The air was dank, full of humidity. It felt like breathing water, it was so thick. Three A. M. and it had to be at least 85 degrees Fahrenheit! Did I mention the humidity? Holy shit, I felt like I should have gills!
I looked left. There were about a dozen other kids standing in line, standing next to their bags, suitcases and overnight cases. In front of them were another dozen or so, all doing the same thing: Standing next to their stuff.
I looked to my right. Same thing, just different kids with different colored bags. Behind me, there were at least another four long, stretched out lines of kids from all walks of life, all types of backgrounds and all ethnicities doing what we were all doing: Standing next to our bags.
I had just been in Oakland, California, the day before. Now, seventeen hours later, it was 3 am, Central Standard Time in San Antonio, Texas. The bright and unflattering blue white of the San Antonio International Airport parking lot lights cast a strange, surreal glow to all of us, highlighting the inky black of our shadows.
I hadn’t been to sleep since I had gotten up at 5am Pacific Coast Time the day before, or 7am according to my new time zone setting on my watch. In any case, I was pushing being awake for nearly twenty-four hours. What was my reward? Standing here, next to my backpack and duffel bag with another two hundred or so other young men and women, swaying on our feet and wondering what is going to happen next?
Apparently a lot of nothing was going to happen next. At three forty-five a loud voice called over our heads, “Alright, listen up! The bus is late, obviously! We’ll have two buses coming in about twenty minutes. In the meantime, remain where you are and stay by your gear! Be patient!”
What? Be patient? I’ve been fucking standing here for over an hour and a half and I’m expected to be waiting here – by my gear – for another twenty minutes and they tell me to be patient? Jeez, thanks, Mr. Obvious.
Thirty-five minutes later the first bus showed up. The driver got off the bus, his blue uniform giving him a pale and unhealthy looking glow in the bright white-blue of the lot lamps. His cap was stuck at a slight angle, but it didn’t provide that ‘rakish air’ I think he might have been shooting for. It just made it look like he didn’t put it on right – or check himself in the mirror.
The bus driver moved close to the crowd of lined up kids and said, “Alright, pick up your bags and form up! We’re going to get you on the bus until it’s full and the next bus will be along any minute. If you don’t get called for this bus, then you’ll be on the other bus.” And without further ado, he flipped open one of those heavy-duty covered clipboards, ran his finger across a column I guess and then started shouting out names.
As each name was called, some kid at random in the formed lines we’d been standing in for over two hours stepped forward and climbed up the steps into the waiting confines of the dark blue bus. I noticed how starkly it looked just like a school bus, only blue. I didn’t care, I just wanted to get on the fucking bus, take a seat and close my eyes.
Such was not my fate. “Alright, that’s it. The rest of you will get on the next bus. Stay here and don’t wander off!” What was I, six? I’ve been standing here, wondering what happens next for over two hours and all you can say is, ‘Don’t wander off?’ Of course, all my thoughts were just that, thoughts. I never spoke aloud this whole time. In fact, as talkative as I am, usually, I hadn’t uttered a single word out loud since I got off the plane, making my way to this Clive Barker version of a prison lot.
The bus, as I had come to expect, didn’t arrive in a few minutes. It showed up at four forty-five. Some of the other hapless 2nd bus group had lain down and a few were even snoring. As the bus pulled up, most everyone got up, though a couple of guys had to be rousted awake before we could get on the bus.
Even though we were all that was left, organization was important. We weren’t allowed on the bus until our names were called. When they finished calling the names, there were five of us still waiting to be called. The bus driver flipped his clipboard closed and started to get on the bus. What the fuck?
As he put his second foot on the first step, I yelled, “Hey, wait! What about us? Are we just going to be standing here? Can you check your list?”
The bus driver, close cropped hair making him look nearly bald, gave me a sour expression and heaved a big sigh, making the buttons on his shirt start to stretch against the material. With deliberation, he slowly opened the cover of the clipboard and fixed me with a hard gaze. “What’s yer name, son?”
I told him, speaking my first name and last name, then spelling my last name. He ran his finger down the list and then said, “Why didn’t you come the first time I called your name?”
By now, I have been up very close to twenty-four hours and I have been standing in the same goddamn spot for about four hours and I wasn’t about to be blamed for something I didn’t do. “You didn’t call my name, sir. I listened very closely. You just didn’t call it. What about these other four guys? You call their name’s already, too?”
He looked about ready to say something and then, instead, heaved another one of those heavy, tired sighs, and said, “Come on, get yer asses on the bus, we’ll sort it out on base.” The other four guys gave me tired, but thankful looks as they picked up their bags again and moved to get on the bus. I went right up the steps, just behind the driver.
We made it to Lackland Air Force Base another hour later. The sun was causing a rosy orange glow in the sky when we were ushered off the bus and made to stand, once again, in a formation of all of our fellow travelers who’d been on the first bus, plus about a hundred others, our bags at our feet.
I think some of our earlier arrivals thought we were lucky we didn’t have to stand that whole time where they were. I don’t know what made them think we had it any better, waiting at the airport for a bus that was only a ‘few minutes’ behind theirs for an hour. Myself, I figured we were all pretty much in the same boat. Here we were, our first few hours of being new recruits in the U. S. Air Force, and all we’ve done so far is stand around, waiting to go somewhere else. When we got somewhere else, we waited some more so we could get somewhere else again.
As the sun crested the horizon, we were finally told to pick up our bags and they roll called us again, splitting the guys from the gals, and separating all of us into six groups. Once that was done, training sergeants took their respective groups to their barracks buildings. I was lucky, the place we were standing under was part of a four part barracks building and I was going up into one of them. Of course, lucky is a relative term.
They let us sleep for six hours, waking us up at just before noon. We were ushered into a line, marched down to the area under the building – it was like a huge car port under the building where we would form up for roll call, physical training, etc. – and brought to a chow hall for a meal. I’ve had better meals when I lived out of a backpack, but I’ve also had worse. Military training food is probably supposed to be fairly poor – all part of the training for when things go south during active wartime, I suppose.
After “lunch” we were marched back to our barracks and were assigned our bunks. There were fifty-one of us in two large halls. In each hall, there were twenty-six bunks with a small walkway between two rows of thirteen. Behind the head of each bunk was a wall lined with lockers. We were each assigned to one of those, leaving one empty one.
Then it was time to get fitted up. Once again, we were rousted downstairs and formed up. Once formed up, a TI, that’s short for Training Instructor, called us up, told us a few basic commands and how to perform them, then tested us to see how well we did. Simple stuff: Forward march, company halt, about face, right face, left face, dress right dress, etc.
I was called forward and made 1st Squad leader. I’m thinking I must have had a puzzled look on my face, because the TI said, “I chose you for first squad leader, because you march good.” Okay. No pressure. Now that the 1st Squad Leader position was settled, we formed up once again, with three other new Squad Leaders and off we marched to go get our uniforms.
Once all that was done, we were marched back to the barracks and we put our gear in our lockers. We still hadn’t met our official Training Instructor. The rest of the day went by and we ended up getting marched one more time to the chow hall, marched back and the TI of our sister flight (that’s the other company in the next barracks in the same squadron) handed out manuals that we were obligated to get familiar with and after that, it we had about another hour before lights out.
Everything had been such disarray that I barely had time to wonder what was going to happen next. By now, I was mentally exhausted, even though six hours of sleep after pulling an all day stint wasn’t that unusual for me. All the newness, the confusion of marching around a place that literally looked exactly the same at every corner, with a cloudy day that made telling North from South impossible – all of it was just mentally exhausting. When lights out came, though, I found I couldn’t really sleep all that well. It was only nine-o-clock.
The next morning, we were rushed out, wearing our field jackets, but not the rest of our uniforms, and formed up for breakfast. Here we were, wearing M-60 Field Jackets in eighty-three degree heat and the sun wasn’t even up yet. I still felt like I was breathing water. We marched off to breakfast and ate. Then we came back, got shown how to fold our clothes the “right” way and by the time that was over, it was time for lunch.
Standing there, now in ninety-seven degree heat, with hair down past my shoulders, wearing a goddamn foul weather coat over my civvies, I finally had a moment to really consider my situation. In all the time till now, I hadn’t really had time to think about much except what was going to happen next? Now, I actually stood there and wondered, “How did I end up here doing what I’m doing?”
In all the time before wondering that, and in all the time since, those words never echoed through my mind. I have done some pretty stupid things, risky things and very ill considered things, before and since. I have often had the chance to wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?” I have even had plenty of chances to wonder, “Wow, that was close, important note, don’t do that ever again.” I consider myself lucky for the ability to wonder all those things, and luckier still that I only wondered, “How did I wind up here, doing this,” that one time only.