Trouble came to me in two ways in basic training: 1. laughing; 2. disobedience, and then laughing. It could have been that I was so overwhelmed that the only way my brain could adjust to the turmoil was to laugh. I laughed a lot, and I was in trouble a lot. I remember being assigned kp three times, which was two times more than anyone else, except the criminal from Chicago who finally broke down in the arms room and threatened to shoot a drill sergeant.
We were getting to go to the PX! This was a big deal even though we were warned not to even try to buy any pogey-bait (Army colloquial for candy). We were restricted to necessities only, but it didn’t make any difference. any chance to visit a real store with real things to buy that was outside our small structured world was reason for excitement.
Our local mini-PX, also called a shop-ette, a rough equivalent to a Circle-K or 7-11, was maybe a half mile or more down the main street that ran along one side of the new barracks. My company, Alpha-Six-Two, was in the new barracks. Because we had a company of about 140 people, we went to the PX by platoons. By that time we’d learned to march and to sing, and since we were out in front of civilians and real Army people we made a point to march well and sing particularly loudly. We were good and we were proud of it. Our drill sergeant was Drill Sergeant Robert E. Lee Davis, from Texas.
We arrived and shopped without incident. We formed up in the parking lot with our paper bags of goodies clutched close to our chests. Then the fun began. Because there was a certain lack of trust on the part of Drill Sergeant Davis, he informed us that we were to have our bags inspected. And this was not to be some sort of sloppy civilian come as you are inspection. This was to be conducted in strict adherence to military protocol. Our template was the manual of arms inspection we used for our rifle inspections. The command for this was “Inspection, arms!” Therefore, the command for the inspection of our shopping bags was “Inspection, bags!”
“On the count of one, you will lean forward at a forty-five degree angle, holding your bag out in front of you at arm’s length, arms parallel to the ground!” said Drill Sergeant Davis. “ONE!” We all leaned forward, holding our bags out as instructed. “On count of two, you will remove your right hand from the top of you bag and use this hand to grasp the bottom of your bag. TWO!” All right hands moved to grasp the bottom of the bag. “On the count of three, you will turn your bags at a forty-five degree angle, preparing to drop the contents of your bags on the ground in front of you. THREE!” I couldn’t hold it any longer, and let out a snorty-giggle, the kind that makes way too much noise because it’s been suppressed for so long. I knew the drill sergeant had heard and seen me. He said nothing. “On the count of four, you will deposit the contents of your bags on the ground in front of you. FOUR!”
Out came the contents of our bags: the toothpaste, the soap, the shaving cream; the bras, the boxers, the maxi-pads, the t-shirts. A giggle erupted from my lips, and it was all I could do not to laugh out loud. Remember this was a public PX. Women with their children in tow were walking across the parking lot and staring and the kids were pointing. civilians on a training base see some pretty wild stuff, so they don’t stare so much as you might expect, but they do stare. They try not to laugh out loud where we can see them.
With well-executed commands, we retrieved our necessaries from the concrete, stowed them in our bags, and turned to march back to the barracks.
“LIE-CES-TER!” (My last name is pronounced “Lester,” but Drill Sergeant Davis always called me Lie-ces-ter.)
Oh, dear. (I will confess right now that I did not at the time think “oh, dear.”) “Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
“Give your bag to your squad leader. You think this is funny? I’ll show you funny. You will now run around the platoon waving your arms like a giant bird, and shouting “I am a S***BIRD! at the top of your lungs.” In basic, most commands were to be repeated, so I yelled back “I will run around the platoon yelling I am a s***bird, Drill Sergeant!”
So, I gave my bag to my squad leader, who was a really nice girl and I could see the anguish on her face because she would have died rather than do anything wrong, ever. She stayed away from me as much as possible
I ran around the platoon, yelling “I am a s***bird!” Not loudly enough, nor fast enough, because I was shouting and laughing at the same time. By the third time around I was getting tired and a bit out of breath. But then, someone else laughed, and he got to join me. Now there were two of us running around the platoon yelling “I am a s***bird!” Which caused another person to laugh, and then another. By the time we were a hundred yards from the barracks there were nearly as many people running around the platoon as there were marching in it. All were yelling “I am a s***bird! Ha ha ha! I am a s***bird! Bwa ha ha!”
Remember this is on a public street, with cars driving by, giving the platoon a wide berth, the kids in the backseat pointing and laughing and saying “mama, what’s a s***bird?”
I vaguely remember those of us “s***birds” having to stand in formation and get yelled at while the others went upstairs to their barracks rooms, and then having to do pushups. Then we were released and we all ran laughing up to our barracks.
Not everything about Basic was misery.