The trip from Fort Dix to Baltimore lasted approximately three hours. It had occurred to me that it was the first time in eight weeks that I actually was sitting in a relatively comfortable seat. In basic training, there are virtually no chairs. True, one sits in training rooms and in the mess hall, but those chairs are built for function, not for comfort. Sitting on a bunk is just not the same as sitting in a real chair. I wonder if today I would find a seat on Greyhound bus quite as wonderful as it seemed then.
More importantly, however, the trip meant three hours alone – away from other soldiers and drill sergeants for the first time in more than eight weeks. It had been easy to forget that the world did not stop at the Fort Dix gates, but rather it was humming along quite nicely. The tiny island of civilian life on the Greyhound bus gave me three hours to stare out the window and think about the past eight weeks, about my life prior to those eight weeks, and how strange it seemed that things I had nothing to do with and had no control over placed me on this bus headed south to some damned place no one seemed to know anything about.
Once in Baltimore, I dragged my jam-packed duffel bag off the bus, and asked a few people where I could catch the bus to Fort Holabird. One person said, “I heard of Fort Meade, but I really don’t know anything about Fort Holabird. Are you sure you don’t mean Fort Meade?” A couple other people were equally as ignorant about Fort Holabird. I thought Christ, these people live here, and they never heard of the place? What the hell…??? Finally, I asked the information person at the bus terminal, who mercifully knew what bus I should take to get to this mystery military post.
Shortly thereafter, duffel bag and I boarded the local bus that would take us to the base. I asked the bus driver to let me know when we got to Fort Holabird. “No problem,” he said. I was more than a little relieved to confirm that I was on the right bus and that the driver actually knew where the damned place was. The uniform again provoked stares, smiles and glares from the other passengers. By this time, I was becoming accustomed to it. Besides, I was tired, and I just wanted to get to wherever the hell I was supposed to be.
“Here’s the base, son,” the driver said, as he stopped the bus by the gate, in front of a guardhouse. I struggled with the duffle bag down the bus aisle and thanked the driver as I turned to step off through the bus doors. As I got off the bus, I was horrified to see an MP (military policeman) looking at me and walking at a brisk pace from the guardhouse in my direction. Oh hell. Here it comes. He was a tall, staff sergeant, the same rank as my drill sergeant. I didn’t think it possible, but the MP looked even more frightening than the drill sergeants I had just spent eight weeks with. He was wearing the white MP helmet and a black MP armband. His trousers were bloused over his spit-shined airborne boots, and he wore a 45 semi-automatic sidearm. I braced myself for what I was certain would be a ration of shit about something or other I was not doing right.
Before I could say that I was reporting for duty (that’s what one is supposed to say), he said, “Hi. You need help with that bag?”
I said, “Pardon me?” What did he say??
He repeated, “How ya doing? You look like you could use some help with that bag.”
I was speechless. I could only nod my head in the affirmative, something that would have unleashed a torrent of invective from a drill sergeant about the importance of “sounding off like you got a pair!”
The MP looked at me for a moment, and I thought, OK, let the hollering begin. He didn’t holler; He said, “You look beat,” and he effortlessly tossed my duffel bag over his shoulder and carried it to the guardhouse. He set it down and asked, “Where on the base are you headed?” Still in shock, I told him that I had no idea where I was headed. I just knew that I was ordered to come here. He smiled – he actually smiled – and said, “No problem. Let me take a look at your orders.”
He took a quick look at the orders and said, “O.K. The building you have to report to is about a quarter mile down this street on the right side – big brick building – you can’t miss it. When you get there, ask for Sergeant Perez. He’ll get you squared away.”
I thanked him and began walk in the direction he had indicated. The MP shouted behind me, “Wait!” I thought, OK, I knew that this was too good to be true – this must be some kind of trap. Now, the hollering will begin.
I turned in his direction and said, “Yes?”
He said, “It’s really too far for you to walk with that bag. I’ll have someone drive you.” OK, Jimbo, this must be some kind of a Twilight-friggin’-Zone thing. There is no way that white-helmeted, bloused-trousered, pistol packin’staff sergeant MP just said that he would get me a ride because it was too far for me to walk with a heavy bag.
But, that’s what he said.
The MP got on the phone, and in a minute or two a corporal appeared in an Army car and said, “You the guy who needs a ride? Hop in.”. During the short ride to my destination, I couldn’t think of anything to say to the corporal, other than to thank him for the lift. “Here’s the barracks building” he said. “Sergeant Perez should be in the orderly room. He’ll check you in.”
I found the orderly room, and, just as promised, Sergeant Perez was there. He was a sergeant-first class (three stripes up and two rockers). Again, I found myself thinking that it was absolutely impossible for a sergeant-first-class to be anything other than mean and ornery. When I entered the room, breathless from having lugged the bag up the stairs, Sergeant Perez looked up from the papers on his desk, and said, “Yes? What can I do for you?” Wait a minute. This is the way civilized people speak. Sergeants don’t talk this way. What in Christ’s name is going on here?
“I’m reporting for duty, sergeant.”
“Oh, you must be one of the new students. You’re a little early, but that is not a problem.” Did he say “students?”
I could no longer contain myself. I blurted out, “What is this place?”
“You don’t know?” the sergeant said.
“No I don’t, and I have not been able to find anyone who knows anything about this place.”
“This is the United States Army Military Intelligence School.”
I stood there in silence trying to process it all. After a few seconds, I asked, “What will I be doing here?”
“Let’s take a look at your orders, and we’ll see.” I handed him my orders, and he said, “You are a 96C. You’re an interrogator.”
“An interrogator?” He remained patient, despite my stupidly repeating everything I had just heard.
“Yes, that’s what a 96C is. I also see that you speak German.”
“Well, I took the German test. How can you tell from looking at the orders that I speak German?”
The sergeant explained, “It says that your MOS (military occupation specialty) is 96C2L29. The “96C” tells me that you are an interrogator, and the “2L29” tells me that you speak German.” I couldn’t help thinking back to that miserable bastard at Fort Dix who tried to intimidate me into not taking the German test. (see 1/3/03)
The sergeant, still looking at my orders, continued, “Oh, now I know why you might be a little puzzled by all this. I see that you are a draftee. We don’t get many draftees. Most guys enlist in order to get into Military Intelligence and they know in advance what it is all about.”
“Well, it’s close to the end of the work day here, so let me get you some bedding and show you to the barracks.” Hold it. A sergeant-first-class is going to get my bedding and show me to the barracks? People in hotels show you to your room. People in the Army don’t show you to your room. Twilight Zone….definitely.
He emerged from another room with sheets, a pillow and a blanket, and walked me down the hall to a large bay area, with approximately twenty double bunks on each side of the room. Lockers ran down the center of the bay. “I believe you’re the first one here, so you can pick your spot. Make up your bunk, and stop by the office when you’re done to pick up some forms.”
I made up the bunk on autopilot and emptied the contents of my duffel bag into my locker. It was all still too much to think about. When I finished, I reported back to the orderly room.
Sergeant Perez handed me a couple forms, and said, “Fill these out when you have a chance. We’ll need them next week.” He took out a map of the base, and circled things like that mess hall and the PX (Post Exchange – i.e. the store). He said, “I think you may have missed dinner at the mess hall, but you can get a burger or something at the PX.” A burger? I can eat by myself? I can go to a store? And, I’m not being hollered at?
“Thanks, that sounds great,” I said, beginning to actually speak to Sergeant Perez as if he was a regular person.
“So, what are your plans for the weekend?”
“Pardon me? My plans?”
“”Yeah, are you going to hang around the base? You could go into Baltimore. You could go to D.C.”
“You mean that I can leave the base when I want?”
“Sure. Just be back here by 7 o’clock, Monday morning. That’s when we start the classes.”
‘You mean I can go home for the weekend, if I want?”
He smiled and said, “That depends on where you live. I don’t think going to California would make much sense. Where do you live?”
“New Jersey,” I replied.
“That’s no problem. The buses run regularly between Baltimore and Newark.”
Absolutely stupefied, I said, “Please forgive me. I just want to make sure that I understand. I just checked in here, and I can turn around and go home for the weekend, if I want?”
“That’s right. Just be back by Monday Morning.”
“Do I need a written pass or anything?”
“Nope. Not necessary. Do you have civilian clothes with you?” Did he say civilian clothes? Where’s Rod Serling?
“No. We weren’t allowed to have civilian clothes at Fort Dix.”
“Well, you may want to bring some back with you from home. You only have to wear your uniform during duty hours. Unless you have some kind of extra duty, civilian clothes are fine around here after duty.” This cannot be.
Perez continued, “If you have no further questions, I’m going to hit the road. See you Monday morning. Have a nice weekend.” And he left.
I sprinted to a pay phone to call my family and girlfriend to breathlessly tell them I was coming home. “Are you in trouble?” my mother asked. So did my girlfriend. I promised I would bring them all up to date when I got home.
A few hours later, I found myself back on the Greyhound bus, this time heading north. I wondered how the cosmic cards fell such that I ended up being selected by be trained as an interrogator. Had some of those psychological profiles we took identified me as a latent knuckle-breaker? I reasoned that the job of an interrogator is to question prisoners of war, and the only place I could think of that would have a supply of prisoners of war was Vietnam. Was this a good thing? All this was happening way too fast. I would wait until Monday to think about being an interrogator.
All I knew was that I was going home for the weekend and that for the first time in months I felt just a little bit like a human being.