When I joined the Air Force I, along with something like 47 other young men who were one or more of patriotic, desperate, and/or stupid, were what was known as “The California Angels Flight”. Named for the baseball team, not the skin tight pants. Among other things, before our departure we were all ceremonially sworn in during the seventh inning stretch at a California Angels baseball game. Televised, even. And our names were scrolled on the scoreboard high above center field, too. It was a big recruiting thing, since patriotism and military enlistment were flagging then, in the aftermath of our richly deserved military defeat in Vietnam.
Is it okay to say so soon after Memorial Day that we deserved to get our asses handed to us by a bunch of malnourished third worlders whose military budget was about ninety-two cents because the defeat was well deserved and the only thing that could have made the outcome more just would have been our not being there to suffer that defeat in the first place? If not, it should be. When you’ve behaved that badly the truth should hurt a lot more than it does and you should never be allowed to forget about it.
After a few fun filled days that included having vital and not so vital fluids extracted from my body, getting a man’s finger up my ass, my balls cupped while I coughed for another man, and various other humiliations, came the fun filled nights at the Holiday Inn nearby. Did I say fun filled? I meant depressing as hell. Some conditions of the human condition are downright depressing. At the Holiday Inn, on the floor reserved by the Department of Defense for incoming recruits, there were security guards at the elevators, stairwells, and so on, to ensure that we could not leave and our friends and family could not enter. We were not permitted even to leave our stained and smelly rooms. The only ones permitted to enter or exit were prostitutes. And not just any prostitutes, but those who I guessed had to qualify for entry by having been barred from every truck stop in the Western United States. If there’s a term for something three orders of magnitude more disgusting than skanky, that’s the one for them.
Except for one. As it happened, the only white girl among them. She didn’t really fit in. She spoke intelligible English, appeared as one who bathed daily, and was clearly not liked or appreciated by the greater skankazoid community. She was apparently making quite a pile of cash by being the rarer, more choice piece of meat.
Until the last night when we were for some reason assigned roommates, I roomed with Eddie, who would become my brother in law, and who just a few weeks prior was there at the gas station the night I accepted a memorable hundred dollar bill. We sat around watching television, smoking cigarettes, and wishing we’d brought a chess board. On the last night I was assigned to room with a guy I took an instant dislike to even before he spoke. He was one of those thickly built guys with a roundish kind of puggish face, reddish kind of buzz cut flat top kind of hair, pale freckles, and just generally of the looks you might (and I did) associate with stereotypical school yard bully. When we got into the room I was in the lead, so I dropped my things on the bed nearest the bathroom and front door, and as it was necessary, went into the bathroom. When I came out I found that he’d moved my things to the other bed, and was sitting on the one I’d originally chosen.
If I’d believed in invisible space daddies I’d have cursed any or all of them. As it was, I cursed the tangible being before me. He rose and came aggressively toward me, but proved to be amenable to reason.
I was awakened by unusual noises in the night. Unusual noises that also included more or less intelligible, more or less English speaking, in fact:
“Djoo cum baby?”
“Baby djoo cum?”
“Doan worry bout me baby tsokay you cum. You still gon pay but tsokay by me.”
“Rilly baby, tsokay fyoo cum.”
This guy was going to make a fine trained killer. He even brought his own hair trigger.
The hooker went into the bathroom and closed the door. I expressed my displeasure to Quick Draw, a nickname he came to hate long before basic training was over. Hell, even before it got started. I felt that it just wasn’t the right thing to do, bringing a hooker into the room without even asking if I minded. I don’t have a voyeur gene. The next thing I know, the hooker is out of the bathroom and sitting on my bed. “Get that nasty fucking thing up off of my bed!”, I hollered at her. She obliged, then asked if I wanted to give it a go. I invited her to leave the room in what would be considered an impolite and unnecessarily aggressive manner.
The next morning we had to do yet another swearing in at the AFEES, and then we’d be off to the bus to LAX. I saw the blonde hooker there at the AFEES, and pointed her out to Eddie who explained, “Yeah, I thought she was just a hooker, too. It turns out she’s going into the Army”.
Once on the plane, a flight attendant who took a liking to me (and tangentially was stunningly gorgeous) suggested that if we wanted to, Eddie and I could move toward the front of the cabin and away from the rowdy recruits. I took that as a good sign, and soon enough we were enjoying the unofficial hospitality of the airline with pleasant conversation and entirely too many free shooters of Jack Daniel’s. Eddie gave me the evil eye every damn time he looked at me, as it was his sister who was minding the home fires while I went off to war. Not that there was a war. And not that I was going to gather up yon sweet thing and lead her into the lavatory for drunken debauchery anyway.
Not that, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have. I’m not saying that I believe yon sweet thing would have been of a mind to do so, but that in retrospect I would have been much better off without what wasn’t lost by not doing so.
There was an older couple on the opposite side of the aisle. Every time the stew left to do her flight attending duty the old guy would wink, or give me a thumbs up, or some other sign of approval, encouragement, or whatever it was. And every time he did, his old wife would slap him on the arm and “Psh!” at him, or reprimand him in some other way. “You dirty old man, knock it off!”.
On the far side of the journey we got a nice aerial tour of the five air force bases in the San Antonio area. It wasn’t on the itinerary — the pilot was just half a moron and couldn’t find the right runway. He made aborted approaches just feet from the ground at four of the five, and actually put the wheels down on one of the wrong ones before aborting the landing, and by the time we got to the right one he made a perfect one point, no point, another point, no point, another wrong point, no point, bobbling side to side point, and finally thank fucking god all three points landing. Though he called his piloting skills into question, his performance was a testament to the strength and durability of the aircraft. I was glad to be drunk so it could be amusing rather than terrifying. All of the sober passengers, though, freaked right the fuck out. On the way out I asked my new favorite stew if she’d been feeding the pilot drinks, too. She smiled, a genuine rather than “I’m a flight attendant and this is the face they make me wear” smile, and that was the first retrospective gee maybe I shoulda moment.
Yes indeed, I shoulda. ‘Nuther story, ‘nuther time. Or never.
Once inside the terminal we found absolutely no one waiting to greet us. The friendly flight attendant who’d plied me with drinks came along and told me that we were expected to be seated in an area to one side, so I started the word around and found a seat. I needed a seat because the gravity there in San Antonio was just all over the place. Sometimes under me, sometimes off to one side or to my front or rear, sometimes just going in circles around me. It seemed particularly strong right under the chair I’d taken.
Some time later the last of the plane crew deplaned, and the cleaning crew entered. I figured it for a good time to ask questions, so I went to the airline ticket counter just as the Closed sign was being set down, and asked the nice lady there if she knew anything about the usual way of things when a fine young group of fresh recruits showed up. She said that usually someone was there to greet them, but sometimes they were a few minutes late. It had already been much longer than a few minutes, so she said that though she knew nothing more about it she’d see if she could call someone who might know at the base, and she’d find me and let me know what came of it. About 20 minutes later she did just that, and said that someone would be along shortly to gather us up. She went on to say that no one had been expecting us.
So there we sat for most of the next hour. I’d never before heard of being stranded at your destination, and thought it downright hilarious for at least half of that hour. After that I thought it downright inhospitable of the US Air Force to leave its guests sitting around hungry. Here it was full dark already and we hadn’t had a thing since lunch. Well, I’d had a drink or seven, but still.
It’s true what they say: It’s impossible to do anything at all in an orderly, proficient, military manner because the third term is at odds with those that precede it.
Finally a guy walked up and asked of no one in particular and everyone in general if we were the new recruits heading to Lackland. Who else would it be? Was there another group of young males anywhere in the airport? He led us out to the bus and after we were all on explained that no one had been expecting us, but they’d called some people in and there’d be a chow hall open when we got there. Not the one at our assigned squadron, but the food’s all the same and we’d be taken to the right place after we ate. Then he took us to a place that wasn’t a chow hall so we could… well, I don’t remember what we did there. Which is why I think it’s really funny when someone who thinks liquor is okay says we should not smoke pot because it causes short term memory loss. Anyway, I seem to recall there being some kind of paperwork, or a sign-in log, or something like that, and the place looked like it was straight out of some old war movie but the colors had faded considerably like it was on old color film. Then after sitting around for another who knows how long, it was back on the bus and to the chow hall at that other squadron that wasn’t the one we were going to.
And then more sitting around outside the chow hall that would be open for us when we got there. It was supposed to be standing around, but I was sitting against a post because, being not much of a drinker, it was the first time I’d ever experienced being awake while a drunk transmogrified into a hangover. We finally got in and got fed. Eddie said that at least it was nice that the food was better than the stuff at the AFEES. I said that I hadn’t seen any food in days and didn’t expect that I would for quite some time, but at least this stuff fills the empty spot. Then it was back onto the bus and off to our squadron where dreams would die and memories would be made. The driver got us out and told us to go stand over yonder where someone would be along shortly to greet us.
As we stood there my fellow recruits wondered aloud about what would happen next, and swapped stories about what their uncles and other old war heroes had told them to expect. It was going to be a big, brawny, tough looking son of a bitch who would tell us that he was our father, mother, brother, and worst nightmare, or some such shit. A guy who could beat up any 20 others without even spilling his beer or losing the ashes off the end of his cigarette. Some of us were going to get punched in the gut so we’d know who not to fuck with. And so on. Apparently none of them had ever bothered to become acquainted with reality and didn’t know bullshit war stories when they heard them.
Then we heard our TI (Training Instructor) coming. We couldn’t see him yet, but he was yelling and cussing and somewhere the metal taps on his shoes were moving quickly on concrete. I thought it funny that we were the sorriest pieces of shit he’d ever seen in his entire fucking life when in fact he hadn’t seen any of us yet. Then a door burst open, and out came our big, brawny, tough looking son of a bitch father, mother, brother, worst nightmare who could beat up any 20 guys without losing the ash from the end of his cigarette. Only he was a scrawny little banty rooster looking dude, maybe 5’5″ or 5’6″ tall, with the build of a countersink wood screw. But boy did he have an attitude and a mouth on him. He was screaming insults at us all the way, and all the while he set about getting us all to more or less stand in something that might resemble a formation. Then the fun began.
He started in the front row, in which I happened to be standing, with the guy all the way to my left, and just cussed that poor guy every which way. Whoever he was, the guy had more fear in his voice than seemed warranted or wise, and in no time at all he was clearly very flustered — and the TI was clearly digging that fact. And then on to the second guy, and the third. Our TI, one Staff Sergeant James Fox, made it clear that he was 100% proud native born Texican and he did not like Californians one bit. He brought out the old steers and queers line on the third guy, which struck me as funny because it’s Texas that’s known for cattle so he had it ass backwards. I laughed, quietly, but that drew SSgt. Fox’s attention and got the third guy off the hook. It was my turn.
“What the fuck are you laughing at, BOY?”
“That was funny, sir”. I’d figured out that he wanted to be called sir and figured it best to start on the right foot.
“You find this shit amusing, do you, BOY?”
“Yes sir, I do”. I was speaking in my normal conversational voice, as trepidation and I don’t get along so it usually leaves me alone.
“Where the fuck you from, BOY?”
“Holy fucking shit another one! God damn!”.
And off he went. I got the full treatment, with the screaming, droplets of spittle hitting my face, and the brim of his Smokey The Bear hat bouncing off of my forehead. And I just kept right on answering yes sir, no sir, in my calm, conversational tone through it all. It was really very amusing stuff, straight out of a movie, and it never occurred to me that I should be afraid of this little banty rooster crowing in my face. I guess fear was what he was trying to instill, but it just wasn’t in me. Finally, he got around to this:
“So, you think you’re bad, BOY?”
Hmm. Sounds like a trick question. I ain’t sure what the trick might be, but it surely does sound like one. There’s probably no right answer here. So which would be more entertaining?
“God damn! You really think you’re bad, BOY?”
If there’s one thing growing up with a psychopath will teach you, it’s that you don’t change your story hoping to find the one that’s wanted. I was committed.
“If you think you’re so fuckin’ bad…”
He pulled the Smokey hat off of his head and threw it on the ground in front of me, then took about a half step back.
“… step on my fuckin’ hat!”
I put my right foot forward and deliberately crushed the crown of his hat, watching him the whole time just in case it wasn’t true that they couldn’t hit us. He was looking at his hat until, again deliberately, I withdrew my foot. In that instant after he looked up and before he realized that I’d been looking him in the eyes the whole time, I got the distinct impression that he’d thrown his hat down many times before but no one had ever stepped on it. Hmm. Guess it was the right answer after all. Then his look changed, and he appeared angry and like he was trying to figure out a good segue. One didn’t come. He picked up his hat, punched the crown back into shape, and again screamed “God damn!” before moving on to the next guy.
That was not a good move for him. If you want to keep control of a situation you don’t issue any challenges you’re not prepared to have answered.
The seventh guy in the line was a surfer from Huntington Beach, looking very stereotypical. He had long curly sun bleached hair and a deep bronze tan, was wearing shorts and a long sleeved Hawaiian print t-shirt, the works. Sergeant Fox lit right into him like he knew exactly what he was doing. Then he noticed that the guy’s hands were balled into fists and called attention to them.
“Do you want to hit me, BOY?”
“No shit! You fucking want to hit me, BOY?”
“Well then fucking hit me, BOY, if you’ve got the fucking guts!”
It would be a lie to say that he didn’t know what hit him. It was a bronzed surfer dude from Huntington Beach. A surfer dude who just also happened to be a body builder. Sergeant Fox was literally knocked on his ass. I thought again that it wasn’t wise of him to have issued a challenge to me that he wasn’t prepared to have answered, and now here he’d gone and done it again right after. What a putz. If there were many more in this crowd who weren’t momma’s boys he’d be lucky to live through the night.
He got up and screamed at the surfer to get the fuck off of his fucking Air Force base. The guy grabbed up his bag and started walking, but after about a hundred feet realized that he didn’t know where he was going. He came back, and Sergeant Fox started in on him about being afraid to be out in the dark alone. The guy said, “Oh fuck you, stupid. I just don’t know how to get the gate. Tell me where the fucking gate is and I’m outta here”. Sergeant Fox would have none of that, so after a bit of back and forth and finally under threat of arrest our hero surfer dude took his place in the formation.
I noticed that the little banty rooster prick didn’t offer up any more challenges as he made his way through the formation giving everyone their turn. Also that he was repeating himself a lot. It’d be a real trick to have 50 different routines to keep it original all the way through, I guess. When it was done and the last guy got his earful, we were led upstairs to our barracks, warned not to suck each other’s California faggot dicks, the lights went off, and finally, finally I could hit the pillow and get some sleep. On the shittiest bunk in the place with springs that sagged six inches or more. How nice.
We’d arrived on a Friday and Sergeant Fox made sure to show me his best chops all weekend. It was clear that he’d made it his mission to rattle my cage, but he didn’t stand a chance. It might have been a battle of wills for him, but it wasn’t for me. He was just a loudmouth who sometimes said some really amusing things when he was trying to be insulting, and though I still wasn’t sure if there were exceptions to the rule that the TI’s couldn’t hit us I wasn’t at all worried about it. It was in his eyes that he didn’t have it in him. Then on Monday when we were turned from Rainbows (colorfully dressed longhairs) to Pickles (smooth and green), the guy who bunked next to me and who just happened to be about the same height, build, and complexion, became Fox’s wrong target. It’d be three weeks, halfway through, before the little banty rooster prick would realize that it was me who had the calm voice and unflappable nature. The other guy and I both realized what had happened as soon as it did, and he said that if he’d realized it sooner he’d have told Fox that he had the wrong guy so I could take the heat I’d earned when I stepped on that goofy hat.
Sergeant Fox would go on to prove that he was a mean little bastard. Mean doesn’t imply tough, or courageous, or respectable, or anything at all honorable. He was just pure mean. It got him off to make guys tremble in fear. He delighted in recycling guys so they’d end up in another flight that was weeks behind us, extending the duration of their stay in basic and in many cases costing them their guaranteed training. Of the 52 of us who started together, only 16 or 18 graduated with us. I lost count of how many were recycled into and right back out of our flight. I’ve got a roster from our last week and could go count them up, but would have to wake Amethyst to do it so won’t.
I spent my 19th birthday in basic training, and for my birthday I got a special treat: Sergeant Fox, all day, and almost all to myself. The little prick was just relentless, and at lunchtime he almost got me. At one end of the chow hall the TI’s all eat at tables arranged in a wide U shape, facing out toward the rest of the chow hall so they can keep an eye on things like some kind of Big Brother display. It’s known as The Snake Pit, and is a place you don’t want to be called into because when they’re in high spirits they’ll tag team you with verbal abuse. I’d arranged things by swapping positions in the formation with another guy so that I’d be just about as far away from The Snake Pit as possible, and it worked even better than I’d hoped. I was seated at the last table, with the only thing between me and the clipper (where your tray and dishes go at the end of the meal) and the exit hallway being ten feet of open floor. I got up to leave, pushed my tray into the clipper, and just as I heaved a sigh of relief heard my name called out. Damn!
Into The Snake Pit I went, and was accused of having stopped to socialize on my way out. There was no way that could have happened as there was nowhere to stop and no one to socialize with — and that tripped my psychopath mother switch. Which is to say, this is not the heathen with whom you should be fucking. He went on with the public humiliation as the chow hall behind me became silent, with everyone focused on our little dick swinging contest. It was the only time he got me to blow my cool, but at least at first he didn’t notice it because I can do that Easter Island thing with the best of ’em. He pushed a few more of my buttons, and the next thing I know I’ve made my decision: If I’m still in The Snake Pit when I count ten, Sergeant Fox is going to leave a blood trail on his way out. I was on seven when he screamed, “Get the fuck out of my face!”. I don’t know if he was unaware that he’d got to me, or if awareness of it was why he cut me loose. The stupidly aggressive Buddha looking Japanese-American kid who got in my face and tried to shove me outside the chow hall gave me the birthday gift of not ending my Air Force career after getting up off of the ground, and the 30 or so witnesses to his ending up there kept their mouths shut, so it was a happy birthday for the rest of the day even though Sgt. Fox continued riding me like I was a rented mule.
We had three TI’s for our flight instead of the usual two, with the third one being a junior TI in training. We were his final flight before they gave him an Assistant Team Chief job of his own, and he dropped by the casual barracks on the weekend after graduation to see if any of us wanted to go into town with him for a beer. His girlfriend was in the hospital with pneumonia, and he’d been spending all of his off-duty time there, even sleeping in the chair. She’d told him to get out of there and go have some fun because he was accomplishing nothing but wearing himself down, and since he was new on base we were the ones he knew best and decided to look up. He told me, “Oh, man, Sergeant Fox hated your fucking guts! I’ve never seen him hate anyone so much before, but you just wouldn’t give him the opening to recycle your ass. That was great!”. He said that he and the other TI had been rooting for me the whole way, and that’s why they left me alone and were nice to me when we had to interact. As he told it, our squadron had the reputation of being the toughest of them all, and Fox had the reputation of being the toughest TI. But he loved that reputation a little too much, and was out of control. He’d lost the respect of the other TI’s, and the rumor was that he was on the verge of being taken out and sent back to his old career field. He said that no TI’s he’d talked to had ever even heard of there being so many recycles out of one flight before.
Oh, yeah. There were 52 of us on that night we arrived and I squished a hat, but the barracks was outfitted for only 50. They found another bunk to make it 51, but that was the best that could be managed on short notice. There was a bunk in the TI’s office where ordinarily a TI slept for the first however many nights for some purpose that we lowly recruits were not made privy to, but a recruit had to sleep there instead. Some time later, however long it was, they found a 52nd bed and Sgt. Fox got to sleep in his properly clean, dry, and serviceable military bunk. Well, almost clean. The lazy asshole didn’t bother changing the sheets, and so became home to a thriving population of Pthirus pubis, otherwise known as crabs. Courtesy of a fine young enterprising woman who’d recently joined the Army, delivered by a recruit whose identity had not been recorded and so avoided the rented mule treatment and was one of the few of us to graduate from Flight 419.
Those of us who didn’t get marched to the dispensary a couple of weeks later to have excess livestock culled got an unscheduled squadron liberty. It was only about half of the flight. Among those who went were my unwanted roommate from the last night at the Holiday Inn, and the Buddha looking kid with the gravity problem. 😀
And about The California Angels Flight? We were originally slated to have the TI of our sister flight, an ROAD (Retired On Active Duty) who was on his last flight and just didn’t have any fucks to give any more because he’d hit his 20 and was short. He’d been on leave when we arrived, so we got stuck with Fox who was not amenable to having photographers and video cameras around and refused to cooperate. Apparently he’d said that he’d rather be busted for failure to follow an order than put up with that, and claimed that it would be “bad for the Air Force” for a flight of trainees to be “coddled” and “treated like movie stars”. So somebody somewhere in a position to do so was convinced to scrap the idea, and that was that. The recruiter who’d put the whole thing together came to Keesler AFB while some of us were still there and there was an article in the base paper saying he wanted to see us, but the article didn’t appear until after he’d left.
Because it’s impossible to do anything at all in an orderly, proficient, military manner due to the third term being at odds with those preceding it.