by Mark Andersen
“You’ll never make it through boot camp,” my dad said as we stood there at the intersection of the old Milwaukee Road freight tracks and East Washington Avenue. It was just a few days after I graduated from high school and I was waiting at the bus stop across the six-lane street from the U.S. Army recruiting station. My dad’s comment started thoughts coursing through my mind: Am I doing the right thing? What will the drill sergeants do to me? Four years is an awfully long time. Will I make it or will I wash out? My God, what have I done? Would anyone notice if I just didn’t show up? Will I be a good soldier? I don’t want to go, I want to stay home.
I could see the worry in my mom’s eyes. I tried not to look either of my parents in the eye for fear that I would begin to cry. Instead I just drew circles in the dirt with my dirty white Nike tennis shoes. I looked down the road and saw an outline of a bus approaching.
“Won’t be long now son,” my dad said.
I nodded and said, “uh-huh,” all the while wondering if I was doing the right thing but afraid to say anything about my doubts.
The Greyhound bus pulled up to the stop and the door creaked as it opened; I climbed the stairs and looked back at my parents one last time. I thought I had seen a tear in my dad’s eye: but, that could not be. Dad never cried.
I handed my ticket to the white-haired portly bus driver. He smiled at me and said, “Sorry son, you are going to have to stand all the way to Milwaukee; we are full up.”
As the bus pulled out into late evening traffic – where rush hour was just tailing off – I felt an emptiness I had never felt before. I was leaving behind the things that defined me: the crappy stereo with an 8-track player I had bought at Sears with my paper route money, my Judas Priest and Iron Maiden albums, and my favorite pair of Levi’s. I was also leaving behind things that were less tangible, like my best friends Mark and Brian. Valerie, who I had a thing for but was too afraid to ask out on a date. Friday nights at the drive-in, and Saturday nights drinking beers around a bonfire down at the old quarry. I had no idea what lay ahead of me, only what was behind me.
It was late in the evening when I arrived in Milwaukee. I got off the bus and opened the folder I had been given earlier in the day by my recruiter. I was to spend the night at the Howard Johnson’s a block away from the bus depot. I gathered my ball cap, my copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House, and my purple and gold high school gym bag and walked down the concrete and steel canyons of Milwaukee to the hotel.
I strolled in to the hotel lobby through the revolving door and walked up to the front desk. The older woman behind the counter looked at me with disdain. She took my voucher and in return I received a room key and a meal ticket.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said.
Instead of replying she looked through me as if I did not exist and then she turned around and walked into an office behind the counter. I picked up my bag and walked down the hallway past the row of vending machines to an alcove that had seen better days.
I pushed the up button and waited for the brushed stainless steel doors of the elevator to open.
My recruiter had warned me that the hotel was somewhat out of date; however, she told I should enjoy the room while I could, as it was lavish compared to where I was going. The décor of the hotel room had garish curtains, matching bedspread and a black and white TV. I tried to read Welcome to the Monkey House for a bit before turning in; however, my thoughts turned to Valerie and why I hadn’t pursued her. We were friends and could have been more. I looked at the clock; it was 11:00 pm. I needed to get to bed.
The next morning I headed down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast where an older woman greeted me. Her friendly demeanor changed to one of hostility when I handed her my meal ticket.
“Follow me,” she said rudely. “Sit here. I will be back with a menu in a minute.”
I looked around and saw that she had seated me far away from all of the other customers. The tables in the immediate area were all barren, no glasses of water, no silverware and no tablecloths.
“Here,” the waitress said as she shoved a soiled piece of paper under my nose.
I looked closer and saw that it was a menu. At the top of the sheet of paper it said, “MEPS Menu.” There were no prices and the only breakfast food listed was scrambled eggs and bacon, unless you considered a cheeseburger with a pickle and potato chips breakfast food.
“I will have the scrambled eggs and bacon with a glass of milk,” I said as I placed my order, “…and can I get a couple slices of toast?” I asked the waitress.
“You get what is on the menu,” the waitress snarled.
After twenty minutes, the waitress arrived with my breakfast. Before I could ask her for another glass of milk she was over at another table chastising a young man about sitting in the other part of the restaurant.
As I was eating I saw the waitress out of the corner of my eye; she was leaning with her back against the wall with her arms crossed, her right leg bent at the knee and her right foot stuck to the wall behind the lunch counter. She took a long drag on a cigarette while staring at me like I was going to walk out of the place with the silverware. On my way out of the restaurant I overheard the shrew of a waitress growl to a customer in the regular dining room,
“I hate it when I am assigned tables in the MEPS dining room. None of those kids ever tip.”
I left the hotel with my Purgolders bag under my arm and headed down the street to a large building with federal blue windows; inside was the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) for Wisconsin. Once inside I was surrounded by hundreds of other men. No strike that: boys. After checking in at the front desk and stowing the Purgolders bag into a locker I was shuffled to a large room with row upon row of chrome-legged chairs with red fabric covering the seats and backs. Almost all of the chairs were filled. At the front of the room was a podium with an imposing figure behind it dressed in a light green shirt and black tie, green pants with a black stripe down each leg and a white lab coat.
“Gentlemen, I am Colonel Tipton, the chief medical officer and commander of Milwaukee MEPS, and I would like to welcome you to the Milwaukee regional MEPS center. Today you will be taken through a battery of physical examinations and mental evaluations. Once those are complete and you pass you will meet with a recruiting NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) for a final time where you will select your MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), sign your contract and then will be given transportation to your training facility. Sergeant Downing will now split you up into groups,” finished the Colonel.
Sergeant Downing took over. “Gentlemen, if your last name begins with an A through M please form a line at the door to my right. If your last name starts with an N through Z please form a line at the back of the room,” he said.
A man in a white lab coat opened the door from the inside and the line shuffled through the door and he said, “Keep moving, keep moving please. Form a circle around the room. Thank you.”
At this time three other men in lab coats entered the room the man who opened the door spoke again, “This is your armed services physical. Please strip down to just your undershorts. You are all adults here, please keep laughter to a minimum.”
“Do we have to get undressed?” one young man asked.
“Seriously? Our physical is in front of everyone?” another said.
As much as I hated the idea, I stripped down to my underwear.
One of the doctors approached. “Social Security number?” he asked in a monotone.
“395-00-5353,” I responded.
“Left arm,” he said.
I put my left arm out and he slapped a blood pressure cuff on my bicep.
“120 over 80,” he said as he penciled the numbers on a piece of paper on a clipboard.
“Any scars, tattoos, or other disfiguring marks?” he asked.
“A scar on my forehead and one on my left arm.”
“Have you ever smoked Marijuana or taken any other illegal substance?” he asked.
“Have you ever attempted suicide?”
“Have you ever been treated for depression or have you ever been institutionalized?”
“Fill out this form,” he said and then moved on the next recruit.
Once the physicals were over, the four doctors collected the forms we had all filled out. The lead doctor then announced,
“We have one last test for all of you. Turn to your right and squat. Walk around the room like a duck until you return to the spot you are now in.”
With that, fifty young men in their underwear began to walk around the room in a circle like ducks and nary a quack was heard.
“Gentlemen, put your clothes back on. If you are going into the Navy or Marine Corps please go with Petty Officer Frampton,” the lead doctor said as he pointed to the man in a navy uniform.
“If you are going in the Air Force please go with Sergeant Zander,” he said as he pointed to a man with a razor-sharp blond flat top in Air Force blues.
“If you are going into the Army please go with Sergeant Neilson,” he said as he pointed to the square-jawed man in Army greens who looked as if he had been chiseled from granite.
The group of us going into the Army approached Sergeant Neilson. Once he had taken a head count he led us into a cubicle maze of gray walls and gray carpeting.
“Gentlemen, we have a lot of work to do here and sound carries through this area. As such no talking. If you talk or make a bunch of noise, you will wish you hadn’t. Now sit down and wait for your number to be called. “
Once we were seated, time dragged on; there was no clock visible to us and no one had a watch. Even if someone did, we were not allowed to speak, so no one would have been able to ask the time. While we were sitting there waiting to find out what our fates were going to be in the military, the silence was broken by a loud fart. Everyone began to laugh. Sergeant Neilson peered around the corner and gave us a dirty look. The laughter quickly stopped.
After what seemed like hours, a metallic sounding voice came from the ceiling mounted speaker, “Number 237.”
I stood up, and Sergeant Neilson escorted me through the cubicle labyrinth. He led me down the long, gray-colored hallway until we arrived at a cubicle with a sign that said, “Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) assignment.” Back at home I had signed up to be a heavy equipment operator and here was where I found out if I would in fact be a heavy equipment operator.
The sergeant behind the non-descript desk told me to sit down.
“You scored high on the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery),” he continued, “You sure you want to be an Engineer?”
“Yes, sir. That is what I signed up for,” I replied.
“Why don’t you watch this video to be sure. You tested high enough to do pretty much anything the Army offers.”
I watched the video and saw heavy equipment moving mounds of earth, building roads and runways. I knew it was what I wanted to do: it would give me the training to get a good job once I got out of the service.
“Yeah, that is what I want to do.” I said after watching the video.
What I did not see was the guy in the background with a wheelbarrow and a shovel. That would be my job. Unbeknownst to me, I had just signed up for four years as a combat engineer – an army infantryman with more equipment to carry. In short, I was going to be a grunt – an error in judgment I would not be aware of for several months.
With the decision made, I signed my contract. Four years as a 12B Combat Engineer. I was then escorted to a cubicle labeled “Transportation Services.”
The transportation sergeant was all business. She did not even look at me. She grabbed my folder out of my hands, scanned it, and entered something into the computer that activated a printer next to her. She tore the sheets of paper off the dot-matrix printer and handed them to me as she said in a robotic voice,
“This is your voucher for the bus from the MEPS center to the airport. This is your plane ticket to St. Louis. This is your voucher for the bus from St. Louis to Fort Leonard Wood. Do not lose them. Do not attempt to cash them in.”
I was trying to pay attention to her as she spoke but was distracted by the most mundane things: The smell of the freshly brewed coffee in the cup on her desk, the voices coming from the next cubicle, the scent of Aqua Velva wafting through the air reminding me of my dad.
“Did you understand what I just told you?” she asked.
“Oh, uhm, yes, ma’am,” I replied.
The bus drove through the front gates of Fort Leonard Wood at 11:30 pm. I had been up since before dawn, was exhausted and although I did not know it my day was nowhere near being over. The busses wound their way through the empty roads of the post through the family housing area, past menacing looking obstacle courses and through an area that was filled with matching three-story brick buildings. Some areas of the post looked like any neighborhood back home, while others were full of row after row of low squat Quonset huts. In the moonlight I could see the outlines of what appeared to be soldiers marching on the side of the road, their bulky rucksacks protruding from their backs. As we approached the front of the column, the busses’ headlights reflected off the orange vests of the men in front of the column. It was past midnight when the busses finally pulled into the reception center.
“Get your muther-fuckin’ asses off of my muther-fuckin’ bus, you have one muther-fuckin’ minute. Fuckin’ move it!”
Forty-three young men – not knowing which way was up and trying to wipe the sleep from their eyes – were all trying to grab their personal belongings and get off the bus at the same time. Chaos reigned on the bus, punctuated with cries of, “Get the fuck out of my way!” and, “Where in the fuck is my bag?” I slammed into another recruit in my haste to get off the bus: I have no idea if we were able to clear the bus in one minute or not. Once out the door of the bus, another man was in my face screaming at me, “Get your skinny ass on those muther-fuckin’ yellow footprints! Move it, you piece of shit!”
I was afraid of what was going to happen next, but the adrenaline coursing through my veins prevented my fears from overtaking me.
Another man approached me. He was wearing Smokey Bear hat and he had the name Fabiano sewn over his left breast pocket of his shirt. He grabbed my purple and gold gym bag emblazoned with Madison East Purgolders opened it and emptied its contents. A couple pairs of socks, underwear, my copy of Welcome to the Monkey House, a change of clothes, Edge shaving gel, a razor, Crest toothpaste, toothbrush, Speed Stick deodorant, a comb, a bar of Irish Spring and jar of Stri-Dex pads fell to the ground in front of me.
“Contraband!” he shouted when he came across my Stri-Dex pads.
“Fucking commie contraband!” he screamed when he found my copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House.
“Contraband!” when he came across my white athletic socks.
“You won’t be needing this, Contraband!” as he threw my comb into the ever growing pile of banned items.
Cries of Contraband! resounded around me as the drill instructors tore through bag after bag of personal items. By the time Sergeant Fabiano was done all I had left was my toothbrush, a tube of Crest, a razor, Edge shaving gel and the clothes on my back. In a way I felt violated by this invasion into my personal belongings; however, I did not dare voice an objection for fear of how the men in the Smokey Bear hats would react.
“Alright you maggots, you will – in a military manner – march in a single file line through the doors in front of you. You will not speak, play grab ass, or do anything else you faggots do to each other!”
The man in the hat continued, “You will sit in the first seat you come to. You will not try to sit by someone you know. In front of you will be a pencil and a card. You will fill out that card and address it to your parents, loved ones, parole officer or someone else that cares about your sorry ass. You will tell them you have arrived at Fort Leonard Wood and that we are treating you well.”
From across the room another man dressed in a starched, camouflage uniform wearing a Smokey Bear hat strode up to the front of the group. He scanned the group of recruits with a sneer. “When I say go, you will move in a military manner. I will see all seats in my auditorium filled in one minute. GO!”
The only sound was that of chairs being slid on the highly polished floor and the rustling of paper. Then a corporal came around and handed us yet more paperwork to fill out. I have no idea of what I signed that day or what half the papers were for. I was exhausted, tired and hungry. I realized while signing my name a dozen times that I had not eaten since breakfast, which seemed like days ago.
Another large man in a Smokey Bear hat came to the front of the room. He had six stripes on his collar, three pointed up and three shaped like the rocker off a rocking chair with a diamond in between them.
“I am First Sergeant Beard. I own your asses for the next eight weeks. If you leave here and I do not know your name that is a good thing. If I learn your name you better hope it is because you died, because I will make you wish you did die. Now these fine drill sergeants to your right will take you to the barracks so you can get some sleep. Sergeant Peters, take over for me.”
Sergeant Peters was muscle-bound, square jawed and over six feet tall. He strode to the podium with a swagger. “All right you maggots,” his high squeaky voice carried across the room, “we will file out of here single file across the street to the barracks. You will walk all the way to the end of the barracks. You will take a bunk until all bunks are filled. You will strip down to your skivvies and get into your bunk. You will have ten minutes before lights out. Reveille is at 0500 hours.”
I snuck a look at the clock on the wall just before the lights were turned off; it was 2:25 in the morning. What in the hell had I gotten myself into?
Mark E. Andersen served as a Combat Engineer with the 54th Engineer Battalion in Wildflecken, Germany and with the the 326th Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, KY. Mark works in the telecommunications industry and in his spare time writes for Daily Kos Labor and he also writes short fiction. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin with his teenaged son Everett, and two Beagles, Gus and Buzz.
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