Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dear William . . . (Second Letter)

Dear William,

You know, I don’t recall how I came in contact with the Army recruiter. I do remember recruiters speaking at my school, but don’t recall being terribly interested in their message. I had started off by talking to the Air Force recruiter but he made it clear the air force would not take me until I had graduated from high school and since I knew that I wasn’t going to survive another year at home that just wasn’t going to be an option.
I don’t recall if the Army recruiter came to me, or if I called him, I just recall him sitting in our house and talking to me. He assured me that the Army would take me as long as I passed their tests, my mother signed the paperwork, and I agreed to get my GED after going active duty. During all of these initial meetings, my mother had no idea that I had no intention of waiting until graduation - that conversation came later.

I clearly recall the day that the recruiter picked me up and drove me to the city to take the ASVAB test. He picked me up first, and then stopped to pick up two other young men who both appeared to be a little older than I was, and he even bought us breakfast on the way. I recall taking the test and being full of anxiety over much of it, especially the higher math that I hadn’t even had in school yet. In the end, I was unsure if I had done poorly or done well and so I was a nervous wreck as the recruiter picked the three of us up and we got into his car. He turned around in the drivers seat so that the two of us in the back seat could see him, and he clearly wasn’t thrilled. First he spoke to the other two guys as one.
“I’m sorry guys, but you didn’t make it. There are a number of books you can get at the library to study and improve your scores. You can also try the Marines – they might take you, but I’m not sure.”  When he turned to face me, my heart leapt in to my throat, because I just couldn’t bear the thought of failing and having no options.
“You really surprised me.” He told me. “Yours were the highest scores I’ve ever seen. I’m pretty sure that you will have your choice of what ever job you want in the Army.” I was so relieved that I pretty much collapsed in his back seat. He bought us all lunch and then took us home. A few weeks later and he once again made the drive to pick me up and take me back to the city and to the Military Entry and Processing Station (MEPS). Here they interviewed me, inspected my test scores, and gave me a long list of jobs that were available to me.

I don’t know if it was part of the game or what, but the man I was dealing with kept calling others over to look at my scores and the list of jobs that the computer said I was qualified for based on them, and they all seemed to be excited about it.
“Son, you qualify for pretty much anything you want.” He said, showing me the computer print out several feet long, line after line of jobs that I could apparently choose from.
I told him that I wanted electronics, and after a lot of looking, they came up with a job that I thought sounded awesome – Pershing Electronics and Material Specialist. The man explained that the Pershing Missile was a mid range nuclear missile and that I would be working on some of the worlds most advanced guidance and control systems and electronics. He said that they normally had videos describing and showing the various career fields but that he couldn’t find one for mine. That was OK though, because the job description sounded awesome and exciting and I had visions of my wearing a white lab coat and carrying a little black bag of tools, and working in a missile silo somewhere in the mid-west. Of course nothing could have been farther from the truth, but I didn’t know that yet. . .  

I completed and signed a truly awe inspiring amount of paperwork before we hit a major road block. At the age of only 17, I would have to have my mothers’ signature and approval to join. When I returned home, the conversation with my mother, and yes, my father as well, went through many levels of pleading, threats, and promises on both sides. My mother pleaded with me to stay and finish high school. As an incentive, she even promised to get me piano lessons, something she knew I’d dreamed of my entire life. That one actually made me pause for a moment, but then I realized that my mother had really never kept a single promise along these lines – why would she suddenly become reliable? She had never gone to a single event I’d participated at in school. No basketball games in Junior High, none of the few events I’d been a part of in stage band, and to the best of my memory, not one single event or award ceremony in my life. In the end, that hollow promise simply hardened my resolve. For quite some time she refused to sign the paper work until I finally convinced her that all she could accomplish was to annoy and inconvenience me, and possibly cause me to loose the desirable job that I was slotted for. Whether she signed the paperwork or not, I would join the army the very day that I turned 18. With hurt and hard feelings, yelling and tears, she did finally sign the parental approval.

One morning I was in the back room of my grandmother’s mobile home while she and my mother talked in the kitchen at the other end of the trailer, and I over heard part of their conversation.
“He will never make it there.” My grandmother was saying.
“Why not mom?” my mother asked her.
“Sharon, he’s never been in sports or shown any interest in that kind of thing. They’ll eat him alive.”
“Mom, he’s in great shape, he’ll be fine”
“You mark my words Sharon, he wont make it through basic training.” My grandmother grumbled.

One day after I turned 18, and a day or two before I should have started my senior year, I left for Basic Training.

Up until now, the recruiter had picked me up and taken me everywhere that I had needed to go during the recruitment process, but now that I had signed the contract and the Army owned me, all I got was a bunch of bus tickets in the mail. I’d never been 50 miles from home, never been in a town larger than about 8,000 people, and lived the last five or six years a long way from any kind of community, and now I was going to have to make my own way from Palm Springs to Los Angeles. Let’s just say that I was a bit nervous. It’s funny, I know darn good and well that my mother didn’t take me to the bus station by herself, and yet I don’t remember anyone else being there. I just remember my frail and tiny mother standing there with tears streaming down her face as my bus pulled away. Despite my best efforts, I also had tears running down my cheeks. To be truthful, even the very memory of it chokes me up so many years later while I write this.

In a couple of hours the bus pulled in to the bus station at one end of Los Angeles and this scared to death, 17 year old, timid desert rat got to make his way to the hotel clear across the city where the Army was putting me up for the night. I desperately tried to grow eyes in the back of my head so that I could see behind me as I walked through the city to make my way to the city bus stop. I’d never been in a city and I’d never ridden public transportation, and I was scared to death the entire time. Eventually I did make it to the hotel though, and I stood just inside the door for a minute or two and gawked like the ignorant hillbilly that I was. At the front desk they gave me a key for the room I was to stay in that night and so I headed for the elevator (another first for me) and made my way to the room. As I entered the room, I was shocked to see a man and woman in one of the two beds. I practically shouted “I’m sorry!” and backed quickly out of the room. I looked at the room number on the key, and the number on the door, and it sure seemed like I was in the right room. Not knowing what else to do, I headed for the front desk where I explained that there was someone in my room already. The woman behind the counter just laughed.
”Honey, he’s your roommate. You don’t get your own room - the army puts two people in each.”
Feeling a bit sheepish, I made my way back to the room where I knocked this time. I could hear some rustling and talking inside, and soon the door was opened by a young man, maybe two or three years older than I was.
“Yes?” he asked politely.
“Umm, I don’t know how to tell you this, but according to the front desk, you and I are both assigned to this room for the night.” I told him. He looked kind of sheepish himself, he glanced behind him into the room and then stepped aside and waved me in.
“Ok, no problem. Come on in!” he said with a grin.
As I entered the room, I immediately noticed two things. In one bed was a woman that I assumed was more or less naked being as how she had the covers pulled up to her neck. The next thing I noticed was that the other bed, presumably mine for the night, had clearly been “slept” in already. Apparently noticing where I was looking, and deducing what my thoughts were, he spoke up in an embarrassed tone of voice.
“Look man, I’m so sorry, but I didn’t know I was gonna have a roommate, and this is my last night with my girl friend, so . . . “ he sort of waved toward both beds and grinned. In all honesty, I was more than a little irritated at the thought of sleeping in a bed where he and his girlfriend had just said goodbye to each other, but I wasn’t about to raise a fuss or start anything right at the beginning of my Army adventure. Funny how it never occurred to me that I could have just called the front desk and got new sheets or moved to another room. Instead, we got a towel and laid it across the mattress. I honestly don’t remember anything else from that night. I don’t recall if I left the room for a while to give them privacy, I don’t recall if I had dinner, I don’t even recall going to bed. What I do remember was the phone ringing at 2 or 3AM to wake us up for the day of in-processing. I was emotionally and physically exhausted as we exited the hotels front door. It was about 3 or 4 AM and still dark outside when several dozen of us quietly boarded the bus that took us to the processing station. With my tired head leaning against the bouncing bus window, I was struck by how beautiful the city was as we descended a long hill into it, and all of its millions of twinkling lights were spread out before us.

At the entry station, I began to realize that all of the polite and nice treatment we had received up to this point was coming to and end. The word “please” had apparently just been removed from the vocabulary of everyone we encountered.
A man wearing what I would later learn was the Class B uniform, dark green slacks, light green shirt, and shinny black shoes stepped up into the buss
“All right, all right, let’s cut the chatter. As you get off of the bus, I want you to form a single line starting at the door over there.” He says while pointing at the door to the building.
“Keep the talking down and listen for instructions. When you hear them, follow them. This is going to be a very long day for you, so the faster you move and do what your told, the sooner we will all be done. Any questions?”  he asked in a tone that made it clear he didn’t really expect to get any.
This was one of the longest days of my life, full of one long line after another and one examination after another. In one line of about 50 men and boys, we were all told to take off all of our clothes, and so there we stood absolutely naked, shuffling forward one at a time. When you have a bunch of naked guys standing in a line, they have kind of a natural tendency to give each other as much “personal space” as possible and so the folks in charge kept yelling out “Tighten up the line. Move up closer. Come on boys, make your buddy smile!”
As shy as I was, my face was lit up like Rudolph’s red nose when I made it to the front of the line where an elderly man reached out and grabbed a very private part of my body that had not been touched by anyone but me in at least 13 years!
“Turn your head to the side cough.” He said. The only saving grace was that he didn’t look a whole lot happier than I was to be doing this . . .

At one point, I was pulled out of the middle of one of the countless and endless lines by a man.
“I was told that you hadn’t had a chance to see the video for your MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). Follow me and we’ll give you a look at it.” He told me with a smile, and then led me to a small office with a huge Betamax VCR and TV. He pushed the huge cassette into the machine, turned on the TV, pushed play, and then left me to watch it. My heart started to race as I anticipated seeing what I had just signed up to do for three years. The video started and my heart plummeted as I saw that there were not going to be any nice, clean, air conditioned missile silos, white lab coats, or little black bags in my future. Instead of my silo fantasy, I saw a dozen men in the forest wearing mud covered BDU’s and gas masks, scurrying around on a missile mounted on a huge tractor truck and trailer.
 “As a Pershing Electronics and Material Specialist, Army MOS 21 Golf, you will be responsible for maintaining, troubleshooting, and repairing the electronics and hydraulics of the erector launcher, programmer test station, and all associated support hardware for the Pershing Missile. . . “ and the narrator went on and on.
“Awe shit . . . “ I said to myself. One moment I had thought that I was headed for a nice clean silo, and the next thing I know, I’m gong to be wearing a gas mask, in the woods and the mud, and working on the hydraulics of a tractor trailer. Talk about a let down . . .
“Can I back out? Can I get a better job?” I asked myself, but it didn’t take me long to reach the conclusion that I wasn’t about to do anything that would risk my being delayed and being sent back home, even temporarily. I hadn’t realized that he had entered the room again and so I almost jumped out of my skin when I heard someone speaking.
 “So, what do you think?” he asked, all bright and bubbly, clearly thinking that I must be ever so thrilled to have qualified for such an awesome job.
“It looks fine,” I told him with the best smile I could dredge up. “Thank you for showing it to me.” We said a few more words to each other and then I followed him back out of the room where he returned me to the very end of the long line that he had earlier pulled me out of. Toward the end of that very long day, I, and a room full of other enlistees, stood and took the oath for the United States Military.


  1. Another wonderful piece!

    Clearly, you weren't as hotel saavy back then! ;)

  2. I don't remember my MEPS time quite so wonderfully as you did yours. Thanks for bringing back some old memories. Great story.