My Decision – Part 2
Fall 1968 through Spring 1969
It was my decision: Leave home and head for somewhere unknown on the grounds of radical opposition to a war of mythic origins and obscure ends, or visit the Air Force recruiter in Statesboro who had called once already, offering me a commission and the chance to fly.
It was my decision, and the choices were stark: Leave home and country at twenty-two, perhaps never to see my family again, or abandon my own sense of right and be sent off to fight and kill in a dubious cause; dash my family’s hopes, or make my daddy proud; despoil their good name and honor, or become a flyboy in service of the great American democracy like he did, saving some poor defenseless people from the evils of Communism as everyone in my hometown – probably everyone in the whole state, and practically everyone in America – expected me to.
For a few weeks, my decision was to not decide. I talked to the Air Force recruiter again, but I wasn’t sure. It seemed like selling out on what I believed.
Then the notice came.
Just like Mr. Bell had promised, my name had come up and I was drafted. I suppose I panicked. I have no recollection of what that actually felt like. I guess I drove it out to somewhere I wouldn’t have to remember what it felt like.
By then, the only people I knew who had talked about going to Canada had found other escape avenues. I didn’t even know anyone I could talk to about CO status. I was confused and afraid. In the end, I simply lost the will to make a decision, and rationalized away my anti-war feelings by saying that I really didn’t know enough, or have a strong enough moral basis, to justify outright refusal to serve or resistance against the war. I told myself that if all these people thought it was right, then who was I to think that I could decide it was wrong. I told myself that all I could do was go and find out.
So that’s what I did.
Daddy called the recruiter and explained the situation. The recruiter said, “No problem. We just backdate the enlistment. Come on over one day this week and we’ll sign you up.” Just like that. We’ll sign you up. Just like joining the Boy Scouts. Except instead of cook hot dogs, you’re gonna go cook geeks.
Of course, I didn’t quite think of it that way then. I didn’t realize what joining the Air Force would mean. It seemed to me then that it was something like, “Sure, join the Air Force, they’re just a nice bunch of guys in blue suits that fly around saving the world. Sure beats getting drafted, wearing fatigues and crawling around in the mud shooting people and getting shot at!”
That decision was a no-brainer: Join the Air Force, maybe go to Germany or somewhere neat like that.
So I made my decision. Off to Statesboro we went, pen in hand. A few weeks later, I took the bus to Charleston and got sworn in along with several hundred other guys who were off to see the wild blue yonder – or something like it. Daddy was so proud. He was even prouder when I qualified for officer training, and then pilot training.
I was just surprised – who’d’a thought? Me, a pilot!
I was on delayed enlistment, sworn in but didn’t even have to go anywhere ‘till sometime after Christmas, so I could sit back and wait for a slot in Officer Training School (OTS) while all the unlucky boys from my county were off to boot camp and heading straight for Vietnam. I was convinced I was going to Germany.
I tried not to think too much about Bid Sands, the first war casualty from our town. I remember his picture on the front page of the paper, him sitting up straight and proud, smiling in his Navy dress whites, gold braid and officer bars on his shoulders. Everyone was so proud: now we had our own war hero!
Communities and families seem to like, even need, to have a son die in “the war” – and any war will do! – every so often just to prove their patriotism and re-establish their sense of honor.
I stayed home and helped Daddy put out his weekly newspaper and tried not to watch the evening news or think about Bid Sands or what was going on across the Pacific. I still thought Germany would be nice. Sort of a poetic justice to it, what with Daddy spending fifteen months as a guest of the Nazis at Stalag Luft Ein in WW Two.
A few months later, I went off to Old San Antone – Daddy had spent some time there, too, and told lots of romantic tales about nights along the river, along with enthusiastic renditions of “San Antonio Rose” and “Goin’ Back.” I was going to OTS at Lackland Air Force Base where I would become a dashing and debonair Second Lieutenant, USAF!
San Antonio was nice. A beautiful town, lovely people. Lackland Air Force Base is a pit of hell. And, as anyone who’s been through it could tell you, OTS sux. In fact, “no place sux like OTS sux” was the unofficial motto. It should be inscribed on a great archway leading into the base.
OTS is essentially a device for taking confident, happy, rational, intelligent, decent human beings and turning them into “officers” – who have none of those qualities. The primary tools for doing this are ridicule, humiliation, contempt, boredom, exhaustion, a hyper-pressure version of peer pressure, and downright cruelty. It works very well.
We were a motley crew of young college grads, a fairly good cross-section of typical American guys in 1969. We hadn’t done a lot of talking on the bus that brought us to our date with the devil, mostly slept. When we rolled out at some ungodly hour of the morning, we were pretty slouchy and ill-tempered, blinking in the bright morning sun and trying to figure out where the horrible noise was coming from.
Turns out it was our welcoming committee. Sergeant Whoever. He had about six stripes; each one represented enough abuse to curdle your breakfast cereal. His primary qualification for the job was a deep-seated loathing of anything civilian and an extreme hatred of normal healthy young men. The sound he was making is barely describable in words: it was what should have been a low, guttural sound, a feral snarl somehow twisted by the imposition of the notion of vowels and consonants, yet at unnaturally high volume. It was so loud and so offensive it took most of us far too long to register it as coming from a human mouth, much less decipher the meaning as intended for us and instructing us to form a line and stand at attention, neither of which actions were a big part of our vocabulary of morning pastimes.
Our thus apparently incomprehensible and inexcusable sloth and stupidity only increased the volume and excremental quality of the sounds issuing from the good sergeant’s mouth. Had our mothers, or his, seen and heard this introductory moment, none of this would have gone on long. But the military – even the sweet, glorious and oh-so-high-tech Air Force – is no place for mothers, or people who remember that they had one, as I was to soon find out.
But we did eventually manage to get our sorry selves into something like a line, and stand reasonably straight and still, and the veins in the sergeant’s temple and neck did not burst and spray us all with blood, as had seemed likely at one point. We even managed to walk away in the direction the sergeant wished us to, though so far from in step and in line that it could not be called marching, despite the sergeant’s instruction.
Although the actual events that followed were in such a haze of fear and loathing that I have only the vaguest notion of what we did and no notion of the sequence, I do remember the haircut quite clearly. It was early in the process, so as to strip us quickly of any identifying individuality and begin as soon as possible the de-humanization process at the heart of this whole experience.
It was a barbershop pretty much like all the barbershops I had been in during my life, narrow room with a long row of chairs for the customers facing the row of big barber-manned barber chairs, quiet save the clatter of clippers and the swish of capes, hair covering the floor, the faint smell of oil and perfumed talc. The pace however, was greatly accelerated. These barbers were marvels of efficient hair removal. None of the usual snipping of scissors, brandishing of comb, leisurely twisting of the big chair from side to side to gaze into the mirror and inspect the craftsman’s work. No warm foamy soap around your ears nor pop of razor on strop. This was slaughterhouse protocol. “Next!” meant jump up and sit down in the chair for your thirty seconds of shearing as the whirring machine zipped through your proud curls, scattering them unceremoniously on the floor amongst all the rest. The cape was whisked away and you moved aside to make room for the next animal, trying to conceal the bleat as you turned to see your white, knobby head revealed to the world, hardly recognizing yourself in the mirror.
I wrote nothing in my journal during these months. There was no privacy and no time to spend on such things, no moments to even think about what was happening. Introspection was specifically and vociferously forbidden – at least that was my impression. On my calendar from that year, I noted the day of reporting – February 18, 1969 – by blackening the square, leaving a large bold D. The only other notations that are intelligible to me now are those counting down the days and hours until Final Adjutants Call – Graduation, May 15, the end of this peculiar hell. My take-home-pay for the month of May is noted at the bottom of the page: $360.74. Most of my memories of that experience are cloudy, almost like it was a movie rather than my own life I’m remembering, and there are many large gaps. Some scenes stand out, but most of those 90 days are lost in a blur of emotional pain.
One scene that I remember vividly, again from the in-processing, is uniform issue. Truly ingenious in the annuls of dehumanizing experiences for young recruits, this process must have been borrowed from Dante, or perhaps the Maestro himself. We all – and all of us young, healthy males, solid in our self-identity as heterosexuals – were given a cloth bag and sent into a room together, a room that we nearly filled, and told to strip naked and squat down on our heels. Thus positioned, being fastidiously careful not to touch anyone around you, which was difficult, as we were crowded quite closely together, we were then asked to stand when the size garment appropriate for us was called out.
First – we were grateful for this small kindness, though it was no doubt an oversight on the part of those who designed this particular gauntlet that it was first – were the boxer shorts.
“Small!” the guy up front with the huge boxes of clothing calls out. Who wants to stand up for that? But neither do I want to be wearing bunchy underwear for the next 90 days, so I stand up. There’s one other guy on the far side of the room standing up already, and as I reach – carefully, so carefully, given the proximity of certain aspects of my anatomy to the faces of those squatting around me! – to catch the boxers as the guy up front throws them at me, I notice a third guy finally deciding to stand. The blood is pounding in my temples and the whole room seems the be growing darker now, but I struggle to maintain balance, pull on a pair of the grayish-green, blousy boxers, and squat back down. If shame and indignity had weight, I would crash through the floor, through the very earth beneath it, into the drawing rooms of hell – and be grateful to be there.
It got worse from there.
Mealtimes were similarly designed to create stress. The line involved nearly an hour of standing at attention, taking a step, going to parade rest, and waiting for the guy in front of you to move up a step so you could do that again. When you got your food from the cafeteria, you followed the guy in front of you to a place at the table where you had maybe five minutes to wolf down questionable material presented as food, and when the guy to your right finished, you better be ready to do the same in about 10 seconds or you were still sitting there when the guy on your left moved out, and soon the next group would be coming down that row to fill up the table with new eaters, so you ate what you could stuff down and left the rest.
We were in classes or assemblies or at PT from early in the morning until late evening, and then studying until late at night. It made the pressure of college seem like child’s play. Similarly, the design of the whole program made the initiation hazing of college fraternities seem benign.
The academic program, even the military training in drills and such, was really incidental to the whole purpose and function of OTS. The real purpose, the real “officer-making” was accomplished by the insidiously clever design of the organizational system itself. We were organized, like the real Air Force, into Flights of some 20 or 30 guys, maybe much less or much more, I’m not sure – the number of people is one of those details that is lost in the fog created by the stress! – half of whom are “Upper Flight” and half of whom are “Lower Flight.” We lived in a dormitory, each Flight occupying one wing of the building. The upperclassmen had been there for half the time when we arrived, and they functioned as our “Flight officers” complete with fake insignia, while we were in the position of enlisted men. The upper flight had a full hierarchy of officers mimicking the real Air Force system, with a commander and underlings, based on ranking in the program at the halfway point.
We were required to salute the upperclassmen, stand up when they entered the room, and give them all the symbols of respect normally rendered to officers by enlisted personnel. But it went much beyond that.
The upperclassmen were allowed to treat us not just as enlisted, but as dogs. We were apparently, in their eyes, scum of the earth, worthless pieces of shit not worthy of licking the bottom of their shoes. Which they sometimes forced us to do, along with any other demeaning things, limited apparently only by their imagination and whatever shreds of decency they had left after going through this process as underclassmen themselves, they wished to inflict on us. There was, as best I remember, no physical abuse. Just mental and emotional.
And the most insidious, the most monstrous, aspect of the program was its self-perpetuating nature. After we were treated like dirt for about six weeks, we became Upper Flight, got our own Lower Flight – the new recruits coming in – and proceeded to treat them to all the wonders we had learned at the hands of our upperclassmen, plus a few new ideas we came up with ourselves. And ultimately, it was not the abuse we suffered that broke us, but the abuse that we doled out.
“Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.”
After this was all over and I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Air Force, I came home on leave, and were they all proud!
Even I was proud, at first. I thought those little gold bars were the neatest thing I ever saw. After all, I had been through three months of misery, humiliation, and the hardest work I’d ever done to get them. I thought I was cool. The coolest.
And then, after a week or so, it hit me: they got to me, brainwashed me, made me proud of being something that I would not have given a nickel for before. The peer-pressure-cooker environment at OTS had made me forget my earlier anti-military ideas so that now I was actually proud of my accomplishment, proud of being an officer.
As these realizations began to sink in, a sick, deep nausea began to fill my heart. And things began to look very different to me. Lying in my room alone at night, I began to ask myself questions; mostly, “How could I have let them do this to me?” and “What am I going to do now?” And by then I was beginning to realize that Air Force pilots were going to Vietnam as sure as any draftee – they were cranking out pilots as fast as they could to replace those coming home, one way or the other, from Vietnam.
It was a very uneasy few weeks.
But, I had made my decision. Now I had to live with it.