Saturday, January 27, 2007

FEMALE ON THE FLOOR! Canteens and Manilla Envelopes

As I’d hinted at in an earlier post, I had more problems than most when it came to qualifying with the weapon.

Apparently, there is a strong shaky gene in my dad’s side of the family. It was first brought to my attention in the seventh grade when a boy asked me if I was nervous about the math test we were about to take. When I told him no, and asked him why he would ask me such a question, he pointed out to me that my hand was trembling. This condition, not Parkinson’s, but some form of palsy or tremors seems to increase with age. It’s quite pronounced in me and my sister, and my dad … ouch, not good. I think Aaron had a little of it too, but I never told him that. The energy was definitely there in his hands. I know he hated the fact that his badge was a “pizza box” as he called it (which was the Marksman Badge; the lowest qualification when qualifying. It goes from Marksman to Sharpshooter and then to Expert, and the badge grows in its embellishment with each advancement of marksmanship.) But at least he did qualify, and since the machine gun was his weapon of choice, I never felt bad about it; though I know he wanted more from himself on the M-16.

While one learns to compensate in pretty much anything, a Private does not own the advantage to decide to stay out on the range and at their leisure, figure out how to compensate. I zeroed my weapon without too many snags, but it seems we zeroed one day and qualified the next. By the next day, no doubt, my shot pattern would’ve changed considerably. Stir in a little tension and increase the dosage with each bumpy trip to the range, daily, in the back of a deuce-and-a-half with four or five other depressed and jumpy females; it’s just not the mix for a good day, no matter what time of day the trip was. The trip and its promise or its punishment either hung over my head or the blow had already been dealt. Each day was thus.

What bliss.

I don’t remember how far into training we were when we went on some low-crawl and high-crawl obstacle course, but I lost my canteen of water along the way. All but totally dehydrated, I called out to the girl next to me, “Thorenson, give me a drink of your water!”

Thorenson, eighteen (I use that as some excuse), took the lid off her canteen, looked in and said, “No, I might want it later.”

Then and there, something exploded within me, maybe it was nothing more than dehydration kicking in, or maybe the endless and sleep-deprived nights from selfish bickering and hollering of so many females, maybe it was my age, tension, the fact that I’d not made many peeps throughout the weeks, which was entirely out of character for me, or perhaps it was just everything stored and salted away, bottled Irish blood that finally surged and spewed—but I bolted up from that pit we were low-crawling in and screamed, “Thorenson, I’m going to kick your ass!”

Dead silence.

The Drill must have asked me something, shouted at me something from across the way, and after my loud explanation of Thorenson’s problem, he said, “At ease, Private. We’ll be taking a break soon.” And within a few minutes, he brought me his canteen.

Something changed after that day. There was not a magical qualification on the range. No, that was waived by the C.O. for a reason I’ll never understand, except to call it another God thing. The C.O. covered himself on the waiver and merely stated that I had never been around a weapon before and was afraid of it, and then mentioned something akin to “highly motivated” and I graduated the same day as the females I’d gone in with, and with the same badge as a Marksman, which embarrassed me some, but I was just so relieved that I wouldn’t be recycled or sent home, because I knew recycling wouldn’t do the trick for me.

But something did change. Maybe everybody wanted to kick Thorenson’s butt, because she was a major pain for all of us there, but many developed a respect for me that I don’t think existed before.

A couple of Drills from other platoons didn’t hold me in very high esteem because I was not only allowed to graduate, but I graduated with honor. One Drill was in my face at graduation practice, yelling and narrating on how ashamed I should be for even accepting the High PT award since I had not qualified with the weapon. Venom truly spewed from his eyes and his mouth. He’d lost a good soldier who’d had to be recycled.

I looked up and respected his rank as I asked him what one had to do with the other, which only infuriated him all the more. My Drill Sergeant told me later that the other Drill was out of line for talking to me that way and the situation would be dealt with.

I did graduate with the High P.T. award. I’m certain I was out of step as I marched with the Honor Graduates to be recognized.

I’ll not recount other comical or alarming tales such as arrival and fitting time for uniforms, being sent ahead in a line, with some lady hollering down the assembly of soldiers needing BDU’s that, “This one’s got some hips on her!” Or the fact that I was nearly held-over due to the M.O.S. I had enlisted for which required a ‘Secret’ clearance—that some ball had been dropped on, or the times I cried in my pillow where no one could hear, as quiet as possible upon my bunk that I kept made-up, tight, very tight except on Saturday nights, or the fact that I became addicted to Luden’s cherry cough drops since we couldn’t have candy, or that I threw my “rape-proof” glasses away on my second day in training. This was purposeful because I hated the little elastic band on the back which crumped up my hair and gave me a headache. The Drills had said if anyone wore glasses at all, they had to wear them all the time. Since they fogged up on me during P.T., I took them that night, before anymore time passed with anybody seeing me in glasses, and inside the latrine, in my own little stall, I wrapped them up in toilet paper and a sanitary packet and threw them in the metal sanitary dispenser, feeling certain that no one would search there for Private Austin’s glasses. (My eyes weren’t bad then.) All these little scenes that come to mind and make me smile now, could go on forever.

I caught a cab outside the gates, had the driver take me to the nearest gas station for cigarettes, and I chain smoked for as long as I could, which didn’t set well with me on the small plane I took out of there, but I made it fine and it wasn’t long until I was back in Texas, truly changed forever.

On the way home from the airport in Lubbock toward Littlefield, which is where Mom and I lived at the time, I pulled out the little book they gave the soldiers at the end of the cycle, something sort of like a yearbook with photos and what not, and I began to read to her some of the things the other soldiers had written to me. One had written, “To Austin, shaky on the outside, but ROCK HARD on the inside.”

I read a few more to Mom, and then I got to Thorenson’s. She’d drawn a picture of a canteen and had written, “Austin, you can have a drink from my canteen anytime!”

After a bit, Mom said, “I bet you’ll have ties with those girls the rest of your life.”

I looked up from the book, turned my head toward her, shook it and said, “I hope I never see a one of them again!”

I enjoyed the nine days leave I had before going to my A.I.T. at Fort Gordon, Georgia. I became acquainted with Fort Gordon over the phone during leave. I had had to call ahead, to find out how to proceed, because another thing I noticed in the little book was a picture of females boarding busses with large manilla envelopes in their hands. Large envelopes in every hand, and I hadn’t left with one. What was it?

I’d left Fort Jackson, South Carolina without orders.

In the military, orders are everything.

Eight-weeks and counting. I never quit learning.


steve ramos said...

Had you been thinking about joining the Army for some time? How did the idea of joining come to you and what did your friends and family say when you told them your plans?

steve ramos said...

I'm still having trouble logging on to post. I don't know what's wrong, and I don't know why I've had problems from the beginning when I don't think anyone else has had any difficulties.

Anyway, I'm trying to figure out the problem.