Forty years ago today – and freshly graduated from high school – I was on my way to Air Force Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. As a matter of fact, at 1315 hours today (in military speak), forty years ago, myself and a bunch of other guys had just left the Philadelphia recruitment and testing center where we had been sworn in, given a bag lunch, and then handed plane tickets and directions to the Philadelphia airport. Not only had a made a friend but I got elected to lead this pack of Air Force wannabes to the airport and, surprisingly, I got us there in good shape, didn’t lose anyone, and we were on time for our flight to Texas.
A few very memorable things about this day forty years ago. I had gone to the dentist a couple of days before with a slight abscess in one of my molars; he prescribed me an antibiotic and Darvon for the pain. So when I got to Philly the next morning, I was pretty messed up; I was flying high from the Darvon and was still kinda drunk from my going-away party on the 30th! It didn’t help matters when we boarded our flight – we were going from Philadelphia to Houston to San Antonio – and the flight attendant – stewardess back then – asked me if I wanted something to drink and the first thing that popped out of my mouth was, “Vodka martini!”
Okay, so I wasn’t legally old enough to drink and that didn’t seem to matter to the attendant; she smiled at me, placed a napkin on my tray, mixed up my martini – added a bunch of olives – and asked my new buddy what he wanted – he wanted a martini, too. I had never had a martini before and I recall being kinda fixated on them because I saw one – TV, James Bond movie, someplace – and I thought they looked delicious… and they were. By the time we got to our cruising altitude, I had had four martinis and was still taking my medication as scheduled, washing down Darvon number two for that day with the last of martini number four.
By the time we got to Houston to change planes, my buddy Jonesy and I were, oh, about fifteen sheets to the wind; I was literally not feeling any pain. The flight out of Philly was full and crowded… but when we boarded the Continental flight that would take us from Houston to San Antonio, the Philly contingent and a few other guys headed to Lackland were the only people on the plane. The attendant invited us to move from our coach seats to first class, where we partook mightily; we ate and drank like kings – the Continental attendant definitely made a better martini than the Delta one!
It was late when we finally landed at San Antonio. I don’t remember how we all got to the bus that would take us to the base; I just remember some tall dude in a Smokey the Bear hat saying something to us before telling us to get on the bus. I checked my watch and, yep, time to take more medication, which I washed down with one of those little bottles of vodka I had managed to swipe.
Wait for it – this get better!
We get to the base; the dude on the bus is telling us that the first thing we have to do is take a urine test and that if any of us are on medication, get it out, and let the people inside know. That had a lot of us plenty worried because, hell, we’d all been drinking like fish! I get my meds out, we file inside, do the piss in the cup thing – they looked at my meds, made a note, and gave them back to me. I obviously passed the test because unlike a couple of guys on that bus, I didn’t get sent home.
They take us to our squadron complex and I was surprised; I was expecting Quonset huts or something and not a building that looked like an apartment complex. We got broken into two groups; me and 44 other guys were now part of the 3723 BMTS (Basic Military Training Squadron), Flight 719, while the other guys were now Flight 720 – our sister flight; that had me giggling because we’re guys. We get inside and the drill instructor is yelling at us to find a bed and stand next to it. I’m stoned out of my mind… and now I’m tired. I didn’t get much sleep the night before and I had a 6 AM train to catch to Philly so I want to skip all this bullshit, get out of my clothes, and cop a lot of zees.
Suddenly, the sergeant’s yelling at me – I didn’t even know he was talking to me until Jonesy elbowed me and whispered, “Hey, he’s talking to you!”
I blink, look at this guy and say, “What?”
He bellows, “I said take that damned hat off… right now!” as he quickly moves from where he was standing to being right in my face before I could blink twice.
My response: “Fuck you! I ain’t taking shit off! You bad? Make me take it off!”
We’re staring each other down; I now have my ass all on my back and could feel myself sobering up quickly and getting into fight mode. The sergeant literally has his nose touching mine… but I’m not backing down and neither is he… but he reached up, snatched my hat off my head, and tossed it; my hands were moving without me thinking about it – but Jonesy grabbed me.
The sergeant gave me one last stare – then went to jump in some other guy’s shit (he was lying on the bunk and snoring). Jonesy said, “Dude, that guy would have fucked you up!”
I said, “He’s more than welcome to try it!” – and then loud enough for him to hear me because he turned around and glared at me again; I’m glaring back and giving him my best “Do you feel froggy?” look.
He tells us that we’re now going to the all-night chow hall to eat before we can go to sleep; now it’s after midnight, June 1st. As we’re falling out, he steps to me and says, “You’d better be glad you’re not in my flight… but I’m gonna put the word out on you!”
I said, “Whatever, man…” and not only moved to go outside but I gave him a shoulder shot on the way by.
At the chow hall, the guys at the table with me were telling me that I was either extremely brave, a total badass, or out of my mind talking mad shit to a DI… and to be honest, um, that really wasn’t me talking – it was too many martinis and a system full of Darvon.
We finally get to go to sleep close to 2 AM. We got awakened at 10 and got introduced to the DIs who, as they said, would own us for the next six weeks. If I thought the DI I was riffing at last night was a mean-looking motherfucker, Master Sergeant Nicholson and Staff Sergeant Crain were two of the most evil looking bassasses I had ever seen! After they got us up – and after we got washed up and all that – both of them came up to me.
“Five-cent-son,” as we called Nicholson (behind his back, of course) looked at Crain and asked, “This is the one, right?”
Crain, who was shorter than I was stared hard at me and said, “Yep, this is him – this is the badass we were told about.”
I suddenly wanted to be somewhere else and, yeah, I was kinda scared… but not intimidated. Nicholson just nodded and walked away… but Crain leaned into me and said, “I have my eyes on you – believe that shit.”
Crain actually laughed in my face when we went to the barber shop and I got my long, beautiful braids cut off because they wouldn’t let me take the time to take them out first. As we went outside to wait for everyone to be done, he whispered in my ear, “We don’t get mad – we get even…”
I know I started my six weeks of training on the wrong foot; I actually regretted getting all pissy and snotty the night before because I had sobered up and all that. But, because I did, those two DIs made my six weeks a total, living hell…
But, despite them being in my ass like a bad habit and betting on me to fail basic training, I made it through the worst six weeks I’ve ever spent in my life even though I was told that I had broken the squadron record for doing the most punishment pushups and, trust me, that wasn’t a good thing!
Remember the DI I was giving a raft of shit to? Turns out he was the lead DI for our sister flight. I was told that he was begging my DIs to transfer me to his flight so he could deal with me… and hearing that made my knees a little weak – guys in our sister flight told us that he was one really mean son of a bitch and loved to kick ass and take names, figuratively speaking. But, the transfer didn’t happen… and my DIs told me they promised him that they’d give me the business for him.
Flights 719 and 720 did a lot of things together and, I swear, whenever we did, that lead DI would just stare at me with evil intentions. I did have one run in with him, though, later in training and while standing dorm guard duty in our sister flight’s dorm. Now, anyone who’s been through Air Force basic training might remember what a dorm guard’s supposed to do, like challenge anyone trying to enter the dorm – even if you were on the list that was posted there. When our DIs were in uniform, there was no question about who they were but we’d have to challenge them anyway – part of that uniformity thing we were trying hard to learn. However, if they showed up out of uniform, they had to show the dorm guard their ID card to get in (even though they had the keys to the dorm).
So Sergeant Thompson shows up in civvies, sees me on duty, mutters a curse, and demands to be let in. I give the proper challenges and ask for his military ID card… and it turns out he left his wallet at home. So, according to protocol – and even though I knew exactly who he was – I didn’t let him in, politely apologizing and all that but, nope, I wasn’t getting written up behind this, not like some of the other guys did!
I shit you not: He stood outside that door and yelled, screamed, and cursed at me for an hour – but I refused to let him in. The guys in his flight got awakened with all the noise and were trying to get me to let him in… but I knew doing so was a major offense and despite them threatening to jump me, I refused to let their DI into the dorm.
He left – I found out later that he went to the squadron CQ to rant and rave at them. He came back… and he had Sergeant Crain with him… and Crain was pissed since it was now like two in the morning. Now, one of the other rules was that if an authorized person in uniform vouched for someone not in uniform, they could be let in… but I had both DIs screaming at me to open the door for another twenty minutes before Crain officially vouched for Thompson – and I had to open the door.
They both came in and gave me looks that made me want to piss myself – but I held my water (barely), standing at attention at my post and expecting to get my head handed to me. Thompson looks at Crain, shakes his head and says, “Damn it, he passed – and you won.”
Crain grins at him as Thompson reached in his pocket and hands my DI a twenty dollar bill. As they left the dorm, Thompson looks at me and says, “I’ll find another way to get you out of my Air Force, Airman Badass…”
As Crain left to go to our dorm, he says to me, “You did damned good, Morton – keep up the good work – you’re making me a rich man!”