Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tales from the (basic training) Crypt

I recently had an article written about me in a local paper regarding my time in the military and it got me reminiscing about my early Air Force Academy days--the good, the bad, and the really bad.  This blog is more of a journal entry for me (and has been sitting unpublished for a year, so feel free to ignore.

There's a common saying about the Air Force Academy "It's a good place to be from, but not a good place to be at". Not surprisingly, life at a military academy isn't always fun (marching to lunch everyday, 24 hour credit semesters, cafeteria food, lack of free agency, taking orders all day every day, and my entire freshman year with few exceptions are some of the things that come to mind) and yet, I believe experiences are what we make of them.   

Basic training was much like you see in movies.  The goal is to break you down individually and then rebuild you as part of a team. With that said, they aren't always able to destroy all your individuality or personality. As I began basic training,  I was under the impression that the cadre (the older cadets running it) could physically punish me and that I couldn't do anything about it.  So naturally I worried that my particular brand of humor might make someone want to punch me in the face and knowing they'd have free reign of my face, I wasn't that excited. Imagine my relief when I found out the unlike the boot camp back in 'Nam and they can't just willy nilly hit you.  Once I discovered that fact, I knew I could handle what they could dish out, because really, they can only make you do so many push-ups.  Here is the best example of my first day and my mindset - all 30ish of us basics get thrown into a room and are told to get to know each other and become a team. We've been yelled at, physically challenged, had our heads shaved, forced into matching uniforms, been mind gamed, etc, so everyone was a little off. So amidst the chaos, I jokingly told everyone to "quiet down because I had the conch and it's my turn to speak". That's when I knew who would be my friends for the next 4 years (people who laughed) and those that I didn't care about (those who didn't).  During this meeting where we introduced ourselves for the first time, the only thing that I remember was that Thomas Bozung said that his nickname in highschool was Donkeyballs. What?!?  Ok, so not only are you behind the curve already because your last name lends itself very nicely to be changed to Bozo, but the first thing you tell people you've just met and will be spending the next 4 years with is this nickname?  That's not even considering the fact that you're starting fresh in college in Colorado (he's from Michigan) and no one you know is here, but still you decide share with everyone that your nickname is Donkeyballs. Well played Bozo, well played.

So we were only allowed to write letters home for the 6 weeks during basic.  We got to call at the halfway point and then during freshmen year we could only call home on the weekends and that was only if you had phone privileges.  Mind you that the internet was just really starting as was technology - the seniors pretty much had typewriters because my computer was top notch and it was a 133 MHz speed machine.  In order to send them we had to put them on a clip outside our door. I had a theory that all the postcards that the military gave us to use was so they older cadre could have fun laughing at what we wrote. So I designed a very scientific experiment to test out my hypothesis. I wrote 2 letters - one postcard and one sealed letter. On the postcard I told my parents that the cadre took all treats that were sent from home and ate them in front of us. So I asked them to send a box of brownies made with Ex-Lax to 'teach them a lesson'.  In the letter I explained that they read all our postcards and so please send brownies but leave out the Ex-Lax. So a week later a box of brownies showed up at mail time. Standing in formation the cadre took the box from me, looked inside and then got big smiles.  They then instructed me to eat the entire box right there.  So I started grubbing and sharing with my fellow basics. Guess who has 2 thumbs and was the hero of the day? That's right, this guy.

There is evidence of my heroism at least one more time at the obstacle course.  Part of the many obstacles including a 30 foot rope climb with 2 ropes free hanging right next to each other.  Now remember that this was 1996 so I was a little more awesome back then, I was a lotta pounds lighter, and I had a 25 foot rope in my backyard that I climbed 20x everyday in the summer, so it was my thing. One of the cadre starting telling a tale of someone he knew "Donkey Kong" the ropes, meaning climb up using both ropes with 1 hand on each and using no feet. I stated I could do that, he disagreed, and so a gentlemanly wager was made involving him giving me candybars for everyone and my side of the bet was something that didn't matter because I wasn't going to lose. So (drumroll) I did it, and knowing that he was to cheap to follow through, I let him off the hook if our squad could eat the entire dinner meal "at rest". This meant we could eat the entire meal without someone yelling, asking annoying questions, or sitting at attention, only having 7 chews, eyes straight ahead, no talking, etc...you know, like a normal person. So yeah I was a pretty bid deal.  But I definitely got in more trouble and quickly lost my hero status. 

For some reason cadre don't like being laughed at when they're yelling at you. Go figure.  So one time someone screwed up for something and they crowded us all into one room to clean up after the Jordanian exchange kid Bashar Smeir. They had trashed his room and we all had to fix it. It should be said that all foreign exchange students had important parents in their home countries - Smeir's dad was a general in the Jordanian Air Force. It should also be said that Bashar not only had a last name that could be changed to Papsmeir, but he was the harriest person I've ever seen in my life, like a middle eastern desert bear. He shaved his neck down to where his chest hair started...gross.  Side note, we also had a exchange student from Honduras named Gloria Spanishlastname.  Gloria's home country of Honduras flew P-51 Mustangs, which the US flew in WWII and Korea, so she had a lot to look forward to.  Also there are like 7 foreign kids out of 1000 and we ended up with 2 non-English speakers.  Like usual I digress, but anyways we are thrown into Smeir's room and told to take care of the mess.  Most people are freaking out, but I state that "I smell pizza".  You may think that I just one day magically developed my ability to plan for my next meal, but this super power didn't happen overnight.  So I went straight to his closet and found a stack of pizzas.  Turns out the cadre get bored watching us do pushups too, so they threw a little party since we were halfway thru with basic and they would be switching out and frankly didn't care anymore.  They gave us a TV and the choice of watching a few movies or the Olympics.  Let's see, watch Princess Bride for the 1,000,000 time (but first time not at a Mormon party, bonus) or watch the 1996 Olympics.  All the nerds picked Princess Bride, and so that's what we watched.  A few were disgruntled, so we asked that we take a halfway break and turn on the Olympics.  When we switched over, we found out that Michael Johnson had run the 200m in 19.32 for a new world record.  Track was important to me at the time, the previous 200m record was set in 1979, and Johnson's record stood until 2008, so it was a pretty big deal and we missed it.  And this is why I hate The Princess Bride (not really, but it makes the story better).

Final glory day story - so same situation, people yelling, I'm laughing, they get mad, yadayada.  so this time the older cadet decides to take all the freshmen on a 6am run before breakfast, class, etc.  But wanting to teach me a lesson, he pulls me out of the formation and demands that I run satellites around the squadron with him.  Imagine a military group running together in formation just like you've seen on tv and in movies, and then 1 guy is running circles around the entire formation while they keep moving forward.  But you can't just make a freshman do this themselves because that would be hazing, and its hard to close the doors on the outside, so go back to your visual picture and see 2 guys running circles together around the entire squad.  So I already mentioned this was a few pounds ago and a few years ago, but also I ran cross country & track my freshman and sophomore years at Air Force.  But older cadet apparently was lost in his own world and didn't realize this, even though his roommate was on the varsity team with me.  So I ran as fast and as hard as I could and he couldn't keep up.  Finally we're running up a Colorado hill (which means mountain) and he has to stop and catch his breath on the side of the formation.  Not wanting to lose this moment and my status as a team player, I took the opportunity to run circles around him while he was catching his breath and getting a drink.  Later my teammate told me that he heard about this from his roommate and informed the guy that he was an idiot.  Of course I was punished other ways, like a really low Military GPA reserved for people caught underage drinking or to stupid to pass military knowledge tests or me, but he never tried to run me to death again.

All in all I have fond memories and good friends forged thru trials and common adventures.  I wouldn't trade those for anything.  Except more brownies.  I would consider trading them for brownies.