Sunday, December 23, 2007


Just a number. Everyone who joins the service gets one. Or used to. Until 1970 everyone got a unique number we had to memorize and stencil into our clothes in basic training. In 1970, the services switched to social security numbers so no new ones were issued when you enlisted and went through basic training. Mine was that number, AF for Air Force and the rest I don't know except maybe some sequential number or some office and sequential number.

Ask any service person and they'll likely remember this number. It was who you were, not a name but a number. It was on everything you owned. It was you. When it was assigned to you, you were expected to memorize and recite whenever asked. It was the first thing on any form about you.

When I enlisted, we were taken by bus to the Denver airport and given tickets to San Antonio, Texas. When we arrived about midnight, we were escorted onto another bus and taken to a dormitory where we were told we'd get a few hours sleep before being processed in. They were right, a few hours was all we got. We were woken up to take showers get dressed, make the bed and get ready.

From there we were escorted into a large empty hanger with lots of chairs. I mean lots, like hundreds upon hundreds in neat rows and aisles with long tables of staff at the front and the back. And all the recruits were told to sit somewhere until our name was called, and then report to the person who called it. That's it, sit and wait. For your name.

While everyone else seemed to be called by someone from one of the tables at the front, I was called by someone at a table in the back. I didn't know what I had done or what. But I went. It turned out I was selected for a top secret unit and they wanted me to fill out the paperwork about my past. At 19 I had a past? Ok, family, past addresses, references, jobs - the two I had before enlisting, and so on.

I did and went back to a chair before being assigned to a basic training unit. A lot of the rest is a blur because you're handed your clothes, given a haircut - whether you need one or not, poked and proded, given shots, and sent to a dormitory to change your clothes - leaving all your civilian stuff on your bed, into your first uniform. And you stood at attention while your drill sargeant went to each recruit examing them, their locker and their old belongings.

Basic training was interesting. I was in one of the brand new dormitories built on LackLand AFB. The dormitories for the recruits were in a cross pattern, one squad per wing on a cantilevered extension to create space underneath for assembly, excercise and drill instruction. The central part of the first floor had the mess hall, classes and administration rooms.

The goal of the open space below each dormitory wing was to provide outside shade during the summers and to stay dry during the rainstorms for drill instruction, exercise and fitness tests. Unfortunately I went there during the best weather or the worst time to be there as we did everything every day because it wasn't too cold, hot or wet. This also meant that I, being underweight going in, gained 25+ pounds in the eight weeks of training.

What I thought was funny that when the drill instructor inspected my civilian belongs the first full day he found a card I used which identified my father as a retired Air Force officer. He told me, "We'll fix that attitude." When we graduated I was voted one of the three most to succeed in the Air Force, even my drill sargent said I did well against what he originally thought.

The irony is that I simply put my mind in neutral to do whatever I could to survive. I was one of 60 recruits who I had never known before from all over the country, including some pretty racist young men on both sides of the racial divide. I decided to get through basic training and not let anything or anyone get in the way. So I got along with everyone.

And even more ironic, I wonder what they would have said if they knew 3 years later I was charged with insubordination and scheduled for a court martial hearing. It was a stupid act on both sides and a senior sargent I met on temporary duty didn't understand a joke, so he filed a complaint with my commanding officer, a two-star general. It's an interesting experience to have a two-star general stand a foot from you and read you your legal rights.

Anyway, I survived thanks to a full colonel who represented me (voluntarily too). And about a year later I left with a full honorable discharge, having turned down a substantial re-enlistment bonus and a promotion. Go figure. I never regretted it. And on January 2, 1973 I walked out the front gate at McClellan AFB for the last time, went home and got on with my life.

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