The first full day of basic training was like being unable to wake up from a nightmare. Actually, the whole first week was like that. It’s been said that if you can survive the first week of basic training or any type of similar military training, the odds that you’ll make it all the way through, greatly increase. I’ll be honest, though. None of this stuff was hard. Not at all. The first week is the ultimate test in “Doing Exactly What You’re Told” and “Question Nothing”. Some people take longer to learn than others and are done before the week is out. For those that can survive that first week, can take having their world completely flipped upside down, can take having all of their freedom and independence removed from their life, and can take having no contact with the outside world, then you’ll be fine.
Day 1 was a day of firsts for many things. We experienced our first taste (pun intended) of the mess hall, or mess deck. The mess hall was a finely oiled machine, run mostly by recruits in their 5th week of training, who loved to remind most other recruits that they were seasoned veterans of the mess hall scene. A strict code was enforced concerning certain sensitive objects, such as “bright work”. “Bright work” was any shiny metal object, i.e. the milk dispenser, that had to be polished clean after potential contact with a less-experienced recruit. If you happened to touch the “bright work” with your fingers, you were ridiculed and made to feel as though you were disturbing the sanctity of the chrome-like shininess of the pretty metal, when, in reality, it would take them 3 seconds to run a cloth over it to make it spot-free again. But those recruits in their 5th week were so goddamn eager to scream at any wide-eyed recruits at this point in their time at Great Lakes, that they constantly reminded recruits not to touch their bright work and to keep it clean. All part of the game.
Each recruit went through the mess line and selected their food and drink. Once the last recruit sat down at the table, the entire company had 11 minutes to eat. That’s it. 11 minutes. You had better eat fast. Now I’m from a family that likes to eat, and we eat fast. But 11 minutes is not as long as you think. You had to hustle to satisfy your hunger. Plus, at least for me, I was burning an enormous amount of calories there, so I needed to eat like a man who wasn’t sure if this was the last time he’d eat before being stranded on a deserted island for 6 months.
During those 11 minutes, there was no talking at all. Absolute silence needed to be maintained on the mess decks, except for those 5th-week morons trying to keep the “bright work” clean. The problem with not being able to talk was that you couldn’t verbalize when you needed something while you were eating. Instead, anything you needed was requested by way of hand signals. Like a 3rd base coach in baseball, each recruit had to quickly learn an intricate system of hand signals to signify what they needed at the table to make their meal more pleasurable, all without uttering a peep. Also, like a 3rd base coach, we had a 2-part sign system. First, there was the indicator. In baseball, it may be that the coach touches the tip of his cap with his right hand to indicate that the next sign is the one to pay attention to. In basic training, if you wanted the salt shaker, your indicator was two swift, but firm, knocks to the table with your knuckles. Once you had the attention of the table, it was time to give the actual sign of what you were requesting. Here were the signs that I recall:
Holding up 1 finger = Please pass the salt
Holding up 2 fingers = Please pass the pepper
Wiping your hand in front of your mouth = I’m a slob and I need another napkin
Pantomiming the act of banging on the bottom of an empty, glass ketchup bottle in the days before we had plastic squeeze bottles = Please pass me the ketchup so I can cover up the taste of this shit stew with some ketchup
Imagine someone, with no idea of what was going on, watching us at mealtime. They’d think they were watching some bizarre Three Stooges or Marcel Marceau routine, starring 80 guys shoving food down their gullet with one hand, while banging on the table and flashing gang signs with the other hand, all without uttering a word.
After breakfast, we did our handicapped-like march back to the admin building to get our first set of clothes and a haircut. The barbers were no nonsense guys who cut hair all day long, 6 days a week. I would imagine their cuts-per-day averages were higher than any professional barber in America. It was the quickest haircut I’ve ever received. 45 seconds and done. Some recruit had the audacity to ask for a high and tight. The nearest CC was on him in half a second, got him out of the chair, verbally chewed him up one side and down the other, and made him stand with his nose against the wall for the next hour.
Next, we received our initial set of clothes. We went through a line of cardboard boxes and were given a Navy sweatsuit, and some T-shirts and shorts. We also got a pair of Nike running shoes that looked exactly like the ones the Hale-Bopp cult members wore when they drank the Kool-Aid…oops, I mean when they were getting ready to board the spaceship that was trailing the comet. Finally, we were given a ballcap that said, “RECRUIT” on the front. How utterly and completely demeaning that hat was. You’d be amazed at how much I would dream of the day I could remove that stupid, fucking “RECRUIT” hat. I had to wait 6 weeks.
We had already been assigned to a company. I was part of Company 177 and we had two Company Commanders, a male and a female. The male was a Damage Controlman 1st Class (DC1), or fire fighter, by trade, and he looked like he was pulled right from Central Casting for any production looking for a World War II-era sailor. He was about 6 feet tall, had a stocky build, block head, forearm tattoos, a mustache made out of steel wool, and a booming voice. He didn’t speak, he barked. The female CC was a Radioman 2nd Class (RM2). She was new to Great Lakes as the base was getting ready to start training female recruits. Like a few other females I met in the Navy over the years, she always felt the need to prove that she had a bigger dick than any of us.
Our barracks were just like you see in the movies. Full Metal Jacket comes to mind when you think of what barracks look like and ours wasn’t much different. We were on the first floor of our building. There was a small office to the right as you walked into the barracks. The entrance to the bathroom, or “head”, was on the left. The main room was just one big room with no place to hide. 20 sets of bunk beds on the left side, 20 on the right, enough for 80 recruits. We were each assigned a bunk and a locker. We didn’t have foot lockers like other services; instead we had stand-up lockers, similar to high school, but there was no door on it. There was one small drawer that you could shut with a combination lock. Every single thing we possessed was put into that locker. It was easy, because, other than the basic clothes they gave us, we didn’t have a damn thing. The bedding was sparse: a well-worn mattress with 2 sheets (1 was used as a mattress cover), a thin pillow and pillowcase, and a wool blanket that was as comfortable as it sounds. We made a trip to the recruit store to buy all the necessary toiletries. And when I say necessary, I mean you got what they told you to and it wasn’t the good stuff. No Gillette Fusions here, just the good ol’ fashioned plastic, single-blade Bic razors and cheap shaving cream. Nothing like lubing your face up with some joint compound and shaving with a rusty hacksaw blade.
The first week consisted of mind-numbing, brain-draining tasks to keep us busy while we waited to be medically cleared for full duty. That meant no physical training, running, push-ups, etc. until they gave everyone a clean bill of health. We couldn’t even start our classroom time until we were cleared. So, while we waited, we kept busy for 18 hours a day doing the most asinine tasks and functions you can imagine. We learned how to properly stow our lockers. Everything had a specific location in the locker and if something was out of place, you would fail inspection. We learned how to make our beds properly. We couldn’t have any wrinkles at all, and the sheet had to be folded over 12 inches, not 11, not 13, but 12 inches. We learned how to shave and shower. No “Hollywood” showers where you take 20 minutes. You get in, clean your ass, and you get out. Oh, and don’t forget your shower shoes.
Hell, we even learned how to shit. There were no doors on the stalls, so privacy was a commodity we were never afforded. When I’m at home, I enjoy my time in the ol’ commode. It’s my chance to catch up on some light reading and I’m secure in knowing that no one wants to bother me for 15 to 20 minutes. Once I can’t feel my legs anymore, I finish up, wash my hands, massage my legs to get the blood flowing to my toes again, then clumsily walk out of the bathroom while trying not to look like I have MS. I couldn’t quite do the same in basic training. All business was conducted out in the open and all transactions were completed in under 2 minutes. In all honesty, I didn’t mind doing business like this. But, for some reason, my system didn’t have any business to conduct for the first 10 days. Think about that, for a second. 10 days without a single deposit. That’s an eternity for a career two-a-day guy like me. After 4 or 5 days, I started to worry. After a week, I considered saying something, but what the hell do you say?
“Excuse me, Petty Officer?”
“What the fuck do you want?”
“Umm, I think something may be wrong, Petty Officer.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Petty Officer, umm, I haven’t been able to go the bathroom since I’ve gotten here.”
“What do you mean you haven’t been able to go to the bathroom?”
“I mean I haven’t been able to, you know, use the head yet…Petty Officer. For some reason, I’ve been here a week and I haven’t gone yet.”
“You mean you haven’t been able to poop yet?”
“That’s correct, Petty Officer. I haven’t been able to poop yet.”
“Push harder, dumb ass. Now get the fuck out of here.”
It was a big relief when I finally went. Some say that when you have a sudden, significant change in your life, certain bodily functions shut down, so other functions can be at their sharpest. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it did make sense to me in this case.
One of the mundane tasks that exemplifies the mononity of the first week was stenciling our clothes. We received a stencil card with our name and the last four digits of our social security number on it. We then had to use ink pens to stencil our name and/or number on every piece of clothing we were given. I know it sounds like a hoot, but it gets better. There were detailed, multi-page instructions on how to do this, including layouts and measurements on where each stencil had to go on each piece of clothing. Nothing was left to us to figure out on our own. It took a tremendous amount of time to stencil every letter of your name over and over again. The fun part of this exercise was watching the guys who had either very short last names or very long last names. We had a Vietnamese guy who’s last name was Ha. He was done with all his clothes in about 12 minutes. Another guy’s last name was Eichelberger. He just finished about 2 weeks ago.
Someone made the mistake of asking our CCs why they were being so anal about how everything was stenciled. We all braced for the inevitable explosion we thought was coming. Instead, DC1, for the first time, kept a steady voice. I’ll paraphrase slightly, but he said, “I know you still have half of your clothes left to stencil, Eichelberger, but I’ll tell you why. If we can’t trust you to stencil your name a quarter-inch above your pocket or to fold your bed sheet back 12 inches, not 11, then how can we trust you to be a missile technician who plugs coordinates into a launcher. You screw up one digit there and instead of striking an enemy target, you blow up a civilian hospital. It’s called ‘attention to detail’.” That was the first thing I learned at basic training that made sense to me and I haven’t forgotten it since.
Our full medical screening was fairly civil. The doctors and medical staff at the Recruit Training Center were not as hardcore as the CCs were. That is, until the shot process. To begin, we were herded into line, like cattle that are being led to the slaughterhouse to get a metal rod shot through their cranium, except there was no pretty light to catch our attention before the deed was done. One by one, with the sleeves of our shirts rolled up, we walked through a gauntlet of medical personnel. There were 4 total stations. The first 3 stations consisted of a person on each side who blasted us with an airgun shot in both shoulders at the same time. The 4th and final station was manned by Nurse Ratchet with a thick penicillin needle that could have doubled as a turkey baster. Down came my pants, I stuck out my ass, and pow – right in the kisser. I could take the air gun shots, but that penicillin shot was like peanut butter being squeezed into my ass cheek. It felt like I had a handball in my back pocket for the next few days. Total time for 7 shots: under 30 seconds.
Virtually all of us were cleared for full duty. Some guys got popped for drugs right away and they disappeared quickly and quietly. Our records were stamped, “Fit For Full Duty” and our company was sent outside. There were our CCs, waiting, licking their chops. As we marched off, they both had sly, little smiles on their faces. They were mere moments away from beating our asses as soon as we got back to the barracks. We, on the other hand, had no idea that we were about to lose our virginity.