This is the third blog in a series of letters that I wrote to my son when he was in the US Navy basic training. I would suggest that you may want to read the other two first so that this will make better sense:
The flight from LA to Fort Sill Oklahoma had a couple of amusing moments. Of all things, I was reading one of the Airplane disaster novels and the recruit next to me kept looking at me, then the book, and shaking his head in disgust. This flight landed in Dallas where I was to catch a connecting flight to go the rest of the way to Ft Sill. I was sitting in the gate area waiting for my next flight, and was of course in awe of the beautiful women walking through the airport, most well dressed and on their way to somewhere in the world for meetings with family or colleagues. The man sitting next to me in the gate area apparently noticed my head swiveling back and forth and made a comment about it.
“The women here are gorgeous!” I told him, blushing and embarrassed.
‘Yep, they are. The only problem is that most of them know it!” he said with a laugh before returning to what ever it was he was reading.
When it came time to board the airplane to Ft Sill Oklahoma, I started to regret reading a novel about an airline disaster because they boarded us on a little propeller driven airplane that spent the entire hour or so bouncing up and down so badly that the flight attendant wasn’t allowed to get up. Several of the guys were laughing and making bets about whether the plane was going to make it or not. Once the plane landed and I made my way down the stairs, the first thing I noticed was the heat and oppressive humidity. Coming from a lifetime in the Mojave Desert, I was of course used to heat, but humidity was something entirely new to me. I swear I felt like I was swimming down the airplanes steps as much as walking down them and this made the comment I heard from someone behind me that much more ironic.
“Wow, it sure is dry here!” he said. I wondered where the hell he had come from that he thought that this was dry?!
Not far away from the plane was a truck and trailer - more or less a military 18 wheeler. I didn’t know it yet, but this would turn out to be their preferred method for transporting soldiers from place to place. They opened the back door of this large trailer and herded us all up into it. “Herded” turns out to be a good word for it too, as it was referred to as a cattle truck. Inside the trailer were no seats, but there were poles from floor to ceiling every few feet that you could hold on to as the truck turned corners and tried to throw you off of your feet. In very few minutes we arrived at Ft Sill and we all exited the trailer. The people that met us there were very calm and polite and soon were handing us blankets and pillows and showing us to bunks. I fell asleep thinking to myself that this wasn’t going to be so bad after all. What I didn’t know was that this was just the reception station – the real fun wasn’t going to start until we got to our training unit.
The next morning they once again had us up well before sunrise. A young soldier, probably a specialist or corporal, got us all together outside and tried to form us all into something resembling a formation. We spent the rest of the day going from one huge, hot, and oppressive warehouse to another collecting duffle bags, uniforms, boots, and other gear. The combination of long lines, heat, humidity, and air filled with the chemical reek of the gear they were issuing to us, all combined to make this a fairly miserable day.
I had gotten my hair cut before leaving, because someone had told me that I didn’t want to arrive at basic training with long hair. Well, that turned out to be a complete waste of time and money because it didn’t matter what you looked like or how long your hair was when you arrived, they cut it all off. The old man that cut my hair pushed the shaver so hard against my scalp that the entire hair cut literally hurt. Every single one of us left the barber chair doing the same exact thing – rubbing our hands over our now very bald heads. After the haircut, we all entered a long line to get our photograph taken for our military ID, and I couldn’t help noticing that everyone was frowning and looking as mean as they could for their pictures. Everyone frowned until I got up there, because when my turn came, I grinned like an idiot for my picture. At least I did right up until the shouting started.
“What in the HELL is wrong with you son? You think this is fun? You think this is a God damned game or something? You get your happy ass to the end of that God Damned line and when and if you make it back up here, you had better not be smiling!” The man shouting at me was huge, looked mean as a junk yard dog, and as far as I could tell, he really was mad as hell at me. I took my “happy ass” to the end of the line of about 100 soldiers and by the time I got back up to the front again, I was most definitely NOT smiling.
Now bald, in possession of a military ID complete with a picture of a very mean and angry me, and loaded down with two duffle bags full of equipment and gear, they separated us according to the units that we were assigned to and loaded us up on light green busses for the trip to our actual training units. If I remember right, I was in Bravo Battery 7th training battalion. On the ride there, everyone on the bus started talking about what to expect when we got there. Apparently many had been briefed by family members that had “been there, done that” and they were telling everyone that the Drill Sergeants were gong to start screaming at us as soon as the bus stopped, and that we had better get ready to get off the bus as quickly as possible. I pulled my gear a bit closer to me and made sure I was ready to heft and carry it in a hurry. As the bus pulled into the parking lot, I could see through the window that there were at least half a dozen men standing there waiting for it. Unlike all of us in our new and heavily wrinkled uniforms, these men looked absolutely picture perfect, with not a single wrinkle on their uniforms, very deep and sharp creases in their olive drab pants and shirts, and large brown “Smokey the bear” type hats cocked at a very precise angle on their heads. Before the bus had even come to a complete stop, the driver had opened the door and one of them was stepping up on to the still moving bus.
“All right, listen up! Take your gear and move to the formation area under the barracks.” He said this very calmly, no yelling, and with no hostility at all, but a lot of the guys still panicked as the Drill Sergeant stepped back off of the bus. They were throwing duffle bags and other gear out of the windows, and several of them were crawling out of the windows and out of the emergency exit. The drill sergeants stood there watching, some of them shaking their heads, and some of them outright laughing.
“Take your time, take your time!” shouted one of the drill sergeants with a laugh in his voice.
I was hefting my two duffle bags full of new gear, and my own civilian bag with the few things I had brought with me over to the designated area when I hear someone shouting at us from the adjacent unit, a couple of hundred yards away.
“You’ll be ssssssoooooorrrrrryyyyy!!!!!!”
To this very day, almost 30 years later, I can still hear that assholes voice in my head, and I swear, if I could find him today I’d smack him.
Not much later, they had us separated by battery and by platoons, and then taught us how to make a formation. There we were, all in evenly spaced rows and columns, each of us with our gear stacked in front of us.
“All right trainees, take your duffle bags and empty them out in front of you. I want everything out of the bags! All right, you see the two wet weather bags – the bags with the rubber coating inside? These are the bags that are going to keep your things dry in the rain, so you are going to inspect it for holes. Take one and put your head in it. . . “
I was still digging through my pile of gear and looking for the bags he was talking about when I saw another trainee holding the bag open above his head and peering inside it. The drill sergeant practically ran to him, grabbed the bag, and yanked it down onto his head.
“I said ‘put your head in it, not under it, not near it, IN it!” he was shouting not more than two or three inches away from the bag that now covered the trainees head. About that time I found my own bag and had my head deep inside it, inspecting it for pin holes. Over the sound of my own breath in the bag I can hear the drill sergeant yelling again.
“Do you see any light coming through the bag?”
I hear a variety of responses “No Sergeant”, “No”, “No Sir”
“Sir? SIR?! Which one of you called me sir?” I still have the bag over my head and so I can’t see him, but it sounds like he’s moving around while he talks.
“I am NOT a sir! I WORK for a living God Damn it! My name is Drill Sergeant King. YOU will refer to me as Drill Sergeant. Do you understand?!”
“Yes drill sergeant!” everyone says weakly
“What? I can’t hear you!” he shouts again
“Yes Drill Sergeant!” we all shout quite a bit louder, but apparently not loud enough.
“God Damn it, I STILL can’t hear you! Sound off like you’ve got a pair!” I still have my head in the damned bag and can’t see him, but I think he’s just behind me, and so I shout for all I’m worth.
“YES DRILL SERGEANT!” we all shout at once, voices reverberating off of the walls quite impressively.
“Better!” he says with grudging approval. “Now, do you see any light entering the bag through pin holes?”
“NO DRILL SEGEANT!” we all shouted at the top of our lungs. It’s really kind of impressive to hear the sound of 30 or so young men shouting as loud as they can in an enclosed space!
Hours later we had our web gear and Steel pot helmet and plastic liners put together, everything else inventoried and stuffed back into two duffle bags, and were told to hump it all up the stairs and into the 60 man bay we would all be calling home for the next couple of months. Among countless other rules, we were informed that we were never to walk when going from place to place, even when it came to the stairs. If we were taking stairs, we had damned well better be double timing (running) on them. Have you ever tried to “run” carrying at least 100 pounds of gear? In the next few hours and days, we learned many of the very “basic” skills considered to be of vital importance to the Army.
- Marching, marching, marching, and more marching.
- Physical Training (PT)
- How to function on no sleep when utterly exhausted
- How to run a floor buffer.
- How to run, and run, and run . . . mile after mile. . .
- How to make a bunk – the Army way!
- How to make a room and common bathroom that 60 men were sharing look like it was brand new and had never been entered.
- How to make black leather boots shine so well you could see your face in them after they had been dragged across rocks, soaked in rivers and pits full of water, coated in mud, and caked with the salt from your own sweat.
When we had time away from these vital and important skills, they sometimes taught us things like the chain of command, marksmanship, first aid, map reading, etc, etc.
Most of the rest of my memories of basic are snap shots, just quick little snippets that are now forever out of context because I no longer recall everything that lead up to them or followed them.
Why is Smokey the Bear yelling at me?
Sitting in a huge class/conference room with a couple of hundred other guys shortly after arriving at basic, and the drill sergeants are picking out trainees and yelling at and belittling them. I was utterly shocked at the yelling, because believe it or not, I hadn’t expected it or known that it was coming. It’s now so hard for me to believe that I had ever been that naïve, but I was raised almost entirely by women and hadn’t had the foggiest idea what basic training was going to be like. I had never seen a war movie, never seen a movie or read a book that included anything about basic training, and hadn’t consulted with any of the males in my extended family that had gone through basic. I quite literally hadn’t known that people were going to be in my face and screaming at me. To see grown men, wearing Smokey the bear type hats, jumping up and running on tables to get in front of young men and shout at him just floored me.
Several weeks later we were having a class in the same huge room mentioned above. With very long hours and very little sleep, it was often very difficult to stay awake when sitting still in a class room, and apparently one of the trainees fell asleep. The drill sergeant steps directly off of the stage and onto the front row of desks to make his way to the sleeping trainee. Of course he scared the hell out of the kid, had him AND the guys on each side of him do a bunch of push ups, and then he gets back up in front of the class. This drill sergeant came from the Philippines I think and so had a heavy accent. When he got back up to the podium he points at the trainee and then the rear of the class room.
“You go stand back of class! I never seen trainee fall asleep while standing!” he said with an evil laugh. Not five minutes later we all jerk around when we hear a loud “Thump” from the back of the room. I’ll be damned if the trainee hadn’t done exactly what the drill sergeant had never seen and fallen asleep while standing on his feet. When he fell, he fell flat on his face giving himself a bloody nose.
“I was wondering. . . “
A trainee was talking to the same drill sergeant I mentioned above.
“Drill sergeant, I was just wondering . . . “ the trainee started to say before the drill sergeant interrupted him.
“You were what? You were wandering? You like to wander huh? Well since you like to wander, why don’t you wander around the battery a few times and double time it!”
Slide for Death
We did a number of obstacle courses through basic training and some of it was actually fairly dangerous. They were referred to as “confidence courses” because the intent was to build your self confidence. I think that most of us really enjoyed these things because it was a nice break from the monotony of the class room, the constant running, and constant marching. Considering that I had spent the last half a decade living in the mountains and doing crazy things in the rocks with my brother, they didn’t really scare me in the least, but there were those that had a real fear of heights. One of the obstacles was called the “Slide for Life”. It consisted of a tower with a heavy gauge rope going from the top at about a 45 degree angle to the ground a few yards away. The idea was to climb to the top of the 30 foot poles, grab the rope with your hands, Swing your feet out to the rope, then slide down it ground.
One of the trainees was fairly over weight and not in the best of shape, and he was scared to death. He got to the top of the tower and completely froze up. They yelled at him, teased him, and even threatened him, but he wouldn’t move. Not only would he not slide down the rope, but he wouldn’t even make his way back down the tower. Along with the taunts, one of the drill sergeants started throwing rocks at him. At long last the kid grabbed the rope with his hands, and swung his feet out to hook them over the rope. The problem is, he failed to hook his feet on the rope so they swung back like a pendulum, and then he let go . . .
He fell the entire 30 or more feet and landed face down, making absolutely no attempt to break his fall. To this day, the sound he made hitting the ground sends shivers up and down my back. About half a dozen drill sergeants converged on the kid who wasn’t moving, and as far as we could see, wasn’t breathing at all. Soon, an ambulance arrives and they cart him off, never having moved the entire time he was being cared for or loaded into the ambulance.
At the end of the day, confidence course completed by all, they had us in formation.
“Private Smith (I don’t recall his name) has died. He died because he failed to have faith and courage in himself and his abilities. He died because he was a coward. He died because YOU did not properly motivate him!” he paused for effect, slowly looking at each of us.
“Fortunately, the United States understands that training soldiers can be hazardous. We are therefore authorized a mortality rate of three percent per training cycle. This means that in all likelihood, two or three more of you will die before basic training is complete!”
Talk about motivation . . .
Today I would have never have believed that one, but at that age and experience level, I bought it hook, line, and sinker, and so did quite a few others. I wound up stationed at Ft Sill after training and several months after I graduated basic I saw that kid on the post. He was still using crutches, but he was alive and well.
Racism and the Army
In some parts of basic training, they focus on you as an individual. Later, they focus on team work and failing or succeeding as a team. To help instill this in you, they start punishing you all as a group if one of you screws up.
We were standing in a platoon formation one morning, and when in formation, you are not allowed to speak. None the less, with no sergeants around, there are always going to be a few that just have to chatter.
My platoon had two drill sergeants. One was an older white guy who was a little on the pudgy side, relatively easy going (as easy going as a drill sergeant can be), and maybe just a bit of a nerd type. I don’t recall his name so I’ll call him Doe. The other and primary drill Sergeant was Dennis King. He was over six feet, one of the blackest men I’d ever seen, and mean as hell. HIS name I will never forget.
So there we are in formation, waiting for the drill sergeant to come back out of his office, and people start to argue quietly.
“Drill Sergeant Doe is prejudiced!” someone says.
“Like hell! Drill Sergeant King is prejudiced!” someone else replies. Soon they are arguing back and forth, each giving examples of why they thought each drill sergeant prejudiced. Sick to death of push ups, and knowing that there would be a lot of them in our immediate future if any of the drill sergeants heard the talking in formation, I finally spoke up.
“Why don’t you both shut the hell up! They are BOTH prejudiced OK? Now drop it before we get more push ups!” I loudly whispered toward the two that were arguing. For the next minute or two, things actually did get quiet, and then drill sergeant King exited the building to stand in front of us. Much to our surprise, we hear the voice of a trainee from the front of the formation.
“Drill Sergeant?! The private requests permission to speak?!” he shouted loudly.
“Granted!” the drill sergeant replied grudgingly.
“Is it right for a private to call a Drill Sergeant Prejudiced?”
“What? WHAT?! Why?!” the sergeant yelled at him.
“Drill Sergeant – Private Huddle called you prejudiced!”
Awe shit . . . (and no, “shit” was not the word I really thought of)
They hauled me off in front of the commanding officer and at least four drill sergeants and screamed at me for at least an hour about making false accusations, the seriousness of making that kind of charge, etc, etc. All kidding aside, if I’d had ammunition I would have shot that punk at the front of the formation. Another life lesson learned – not everyone is your friend, and people WILL go out of their way to screw you over for no reason.
Toward the middle and end of basic training, most of the people and platoons were given short passes to go to the small store across the street for detergent, personal hygiene stuff, and that sort of thing, but mostly for the sheer pleasure of getting an hour or two away from the drill sergeants. I never got a single one. The first chance for a pass came and went and found my entire platoon stripping and waxing our floors – what the army calls a “GI Party”. While we were scrubbing and mopping, we got to watch the other three platoons head off for a few minutes of peace.
For the next chance for a short pass, drill sergeant King had us all lined up in front of the Pull Up bar. He would eyeball you and give you a number of pull ups he thought you should be able to do. If you met that goal, you got the pass, if you didn’t meet the goal, you didn’t get to go across the street.
“Ten!” the drill sergeant told one guy. After he barely got the ten out, the drill sergeant would say “Pass Granted” and the lucky guy would head across the street. Apparently unimpressed with the next guy in line, the drill sergeant gave him only five, which he just barely managed to complete.
“Twenty” he said with a grin when my turn came up. I almost smiled, because compared with unloading and stacking an entire 18 wheeler truck and trailer loaded with bails of hay, twenty pull-ups wasn’t going to be much of a problem for me. Still, at this point in basic, we are all exhausted and things that you might think would be easy and of no consequence can often be seriously difficult. In very short order though, I had completed the required twenty and dropped to my feet.
Instead of the sought after “Pass granted” phrase, drill sergeant King said “Twenty more!” This kind of surprised everyone, most of all me, because he hadn’t done this with any other trainee. I jumped back up and grabbed the bar, and gave him twenty more pull ups, then I dropped to my feet again. The drill sergeant just stared at me for a moment.
“Twenty more. . . “ he growled out.
“Yes drill sergeant!” I yelled and jumped for the bar again. By now I was working hard and it wasn’t in the least bit easy or amusing, but still I managed twenty more before dropping to my feet panting. Once again he stared at me for a moment.
“Pass denied!” he said calmly.
I just couldn’t stand it and did something you never, ever, EVER do in basic – I called him out on it.
“But Drill sergeant, you said if we did the pull-ups you gave us, we would get the pass?!”
He walked up to me and leaned in so close that the rim of his Smokey the bear hat was touching my sweaty forehead before he spoke.
“I lied!” he said quietly and then gave me smile as he turned and walked away.
“Take six miles and call me in the morning”
It was September when I arrived at Ft Sill Ok, so we had the pleasure of living in Oklahoma during the worst of the summer heat, and then had the added pleasure of living through the fall and part of winter. When we hit the bunks one night, it was after a miserable day in the heat. The very next morning found us in PT formation, wearing shorts and T-shirts, and freezing to death with sleet blowing sideways. Coming from the desert, I’d never even seen sleet, let alone stood in it wearing shorts. Still, this was the US Army, and it never rains on the US Army, so we did our PT that morning while freezing in shorts. I shouldn’t have been terribly surprised when I started getting sick the day after that. As luck would have it, two days after that, we went to our first night fire at the range, and for our first long road march back. Six miles, in the dark, after a long day at the range, and yours truly got to make the entire march with a fever of 103 degrees. That was probably one of the most miserable few hours of basic training for me, but I made it. Later in basic we did a 21 mile road march in the heat of the day, and I thought it was easy compared to the six miles that I had done with a fever.
“Get out of the foxhole son”
My entire life I have been more or less blind out of my right eye. Having been that way my entire life, I’d never known that there was anything unusual about the fact that everything was terribly blurry in my right eye. Never having told her that I had a problem, my mother hadn’t taken me to an optometrist until I was 16 or 17, and by then it was too late. I guess if they had caught it early, they could have corrected the whole problem just by making me wear a patch over my good eye for a while to force the lazy eye to adapt, but by the time they had discovered my problem, it was too late.
It’s something that would never occur to you until you encounter it, but this caused me a serious problem when it came to firing a M16 rifle. With all of the fire arms I had fired growing up, I could fire them right handed, and still get my left eye down to the sites to see what I was shooting at.
The M16 however is designed just perfectly so that you can not do this.
If you are right handed, the army teaches you to place your right check against the stock, nose up against the charging handle, and then of course you site with your right eye. Being right handed it was natural for me to hold the rifle that way, but when it came time to site with my right eye, I was blind as a bat! I was in the four foot deep fox hole, desperately trying and failing to reposition the rifle so that I could get my left and good eye down to the sites, when a sergeant struck me hard in the back of the helmet with a range paddle.
“Private, what in the hell are you doing?” he demanded. In a few moments I had explained my dilemma to him, and in the very first visible sign of human feeling I had yet seen from a drill sergeant, he shook his head sadly.
“Get out of the foxhole son, your going home. There’s no room in the Army for a soldier that can’t fire his weapon.” He said sadly. The first thing that stunned me was the honest humanity and disappointment the drill sergeant had just expressed. The next thought I had was of my going home a failure.
“Drill sergeant, I’d like to try it left handed!” I shouted, close to tears of frustration at the very thought of heading home. I was standing in a four foot deep foxhole looking up at him, and he was staring down at me shaking his head. He stood there a moment with my future in his hands. It took him a moment, but I’d swear I saw a look of respect creep into his face at the thought of my not giving up.
“Go ahead son.” He said quietly, and then stood back to give me one last shot. Just reading that phrase “go ahead son” doesn’t put it in to perspective. Drill sergeants do NOT refer to the trainees as “son” and they sure as hell don’t act human and show sympathy. It was immediately clear to me that he was sure that the weeks I had already spent in training had been wasted and I was going home. While everyone else at the range was just worried about trying to learn the basics of marksmanship, my entire future was suddenly at stake. The good news was, though I was awkward and slow, I did manage to just barely make a passing score firing left handed for the first time in my life. My army career may someday come to an end, but it wasn’t going to be today.
I remember when we learned how to rappel – descend cliffs and buildings by rope. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. That very first moment, convincing yourself to back over the edge of a building or cliff while hanging from a rope really takes quite a bit of will power. After all, it goes against every survival instinct that you have. Still, once you have convinced yourself to go over the edge, it’s a huge rush and a hell of a blast! At Ft Sill, they started us off on a two or three story tower to learn the basics. Once you have the basics, you move on to rappelling down Medicine Bluff – the very same cliff that the Indian chief Geronimo jumped off of to avoid capture. We are talking about several hundred feet of sheer cliff face, and that moment going over the edge was the very definition of a “pucker up” moment. Once over the edge and descending the cliff, it was the most fun you will ever have in your life. Once again though, most people had not grown up in the mountains like I had, and they had a healthy respect for heights. Me not so much . . . I’d get to the bottom and then run like hell to get back in the line climbing back up to the top so I could do it all over again. The third or fourth time I headed back up the cliff a Drill Sergeant caught on and stopped me.
“Private Huddle, haven’t you done the cliff already?”
“Yes Drill Sergeant, but it’s a fucking blast and I’d like to do it again!” I replied. He looked at me a moment.
”Carry on. . . “ he said with a smile.
”Carry on. . . “ he said with a smile.
E.T. phone home
It probably seems so strange to you, but when I went through basic training, cell phones were the size of a brick and cost thousands of dollars – only the very wealthy had them and the rest of us were still stuck firmly in the “pay phone” era. One young and enterprising individual had a calling card – essentially a credit card for making phone calls, thus saving you the hassle of getting ten or more dollars of quarters just to make a call. For a small fee, he would initiate the call, punch in the calling card number, and you could call home for about half the price of placing the call yourself. I should have known that it was too good to be true, because one day they stopped training and gathered us in formation. They explained that this guy had stolen the calling card, and that all of us that had let him place calls for us were now accomplices. As every single one of us was slated to work on the Pershing Missile (a nuclear weapon) and were required to have a top secret clearance, this literally meant that our careers may have just ended. In this case though, the Army was going to me lenient – if you confessed to the calls you had made, and paid for them, you would have amnesty. If they had to track you down to get you to pay for your calls however, you were done and would go home after a brief visit to Leavenworth.
The entire platoon got in to the line to go pay Ma Bell. . .
The day that I graduated from basic training was a mixture of intense pride and pleasure, mixed in with the worst disappointment of my life. On that day, I was no longer a desert rat or a “Trainee” - I was a soldier in the United States Army! The downer was that not one person I knew, loved, or cared about was there to see it or share it with me. There was a crowd of hundreds of family and loved ones there to see the ceremony - fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and wives. They were all there for other people, and not a single person there to share in my moment, or to congratulate me, or to say “well done”. I don’t think it was that no one cared, it was just that they had no idea what that day meant to a soldier. I’m sure it also had something to do with the fact that the cost of the trip was more than anyone in my family could have afforded. As most of the others headed off for a day with their loved ones that had come to see them graduate, I returned to my bunk, packed my things, and caught a ride to a unit across post where my advanced training was to begin.
“Where oh where can my baby be?”
Basic training is where they teach you, well, the “basics” of the military. Things like customs, courtesies, the rank structure, first aid, and countless other things that all soldiers are supposed to know. Advanced Individual Training (AIT), is where they teach you the skill you signed up for, in my case, how to program and operate the Pershing missile, and maintain and repair the electronics, hydraulics, and anything else associated with the system. Since the school was something like eight months long, they couldn’t continue to treat you like they had in Basic, so you did have a lot more freedom. One Saturday I found out that they had these things called “Recreation Centers” where you could play pool, other games, and even check out guitars, and so off I went. The guitars were total crap – cheap to begin with and now antiquated and beat to hell. Still, it was the first time in months I’d had a guitar in my hands and I was delighted as I grabbed it and headed outside to find someplace I could sit in peace. The first thing that I saw as I walked around the building was an older guy sitting on the grass playing guitar. I can’t help but laugh now calling him older because he was all of 27 years old, but since I had just turned 18, he seemed old to me at the time. He had a small crowd of 6 or 7 people sitting around him, and as I approach I can hear them singing “where or where can my baby be” – the lyrics to one of my favorite songs “Last kiss”. I went and took a seat with them and started picking out the chords with him. This turned out to be the start of one of my most cherished friendships and his name was William Mozzetti, and he is in fact the most significant factor in your being named William.
One evening, a few of the guys were going to the snack bar to drink beer, and they invited me to go with them. The last time I had tried beer, I had literally gotten physically sick with the first and only swallow. I don’t know if I really thought it tasted that bad or if I just had too much emotional baggage associated with beer, but I had serious reservations in trying it again. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to tell the guys no, and so I joined them. Surprise, surprise, I found that I quite liked beer all of the sudden. Looking back on this 25 years later, I consider my trying beer again to be one of the worst mistakes I have ever made in my life.
The school was fairly difficult and there was definitely a lot of pressure to perform. A lot of the guys didn’t seem to care much, but I did devote some effort to studying and began to do fairly well. Quite often I would refuse to go out with the guys the night before a test so that I could study and so I could be at my best the following morning for the test. One night before a test though, I gave in to the ribbing and taunts and went out with the guys. What do ya know, I actually did better than usual on the test because I wasn’t so nervous and tense. It set a bad precedent though, as I made it a point to go out with the guys on test nights after that.
By now it was no big surprise to me when I discovered that the guys at the MEPS station had misled me about what I would be working on. I had been told that I would be working on some of the most advanced guidance and control equipment in the world. The reality was that the only thing I was allowed to do with the missile itself was to do preventative maintenance on it, mate it (put it together), and to trouble shoot any problems to the point of proving the fault was in the missile itself. If the fault was actually in the missile, the offending section was sent off to higher maintenance. More or less, I went from the promised “You will be working on some of the most advanced guidance and control electronics in the world” to the reality of troubleshooting and repairing only 1960’s electronics.
Surprisingly enough, I placed 4th or 5th in the advanced training and as a result I was stationed right there at the school where I helped maintain the equipment being used to teach the very course I had just graduated from. One of the most important things that I took away from the school? Having devoted just a little effort, I had placed near the top of the class, and that kind of surprised me! For the first time in my life, I made it a point to devote myself in classes and schools, and I have literally graduated every single class, academy, and school I have ever attended since then as the number one highest scoring student in the class. ALL of them. Who would have thunk it. . .
The moral of the story? If you really try and really devote yourself, you can excel and go much farther than you might have thought you could.
I am so terribly proud of you William – hang in there – you are earning a future for you and for your children!