A few weeks back I told you what an uplifting experience it was to be a drill instructor. And it was.
But I left something out. I told you about all the serious stuff, but being a DI wasn’t all serious. In truth, it was one of the happiest and most relaxed periods of my life. In fact, there were a couple of times when I laughed so hard I almost split a gut. There were some downright crazy things that happened.
I thought it might be fun to share a couple of them with you.
I’ll start with the two weeks I spent in re-enlistee basic.
Talk about a waste of time! I don’t know what the Air Force thought two weeks in “basic” would teach someone who had already served a hitch. Once you’ve been in uniform — any uniform — you know the ropes. You know all you need to know — for Air Force life.
I could see re-enlistee basic if someone went from the Air Force to the Marines or Army. Comparing Air Force basic to Marine basic is comparing the kiddie pool to the high dive. If I enlisted in the Marines and they told me they thought I could skip basic because I was already trained, I would tell them to think again.
But the other way around?
Most of the troops in my re-enlistee basic flight, unlike me, had served in other branches. They had no need for basic training.
It was ridiculous. Here was this fuzzy faced young DI taking us through “training.” He claimed that he was a re-enlistee too, but after the first day none of us believed it.
And what a bunch of kooks we were! Take the day we were marching along on our way to somewhere or another and Davy Baker, our child DI, was trying to get us to “count cadence.”
You’re marching along. You receive the command, “Count cadence, count!” You count, “One! Two! Three! Four! One! Two! Three! Four!” and then quit. There are variations, of course. We were working on one of them when someone up in the front rank got an idea. “Growl,” he said. “Growl when you finish counting.”
So we did. “One! Two! Three! Four! “One! Two! Three! Four! Grr-r-r-r!” We thought it would cure lil-old Davy Crocket, as our DI had come to be known by then, of any more cadence counting.
But the kid liked it. “That’s the spirit, men!” he said.
So we kept it up and soon became known as the “Tiger Flight.” The word went around among the basics, “Don’t mess with that Tiger Flight. They’re in training for special duty.”
They were right in a way. The field training area was not far from the base Civilian Club. And so while on field training one night some of the guys in the flight slipped away, liberated the Civilian Club, and came back blind drunk.
I suppose that could be considered special duty.
Another thing I will never forget was one day when I took my men through the “Green Giant,” an immense building that housed everything needed to get a basic started. They went in one end in civvies and came out the other end in uniform, with all their shots, a complete physical — tested, probed, and good to go.
Six 60-man flights went through the Green Giant each day. At one stage of the process one day, four flights — 240 men — were herded into a long line that snaked around a huge upstairs room. They were to get four shots, stopping at two tables to get a shot in each arm, and then walking forward 10 feet to a second pair of tables to get two more shots.
The first flight had their fatigue jackets and T-shirts off. The second flight had just their jackets off. And so on. My men were in the third flight, with one flight behind them.
The first of 240 men walked up to the first two tables. Two jaded looking medics stepped up and hit him with two needles. The man started to walk to the second pair of tables. He got just five feet. Then he went straight up in the air, landed on his back, and began yelling, “Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h!” as he flopped around like a fish out of water and frothed at the mouth.
In what seemed an instant, all the medics in the room were crowded around the kid, yelling at each other, holding him still, sticking tongue depressors between his teeth so he wouldn’t bite his tongue off, and just generally going crazy.
And the men ...?
Boom! Bang! Bam! Men passed out and hit the floor. First one. Then two or three. Then down they went in droves. I yelled to my flight, “Sit down! Put your head between your knees!” Other DIs followed suit. Everybody was running around. Total mayhem!
Ten minutes later they carried the kid out on a stretcher. And then came the hard part, Johnny: Convincing the rest of the troops that there was nothing wrong with the shots, that the poor kid who had flipped was an epileptic trying to slip into the service. Sure, we told them that, but how many of them do you think really believed us?
So here came the next guy in line, a little skinny black kid whose arms were so thin they looked like the needles could go clean through them. All four DIs in the room surrounded him, patted him on the back, told him he’d be all right. He shook so hard I could hear his teeth rattle. He could hardly talk.
Sweat poured off his face. His eyes were the size of sewer covers.
Nevertheless, on his own power, he walked up to those first two tables.
I watched his face. He eyed the medics as they gave him his two shots. Then he started walking forward. Every bone in his body shook. The way he walked — tiny tentative steps — said, “OK. Here I go. Here’s where the last guy went straight up in the air!”
But he made to the second set of tables and took his shots like the true man he was. That was one brave kid! As far as I’m concerned he earned some kind of medal that day. I wish he had been in my flight. I’d have seen to it he got some recognition.
Anyway. Drill Instructor. Best job I ever had.
Come to think of it, there should be kind of basic training like that for school kids. Oh, I don’t mean marching and all that. I mean a few weeks that prepare you for what’s coming, where they tell you stuff like, “Hey, kid. Be sure you don’t tuck your T-shirt into your undershorts in PE. Because if you do ...