Fifty-five nervous and hirsute young men scurried from their seats and randomly formed a parade block—four across the front and fourteen rows back—unsure of what would happen next.
About twelve of us understood the instructions barked out by the Air Force Military Training Instructor (TI), and we hesitantly began tapping the shoulders of shorter dudes in front of us. Everyone else looked around trying to decipher the violently-yelled instructions, as a dozen of us shifted our positions in the parade block. This kind of mass confusion would be our collective story for the next two months of our lives till graduation day. With a scrum of knuckleheads shifting around like the world’s worst dance contest, the TI yelled at us again, this time, separating the words so the “dummies can understand stinkin’ English.”
My entire adult life I have been a very average 5 feet, 7 inches tall. Never thought anything of it. Some dudes were taller, some were shorter. On Day Zero of Air Force Basic Military Training, I learned that I am short. Out of the fifty-five young men present, with dreams of becoming the next Hap Arnold, or James Doolittle, or John Levitow, (or Chuck Norris, or George Carlin, or Hunter S. Thompson) my shoulder got the tap by almost everyone as I stepped back, and back, and back, till I occupied one of the last rows of the parade block.
The TI turned us to the right for a second Taller Tap, then to the left again for the final one. The tallest member of our flight was in the front-right position, and the shortest guy stood in the back-left corner. I was somewhere in the middle of the second to last row, where I spent my entire time at Basic, ‘cause, “Scoot back, Heltzer. You ain’t getting any taller.”
After three or four Taller Taps, I figured it out. Every time the TI yelled, “FALL IN!” I went directly to the back. First lesson learned at Basic Training, “Know your role. I’m short”
The only disadvantage of this height system is you end up marching next to the same people all the time. The other 5’7” guy couldn’t march worth a damn, causing every TI within eyesight to descend on our row, screaming instructions, which only made his feet worse.
“Spanglebanger*, what the hell are you going to do in my Air Force?”
“Trainee Spanglebanger reports as ordered,” he said in a nervous warble. “Accounting, sir.”
I got stuck marching next to the faulty-footed accountant for two months.
*- Name changed to protect the inept.
Somewhere during Week 5, we were doing field exercises that involved fake rifles, yelling ridiculous things like, “GREEN SMOKE, SIX O’CLOCK,” and sleeping in tents and discovering that mice know how to get into food storage lockers.
By this point in Basic Training, things were moving fast and the indoctrination process was firmly in place. I was comfortable not having any hair, calling everyone “Sir/Ma’am,” and getting yelled at as a love language.
We had just completed an exercise building a military thing and carrying the military thing over to the military place as part of the military thing-place exercise, when a wave of military consternation flew over all of us like a squadron of military planes on a bomb run. Our Flight Chief (a student leader who was just as befuddled as the next bald-headed guy) was on the ground doing push-ups on our behalf at the feet of a screaming TI who scared the crap out of us because he had a lazy eye we never knew who he was yelling at at any given time.
“YOU GONNA TELL ME YOU SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETED MISSION? THAT’S A BUNCH OF BULL, TRAINEE! LOOK AT THAT HOSPITAL TENT! MY DEAD GRANNY CAN BUILD A BETTER TENT THAN THAT WITH HER FEET. ON YOUR FACE, FLIGHT CHIEF!”
I completed half a gulp of water from a canteen that smelled like gym socks, when everyone from the flight figured out our corner-cutting and mental exhaustion led to the downfall of the United States of America. So, we joined the Flight Chief on our faces, “pushin’ Texas.”
Five weeks of Basic, and I followed every yelled instruction without thinking about it. Five weeks of Basic and my fellow lunkheads couldn’t assemble a row of beds properly to save their lives. So, there we were doing push ups alongside our leader who was suffering due to our ineptitude because he didn’t pay attention to detail. Our detail. My detail.
“IF YOU WERE UNDER FIRE, YOU’D ALL BE DEAD AND PRESIDENT AL QAEDA WOULD BE MY BOSS. I AIN’T SERVING IN NO AL QAEDA AIR FORCE, SO YOU DUMMIES BETTER LEARN TO DO IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME! THEY CAN’T HEAR YOU COUNTING PUSH UPS IN AL QAEDAVILLE, YOU KNUCKLEBRAINED DUMB BUTTS*!* START AGAIN AND COUNT LOUDER!”
*- It is considered unprofessional for a TI to use profanity towards a student at Basic Military Training.
**- Just because the words could be said on Nickelodeon doesn’t make them any less scary coming from a guy who carried a yardstick with him everywhere he went.
***- Out of supreme frustration, when our TI said, “What the hell do I have to do to get you to follow instructions? Do I have to slap the fuck out of a trainee to get results?” we were convinced we were all going to die.
We were told up front at our first meal what is what.
“You want a ‘Chow Hall?’ Join the Army. Airmen eat in a Dining Facility, also known as a DFAC. You walk in, get a tray, stand shoulder to shoulder, order what is in front of you, EYES FRONT, get your food, walk directly to a table, wait till there are four to a table, sit down, eat, and get the hell out! Roger that?”
For two months, the sanctity of eating a hot meal that tasted far superior to any cinematic retelling was a special moment. However, this was no Burger King. No one was getting their food their way.
“French toast, please.”
“Chicken patty, please.”
“Mixed veggies, please.”
The women who worked the food line in the DFAC were no exception to customs and courtesies. “Thank you, ma’am,” was expected. No one was flirting or striking up conversation. We were as militant with food as we were on the march across the sun-drenched roads of Lackland Air Force Base. Shuffling our feet side to side, two hands on trays, no talking other than ordering, EYES FRONT!
The short round one was mean, nasty, and never smiled. If she could get away with wearing a campaign hat atop her hair net, she probably would. The one time–and only one time–I asked for something that was one section back from the steamed vegetables, she sneered at me, clanged her industrial-sized serving spoon against the steel tray, and barked, “Wrong order!” My toes lost all feeling and my throat sealed itself closed out of survival so I wouldn’t say another word other than, “Sorry, ma’am.”
The other woman worked the morning shift and she was the brightest ray of sunshine among two months of verbal hellfire and push-up punishments. She was older, kinder, and was ready to serve you breakfast with love and a smile like she was your grandmother.
“Good mornin’, baby. What’ll you have?”
My words didn’t change, posture remained the same, eyes were front and two hands on my tray, but a smile snuck out and said with such joy, “French Toast, please.”
On my final day of Basic Training, I shot mental daggers to the mean ones, and I thanked grandma for being the only smiling face I saw during my entire stay at Lackland. Was she part of the ethos of breaking down the individual, to mold and shape young men and women to focus on their job in stressful situations, and to follow orders? No, but it didn’t matter. Her smile is very likely the main reason that the United States Air Force is the mightiest air power across the globe. That, and they serve some damn tasty french toast and chicken patties now at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
There were other memorable moments where getting in line yielded interesting results.
TI to me: “You’re Air Force Band? Line up against that wall.”
18-year-old kid* sitting next to me: “Dude, how OLD are you?” (I was 33.)
*- He suffered from Stockholm Syndrome in a bad way, professing his intent to invite the TI’s to his wedding. I knew better and vowed to never lay eyes on any of those knuckleheads ever again.
Picking up our laundry from across the base in a marching formation of two and two, and a barrel-chested, fireplug of a TI walking towards us, shouting, “You better get the hell outta my way, ‘cause I sure as hell ain’t getting out of yours!”
The nervous energy of donning your MOPP Gear (Military Oriented Protective Posture) before heading into the gas chamber. Once we got inside, we lined up, they sealed the chamber, dropped the pellet, then made us remove our masks. In order to get out, you had to give your reporting statement, and name your favorite breakfast cereal. I didn’t have the breath control to talk about my love affair with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Cereal with delicious marshmallow turtles, so I said, “Sir, Trainee Heltzer repor<cough cough> reports as order<cough cough gag gasp retch> Kix!” It sounds horrible, and it was, but that wretched experience culminates the moment during Basic Military Training where a Trainee becomes an Airman. It’s the worst experience and one of the best, all at the same time.
Before the Air Force life I’ve known for 18+ years, I had a beard, longer hair, an earring, and a desire to do my own thing. Nonetheless, career opportunities and a growing family convinced me to give this Air Force thing a try. I got out of Basic Training as fast as I got in and much to my surprise, getting in line provided some great lessons, valuable benefits, and fodder for endless tales.
Out of curiosity, I looked up Trainee Spanglebanger and it turns out, 18 years later, he’s still an accountant for your United States Air Force.
Fly, fight win!
Get in line!