We were kids, as they say, and mostly away from home for the first time. They say that too. We were from all over the country, at least east of the Mississippi, and we looked like it. We were city kids and country kids and suburban kids and small town kids. Hothouse grown only children and kids from families of a dozen. Whites, blacks, Hispanics, maybe an Asian or two (no Arabs that I recall) and lots of mutts: like we all are really, if you take it back far enough. The one thing we all had in common was that we were all males and we were all now in the United States Army. Like it or not.
This was in Fort Gordon, Georgia and it was the late winter and early spring of 1968. We had all completed basic training somewhere else and were shipped here for “Advanced Individual Training” as Military Policemen. MP’s: Army cops.
“Military Police” could mean anything from wearing a clean white hat and clean white gloves and clean shiny shoes, waving at traffic on some quiet base somewhere safe all the way to sitting at night with a dog at some forward post in the jungle somewhere hoping to hear or see Charlie before he hears or sees you.
Run Faster, Smoke Less
We were generally in better shape than we had been eight weeks or so earlier. A lot of the baby fat we came into the army with had gotten knocked off and some man muscle had been appliquéd here and there. We could run a lot farther and maybe a little faster than we used to, even though, when we took a break, 90% of us lit up smokes.
“Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em!” That was a good sound. Camels, Luckies, the occasional filter tip plain, but mostly Kools. Koooooolz. “Gimme one a them Kool Breezes, man! I get you back later.”
Most of the initial shock of joining the army had worn off. They didn’t yell at us all the damn day, just parts of it.
The physical training was more perfunctory, but you still had to pass a short course of challenges just to get lunch: sit-ups, push-ups and those god-awful chin-ups. No minimum, no lunch.
Some found they didn’t want lunch all that bad. The rest of us found a way to get past the minimum. Cheating was hard, but we tried. Ball-busting by those behind us was a genuine motivator. Everybody in line wanted to eat. Only you and your chicken-wing biceps were in the way.
The idea of basic training (other than to familiarize us former dog-ass civilians with the ways and means of soldiers) was to strip you from you.
First your poor ma’s idea of what her son should wear to boot camp was ripped from you, often literally, and then shipped back home to her. Then all your hair went. All but stubble you could barely feel.
Then they’d take a picture of your wide-eyed hairless face and stick it on an ID card, which you had to have and show a hundred times a day, just to remind you how you didn’t look like the guy you came in as and that you now looked like every other slick-sleeve dirt bag around you.
You got a prefix and a number. Mine was US and eight digits. I had been drafted. If you joined, your number started with RA: that meant Regular Army. We laughed at the RA’s because they had to spend three years in before they could get out. Draftees only served two.
The logic of signing up was that if you joined, you’d have a better chance at getting an MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) that was more palatable to you. Few got the joke before it was too late. Whatever the army promised, the need to fill the slots left by the kids coming home in body bags trumped everything else.
But really, we all were dealt from the same deck of cards, out of which they eventually pulled yours. You could be nice and safe . . . or deep in the shit . . . depending on your number. It was all random. That and what at the time seemed like the most stupid, pointless, anachronistic exercise in any man’s army –– Close Order Drill –– had a strangely unifying effect on most of us.
Close Order Drill
Close Order Drill is what you see at parades and in staged displays of precision military marching. In the first two weeks of basic training, it looks more like an episode of the Three Stooges.
Getting everybody facing in the same direction and in the same line all at once was a major challenge. Moving together was another. Then stopping together. Then turning together. Then coordinating the appropriate rifle movements in the middle of all of this without the massive loss of facial features seemed like a miracle.
It was hateful at first, seemingly designed to further make fools of us. Then sometime, maybe in the fourth week or so, when we could look across a parade field and see guys with two weeks less experience tripping and falling all over one and other, it started to gel. It started to make sense. All of it. That you had to forget for a time that you were an individual and learn to function together as a unit. That if one person falls over, then so does another, and pretty soon, the whole thing goes to shit.
It was shocking and thrilling really to find yourself gradually looking forward to the music of the march, to the Drill Instructor counting cadence. If the D.I. was born and bred in Alaska, when he counted cadence, he did so with an Alabama twang.
“Ain’t no use in feelin’ down, Jody’s got yur girl and gawn! Sound Off! One, two! One two! THREE FOUR!”
It was the stew pot of America and the potatoes and celery were as important a part of the whole as was the meat. That was the message I took from that.
Spring of 1968
So, we made our way through basic training . . . mostly all together. The things that separated us back home had at least faded for a while there in that world of imposed uniformity.
I’d grown up in an Irish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago that was cheek to jowl with a black one. There were actual physical frontiers, formed by railroad tracks on two sides. If you crossed those frontiers or if they were crossed by the others, often a price was paid. You had to know that. We all did and so did they.
This was repeated in different formats in different manners all over the country. Those stories fought for space with the war news and sometimes overlapped.
But again, this was the spring of 1968. We were living in wooden barracks constructed originally in the early 1940’s for the build-up of troops for WWII. Spring in Georgia can be frigid, especially at night. The buildings were heated by a single coal stove in a space below not fit to be called a basement. Everyday, all day, we took turns with “fireman” duty.
That job title worked both ways. The responsibility was both to keep the poor fire going strong enough to keep warm the sleeping soldiers under the one blanket we’d each been issued, but also to ensure that the tired wood frames of these old sanctuaries did not casually erupt in flames and devour those citizen soldiers at rest within.
We had learned a responsibility to each other over tough weeks of hard, equally resented labor. Without anyone ever saying so out loud, you could feel it. It was almost physical. We were quietly proud of having pulled each other almost all the way through and not so quietly anxious about what lay ahead for each of us. Word was due. Who would be “safe” for however long and who would be in the shit and how soon?
One evening in early April, we sat together in the barracks, polishing boots and writing letters and cadging smokes and speculating vacantly about our futures. For no reason I can imagine, I don’t remember the background scratch of any of the ubiquitous transistor radios at that time. In my memory, it’s like a bad painting.
Then, the doors flew open all at once and the entire cadre of training officers rushed in, armed with bats and nightsticks and wild expressions. They seemed shocked to encounter a tranquil setting. The officer in charge finally spoke, eyeing us warily, probably for any change in our demeanor.
He announced that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and badly wounded in Memphis and that the assassin was reported to be a white man.
He said they had received early reports of scattered but spreading civil disturbances. He gave stern warnings to all of us that any reaction to this news could be seen as disruptive to military discipline and would be punished. He promised to make every effort to keep us informed as to possible changes in our military status. Then he left with the others to inspect other barracks.
No one spoke, which now seems odd and almost impossible to comprehend. But no one did, and for a good long time.
We looked around at each other, individually and as groups. Something that once held us together had slipped away. Somewhere in our heads or hearts or maybe our bones, we knew things had changed, or changed back, maybe.
The focus of our anonymously cherished and newly acquired uniformity had been fractured and its real life utility for all of us maybe lost forever. We would surely and desperately need that again, sometime in the future. The near future for some of us as individuals and, in all the remaining moons, for all of us as parts of the same nation.
It would be hard work to get back. It was then and remains so.
J.T. Hennigan was drafted in 1968 and served two years in the Army before returning to Chicago. He has been a bartender, a policeman and is currently chief foreign correspondent for The Week Behind.