(This is me, with my two best college buddies, on the eve of graduation, June 1980. Guess which is which and get the no-prize...)I was free, college-educated, and twenty-three. And I had done what my parents expected of me; I had gone to college and earned a degree. And now it was time to do what I wanted.
So I reported to the old Philadelphia MEPS station on the 29th of December, 1980 with a small bag containing a clutch of toiletries, two changes of shirt, an extra pair of pants and an assortment of white athletic socks. The bus let me off near the City Hall downtown and I walked the right or so blocks to the "Military Entrance and Processing Station".
The MEPS is the first stop for every hunk of new meat, whatever the service or the destination. Most of them are driven in by their recruiters; I was unusual in that I wanted to arrive alone and said so. My recruiter, probably figuring that a 23-year-old college kid could figure out a bus schedule and a map, and happy to have one less cherry to drive around, gave me directions and a time that my intake would be scheduled to report that day.
I understand that the Philly MEPS has been moved out to the suburbs, some place like Essington, no doubt, where there are trees, the streets are clean and empty, and recruiters can get the kids mocha frappuchinos at Starbucks or some such thing. The old MEPS was in downtown Philly, a grim brick pile redolent of generations of youthful bravado and fear. It looked like the sort of place you went to pass through the portal taking you away from casual civilian softness; ugly, dark, dirty with the sort of engrained filth that no amount of mopping and scrubbing can cleanse.I went through the door and followed the comet-trails of kids in civvies, each one led by their recruiter, noting sourly that I had chosen poorly if sartorial elegance was my goal. The Navy swabs looked sharp in their peacoats and white caps, even their junior enlisteds piss-cutter smart in crackerjack blues with the dixiecup caps tipped at a knowing angle. They looked like walking fonts of carnal knowledge - no doubt every one of them had been laid repeatedly by swooning squid-groupies knocked on their backs by the salty manliness of the sailor suits.
The Marines were even worse; their NCOs wore the Class C uniform that sported a trim khaki shirt over dress blue trousers and the white cover. Their black shoes glittered like obsidian, their bold green stripes and riot of ribbon-bar colors mocked the sorrowful dark green of the Army guys, the latter looking like remainders in the toy soldier bin in their sack-like dress greens and foolish stiffened overseas cap (loathed and dreaded by all soldiers, the awful "cunt cap" was perhaps the worst Army headgear ever invented other than...we'll get to that later). Only the Air Force recruiters, in their silly light blue bus-driver outfits, looked less military but then, they were, you know...Air Force.
Regardless of hue, navy, khaki, green, and cerulian, all of us straggled into the smallish room and were chivvied into lines by our sheepdogs. Someone shouted "Attention!" and we drew ourselves up into a semblance of rigidity as a rather preoccupied-looking officer bustled in and stood behind a podium. He wasted no time; we were instructed to raise our right hands and to repeat that we solemnly swore (or affirmed) that we would support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that we would bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that we would obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over us, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so help us God.And we were the property of Uncle Sam.
I honestly don't remember much of the rest of the day. We must have been inspected physically, just in case, and we must have completed some paperwork. All I do remember is that by midafternoon a group of us were on a Greyhoundish sort of bus headed for our home for the next three months or so; Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Today the old post is a slip of itself, a reserve training post and mobilization center. But in the last days of 1980 it was still one of the Army's big BCT posts, home of two Training Brigades - the 5th, whose nickname I don't recall, and the 3rd, known on its signage and nowhere else as the "Pioneers". The place was overrun with soldiers. As we drove in and across the place they were running, or marching, or doing some incomprehensible things in orderly groups. You could hear the sound of chanted choruses that seemed right on the edge of our understanding. As we straggled off the bus at the newish Reception Station we were beginning to realize what we had done to ourselves.
But Army Basic hasn't changed all that much since the Forties; the first couple of days is spent teaching the poor fool simply how to stand in one place and move to another. Simple marching and rest positions, getting the trainees' heads readjusted to the idea that they can't just go where they want and do what they want anymore. The process wasn't very interesting, but it wasn't frightening or intimidating, either. We began to think that the war stories about Basic had been exaggerated just to spook us. We began to get organized, a little.
In 1980 this was still a little difficult. The Carter reforms of the "Volunteer Army" hadn't fully arrived. Several of the guys bunking in my bay in the REPO had been sent there as an alternative to jail; one, in fact, was congratulating himself for his business sense. The way he saw it, he was now supplier to the world's biggest customer base for weed.I don't remember a great, shocking transition between civilian life and Reception Station. Yes, we got up a little earlier than most of us were used to. The marching and standing at attention were a bit different but not unexpected; the REPO cadre were efficient and gruff but not frighteningly so. So by the time we were sorted out and bussed across post to our BT companies we had the beginnings, at least, the pocket change, of soldiering and thought we were well on the way to becoming salty old troopers.So when we arrived to the screaming, scrambling organized chaos of nightfall at Company A, 4th Battalion, Third (Basic Training) Brigade, we were unprepared for what would follow. We were still, in our heads, just civilians on an odd sort of employment, still thinking and moving at the casual pace and random direction of civilians. We really had no idea what soldiering entailed.
And that was about to change.