[Sketches of Real life in the Old Army Boot Camp]
Soldiers’ First Day
I would learn in time, a Soldiers’ first day, is like every other day in Basic Training, one long, very long day. For me it would be thirteen weeks long. Dlsiluk
(Dennis Siluk reading his Diary)
When we arrived at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Basic Training Camp, in the Fall of ’69, we were greeted (we, being, a number of us who had come from the Minneapolis, Minnesota Army Recruiting Station, now coming off the bus), greeted I say, by cynically sneering, and frankly hyper, drunk looking white sergeants, two of them, with a Forest Ranger’s type looking sombreros on their heads, I had my ninety pound duffle bag by my side.
My lip did something like a snicker back at them; my hand did something like a fist.
We were like a little wobbly, staggered train coming off the bus into camp, forming some kind of a zigzagged line in front of the bus. My captors faced me, two white sergeants; one perhaps in his mid twenties, the other in his mid thirties, one being a Buck Sergeant type sergeant, the other a Sergeant First Class sergeant, so I would learn these ranks within a few days, this being our first real day in the Army, thus, they faced us, I should say, stood in front of us, as we formed this jagged formation line of sorts.
Next, they encouraged us to obey them, as they treated us like criminals with beautiful smiles in-between their sneers: we were what they called ‘New fish.’
They grinned at us, and we grinned at each other trying to figure out what all the grinning was about, it would seem we were parroting them. Then the engine of the bus stopped, turned off, a loud silence seemed to pass over the bus, onto us, and encircle the two Drill Sergeants, as new gods of Caesar’s Army. They had warned us to be silent, and now without words, their manner was showing it. At this time the sun was coming down, as the two divine sergeants debated on if we should be allowed to eat dinner, while us new soldiers, smiled at one another appreciatively. They paused, looked about the area, and thus appeared the mess hall, I look down through the clutter of buildings, at it also, the mess hall door was open, although to be honest with you, I would have liked to have gone to sleep, I was tired.
(The Mess Hall) Now we were being escorted, if not a bit pushed down a dirt path between two rows of barracks part of our so called destiny—our new home city of hope, our temple of shadows where our philosophers were but two simple sergeants with bear hats on; and onto the Mess Hal we went.
I balanced my duffle bag on my shoulders, as they had instructed me to do, but many of the men couldn’t, they struggled with trying to do it, and gave up, it was too heavy, and so they dragged them, another peeve that would come out later with the two sergeants, they looked at us as little boys to be wrapped in blankets, and put to sleep, and when awaken, apparently we’d be killer soldiers. I always, well kind of always wanted to be a soldier, so why was I protesting? I really didn’t know, I mean being a soldier went back and forth in my mind many of times, but respect was my forte, and here there was a lack of it, and hence, resistance appeared to dominate my cerebellum, and I automatically went into a clandestine war with the Army.
Well, this was the first day, and it was evening, we were on the pathway, a few of us talking, mostly about them—the sergeants. And we learned quickly to say “Yes sir,” and “No sir,” until we got tired of it, and a few of us would say, ‘now what mamma!’ under or breaths, or with our eyes, or body movements, as if we were suckling babes, of course I was one of those, and in time that would get me in trouble. The sergeant said “—who said, ‘mamma?” and of course, not a word was spoken to claim the misdeed, or disrespect, they stared at each other as if the moment would not be forgotten, and it wasn’t we’d suffer later for it.
As this disrespectful dragging occurred—and continued, the older sergeant got what I’d call a devilish smile with eyes big as silver dollars, and thus, a few insults reached the ears of the many. That is when I got the smell of their strange cologne, and garlic breath.
Several faces (perhaps for the sake of sympathy, so I thought at first) looked out the barracks windows—“What time is it?” a voice said, and eyes looking in my direction, I saw corporal strips on the fellow. I didn’t look at my wrist; I think he wanted me to lose balance of my duffle bag for a laugh—and watch it fall.
“I said, what time it is soldier?” the same voice said, with the same eyes, a rougher tone to it this time, then it added a screaming quality “I’ll see you in the mess hall some time, Private…!” he left out what might follow, but he didn’t get the time. I remember thinking: you’d think we were in the middle of a war, or comedy play. I did say something back the second time, something I thought was funny, but not to him.
“All right, put down your gear, and take off your hats in the mess hall,” said the younger of the two drill sergeants, as we stood in front of the building.
I wasn’t hungry, I had eaten with the few friends I had met in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after getting off the plane, and going to a restaurant, we had a pay voucher for $30-dollars, which was a lot of grub, between four or five of us, or enough anyways for a healthy meal, and a small tip.
Hence, our divine hosts now were pushing us into the mess hall to eat again, seating us, and having us push down excessive portions of food, neither one listening to us, or in particular me, when I said I had just eaten,
“Eat anyways so you can’t say we didn’t feed you,” was the reply I kept getting from the old sergeant, and then the young one would copy him.
Layers of hats and coats fell on the chairs. And I looked about, and said mumbled to myself: here I am, and the sergeant looked at me again. There was no fear in me of him, perhaps there should have been, and he saw that.
As I put down several table spoons of whatever it was I was eating (and I think I was eating spaghetti), along with some bread and milk, I got thinking this is crazy, and looked for the kitchen window, the one I saw when I came in, the one with empty trays laying about it, and saw a square opening, window type opening, and saw some soldiers putting their trays through the hole—it was that same window I had saw when first entering the mess hall I concluded—so I got up, looked at the two sergeants that were looking at me—somewhat (not paying all that much attention really, and I guess not wanting a confrontation at this moment), the other forty solders still eating, the ones that got off the bus with me, I aimed my tray at the hole, like a rocket, and my temper went (the hole was some several feet away, and I tossed the tray and all the food on it, tossed it like a spaceship, and it landed perfectly on the other trays, gliding over them like a car gliding over ice, into that window I was just talking about, and I headed towards the door, to where my duffle bag would be waiting for me.
Wither the sergeants’ faces averted, I reached for my duffle bag, pulled it along side of me, lit up a cigarette, fumbled a little trying to light it in the light cool wind, and thought: this is going to be an everyday thing, an all day job, from this time on.
The sergeants were busy, still not looking at me, perhaps not caring either, my head bobbing somewhat with the cigarette, as I was thinking, ‘…what I am doing here.’
(Twilight) My reddish eyes and hair were becoming devouring, as I left the mess hall. I had gulped and swallowed what I could, and was feeling overly full, if not a tinge ill from the lack of sleep, and too much food. And now all this unnecessary control; whatever inspiration I had for the Army was now diminishing. I had an inborn taste for revenge almost.
I stood outside the small mess hall in a pig-like position waiting for our leaders, and the rest of the platoon, it was now twilight. I figured I did my best, though protesting in my own way.
I would notice later on that evening, tears in the eyes of a few soldiers, perhaps irritation in mine. The Army never bothered me per se, only the disrespect I was feeling, or received. I think bachelors are lucky in the Army, confinement less an issue for them, for married folks, to the contrary.
As I was saying, it was twilight, which now had vanished, and turned into dark or pure-night, a dark, heavy blue night—seemingly a deep midnight was approaching. My stomach heavy, and most of us now had come out of the trance like fog we had first found ourselves in, after getting off the bus, now in the barracks.
Digestion was settling, and they, the sergeants were settling us like prey into a lull. We were given our blankets and a pillow, with a few grunts of satisfaction, which we tossed back, we took their insults, and taking pain not to show our defeat, as we smiled at one another, wondering what was next.
(The barracks) Strange tongues, forty strange grins, bare hands, white, black and brown faces, and feet belonging to strangers, all among one another. Hands stretched out over the beds. This was a new experience for us all. The central figures, two sergeants now telling us
“…lights out in fifteen minutes….”
And another voice saying,
“…let’s hurry up and get a smoke!”
I looked about at the faces, disagreeable with curiosity, and then looked out the window with itching fingers to have a cold beer, and get on with the show.
Silhouette of a Soldier
((October, 1969) (Day Two))
(It is always the sound of the bugle that awakens one in the morning, called reveille, in the Army, the sound to make formation that begins the day, a signal that it is time to get out of bed, summoned to duty. And all one sees in the morning, in this case, as I prepared for the second day of duty with the many new shapes and outlines of military personnel in a camp; or so it seemed to me.)
Silhouettes, that is all they were to me when I first glanced out the window, 2nd day in the Army, soldiers rushing to get into a standing position in what was called a formation, under the autumn sky; the darkness of morning was lifting, an intense darkness it was, a haunting dark blue sky, extra ordinarily cold for a North Carolina morning, it seemed.
I had noticed in the distance, throughout the day, across a field, a club resided, Enlisted Men’s Club to be exact, so I was told: a bar in essence, or so it would be called in my old neighborhood, in St. Paul, Minnesota (called: ‘Donkeyland,’ by the police for its hardheaded drunks, that lived and died at two corner bars).
The EM Club
I was particularly thrilled to have discovered it so close by the group of basic training barracks (mine in particular); whereat, when our two Drill Sergeants, our escorts throughout the day were done with us, disembarking for the evening, but beforehand, let us know they’d return at 10:00 p.m., to insure lights were turned off, (which was to them, the very ‘last moment of light,’ to be seen within our barracks, lest we wanted to be disciplined, it was really a curfew in essence; in any case, disembarking for the evening, this would allow me to make acquaintance with the establishment, the EM club. In outcome, I felt a little at home now, likened to finding you are nearby a church, something familiar, if indeed I happened to be a priest, which of course I am not.
As I was saying, or about to say, at 10:00 p.m., would be the last moment of light to be seen within our barracks, and we stopped work at 7:00 p.m., a very full day; I had woke up at 4:00 a.m., not much sleep, I was stiff and cold and only half awake, in the morning, and now, in the evening, exhausted, I had my Army green fatigues on, and moved grimly without speaking to anyone, now after duty hours, after having a quick dinner at the mess hall, moved quickly over the field to where the EM club was, it was 8:15 p.m., when I arrived there, par excellence in my quick study of the matter, most all the new soldiers had no idea the club existed. Plus, they were too busy trying to be good soldiers, and I was the second oldest person in the platoon (I learned, the younger the easier one can be led).
As I walked across the field, I told myself, ‘You’ve never been in an EM club before.’ How true this was, but I knew bars well, was drinking in them since I was sixteen-years old, fighting in them, drinking in them, and getting sick in a few of them, most are the same, smelly, dingy, and alive or dead, plus, I told myself, ‘You will know in a short time, all you need to know about this bar.’ Hence, in a few minutes I was walking through the door of the club, yellow flares went off in my head, I acted like I belonged there, I always did when I walked into a bar, a strange bar for sure, I was at the time, just turning twenty-two years old.
The insides of the club were small, and formless, nothing special; mostly square, with figures moving about, to and fro, a crackle of conversations, going on everywhere, seemingly sadly suppressed, abnormal for a bar one could say, not lively at all. I was used to deliciously insane bars I suppose, but nonetheless, I was gulping down my first cold Army beer in no time flat.
Everyone seemed to be wrapped in ghostly Army Green, this was to be, I knew, an unearthly patch of the world, hereon, and forevermore, save, I remained in the Army. I leaned on the bar, drank down a second glass of cold mouthwatering beer, and stared into nothingness.
My elbows now on the bar, I got staring at and out the window, a mist had created a moisture onto the bar window, formed a fogginess on its glass; as I scanned the bar, everyone seemed like talking shadows all linked together around the bar, I recognized no one, especially no one from my platoon, that is, ‘D’ Company, 4th Platoon as they called it, called us. I thought briefly about Smiley, a Private like me, a year younger than I, and from the South, I think he said, Alabama, he was easy to talk to, liked to drink, a friend to be found I pondered, a worthy friend, most people I accepted as acquaintances, and only a few select would I categorize as associates.
“You’re the one?” I heard a voice say next to me, a statement-question I took it as, I turned to the stranger, and a Corporal sat about seven feet from my stool.
“You¬¬ were speaking to me?” I didn’t care if he had twenty strips on his arms, bar folks get a few drinks in them and try to command the world, this was neither the time nor place to play chief, and so I told myself.
“Yaw,” he said, to the clean shaven kid, couldn’t be over 19-years old I told myself, but he had a few more strips than I.
“What do you want?” I asked somewhat brusquely.
“You’re the one I asked for the time, yesterday, I work in the mess hall, and you could get in trouble for being here, because new soldiers, or new recruits, are not suppose to come here, you got a place down by the PX, and you can’t go to that until the second week you’ve been here.”
“So are you going to tell, or what?” I asked.
He laughed a bit, and then smiled, “It’s your head, not mine, if they chop it off, oh well.” And I bought him a beer. In time we’d get to know each other, and he’d even give me excuses to use in case I came back after 10:00 p.m., for he worked with the Colonel often, after duty hours I guess.
Horse’s Hoofs and Old Soldiers
(November, 1969; Week Two in Basic Training)
In the barracks it was chilly. The Drill Sergeants smelled worse. I knew my smell, so I affirmed it wasn’t me, and why be polite, sometimes I just held my nose, kind of letting anyone, perhaps someone know, what they didn’t want to know, about their body smell, there was this one particular soldier in our platoon that even smelled worse than the Drill Sergeants.
In any case, these were long days in back of me and in front of me, long days running, and longer than normal long was today’s running, I had to run around a field three times, two miles each lap, six miles complete, in some specified time, can’t remember it exactly today. I took a number of salt tablets as I ran; some of the men were eating chocolate, to keep their energy up. I quickly learned running was part of the Army, like the trunk of an elephant’s nose.
Yes indeed, running is part of a soldiers life, I told myself, after two weeks (about to go into the third), running every day, sometimes with our M14 rifles held over our heads, sometimes carrying our duffle bags full of cloths, and now, today, around in circles. The voice beside me said, “China, China…” a Chinese man, small in stature, who wanted to be an American. In time we would become good friends, and go onto Advance Training together in Alabama, but at this particular moment, it was of course unknown (we would become friends for six-months between Basic Training and Advance Training, and when we got our assignments, after finishing Advance Training, he’d be sent to Vietnam, I suppose because he could speak Chinese and English well, and I would go to Augsburg, Germany, and thereafter, go to Vietnam, Smiley would also head on to Vietnam after his Advance Infantry Training). China, He had come to San Francisco, from China, got drafted into the United States Army, given the choice to join, or return to China, but the offer of citizenship was too great to pass up, so he allowed himself to be drafted into the US Army. He was here on a visit of some kind, originally.
The two divine Drill Sergeants were standing on the side of the circle as I passed them, going on and into my third circle, anger on their faces; they only smiled when you obeyed them. Smiley was right in back of me, my friend from Alabama. It was a warm mid-morning, an insane day to be exact, and I was still somewhat drowsy from drinking at the club the night before, my brain that is, had gotten drunk the night before, as usual, and was paying for it now (a second time). And here were all these bodies running, running the length of the field, and China, keeping up with all (all his 110-pounds); many of the men just dropped to the ground, passed out from heat exhaustion. But us three kept going. It was the whole company today, all four platoons, perhaps 160-men in total.
One man came along by my side, said: “I say, where we are?” and he dropped to the ground, just like that, and as he dropped I said, “In hell…!”
I think the Drill Sergeant, the older one, was faint and felt almost dead from exhaustion this heated day, he had run around the circled in field but once for us, to show he could; I stopped a few times, my hat had fallen off my head for the 3rd time, “Get moving,” he yelled, the old fart couldn’t do it himself, but expected me, I gave him one of his same old grimaces back.
The third stop somehow allowed me to catch my wind and I started back up after a brief swallow of air into my stomach, Smiley, had stopped, was resting on the side now, couldn’t go any further, I think cramps did him in; next, I got back into my running posture and finished the third circle. Perhaps there were about twenty of us, ready to go into a forth, but the Drill Sergeant, told us to stop, and like the others I rested, found the few select people I liked from our platoon, Smiley among them, and China. We all grunted a bit. Moreover, the young sergeant, came up to us and said, “Well,” he then stroked his chin, adding (I merely looked at him with a smirk) “Get down Siluk and do fifty pushups,” for being cocky I suppose, and to show the rest of the group how out of shape I was. I said, “Fifty, is that all!” And I did the fifty in a few minutes, got back up, and he said again, “Get down and do fifty more!” And I did, and I got up and said, “I will make note of this…” implying, the necessary sum that he could make me do was at its point, one hundred, and I was not afraid of him, consequently, if he wanted me to do more, I could legally defy him, this he did not want, nor no unsuspected challenges he couldn’t win.
I didn’t make any friends this day of course, and felt a little under the horses hoofs, several of the platoon faces, recruits like me, felt I was a trouble maker (for them I suppose I was). And this got back to the Captain, whom would confront me in time on this very issue, in another two weeks to be exact. It was mid November, and we heard we’d be going home for a Christmas leave, and have to return to basic training to finish it, thereafter. One of the soldiers would not have enough money to go home, and we all pitched in from the platoon and made that possible, but I’m getting ahead of myself again.
The young Drill Sergeant led us to the front of the barracks, and had us do several exercises, he said it was because there was a soldier with a bad attitude in the platoon, and all would have to suffer from that. The older sergeant vaguely looking at me from afar, but I read his lips, “Siluk, you again!”
“Squat, crouch, and walk around the barracks,” commanded the young sergeant. This was not only humiliating for the platoon, because we looked like ducks, but tiresome, therefore, I got a few unfriendly faces, and whispers like: Siluk, stop causing trouble, straighten up…and so forth and so on. And I simply went, or said “Quack, quack…” to all this—aloud!
“Who said that? “Asked the young drill sergeant, then he walked along side of me…”It’s you again, I know it’s you Siluk, another walk around the barracks,” he announced, and then I whispered to the guys, “Ok, ok…I’ll shut up ((but I couldn’t help it, I did it a second time, then I shut up)( for now))”
After it was all done (the duck walk), most everyone collapsed comfortably on their beds, while the drill sergeants adjusted their smirks.
Enormous pomposity was shown in the two drill sergeants, and displayed around me, or perhaps I was the only one that saw these expressions, gestures, everyone else was too busy being nervous about what was next. It was going onto the third week of November that the Captain had called me into his office, and I asked him why he sent for me and he said, “Just wanted to see who you were,” and he kept an educated serious face about the matter, and dismissed me, yet I knew something was coming.
For the most part, I was in a new world, and having a hard time devouring the customs, the inexpressible nuance of the pretense they expected out of me, willingly—to appreciate their fine work in sculpturing a soldier out of a neighborhood bum. My uncouthness was not appreciated either.
That night, the night that followed the duck-walk, Smiley was to meet me at the EM Club, it was the end of the second week, and we were allowed now, to buy freely at the PX, and go to the Company Recruits club to drink, 3.2 Beer, that is, beer that tasted like water. But I was already into the EM Club, and drank there—strong beer. They, the Drill Sergeants had actually escorted us that first day to the PX, like tourists.
I gave Smiley a discussion on my EM club drinking, and told him to meet me there this evening, around eight or nine o’clock; our bed time now was 10:30, lights off, or the last moment for lights, at 11:00 p.m., weekends, lights off at 12:00 midnight, and now bed check, being 11:00 p.m., life was improving.
As I waited for Smiley, I thought about what the older Drill Sergeant had told the platoon, that next week there was going to be a show for us, the 82nd Airborne, whom was stationed there, would jump out of airplanes, parachuting down to where we would be sitting. I told myself, only birds and their droppings fall out of the sky, and thus, let it be at that. But when the day came, the old sergeant asked me, sitting on a hill, “Go down there and join up, Siluk!” And I said, “I’m not a bird…!” And he kicked me, and I rolled down the hill, and waved to him, from that position. Another peeve he had with me.
There was a young female, German girl unmarried woman, who was the waitress at the EM club, a daughter I expect to one of the higher ranking sergeants on base; she spoke with a broken English pronunciation but could speak clear clean German, perhaps twenty-one, or younger; possibly a second marriage I thought between an older sergeant and German woman. Anyhow, she was dangerously appetizing I thought, I never did chat with her, a long chat that is, other than, a hello and goodbye, I figured I was under observation at the club (and a few young bucks were always around her at the bar when she finished serving her drinks), and as long as I kept to my own, they left me alone, and should I try to get a date with her, they would expose me as a recruit, I was sure of that, and I’d have to go to the main drinking hall, with the rest of my Company.
She was lean, perhaps five foot three inches tall, lovely in many ways, and friendly, and customers liked her. She wore tight dresses, benignant in a way, with breasts that bulged slightly out of her blouse, and had small hands, dark hair—penetrating eyes.
Army Beer Hall
(December, 1970; Week Five in Basic Training)
I had gone to the beer hall this first Saturday evening after returning to Basic Training Camp, from Christmas leave. The Captain was there, I had heard he showed up now and then, but not often, and this was perhaps my third time in the beer hall myself, I preferred the EM Club to the hall, more sedate. For me it was really the first time I saw him here, a sharp consciousness of being stared at absorbed me, made me look the other way. He was still gazing at me when I turned around, thus, it was me he was curious about—so I validated, some kind of strained expectancy, I expect, like a month ago when he stared at me in his office, like a rat in a cage. More like a psychological pondering, trying to figure me out for the butchering that was going to take place. I paid little heed though, at first, just inquisitive to his prying mannerisms.
After about ten-minutes of this, I asked myself, ‘What is he waiting for?’ I was becoming irritable, ‘what does he expect of me now: to sing the National Anthem for him personally?’ I stood silently a tinge guarded now, as if this was an entirely obvious reaction, as he approached me.
“We’ve both been away for a while, Christmas vacation, I’ve wanted to talk to you before you left, but…well it just didn’t work out, I’m a bit surprised you’re back, and so glad I found you here this evening, Private Siluk.” He said in a seriously low and cordial tone, almost a mumble.
At about this time, I was waiting for the punch, the Sunday punch that normally comes with such surprises; you know, someone says a few good words, to get you off guard, off balance, and then bang.
(I gazed mutely at him.) The Captain stood now alongside of me, as I leaned back, somewhat comfortable against a pillar in the old WWII beer hall. He said, sincerely said, yet kind of in an official manner, something I never expected to hear, never even saw it coming:
“You make me look like the worst Company Commander in the whole of Basic Training Camps, Private Siluk. My comrades laugh and make jokes about how you belittle the Army, and its training and our Sergeants… (then he grabbed two beers on the counter, laid down thirty cents, and gave one to me, the other for him, then continued:) as I was saying, about to say, you do not make me look good in front of my peers. To the contrary, and I’ve thought about this a while, on what to do with you, you are always borderline, actually you would make a good soldier, if you wanted to, it seems you do not want to though (he looked at me deeply and sincerely into my eyes) what did I ever do to you?” He asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Well then, unintentionally, you are making me look like the worse commander at Fort Bragg for nothing? I never drafted you, the Government did, yet it seems you are taking your anger out on me, my Company!”
I felt awkward, not sure what to say. He did not say it loud, but said it firmly, with almost hurt in his face. I knew I was taking it out on the platoon, but there are four platoons to a company, and I didn’t feel I was taking it out on all of them, but he assured me I was, because they rated all four platoons to see which one was the worst and best, and then rated the companies, which were four also, to a Battalion, and I was in the 10th Battalion, 1st BDE (Brigade) this I knew already, and I knew we were the worse of the worse. But I never put two and two together that it was me making the platoon look bad, I passed all the physical and written tests, but it was based on more I guess than that.
“I never said it was your fault, Captain,” I responded; as we both walked easily and leisurely a few steps, both thinking. He perhaps had it all figured out, how he would present this to me, it was too cleaver to have had it just pop out of his head at the moment it did, for he added this,
“I’ll make you a deal, you have got two years of this life to deal with, it’s going to be a rough road for everyone involved, even you, everyone you meet. (Smiley walks by, I smiled at him, let him know all was well; the Captain became silent until he passed, then continued), as I was saying, you have a lot of time to fight with everyone, and that is not a good way to live. Here is what I will do for you, or propose. At midnight tonight, I will have two MPs pick you up at the barracks, everyone will be sleeping, and they will take you to the bus station, and not report you’re missing for twenty-four hours, enough time to get to Canada, if that is where you wish to go. You can be out of the country before the AWOL notice goes into effect. Or you can stay here, and please stop making trouble for me (he made this personal)?”
He was I think waiting for an answer, one I never gave him, couldn’t give him, at the moment, so I simply walked away, as he said, “They’ll be out by your barracks at midnight.”
Well, I was there in the morning, as if nothing had been said, standing in formation, as always, reveille (my wakeup call), and I’m not sure if the Captain saw me or not, but that was the last time I had saw him, face to face; although off in the distance I saw him here and there. He did one thing if anything, he threw it back on me, I had to make the decision, not him, thus, his conscious was free, and back in those days, it wasn’t hard for an officer to get revenge if he indeed wanted to, and it wasn’t hard for a trouble maker like me I suppose to cause friction for the Army on a continues scale, so perhaps he gave both of us, the Army and me, an ounce of respect, to straighten things out, or let time do it the hard way, for both of us. For the most part, I behaved myself, but not completely. And in time I would turn out to be a good soldier, and awarded a number of medals to prove it. Yes, this was really just the beginning.
The Fighting Irish
(January, 1970; Week Six in Basic Training)
I came from a Russian extended family, on my mother’s side,
But I was half Irish, on my father’s side…
In the days and weeks to follow—every muscle throughout my body would be aching, head spinning; yet I was not worn down like most of the troops, perhaps I had a lot of training in San Francisco, and back in St Paul, Minnesota in karate, and my body was somewhat hardened, ready for this kind of training. Face to face with the Drill Sergeants, I halfway straightened my attitude out, we, or maybe just I, somewhat came to an understanding, willingly obedient, yet at night I still came in soggy drunk, hanging onto whatever I could.
On the top bunk, of the bunk bed I was assigned to, and sleeping on (in the enormous room we lived in, the bunk beds accommodated 44-soldiers, bed all in two rows, eleven to each side, one soldier on top, one on the bottom, old WWII vintage, wooden and square framed, slanted roofed barracks, and going toward the double doors, to the right, it lead out into the courtyard, just beyond the doors, straight ahead, was the latrine. The windows in the building were wide, on both sides of the wooden structure, several to each side; the outside painted white, the inside pale white and green; as I was about to say, a southern boy slept on the top bunk, he didn’t seem to like me, or get along with me all that well, just gave me sneers like the Sergeants often did, he didn’t like me coming into the barracks drunk and coming in so late, I felt it was none of his business, he wasn’t my sergeant, nor my parent. He was a strict soldier, and our attitudes conflicted, ferocity of rectangular emotion around him, so I named it, then it was just bitterness, and he decided to confront me on this drinking issue one evening, just before lights out.
I came in, it was perhaps a few minutes before ´Light’s out!’ and he grabbed me by my shirt (about my height, and weight), said:
“It’s two-minutes to lights out, and here you are walking in half drunk.” He was correct in his observation.
“Oh,” I said, adding “…is that so…!” and broke his arm from my shirt, downward, and a second later, took my palm and pushed him against the wall. He was stunned I had broken his arm hold so easily, I had him almost pinned against the wall. Then I grabbed his shaving cream and squirted it all over him, not sure why, but it was the closest thing to my free hands now, but perhaps to shame him or belittle him in front of the onlookers, whom were the soldiers now in their bunks now. Then I stepped back into a fighting stance, and egged him on. I did not want to beat him without him having another chance to strike me, it didn’t seem right. I mean I could have killed him right there, had I wanted to, his open posture was almost an invitation for a slaughter, but only a professional fighter could have seen that. I had just come from San Francisco and Studied Karate under the guidance of the greatest Karate instructor of my day (1968-69), Gosei Yamaguchi, thus, having two years in warlike arts in fighting; I was ready.
His instinct was good, he backed down, and I never pushed anyone beyond that point, the point of no return, never put anyone in a corner I always told myself, give him a little room to get out, it could save a lot of trouble. That was always inbreed in me, not sure of the why or how it, who put it there that is.
My thoughts at the time were: why does this wooden man, one I can break so easily confront me like this. The following morning he was standing outside, with two friends, and I came up to him and said,
“Do you want to finish it…?” and added, “let me show you this” and before he could say a word, or blink an eye, I had thrown several punches and a back kick (not to show off but to show him I no longer was going to play with him), and I pulled my punches lest I break his nose or jaw or something. After the demonstration, his eyes bulged out, and he just said, “You’re a trained fighter, it would be crazy to fight with you,” and walked away, I really think he simply thought I was crazy.
KP and Potatoes, Army life
(January, 1970; Week Seven in Basic Training)
(Kitchen Police) KP
KP, or call it Kitchen Police, Kitchen Duty, or whatever, but back in my basic training, back in 1970, ever soldier did it. I was woken up this one morning of my seventh week in training, it was a Sunday, and someone wanted to go to church, so guess who they picked for kitchen duty, me. I wasn’t supposed to have it; I had had it three times before, and was suppose to have been done with it. But the Army never works that way, they just keep putting straws on the camel’s back until he drops, or says something to stop it, and I was not everyone’s favorite soldier, so I just accepted it, I was close to going onto the next stage, advance training in Alabama, or Ranger training in California, and jungle training in Washington somewhere down the line. So I figured another day on KP would not hurt. Yet at the time I didn’t know my next duty station for sure. I didn’t even know if they were going to pass me, I mean, they could have fixed it for me to stay around a while longer if they hated me so much here and thus make me suffer, you know, torment me with another eight weeks of this boy scout like training as I had felt it was, yet on the other hand I’m quite sure they were more than ready to get rid of me. They had done it I heard, but they would not do it to me. Although I’m getting ahead of myself, it is of no consequence to the story here and beyond, or at this point.
“Soldier, get up, you got KP!” said the young sergeant, my drill sergeant, at 4:00 AM, with a smirk on his face. He was a vulture, “I already had it three times before!” I said.
“You got ten minutes…no more!” he added to his unsightly face. The Buck Sergeant stood outside, waited to see if I was coming, and I was, I rushed to and fro…and was on my way in ten minutes flat.
It was as if by me staying in the platoon touched off a high explosive inside the sergeant’s head, I think he would have liked me to have gone AWOL, run to Canada for his amusement (and to be honest I thought about it a few times and figured I’d think more on it later, when I got my thirty-day leave). As I walked outside, onto the dirt road in front of the barracks, and then on down the dirt road, and across the black asphalt road—that went the opposite way, to the Mess Hall, he looked a bit gloomy, I was turning out to be a soldier indeed, and he wasn’t sure if he liked that, and neither was I.
It was a long day, or would be. First came the dishes, then the pots and pans, and then the potatoes, yes, I hated doing the potatoes, not because it was hard, nothing in the Army is that hard, it was boring, and they had an automatic potato peeler right behind me, staring at my back side, as I sat on the steps in back of the mess hall, peeling potatoes the old fashion way, with a knife, slowly, and a big pot for the skins of the potatoes and one for the potatoes. I think it was based on not wanting us to have something to do, rather than nothing to do and the automatic peeler would only do the job quicker and allow us to have free time. Oh well, it was all part of the show I told myself. And it gave me time to think on many things.
(I thought about Maria Garcia, a young woman I was seeing and had met while on Christmas leave, back in St. Paul, this past December).
She had a kid, and we’d drink a lot together, and she always seemed to be having family, friends, people in general over to her house, a Mexican thing I think, or Spanish thing, more the company the better; whereas for me being the gringo, I was not used to this, and had I suppose less of a family life in that I didn’t have so many people around, more of a loner, a quieter life. But it was nice meeting everyone. She was cute, short, black thick hair, a nice shape on her, and somewhat of a decent lover. And I never told her I was in the Army, and on my last day of leave, I simply left, that as it was, I got up one morning, had my orders to go, and left, never even made a phone call, had I, I would not have known what to say anyhow
On my three hundred and forty-forth potato, I got thinking about Sergeant Wolf, a black sergeant, drill sergeant that is. How he’d smoke, solemnly smoke them cigarettes, right to its end. He was there among the other Drill Sergeants often, talking, he was from ‘C’ platoon, I think he liked me, because I made him look good, and our sergeants bad; they always had bets, betting on this and that: saying there platoon was better, and I think my drill sergeants lost many bets. He had a fleshless neck, almost none at all, and a head of an absurd largeness; a stooping body like an ape, and hands that were almost touching the ground when he walked. He was the Judo and Karate instructor; I could have taught the man something, but for what time we had, it was good enough. I think at times his prerogative was to out show me, but whatever he showed, or demonstrated, I could do better, he had a horrible agility, dull small eyes, clean-shaven. He darted here and there it seemed, like a spider, stupidly I often found myself looking at him. I wouldn’t miss him, I told myself.
Yes indeed many thoughts were going through my mind this day, this twelve hour day: I remembered the three Generals, the second or third day I had been in boot camp, Smiley, I and Bruce were sitting down in the clothing supply area waiting to get sized up for our dress greens, and here comes three generals, I didn’t really know a general from a captain, but one had three stars on his shoulders. “How they treating you soldier?” he asked me, I didn’t get up, and simply said, “So, so, I guess,” he smiled, and said something else, and I never saluted him, nor stood at attention, that was a peeve with my young drill sergeant, but he got over it, after warning me, should it happen again, I’d be severely reprimanded; the General saw the sergeant was upset, and told him in so many wards: give him a break.
The other thing that came to mind in my daydreaming was the old sergeants appearance, my drill sergeant, when I say old, I do not really mean, old, old, but for a drill sergeant, old: he had a square jaw, like me, but was a few inches taller, not much, a rough looking face, as if he had been around a bit, small eyes, half closed all the time, or seemingly so. At times he was vigorous and at times a cold pathetic look gravitated all over his face to his forehead. He was what many called, a Red Neck, perhaps thirty-seven years old, but he was a vulture nonetheless.
I felt at times I was the side focus of the group of drill sergeants, they had beat the hell out of one of the soldiers for not adjusting and getting smart with them, which I really never did, I mean I never disrespected them verbally, I was simply not afraid of them, and they knew it. Moreover I was guarded I suppose, waiting for them to do it to me, or try. And they knew I was waiting, and I think my eyes warned them, be careful, you are treading on unknown ground, and somebody besides me will get hurt also. What I took to be men of honor, among our leaders, disappointment me somewhat, most were fine, but some were not. They had a job to do I know, and this is of course how I was feeling at the time: everyone with gaunt and hard eyes, with gloomy jobs, and often drunk before lights went out for us. The older drill sergeant, my drill sergeant couldn’t talk for two weeks, laryngitis (inflammation of the larynx). Not sure why I thought this was funny, but he couldn’t holler like he’d have liked to.
At the end of the day, I had a few aches and some numbness, my muscles danced, and my nerves—wiggled. Smiley came by once, said: “See yaw at the beer hall tonight…!” And Bruce and Allen would be with him. Both good old southern boys, as they called themselves. Allen was a large figure of a man with glasses and smart. I nodded my head ‘yes’ and kept on peeling those potatoes, and cutting them up.
Stalemate: Army Life
(January, 1970; Week Seven and a half in Basic Training)
We marched back and forth like children walking in formation to school, not half miles though, but four and five miles a day. No one had the right to resort to tears nor calmly and flatly refuse, a few I think wanted to, we had a fat boy in the group, and the sergeants run him ragged (by the time he left, he must had lost forty pounds, he was most grateful to his oppressors) didn’t even fight back, emotionally or physically. Most of the trainees just did what they were told, had to do, thought they had to do. I learned later on in time, one can hate the Army and love it at the same time. And then one becomes codependent on it, with it. This never took place at this stage of the game, but down the road of life it seemed to me to be enmeshed in what were called the lifers.
Most of the recruits just did what they were told, not creating any static, or disruptions. The first day they had asked if any of the soldiers were lawyers, or studying law in college, and a few raised their hands, and I never saw them again. Not sure if they got special treatment, or a special platoon, but I knew that if you were in college, the chances were you’d not be drafted until after you got out, or if you were married prior to 1965. I guess I felt, they felt, the rule makers of the country felt we (the others) were dispensable in comparison. Anyhow, as I was saying the men were almost on automatic control for the drill sergeants at this time, acting without thinking, like robots, what they wanted I suppose.
They seemed to have immune perversity while I often emanated an inner outrageousness for such control. I presume that is why a nation selects their youth, they are so vulnerable, gullible, and patriotism is high, and not reviewed for wrongness. When I select a church (or any organization) to belong to, I review its doctrine, its code, no matter what, listen to the preachers, if they preach the gospel fine, if they preach something that sounds like it, I need to do some thinking, more thinking, and deep thinking—do I want to belong to this or not, kind of thinking; it is a decision with me and myself, my life, the only thing I got here on earth.
People are deceiving; self-interest is stronger than going to Hell. A nation run by a lunatic is not wise to follow. And it is obvious from history: it is easier to enmesh the masses with a big lie, than the few with a small lie. Hitler, and all his kind in history have done so, and continue to do so, and have proven me right, and the blind follow the blind.
And so the battle between me and the Army was half over in boot camp, nothing was hard for me in the Basic Training world, wasteful perhaps, but not difficult. I was throwing time away, and they were throwing dollars my way, and travel, and training, and so we both got something out of it, the tax payers I’m not sure. And if I was going to save the world, this was a good place to start, or run from afterwards. It was now 1970, a new decade for me, an ultimatum had been settled, I accepted, this was better than the old stalemate I had back home for now, and found myself again in, while in the Army, and so I had to learn to bark like a dog to my masters, somewhat, and I would get my biscuit, and I did.
Beer Bash—At Fort Bragg!
(February, 1970; Week Eight in Basic Training)
I had learned, a Soldier’s first day in basic training, is like every other day, one very long day. For me it was thirteen weeks long. Dlsiluk
was motionless, it was Saturday, and we were all standing about in the bus station on base at Fort Bragg, checking out the billboard for our assignments. It was the end of the eighth week of training, and we had but a few days left, going into the ninth week, actually, my 13th week (counting the four weeks I had used up for Christmas leave) belonging to this Platoon of sorts. We all were checking to see where our orders were going to send us, for our new assignment. The Drill Sergeants were sitting in the smoking room, drinking and so forth, having a bash, training was over for the most part, but we had two days left, we had to use them to clear the base, sign papers, bring back our linen, and so forth and then we’d meet back here and take our buses to wherever.
Sergeant Wolf was collecting money, “How about you Private Siluk?” he asked (a little kinder than usual), as I’m reading my assignment…
“Well,” said the sergeant with his hat out.
“Collecting money for what?” I said, adding “is this another requirement?”
“So we can get drunk and forget all your faces, and all the work we had to do to get you recruits to be real soldiers.”
I just stared at him, and he walked away, went into the backroom with the door opened, and took a drink of his booze. Somehow I felt sorry for the men the Drill Sergeants, they really thought they were doing a good deed, they felt they deserved it, the change they were collecting, they all surely had some kind of vision, one I did not pick up on. I was in-between, the eclipse I suppose. So I walked into the backroom, “Want a drink…?” Staff Sergeant Wolf asked. We saw things a little differently I suppose, but that is the way life is, even in the Army, and they needed some kind of uniformity and it was over.