An excerpt from Pup
Before I start talking about all of the things that happened to me after that fateful day I reported for duty, I feel like I should make something very clear. I may not like every veteran I’ve ever met, but I respect every last one of them. Anyone who has ever worn this nation’s uniform deserves all of the respect we can give. They have given of themselves, voluntarily or not, so that we can all live our lives the way that we wish. They are all heroes. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. I’m the exception to this one. My quack therapist tells me that I’m just fishing for compliments when I say something like this. He wonders why I call him a quack. I’m recognizing reality. You would think he would know the difference.
The day I reported after being drafted was a day that seemed to last forever. After completing the long and humiliating physical, I was sent into a waiting area filled with steel chairs. I was happy to get the opportunity to sit down and collect my thoughts for a moment. I walked over to a chair and sat down. I immediately squealed and jumped back up. The thirty-some-odd draftees in the waiting area immediately went quiet and stared at me. I gave a sheepish smile. “The chair’s cold. Forgot I was just in my underwear. Sorry.” I watched a few guys shake their heads in exasperation, and everyone went back to their conversations. True, I was not happy with this wonderful impression that I had made on the other draftees, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t see some of them sit down a little more slowly and carefully because of my mishap. Screwing up so that you don’t have to, just another of the many services that I provide.
Once everyone had completed their physicals, we were lined up again and sent to a partitioned area that was filled with tables. These tables were all covered with military clothing. Without instructions we were shepherded through the line of tables. There was a private at each table asking us what size we wore of the various articles of clothing. I knew this was going to be bad. You see, according to clothing manufacturers, I don’t exist. There is no line of clothing made for someone with my proportions. The only way that I have combated this throughout my life is by trying on various sizes until I find something that leaves the least amount of me uncovered. Pants are especially difficult. I either look like I’m trying to sag like someone from the hood or I look like I’m getting ready for a flood. The truth is, if you want to know what size I am, I’m size me. Something told me that they didn’t carry that size uniform. The first table had undershirts on it. Without looking up, the private hollered out, “Size?”
When in a situation like this, I can be a true intellectual conversationalist. “Ummm . . .”
The private looked at me, exasperated. He grabbed a few undershirts that he must have guessed would fit me and threw them at me. I caught them and moved to the next table. I realized then that the next table had boxer shorts and was manned by a woman. Without thinking, I covered my underwear with the shirts that had been thrown at me. The female private looked at me and what I had done. “Get used to it, honey. We’re all over the place now.” She said it in a mechanical tone, like she had been forced to explain this a thousand times before.
“Yeah, I feel like I am right now, too, ma’am.” I could feel myself blushing.
The private looked up at my red face and let out a warm chuckle. I remember hearing that chuckle and thinking that she would make a good kindergarten teacher. I don’t have random thoughts; I have logical responses to stimuli. That’s what I keep telling myself. She held out some boxers for me. “Here you go, pup. You be careful.” I nodded in thanks and moved farther down the line.
Once we had received our clothing we were sent into another partitioned area to put on the uniforms. I almost managed to do this without incident. I had worn a lot of surplus clothing to do yard work and the like at home. I knew how most of it fit. It took me a few minutes to get my boots on and laced. That was something I wasn’t used to. I had always wondered why the army doesn’t use sneakers. I wore them every day when I was in school. I would have worn them to prom if my mother had let me. The boots would definitely take some getting used to. Amazingly enough, even they were not the problem. It was the Velcro fasteners. Many years before, the army had started using them on a lot of their gear, including uniforms. It makes sense. It’s a useful material. Unfortunately, the hook portion of the hook-and-loop fastener also attaches to the socks issued by the army. Once we had dressed, we were led into another partitioned area where we were going to be briefed on what would be happening over the next several days.
Following instructions, I lined up as the last man in the second row. A sergeant came walking down the line, looking us over. I just looked straight ahead like I had seen in the movies, figuring he would pass me by. I should have known better than that. He stopped right next to me, looked down for a moment, and then growled, “You should attach it to your back pocket.”
I couldn’t continue looking straight ahead because I was completely befuddled. “What should I attach to my back pocket?” I asked meekly. He reached down and, with a tearing noise, pulled an extra green sock off the side of my pants leg and held it up to my face. If I was smart, I would have just taken the sock from him and faced forward again. Of course, if I was smart I wouldn’t have to start sentences with If I was smart. “Why would I want to put that on my back pocket?”
“To cover up the boot print from the ass kicking I should give you!” You could look into this sergeant’s eyes and see the love and respect he had for me as a newly drafted soldier. And my friends said I would never master sarcasm. The sergeant tossed the sock onto my head and then moved on. I never miss an opportunity to completely screw up a first impression.
I don’t plan on spending forever describing boot camp. Hundreds of thousands of people have been through it. Some of them might have even looked more ridiculous than me. I doubt it, but anything is possible. Anything that they expected us to do after providing a manual or instructions, I did just fine. I learned how to disassemble and reassemble a carbine rifle just fine. I learned how to march and get into formation well. I was even able to write multiple reports and requisition requests with no mistakes. This made some of my training officers extremely happy.
The tasks and requirements that did not have manuals or that they didn’t show us were another matter entirely. To be honest, I sucked at them. I could disassemble my carbine, but cleaning it was another matter entirely. How on earth do you use a toothbrush to clean stuff out of a spot far too small to stick the toothbrush in? Uniforms became the bane of my existence. Has anyone reading this ever had a class on how to create perfect creases? How about how to polish a scuff out of leather? I know that I didn’t. Maybe it is something that most families teach at home. None of the other recruits seemed to have these problems. My mom taught me how to dance the waltz. Why couldn’t that have been a skill we were tested over on the parade ground? I was in no big hurry to dance with my instructor, but I could have scored well on it if I’d had to.
I had seen a lot of movies where the drill instructors were constantly yelling and cursing and throwing the trainees around. That wasn’t quite what happened to me. There was some yelling and a fair amount of cursing, but it wasn’t exactly as harsh as I’d thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot of important lessons. For example, if a drill instructor asks if you want to go home to your mama, it is probably not in your best interest to answer “yes.” I had three straight nights of guard duty for that, and they still didn’t send me home to my mama. I also learned that push-ups are a form of exercise that were probably designed by Satan himself. Potatoes aren’t hard to peel until you are into your second fifty-pound bag of them. I also learned that shouting “Sweet merciful crap!” the first time that a gun is fired next to you does not make many people desire to be your friend.
Obviously, I survived boot camp. I even survived infantry training afterward. What I never did understand is why they decided to make me an infantryman. I would have made a great clerk. I could write reports and requisitions. I could make people coffee. I could go and get a knit jeep cap and a teddy bear and be just like the clerk on that show my mom used to watch. Instead, someone decided that I needed to be given a gun and have others put their lives in my hands. When it was confirmed that I would be going to infantry specialty training, I remember one of my instructors muttering, “There’s more proof that the brass has got shit for brains.”
I don’t tend to use much foul language, but I had to respond, “Fuckin’ A, Sarge.”
For the first time since boot camp had begun, the instructor looked up at me and smiled. “That’s the smartest thing you’ve said in two months, Pup.”
I guess that I should mention that I had picked up the nickname Pup. Someone who had been near me when we had requisitioned our uniforms so long ago had heard that woman call me that. For some reason, everyone thought it suited me. I’m not exactly sure why. Pups are cute and make everyone say “Aw!” and all of the girls want to hold them. Absolutely none of those things applied to me. I mean absolutely none. I didn’t even reach the same level as a pug. They’re so ugly that they’re cute. Oh well. I guess that the nickname “Hair-brained idiot” doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily. So now, I’m Pup. Nice to meet you.
I shipped out a few weeks after infantry training was completed. I got to go home and visit my family first. It was nice. My mom kept talking about how grown up her little boy had become. I don’t know why she kept saying that. I did have a little more muscle. Doing a grand total of 3,500 push-ups and peeling a metric ton of potatoes will do that. Still, I felt pretty much the same as I always had. I slept in late, played video games, caught up on the latest season of Doctor Who, and chased after the dog and cat whenever they escaped. I’ve often wondered if they were trying to tell us something with how often they ran away. To be honest, I was ready to go by the time my leave was up. I was getting bored. I had gone out once to see if my uniform would get me a little attention. It didn’t. There were too many others in town who had been drafted and looked much more natural in their uniforms than I did. Sure, it was good being with my friends and family, but I started seeing this tour of duty kind of like a Band-Aid. I’ve got lots of experience with Band-Aids. Let me rip it off quickly and get the pain over with.
I reported over an hour early to prepare to board my flight. I had only flown once before and the results were . . . unpleasant. To avoid another such event, I had taken almost every motion sickness medicine I could find. I had even purchased some of those wristbands that were supposed to prevent motion sickness without medicine. I worried that this was what I would have to do until transporter technology was invented. It turns out that multiple doses of motion sickness medicine and nearly two liters of Mountain Dew can make a person act very strangely. I guess that it’s a good thing that I didn’t drink. I really don’t know what all I did while I was waiting to board the plane. I don’t even remember actually boarding the plane. What I do know is that by the time I got aboard the plane I had lost all of my money, I was wearing the wristbands around my ears, and I can only assume that I got the black eye in a fight. Maybe it was from a doorknob. I was told that I fell down a lot. I admit that the whole affair embarrasses me. I’d been raised to act properly in public, and minutes before going off to defend our country I threw a roll of toilet paper out of the bathroom and shouted “Incoming!” Doesn’t that just raise your patriotic fervor? And with that grand performance, I was off to war.