Where were the women, Bill? Where were the goddam Winnebagos?
This week's chapter is a period of which I am proud and not proud. You'll understand in a minute. I have nothing genuinely negative to say about my brief time in the military, but you must understand that the Army I came from is almost unrecognizable today. That's good and bad, but mostly bad, I think. I'm not climbing up on my soapbox today, though. I've had a rough week and I just want to keep on keeping on with the book. If you're still hanging in after thirty chapters, you have my undying gratitude. (You may also need to see a therapist...)
Being (Mostly) All I Can Be
And then I went completely out of my mind and joined the army.
I wish I could tell you it was because of my deep love for country; my sense of patriotism and pride at membership in the greatest nation on Earth. The truth is, I knew that if I didn’t get out of that fucking house – by any means necessary – I was probably going to kill my stepfather, and I didn’t think I was capable enough to live life on the run. Without telling my mother or anyone else, I went down to the recruiter’s office. He interviewed me for half an hour, I took the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), and a week later I was being sworn in to the U.S. Army. I vaguely remember my friends throwing me a going-away party, but since at the time I didn’t drink, it was probably more depressing than festive.
The next morning somebody – it might actually have been my stepfather – drove me into Houston, to the recruiter depot where I and a bunch of other newly minted government employees took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic. And I discovered that I actually meant it. That was kind of surprising. We boarded a bus for Hobby Airport, there to board a flight for Atlanta, Georgia, there to board another bus for a long, overnight drive to Columbus, home of the Fort Benning Military Reservation.
We arrived at the Reception Battalion in the middle of the night. Maybe a few guys had slept on the bus, but I didn’t. I was beginning to wonder just what the fuck I had gotten myself into. As we rolled up, I could see several men in BDUs (battle dress uniform, or camos), wearing those Smokey The Bear hats with the flat brim, that made them somehow look more menacing than amusing. We all scrambled off the bus without being told, and tried to line ourselves up like the clumsy civilians we were, and it took a minute to realize that nobody was yelling at us. The drill sergeants quietly (and almost politely) asked us to secure our bags from under the bus, which we then placed at our feet and had to open for inspection. That was when the dogs were brought out, and that was when I realized that some guys might try to sneak stuff into the army that the army kind of frowned on. The drill sergeants went through every bag. One guy lost a stack of Playboys; another had his Walkman confiscated. At least nobody on my bus was dumb enough to try and smuggle in drugs.
We were ushered into Reception Battalion, a brand new building with gleaming bays of bunk beds for new arrivals. Old-timers on base called these new buildings “starships,” and I was to learn just how new they were when I got down range to my training battalion, and essentially stepped backward in time to the 1940s. But for now I was assigned a bunk, I placed my bag underneath it, and crawled in. The time was 3am (0300), and we had to be up at 6am (0600) to begin In-Processing. The bay was already half full of recently arrived recruits, who’d gotten there maybe a day ahead of us. But they were already talking shit and acting tough. I did what I usually do in new situations, which was to keep my mouth shut and observe.
In-Processing consisted of haircuts (shave it down to the nub), fitting and acquisition of uniforms (BDUs and Dress, summer and winter gear, standard infantry boots, socks, underwear, etc.), vaccinations (I actually saw a couple of guys faint during this process), more tests (to determine pre-disposition or education for things like how to drive tanks, make quick decisions under stress, eye-hand coordination, cognitive reasoning, etc.), and an endless number of poorly produced welcome and informational videos, during which we had to sit on benches designed to promote numbness in the legs and feet, followed by severe back ache. These videos consisted of everything from how to address a passing officer (salute and say “Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening, Sir or Ma’am), to how to pick the right running shoe. Because, as it turns out, we’d be doing a lot of fucking running.
All told we spent about five days in Reception Battalion – long enough, I think, to give us all a false sense that this was what Army life was going to be like. And it wasn’t that bad. I was actually optimistic the day we boarded the buses to go down range and begin Basic Training. I firmly believe this false sense of reality was very carefully devised by the men in charge. We rolled into an area of whitewashed clapboard buildings straight out of a WWII film, and there were several more drill sergeants. As the bus rolled to a stop, one of them stepped aboard and said, evenly, “Gentlemen, welcome to Fort Benning, home of the Infantry. NOW GOT YOUR FUCKING ASSES OFF OF THIS BUS!!”
We collectively shit our pants, and tumbled off the buses as fast as we could push each other out. Drill sergeants were on every side, screaming orders we couldn’t understand, ripping our duffel bags out of our hands and strewing their contents all over the blacktop. One kid passed right out from sheer terror (he wound up in my platoon). Once they had thoroughly shaken us down and lined us up, they started walking down the ranks, asking each recruit the same question: “What the fuck did YOU do in the outside world, asshole?” Some guys answered they were right out of high school, some had been in the trades (plumbing, woodwork,), some had been unemployed. When they got to me, I answered the only honest thing I could think of. I was NOT trying to sound tough; these people scared the shit out of me.
“I was a martial arts instructor, Drill Sergeant!” (No fucking way was I going to answer, “I used to do standup comedy, Drill Sergeant!”)
I got a double take from the guy who asked me the question, and he stared me down like he thought I was lying. Then he asked me something even more frightening: “Is your name Brantley?” We didn’t even have name-tape on our uniforms yet; just white pieces of tape with our roster numbers. How the fuck did he know my name? I answered in the affirmative, and he moved on down the line.
I was made a Squad Leader, which meant I had responsibility for myself and seven other guys, in a platoon of forty. My primary responsibility was to make sure that my squad and me had our shit squared away at all times. The job of Platoon Guide was given to a guy named Pettit, I think, but he didn’t last more than a week. I was less than thrilled when Drill Sergeant Tiller (“Killer Tiller,” we called him – behind his back), looked at me and said, “YOU do it.” And just like that I was “promoted” to a position I didn’t want, responsible for forty guys, the only thing of which we all had in common was that we were wondering how we could have been so drunk or stupid as to enlist in the army.
The military was the first place I learned I had the capacity to lead. I didn’t really have a choice, and I was a reluctant leader at best. If I could end most days of Basic and Advanced Infantry Training without any of my guys getting into deep shit with the Drill Sergeants, that counted as a good day. There were plenty of guys in the platoon that disliked me, maybe even a few who hated my guts – but mostly because I was the authority figure, I think. No one ever challenged me outright, and I think this was because back then there was still a mystique to somebody who practiced martial arts. You just didn’t fuck with them. But I hope the main reason nobody ever tried to beat my ass was because I was an okay leader.
I will say that the army provided a structure and order to my life I had never known, and that I found I craved. Knowing what you were going to do every day, and what was expected of you, knowing the system of rewards and punishments, knowing the boundaries of your world; those things at that time in my life probably saved me from doing something completely stupid and self-destructive, had I not enlisted. I actually started to excel, and I liked the feeling of being good at something. I learned, for example, that I was a damn good shot with just about any weapon, even though prior to the army I had only fired a gun once or twice in my life (including the time I’d murdered a perfectly good bathroom window). I also learned that I sucked at Land Navigation (this is back when a GPS was referred to as a “compass,” and one of those is still as useful to me as a third nipple), but I befriended a guy in my platoon named Casanova (swear to God). He was this skinny little Mexican kid from Houston, with ears that stuck out sideways from his head. He looked like the Latin version of Alfred E. Newman, the face of Mad Magazine. But he saved me from flunking Land Nav, and he never got us lost in the Georgia woods once.
For all the things I may have gained during Basic (order, structure, etc.), what I lost was my sense of humor. I simply didn’t have time for it. I couldn’t be the class clown in the platoon, because I was in charge. My desire to be good at something was in direct conflict with my nature as a human being, and I was miserable. Before I ever graduated Basic, I’d already decided I wouldn’t be making a career out of the military. I’d do my time, and I’d do my best – and then I’d get out.
I’d enlisted late in the year, and was still in Basic Training as Christmas was approaching. The army has a contingency for just about everything, including new recruits and the holidays. I took part in something called Christmas Exodus, when all recruits in Basic are allowed – at the government’s expense – to travel home for the holidays. I went home for two weeks, and mostly what I did during that time was sleep. I also came down with the flu. I didn’t want to stay, and I didn’t want to go back. During her sober moments my mom would tell me how proud she was of me. I knew that failure to show back up at Benning would be a federal offense, and that might be the only thing that got me on the plane back to Georgia.
I managed to finish both Basic and Advanced Infantry Training without getting “fired” from my position as Platoon Guide. I was Honor Graduate of my platoon, and my family actually made the trip up from Texas to see me graduate. We all spent that weekend in nearby Columbus, along with my best friend from Basic, a Miami native named Eduardo Lopez, whose family couldn’t make the trip. The following Monday, Lopez and I had to report to Airborne School.
The First Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment is where soldiers learn how to jump out of airplanes and into combat. Lopez and I, along with our friend Sean MacGuire (who also came out of Basic with us), ended up in Delta Company, which had a history of the toughest instructors and the highest standards. Airborne School consisted of four weeks of training: Zero Week, Ground Week, Tower Week, and Jump Week. Our first day in, the company commander addressed us. I can’t remember everything he said, but this bit stuck with me:
“Now some people might ask you WHY you would want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. Your answer in these situations should always be that the U.S. Air Force doesn’t make any PERFECTLY GOOD airplanes, and it is best to know how to leave one quickly, and here we will teach you that skill.”
I made it all the way through Tower Week. The Friday morning before we would actually start jumping out of planes, we went for a company run, as we had every day since the beginning of Airborne School. On a steep decline, making a sharp left turn to head back to the barracks, my left foot planted and stayed put while the rest of me turned 90 degrees, partially tearing my ACL. And just like that, my army days were done.
I could have stayed in. I had options. I remember going over them with my company commander. I could have become a Range Instructor. I could have taken any number of desk jobs. But the last option he gave me was to honorably discharge, and I jumped at it. My friends had already graduated Airborne and were long gone. I was in a sort of bureaucratic Purgatory, and I already knew I wasn’t going to make the army a career. When I told him I wanted to go home, he looked over his thick spectacles at me with utter contempt. And I thought, I don’t care. You’re just one more person I’m disappointing. Get in line. A few weeks later, a guy I’d befriended at Headquarters Company, named Lennon, drove me to the bus station. I hopped a Greyhound for Atlanta, and there I got on a plane and flew home, with absolutely no goddamn idea what I was going to do next.
And that’s how I became a bouncer.
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