Boot Camp War Story

We Called it "Basic Training" in the Air Force. It Was Still Just Boot Camp.

Boot camp was a shock to this undisciplined baby boomer. I think I’d made my bed maybe six or seven times growing up, and certainly never learned the fine art of "hospital corners". I hated the mind games the drill sergeants played, but having had a few psychology courses, I could see through them. I understood their mission—to tear a "man" down and build "him" into an airman. Do you know that feeling you get when confronted with a surprising or disturbing situation, when that rush of adrenaline charges your head, heart, and stomach? Well, that was the way I felt for eight weeks. "If I can handle this," I remember thinking, "I can handle anything else in life."

The physical and academic aspects of basic training were no problem. My weakness was "attention to detail". I couldn’t quite master folding my shirts and skivvies into perfect 6-inch squares for inspection. After failing my first two "blue line" and one "red line" inspection of my locker, my drill sergeant was ready to boot my behind into a junior flight and set my training back a few days. "I don’t want you fixin’ my airplane Reed!" he screamed in my face. "You can’t even make a #*%!*# bed!" I considered explaining to my drill sergeant that based on the results of my Air Force mechanical aptitude score, he surely wouldn’t want me to fix his airplane regardless of my bed-making skills. "Nah, I thought," "better not."

The ultimatum he set down was clear—get my locker ready for inspection in one hour. If I failed the inspection, I’d spend a few extra days folding t-shirts and making beds. He left me alone with my locker and underwear. I panicked. "I can’t do this" I thought (always the optimist). Several of my buddies saw what was happening and pitched in to help. The guy who folded boxers and t-shirts perfectly did just that; the guy who could space the uniforms in the locker exactly 1 ¼ inches apart went to work. This caught on like wildfire until several of the guys were huddled around my locker helping out. I flashed on an old Beach Blanket movie in which several of the gang helped spiff up the geek in preparation for a big date.

It worked. Sergeant Short-Guy-With-Red-Hair-And-Nasty-Disposition couldn’t believe his eyes. "This looks fanf***ingtastic Reed!" he exclaimed. Suddenly, he noticed half the flight looking on over their shoulders. "Did you do all this Reed?" he asked. Here it is—the honesty test. "This is a mind game," I thought. Okay, I’ll play. "No sir," I confessed, bowing my head in humility (never look the aggressor in the eyes according to a National Geographic TV special). "You’re damn right you didn’t! I know you didn’t! You’re not this good! What do you think I am, an idiot?" "No Mark, don’t say it," I thought. "Reed, I want you to point to the airmen who helped you get your locker ready," he said calmly but very firmly. Adrenaline...mind emotional confusion...silence...silence...Lord, what a deafening silence.

"I helped Reed, sir," the underwear guy said as he stepped forward. "So did I, sir," as another buddy stepped into the fray. I couldn’t believe these guys. I remember thinking "what guts—I love these guys—they’re like brothers--this is what camaraderie is all about." "Are these guys telling the truth Reed," asked the sergeant. "Yes sir," I said proudly with pursed lips. The sergeant took several steps away from the airmen. The metal taps on his shoes clicked with authority. Turning to look at the entire group, he said "so what you’re telling me is that you men worked as a team to help a fellow airmen accomplish a mission during a distressing situation." Light bulbs flashed over the heads of twenty-something airmen simultaneously. We got it... we understood.

As a result of this valuable lesson, my sergeant had mercy on me. I doubled my uniform-folding efforts and didn't fail another inspection. I graduated from boot camp four weeks later, but unfortunately re-nigged on my promise to God to never sin again.

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