“Hey, you — the tall dumb-bunny,” the man in the Smokey-the-Bear hat growled at the skinny, quaking, 6-foot-tall Air Force recruit.
His green uniform was so crisp it could walk on its own; his boots shone with the luster of a telescope’s mirror, and their heels had some sort of taps that clickety-clicked as he strode proudly across the pavement, yelling “hut-two-three-four, hut-two-three-four!”
And he used a bit stronger language than “dumb-bunny” when he addressed the dumb-bunny — that would be me. I was 17 years old and weighed 143 pounds. I remember that hot July day at Lackland Air Force Base, where I was in the beginning stages of six weeks of basic training, as clearly as I remember every drop of water going over Niagara Falls.
Yes, before I was the cat juggler, I was … Airman Nash.
My basic training story is prompted by recent news articles about changes to Air Force basic training to make it physically tougher, longer and more war-like. The Marines have the Crucible, the Army has Victory Forge, and the Air Force will have … the BEAST (Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training).
Air Force basic training has been considerably less intense than Army or Marine boot camp (don’t know anything about the Navy), although I don’t know how it compares with the new regimen. Even in its less intense form, it was still plenty intense — your world narrow and highly regimented, you got yelled at or called “dumb-bunny” or some such name by your “TI” (training instructor).
It wasn’t fun at the time, and we wanted to just get through it. But I realized later it was probably the most rewarding six weeks of my four-year career.
We were assigned to a “flight” of about 40, I believe, and we lived in World War II-era two-story wooden barracks. We were focused and disciplined, working as a team. Nearly every moment of every day had a purpose; each task we completed, each day we made it through, was a major accomplishment.
Oh, yes, the TI … ours was named Sgt. Simpson, although I don’t think we were supposed to actually pronounce his name. Like all TIs, he was the emperor.
But he was fair, more compassionate than he let on and actually a decent human being; I liked him. Yes, there was that little unpleasantness when he dumped my footlocker upside down; we won’t mention that.
From the moment we “rainbows” (a reference to our multi-colored civilian clothes) arrived, it was obvious life had changed. We quickly realized there were two life forms at Lackland: us lowly recruits, and everyone else.
I still remember the grumpy sarge in some sort of processing room, where we rainbows were herded moments after our arrival.
“No talking,” he said. You know how it is when someone says “no talking.” You assume the person is just kidding. “I said ‘no talking,’ he said with icy calm as violators murmured whatever it is one murmurs in such a setting. Then his voice rose to an artillery roar: “And I mean no blank-blank talking!”
Our former lives quickly became a vague memory that held no more meaning as we marched from one place to another, got yelled at, got shorn (even the barbers were mean), got our military threads (including the ubiquitous, but ill-fitting and uncomfortable “fatigues”), got examined by medical folks …
The more experienced recruits liked to mess with us newbies, and one such fellow, Johnson, casually told us we’d be getting shots with square needles in … well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be a normal place to get a shot with a square needle.
By now, we were conditioned to believe anything, and Johnson sent shock waves of terror coursing through our fragile psyches. We were all extremely relieved when the medical folks completed some painless exams and we hauled our fatigues back on over our white boxers and T-shirts.
Basic training wasn’t terribly physical then. We did do “PT” and run (but never more than a mile); we spent a whole day at the “confidence course,” which was sort of combat-training-lite; and we made a trip to the rifle range to kick up dirt clouds with M-16s. (They wouldn’t let us shoot them on full-auto).
Did I mention our TI, Sgt. Simpson? He had kind of a helper TI, Sgt. Harris, and we called them Papa Bear and Mama Bear, but not when they were around to hear us.
Sgt. Harris was actually kind of mean, and he didn’t try to conceal his disdain for us. I still remember the way he counted cadence when we marched: “Hut-herrow-herrow herrow … herrow-herrow-herrow!”
But through it all, we laughed, we cried, we sang “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” But to this day, I’m not sure what “herrow-herrow-herrow” means.
Steve Nash writes his column for the Brownwood Bulletin on Thursdays. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.