The rainy season continues. It’s incredibly green down here. The Chinese Mountains in front of our house look like heads of broccoli. I’m not sure what the real name of the mountains are, but I call them the Chinese Mountains.
Las montañas de chino, in Spanish.
I think they look like the mountains in old Chinese paintings.
* * * *
Remember the movie, Mr Mom? 1983. Michael Keaton. Terri Garr.
Michael Keaton’s character loses his job and becomes a stay at home dad. After a few months of misadventures, he becomes disillusioned. He gives up taking care of the house. He gains weight, grows a beard, and spends most of his days drinking beer and watching soap operas on TV.
That’s kind of where my lovely supermodel wife and I are at right now.
Okay, it’s not that bad. Lea hasn’t grown a beard, and I haven’t started drinking and watching soap operas, so at least we caught it in time. And now that we’ve been able to identify what’s happening, we can come up with a plan of action to do something about it.
And we haven’t lost our jobs. We’re retired. Lea’s been retired for over an year. My one year anniversary will be here at the end of next month. The issues we face are vastly different than if we were still trying to remain gainfully employed.
We don’t have any debt. We don’t have any institutions we owe money to. We have monthly expenses, and that’s all. It’s pretty damn cool, and I haven’t been free from debt since I was twenty-one.
That was forty years ago. And as weird as this might sound, it’s time to get back to basics.
* * * *
I enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school. The first stop in my military career was Fort Ord, CA for basic training. Fort Ord was located around Monterey Bay. It opened in 1917, and closed in 1994, twenty years after I was there.
If the Federal government has any common sense, they’ll sell the land to developers and make a ton of money.
From what I remember, Fort Ord was a nondescript place, mostly sand and ice plants, scrub oak and poison ivy. And of all those, sand was predominant. I once described Fort Ord as a sand trap on the fourth hole of Life.
I’m pretty sure that description stands the test of time.
I arrived at Fort Ord in July of 1974. I was eighteen years old. The one thing I was sure of after I had been there for a couple of days was that I had made a terrible mistake. After talking to a few of the other guys, I knew I wasn’t the only one who had come to that conclusion.
I still remember some of the guys in my squad. Day. Moreno. Marthaler. Dennison. Mramer. I remember those guys better than I do most of the people I went to nursing school with ten years later. We all joined the Army for a myriad of reasons, but none of us were overly gung ho about it.
Marthaler and I were both from Minnesota. We were bunk mates. He slept on top. Dennison was probably my best friend in boot camp. We talked about a lots of stuff. We had similar interests. It helped the time go by. Day and Moreno were my buds. I helped them survive the obstacle course, and they helped me survive everything else. Day taught me how to play chess. Moreno made me laugh. Mramer and I hated each other. I’m not sure why. We never discussed it. I’m not sure we ever spoke to one another. But I’m pretty sure he hated me, and as a result, I know I hated him.
* * * *
I was assigned to Company A-4-3, fourth platoon, first squad. Our company commander was Captain Heller. He had a painting of a a bunch of marching penguins placed right above the mess hall doors. He thought penguins were the epitome of military attention. We were the Marching Penguins of Fort Ord, and all of the other companies laughed at us.
We hated those fucking penguins.
Our instructor was Drill Sergeant Byrum. DS Byrum was from North Carolina. He was slender and short, maybe a little taller than me. He wore glasses, and had a mustache. He looked like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. Despite his meek and mild looks, he wasn’t a man to mess with. He had killed more than one enemy combatant with nothing more than a knife and his hands.
DS Byrum had been a tunnel rat in Nam before becoming a drill sergeant, just like Forrest Gump. He had been wounded several times, and had lost several feet of his small intestine as can result of one of his wounds. All our training cadre had served at least one tour of duty in Vietnam, and they all had quite a bit to say about it.
The Vietnam War had become very unpopular in the US, and I can’t remember a single guy in my platoon that wanted to go there. I certainly didn’t. The war was a topic of heated discussion whenever we weren’t being run into the ground, learning how to be soldiers.
There were two groups. The guys who thought it was our duty to fight for our country, no matter where that might be, and the war was right. And there were the guys who thought America had no business being in Vietnam, and the war was wrong.
I was one of the latter. So was Dennison.
In addition, whether by accident or design, all of the fuck ups were assigned to the fourth platoon. We all knew we were fuck ups because DS Byrum told us we were. We were the platoon of misfits from Stripes.
Our first meeting with DS Byrum went something like unto this:
It was 4:00 AM on a Monday morning in late July. Everyone in my platoon was asleep in the barracks. And then I heard the sound of an empty metal garbage can being thrown down the middle of the barracks floor, echoing as it bounced off the floor and metal bedframes. And a voice was shouting, “Get. The. Fuck. Up!”
His voice continued as my platoon slowly roused itself and started getting dressed.
“I am Drill Sergeant Byrum, and you will address me as such if you want to live! Do not call me Sergeant! Do not call me Sir! Every rotation of new recruits has a platoon of fuck ups, and gentlemen, you are that platoon! You might be fuck ups now, but ten weeks from now you are going to be the best platoon in this company, or you will die trying! Now, rise and shine! Get. The. Fuck. Up!”
And for the next ten weeks, that’s more or less how every morning started.
* * * *
DS Byrum is memorable to me for at least one particular talent. He couldn’t correctly pronounce anyone’s name. Well, he could say Day’s name correctly, but the rest of us fuck ups got a fucked up name. My last name is Rowen. I became Private Roland.
Basic training serves a series of important military functions, probably. Initial processing. There’s a ton of paperwork that has to be filled out in triplicate, and processed on each new soldier. We were issued a literal ton of military equipment and uniforms that we had to sign for. In triplicate. With each step and each signature, we became a little less civilian, and a bit more military in thought and appearance. That process reached its fruition when we all received our trainee haircut which made all of us look like unto Bryan Baeumler.
That haircut was a rite of passage. Before it, we were still individuals with an unique identify. After it, we were officially soldiers, all equally bald and bereft of identity and individuality, and our real training began.
* * * *
The three most important aspects of boot camp are to brainwash each new recruit to stop thinking like a civilian, to start them thinking the way the Army wants them to think, and to get them into the best physical shape they could be in to die in the service of their country, if necessary.
“Men. There are two ways to do something. The wrong way, and the Army way. You are here to learn to do everything the Army way, and you will learn to do so without question, or your Army career will end somewhere in the next ten weeks. Do. You. Understand. Me!
“Yes, drill sergeant!”
And the first thing you better learn is that sentence. Or you’ll end up doing a whole lots of push ups. Even if you learn that sentence better than anyone ever has, you’ll still end up doing a whole lots of push ups. There might be things drill sergeants enjoy more than making everyone do push ups, but I’m not sure what they could be.
“Give me fifty.” was one of the most popular lines spoken in boot camp. After a couple of weeks or so, doing fifty push ups was nothing. Another favorite line was, “Give me one hundred.” The worst part about this line was it was usually said at 2:00 AM, and it was generally prefaced with a speech.
“Men! I heard some of you have been crying to your girlfriends and to your mamas on the phone. My drill sergeant doesn’t like me because I’m black! He doesn’t like me because I’m Mexican! Men! That’s a bunch of bullshit! I don’t care if you’re black! I don’t care if you’re brown. Or yellow. Or white. I hate each and every one of you motherfuckers equally! Do. You. Understand. Me? There’s only one color in this Army, and that color is green! Now, get down and give me one hundred!”
Or there was this speech from Drill Sergeant Camacho in the early morning hours, in the pouring rain while the entire company stood outside in our underwear. A couple of guys got into a fight earlier in the day, and DS Camacho didn’t want any of that shit going on on his watch.
“Men! I heard some of you guys think you’re tough. I heard some of you guys think you’re real badasses. I heard some of you guys like to fight. Is that true? Do we have any fighters out there? Because I want you tough guys to know one thing! If any of you fuckers want to fight, you can fight me and I’ll beat the living shit out of you! I’ll kick your fucking ass! Are there any badasses out there now? Are there any tough guys out there that want to fight me?”
“No, drill sergeant.”
“I. Can’t. Hear. You.”
“NO, DRILL SERGEANT!”
“That’s more like it! Now, get down and give me two hundred!”
* * * *
We had a whole lots of drill sergeants. Each platoon had a primary and secondary instructor. We had Byrum and Camacho. There were at least six other instructors who collaborated to make all of our lives as miserable as legally possible, plus a rotation of instructors in training. I can’t remember all of them anymore.
The only one of them I can remember clearly is DS O’Connor. I think he was one of first platoon’s instructors. His father was an American serviceman stationed in the Pacific, and his mother was a Polynesian native. He was half American and half Polynesian. He was…Amnesian.
* * * *
Boot camp is a new miserable experience for everyone that has to endure it. The only free time you have is when you go to bed, and sleep is your only escape mechanism, unless you decide to try to escape from the Army. And there’s always at least one guy who tries to go AWOL in boot camp.
In my unit, it was Calvin. That was his last name. No one has a first name in boot camp. He was most definitely a fuck up, but I don’t think he was in my platoon. I wonder how that happened? In addition to the mangled names DS Byrum gave us, almost everyone had a nickname. And Drill Sergeant Byrum helped me get mine one day when my platoon was in formation.
“Private Roland! I understand you had a meeting with the company commander this morning.”
“Yes, drill sergeant!” Everyone in the company knew about it. I was called to Captain Keller’s office while we were eating breakfast in the mess hall.
“Why did the captain want to see you?”
“I’d rather not say, drill sergeant.”
“Did I ask you if you had an opinion, Private Roland? Get down and give me fifty. Now, tell the rest of the platoon why the captain wanted to see you.”
“He…he asked me if I wanted to go to West Point, drill sergeant.”
“And what did you tell the captain?”
“I told him I wasn’t interested, drill sergeant.”
“Do you hear that, men? Private Roland turned down an appointment to attend the finest university in the entire world, just so he could stay here with you. Is that correct, Private Roland?”
“Yes, drill sergeant!”
* * * *
Captain Heller was more than a little surprised when I told him I wasn’t interested in going to West Point.
“Take some time, think about it for a day. Talk to your parents. This is a great opportunity, son. You’re not going to get another chance like this again, ever. I can guarantee you that.”
“Yes, sir. You’re right about that, sir. But I don’t need any more time to think about this. I’m not interested.”
“Well, okay. But I think you’re making a big mistake with your life, son. Dismissed.”
* * * *
“That’s the stupidest fuckin’ thing I’ve ever heard, Private! Why would you turn down the opportunity to have a free college education at the best center of higher learning in the entire universe?”
I had at least one good reason for not wanting to go to West Point. I already knew I hated being in the Army, and the sooner I got out of the Army, the happier I was going to be. West Point was a four year commitment, plus another four years of service in the military on top of that.
Eight years in the Army was five more years than my enlistment. At that time in my life, it seemed like unto two eternities. All I wanted to do was serve my three years, and go back to Montana and marry my high school sweetheart.
But that wasn’t anything I wanted to tell Drill Sergeant Byrum, so I told him something I was pretty sure he’d like to hear.
“Permission to speak freely, drill sergeant.”
“By all means, Roland. I cannot wait to hear what you have to say.”
“I didn’t want to end up being a goddamn officer, drill sergeant.”
“Well, Private Roland. The captain told me you were smart, but that is fuckin’ genius! That is the best reason I’ve ever heard!” And he smiled, and laughed. He might have even clapped me on the back.
I think DS Byrum actually liked me for a minute there. And that was a bad thing. The last thing you wanted in boot camp was to be seen as someone your drill sergeant liked, for any reason. And another bad thing was being considered better than everyone else. Before I even knew it was my turn to bat, I already had two strikes. In one fell swoop I had developed something like unto leprosy as far as almost everyone in my platoon was concerned.
They started calling me Captain. It might sound cool, but in boot camp it’s like unto the Kiss of Death. It wasn’t a sign of respect, but rather, contempt.
* * * *
You get to do an endless amount of marching in boot camp. You march everywhere. And while you march, you sing. The Army has a buttload of a shitload of a ton of marching songs. Most of them have something to do with pretty women, getting drunk and killing things. Singing helps you find a rhythm to the mindless task of marching, and it helps you move in unison with the guys around you. Doing everything in unison is not only critical to the smooth functioning of your unit, but the entire Army.
If you can’t learn to march in unison as a platoon, you’ll never be able to march in unison to the Army way of life. And the first thing you have to do in order to be a good soldier is to stop asking questions.
“Private Roland, the Army is not paying you to think. You decided not to go to West Point, remember? The Army is paying you to do whatever I tell you to do! Now, get down and give me fifty!”
If I had one hundred dollars for every time DS Byrum told me that, I probably could’ve retired at the end of basic training. That was easily the hardest part of boot camp for me. Accepting something as the truth from a guy who couldn’t even pronounce my name correctly was tough.
All of the training we received was designed for a dual purpose. To keep us alive if we were ever in a combat situation, and to pass all of the testing we would have to endure in boot camp. It made sense, even back then. All that testing tended to weed out the weakest members of the herd. We were being tested, and all of us had to pass a battery of tests along the way. Weapons training. Shooting range. Hand grenades.
We were trained and drilled. Retrained, and redrilled. Then trained and drilled some more. On the days of our final testing, we were driven to the ranges to test out on weapons. The M-16 rifle. The M-60 machine gun. Hand grenades. Whatever. The Army wanted us rested and relaxed on those days.
The rest of the time it wanted us miserable and exhausted, and probably the most exhausting endeavor of boot camp was bivouac. Think of camping while you’re in the Army, then add automatic weapons and live ammunition. And drill sergeants yelling at you. It was supposed to be the closest thing to actual combat experience training we would receive.
I was paired up with Moreno, we would share a tent for the next week while we were out in the field. I think Moreno chose me because I was smaller than he was, and I didn’t snore.
“You won’t take up a lot of room, and you won’t keep me awake at night, like Day. He snores like a fuckin’ chainsaw.” Moreno said. He was one of the few people that didn’t treat me differently after I chose not to go to the Military Academy. Even Dennison did. I think he was pissed he didn’t get asked if he wanted to go to the Military Academy. “What the fuck do those morons know? How many of them were asked to go to West Point?”
That was a good question. There were plenty of other guys that were easily as smart as me, like Dennison. He was probably smarter than I was. And yet…
For the first and only time, we didn’t march in close formation, but were spread out in a long column. Drill sergeants ran up and down the line, telling some to spread out, others to hurry up and close ranks a bit. Moreno and I stayed near the back of the column and talked. Moreno was a funny guy. He joked about almost everything, and that made the long march tolerable.
Bivouac maneuvers started out benignly enough. We marched. That was nothing new, but this march didn’t stop. We marched for four hours straight. For lunch we ate C-rations, then marched for another four or five hours.
At some point in the afternoon, we were ‘attacked,’ and had to dive for cover. Live ammunition was being fired in our general direction, about fifty feet above our heads. The area I ended up in was a few scrub oaks surrounded by a field of poison ivy, so I decided I needed another place to dive for cover.
“Private Roland! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m getting out of this poison ivy, drill sergeant.”
“Private, we are under attack! You need to drop to ground! Now!”
“We are not under attack. I’m not in any danger of being killed. There’s a place without any poison ivy right there! That’s where I’m going.”
“Private Roland! You drop to the ground right where you are, right now, and that’s a goddamn order!”
I’m not sure I have ever hated a man so much as I hated DS Byrum at that moment in time. I dropped to one knee.
“All the way down. To the fuckin’ ground, Private! Now, goddamnit!”
I ended up with the worst case of poison ivy anyone has ever seen, including the bivouac doctor at Sick Call the next morning. He gave me a tiny bottle of calomine lotion, and told me to come back if I needed more. I started every morning standing in line to get more calomine lotion, trying not to scratch any part of my body.
Oddly enough, having to dive into the poison ivy ended up being kind of a blessing. Arguing with DS Byrum wasn’t something new for me, but the fact that he had to give me a direct order made the other guys in my platoon dislike me less. It proved to them I wasn’t an asskissing egghead who probably should have been smart enough to go to West Point.
Plus, I had an ugly ass rash all over my body, and there wasn’t a more miserable looking person on the planet than I looked that week.
It was one of the longest weeks of my life. Ever. Even now it was probably only exceeded in emotional misery by the week my mother-in-law died, and even then, I wasn’t covered by the itchy rash of poison ivy, nor did I have to march ten miles a day.
* * * *
If boot camp is nothing but an endless test, the final exam of boot camp is the Fitness Test. I can’t remember how many different sets of exercises we had to complete beyond several of them, but every skill was measured, timed and graded. Your final score determined whether or not you would be able to leave Fort Ord, boot camp, and continue onward in the Army. The final component of the Fitness Test was the mile run.
You could run as fast as you liked, but the slowest acceptable time was eight minutes.
Some of the guys I was in boot camp with were phenoms at certain skills, and their scores were legendary. Like Mramer. He could run like a sprinter for at least a mile. I wasn’t spectacular at any of the Fitness skills, but I was consistently average. Not great, but good enough to pass.
That pretty much sums up my entire academic career. And my military career, for that matter.
After that, boot camp was essentially over. There was a ceremony. A general gave a speech. I shook DS Byrum’s hand, and thanked him for making my life a living hell.
And for those of you who think I should have jumped at the chance to attend the Military Academy, maybe you’re right. But the judgement I had to endure in boot camp is the same thing I would’ve had to endure if I had decided to go to West Point. The You Don’t Belong Here Judgement.
I would’ve been hated by a better class of people. Instead of being too good to be an enlisted man, I wouldn’t have been good enough to be an officer, but that’s the only difference.
* * * *
As much as I hated boot camp, I’m sure I learned some important lessons there. It is only through facing adversity that one truly grows. I learned discipline. I learned how to persevere. I learned how to focus my diffuse anger. Unfortunately, I learned to focus it at the Army. And I learned something about patience. Those were all good things to know, and they came in handy over the years. But it would take me a very long time to learn all about patience.
Patience is the least of my concerns. Waiting is probably the last thing I need to do. However, just what it is that I’m supposed to do isn’t immediately clear. I have a few ideas that I’ve been mulling over, and Lea has a couple of things she wants to do. Everything will fall into place.
It always has so far.
And it’s not like my whole world has fallen apart. It simply hasn’t fallen together. There’s a big difference between the two.
Maybe I’ll get started by doing some push ups…