Army of One Type
Twenty-Seven summers ago, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. I arrived at Lackland Air Force Base outside of San Antonio at about 8:30 p.m., and was the first of seven guys to be herded into a long, dark barracks, to sit on our beds and wait for the rest of the beds to be filled.
Over the course of that night, the door would bang open and more recruits would come stumbling in. Most of the new guys were white, but about every other batch would bring a little variety--a couple of black guys from San Jose, Calif., or Richmond, Va., and at one point we even got about six Polynesian guys from Hawaii.
The guys you got next to your bunk would be the guys you saw the most for the entire run of boot camp. They stood next to you in line, marched next to you in formation, were in your group when it was time to shower, and ate every meal with you--the same four guys.
In my case, those four guys were me; a raging fundamentalist Christian redheaded white guy named Keith; an ex-gangbanger from Denver named Vince who, in my hazy memory, reminds me now of the actor Ving Rhames; and a hip-hop junkie named Sim, from Southern California. There was also a nondescript guy named Jerry from Euclid, Ohio, a homogeneous suburb outside of Cleveland, who ended up at our table a lot because any time someone got pulled out for extra duty, it would shift the numbers and you got the guy before your group of four, or after.
Over time, just like in the movies, be it Stripes or Full Metal Jacket, guys get nicknames. I wound up being "the Professor" because, as one of the Hawaiian guys told the drill sergeant, "he's got an answer for everything" (This was not looked upon kindly by me.)
Vince was "Brick," Keith was "Preacher," and Sim was "Dancer." Vince was, well, built like a brick. During the shakedown inspection after your arrival, you are ordered to lay everything you brought--every single thing--out on your bed. Keith brought seven Bibles and a large amount of religious tracts, all obviously for the purposes of proselytization. When the drill sergeants got to him (his bed was right before mine), they huddled for a second, then broke out as if ready to execute a play. The lead sergeant assumed as straight a face as he could muster and looked Keith in the eye.
"Got enough fuckin' Bibles there, son?"
Steam began to rise off of Keith's freshly shorn scalp, which was the purpose of the huddle and the inflammatory question. Despite his face being as red as a fire truck, he managed to choke out a "Yes, sir," and the little group of sergeants moved on down the line. It was a test.
After Keith was named our chow runner, the guy who ran ahead to get in line for our flight (the Air Force equivalent of a platoon in the Army) at mealtime, Jerry became the fourth at our table for meals. One evening, Jerry looked up and said, "I've never been around this many colored guys before."
There was a long, stony, uncomfortable silence. Jerry sat, confused, for the rest of the meal.
When we got back to the barracks from the chow hall, I grabbed Jerry by the sleeve and unceremoniously dragged him into the bathroom. "Dude. The word is not `colored.' It's not `negro' or anything other than `black.'
"See Sim over there? He comes from a part of the country where they started dance wars in order not to kill each other with gang fighting. See Vince? He comes from a part of Denver where you don't see a lot of white folk--and there's nothing but white folk in Denver. And nobody--nobody--calls them `colored' to their faces. The word is `black.' Use it. Because we have one job around here when we're not studying or marching, and that is to buff these fuckin' floors to a shine, and I don't want to be buffing your goddamn blood out of it. Got it?"
Jerry learned a lot that summer--from the Hawaiian guys, the difference between a kahuna and a haole. Sim showed us stuff that four years later Michael Jackson would be calling the "moonwalk" and six years later Madonna would be calling "voguing." It was an American cultural-exchange program, making all of us better informed about each other.
Last month The New York Times noted that black enlistment and retention in the services has dropped through the floor, due to the Iraq war. A CBS News poll showed 83 percent of African-Americans surveyed said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, and the opinion is being reflected in who joins up and who stays in.
Harry Truman knew a diverse military means a stronger America, and a better one, too. I'm scared to think what our services will look like if our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines look at each other in boot camp and only see people who look like themselves. I think Jerry would agree.
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