I suppose it’s just a normal part of growing older to reflect from time to time on one’s past. This time my excuse is the approaching completion of my 57th lap around the sun, scheduled for Saturday if I don’t die first. Birthdays have never really been a thing for me, but my 17th was a good time. Amethyst threw a small party for me and convinced the local subscription broadcast television station to run the Rocky Horror Picture Show for it. Of course the cake was black with red trim and lettering and we all got silly and danced around the living room.
I spent my 18th birthday in a Kenworth watching rain fall on an empty parking lot surrounded by forest in the Pacific Northwest. My gift that year was a speeding ticket that a California Highway Patrol officer wrote me at about ten o’clock the night before. My 19th was spent in US Air Force Basic Training. My gift for that one was having a TI (Training Instructor) up my ass all damn day. All of the screaming and name calling almost made me homesick.
But let me rewind a bit, to Friday, September 19, 1980. Nearly fifty of us boarded a plane at Los Angeles International Airport destined for Lackland Air Force Base, on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. I was glad to be getting away from many things, among them the coterie of prostitutes who plied their wares nightly in the Holiday Inn in which the Department of Defense had housed us for a few days of propaganda stunts that ended up not being all that they’d been cracked up to be. I found out on our last day there, when I saw her at the AFEES, that the only cute one wasn’t a professional hooker — she was an Army recruit.
Once on the plane, I found myself wishing to get away from the rest of the recruits with whom I would spend at least some of the next six weeks. I’d never flown on a commercial airliner before and knew nothing about how things worked, but having never been one to let the existence of rules or respect for them (of which I had none) get in my way, I didn’t bother to ask about them. Cutting straight to the chase, I flirted my way into an upgrade to First Class for myself and my future brother-in-law. Once settled into our far superior seats, we proceeded to get completely drunk on free drinks, and did not have to wait long between refills delivered by the flirty flight attendant. I have no memory of what it was that I drank entirely too much of, or for that matter of the portion of the flight between an uncounted one-too-many (but not by any means the last) and the descent into the San Antonio area.
The craft descended, the wheels touched the pavement, and then the engines roared as the pilot aborted the landing. I’m a-thinkin’ the pilot had had one too many himself — oops, wrong runway. In fact, it was the wrong Air Force base entirely. There are (were?) five Air Force bases around San Antonio and his first choice was one of the wrong ones. As were his second through fourth choices. I thought that hilarious. Just randomly choosing from among them, he should have guessed at the right one by the third try. On the fifth and final try, he found Lackland, which was (still is?) also the municipal air terminal. And bobbled the shit out of it, touching down with first the starboard wheels, then the port, then the starboard again, then the port again, and finally both sides at once. So far as I know, I was the only one who was thoroughly amused by it all.
Once deplaned… “deplaned” is such a curious word to me. We don’t say that we got de-carred, de-bussed, or de-bicycled. “Disembark” isn’t much better. To embark is to begin a journey, right? So wouldn’t disembark mean that you got the airport and decided not to go after all?
Once we got out of the goddam plane, the nice gate agent told us that someone would meet us right over yonder. I was quite pleased to find that yonder was within my ability as long as I proceeded at a leisurely pace. The promised someone, though, was not present when I got there. My idea was to wait fifteen minutes and, should no one arrive, go somewhere else. I had relatives not far from San Antonio, and, hey, it’s an airport, right? Score a ticket and away you go. I had no money, but if I can flirt to get a First Class upgrade why not a ticket to Hawaii? Alas, there were no more flights that night and by the time my arbitrarily allotted fifteen minutes were up the place was practically deserted and there were no flight attendants left to flirt with anyway. There was one counter agent in the place, but flirting with men has never been my thing. Not even to score an airline ticket.
So to this day I don’t know for sure whether or not it’s possible to sweet-talk ones way into an airline ticket. I suspect that it probably is, but I’m not keen on flying in our dystopian present in which reaching an airliner entails degradation and humiliation. If no one else can tell me, I’ll never know.
After about an hour, while the rest remained huddled and timid in the waiting area in which they’d been told to wait, I and one other went off to find a telephone. It might have been my future brother-in-law, it might not have been. I was still pretty hammered. I found a telephone number that seemed likely, but was incorrect. Whoever it was that I called told me the name of the correct outfit to call, but nothing by the name he gave me appeared in the phone book. Uh-oh. One dime down, one to go, no margin for error. Tried another, struck out.
One of the things I was glad to have escaped was poverty. I had precisely no moneys when I reached the AFEES (Armed Forces Entrance and Examining Station) a few days earlier. Ever been there, absolutely flat broke? Those two dimes seemed pretty valuable at the time.
We went back to the waiting area to beg for more coins, but none of our fellow recruits was in a generous mood. I thought them unforgivably infantile to just sit there because some chick who worked for Delta Airlines had told them to sit there but they were, after all, recruits. Fine specimens, the lot of ’em. Off we went to speak to the counter agent to ask if I might use his phone. No dice. He did, though, do as I would have and just called different likely looking numbers at the base until he bumbled into someone who was able to tell him that the welcome center was closed for the weekend. No one was expecting us. I thought about just calling the whole thing off and finding some other place to go, but then the helpful person on the other end of the wire asked him to tell us to just hang around and someone would come get us.
Three hours into the fiasco, a bus driver came into the terminal and rounded us up. He told us that they’d reopened a chow hall at some squadron other than the one to which we were assigned, and after doing whatever bureaucratic bullshit was required at the welcome center we’d be fed, and then taken to our squadron. Progress! “Food good”, my brain drowning in the urine of microorganisms said. When the drinking is finished and you’re still awake, food or anything approximating it sounds like a grand idea.
After doing our thing at the welcome center, which seemed to take entirely too long, we were taken to the chow hall. While eating, perhaps because of it, my intoxication evolved into the beginnings of a hangover that took what little bit of fun there was right out of the evening. And then off we went on that funny blue school bus to a funny looking building, that didn’t look anything like a barracks to me, which would be home for the next six weeks. The driver remained in his seat and just pointed, telling us to go stand over there and our TI would find us. He cautioned us to be quiet because others were sleeping. Sleep sounded good to me. The best part of a hangover is the first part that you get to sleep through, am I right?
So we went over there and we stood around for a while waiting to be found. After a few minutes of standing around, we heard footsteps (tap shoes? What the fuck?) coming down concrete stairs and a man yelling all manner of obscenities. Insulting us before he’d even seen us did not endear me to the man, at all. If I’d wanted to have insults screamed at me in the middle of the night I could have just stayed at home. And to have someone wearing taps on his shoes doing it? Gimme a break.
The man doing the screaming, when he appeared, reminded me of a Bantam rooster. Small and cocky. When he came closer, he reminded me of a cop. Not good. I detest cops. We ain’t gettin’ along, me and him. Not at all. As he shoved us around into something approximating a proper formation, he screamed at us about not knowing shit and being the most pathetic bunch of morons and dipshits he’d ever seen in his life. Forty-eight of us being from California, he screamed that all there was in California was steers and queers and he didn’t see no horns.
Hey, clown, that’s a Texan joke. California is not famous for beef cattle. And you’re the one with goddam taps on his shoes.
Once we were “formed up”, he proceeded to give each of us a moment of his personal attention. Lucky me, I was in the front row so would be one of the first. I was the third or fourth that he got to, and it was pretty clear by the time he did that he wasn’t going to be interested in an introduction and getting to know me. If you’ve seen the movie Full Metal Jacket, it was something like R. Lee Ermey’s bit, but more aggressive and louder. He got right up in my face, with the brim of that goofy Smokey the Bear hat bouncing off of my forehead, and screamed all kinds of unkind things at me. The experience had pretty badly rattled the guys to my left, but me? Nah. The little idiot couldn’t hold a candle to my dear old mother. I was completely nonplussed and hungover besides. Didn’t give a fuck at all. Every question he screamed at me, I answered in my usual quiet conversational tone. “Yes sir” and “no sir”, mostly. And I looked him in the eye the whole time.
The little banty fucker noticed that I was unaffected by his best bullshit, and challenged me. “Boy!”, he screamed, his saliva flecking my face, “You seem to think you’re some kind of badass! Are you some kind of badass?!” “Hmm, trick question”, I thought. Okay, I’ll play.
“No shit?! You think you’re some kind of badass?!”
The almost-a-man did not know how to react to that. Apparently I was the first one ever to answer that question affirmatively. He backed up a step and looked me in the eye for a moment. I kept my gaze locked on his eyes — I didn’t know yet that TI’s were not allowed to hit or manhandle us, and I was watching for the tell. I half hoped that he would give me an excuse to shut his loud mouth. Instead, he snatched his goofy hat off of his head and threw it down on the concrete.
“If you’re so fuckin’ bad, step on my fuckin’ hat!”
Keeping my eyes locked on his, still expecting a physical attack, I put my right foot forward and, in a deliberate manner, crushed the crown of his hat.
“No shit!”, he screamed, then picked up and punched out the crown of his hat. Then he moved on to the next guy and screamed at him for a while. That guy was more easily intimidated.
The one after him, though, was not. That guy was a surfer from Huntington Beach, kinda typical looking with long, blonde, curly hair and a deep tan. He was wearing surf shorts, a long-sleeved surf shirt, and sandals. What the TI didn’t know, what the baggy shirt concealed, was that he was also a bodybuilder.
Apparently, after enduring a bit of screaming, the surfer dude clenched his fists. The TI noticed.
“You want to hit me, boy?!”
“Well then what are you waiting for?! Fucking hit me! … C’mon, faggot, fucking hit me!”
The TI failed to react in time, but did manage to turn his face away from the blow. He took it on the cheek and was knocked down. His dirty hat with my footprint on it flew off of his head and landed behind him. Seeing that the surfer wasn’t continuing the attack, the TI got to his feet and quickly put his hat back on before he resumed screaming. He pointed toward his left and screamed, “Get off my base! Get the fuck off of my fucking base! Go, boy! Fucking go!”
The surfer dude took up his bag and started walking while the rest of us watched him go. After going about thirty feet he stopped for a moment, turned, and came back. “Which way to the gate?”, he asked.
“Oh just get your ass back into formation”, the TI said, in a commanding but not yelling voice. The surfer, keeping a wary eye on the TI, did so.
I was amused to note that for the remainder of the bunch our TI didn’t challenge anyone as he had the surfer and me. Steers ‘n’ queers, huh? (I’ve nothing against queers, as a class. I just thought it funny that he’d made that kind of noise right up front and then been both humiliated and knocked on his ass within five minutes.)
It being a Friday night, we wouldn’t get our haircuts and uniforms until Monday. Both the surfer and I were singled out for special treatment throughout the weekend, of course.
Typically a TI remains with the new recruits 24/7 for the first… week, if I remember correctly. There’s a bed in the TI’s office for the one stuck there overnight to sleep in. But there were fifty-one of us in the flight, the forty-eight from California plus a few more that were added for some reason, and only fifty beds in the barracks. So one of the recruits slept in the TI’s office until another bed could be obtained on Monday, and the TI slept on a sofa in the dayroom. The Bantam rooster TI, he wasn’t so bright. Didn’t change the sheets. That cute not-a-professional hooker, the Army recruit I mentioned a few hours ago? Crabs. Sergeant Banty took ’em home to Mrs. Banty and didn’t remember by the time the itching started which of us had been in the office bed. The guy he thought it was got special treatment for a while, and then recycled. The guy who’d actually been in the bed not only got clean away with it but became the TI’s assistant, called a “house mouse.”
Once our heads were shaved and we were all wearing the same olive drab uniforms, the Banty TI spent the next couple of weeks giving another guy the special treatment that he’d intended for me. I didn’t mind. What brought the mistake to the TI’s attention was a particularly energetic dressing-down during which I remained calm, and from that day forward I got double or triple helpings of shit to make up for it. I still didn’t mind. After a couple or three days of it, the little monkey took to screaming from beside me because he couldn’t stand to look me in the eye — when he did, I maintained my gaze and smiled just a little every time he averted his eyes. Just fuckin’ with the guy. It was fun. He was a petty little narcissistic prick, and denying him the ego gratification he so desperately needed meant a lot to me.
I know that’s stupid, taking one’s eyes off of the prize, but it’s a compulsion about which I can do nothing. I hate narcissists. I blame conditioning. Children who are abused by their parents will be abused by most of the narcissists they’ll ever meet. Siblings, teachers, clergymen, civic leaders, you name it. Those of us who fight back are not spared, not even when the abuser knows that we fight back. For me, and for everyone like me that I’ve ever met, fighting back isn’t a choice; it’s a compulsion. My confrontations with the two narcissists in the flight, who of course were not TI’s, were physical — and neither was instigated or started by yours truly. No one said a word to any TI, as all were glad to see the assholes knocked on their asses.
One of those two was so narcissistically injured by it that when he went on dorm guard duty in our “baby flight” the night of our confrontation he rousted them all out of bed and abused them. He screamed at them, made them do push-ups, punched a few of them, flipped over some beds, and just generally terrorized the poor bastards who had no idea that he had no right to do it. I relieved the asshole for the next shift, and found the anxiety in the barracks palpable. I did my walk-through and found that they were all awake, and some of them trembling as I passed. So, naturally, I asked what was going on and got the whole story. My future brother-in-law relieved me after my two hour shift was up, and I clued him in about it, and some of the baby flight told him about it, too. The next morning we both went to Sergeant Banty to report what we’d been told, and the narcissistic little prick from Chicago named Chavez was pulled out and discharged for it.
Petty Sergeant Banty… Petty Sergeant is not a rank, it’s what I call the guy because he was infamous for being a petty tyrant. Our flight had had three TI’s rather than the usual two, with the lowest ranking one being in training. We were his last training flight, after which he would go on to be a fully fledged TI. He dropped by the casual barracks where a bunch of us were waiting to ship out, and shook my hand and congratulated me for making it. He said that the Banty had hated my guts and was open about the fact that he was out to get me ever since the hat crushing. He also said that he was damn glad to be getting away from Banty because he was “a mean little prick”, and that most TI’s were not. None of the other TI’s liked him, and those who could avoided him. We talked for a while longer, and he said that the scuttlebutt was that Banty would not last much longer as a TI with the squadron commander who’d covered for him having just left to return to a fighter squadron. I felt a little bit better about being in the Air Force after hearing that. It was a transient feeling.
Of the fifty-one of us who’d arrived together, the surfer dude and I were among the only sixteen to graduate together. Another was my future brother-in-law, who barely made it. He was downright skeletal at the end of it, due to the stress. The rest were recycled or discharged. The house mouse who brought the crabs from the Army recruit chick in LA to petty sergeant Banty in San Antonio was also one of the sixteen, and he gave me a roster with the names of all of those who hadn’t made it stricken-through. I’ve still got it.