I felt exhilarated, exalted, ready to scream and shout, "Hey, look at me! Look at me God, world, everybody. I am something. I am a vibrant man ready to conquer the world." I took a deep breath and felt the droplets fall from my eyes, down my cheeks to my chin, then onto my shirt. I let them fall. If I needed to cry then goddamn it to hell, who was to stop me? Life hangs in the balance, hearts tumble, love is out there, and I had something to show for it. I was becoming an enlisted member of the United States armed forces.
A few hours later the bus stopped at Lackland Air Force Base and we exited, bags, hopes, dreams in hand. We all waited inside a paved overhang with various doors leading to dorms and other unknown rooms. Alex Koradji stuck close by me. Everyone stood around watching, waiting for someone but no one showed. The new recruits began to talk and gossip. Pretty soon they started meandering about kicking the pavement, bored as the bus pulled away. When it did, in the dark shadows behind it belted the brute voices of a harsh drill instructor, or, DI, "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON!" Everyone scattered in various directions not knowing what to do. Koradji expelled a loud fart. I thought he might have pooped himself. I dropped my bag and did not move. The drill instructors kept coming, two of them, four, then six, both male and female, all screaming at us to get single file. When we finally lined up, they yelled at us again, "WHAT ARE YOU A BUNCH OF RETARDS?" We did not know what to do. A very short, near midget sized man named DI Sargent Mackey, looked one of the recruits in the face and asked him what his name was. "Albert Rexroth, sir," he answered, which was not the proper protocol answer. Our recruiters told us how to answer and made us remember it. The protocol answer to a DI question was, "Sir, Airman [surname] reports as ordered, [then give your answer]." We had to earn the status of Airman, however. Until then, we were called Recruits and were told to never look the DI in the eye. Rexroth did everything the opposite of procedural protocol.
"What?" the DI asked.
The DI went bananas. "UH! Is your name Uh? I don't think I have ever heard of a Recruit Uh before. That is mighty unique, Recruit Uh..."
Out of nervousness, Rexroth dropped his bag to the pavement. DI Sargent Mackey looked down at it in silence for a brief instance then looked back at Rexroth with a fury in his eyes. "Did I tell you to drop that bag," he shouted.
Rexroth bent down to get his bag.
"What in God's good name are you doing Recruit Uh?"
"Uh, nuthun, sir."
"Excuse me? Nuthun sir? Hmmm...Uh, nuthun sir."
Then out of the dark came more shouting. DI Sargent Smith, an enormous black drill instructor with arms the size of cantaloupes, caught another recruit sniggering. "You think this is funny, maggot?" DI Sargent Smith said.
"No sir, I do not think this is funny," recruit Jameson answered.
"No, sir? Is that how you are supposed to answer a drill instructor?"
"Uh, uh, uh," stuttered recruit Jameson.
DI Sargent Smith had a field day with him. He turned his attention over to DI Sargent Mackey. "Well, DI Sargent Mackey," he said. "It appears as though recruit Jameson is related to your boy. We have here a Recruit Uh-Uh-Uh. Now isn't that special?"
This cold berate went on like that for at least two hours until each new recruit felt the verbal sting of the DI tongue. Some of the females wept like children. Veronica Hathaway had to do thirty pushups but collapsed after seventeen. Three recruits were shipped back home and four others quit. Two more threatened suicide and the DI's sent them for constant surveillance until discharged. Recruit Alex Koradji had to complete one hundred pushups, collapsing after forty-three. I volunteered to finish the rest of them in his place but was made to do an extra hundred in order to keep him from getting "weeded out," as they called it. We were considered, "A garden of weeds choking the potential of fresh budding flowers," as DI Sargent Smith so kindly put it.
As the yelling cooled, the tears dried, all bags of luggage continuously dropped and picked up seventy times each, everyone dead exhausted from unnecessary pushups, hoarse voices from incessant repetition of the proper method of answer, finally, the DI's left. They left us with one final order, "Stand still, don't fucking move any muscles except to breathe, and hold onto your luggage for dear life. Don't dare let your bags touch the earth!" We did just that. No one moved. No one blinked, twitched, scratched an itch, opened their mouths to complain in any manner in case one of those crazy son's of bitches just happen to lurk in the dark corner somewhere. Our arms ached from holding our bags, as we could not set them down. I wondered what on earth I was thinking singing up for a military run by a bunch of crazies. I had to think of something angry to keep my mind off the pain of holding my bag. A few girls dropped their bags but quickly picked them up from the pavement. We all anticipated a crazy axe-wheeling drill instructor to come charging around the corner but there was no one. We continued to wait.
After the mayhem and general tomfoolery settled a bit, two drill instructors appeared from the shadows behind us. They were new, not a part of the crazies that just left. These two were our permanent DI's. The females had a male drill instructor named DI Staff Sargent Michaels, while we, on the other hand, had a female drill instructor named DI Senior Airman Robertson. They first handed everyone a necklace to wear containing a single key. The necklace was the same type used for our dog tags however; we had to earn those. This key unlocked our lockers upstairs in our dorm. After the keys were handed out and hung from the neck of every recruit, DI Staff Sargent Michaels called his flight to attention and marched his ladies to their dorm.
Once the very last female recruit had entered the dorm and closed the door behind her, our drill instructor began to speak. "That drill instructor you just saw will not have a flight of honor. He is too relaxed and easy. I will not behave in that manner, and neither will you. Let me first explain a few things to you before we ascend to our house. You are a group of recruits called a flight. Your flight name is, Flight 412. My name is DI Senior Airman Robertson and I will be your fulltime drill instructor. You are to obey my every order; no matter how illogical or irrational you may believe it to be. You are to follow by my lead. I will teach how to survive in the United States Air Force and how to become model soldiers and respectable citizens of this country. It is my duty to graduate each and every one of you. If you fail me, you fail the military, you fail your flight, you fail your families, and above all, you fail your country. Do you understand?" To my amazement, the flight seemed to remember the proper method of answer and we all said it with a resounding synchronized voice. With that, we all marched single file up the flight of stairs into our dorm. My watch beeped another hour indicating two in the morning. What natural human being stands upright in the middle of a paved overhang for any length of time while holding their possessions in one hand, not uttering a word or so much as looking in any one direction while a pile of loonies run around screaming? The only humans that come to mind are us—the unnatural-enlistees of the United States Armed Forces.
After her speech, Flight 412 marched its tired bottoms up the staircase and into its dorm where we were told to hurry up and stand by a bed to await shakedown, where the Commanding Officer, or CO, came by each recruit and watched as they dumped their belongings onto the bed. Whatever was unacceptable was either thrown out, or sent home. We stood waiting for nearly fifteen minutes while the females got it first, then the door opened to our dorm. The Commanding Officer walked through with a small entourage of three other drill instructors. They handed out bags and large manila envelopes for contraband and returnable items. The CO walked around barking orders, throwing contraband onto the floor or across the room, unnerving the entire flight. When he approached me, I emptied my bag spilling toiletries, clothes, a wallet containing twenty dollars too much, a picture of my sister and mother, a few other small items, and one solitary book. Out of everything I brought with me, all of the unnecessary items, this hardnosed prick made a stink about the book. He looked down at it as it fell to the bed, and he said, "What's this?" I straightened up and answered, "Sir, Airman Thurman reports as ordered. Philosophy sir." He looked me dead in the eye and threw the book onto the floor, and said, "Philosophy. Not in my Air Force." I replied with, "Sir, yes sir." His complete ruckus lasted a little more than thirty minutes and we were utterly drained. After he left, we had to clean up his mess.
For six weeks it went about the same, me looking after Alex, keeping him on the straight and narrow, making sure he did not continue to behave like a slob, keeping after him. He was just a big baby, and even though the rest of the guys hated him, he was alright...wouldn't hurt a soul. After awhile though, I began to feel like Joker from the movie, Full Metal Jacket. Joker was assigned to help poor Gomer Pile and to make sure he completed basic training. Well, the only difference between Joker and I, was that I was not assigned to help Alex; I did it out of pity for the poor kid. He had the intelligence, just no street smarts. I helped him prepare for every physical fitness test and he passed them all without the threat of recycle—getting sent back to repeat a number weeks of training. Things went fairly regular for my time, shining shoes, belt buckles, running, pushups, screwing up, learning how to be a man, that sort of thing. As the weeks passed and our graduation day arrived, my folks never showed to see me graduate, but Alan was assigned to Intelligence and went on to Washington where I never again heard from him. As for me, I passed basic but failed out of F-15 technical training, then went on to become a chef and was released two years early as a menace to the uniform. I did not want to serve my country cooked chicken and lumpy mashed potatoes. I wanted to do something that mattered. Anyway, I got the boot and was sent home before my four-year contract expired. While I was home however, I got a little bored and got into some trouble for stealing cars and whatnot. Young and stupid, things happen.
Just six or seven months after discharging from the Air Force, and couple of years after that, I managed a release from the fine correctional facilities that Georgia has to offer. I went in for breaking and entering coupled with resisting arrest and grand theft auto. I had gotten myself mixed up with the wrong bunch of hillbillies down there in quiet Savannah. I had a decent enough attorney and since I had not priors, the judge and district attorney gave me a break. My folks thought a different atmosphere and change of pace would do me good. I went to stay with Lakota for awhile and to keep up the summer home. My folks were older then and not up to traveling as much therefore, the summerhouse needed tending. Lakota made sure there were no wild parties or extravagant nonsense going on over there; keeping me on the straight and narrow. He encouraged me to sketch and write. "Continue living art," he would say. The local lumber mill rehired me once again and Diana still worked part time at the Country Crock. The longest it ever stayed in business.
The word had quickly spread in the small town that I had done some time. Small towns, big talk. When I entered the store one afternoon, there stood Diana, as pretty as I remembered.
"Hello," she said smiling.
"Hello, yourself," I said back.
"Heard you did you a little stint."
"What was it like," she said hopping up onto the counter, her knee high dress revealing more than it should.
"Just what they're all like," I said. "Shitty. Cooped up in some small cage. Nothing but an oversized bathroom. Come out for an hour recess as if back in elementary school."
"Really," she said.
"All that man in there, just going to waste."
Horny old gal, I thought.
"Where's your husband," I asked.
Her legs were open wider now, uncrossed, inviting.
"Where did he go to?"
"He died," she said, "of cancer."
I lost enthusiasm. Terminal illness was a big deal for me. It was a bit of a turnoff. People die sure, natural causes were one thing, but some sneaky disease, eating away at you against your will was something different. If a junky died from the needle, the alcoholic from liver failure, the mad from suicide, those I could deal with. What I could not deal with was some god-awful sneak thief coming in and snuffing you out in while you slept, without effort, because it could. Cancer was a touchy subject for me, anyway. Many of my relatives succumbed to it. "It must have been awful for you," I said.
"It was," she looked down at her feet, "but I got through. Tough times."
"I could only imagine," I said. "How long has it been?"
"Only six months. But, it's easy to get over a bastard, you know."
"Yeah, somewhat," I said, thinking about my father.
"So what about you?"
"What about me?"
"What have been up to? How have you been, besides the joint?"
"The joint? Well besides that, I've been alright. Trying to live. Taking things slow. Getting things together."
"That's good. Together is a good thing," she said, her voice fading, as though she had had too much togetherness in her life, but genuinely knowing that it was a good thing.
"I should have stayed in the Air Force, now that I think about it," I said, breaking the tension.
Her eyes lit up. "You were a fly boy?"
"Well, yeah," I said, a bit surprised she never knew. "Yes, for two years. Joined when I was twenty and out at twenty-two, don't you remember? That's why I wasn't around for awhile."
"Oh, that's where you were," she said. "I had not seen you for a couple summers. I missed you."
That comment made me feel a bit awkward. I looked down at my shoes somewhat embarrassed then got up and went to the bathroom.
I heard the bell ring on the front door and when I came out of the bathroom there was old man Williams, buying his thirty pack of Busch and a log of Winter Green Skoal. "Hello, young man," he said, looking me up and down. "How're things goin-on with you?" Old man Williams did not have many teeth left, the alcohol and chewing tobacco had done a number on his mouth, but he continued jabbering. Diana had been sweeping, trying to close up the store, but there were always those last minute stragglers. Her body looked so inviting, swinging in momentum to the broom. She was older now, but still held her youthful edge. Her bastard husband was gone, and that was a good thing for her. He was always angry, and owned too many guns. When his temper would flare, Diana said those guns scared her the most.
"Alright, Mr. Williams. I can't complain too much," I said pulling up a chair.
"You're out now, huh? All done with that jail stuff?"
"Oh, yes. Did three years for those shenanigans."
He stood there holding his unpaid beer and Skoal. "That's certainly enough."
"I should say," I said, scratching my head, Diana now waiting behind the cash register.
"You're a nice enough fella; you seem to have what you need, upstairs I mean. You should keep out of trouble. You got a good head on your shoulders, ya know."
"Thank you, Mr. Williams, that's very kind of you. And I will keep out of trouble from now on."
"Good," he said nodding his head, his extra aging skin swaging in sync. "You uh...staying at your folk's summer place then?"
"Yeah, for the time. Lakota's been helping out with a few things, and I've been working at the lumber mill."
"Oh, still there...back breaking work ain't it?"
"Yes indeed, but I don't mind. It keeps me in shape, and they've been good to me over the years."
"Yeah. You been there a long time now, they had better be. How is that Lakota these days? He holding out okay?"
Still holding onto his supplies, he kept on talking, I did not know when he would stop. I could see Diana's patience wearing thin and I could feel desire coursing through me just looking at her. I was no less than three months out and very hard up. I probably would have mounted a squirrel if I got the chance. "Oh, yes, Lakota is doing just great. Still an artist."
"All set, John," Diana interjected from behind the counter.
"Oh yes, by the Jesus. I'm sorry Di; I get to talking you know..."
"That'll be $32.49, John."
He scrounged in his pockets and pecked at his wallet, after a few minutes he had the exact amount. "There you are doll," he smiled at her then turned to me. "And take care of yourself there, Jake. Behave and make your way in this world. What a lonely place it is." I nodded okay. With that, he coughed several times then shoved out the door. Diana looked at me and sighed, "About damn time," she said raising her arms in the air. "That's it, no more, I'm done." She went over and locked the door. Diana moved like a cat, a sleek Persian beaut when she wanted, and still stunning at forty-two.
She grabbed the broom again, continuing where she left off. After a few moments, I could no longer contain myself. I walked over, and whipping her around, planted a murderous kiss upon her moist mouth, her lips thin, hot, warm and responsive. She pulled me closer, squeezed me tight and showed me a world that a young man could only dream.
By Nate Kryston