excerpt

THE CAST OF
CHARACTERS

(revised)

 

In spite of all the challenges and the frustrations, basic training remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  It also was the first place where I would hone my sorely lacking social skills.  I was well aware of the challenges that were ahead of me, and a lot of them revolved around my ability to get along with the people around me.  I knew I’d be weak.  I knew I’d be close to the bottom.  As such, I needed to make friends.  I needed to be on a team.

It started right away at MEPS, when I met a nervous recruit named Andre Blige, or “Dre,” as he insisted.  He was an amicable young African-American recruit who had graduated from high school in the Spring of the previous year.  He was cracking jokes and keeping the mood light, so I slid over to see what he was all about.  I found out he was going to Fort Jackson just as I was, so we hung around each other and tried to figure out who else was going with us.

Standing a mere five-and-a-half-feet tall, Dre had dark skin, a deep southern accent, and was quite pudgy.  His belly was much bigger than mine, especially since he didn’t have the tall frame to distribute some of that extra weight.  However, he was quite confident for such a big guy.  He seemed to not have a care in the world.  I hoped that some of his confidence would transfer over to me.

We had to take a typing test as non-combat recruits, and Dre was not happy to hear that news.  Dre had only used a computer a few times before (it was 2003), so he wasn’t sure if he would be able to reach the minimum score of 15 words per minute (WPM).  While we were waiting, I showed him the ‘home’ keys on a computer in the lobby.  He became a little less downbeat after I showed him this, so I left him to practice before his exam.

A few minutes later, he emerged from the testing room with a huge grin, and that was it.  The brief lesson had paid off, and his final obstacle for entry was now behind him.  He patted me on the back vigorously for the lesson, and I shook his hand.  We were buddies after that.

By some extremely good luck, Dre and I ended up in the same platoon.  We came in joking and talking trash, so the recruits generally liked us.  I exuded far more weakness than Dre, however, so there were soldiers who definitely interested in shutting me up.  Dre would normally kneecap anybody who was getting too hostile, sending a good-natured barb at that person.  The purpose was not only to lighten the tension, but I’m certain that there was an underlying threat there.  There’s a lot of Alpha male bullshit going on in basic training, but there were those who would not tolerate a bully.  Between Dre and a few others keeping everyone’s attitudes in check, our platoon was generally what it needed to be:  functional and free of conflict.

*****

By the end of basic training, I got along with just about everyone in 1st and 2nd Platoon. The following are the standout individuals who, like Dre, contributed greatly to the unity of our platoon.

Kenny Franklin – One look at Franklin and you could tell he was a jock in high school.  He had a thin, athletic build, and discernible physical strength.  He was one of the only people during the first day of basic training who wasn’t completely exhausted five minutes into all the shouting and running around.  A few drill sergeants took notice of his stamina and ability to handle pressure.

Franklin was humble, sharp, and he took instruction well.  For these reasons, he was selected as the platoon leader.  The platoon leader was responsible for lining up the soldiers whenever it was time for the drill sergeants to march us to our next destination.  He was also responsible for establishing a small chain of command underneath him for the delegation of barracks cleaning duties.  Additionally, it would be expected of the platoon leader to squash any problems between males, as fighting amongst soldiers would be met with an extremely harsh punishment.

What was that punishment?  I don’t know, because that’s how good of a job Franklin did.  Besides, I don’t think too many of us would have enjoyed Franklin breaking us up.

Mike Simpson – Mike was a skinny recruit of average height with brown hair and prominent ears.  A cursory glance at Simpson would tell you that he was some skinny geek, and nothing more.  In actuality, Simpson had been a cross-country runner in high school.  He was far and away the best runner in our platoon, both for his speed and his stamina.

Simpson was Franklin’s assistant.  He would double-check the small things, like making sure we locked our lockers and had our bed linens tucked correctly.  He was also a motivator in PT, especially since he never seemed to tire when we were out on a run.

Simpson also de-escalated conflict between soldiers.  He was much different than Dre in his approach, however, as more than once he threatened a soldier for being a dick.  Again, one look at Simpson and you’d laugh at the idea of him getting in a man’s face, but he was quick to upbraid somebody who wasn’t being a team player.  He and Franklin had no tolerance for antagonists.

As far as I know, no threats were ever acted upon.  Perhaps that’s why our platoon ended up winning two of the three banners.  Men respect a leader who can also kick their ass.  It’s in our DNA, I believe.  We need to know that whoever is in charge is going to charge into battle with us.  It starts in basic training with these gut-checks among males.

Gavin Pool – Pool was a bookish but good-natured recruit from Ohio.  On the second or third day I noticed him singing 99 Luftballons to himself in German as he was putting away his gear in his locker.  I couldn’t decide if he was weird, awesome, or both, so I had to go find out for myself.  I made the observation that he was singing a great song, and we made our introductions.

Pool admitted to being nervous about the days ahead, but he was a young father-to-be and needed this enlistment in order to be able to provide a decent life for his wife and the child they were expecting.  He seemed a by-the-books guy, and also the kind of person who took life a lot more seriously than I ever did.  While I viewed the military as a means to an end, Pool saw it as his ticket to bigger and better things later on in life.

Future?  What kind of poseur thinks about the future?  Still, I admired his focus and, truthfully, he did make me stop and think about what I was doing on more than one occasion.

Pool was the most cool-headed in our platoon, hands down.  A deeply religious guy, Pool had the ability to talk a person off the ledge when they were struggling.  He would later be known for holding a small Bible study with soldiers in the evening.  He was the unofficial shrink and chaplain of our platoon.

Arkaday “Eric” Savgir – As the name suggests, Savgir was of some Russian descent.  He looked like a pudgy little Rick Moranis with black hair, deep set eyes, a short, stubby frame, and a pale complexion.  To complete this near-perfect picture of oddness, Savgir almost always smiled, before, after, and sometimes even during some of the more grueling parts of basic training.  It may have been a defense mechanism, or perhaps the guy was a little… out there.  Regardless, drill sergeants didn’t take kindly to any signs of mirth, real or otherwise, so Savgir had to learn to look a little more serious.

Savgir and I were bad at PT, so we often found ourselves paired off in group exercises or side by side as the running formation left us in the dust.  He was one of only three or four soldiers who was worse than I was at PT, as I had just a bit more stamina than he did when it came to running.  However, he only ever spoke of improvement.  To his credit, he never harped on his failures, something I did constantly.  Savgir had plans to make his enlistment work.  No pity parties were allowed in his world.

Savgir had to take a ton of crap from a few soldiers early in the red phase, but eventually everyone stopped.  I don’t even think they stopped because somebody told them to.  I think people stopped teasing Savgir because he never gave up.

Ricky Colon – Ricky was my closest friend through basic training.  He flew very low under the drill sergeants’ radar because he was another soldier who was able to get most things right on the first try.  He was in good shape, he was eager to learn, and he was high energy.

Ricky was at the top of every exercise.  He seemed a natural fit for service.  He also seemed a natural leader.  Once he figured out how to get that mirror-like shine on your boots, he went around and showed the rest of us how to do it.  Also, as a near-perfect marksman, he would also help soldiers with their rifle drills.  Ricky was a true workhorse, and didn’t mind doing things twice if it meant helping another recruit through it.

A native of Peurto Rico, Ricky had joined the army for American citizenship.  I always felt like his success was guaranteed just because of his heart.  He had pride in his origins, he took pride in his work, and he had the kind of leadership qualities than anyone would be proud of.

Boomhauer – My assigned ‘battle buddy.’  I’m pretty sure his name was Porter, but he bore such a perfect resemblance to Boomhauer from King of the Hill that I started calling him by that name almost immediately.  It pissed him off at first, but when Dre was making his rounds talking smack one day, he put the poor guy on the spot by calling him out, incorrectly, by that name (“Boon-Howard”).  Too amused himself to be angry, my battle buddy finally accepted the designation, even taking the time every now and again to deliver a very faithful impression of the TV character.

Boomhauer was the perfect buddy for a guy like me.  He was an outdoorsman, so his knowledge of how to set up tents and create a shelter were a much-needed addition to a conspicuously unequal pairing when it came to that sort of survival knowledge.  It was probably a nightmare having me as a buddy for the first few weeks, but if it was, he never once showed it.  Honestly, somebody should give that guy a medal, because were it not for his refusal to let his buddy fail, I think basic training would have probably defeated me in the end.  Both he and Ricky spent many evenings holding my feet as I practiced my sit-ups.

Moretti – There was also a guy from 2nd Platoon that I became friends with over time.  His name was Chris Moretti.  He was quite a bit older than most of us recruits, coming in at a near-ancient 35 years of age.  I was considered an older recruit at 23, so it was inconceivable to most of us that a person would even consider entering military service at that close to 40.

Moretti was the leader of his platoon, but he seemed frustrated with his guys most of the time.  There were a few hotheads in 2nd Platoon who were always getting into altercations, and since the altercations had been spotted by the drill sergeants on more than one occasion, he felt like a handful of soldiers were making 2nd platoon look bad.  I once saw him jerk a recruit by his collar for antagonizing a platoon mate, and due to the age difference, it almost looked like a dad about to whip his unruly son.

Overall, Moretti was an easygoing person.  He liked a good joke or even a good stunt if there was a break in the action, so he wasn’t stuffy or too firm with the rules when the drill sergeants weren’t around.

Moretti may as well have been a member of 1st Platoon, because almost all of our guys seemed to like and respect him.  By the end, some of us spent more of our limited free time getting advice from ‘the old man’ than did cutting up with our own rogue’s gallery of jesters.

Finally, there is one other soldier worth mentioning, if not only because of his brief mention in my first account.

Scotty Klein – One look at this guy, and you knew he was a little shit.  He had all the defining traits of a villain:  dark eyes, bushy eyebrows, a pointy nose, a toothy grin, a lanky frame… he looked Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin, if Jafar was in his early 20s and experimented with too much Ecstasy.  He was the only real asshole in 1st Platoon.

Klein was admittedly detoxing from multiple substances, so he was prone to some rather intense freakouts in the beginning.  I was detoxing myself, so he and I clashed on several occasions.  We would always hash things out, sometimes almost right away, but he was testy with everyone.  He even got an attitude with the drill sergeants, so people grew sick of him quickly.

To where some of us knew that detoxing played a role in temperament for the first week or so, Klein’s shitty behavior never let up until Chris Moretti threatened to send him to his Maker one afternoon late in the white phase.  Apparently, Moretti had seen enough of Klein dogging Savgir, and he made a very public spectacle of correcting him; a spectacle that a drill sergeant witnessed, by the way, and chimed in their agreement.

What got to me about Klein is that he had no comprehension of what a dick he really was.  He seemed to believe that we all were idiots, and that it was his burden to have to put up with us.  If he was awake, he was running his mouth about something.

I still wonder where that guy ended up.

There were a few other people who were testy in 1st Platoon, but I personally didn’t have any run-ins with anyone.  There were a few guys in 2nd platoon that were a little ugly and unruly, but one of them was kicked out and the others cooled down by the blue phase.

It’s hard to say why or how we got along, other than some good leadership and a kind of base decency that I believe most of us possessed.  Sure, Franklin and Jones were great leaders, but first platoon still had something more.  There was a willingness and perhaps even a desire to behave as soldiers among us, some kind of instinct that told us to take it all seriously, even if a great number of us were not yet cognizant of how close we were to potentially being sent off to war.

All in all, I think I simply had a fluke.  From what I heard, 3rd and 4th platoons did not get along at all, and a total of a dozen soldiers were kicked out by the blue phase for violations ranging from smoking to attempting to have sex with a coed.

I still have no idea anybody pulled off any of those things.

Furthermore, at the end of training, our platoon had actually won the performance contest over the other three platoons.  There were three “banners” that a platoon could earn:  one for overall PT score, one for DNC (that marching stuff), and one for rifle range performance.  We won the banners for both PT and the rifle range.

No thanks to me, of course.

*****

Because of the people I worked with in basic training, I truly felt like the army was going to be a positive experience.  The kind of respect we showed for one another was something that I had never witnessed before, especially we were a flock of tired strangers who, in many cases, couldn’t possibly be any more different than the guy standing to either side of him.  I still think back to basic training every single time I sit down and write these memoirs.

If only the PAD had half of the cooperation that we all had in basic training…

But I’m pretty sure that’s how the world works.  For every Franklin, there’s five fucking Kleins.  That’s what makes the Franklins of this world so special.  The army is a microcosm of real life, with certain elements, namely our baser instincts, magnified and exemplified and laid bare for all of the world to see.  No matter how tough everyone acts, they’re all scared of something, no matter what they say.  That’s why you’re supposed to be a Franklin instead of a Klein.  You need to help lift the burden of fear from the group, and you need to carry a greater load when you see the need.

But, for all those reasons, it’s just easier to be a Klein.