Shark Attack (IWP)

We arrived at Fort McClellan at eleven pm. The driver of our Alabama “Limo” van had flirted shamelessly with a girl from New York or Florida the whole two hour drive from the Atlanta airport. He told her stories about the Army, about what basic training would be like. He didn’t know shit. The ten of us stepped out into the sweltering night like children waking from a long nap. I looked up and tried to count the stars.

A tall man with a drooping face came out of a white building. He wore the Army battle dress uniform–splotches of green, black and brown thrown together by a hyperactive painter–and the brown round, or Smokey the Bear hat, of the Army’s Drill Sergeants. Here we go, I thought sucking in my breath.

“Welcome to the Army,” the man said congenially. “Get in a line and follow me in through the glass doors.”

He moved off and we clumsily followed. This isn’t too bad, I let out my breath. I was expecting the movie, the tall, muscular drill sergeant with a red face and straining neck. Where was all the yelling, all the abuse?

Our scraggly line waited silently in a large hall flooded with light. Looming over us was an impossibly large painting of a WWII Military Police soldier with a whistle in one hand and another hand pointed straight ahead with a raging battle burning at his feet and the MP motto “Of the troops and for the troops” emblazoned across it.

“If y’all will just follow me into the classroom,” the Drill Sergeant said, “we’ll get your paperwork squared away and get y’all some chow.”

Jesus, I thought as the line moved slowly into a cavernous room with rows and rows and rows of desks stretching out like rows of corn. This guy isn’t too bad. He told us to open the envelopes we received early that morning, to pull out the paperwork. It was a thick stack. Insurance forms, next of kin, station preferences, shoe and shirt size, religious preference. We sat in the room fighting sleep for two hours before being led into a small lounge and given crackers and warm juice for dinner and then sent off to bed.

I didn’t sleep that night. A sick yellow light shone through the window and I lay on top of a scratchy wool blanket. What have I gotten myself into? I had no idea what came next and longed to be in my cool, comfortable bed in Des Moines.

The next morning we were woken before dawn and led down to a gravel pit and stood where a different man told us to. There were more people here. Some already wore the gray Army physical training uniform, others the battle dress uniform. I felt out of place with my civilian hair and civilian clothes. We marched roughly to the chow hall for a surprisingly tasty breakfast of eggs and sausage and bacon and juice. After breakfast I walked back to the barracks with another private and waited until nine, when we were supposed to meet up again.

This was only the reception battalion. It wasn’t basic training. That wouldn’t start for at least another week. Reception was being filled with the next group–about two hundred privates–to go down range. The people in uniform had already been here for a few days. We new arrivals were in a group of our own. We spent that first day filling out yet more forms. We were issued “smart books,” a small white book we had to carry everywhere and read whenever we were standing in line, and the males got our hair sheered off. I felt even more out of place with my cue-ball of a head still wearing civilian clothes.

Over the next few days the routine stayed the same. Wake in the morning, march to chow, and meet back up at nine for processing. We were issued our uniforms and equipment, dog tags, given lots of shots, gave lots of blood, and took classes on how to balance a checkbook and drink water. “Drink water” would become a familiar refrain over the next sixteen weeks under the beating Alabama sun. We became comfortable, lounged around our barracks at night with nothing to do but shoot the shit and call home.

After five days of relaxing on the government’s nickel, the first group was sent down range. Fifty of us packed up all we owned, a large duffel bag and whatever other civilian bags we brought, and sat lazily on bleachers in the shade waiting for the buses, worrying about what would happen next, eager to get started. Two buses pulled up ominously and the cadre at reception battalion marshaled the group up and marched us onto the buses.

After a short ride we stopped in front of a space-ship looking building with a long, wide sidewalk leading to it. Drill Sergeants milled about like sharks waiting to make a kill. A short squat man with a Hitler mustache climbed onto the bus.

“On behalf of the United States Army, the Commanding General of the Military Police Corps and the Commanding Officer of Alpha Company, 787th MP Battalion, I’d like to welcome you to Fort McClellan and basic combat training,” he started off nicely enough. “My name is Senior Drill Sergeant Davis, you will address me as Senior Drill Sergeant, and”–a little rougher now–“I’ve served in this Army for fifteen years and I’m the meanest motherfucker to ever piss between a pair of combat boots. Now,”–blazing face, spittle flying out his angry mouth–“you maggots have thirty seconds to get off my fucking bus and twenty-eight of them are already gone!”

Holy fucking shit.

We all jumped up at once, tried to climb over each other getting off. The Senior Drill Sergeant didn’t move and we had to scurry past him and down the steps.

“Don’t fucking bump into me you nasty privates.”

“Hurry up, hurry up. We don’t have all fucking day.”

“Shit son, you look tired. Are you fucking tired already?!?”

I didn’t look at him and stumbled down the steps heavily with my duffel bag strapped awkwardly to my front. Drill Sergeants harassed our every step until we made it on to the CTA, or company training area, a concrete floor with the building built over it. They put us into lines, our first real formation, and started walking up and down it yelling at everyone.

A Drill Sergeant stood in front of us giving us instructions while his comrades moved through the ranks screaming at whoever caught their fancy. We were told to put our duffel bags down, with the opening facing the left, and don’t let your stinkin’ civilian bags touch my fucking CTA. We didn’t do it right the first time, or the second time, or even the third time. Finally, we either got it right or they decided we needed some water. Sweat poured down my face and through my uniform.

I followed my squad to a table where plastic cups of water sat. We were instructed to pick up two cups and walk back to the formation. The glasses were filled to the brim and my hands were shaking from fear and muscle fatigue.

“Don’t spill any water on my CTA,” Drill Sergeant Johnson hounded me. “Do you hear me private? Holy shit private. You’re spilling water on my CTA! What the fuck are you doing?!?”

Back in line I drank the two cups down while Drill Sergeant Johnson continued admonishing me for fucking up his CTA.

“What’s your name private?” a familiar looking man asked me.

“Senior Drill Sergeant, my name is Private Herring Senior Drill Sergeant.”

He jumped over my bag and into my face. Wrong guy.

“Holy shit private. Are you fucking promoting me?” Drill Sergeant Williams yelled. “Hey, Senior Drill Sergeant. This private just promoted me. He must not like you.”

“Is that a fact?” Senior Drill Sergeant Davis moved quickly towards us, elbowed his way between me and another private. “Did you forget who I was already. Jesus fucking christ. I just introduced myself to you not five minutes ago,” he spat in my ear. “Are you demoting me?”

“Senior Drill Sergeant, no Senior Drill Sergeant.”

“Then why did you call me Senior Drill Sergeant?”

“Drill Sergeant, I don’t know Drill Sergeant.”

“Holy shit. Where are you fucking from private?”

“Senior Drill Sergeant, Iowa Senior Drill Sergeant.”

He made some crack about potatoes and moved on after a few more insults and I relaxed just a little bit. I panted in the heat, my uniform was soaked through now and spots flashed in my eyes.

We were ordered to pick up our bags and followed a drill sergeant up a narrow stairway to our home for the next sixteen weeks. A long bay with bunk beds lined up interspersed with large wooden wall lockers. The drill sergeant assigned us to wall lockers, had us stand in front of them.

“Take off your fucking headgear when inside,” he bellowed. “Drop your duffels, get the lock off it, put it in your wall locker and lock it.”

I moved to my wall locker. Something was bent. It wouldn’t close. Everyone else was standing at the foot of the beds.

“Private, what’s going on down there?” he moved quickly and was standing behind me.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“Drill sergeant, the locker won’t close drill sergeant,” I answered.

“Front leaning rest,” he called out to everyone, “move!”

We all moved into the push-up position. Some people started doing push-ups.

“I didn’t tell any of you fuckers to start, did I? Stay in the front leaning rest.”

His mirror black boots moved away, moved down the corridor as he yelled, instructed, berated. I looked down at the pool of sweat forming on the floor. My arms shook and my chest was going to explode. I had been with Alpha Company for only thirty minutes.

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