Paperwork? What paperwork?
My military career didn’t officially begin until a week after it was supposed to. Everyone else on the bus from the Columbia airport to Fort Jackson managed to bring their official papers with them. I remembered seeing the thick manila envelope on the kitchen table before I left, but it didn’t occur to me that I’d need to bring it with me. No one had told me to do so, and I wasn’t about to make any assumptions with these Army people.
It’s 2300 (that morning I’d have said 11 PM), and we’re all standing in a rough formation in front of a desk. Behind the desk sat a real Army soldier. ‘They stay up really late here’ I thought. It was then I noticed everyone but me had a large manila envelope. Everyone. I held out small hope that one fellow had forgotten his envelope, but he produced it from a bag at his feet at the last moment. The Army person called out the names and one by one we went forward to the desk and gave the Army person our manila packet. “LAI-SES-TUH!” Dear God, it’s midnight, I am 3,500 miles away from home, and I do not have my paperwork. I didn’t have any context for the situation, so I didn’t know if they’d send me home, or shoot me. The MP guarding the door had a pistol on his hip. Anything was possible.
I need not have worried. When I told the Spec-4 at the desk that I didn’t have any paperwork, he just made a note and told me to go stand back where I’d come from. The next day another Army person retrieved me from the barracks and brought me to an official phone. I called mom. “Mom? Hi, yes, it’s me, I’m fine, you know that big manila envelope on the table? Yeah, that one. Well, they want you to FedEx it to this address.” I read off the address the morning shift Spec-4 gave me—I was using his phone, under his watchful eye. I think he believed that if I was so stupid to leave my paperwork at home I wasn’t smart enough to give the correct mailing address. His lack of trust in my ability to get things right was shared by my reception station NCO and all my drill sergeants in Basic. I believe they learn it in drill sergeant school. I think it was a rule at Fort Jackson when dealing with trainees.
After what seemed like only a few short years later, I graduated from Basic Training. Advanced Individual Training went pretty quickly after that, and finally I was ready to fly home. I got my airline tickets from some office on post, and showed up at the out-processing center with my suitcase and my plane tickets. I sat down with the others who were ready to out-process and either head to their assignment or head home.
Names were called alphabetically. People went forward to the civilian man at the desk, who took their paperwork, separated it into several stacks, stapled a stack of various papers and handed that stack back to the out-processing soldier. The soldier grinned and in some cases ran out the door. It was good. I was excited. Until I noticed that every person who went up to the desk had the same paperwork. You get to notice these things after awhile. I looked in my bag. Nothing but the plane tickets, and a copy of my discharge orders wrapped around the ticket envelope.
“LAI-SES-TUH!” I went to the desk and cheerfully handed the civilian gentleman my plane tickets with the discharge orders wrapped around them. He looked at it, gave it back to me and asked “Where’s your paperwork?”
“This isn’t it?”
He chuckled. “No, that’s not it. You didn’t get an out-processing packet at your unit?”
“No.” I was suddenly glad I hadn’t called anyone back in Seattle to tell them I was coming home.
“When does your flight leave?”
“4:30 this afternoon.”
He looked up at the clock on the wall. “Sit down.”
He went to the other civilian in the room and whispered to him. The other guy stood up, and my man said “follow me.” We went out to his car, a huge old something or other with a front bench seat about eight feet wide. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I had learned this the hard way.
It turns out that when a soldier permanently leaves post, he has to go to the post office, and the equipment issue warehouse, and the medical clinic, and on and on until each place has given their official stamped recognition of the fact that I was leaving. At every official Army event, paperwork is exchanged.
That man drove me to every spot I had to out-process, and there were maybe as many as ten. He told me who to see when I got in the building and what spot they had to check off. He checked my paperwork every time I got back in the car. This took several hours and we were into early afternoon by the time he drove down a secluded part of post and backed his car into the shade of some trees.
He took a brown paper bag from under the front seat, unscrewed the top of the bottle in it, and took several drinks. I couldn’t tell you what it was except that it was alcohol. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. He talked about the trees and how you could tell how warm the summer was going to be by their bark (or something like that). He screwed the cap back on the bottle, put it back under the front seat, turned on the car and drove back to where he and I had begun several hours earlier.
We walked inside, he separated my paperwork into several stacks, stapled one stack and handed it back to me. He smiled. I left. And I made my plane flight back home.
I wish I could find him now, just to thank him.
UPDATE: I found this photo while I was searching around for photos of Victory Tower. This is just what it looks like when you get there, regardless of the date.