The Pragmatic Volunteer
A Memoir: Part One
"The Pragmatic Volunteer" will be a twice weekly series. Check back every Wednesday and Friday for the latest installments!
Author's Note: What follows is the poorly thought-out and loosely examined history of the life of a guy who didn’t much matter in the grand scheme. But he mattered. We all matter. And I had a hell of a lot of… fun and such along the way. I intend to chronicle some of the experiences of a 23-year career in the United States Air Force.
Most of the names I include are pseudonyms* (that means ‘names I just made up,’ young people), so keep that in mind. I wouldn’t associate anyone who has freely associated with me with… me. (h/t Groucho Marx)
*With the exceptions of Wilbur and Zulu. Those were their real names.
“I met this girl.” A lot of my stories are ultimately rooted in this phrase. In fact, all of the stories that follow stem from this particular “I met this girl.”
So I married this girl. And then she got pregnant because young people are young and biology is smarter than young people are and… well you know how that works. So anyway, we were pregnant. Neither of us were ready to be pregnant but here we were. We both had low-paying menial jobs (and would soon have just one of those income streams) and, being young people, no health insurance at all.
So anyway, I stood looking at the Department of Defense recruiters’ offices along the strip mall. I was presented with four options, any of which would have suited my immediate purposes. Mine is not what some might think of as a ‘military’ family, though several of my forebears served for at least a stint somewhere along the way. My great uncle, a kind man and a hero of mine growing up, had retired from the fledgling United States Air Force sometime in the 1950s. He had been a radioman on B-17s flying with the 8th Air Force (“The Mighty Eighth”) on combat sorties over Nazi Germany. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving a guy who lost his marbles and went for a wing walk at altitude while taking flak. He also permanently lost the hearing in his left ear that day. Not sure Uncle ‘Dave’ ever considered that a fair trade, but I possess and display the medal he was awarded to this day. He is my only (other) family member to have served an entire career in any branch of service.
I considered the Marine Corps. I liked the sharpness of their uniforms and their clear dedication and devotion to duty. But as I implied above, I wasn’t military minded, and the Corps seemed a little more gung ho that I thought I could ever be. I was wrong about that, but wouldn’t learn this until later.
I thought about the Navy. I had a sort of romantic notion about sailing the seven seas, meeting new people, then killing them and breaking their things. Decided against that because I grew up on the Gulf Coast and I loved going out with dad fishing. I reasoned that if I love the sea and then I decided to make my living doing things I didn’t necessarily love while at sea, it might tarnish my love of the ocean. As I mentioned, I was young. Also, of course, I was recently married and oh, by the way: Didn’t we have a baby on the way? Months at sea seemed like something that might cause… issues for such a couple as ourselves. And on that front, even this less-experienced version of me was proven correct. Many times and with many people. And not just Navy people. Or even just other people.
I knew some Soldiers here and there growing up. Most seemed unhappy or at least displeased most of the time. I can’t really describe it as well as I’d like, but I just dismissed the Army out of hand. Though I would have had no shame at all in going to talk to them as a last resort. I needed the health coverage and this was the only way I could think to get it.
So, I walked into the Air Force Recruiting Center (a tiny two-man office with those big steel industrial desks I always called ‘Air Force anchors’). The nice fellow in the sharply pressed blue outfit asked me what had motivated me to come see him that day. I told him the direct truth: I needed health insurance to cover my wife’s pregnancy, and that I currently had none. He said ‘Well, we need to get you enlisted right away then. What are you doing Saturday morning?’
As it turned out, I was taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which is a test in four parts to help determine an individual’s strong areas of ability and his weaker ones. At least that’s the idea, though the actual utility (and real-world use) of the ASVAB is sort of a joke among most who have ever taken it. Anyway, my scores were high enough to meet USAF standards, meaning I would be accepted and enlisted once I passed what I believe was a basic criminal background check.
I somehow passed that and was soon on my way to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Montgomery, Alabama. MEPS is the place you’ve seen in movies where a group of mostly terrified young men in various states of dress and coiffure are told to strip and then to ‘lean over and spread ‘em,’ among several other things better left unsaid here. It is also the place I took the only oath I ever took unless there was a preacher or justice of the peace present. Fittingly, a United States Marine enlisted me (as one of a small group of others like me). That oath did not and does not have an expiration date, nor is it legally severable by anyone except myself. You could look it up.
After MEPS was done with whatever it is they do and we had sworn our oaths, we were on a Greyhound bus to San Antonio, Texas. Only the best for unproven new recruits who are unknown quantities to the military at that point. I only hoped it wasn’t going to become a habit (it didn’t). The reason we were going there is that San Antonio is where the Air Force runs Lackland Air Force Base, which is the only Basic Military Training School (BMTS) in the entire Department. As you might imagine, there are a few stories to tell from this brief phase of what became my career.
I was a little older than most people who were enlisting on active duty in those days. It was late 1985, we weren’t at any major war, Reagan was doing his thing, and kids were enlisting in the peacetime military. Hey, it’s a job right? At 22, I figured I was not going to deal with too much stress since most people at my level were maybe 18 or 19. Kids! I was a family man! And I’d been working since age 13, and W-2 jobs since 15. Also, my mindset was different. Most of those guys were just looking for a good job and long-term employment. That’s a noble thing, but it can seem less than binding to a person with no others to think about except a parent and / or judge who required him to be there. I had a pre-existing condition. They would have had to take me out of there in a box. So I was motivated to learn all this foreign ‘discipline’ crap. For the first time ever, I tried not to make waves.
As it happens, I started learning things I’d never imagined the minute that Greyhound dropped me out of its maw at my barracks. It was somewhere around 03:00 on a cool south Texas November morning. Most of my fellow killers stepped into that cool in t-shirts, as did I. Some woman in a utilitarian olive drab uniform was barking things like ‘DROP THOSE SACKS OF SHIT’ and ‘LINE UP AT ATTENTION,’ whatever that meant. After some intentional amount of time had passed, she allowed that ‘IF YOU HAVE A JACKET, YOU MAY DON IT IF YOU LIKE.’ I did not have a jacket. I had a sweatshirt. Here’s where I learned I was not as smart as I had previously believed. I asked ‘Is a sweatshirt alright?’ Guess who kept shivering.
My intense study period continued very shortly thereafter. I learned “3.” That was my locker number. We were herded quickly into the large space where we were to be living for the next six weeks (or more if we were stupid) and told to stop at the first open locker and do that “attention” thing again, not averting our eyes from the digit(s) on that little plate with the number on it. Mine was 3. I know because I stood there for three hours staring at it. I hate those little plates. There is no further significance in my story on this point. But my locker was 3.
Sometime later, after a couple minutes of sleep, we were suddenly all standing at ‘attention’ again. Some dude with a stupid forest ranger hat was telling us that we were now to remove all the hair from our disgusting faces. I’ve told you I was 22 in basic training. I haven’t told you that there was a guy older than me in our flight (I had a name for this group of humans now). He was 26, and wore a mustache. Well, two misinterpretations of this facial hair order were on exhibit a bit later. One of the ‘kids’ took the thing more literally than might seem reasonable and removed his eyebrows. That was funny. Those things take a while to grow back, too. Oh, and the ‘old man’ decided they couldn’t possibly mean his well-groomed mustache. He learned something that day, same as the now-space alien-looking dude without eyebrows. There was yelling and impressively energetic throwing of things. Me? I was the wall. Just there for the medical insurance.
I learned quite a few things in Basic just being around other people who came from different places. My experience with foreigners down South consisted of one dickhead white kid from Chicago who immigrated to my locale and was enrolled in my Catholic school in 7th grade, but let’s not dwell on that prick.
I learned how to pronounce “Oregon,” for one thing. A very angry fellow from there heard me say ‘Ore-GON’ and apparently that somehow caused his mother shame. We were on some detail or other and no stupid hats were around. We worked it out. I won’t say whether there was a winner or a loser, but in any case I pronounce Oregon correctly now. I respect a guy who will fight for his state.
I also learned that Italian guys from New Jersey don’t think it’s very funny if you can’t stop doing “Godfather” bits and saying things like ‘wop’ or ‘Dago.’ I didn’t mean to be a jerk, Guido. I just didn’t know. Rednecks, I knew. Mob underlings, not so much. Love ya bro.
Basic training was also the first place I ever met people who had never seen a personal firearm in the flesh. One guy missed the damn paper with an M-16A1, if you can believe that!
In the first week or so of BMTS, the primary Training Instructor (TI) slept in his office, which was a small room between two bays of twenty recruits each, if memory serves. SSgt Harley A. Corvette, a man of surprisingly short stature who was nonetheless intimidating with that stupid hat, was our ‘Flight Chief’ (aka ‘primary TI’). One day, some kid could not take it any more (three hots, a cot, and Air Force training) and word of this got to our TI, who called the kid into his office that evening. SSgt Corvette had this mary stand in front of his desk at attention (which we’d learned that first full day). Corvette said: ‘What is your problem?’ or something a bit more on point. The guy reported as we had been taught. ‘Sir, Airman Dumbass reports! Sir, I can’t do this. I wanna go home. Sir!’ SSgt Corvette considered this a moment, staring a hole in this moron’s soul. Then he said: ‘Click your heels together three times and repeat “There’s no place like home” each time.’ Dumbass: ‘Sir, I...’ SSgt Corvette: ‘DO IT!’ So this guy actually did that. He was terrified. I was laughing inside, trying hard not to let it slip outside.* Let’s just say I didn’t check the front of his trousers to see if he was dry. Pretty sure he was not. After Dorothy was done with the Wizard of Oz reenactment, the TI asked him: ‘Are you home?’ ‘Sir, Airman Dumbass reports: No sir!’ ‘Get the fuck outta my office.’ And that is how that worked. Not sure what happened to that kid. I think he got recycled later.
*Locker 3 (which corresponded to the third rack in the bay, shockingly) looked directly on the office door, which was open. I had the TI in my near peripheral just off the edge of the door facing and Dorothy was to me like the lead actor and I had a pit seat. Except he was closer than that.
On the penultimate morning of BMTS (and the day we were to parade in front of Important People Wearing Uniforms) in the chow hall formation for breakfast, SSgt Corvette swaggered about as we were locked up in the queue in accustomed fashion. He announced ‘Tomorrow, you fuckers graduate and get to leave. I get fucking recycled.’ I really liked that guy. I hope he found a better hatter.
While in BMTS, my job had been selected from among those the ASVAB indicated I might have some talent for. Well, they said it was the ASVAB results, but I reckon Magic 8 Ball was the actual tool. I was to be an “Avionic Sensor Systems Technician.” Okie dokie. I know how to work a pit, and I can fry a mean catfish. I like chicken too. Is that avionic?
7/16/2022 10:30:03 pm
Thankss for sharing
Leave a Reply.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.