I joined the Maryland Army National Guard (MDARNG) during the post-Vietnam era in 1977. I had high hopes of travel and good times. I only went as far as 150 miles away from my hometown of Baltimore, winding up at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Leaving the security of home was indeed a frightening experience, having spent only five fun-filled months "drilling" with my friends in a local MDARNG unit where they taught me the "essentials" for survival at basic combat training (BCT). This involved learning the card games of Hearts, Spades and plain old varieties of poker. Being a recent college graduate, I accepted these nuggets of information willingly and applied my skills at learning these games. Ironically, I never met anyone at BCT who shared their knowledge of these "critical skills." I still reflect back on those days, some 33.5 years in the uniform later, and wonder if they weren't just trying to get my hard-earned $36 for the weekend drills.
My BCT experience projected me right into the midst of many people more fortunate than I, having traveled from the four corners of the United States. By virtue of my college background, I was made a squad leader and found common ground with the many other squad leaders in the company. Some had attended military schools or also had college behind them.
It was a great experience, until my assistant squad leader was appointed and bunked in the same room. The unbearable snoring he could generate each evening proved enough to drive a sane person truly batty. But that didn't matter, as the drill sergeants never allowed us much sleep time anyhow. They devised methods to roust us at all hours of the night, carrying wooden footlockers loaded with our properly aligned articles of clothing. We mastered the overhead carry, the front-arm carry and many dragging carries to get to our formation destination or back to the bunks again.
The strangest of all experiences occurred during the first full week at BCT. As was the practice then, all worn clothing had to be placed into the olive-drab green laundry bags neatly hanging at the ends of our bunk beds. This required us to label and complete a laundry list of items every three days when they would be sent out to the quartermaster to be cleaned. One day, while inventorying my items, I noticed that my bag no longer contained my dirty worn underwear from the previous days' training. From that point on in life, I never truly trusted human beings and I realized that there must be some really desperate people in life.
Another memory of BCT centered around the bivouac training event. Just before departing for our field training, we had mail call. Being fond of licorice and having parents who were great about sending care packages, I received a cartoon laden with all sorts of licorice candy. There were bags of black chunks, black strings, red chunks, red strings, brown strings, green strings and almost any other type of licorice on the market. The drill sergeants attempted to take the candy away from me, saying I wasn't allowed to have candy as a trainee. For the first time in my two-month BCT I protested, saying they had no right to deny me my U.S. mail and its contents. With smirks on their faces, they said, "No problem." I should have realized at that time, there was more to this exchange of words than I had fully realized.
So off to the field we went, the contents of my bags in tow snuggled deeply in my duffle bag. When we arrived and jumped off the "cattle-car" transports, the gaggle of drill sergeants descended upon me, directing me to set up my tent with my assistant squad leader - out of sequence from the rest of the company. This should have been my second inkling for what was about to befall me.
After erecting the straightest of all pup-tent lines with my squad members, we were allowed to take a break. It was then that my greatest nightmare of BCT was about to unfold. Compared to the overhead bars, the crab crawl, the push-ups and the running, this was about to be the worst.
Down the distant line from the drill sergeant tent came the growing call of my name. I began to reassemble my steel pot and adjust my fatigues as I prepared for a jaunt to their tent. Upon my arrival, my drill sergeant asked if I had brought my contraband to the field. "Yes, drill sergeant," I said. The next words from his mouth surprised me.
"I want two black strings, three red chunks and two green strings, and hurry up with them," he said. It became clearer to me why I was removed with my squad from the rest of the company.
As I ran to get the specific pieces of licorice candy, I could hear the faint call of my name emanating from the sergeant's tent again. As I reached my tent, I assembled the requested candies and quickly opened the rest of the bags, offering it to all trainees as I ran past them on my trek to the sergeants tent. As I expected, upon my arrival and delivery to the drill sergeant, I received requests from the other three sergeants who were apparently in on this ruse. Each of their orders was different and made intentionally hard to remember. As I had expected, upon my arrival back to my tent I understandably found empty wrappers that had once contained "licorice contraband."
Now for the payback. I assembled the now empty wrappers and ran like the wind back to the drill sergeants' tent, hearing faint laughter as I approached. Entering their tent, I passed out the empty candy bags trying with all of my fortitude to hold back the internal laughter as I did so. The look on their faces was absolutely one of the most memorable moments for me in BCT. It has stayed with me until this day, where I can still see the expressions of surprise, shock, respect and some disappointment plastered on their tough faces.