Part 1 of Tales of the Peacetime Army

[Note: this is part 1 of 8 of the complete text for John Sheppard’s book Tales of the Peacetime Army. To start reading at the beginning and for a full list of all parts, please go to the table of contents.

And if you like the story, please visit the book’s page and consider buying a copy!]

BASIC TRAINING

I had an unimportant job in the food service industry and an unimportant college career, both lazily going nowhere. Maybe I should have fallen in love with someone. That would have made everything seem more important, I suppose.

My academic advisor called me into her dust-mote speckled office in a creaky, one-hundred-year-old building on a late-Spring day and informed me that I wasn’t doing as well as she expected. I was ten semester hours shy of a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. I stared out her office window. The sky was blue and drizzled with vapor trails from passing jumbo jets. “Have you been listening?” she asked me. She was self-important in a fussy way.

“Yes,” I replied. “I’ll drop out.” I’d started college when I was 16 because I was supposed to be a genius. I’d merely mastered the art of taking a standardized test, as far as I was concerned.

“Just like that?” She could have been mistaken for a bag lady, I thought.

A blackbird with red shoulders landed on her windowsill. Maybe it winked at me. I shrugged. I stood up.

“I can’t say that I’ll miss you,” she said.

“Nor I, you,” I said. I picked up my book bag and left.

About halfway across campus, I stopped at what appeared to be rally, or a book burning, or something that was, perhaps, important. A protest. A time capsule had been exhumed from the concrete apron in front of the campus library. Hippies had buried it in 1969, presumably. Mason jars were extricated from the capsule, one by one, and their contents were announced by the student leader over a tinny PA system: “Fresh water.” “Fresh green beans.” “Fresh…” Presumably, here in the future, freshness was at an end, according to the good people of 1969.

I started to walk away, but stopped short. The College Republicans were approaching, about 40 of them, dressed in khakis and boat shoes and colorful shirts with upturned collars. Their hair was perfect. They stopped at the edge of the protest, lifted their Reagan-Bush ’84 signs and chanted “Four more years! Four more years!” for about 30 seconds. Then they dropped their signs and gave themselves a round of applause and picked up their signs and left pretty much the way they came.

I continued on to the registrar’s office. I took a number and waited my turn. When my number came up, I went into a booth with a fellow student and he asked me what he could do for me today. I told him that I wanted to drop out. He helped me fill out a form. Under “Reason Given” I scribbled “N/A.” I signed the form and left and felt a bit freer. More free.

I walked to work. I tossed my book bag in the greasy Dumpster out back. I worked about half a shift and walked out. Three-and-a-half years there and every raise I got was thanks to Congress increasing minimum wage.

I went back to my apartment and stared at my roommate’s TV set with its pirated cable. After an Army commercial telling me that I should want to be all that I could be, the screen went to snow. Everything was catching up with me.

There wasn’t much left to do but join the Army. I took a nap.

In the blue pages of the phone book I found the number of the Army recruiter. I called and asked where they were. The recruiter asked me my address and told me that he’d be right over. He was a man of his word. Five, seven minutes later, a rap on the door.

“That was quick,” I said, opening the door.

“Army,” the Army recruiter said. He was a staff sergeant, with three chevrons up and one rocker down. I learned all about that stuff later. His name tag announced him as “LERNER.” SSgt. Lerner shook my hand forcefully. He was tall. “You ready for the adventure of a lifetime?” he asked me.

“Sure,” I said. I followed him out to his car, a Dodge that had seen better times. U.S. ARMY was stenciled on the door. FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY. “Is this official?” I asked him.

He looked at the door, and then me. “This is as official as it gets,” he assured me. He walked stiffly. He noticed me watching him walk stiffly. “I was a tanker,” he told me. “Them M60’s got no suspension.”

I got in the passenger side.

He slid in behind the wheel, ground his teeth in anticipation. He closed his eyes. “Me and you government vehicle,” he said. The car started up eventually. It sounded like it had something stuck in its throat. On the way over to his office, he told me it wasn’t as easy to join up as I’d thought. I’d have to take a test first and then take a physical.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m kind of lazy.”

“Test ain’t hard,” SSgt. Lerner said. “Physical. Ain’t nothing to it. Shitfire. Now that first haircut. That’s the pisser. I had me some long-ass hair back in the ’70’s. Not no more.”

“I don’t really care about that kind of guff,” I said. “The Army can have my hair if it wants it.”

“Yeah, shit yeah. You and me’re gonna get along good. I can tell.” He turned on the radio. Madonna was on. He was digging it. He tapped on the steering wheel along with the song. She sounded like a cartoon chipmunk. I decided that he’d probably been blonde before the Army scalped him.

I looked out the window and watched the cheap apartments flash by. Three-and-a-half years in this town and I didn’t care. I had no attachment to anything about it, not even the beloved rah-rah football team. I yawned.

“Don’t go to sleep on me now,” SSgt. Lerner said. “You gotta take that fucking test. Then I’m gonna ship you off to take your physical.”

He was a man of his word. I signed some paperwork at his office in the federal building. An hour later he drove me to a National Guard Armory where I took the ASVAB, which was like every standardized test I’d ever taken. Back at his office, I filled out the DD-Form 2807-2, a medical prescreen. He drove me back to my apartment. I slept, dreaming of food prep, missed college exams and Sir Thomas More.

The next morning, he showed up at the door, once again announcing himself as “Army.” I packed an overnight bag. He drove me to the bus station, gave me a ticket and a hotel voucher, and about 45 minutes later I was on a Greyhound heading three cities away, toward the MEPS.

Halfway there, the bus stopped to pick up released inmates from the state penitentiary. They had prison issue tats and rippling muscles. Each held a cardboard box containing whatever The Man had given back to them. I saw a comb and sundries and a couple of t-shirts in the box of the guy who sat next to me.

“What are you looking at?” he asked me.

“Nothing,” I said.

“That’s right,” he said. “Keep looking out the window.”

I did so.

I was placed in a room with a boy who had ambitions that involved garroting communists and leaping out of airplanes. He considered his ambitions nobler than mine without having asked about my ambitions. He was probably right, I told him.

We were atop matching double beds splayed out on garish bedspreads, watching the news on the 19-inch TV bolted onto a chipped chest of drawers. The President was on. Sam Donaldson asked him a question. The President said something in his oddly cadenced voice. There was something farm-animalish about it.

“What do you want to do?” he finally asked me. He’d already inflicted the Army-issue buzzcut on himself and had on a woodland camouflage uniform,  just in case anyone wanted him to perform heroic acts at the MEPS.

“I dunno,” I said. “I hadn’t given it much thought.”

“I’ve always wanted to be a special operator,” he told me, grinning wolfishly.

“That’s great,” I said.

“And you don’t even know what you want to do,” he said.

“That’s true,” I said.

“You know what a halo jump is?” he asked me.

“No,” I said.

“You don’t know much, do you?” he concluded.

“I guess not,” I said. I smiled over at him, baring my coffee and cigarette yellowed teeth.

He eventually shut up.

Turn your head and cough was the worst of it at the MEPS. A doctor told me I had too much ear wax. There was a lot of standing in line and waiting. My entire Army career would consist of that. Unlike most soldiers, I did not mind it. I think it’s good for the soul to stare off into space. Monotony stimulates me.

I was directed, at the end of all the medical prodding, to sit down in a section of green plastic chairs. I sat and stared into space. My soul was growing by leaps and bounds. A sergeant called my name and I followed him into a cubby.

“You given any thought to what you want to do?” he asked me.

“Nope,” I said.

“You ain’t making this easy,” he said.

“How about your job?”

“Naw,” he went.

“I like to draw. How about that?” I don’t like to draw. It was a piece of spaghetti flung at a refrigerator door.

He flipped through a paperback catalog about as big as my hometown’s phonebook. “What do you know?” he went. “Found it.” He flipped the book around and pointed out ILLUSTRATOR (MOS 81E).

“I’ll take that.”

He tapped on a keyboard for a while. Pea green letters danced on the screen. “How do you like that? God must be smiling down on you. You know, with these weird MOS’s, you usually don’t get basic training so fast. You can ship out in a week,” he said. “First you have to get a security clearance.”

So I went back to the green chairs. Eventually, after more soul growth, another sergeant emerged and beckoned me into his office. I sat down in the easy chair opposite him and peered across the vast expanse of his desk. He was not, on first inspection, a happy man. On his I-love-me wall many certificates and diplomas attested to his competence. “I’m not with the rest of these guys,” the sergeant said.

“Okay,” I said.

“I don’t have to shine you on.”

“So far, so good,” I said.

“Don’t be a smart-ass,” he said.

“Sound advice,” I said.

“So you need a security clearance.”

“So I’m told.”

“I have to ask you some questions now.”

“Fire away.”

“Have you ever been a member of the communist party?”

“No.”

“Are you a homosexual?”

“No.”

“Do you get drunk more than five times a week?”

“Define ‘drunk.'”

“I’ll put down ‘no.'”

He asked me my whereabouts the past ten years. I gave him my mother’s address, my dorm address and my apartment address. Under jobs, I gave him the restaurant. He wanted people to vouch for me. I gave up my faculty advisor, the restaurant manager and Gus, the guy who ran the dishwasher and mopped up the bar rush vomit at 3 a.m.

“Do these people know you well?”

“Sure,” I said. “As well as anybody.”

I was sent back to the green chairs. Eventually, he emerged and told me that I had a secret clearance.

“Huzzah,” I went.

I was summoned back to the cubby with the other sergeant, the one who had to shine me on, and signed an inch-thick stack of papers. I went into a room with several other new recruits, raised my right hand, and swore to protect and defend the Constitution.

I found a vending machine and bought a Mountain Dew. It was warm.

After a week of watching television and taking on all comers at ping-pong in the student union, I returned to the MEPS and raised my right hand again. It seemed a bit redundant, but who the hell was I? I was a newly inducted private first class in the United States Army.

Then a doctor peered into my ear and told me I had too much ear wax. I shrugged. Didn’t the other doctor tell me to have my ear flushed? No, he did not. The new doctor was exasperated. “I can have you discharged,” he said. “How’s that for your future? Huh?”

“That’s okay,” I said. “I never think about the future.”

“God damn it,” he said. I waited for him to say something else. “Go get your orders,” he said. “Fuck it.”

My orders told me I was to report to Fort McClellan, Alabama for basic training. “Alabama,” I said. “Hmm.”

“Oh, you’re going there, too?” said a guy sitting in a row of green chairs.

I sat down in the green chair next to him. “Fort McClellan,” I said. I shook the paper. I snapped it, too, for good measure.

“That’s it,” he said. He told me his name was Tony and that he was a bandsman. “I play the baritone,” he said. “It’s like a little tuba.”

I told him I was supposed to be an illustrator.

“Oh hey,” he said. “Can you draw something for me?” He turned over his orders and pulled out a pen.

“They haven’t trained me yet,” I said. “So that would be jumping the gun a little, don’t you think?”

“I guess,” he said. He was temporarily disappointed.

“I know where you can get a warm Mountain Dew,” I said. “Cheap. Hell, I’ll even pay if you walk over there.” I gave him two quarters. He came back two minutes later with two warm Mountain Dews. One sip and he cheered up considerably.

“Sweet mystery of life,” I said.

“You can say that again,” Tony said.

A group of us flew to Atlanta on the same flight. We debarked and were met by a bus driver, who escorted us to a no-name bus. We walked through the gaping maw of the bus and into its steamy innards. He left and came back with more recruits. After a few more trips, he started up the bus and transported us across northern Georgia and into Alabama. The bus never cooled off. He parked at a gas station in Anniston, a town that apparently consisted of pawn shops, gun shops, seedy gas stations and strip clubs, with the occasional used car lot tossed in. He invited us all to stand outside with him.

He gave me a Salem out of his pack and lit it for me with a Bic Clic. “I hear they don’t let you motherfuckers smoke in basic training no more,” he said.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “Nobody mentioned that to me.”

“Whole lot of shit they didn’t mention to you,” the bus driver said. “Heh, heh.”

“Why are we standing here?”

“They ain’t ready for you yet,” he said, smiling. “Heh, heh.”

“When are they going to be ready?”

“When you good and tired,” he said. “Heh, heh.” He clearly enjoyed his role in the process.

“I gotta take a piss,” I said. I sucked the Salem down to its filter and flicked it toward the only clump of grass in eyeshot. I went inside the store, got the key to the toilet, which was attached to a section of two-by-four and engraved with a wood burner MEN’S. I walked out back. The toilet was horrific. The only bright spot was the advertisement for the French Tickler on the prophylactic dispenser. It was a winking cartoon rubber with sparkling teeth. When God was handing out the cartoon assignments to the cartoon characters up in cartoon heaven, He forgot to tell ol’ Winky what exactly he would be shilling for. Or Winky didn’t mind. I shook three times in honor of Winky, put my own Winky away and locked up.

The dude behind the bulletproof glass asked me if I was fixing to go to basic training up the road. I said I was and shoved the key in the bank slot. He wished me good luck and smiled. His teeth were shockingly perfect, almost Winky-like.

Outside, the bus was revving up. I jogged across the dirt parking lot and got in and off we went to basic training. I was damned close to being excited.

“Why are you on my bus?” a midget corporal asked us. It was pretty good dinner theater. I wanted to clap, but I was not in the audience. I was a spear-carrier. I played my role, the frightened recruit, and scrambled off the bus with everyone else. The midget corporal lined us up against a wall and told us how disappointing we were as privates. He informed us that that was our name, each of us, collectively. We were privates and would be until we graduated from basic training. He taught us how to stand at attention and at parade rest, which involved placing your right hand over your left in the small of your back, your thumbs hooked, your feet apart, staring straight forward at nothing.

I immediately loved parade rest. To this day, when I’m bored or standing in line or even in the comfort of my own home, I will snap to parade rest. It’s like a vacation. I do not question this feeling. Once you question something as sublime as parade rest, it ceases to be a comfort.

We filled out forms. We slept in an open bay barracks. The next morning, a bored drill sergeant banged on a garbage can for a moment, then told us to take showers.

We were so dumb we didn’t even know how to fall in. He formed us up the best he could, outside, post showers, wet mops of hair, day-old clothes. He told us that we were dumb, but not extraordinarily dumb. Just average dumb. I liked him. We stood in a square filled with busted up rocks. “You fuck up,” the bored drill sergeant said, “you’ll be at the correctional barracks at Fort Riley, Kansas creating these lovely bits of rock from larger rocks.”

We looked around at each other. Literally busting rocks. It was like something out of a 1930’s prison movie. I wanted to hear more. Instead, the bored drill sergeant said, “Today you eat chow at zero-six-thirty at the D-Fac. To be followed by shots. The vomiting up of chow will follow. Can I get a hoo-rah?”

He did not get a hoo-rah.

“Guess I’m not getting my hoo-rah,” he said. He didn’t seem surprised. He checked his watch. We were still early. “So, what did you all do before you joined the Army?” he asked.

He did not get a response.

“You are some mute motherfuckers,” he said. “You,” he said, pointing at me. “Say something.”

“I worked grill,” I said.

“‘Worked grill’? What the fuck does that mean?”

“I cooked food on a heated sheet of metal in a greasy spoon restaurant,” I said.

“You were a grill cook,” he said.

“I’ll cop to that,” I said.

“Here,” he said. “Try this: Try saying only, ‘Yes, drill sergeant,’ ‘No, drill sergeant,’ and ‘I don’t know, drill sergeant,’ until you leave my reception station. And try saying it as loud as you can. You think you can do that?”

“Yes, drill sergeant!” I shouted.

“Outstanding,” the bored drill sergeant said without a hint of enthusiasm. He checked his watch again. “Hey, look at that. It’s time to march you sad fucks down to the mess hall. ”

We were there two more days, which involved shots, clothing issue, stenciling our names on our duffel bags and shoving our new clothes inside, haircuts (which they made us pay for) and learning, from the bored drill sergeant, how to stand in line, which he told us would be the one thing that we would have to learn to do well, and how to line up and stand in formation.

He had us standing outside during a rainstorm, our new haircuts itching our scalps, our sad baggy new clothes itching our skin, our new boots cutting into our feet, standing at attention, standing without purpose in the rain, standing there, just standing, until a private in front of me passed out and slammed face first into the broken rocks under our feet. The bored drill sergeant strolled over, crouched down, clucked his tongue, and thumped the prostrate private like you would a cantaloupe. “Shit,” he said. “That was outstanding. Bravo! What did you think of that Private Fuckhead?” He was addressing me.

“I don’t know, drill sergeant,” I shouted.

“I like you, Private Fuckhead,” he said. “You and you,” he said, pointing at me and another private. “Drag this piece of dogshit back into the barracks.”

“Yes, drill sergeant,” we shouted in unison. We each took a step back, stepping out of formation as we had just been taught, and trotted over and grabbed an arm apiece and dragged the private away.

Inside, the private opened his eyes and fucking winked at me with his bloody face smiling, and then closed his eyes again.

Speaking from now, from the bright-shining future, as a four-year Army veteran, I can say this: That kid had a bright-shining Army future ahead of him. He had learned to get over, to sham, which is the goal of every junior enlisted soldier.

The reception station and its bored drill sergeant had done enough for us. It was time to move on. We were sent to charlie company of the second battalion of the forty-eighth infantry, which was written like this: C 2/48.

The bored drill sergeant ordered us aboard a cattle truck, shoving as many of us as he could inside. The door closed. It was as hot as blue blazes in the truck. A private next to me said so. A horsefly buzzed lazily around our heads.

To break the tension, as the cattle truck drove in creaking circles around the parking lot of the Fort McClellan Burger King, a private began to sing the Tom T. Hall classic:

I love little baby ducks, old pickup trucks
Slow-movin’ trains and rain
I love little country streams, sleep without dreams
Sunday school in May and hay
And I love you, too

Soon everyone was singing along, even if they didn’t know the words. Humming, except for the “I love you, too” part, which was horribly out of tune. It was a hard song to murder, but as soon as the cattle truck squeaked to a halt in front of our barracks and the doors opened, the song died in our throats, mid-loooove. Standing in front of the doors was our new drill sergeant, a man with more pep than the one we’d left behind. He looked just like Sergeant Slaughter, the wrestler. So that’s what I’ll call him.

“What the fuck?” Drill Sergeant Slaughter asked us.

We had no reply.

“Little baby ducks?” he boomed.

Still no reply.

“Jesus, I mean I can understand the old pickup trucks. I have a nice one myself.”

Silence from inside the cattle car. Not a cough or a chuckle.

“Fuck me,” Drill Sergeant Slaughter said. “Get the fuck off the cattle truck and fall in on this ugly fucker.” He grabbed a trembling private by the front of his duffel bag and dragged him to a square filled with gravel. We fell in on him, our duffel bags held tight in our arms like life preservers. “Little baby motherfucking ducks,” Drill Sergeant Slaughter said. “Jesus God in heaven.” He leaned down, poking a trembling private on the bridge of his nose with his smokey the bear hat. “Little baby ducks?” He held his position. The private stood at attention, holding his bag, sweating. “Answer me, private!”

“Yes, drill sergeant?”

“So you’re not a mute?”

“Yes, drill sergeant!”

“Do you love little baby ducks?”

“No, drill sergeant!”

“Why not? They’re awfully fuzzy-wuzzy!”

“I don’t know, drill sergeant!”

He asked every private in the first row, the first squad, all about baby ducks. He asked a private if his baby duck fetish was sexual. He asked the next private how many baby ducks it would take to make a decent baby duck sandwich. He asked a question about the coefficient of a baby duck. It went on for a while before he sent us upstairs to our open bay barracks room, where we became third platoon. I was in the second row, so I was in second squad.

We fell back into formation downstairs and then were lead through and around the building where we would spend the next eight weeks.

“This is the command floor. You will never come here unless you’re manning a buffer.”

“This is the dayroom. You will never come here unless you’re manning a buffer.”

“This is the lawn. You will never step foot on it unless you’re manning a lawn mower.”

We formed up outside in the gravel. “Oh. Anyone mind if I fucking swear? Seriously, if anyone minds, I won’t. Go ahead and raise your little baby duck loving paw if you mind swearing.”

A private in front of me raised his hand. The drill sergeant brought us to attention, made us perform a half-right face, had us go to the front-leaning-rest position–move!, and had us all do twenty push-ups in cadence. He had us recover to standing, do a half-left face and asked us, “Anyone mind if I fucking swear? Seriously, if anyone minds, I won’t. No takers? Really?”

Push-ups.

We were dropped for a number of infractions. Once, we were dropped for the crime of one of us eating a hamburger. We weren’t allowed hamburgers. The drill sergeant exercised us to the cadence of NO (up) MORE (down) GREASY (up) HAMBURGERS (down) to which we responded  ONE.

NO (up) MORE (down) GREASY (up) HAMBURGERS (down).

TWO.

And so on, until we reached twenty.

We had a script we followed when we were dropped individually. It went like this:

Drill Sergeant: Drop and give me twenty.

Private (snaps to attention, bends knees until his hands lay flat on the ground, leans on hands while simultaneously snapping feet backward, starts pushing): One drill sergeant, two drill sergeant… (and so on until twenty). Drill sergeant, thank you for conditioning my mind and my body. This private requests permission to recover.

Drill Sergeant: Recover!

Private (snaps back to attention).

I liked basic training. I never had to think, not even once.

I liked the sound that my steel pot made when I marched. It went clink-clink, clink-clunk.

I liked marching. It was like waiting in line, with a little exercise thrown in.

I liked the rifle range, where a voice from up high asked IS THERE ANYONE DOWN RANGE? IS THERE ANYONE DOWN RANGE? READY ON THE LEFT? READY ON THE RIGHT?

And the food wasn’t as bad as everyone pretended it was. It was free and there was plenty of it, even if the drill sergeant was shouting EAT THEM VITTLES AND GET OUT OF DODGE in your ear. I particularly enjoyed the chili mac. Drill Sergeant Slaughter recommended it like this: “Slides right down.” It did.

One time this private was running toward the barracks and bumped into a bush. Drill Sergeant Slaughter made him apologize. “I’m sorry, drill sergeant!”

“Not to me, to the bush.”

I’m sorry, bush!

The drill sergeant dropped him. The private sang out as he exercised, as we’d all been taught to sing,  “One drill sergeant! Two drill sergeant!” The drill sergeant stopped him. “You ain’t beating your face for me,” he said. “You’re doing it for the bush.”

One bush! Two bush!

Okay: I’ll admit it. That private was me.

My platoon was half-full of future ammo handlers and future helicopter pilots. The ammo school was just up the road at Anniston Army Depot and the Army flight school was just up the road at Fort Rucker. The other half of us were the odd bits of the Army that the Army didn’t want to think about. We were future illustrators and future bandsmen and future human resource specialists  and future topographic surveyors and future lithographers and future plumbers and future religious program specialists. Oh, and one future cryptologic linguist, who told us that he had a top secret clearance and wasn’t allowed to say anything about the training that he hadn’t gone through yet.

We polished our boots at night after chow. We waxed and buffed our floors until they gleamed.

One early, early morning, at zero-dark-thirty-hours, when no one was paying attention, a private died. He leapt from the top bunk wearing his Army issue green wool socks, slipped on the well-buffed floor and snapped his neck on the metal crossbar of the bottom bunk.

Tony, the baritone player, was my buddy. He slept in the bunk above mine. When we went to the field, we shared a shelter-half tent. Actually, the beds were called racks. They had no box springs, just a dusty mattress atop zigzags of wire mesh. Tony was on fire guard and discovered the dead private. He shook me awake and said, “Hey.”

“Hey,” I said. “I was asleep.”

“That guy. The one who was going to be a plumber, I think. Lind?”

“So what?”

“I think he’s dead.”

“You’re dreaming.”

“No, seriously. I think he’s dead.”

“Color me intrigued,” I said. I sat up and hit my head on the top rack, clunk.

Tony was dressed in a silver George Patton helmet, combat boots and skivvies. He was holding a flashlight and a baton, for bashing in skulls. He also was wearing BCG’s, or birth control glasses. He looked like an insane Elvis Costello.

“If this guy isn’t dead, someone is going to be,” I said.

“Swear to God,” Tony said.

We walked over to third squad’s racks. Sure enough, there was a dead plumber on the floor. He’d peed himself. His mouth was open and his head was tilted at an odd angle. I kicked him with my toe. “Wool socks,” I said.

“He’s fucking dead, isn’t he?”

“He’s putting on a good show if he isn’t.”

“Should I go get the drill sergeant?”

“Sure, wake his ass up. See if I care. What do they call that?”

“Initiative?”

“Initiative,” I repeated. I slapped him on the shoulder. “Drive on, private.”

In an hour, while the medics were hauling the former future plumber’s dead ass away, we were out in the PT pit, running in circles with our M16A1 rifles raised above our heads. We were being mass-punished not for the dead plumber, but for waking up the drill sergeant with the bad news. Initiative is not for the weak.

The PT pit was an exercise pit filled with gravel, the Army’s favorite training surface.

Jogging in circles, we raised the rifles above our heads, then dropped them to waist level, then raised them above our heads, while chanting, DON’T (up) WAKE (down) DRILL (up) SERGEANT (down).

A couple of days later, we stood in formation out on the parade field for the dead plumber’s memorial service. A bugler from the Fort McClellan Army Band played Taps, horrifically mangling each note. The Catholic chaplain lectured us on being bad buddies to the dead guy and held the entire battalion responsible for his stupid death. This was the same guy who performed mass on Sunday as if it was a drill team exercise.

“What was I supposed to do?” Tony whispered to me. “Catch the dumb son-of-a-bitch? I didn’t even see him fall.”

“Whatever, man,” I said. I was trying to enjoy being at attention.

Drill Sergeant Slaughter pulled us out of formation and made us do push-ups silently. When we were done, he said, “How about that bugler? Jesus God that was terrible. Don’t think I ever heard Taps played that bad. Get back in formation.”

[Note: this is part 1 of 8 of the complete text for John Sheppard’s book Tales of the Peacetime Army. To start reading at the beginning and for a full list of all parts, please go to the table of contents.

And if you like the story, please visit the book’s page and consider buying a copy!]

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