The ground at night felt cold as I lay on it in prone position. The target stood somewhere downrange. I fumbled with the weapon, locked up from previous shooters. What had we been told about a jammed weapon? The lieutenant stood behind the line along with the drill sergeant, observing night-fire practice. I so wanted to hit the target to impress the lieutenant, but the gun wouldn’t work. Men were told a gun is what they had between their legs; the M-16 was to be called a weapon.
I opened the chamber, pretending to know what to do, wiggled its innards, aimed, and fired again. It worked! I didn’t know why or how, but felt tremendous relief. I focused on the red chaser intently because that’s all there was to aim at in the dark. The target only lit up when the bullet’s bright red chaser went over the top. I’d missed it.
Lowering the M-16 slightly, I fired again, it hit. I fired repeatedly, hitting the target every time. As hoped, affirmation came. “Good job!” the lieutenant offered before moving on.
It had been a blur; the flight and subsequent events leading up to lying in the dirt firing a gun. With Dad gone and one son dead, Mom had fallen apart. Don had plucked me from the wreckage at home, offering refuge. My bright cheery room at his house, with old-fashioned floor-length windows, brought sunlight and hope. After he and Pam took me under their wings to live with them, we worked out a plan. My father-like brother talked about goals, his gentleness soothing. We developed a purpose for my being there, something to look forward to and work towards. Along with the weight loss and job, I’d heard about what the Army had to offer and wanted to join. Maybe Don thought he’d lose me too; but he saved me.
There were a few glitches though. Finally meeting the weight requirement for entrance into the Army, I proceeded with the physical exam and accompanying paperwork. After the exam, the nurse led me to an empty conference room to complete the questionnaire. Check the box—yes if you have it, no if you don’t. They were all no’s except one: depression. Later, at home, I received a call to return to the recruitment center and discuss issues with depression.
I talked it over with Don, worried about the honest answer which was about to ruin my chance at a life.
“You should have checked No,” he advised in a quiet yet stern tone, adding, “They are only concerned about those with severe emotional problems.”
I felt relieved he didn’t think that applied to me, yet wondered at the clamoring inside, saying something quite different. Sitting again at the long conference table, a bit sweaty, the questioning began by a higher-up. He looked imposing in formal Army attire, a green suit with brass buttons and tie neatly clipped into place. I rehearsed the lie, softening it up after Don’s admonishment. Don seemed pure and clean. If he said I should have checked No, then I should have. He represented all I lacked. He appeared centered, grounded, rational, connected, and wise. He was the only father (and God) I had; whatever he said might as well have been bound with gold edging and labeled “Bible.” I held onto his sanity in my upset life, desperate for an anchor because my life depended on it.
“Do you just feel a little blue? How long does it last?” the interviewer asked, “More than a few days, or a couple of weeks?”
“I get down sometimes.” It fell easily from my mouth because I had practiced the story over and over, “But just for a few days. It doesn’t last.”
In truth, it was the other way around. I felt down most of the time, hardly knowing what anything else felt like.
But it worked. Signing on the dotted line, I enlisted for a three-year stint. The stiff packet of entrance paperwork felt official resting on my lap during the flight to South Carolina and Fort Jackson. After arriving on base and being directed towards the dingy brick barracks and my room, I sat on the cot-like bed. With my suitcase still at my feet, I listened to murmured echoes in the hallway as other girls found their rooms. Placid yellow paint peeling near the ceiling edges didn’t brighten the small area or my spirits. What had I gotten myself into? Maybe sitting on a turned-over bucket in Samuel’s garage, watching him work on car motors wasn’t so boring after all.
On the wall past the trunks at the foot of both beds were closets with built-in lockable cabinets—no frills, nothing more except two windows with venetian blinds on the opposite wall—bland, drab and dreary. My new roommate, Cathy, arrived dragging her suitcase, smiling. She was a large girl, big-boned; I liked her immediately. She exuded honesty with her clumsiness. We chatted briefly, and I learned her Dad was a bigwig somewhere on another base. She seemed to be following his footsteps.
With little time to get acquainted, we were bustled outside with a screech from the drill sergeant. The drill sergeant yelled, “Line up alphabetically in four rows!”
It was a fiasco from the start. He peered over at the platoon next to us, already doing a better job of it, and screamed louder, “Not like that, you fools, can’t you hear?”
Finally four rows formed. With a voice already hoarse, he shrieked out more orders, “Remember who’s on your right, who’s on your left. Line up this way every time.”
We practiced all the necessary steps and commands to get from one point to another. Certain unlucky soldiers-to-be, including Cathy, were singled out and harshly reprimanded, embarrassed and made fun of—all in a day’s work for the drill sergeant. He was to be called, “Drill Sergeant, not Sir; I work for a living.”
Marching with some semblance of order, all five platoons met at the lecture hall. After a long speech in a huge auditorium given by the Colonel heading the entire base, we shuffled off to various training rooms for more lectures. Then came the endless line for shots, with too much time to think of the needles to come. Next, clothing: green fatigues, dress uniform, hat, cap, helmet, socks, belt, duffle bag, black pumps, and lace-up field boots.
The following day, the Swine Flu injection took its toll. Fever, muscle aches, and general malaise matched my bewilderment. Like Dorothy lost in Oz, my body robotically moved with the flow of the group while my mind wandered back home to all that used to be familiar.
The cafeteria server in white apron and hair net plopped graying lumps of overcooked peas, green beans, or corn, along with unadorned meat onto my tray. At the coffee station I grabbed two cups, then ate fast, watching the others down sauce-topped meats, mashed potatoes, and various desserts along with butter, bread and sodas. While the thinner girls put on twenty pounds, I lost them.
Sometimes, instead of rushing out right after gulping down the self-imposed meager meal, I stared at them, gorging on cookies, fruit crisps, brownies, puddings, or thickly frosted cakes with ice cream cups that came with small pre-cut wooden spoons. I watched in earnest while they slurped and chomped, their licking accompanied by orgasmic grunts of pleasure as eager tongues cleaned off the little wooden spoons till they looked spotless. I became them, swallowing as they swallowed, feeling the sugary cream slide happily down my own throat, smooth, sweet, and cold.
At breakfast, my plate scarce with grits and coffee, tablemates downed stacks of syrup soaked pancakes, sausages, bacon, and gravy-topped everything. Even “shit on a shingle” looked tempting (creamed chipped beef on toast). I understood. The food helped, swapped hungrily as condolence for the harsh treatment dumped on us everywhere else. Here was one place to stuff the ragged holes left by all-day physical activity and constant reminders of our ineptitude, rasped loudly and repeatedly by a gaggle of brash Drill Sergeants. Even our dreams reverberated with voices that shrieked throughout the quiet of sleep. Marching didn’t stop because of rain, and backtalk got you fifty push-ups in the mud.
It was a revelation that platoon-mates used food for reasons besides nutrition. Before this, I thought I had to be the only human in the universe to do so. But I stuck to veggies, meat, grits, and coffee, veering off only two times: once when I lost my way to KP in the dark of morning, ending up with the wrong platoon, and the only job left was scrubbing pots and pans. Feeling sorry for myself, I succumbed to a thick, frosted, black brownie at lunch. The only other time a bread item landed on my plate was Thanksgiving. I yielded to the feast, yearning for home, food a sorry replacement.
Mostly though, the South Carolina woods held excitement and adventure. Standing out in the cold most of the day, I dreamed of lying on the beach with the warm sun beating down on my face amidst the tall pines, breathing in their pure sweet fragrance. The other girls moaned and complained. Previous experiences with tent life made the outdoors fun, and Pennsylvania winters brought snow, winds and much harsher temperatures than South Carolina. They had no reason to whine.
Weeks into training, I pulled on jeans fresh from the dryer for the first time since arriving. They hung loose off my hips. “Whose are these?” I wondered until it registered. They were mine!
At Christmas we were allowed a one-week leave. Samuel awaited my arrival at the airport, but looked at me curiously after our embrace, as if puzzled. In public, or while traveling until arriving home, we were required to wear our dress uniform, which meant hair off our shoulders. He scanned the drab attire, standing back a moment, gazing at me, with the stuffed duffle bag at my feet, knee- length straight skirt, tailored brass-buttoned matching jacket over a crisp white blouse, clunky black heels, long trench coat and, most unbecoming and strange to him, my long blonde hair pulled back tightly in a barrette under a dull, green, stiff-brimmed hat.
Once seated across from him in the car, he leaned over hesitatingly, and unclipped my hair pin, an unusual gesture on his part. As my hair spilled out around my shoulders and down my back, he smiled, then returned his hands and attention to the steering wheel as if satisfied and finally recognizing the woman he’d left at the airport only a few months before. We drove off to a week of families, fudge, Christmas trees, and partying with friends.
Then I returned to base, marching past the grandstand during graduation from basic training. During the last night before flying off to various parts of the country for our next assignments, we exchanged addresses with our fellow platoon mates, and drank beer or whatever alcohol we could get our hands on, smuggled in from the Post Exchange on base.
The next morning we said our goodbyes, sadly leaving newfound friends behind. I headed towards my next post, Washington, DC, for training as a veterinary specialist at Walter Reed Hospital. I’d learn to handle Army dogs, give injections, and even insert a feeding tube into a rhesus monkey, not something I dreamed of doing when signing on the dotted line. I became immersed in the intensive two-month course, returning home by springtime.
Samuel and I erected the tent once again.