This isn’t the first time I’ve flown before, nor will it be the last. This is the first time I will be away from my family and friends for an extended period of time though, and any thought at all of everyone I’m leaving behind ties the knots in my gut up tighter. I used to love being alone, having some peace and quiet away from my family, tucked away in my bedroom. Sometimes all I’d do is lie on my back and stare at my walls, wondering where the next poster would go, or how I was going to get the next bottle cap to add to the collection stuck in my ceiling. Other times I would open my closet doors and pretend I had dozens of glamorous, silky dresses topping an impressive, spiky-heeled shoe collection, and wonder where I would go wearing such things. My room was my sanctuary, my escape into seclusion and privacy. But where I’m going now, where can I go for privacy there?
In every generation in my family going back to before the 1700’s, there has been someone, some cousin or great-uncle or even great-great-grandfather who served in the United States military. I have great-greats who served in Korea and WWI, a grandfather who was a boiler technician in the Navy, a grandfather who made Officer by the end of WWII, and my father: A Marine. I survived middle school holding on to the plan, the dream, that one day I too would serve the U.S. as active duty military and carry on the family tradition. Being the only child on my dad’s side of my family, it was inconceivable to me that I wouldn’t join up; enlist. The obstacle of junior high and high school seemed like such a small blip on my life’s map; almost inconsequential compared to what was to come: Boot camp.
Today I’m flying there, to boot camp, to turn in my civilian clothes and my first name in exchange for a uniform and my last four. Today I will be introduced to my future. As I sit on the large yet compact airliner watching the other kids from San Diego talk animatedly among themselves, I can’t help but notice how unconcerned they all seem; how relaxed. It’s all I can do to not give in to the tremors and keep my eyes from rolling in panic. Who was I kidding? I don’t want to be away from my family, to escape college and maturity. I don’t want to avoid adulthood by escaping to the ranks no matter how fiscally fucked I am without the military’s pay and benefits. I think, for such a brief moment it barely makes it to the long-term memory banks, that I am so out of my league boot camp will only be my failure. This one brief moment of long-sight that has me staring down a tunnel straight to a very probable outcome nearly breaks me.
“I’m not worried about Navy boot camp. I did some time with the Job Corps, and I tell you what…” That opening line comes from a kid named Sterling. He’s one of the other recruits from San Diego. The only thing that marks him Not San Diegan is that he’s pale as pale can get, and wears a new hemp necklace. A piece of insight here: All hemp necklaces are new in the beginning, but anyone who is anyone knows to wear it everywhere at all times; in the shower, in the pool, at the beach, to bed, to school, to work- everywhere. It’s the fastest way to wear it in and avoid the new hemp necklace look. I shake my head at Sterling’s attempts at bragging his bravery, shaking away my momentary panic and loss of confidence. If anyone is going to break, it’ll be Sterling. And who was I kidding anyways? Of course I’ll make it through boot camp. I am my father’s daughter, and my dad is tough. Boy scout, Eagle scout, Marine, prior Marine; professional hiker, camper, outdoors man, and handy-man. All this, and to top it off- he’s my dad, my blood. I’m tough.
Everything seems to blur together; the rest of the flight, the collection of our group at the U.S.O. office, the shuffling on to the bus that takes us to boot camp. It’s almost as if someone has taken control of my brain and body and given me a front row seat to the show. But I’m not interested and my attention wanders. It’s cold on the bus, and it’s the first thing I notice since blocking out Sterling’s bragging. Then I notice snow drifts alongside the bus as it turns onto a highway on-ramp. Snow? How could there be snow? It was just 70 degrees before our flight. It’s the beginning of spring for crap sakes, how could there be snow? It doesn’t scare me, but it worries me. I’ve heard of people being made to wait outside in unfavorable weather conditions for hours before being formed into their squads. I guess I’ve watched too many movies. But I snug down in my seat on the bus, cross my arms over my stomach and curl in on myself for extra warmth. People all along the outer-most seats start closing their windows, slamming them shut tight against the blizzard we’re driving through.
“If your window was open when you boarded the bus, and you have since closed it, OPEN IT BACK UP!” the driver shouts at the top of his lungs and nearly everyone jumps at the sudden amplitude. A chorus of sliding and slamming rings out and we are all freezing, once again. The girl beside me scoots closer and I don’t say anything but scoot closer to her, too, hoping to share some body heat. I’m beginning to think that survival mode would be wise to engage, but suddenly lights appear ahead and the bus slows to a stop. A guard climbs on to the bus just enough to see over the railing at all us newbies and demands we show him our ID’s. It’s mostly driver’s licenses I see go up, but some are holding social security cards, and only three are holding up green little rectangles I assume to be their legal citizenship cards. The guard takes his time, appearing oblivious to our collective teeth chatter and shivering, and after a long five minutes disembarks and waves the bus through the security gate.
“Welcome to NRTC, folks!” The driver shouts, and quicker than I thought possible we’ve arrived and the door opens again, this time to allow someone in a crisp tan uniform on board. The man is tall, not muscular but not thin, with a light brown mustache and large blue eyes. I’m half-way to smiling, thinking the man may be a few years younger than my dad but still good looking, when he opens his mouth and issues forth a stream of shouted orders.
“ON YOUR FEET! GRAB YOUR BAGS!! OUT THE DOOR! GO! GO! GO!” He’s moved far enough into the driver’s personal bubble to allow us to scramble, panicked and shaking on our feet, past him and off the bus into the frigid snowy night. There were no other directions he gave us but to exit the bus with our bags, so I stood off to the side to allow the other passengers their exit. Some had begun walking toward the building about twenty yards from where we are parked. Flood lights ring the roof, turning the short, squat brick building into our beacon, promising warmth and comfort from the constant fall of snow and biting cold winds.
“WHERE ARE YOU GOING? DID I SAY “GO TO THE LIGHT”? NO, I DID NOT! GET BACK HERE AND FORM UP!”
People are bewildered. “Form up”? What does that mean? Of course, those of us who’ve seen enough movies involving boot camp or the military in general know that “form up” means to get into rows and lines. But that isn’t all of us and the majority bumbles around aimlessly, hoping their feet figure out what their brain can’t and gets them to the right spot. The man in tan who shouted us from the bus, is now standing at the half-way point between the bus and the building with two others in black uniforms. He’s holding his hand to his forehead as if he couldn’t be more stressed about the new load of people the bus just brought; as if the hairball a cat could cough up and the kibbles a dog could puke up are worth more than us, the bunch still trying to figure out what “form up” looks like. I have a bad moment where I am nearly consumed with the urge to laugh, hysterically, until I can’t breathe. I want to laugh so bad my eyes tear up, my mouth twists up, and I nearly snort from the pressure building behind my sinuses. If only I could laugh!
After five or so minutes it becomes painfully obvious no one knows what “form up” looks like and the two in black uniforms take pity on us, usher us inside the short, squat beacon building. The inside is khaki on khaki with a little tan and beige mixed in; khaki walls, khaki ceiling, beige base boards, tan tile, tan grout. The blandness somehow manages to sink into a form of background noise while simultaneously making me ill. The near-complete lack of color does something funny to my head, gives me a sense of finality, a signal that this is really happening, more so than the flight or bus ride here has accomplished. The near-monochromatic attack of khaki and tan innards of the building say “You are here to stay” and “There’s no going back”. The room they place us in, full of desk-chairs, drinking fountains, pillars with 7ft tall rulers glued to them, and chalk boards running from wall to wall, all begs for color, for something other than tan, khaki, beige, or brown.
After all are called out and assigned into small groups- men with other men, women with other women- we are made to circulate the stations. The first station for my group is the urinalysis station. If we can’t provide a urine sample on command, we are made to drink from the fountains and walk circles around the perimeter of the room. Don’t disturb the other stations, stick to the walls, and when you’re ready to pee, raise your hand and someone in uniform will assist you. After I pee, assisted, in a room with toilets lining the walls and no stall doors to block the sight of twenty other women being assisted, I’m assigned to the medical station. Here I have to describe the appearance and location of all prominent and or distinctive marks, freckles, moles, scars, and or tattoos. I have to provide a family medical history and am asked if I am allergic to any medications, plants, or foods. No, no, and no, I smile.
“Don’t smile,” I’m told, and pointed to the next station: Shoe lacing. Of course this is rocket science, I am one of the last from my initial group to make it to this station and it is beyond my comprehension as to what I’m supposed to be doing. I look around but there isn’t anyone in uniform to assist me, and everyone in the desk-chairs around me is very intent on getting their shoelaces exactly right.
“What do we do?” I whisper to the guy next to me. He seems close to my age and a whole lot more approachable than the hag sitting behind me. The guy doesn’t look at me, or respond, but holds his shoe up in one hand, still holding his laces in the other in answer. With a small sigh and a hope for getting these apparently difficult laces done right the first time, I pull my shoes up and pull the laces out. I’ve finished the first shoe and am on to the second when a man approaches my desk-chair and stares at my hands as my fingers smoothly pull the laces through the eyes of my left shoe. He’s dressed in a track suit of navy blue with dark yellow stripes down the sides and the sleeves, navy blue and yellow personalized Nike sneakers, holding a short black baton-like looking object. His skin’s so dark he nearly blends in with his track jacket. In a blink I pull the last of the lace through the last eye when the baton swings down and pins my poor shoe to the desk top. I jump and pull my hands straight down to my lap. I’m so caught up in deciding whether I should look the guy in the eyes and give him a mean mug, or look down and act timid that I miss his question the first time he asks it.
“What?” I ask. My head snaps up and I realize the error in keeping my eyes trained away from whomever I’m supposed to be listening to.
“I asked, who told you to lace your shoes like that?” Still using his baton like an arm extension, he nudges my shoe this way and hat across my desk top until it tips onto its side.
“No one… Petty Officer.” I’ve assumed his rank based off another assumption- that the only military people who matter in boot camp are Petty Officers, Chiefs, and Officers. Some instinct told me he was more a Petty officer than Chief, and I guessed right- that or he chose to ignore my ignorance and let me slide.
“Perfect,” he nods to someone behind me on the opposite side of the room. I turn to look as I hear him continue, “Nine-Two-Three. You got a new one, Chief.” The man he says this to, is the same man who came on to the bus and shouted us off. The man in tan. Chief Key. I look back to the Petty Officer with the baton, but he’s already moved on to the other people seated around me, making comments and gesturing to the various places they need to go once they’ve finished lacing their sneakers. I’m worried about the division number. My recruiter mentioned something about special divisions starting with the number 9. Was I just placed in a special division? A hand lands on my shoulder as I hear Chief Key telling me there’s no need to move from my seat. “Division nine-two-three assembles here.” I purse my lips and try not to think too hard about what just happened.
“Chief,” I say, without looking up, though he’s removed his hand I’m hoping he’s still near.
“What, Recruit?” he asks.
“Did I just get placed in a nine-hundred division? For tying my shoes right the first time?”
“Sure did,” he replies, and with that, I hear his shoes squeak as he executes a one-eighty and walks away.
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