Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Day I Didn't Become A Commando

I spent a good portion of this evening in a reminiscent state of mind, feeling the onset of middle age and trying my fifty-two year old best to recall what it felt like to be twenty. At the moment, I can do nary a crunch, but there was a time when I could run rings around myself. In fact, I ran my first rings in San Antonio, Texas. From that come memories, thirty-two years ago, of my first encounter with real, honest-to-goodness-you-can't-get-away-with-that-here authority figures. Decked out in campaign hats, name tags, and the ability to breathe fire, I had encountered my first basic training instructors.

Now, a good way not to begin training is to start the first day of boot camp stepping out of formation, strolling right up the training instructor, tapping him on the shoulder, and asking him what time it is. In my very first Gomer Pyle experience Technical Sergeant Barra, with hands on hips, gave me a well-rehearsed Sergeant Carter once-over as I felt myself becoming trading a healthy, light pink tone for a "just ran out of blood sugar" one, much to the delight of two of his colleagues. And in that moment I discovered that it's almost impossible to answer questions and follow orders issued simultaneously, at maximum volume and with various bits of spittle, by three drill sergeants. To this day I don't recall how I managed to do push ups while sir-thank-you-ing one of them for introducing me, in a crash course, how to tell time in the military.

The Air Force takes a lot of flack, so to speak, from Army, Navy, and Marine folks, though we think we can beat the Coast Guard and the Civil Air Patrol in a fair fight. Actually, I contend that Air Force basic is tougher than boot camp in the aforementioned. "And why would you say that, Adcox?" some would challenge me. "The physical training you went through in basic was almost nonexistent."

And there's the rub.

We had the vicious mind games inflicted on us like everyone else, but unlike the Army and Marines, we had almost no physical outlet. That meant that the stress built, second by second, day by day, and week by week, as you looked around and watched fellow airmen failing major inspections or otherwise not performing to minimal standards, and getting "recycled". That's a fancy word for "you get to repeat the previous two weeks of boot in beautiful sunny Lackland, pal. Get your gear." Simply observing the mortality rate of one's flight (the Army calls this a "company") affects morale.

That's why I felt relieved -why all forty-nine of us felt relieved- the day we met on the parade grounds for some real, honest-to-goodness PT (that's "physical therapy", which is a polite phrase for "you're going to re-experience the PTSD you developed in eighth grade gym for the next hour or so"). Introduced to us was a guy wearing a beret and an ascot. "Surely this guy isn't going to lead us in conditioning", I reasoned to myself while he contented himself with screaming at us to "yank them sneakers off, ladies. The first thing I want you clowns to do is lay down on this luxurious tarmac, hands straight out. With your feet together, I want you to lift them exactly six inches." (Van Housen almost got us all into trouble; he only managed five and a half inches. We knew this because the trainer, who was Para Rescue [the Air Force's equivalent of the Green Beret] had a tape measure.) Simple, I thought. Anyone can do this! "And hold your feet there." No problem, thought I as Lopez had already begun to grunt. "And continue to hold your positions" was commented by the trainer, who had also brought a book to read while forty-nine of us began to falter, a few at first but suddenly many more. "And hold." (That book had better be good.) Aaaand hold. If I see one foot hit the tarmac, I'll know just how out of shape you are. That would mean repeating this activity until we all get it right. Am I correct, ladies?"

There's something so Alfred Hitchcock about such a moment. You don't quite know if the trainer is a bad guy or not, but you certainly don't want to explore that mystery at such a moment.

"I hear heavy breathing. Someone had better be remembering a hot date."

Ugh, I thought to myself, even though I didn't have Grime's apparent courage to actually say "ugh". I didn't have to look around me; I could already tell what was happening as I heard feet begin to fall all around me, eventually including my own. While we were informed that we were pathetic, worthless, and hopeless, my mind wandered to an earlier incident in which I had screwed up while marching my squad to the mess hall, and what I wouldn't give to have a hamburger right about now.

We did manage to improve our foot-raising performance over the next week, feeling the burn in our lower abs and benefiting from a member of an elite group. I still had a bit of a gut at the end of basic, though barely noticeable. That worked for me.

I wasn't a commando.

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