Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Army I Knew: BCT

We left off here almost exactly one year ago, with the cadre of A Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd (Basic Training) Brigade descending on the poor fools - among which I was one of the relatively-average-foolish - arriving from Ft. Dix Reception Station.

Basic Training - at least, the Basic Training they were running at Ft. Dix in the Eighties, was almost exactly what you would expect if you've seen a handful of movies or television shows or talked to someone who had been through it. It relies on the gullibility and fearfulness of late-teenagers and early adults who can be frightened into doing exactly what they are told. A handful are too stubborn, or too broken, to do even this, and they are, usually, quickly disposed of - although one day I'll tell you the story of Ft. Benning and the Mad Shitter.

But the rest is a tale as old as the Army and not really worth repeating. Yes, they made us do pushups. Yes, we had to go a lot of places in formations, and sit through classes, and go bivouac on the rifle range (and Ft. Dix in January is fucking cold and don't let anyone kid you) and were dosed with CS "tear" gas, and all the comic book and movie stuff. Suffice to say we got through it and moved on, and I'd be very surprised if any of us who went through "Coldsteel Alpha" that chilly winter of 1981 have spent much time or mental coin thinking back on it.So let me just tell you some stories from that time and place.

First, a little note about what we wore.

Trust me, this is not becoming a fashion blog. It's just that of all the aspects of my BCT the one thing that sets us apart in my mind is that we were the last of a long history of GIs to wear the O.D. green that had symbolized the Arsenal of Democracy since 1941.Specifically, we wore the OG-107 fatigue uniform, better known as the just "fatigues" or as the "pickle suit". We wore the rubber-sole black "boot, combat" that had been standard since the Fifties, and the whole ensemble was topped off with one of the most ridiculous items of headwear ever invented by the U.S. Army, the OG-106 "baseball cap".The cardboard stiffener in front was designed to get bent into all sorts of moronic looking shapes, and the fake-leather band was sweat-droolingly hot in summer and icy cold in winter.

The thing is, the pickle suit had been a very stylin' outfit. The drill sergeants nearly all had the old all-cotton versions from the Sixties. These typically faded to a pale green and took starch like a Congressmen to a lobbyist's cashbag; they could be creased to razor sharpness and looked terrific. Our later, cotton-polyester, like nearly all polyester products from the Seventies, looked, well, like shit, especially if you threw in the moronic cap.

But that was just for the guys. Really, let's not even talk about what may have been the most horrible atrocity committed by the U.S. Army outside of My Lai; the female summer Class A uniform, otherwise known as the "Slimey Limey", a jaw-droppingly ugly "mint green polyester knit skirt and jacket uniform" that would have worked spectacularly as birth control device for Messalina or any of the other great horizontals of history. On a normal American woman it looked like leprous death, was universally despised, and was perhaps the only reason the gals looked forward to going into the AG-44 Army Greens.

But back to the issue of O.D.; in our fatigues we looked like GIs had since North Africa, we were living a great tradition and an honorable lineage so, being GIs, we all hated the pickle suit and longed after the cool camouflage uniforms that the Marines had.

Had we known that the BDU was going to be that uniform, well...I'll leave that for another day.

The one other big difference in my BCT was a less permanent one. We had a "mixed" company, men and women together.

This was all part of the post-Vietnam VOLAR experiment and one that wrapped up soon thereafter. I have no idea which genius thought that the ladies from 1st "Fox" Platoon would live as chaste and stainless as the Sisters of Charity right upstairs from 2nd "Flame" and 3rd "Herd" where the lusty lads were bunked, but the fireguards on the landings were meeting cute every night, and I was told later that the unoccupied cadre rooms down at the end of the 1st Platoon floor were like a Fellini movie from midnight to first call.

But I never got in on all this hearty wooing; I was first a squad leader, then the platoon guide (trainee platoon sergeant) and was excused duty keeping the watches of the night and all that healthy young American soldier girl lovin'. All I remember it got me in return was the headaches of nannying forty other ignorant young people and Private Skrodinsky, the platoon's living Polack joke.

There was this time when Skrogie, cleaning his rifle, was showing the Kim brothers how the buffer spring could be compressed all the way down the buffer and (through an excess of CLP, or so he claimed later) shot the thing out the second-floor window into the truckbed of Drill Sergeant Reynold's truck...

...But that was later.Anyway, we managed to fumble through what I now recognize was a pathetically inadequate entry training, learning just enough to have gotten us killed within a day or so of genuine combat. But keep in mind we were the ash and trash of the Army; cooks, clerks, medics, truck drivers. The Army saw no reason - having forgotten the lessons of Vietnam and unseeing the ruinous guerilla wars to come - in teaching us REMFs how to really fight. After all, that was what Eleven-Bullets were for.Funny, when I think back on the time now I have a vague memory of cold, and being constantly a little tired, and of poor instruction inadequately delivered. And of a handful of memorable events, some because of the place, some for the people, some for the pure weirdness of them.

The Night of Sergeant Layne was one of the latter.

SSG Ricardo Layne was the junior drill sergeant for 2nd Platoon - this being a time when the Army was working under short commons each platoon had two instead of the authorized three - and was a native of some sort of Caribbean country. He was very tall, very black, and spoke, when at all, with a distinctive island accent.

SSG Layne was the "good cop" to SFC Nelson's "bad cop" - he was the cool, calm one next to the platoon sergeant's gruffness.

So it came as something of a surprise to hear him roaring at us in the middle of a dark February night.

We formed up in the hallways outside our barrack rooms in our skivvies, shivering and clueless, as he ramped and roared up and down the shiny linoleum, inching our toes away from the jump boots that glittered like black diamonds, even on pre-dawn CQ. It took some time for us to understand what he was furious about, and even longer to really "get" the impact of his fury, but finally we got it - we had used all the week's ration of toilet paper.

Remember, this was before the fat times; we were still "Carter's Army", still poor, still skimping to get by. We only got so much bog roll, and here it was almost Thursday and it had all disappeared up our capacious backsides.

"Joo pipple..."
Layne ranted,
"...joo 'ave been ussing en-tirely too mooch toilet pepper. Now Aye am not shoore if t'is is doo to joo pipple 'ave been inadequately instroocted in de joose of de Joo Ess Army toilet pepper, or because joo is joost full of chit. Dat doan matter, because dis is de last toilet pepper joo will get until NEXT week, and joo will 'ave to learn to use eet correctly or joo will just 'ave to use joor entrenching tool, which of course joo will clean properly afterwords..."
I'm not sure what happened after that; I think we went back to try and get another hour or two's rack. And we didn't run out of buttwipe again.

But he sure was mad.

Of course, it wasn't just us fucking up.

One afternoon late in the three-month training cycle (so it must have been some time late in March) the three of us platoon guides were told to have our units "in the classroom" after noon chow for some reason. So at 1300, good as gold, all three little soldiers called their units to atention, put them "at ease" and turned around to await their masters.

Only no one came.1310 came and went, and then fifteen minutes, and the three of us called out our first squad leaders and ran to meet in front of my platoon. What had happened? What was wrong? We concluded that we had been supposed to form up at "the classroom" - in our experience the battalion theatre down at the end of the street - and had missed some vital instruction. Confident now in our understanding of the situation, we returned to our platoons.

"Platoon, atten-shun. Right face. Forward...march!" and off the street we went, three little blocks of wanna-be GIs. Column right onto the battalion street (get out there, road guards!), column right and column left into the theatre parking lot. Countercolumn. Halt. File from the right, column left...march and into the dim seats.

And then...nothing.

I think it must have been another fifteen minutes when the side door slammed open and one of the holdovers who was acting as a sort of dogsbody and general nuisance around the company stuck his head in and yelped.

"Don't move!"

We looked at each other. Hunh? Don't move...where?

Well, we found out about a nanosecond later; the cadre poured in like OD Goths swarming through the Porta Appia. We were driven outside, marched back to the company area and herded into the company classroom (in the basement of our barrack) which was the intended location of whatever silly thing we had been intended to do. The three of us platoon guides were questioned mercilessly until our drill sergeants were satisfied that we had just made an honest mistake and had not been attempting to escape.

And I think they were a little frightened by our initiative as well as chagrined at losing 120 GIs for half an hour.

I don't remember much else, other than little oddiments. Somehow we managed to get through the POI and move on without killing ourselves or each other, and I suspect that most of us made fairly decent soldiers in one way or another.The old BT post is all but closed now, and my old barracks has been made into some sort of low-security prison. The soldiers are pretty much all gone, and the units, as well. The quiet streets of the old post are mostly empty, and the cold winter winds no longer carry the sound of marching cadences sung far away.

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