Basic Training Ft. Lewis WA, April, 1968.
The total personal chaos of having my identity torn limb from limb is tough to explain – no hair, no civilian clothes, no letters from home. It’s one of those things that you just have to live. But trust me, it’s totally disorienting. At first, it seemed nothing I knew nor skills I had were of any use at all. Having marched with the band even turned out to be a disadvantage — it was the wrong king of marching.
As punishment for bad marching and to serve as an example, I was quickly pulled out of formation and made to do pushups. “Give me twenty,” said the drill sergeant. But, this wasn’t quite as punishing as he’d intended. There was hope. I’d spent the previous year driving a 36-ton hay truck; 535 bales on and 535 bales off all by hand, plus 8-10 hours driving a rig with no power steering and two transmissions to shift. Four loads a week over the Cascade mountains, week in and week out ‘till by April Lande Feed and Keppler’s 1,000-ton barn were filled. I could do a lot of push ups.
The army’s attempts a disorientation through sleep deprivation were muted by the fact that those back-to-back16-hour days didn’t leave a lot of time for sleeping. I was used to sleep deprivation. Nonetheless, by the end of the first week I was ready to believe almost anything. Corporals back from “The Nam” took sadistic pleasure in regaling the recruits with stories of the short life-expectancy of platoon point-men and forward artillery-observers and promised that’s where we were headed if we didn’t shape up. All that was missing were paintings on the mess hall walls of sinners in recruit uniforms being prodded at the flaming gates of hell by horned corporals with pitchforks.
In those days the Army put all recruits through a battery of tests to determine what we were good for. Those good for not much went to the infantry, those with a penchant for peeling potatoes and cracking eggs became cooks, and so on. It was like a huge gravel sorter with various size screens — big rocks slide off first, the smallest fall to the bottom.
They tested how quickly we picked up nonsense languages and new codes; how well we solved math problems and saw abstract patterns; what languages we knew, how well we read; if we were officer material and above all, how well we used a lead pencil to fill in bubbles on a paper score sheet. The tests were fed into a giant computer somewhere and analyzed. The computer ultimately spit out a number, the GT (General Technical) Score, for each recruit along with a bunch of numbers for each of a couple dozen skill areas. The whole process took six days.
We got Sunday off duty. Families brought Sunday dinner to meet their soldiers in the division field house. Monday on the morning of the eighth cold, rainy day in a row, we were marched up to a low, green building, and called to a halt. A list of names was called out; mine among them. I wondered what special form of suffering the army had dreamed up for us unfortunate miscreants. The Army had abused us all day, every day for a week; why would they stop now? But as we filed into the building we were greeted by a jovial, greying, rotund, master sergeant and offered a chair and hot coffee. That completely threw me. We hadn’t been allowed to sit on a chair except in the mess hall since we got off the bus a week earlier.
They told us nothing. I sat in the chair, sipping coffee, my bladder filling but afraid to ask about the restroom, for maybe half an hour. Stewing. What was this about? Finally, another master sergeant came out of a smaller room and called out “Private Allen. State your serial number.”
“Come in here.”