During a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, an intriguing question popped up: “What was the worst day of your life not related to someone’s injury or death?” Although I couldn’t pinpoint a definite event, one of the most traumatic times proved to be my first day on the “Hill” during my Army basic training in 1969.
We spent our first three days at Fort Ord at the reception center, completing the necessary processing. Fort Ord was located in Northern California, two hours south of San Francisco. It encompassed the basic training site for new recruits from the Western states. The main job for the sergeants assigned to the reception center was a simple one—get the “new meat” prepared for their short truck ride to the “Hill,” the place where we’d train. Getting “prepared” meant having our heads shaved (an extremely traumatic experience for us longhairs, who believed our extended locks contained the secret for picking up on chicks); being issued our stylish olive-drab (OD) Army fatigues; filling out dozens of forms and signing official Army documents which I really didn’t understand. We also learned the proper way to salute officers, received numerous, painful shots designed to protect us from diseases common to our new occupation, and discovered an even deeper meaning of the phrase “verbal abuse.” The highlight of my three days at the Reception Center was the popular physical exam, complete with the “turn-your-headand- cough” maneuver.
I woke up that morning at 7 a.m. I would not sleep for the next thirty-eight hours. At 8 a.m. on August 31, 1969, as we stood at attention for morning formation, the sergeant in charge commanded us to orderly board the trucks parked behind the barracks. The 160 headshaven recruits piled onto the three colossal trucks waiting to transport us to “Hell on Earth”—at least that’s what the sergeants had been calling the Hill for the last three days. I jumped onto the second truck and took a seat toward the back.
I had learned one valuable lesson during my first few days as an Army recruit- -blend in. You didn’t want to be noticed or singled out for anything—your weight, height, voice, accent, habits, birthplace, race, religion, or physical abnormalities. Be average. Recognition is bad, anonymity is good, I had come to believe. Hearing your name screamed out by a drill sergeant was very bad, but hearing someone else’s name shouted out was a welcome relief. During the next eight weeks of training, I’d learn numerous, useful rules that would serve absolutely no purpose outside of the Army structure.
Within seconds of our trucks coming to a stop in front of the barracks, a swarm of drill instructors (DIs) began ominously circling our cattle trucks, screaming obscenities and barking orders to our herd of bug-eyed, terrified sheep. Recruits scrambled from the trucks, jumping out the back and off the sides of the vehicles. More rabid DIs stood on the cement slab in front of the building, growling and pointing at the disoriented group. It was chaos personified. After the DIs had corralled all 160 of us, they stood us at attention in semi-straight rows of ten. Then the company commander appeared and addressed the soldiers.
“My name is Captain Wilder. I am the company commander of C-2-1. Company C—2nd Battalion— 1st Brigade. We are Charlie Company, mighty, mighty Charlie,” he informed us in a singsong voice with obvious pride.
“You will spend the next eight weeks being trained in the Army way of doing things. Forget what you learned back on the block (an often-used Army reference to your hometown). It has no significance here. In many aspects of your training, you will see…” He babbled on for fifteen minutes, spouting the Army party line.
It was all crap as far as I was concerned—the continual screaming, the personal insults, the orders, the intimidation, and the obsessive need to instill fear at every turn. Of course, I had decided this wasn’t a good time to share my theory with the fire-breathing DIs. It became crystal clear to me, as the captain rambled on, that the army had locked me in for a long, bumpy ride. This daily nightmare would continue for three years. For the next thousand-plus days, I’d wake up as a member of the United States Army, would eat Army chow, wear Army uniforms, sleep in Army bunks, and listen to Army propaganda. The reality of the situation deeply depressed me.
As Captain Wilder had explained, the general purpose of basic training was to teach us the Army way of thinking and behaving. More specifically, the Army wanted to transform each of us from the piece of human garbage he was upon arrival, and into a proud soldier who would take orders and obey commands, without question, from all superiors. The army had no interest in our petty concerns or grievances. In basic training, the weak were scorned and ridiculed. If you had a fragile recruit in your platoon, the DIs would punish us with PT (Physical Training). The DIs insulted and taunted everyone daily, but no one dared respond. If you displayed a physical or mental weakness, the DIs would seize the opportunity, never letting you forget your defect. It was truly another world, with a rigid system that had proven successful for almost 200 years.
After Captain Wilder’s speech, the DIs divided us into four equal platoons of forty soldiers each. A platoon consisted of four squads, ten recruits in each. I was in the 4th Platoon, 4th Squad. The 3rd and 4th Platoons were housed on the second floor of the barracks.
Pete Whalon, author of “The Siagon Zoo” has called Southern California home since age five.