I’ve mentioned that the first part of the American Southwest I ever got to see was Wichita Falls, Texas. That happened because Sampson AFB, a basic training base located in frigid upstate New York, closed down and the drill instructors on the base were allowed to pick a new Air Training Command assignment.
I picked Sheppard AFB and left upstate New York on a miserable overcast day with the temperature hovering just above zero. A few days later I stepped off the train at Wichita Falls in beautiful sunny 75-degree weather. In February!
I reported into my squadron and was told to get settled in and come back the next day. When I reported back I was given a nice little NCO room to use as a DI’s office in one of three World War II barracks which were to be my responsibility, along with another drill instructor who had already arrived.
Smiling like the proverbial possum eating you-know-what, I stepped outside in the warm sun to take a look. Around the corner of the barracks I heard a DI sing out, “Squad, halt!”
What a voice! A crack like a rifle shot! I strolled around the corner and there, standing tall and proud, was a DI telling 20 or so new recruits where to go, what to do, and when to report back. I liked the cut of his jib.
He spoke it in a firm, clear voice that was loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that he sounded like he was trying to impress someone.
Let me tell you a few things about DIs. I know you’ve seen the ones in the movies and on television, and the way things are today maybe that’s the way they are — loud-mouthed foghorns who get in a recruit’s face and yell at him from six inches away. There were a few of those in my time too. They lasted only as long as it took to get rid of them.
In those days — the late ’50s—professional drill instructors, men who expected to spend the remainder of a 20- or 30-year career in the Air Training Command, were a special breed. They weren’t on temporary duty. They were members of a profession, a career field, a specialty, just like — say — a jet engine mechanic.
Men in that career field went through a school called GIS, General Instructor School, where the attrition rate was quite high, almost 50 percent when I went through it. Not everyone is cut out to indoctrinate recruits in the time-honored customs of military life. It’s not hard to find men who can teach the troops how to march, how to shoot, how to handle weapons in the field, how to live in the open, and how to stay alive in combat. But it is hard to find men who can instill their own love of country, and their own devotion to duty, in a new recruit. And when you find one, you can see without asking that he has come to accept the fundamental truth of military life: The mission comes first.
Men like that may be a lot of things — tall or short, laughing or serious faced, light skinned or dark, but the one thing they aren’t is loud-mouth blowhards. And when they drill the troops you won’t hear a whiskey voice bellow out, “To the rear, hooh!”
That’s a movie DI.
If a real DI sounded like that, he’d be laughed off the drill field inside of five minutes. Listen to any real drill instructor and that same command would be, “To the rear ...” followed by something between the loudest Heimlich maneuver you’ve ever heard and the crack of a high-powered hunting rifle.
DIs tend to judge each other on, for one thing, just how close they can come to that rifle crack. Paul J. Maynard — soon to be known to me as Hondo — came closer to that rifle crack than any other human being I have ever met, and as he dismissed those troops that morning, I saw 5 feet, 11 inches of military. He looked and sounded like something right out of the drill manual.
And he was to be my partner for the next two years.
He was also nuts, but I learned to live with that.
Never in my life have I worked in double harness with anyone where the combination was so perfect. We were complete opposites — in everything except our love of country and our profound respect for the uniform we wore.
I was quiet, meditative, and fundamentally shy, though you’d never know it as I stood talking to the men. Hondo, on the other hand, was not quiet. He was absolutely the noisiest critter I ever met. And there wasn’t a shy bone in his lanky muscular body.
Whether any of that had to do with the fact that I was born in New York City and Hondo was brought up on farm in Missouri I don’t know, but we were Yin and Yang, as close as two brothers and bonded together like a pair of bricks in a wall.
I can’t honestly say that Hondo ever learned anything from me, but let me tell you I learned a lot from him — about things I really wanted to know. In addition to being totally nuts, Hondo was the finest marksman I ever met. I thought I was pretty good with pistol or rifle ’til I met him, but his shooting was a thing of beauty, and he wasn’t shy about teaching me every blessed thing he knew.
But he WAS nuts!
One day, for example, Hondo and I, and another DI named Sullivan, were on our way out to a ranch out near Seymour, Texas, where we had permission to go plinking anytime we wanted. Hondo was calmly driving his ’55 Chevy past a stand of trees when all of a sudden he yelled something, slammed on his brakes, slid onto the soft shoulder, yanked up the emergency brake while we were still moving, grabbed his loaded .270 rifle, opened his door, bailed out, and left two guys sitting in a still rolling car with their mouths hanging open.
When the car finally stopped rolling Sullivan and I got out and looked around.
No Hondo. No nothing. Just two confused guys looking around and wondering what the hay had happened.
But 15 minutes later ...
Uh-oh! Running out of space. See you next week.