It was freezing cold that night in December 1968, when the bus delivered us to the U.S. Army Reception Center in Fort Dix, New Jersey. We were “greeted” by an Army sergeant, who boarded the bus and wasted no time reminding us that we were all “in the Army now,” and that we should all keep quiet and walk single file into a large, sparsely furnished, overheated room for the purpose of filling out stacks of forms.
“Gentlemens, listen up! Last name first, then first name, then middle initial.” So instructed the crew-cutted Army sergeant over and over for the completion of each form. He did so in the loud, Army sergeant monotone I would come to know so well. (I thought, Gentlemens? Might that be some sort of super-plural form of he word gentleman? And, listen up? Why listen up? Can one listen down?) The seemingly endless forms were obviously designed to squeeze from us every single detail of the lives we all had before we became “gentlemens.”
“What if you put your first name first?” asked a voice from somewhere behind me. It was the first time any of us actually spoke to a sergeant. Several other voices hesitatingly revealed that they had made the same mistake. That produced a tirade in a much louder than usual Army sergeant monotone, “Gentlemens, you are no longer on the gott-dammed block, and I ain’t your gott-dammed mama! When I give instructions, you WILL gott-damn pay attention, and you WILL gott-damn follow my instructions.”
No question about it. This guy did not like his job, nor did he much like any of us. Then and there I decided that if in one of the dozen or so forms yet to go I mistakenly put my first name first, I would not fess up. No, I would take the easy way out and jab my gott-damned eyes out with the gott-damned number 2 pencil and hope for a gott-damned looney tunes discharge.
After all the forms were finally completed, we were led to the “mess hall” for some “chow.” (The Army just springs these new words on you.) One thing about the Army — you WILL get three “squares” per day, hence the 24-hour operation of the mess hall in the Reception Center to accommodate the streams of incoming draftees needed to fuel the war in Southeast Asia. Amazingly, some guys greeted this news warmly. I was much too miserable to be hungry. Good thing too, as we were given about five minutes to eat some really chewy chicken wings and lima beans. “Move it. Move it. Move it, gentlemens. Chew it here, swallow it outside, and digest it later!” Maybe I should just jab the gott-damned fork in my gott-damned eyes.
It was too late in the night for the Army to completely strip us of our civilian identities. However, to start the process we were all “issued” Army underwear. (The Army never “gives” you things; it “issues” them to you.) From there, we were “marched” to a two-story World War II barracks for the night, and we were told that under no circumstances was anyone to leave the “gott-damned” barracks until the following morning. It was frighteningly true. The Army really did “own” our “asses.”
The next morning — just like in the movies — the sergeant came roaring like a madman into the barracks at God knows what ungodly hour. “Off your asses on and on your feet! Move it! Move it! Move it! We ain’t got all gott-damned day, gentlemens.”
As ordered, we all put on our newly “issued” Army underwear under our civilian trousers. Army underwear (or skivvies) are funny looking billowy white boxer shorts that almost touch the wearer’s knees. After a quick trip back to the mess hall (remember, three squares) for a warp-speed breakfast, we were “marched” to the barber, where in approximately 20-30 seconds, each of us was relieved of a critical part of our 60’s identity – our hair, just about all of it. The barbers were ankle deep in the stuff – just another surreal picture. Everyone looked perfectly ridiculous, but, more importantly to the Army, everyone looked sort of the same.
The next stop was a long, long building where we would be issued uniforms. The idea here is that you start at one end of the building in your underwear and you exit the other end of the building with a uniform on your back and a duffle bag full of extra clothing. Army efficiency at work. So, when we entered the building, we were told to remove everything except for our newly issued Army shorts (I believe that our civilian clothes were mailed home, but I do not recall). From there, we were led into another large room, with rows and rows of folding chairs arranged in front of a stage.
We sat shivering in our Army shorts while one of two sergeants on the stage began to tell us how the uniform issuing procedure would work. In mid sentence, he was interrupted by the other sergeant, a huge black man, who pointed out into the audience and shouted, “YOU!!” Sweet Jesus, does he mean me? If he means me, I hope I just have a heart attack and die right gott-damned here.
“YOU!! YOU IN THE BACK!!!” the sergeant roared.
“Me?” the guy in the back said.
“Yeah, YOU!!! Get the f*** up here!” Thank God it’s not me.
It did, however, turn out to be a guy I went to high school with – a seriously smart, exceedingly polite and quiet guy who had recently graduated from a prestigious university. I was horrified for him as he walked, like a condemned man, to the stage in his shorts and nothing else, past the 100 or so of us, also in our shorts and nothing else.
He walked onto the stage, and the sergeant bellowed, “What’s your name, boy?”
My former high school classmate, now terrified recruit, said “Carl Thompson.” [not his real name]
The sergeant hollered, “Where’re you from, boy?”
Frightened, and obviously puzzled by the reason for the question, Carl said, “Where am I from?” Oh God, he repeated the sergeant’s question.
“You got shit in your ears, boy? I axed you, where’re you FROM?”
“Kearny, New Jersey, sergeant.”
“Well tell me something boy. Do everybody in Kearny, New Jersey wear his underwear backwards?”
Carl looked down and saw, to his shock and embarrassment,. that he had indeed put his underwear on backwards. He was speechless.
We all stifled our laughter, as we quickly looked down to make sure that we didn’t put our bed sheet sized underwear on backwards.
“Answer me, boy. Do everybody in Kearny, New Jersey wear his underwear backwards?”
Barely audibly, Carl said, “No, sergeant.”
“I can’t hear you, boy. Sound off like you got a pair!” (They really do say that.)
The sergeant stared at him, apparently savoring the moment, and then shouted, “Well, gott-dammit, FIX THEM!!”
No one, but no one, laughed as Carl, right there on the stage, took off his shorts, turned them around, and put them back on.
About an hour later we were all at the other end of the building wearing olive drab everything, very drab indeed. It all served to remind me of just how much my life had changed in not even 24 hours.
It would become even more bizarre, but that’s a story for another day.