Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Air Force Years: Part Two

The scene at Lackland AFB the night I arrived was exactly as you'd imagine. It was near midnight and a humid 80 degrees or so in San Antonio, Texas. The bus from the airport passed through the arched gate and drove along the silent streets. Our voices grew subdued with anticipation. As we arrived at a small brightly lit administration building, the bus came to a stop and the Training Instructors (TIs) in the Mountie hats started in.

We were "maggoty little pukes" now, and they would be "our mamas, our girlfriends, our world." We stood next to our bags on the tarmac hoping to avoid notice. They herded us through processing and we were marched to the barracks of Flight 52.

Sargent Matson — the saner of our two TIs — put his nose to mine and drawled "I, don't, like, fuckin', hippies." I had the sense to say nothing, and he was kind enough to let me get away it.

Once everyone's head was shaved, he seemed to forget who I was.

Our other TI, Sargent Anderson, was a bigger concern. Either this man was the best actor in the world, or he was just half a step from losing it entirely and committing some act of unspeakable mayhem. Anderson was just plain fucking scary.

The second floor barracks was split into two long bays of around two dozen metal frame beds that were paired in facing rows. The walls were lined with lockers that contained a precise set of items. Much of our work revolved around keeping these things "clean, dry, and serviceable" and arranged just so.

I spent the next six weeks in the constant company of around fifty guys. There was an intense silent type named Martinez who would fling sweat as he performed martial arts in front of a mirror, and an overweight kid named Raymond who seemed too dumb to be for real. He was from Maine. A couple of guys came through high school ROTC, and with their Airman First Class stripes already outranked us all. There were a handful of true believers who were dying to be squad leaders so they could start giving orders.

The Airman in the bunk next to me was a Black guy from New York named — to the great amusement of all — Tim Harris. Up to that point, I'd never known an African-American. Blacks in Sioux Falls were extremely scarce. His hospital corners were always tighter than mine and his shoes more shined. He liked Earth, Wind, and Fire and I liked Journey, but we got along OK.

There were maybe a four or five Blacks in our Flight. One was a former school teacher from the Virgin Islands. He was older and kept to himself. The others formed an unofficial squad of their own.

One night, they decided to have a few blanket parties. One or two of them would hold someone down with a blanket while the others pounded him with bars of soap wrapped in towels. I was on the list. The blanket had barely come down over my head before I was upright yelling "What the Fuck!"

They scattered, but I saw that Tim was involved. We never spoke of it. I wasn't exactly popular.

Only two people in our Flight would earn the coveted Honor Graduate ribbon. Weirdly, I was one of them. I was the last guy, besides maybe Raymond, who seemed destined to this achievement. I was regarded by my peers as a stoner with an attitude problem. I bounced when I marched, had problems telling left from right, and, by Basic Trainee standards, was a bit on the rumpled side.

Little of this really mattered. Getting the award was a matter of performing a few graded drills without error, passing the inspections, and acing several written tests. But luck played a role as well. There was one inspection that everyone failed except for the two of us who weren't there. We became the Honor Grads. Everyone else was eliminated by Sergeant Anderson's bed-flipping, drawer-throwing, temper tantrum.

I was out that day on the business of blowing my security clearance.

When I enlisted
, it was with visions of leaving the world of sweaty low-wage toil behind and entering a desk-bound, air-conditioned existence of comparative leisure. One's actual job placement, however, was never guaranteed. The needs of the Air Force, the phrase went, "were paramount."

After scoring highly on several aptitude tests, I was being tracked toward work as a translator or working with code, neither of which excited me. I envisioned long hours wearing headphones in some godforsaken place like Thule, Greenland. To qualify, I needed a Top Secret clearance. I took the obvious course of action, and told them the opposite of everything they wanted to hear.

I had taken drugs repeatedly and enthusiastically. I got myself through bad patches by kiting checks. My parents and I weren't really speaking. It all went down on their forms.

The day everyone else's lockers were being destroyed, I was in a small room with some Major who had been assigned to figure out the problem Airman. "It seems to me," she said after some conversation, "that there are other people who want this assignment more than you." I agreed, and the issue was dropped.

Ironically, I wound up assigned as a Travel Disbursement Specialist. Since this involved routinely seeing people's orders, some of which were classified, I technically needed a Top Secret clearance. This was granted with little apparent investigation or fanfare.

The graduation ceremony was a proud occasion. I was to stand up as my name was called, march to the front, salute, receive the Honor Graduate ribbon, execute a flawless about face and march back to my seat. I was terrified. As I stood in front of the presenter he said in a low voice, "Don't blow it now Airman." I didn't. The ribbon was mine.

From the beginning, I had a keen sense of being judged by those who lived neat, contained, half-witted existences of obedience and order. I thought they were self-righteous idiots and wanted to show them all up, so I did. At least one felt he deserved the ribbon far more than I and said so to my face. I'm sure he was right, but it didn't bother me. In the end, I was just luckier.

Life's like that sometimes.

Everyone expects Basic Training to suck, so when it did, I wasn't too surprised. I put on about twenty pounds and kept it. This always happens to me. My thin periods are always a by-product of extreme poverty. When food becomes available, I eat.

There was only one kid in my Flight who didn't make it. He was a streetwise punk from somewhere in Ohio who'd been in some trouble back home. He told the TIs he was gay and the next day he was gone.

Within a year, I'd was resorting to some fairly desperate strategies of my own, but could never bring myself to employ the one more or less sure-fire means that I had available. If I'd been less of a homophobe, I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting about your time in the USAF. Like you, many people I meet are shocked to find out that I was in the military. Usually this comes up during a discussion about the Iraq quagmire.

In the end it was the best way out for me. I was able to pay for much of my college tuition with my GI Bill. Without that there was no way for me to afford an education.

I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on Veteran's for Peace? Given your status as a veteran I would be very interested in how you feel about this group.


Tim Harris said...

I've always admired Vets for Peace, but as a peace-time vet, I don't really identify as a veteran myself. I didn't identify much with the military when I was a member either.