The other day I was thinking about an experience I had when I was in basic training. The old joke goes that it's called "basic" because life doesn't get any more basic than being screamed at for failure to fold your shorts into perfect six inch squares. There's a lot of truth to that, but that same truth be known, having authority figures in authority figure-looking hats doing it when you're a naive kid is, well, distracting. Forty-nine of us were constantly doing our best, as is traditional in Air Force boot camp, to avoid high-speed spittle originating from guys with the pay grade of E-I'm-A-Lifer.
That's as it should be; the only way to effectively convert people from civilian to military status, in mere weeks, is to apply intense negative reinforcement to any and all nonmilitary behavior. Only when the recruits perform as expected do their trainers begin to ease up on the pressure. This becomes of paramount importance when basic training is short when compared to the other branches -and that pressure sometimes leads to interesting behavior.
Take, for example, the morning that my squad's leader got sick and had to report to the infirmary. I was second in line, having just beat out that skinny kid from Portland for the honors. For the past two weeks, I had been strutting cockily, secure in the knowledge that I was second only to the squad leader and that the weight of responsibility fell on his shoulders. I had an almost unobstructed view wherever we marched. You can't buy that level of luxury! And then it happened.
One morning I was ordered to lead the squad for the day.
Ever go blank at a critical moment? Some experience that during a sales presentation. Others, during a midterm exam. Not me.
My mind went blank precisely when I was ordered to lead the squad into the mess hall, down the street.
Now, ordinarily when one begins to lead a squad, he or she first calls out, "Squad! Ten-HUT! Forward, march!" and off they go. In our case, we were all standing shoulder to shoulder -and I forgot the simple addition of, "Right face!", which goes between ten-hut and forward march when you choose to walk forward. I was, I think, rattled by the presence of every military authority figure in the Western Hemisphere. All eyes were on The Kid. Can The Kid lead these boys to the safety of breakfast? Well, no. The Kid went blank, apparently having flunked right face. This led to something you might see in an early sixties comedy. Mess hall was approximately a block and a half away. In lieu of right face. we were sidestepping. That means choreographed sideways walking to those who have never been subjected to such experiences. Face forward. Take a step to your right with your right foot. Bring your left foot to meet with your right. Continue doing that for an eighth of a mile while twelve other guys plan your demise. The looks of incredulity I received from five sergeants, two lieutenants, and a very surprised major were nothing compared to the Broadway show I inadvertently had us putting on. "We're the Flight of 715. We're marching off to chow." (step step step...)
I cannot express the relief I felt, after having sidestepped us for a block and a half, we entered the mess hall facing the serving line. The pace at which each of us picked up our tray must have made us look like an assembly line. Tray up-down, next tray up-down...
And for my part, I carried the bearing saying, Yeah. I meant to do that.