Ft. Dix in 1965 was a mix of the old and new. Some new barracks were popping up in some of the training brigades, but for the most part, Ft. Dix was a sprawling complex of single-story wooden and concrete buildings many of which were connected by various ramps and doorways supported by block after block of old wooden World War II barracks, dotted with huge mess halls that could feed thousands of men at each meal. The Reception Station was the first stop for new trainees processing into the Army on their way to their Basic Combat Training (BCT) companies.
Buses of new trainees arrived here day and night. Each bus was met by Reception Station cadre and a few drill sergeants from the receiving BCT units. Reception Station initial processing and orientation could take from a few days to a week or so. Reception Station processing was the beginning of Zero Week. It was called Zero Week because it didn’t count as one of the eight weeks of basic training.
Drill Sergeant Hartson was the 5th Platoon sergeant for Company Y, 3rd BCT Brigade. He was the “old man” of the unit at 38 and the ranking Sergeant First Class (SFC). He was professional and caring. This new platoon of trainees was not yet aware of his caring side.
SFC Hartson thought to himself, “That skinny trainee looks like a good place to start.”
I should’ve worn a field jacket; colder than I thought it was going to be tonight. Almost forgot: drill sergeants don’t get cold. Yeah, right! A hot coffee sounds good right about now. They are a sorry bunch. Well, they all start out that way. Top told me that our company got all the Jews assigned to the Brigade and all 14 of them would be going to my platoon. Top said that DA decided to hold them, then ship all the Jews at the same time because of their High Holy Days in September.
This is only one bus out of many that came in today. I don’t know much about the deployments to Vietnam, but I do know we are getting very busy here. I will do everything I can to help prepare them for what is ahead. I think Top told me that we’d fill with over 200.
I looked up to see the drill sergeant heading straight toward me. I felt like a deer in the headlights, unable to move. The next thing I knew, the drill sergeant was standing a few inches from my face. The drill sergeant’s voice cut through me like a bayonet through butter.
“You lost, trainee?”
Another drill sergeant yelled, “Fall in” and started to form the men into five ranks. Only a few could see SFC Hartson, but they could all hear him loud and clear.
“Trainee, no what?”
“Ah… no, I…”
“You need a personal invitation to join the others in formation?”
“When you’re talkin’ to me, son, it better end with drill sergeant. No, Drill Sergeant.”
I was cold but I started to sweat and my glasses started to fog up. I barely got the words out.
“No, Drill Sergeant.”
“What in the hell are you waiting for, son? Are you waiting for your mother to get off the bus and take you to the formation? What is your name, son?”
“No, Drill Sergeant. Alan Slaff, Sir… I mean, Drill Sergeant.”
SFC Hartson said, “I’m not a ‘sir’, I work for a living!” SFC Hartson pointed in the direction of the formation and almost blew me over with one final burst, “Move, Slaff. We don’t have all night. MOVE!”
Hartson smiled to himself, “I love this job!”
That poor kid almost shit a brick. Well, I got their attention. Long night ahead. Better I get these Jews. I’m one of the few Yankees here. Sergeant Cook is a good soldier. The problem is he hates the Viet Cong and anyone who isn’t from Georgia. Cook probably hates me, but I don’t give a rat’s ass.
SFC Hartson walked near the front of the formation and joined SGT Ridley off to the side. He was a young buck sergeant assigned to the Reception Station. Meanwhile, the bus driver finished unloading all the suitcases, lined them up on the pavement, checked the bus inside for anything left behind, and drove away.
I sprinted to the formation and was about to get in the last rank when SSG Cook spoke with a Southern drawl.
“Not there, pretty boy. Get on the end of this first rank up here where I can see you. Not that end, dumb ass, the other end.” I ran to the other end. As I caught my breath, I looked to see who was on my right.
Oh no, I don’t believe it. I’m next to Toothless!
SSG Cook continued. “Men, listen up!” All the men looked at Sergeant Cook.
“On the command “Fall in,” you center on me. The first man of each rank or squad keeps me centered on him and the rest of you knuckleheads fill in to the first man’s left. That is left of the squad leader. Did you get that?”
A few men, replied, “Yes, Sergeant,” but not in unison. Sergeant Cook took off his Campaign hat and held it high in the air. Men, this is a broad-brimmed felt hat with a high crown, pinched symmetrically at the four corners forming a ‘Montana crease’ so rain will run off and not collect on the top of the hat.”
“Men, when you see a soldier wearing this here Campaign hat originally known as Hat, Service, M1911, you answer, Yes, Drill Sergeant. If a sergeant is wearing the Army cap like SGT Ridley over there, you answer, Yes, Sergeant.” SGT Cook placed the Campaign hat squarely on his head.
“I said, did you get that.”
This time, the “Yes, Drill Sergeant” was louder, but still not in unison.
“That is better, men. Listen up. SGT Ridley is going to come up here tell you what you will be doing tonight.” SGT Ridley came to the front. SSG Cook went over to join SFC Hartson.
“Men, my name is Sergeant Ridley. On behalf of the Reception Station, welcome to the United States Army Training Center, Ft. Dix, New Jersey. Tonight you will receive your initial issue of clothing and bedding. But first, you have to get shots. Sergeant Cook will move you to the loading dock area. After a short break, I’ll give you instructions for getting your immunizations.”
SGT Ridley headed toward the building complex and entered a door near a well-lighted loading dock area. SSG Cook moved the men up to the loading dock area and put them on a smoke and latrine break.
“Smoke ’em if you got ’em.” He took some #10 cans, painted red, from the ledge and set them on the ground.
“Use these. Put your cigarette butts in the red butt cans, not on the ground.”
A few minutes later, the big loading dock doors opened. It was SGT Ridley.
“Men, when I call your name, walk up the stairs onto the loading dock and form a single line. As you file into the building, take off the clothing on your upper body so the medics can see your upper arms and shoulders. If you are wearing a t-shirt under your outer garments, keep the t-shirt on. Hold your outer clothing or tie it around your waist. Once in line, you will move forward to the medics sitting at a field desk. They will ask your name. You answer loud and clear with your last name, first name, and middle initial. The medics will tell you to get in line one or two. You only go through one line one time. When you get to the shot station, there will be a medic on each side of you who will give you one shot in each arm. Do not tense up! The injection guns do not use needles. These guns use air pressure and direct contact with your skin to force the immunization through your skin into the arm. If you flinch or move and lose contact, the gun can slice a gash in your arm. Relax. This is only the first of a series of shots you will get during basic training.”
Some men squirmed in place. Toothless said, “O shit.” Sergeants Hartson and Ridley already had their eyes on him.
SGT Ridley continued. “After your shots, you will meet your drill sergeants at the other end of this large room to get your initial clothing and bedding issue. Put your shirts, jackets, sweaters, and civilian headgear in your civilian bag. Roll up the sleeves of your t-shirts.”
The line started to move. Toothless moved into line number one.
“Next!” I moved in front of the medic. “Name?”
“Slaff. Alan L.”
“Slaff, Alan L. Get in line two.”
As I moved into line two, I looked at the men in line one. I saw that Toothless was next. Two medics gave him shots in both his arms. Toothless took one step forward and started to fall. The shots didn’t hurt him as much as the cement floor did. SFC Hartson got there right after Toothless’ head bounced on the cement floor. Drill Sergeant Hartson called for the medics. The emergency medics came in. Everything stopped. All eyes were on Toothless. He was bandaged up and carried out on a stretcher to the waiting ambulance.
Sergeant Hartson’s voice broke the silence, “Men, that young man is getting the finest first aid in the US Army. He’ll be fine. Medics, men, let’s get these shot lines moving; we don’t have all night.” Then he moved past the immunization area to the holding area to have a smoke.
The shot lines continued to move.
There were still two men ahead of me. They moved through the immunization process without incident. Then it was my turn.
O God don’t let me be pass out like Toothless!
The medics held my arms from both sides, telling me to relax. Then came the shots. I winced. Then I smiled.
Victory! Thank you, God. One of the few.
SFC Hartson told the men coming toward him from shots, “Remember what SGT Ridley told you to do. Stay in your t-shirts and put away your civilian clothes. Take a break in place until the whole platoon is here. Don’t worry, you’ll warm up inside when you get your clothing issue.”
The last few trainees reached the far end of the large dock area.
“All right, Men, listen up!”, SFC Hartson called out. “I know you are tired but we’re not done yet. Come on, get up on your feet, face me, and listen up.”
“In a few moments, Sergeant Ridley will start to call your names out alphabetically. When you hear your name, sound off with “Here, Sergeant.” Then, put your civilian luggage against the loading dock at the bottom of the stairs. Move smartly up the stairs to the dock behind me. SSG Cook will issue you your duffel bag. You go in this building wearing your civilian t-shirt, pants, and shoes. When you come out, you will be wearing your fatigue uniform, combat boots, and field cap. Everything else will be in your duffel bag.”
“Check the duffel bag to make sure your name and service number are stenciled correctly on the bag. Then, start a single file at the large open door behind Sergeant Ridley at the far end of the loading dock. Once inside, you will move from one clothing station to the next taking instructions from the clothing issue personnel at each station. Each time you receive clothing or equipment put it in your duffel bag, so you are ready for the next issue station. Clothing personnel may or may not tell you to try something on. You will be measured for your dress uniforms which will be tailored for you and you will get them later in basic training. When you get your four sets of fatigues, you will give all four tops to one of the ladies at the name tag station and wait. In a few moments, your tops will be ready. They will sew a US Army tag over each left pocket and your name tag over each right pocket. Put one shirt on with your fatigue pants, belt and buckle, wool socks, and combat boots. Ask us for help if you need it. Put the others in your bag and continue to the next station.”
“Remember, your last station is bedding. After you receive your bedding, clothing personnel will tell you to go join your drill sergeants. Drill Sergeant Cook and I will be waiting for you in a large room near the bedding station. We will take a few more minutes to check and make sure you have everything you are supposed to have. Then, buses will be waiting to take you to your reception station barracks. SGT Ridley, you are up.”
SGT Ridley moved to the edge of the platform and started to call out names alphabetically, checking them off on his list. SSG Cook handed out the duffel bags, checking them with the trainees. Soon, the line of men filled the loading dock to the far door. The line moved slowly through the door. It was late at night but it looked like daytime inside the sprawling building. Might as well be. There was a troop build up so they were busy day and night.
I picked my bag up and moved forward station by station.
“Hold up your bag, son. Undershorts, white, cotton, medium. Put them in the bag. Shirts, Tee, white. Put them in the bag.”
“Hold up your bag, son. Socks, boot, wool, green. Put them in the bag. Socks, dress, black. Put them in the bag.”
“Hold up your bag, son. Jacket, field. Put it in the bag. Gloves, shell, black. Glove liners, green, wool. Put them in the bag. Belt, dress. Buckle, dress, brass. US insignia, brass, one piece. Put them in the bag.
I came to next station. Combat boots. The bag was only half full and getting heavy. Most of the stations were run by civilian workers who were doing this work so long they could guess the boot size for an ant or an elephant.
“Looks like you wear ten’s, son.” The man gave me two pairs of black combat boots in size 10. I tried them on. Not too snug, but very stiff. I also learned that my waist size was 28 and hat size was 7 1/4 inches.
“Hold up your bag, son. Tent half. Put it in the bag. Tent stakes and rope. Put it in the bag. Tent pole. Put it in the bag.”
“Hold up your bag, son. Belt, utility, LBE. Pouch, first aid. Pouch, ammo. Put them in the bag. Poncho, rain. Put it in the bag.”
“Hold up your bag, son. Cap, field, green. Put them in the bag. Helmet, steel, green. Helmet liner, green. Helmet liner band with clips. Put them in the bag. Cap, dress, garrison. Cap, dress, Class A, with brass. Put them in the bag.”
By this time in the process, I was wearing Army issue. There was more. It seemed like it was never going to end. Then, finally, the bedding station. Each man was issued a pillow, a pillow case, two green heavy wool blankets, and two sheets.
The trainees lugged their duffel bags and bedding to a nearby room where their drill sergeants were waiting for them. As the last few men filed in, SSG Cook got started.
“Okay. Listen up. When I call your name, answer with “Here Drill Sergeant.”
With attendance taken, it was SFC Harton’s turn, “Okay, men, listen up. Stand where you can see me. Dump your duffel bags on the floor in front of you. Don’t get your gear mixed up with anyone else’s gear. When I call out an item and hold it up, you hold it up so I can see it. If there is a problem let SSG Cook or me know. Then, when I tell you to put it in the bag, you put it back in your duffel bag, but not before I tell you.”
SFC Hartson reached down and picked up an item belonging to the trainee closest to him. He held it up, called it out, and said, “Okay, Men, put it in the bag.” SFC Hartson held up and called out every item.
“Combat boots, black. Two pair. One on your feet; let me see the other pair.” SFC Hartson looked around the area. One tall athletic black trainee in the rear had no boots to hold up.
SSG Cook walked over to him, looked up, and said, “What is your name, trainee, and where are your boots?” The young man answered calmly.
“Johnson. Waiting on size fourteen’s, Drill Sergeant.”
Both sergeants smiled at each other as they looked down at his feet. SFC Hartson said, “I guess you are, son, I guess you are.”
When all the gear was accounted for or any problems resolved, the men filed back outside. It was colder than when they arrived. A large Army green bus was waiting for them. The drill sergeants got them, their duffel bags, and their civilian luggage on the bus. I was too tired to look out the window, but I looked anyway. All I saw was street after street of two-story wooden barracks. No matter where the bus turned, it was the same. Barracks after barracks after barracks. Then the bus stopped. The doors opened. Cold air filled the bus.
SGT Ridley got them moving, “Outside on the company street. Outside, let’s go.”
Both drill sergeants were waiting for them. SSG Cook gave the command, “Fall in.” The men moved the best they could after a very long day that wasn’t over yet.
The two reception station soldiers and the driver unloaded all the duffel bags onto the street in one pile; all the civilian luggage in another pile. They got back on the bus and it drove away.
Sergeant Cook stood with his back to the barracks facing the five ranks of men. They tried to stand very still keeping their eyes on SSG Cook. Drill Sergeant Hartson stood behind the platoon studying the new meat. Well, almost everyone was looking at SSG Cook. The trainee next to me was babbling and had trouble standing still. I took a quick glance at him. For only a second. Then, I heard Sergeant Cook’s voice.
“What are you lookin’ at son? Are you looking for your mommy? She ain’t here.” I looked to my front.
Oh my God, he is still looking at me. I can feel it.
SSG Cook loved the power. “Eyes front Slaff. I’m not talking to you.” Sergeant Cook looked at the name tag of the trainee next to him.
“Smith. Who you talking to? There is no talking on the command “Fall in.” What is your problem?”
“No problem, Drill Sergeant. My mistake. Not yours.”
“Smith, it is a free country, so you can think all you like. I just don’t want to hear it. Do you understand, trainee?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
When SSG Cook moved back to the front, I started breathing again. Smith continued to babble to himself silently. I could see his lips moving.
SSG Cook smiled with some satisfaction, calling SFC Hartson forward, “Sergeant Hartson, they are all yours.” Drill Sergeant Hartson moved to the front of the formation next to SSG Cook.
“Men, at ease. Stand at ease.” For now, that means to relax and listen. SSG Cook moved to the back of the platoon.
Sergeant Hartson continued, “Listen up. The barracks directly in front of you is number 37. That number is painted on the building. Barracks number 37 will be your temporary home during your stay at the Reception Station. You are not allowed to enter any other barracks. Just this one. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
When we release you from this formation, it will be one rank at a time. This is what you are going to do. You will go get your duffel bag and civilian bag. Then, take both bags into the barracks and pick a top or bottom bunk. Top bunks get the wall shelf, clothes hangers, and footlocker to the right of the bunks. Bottom bunks the left. Sergeant Cook and I will help direct you when you get inside. You will dump your duffel bags on your beds. Field gear goes back into your duffel bag. Lock it with one of your padlocks. If an item hangs up, hang it up on the pegs and hangers under your wall shelf. Headgear on top of the shelf. Line up your footwear under your bunks. Boots first, shoes, then shower shoes. The other lock goes on your footlocker. Put all your civilian clothes into your suitcases. This is the last time you will see these civilian bags. They will be locked up in a room at the end of the bunk bay and will be shipped to your home of record address.”
SSG Cook continued, “You’ve been issued a top sheet, bottom sheet, pillow, pillow case, and two blankets. If you are cold use both blankets. When you make your bed in the morning, remember to use the second blanket as a dust cover. You don’t want to get an upper respiratory infection, also called URI, while in basic training. To help prevent URI, remember that you sleep head to foot and make your beds the same, head to foot. If you are breathing on your buddy or he is breathing on you, somebody is wrong. If any of you knuckleheads doesn’t have a second lock, lock your duffel bag instead of your footlocker. If you have no locks, then you are S.O.L. See Drill Sergeant Hartson or me before lights out. Now listen up. This is important. If you steal from your buddy, you will pay. If you lose or are missing a piece of gear, tell one of your drill sergeants. Don’t steal. Stiff penalties for stealing. You are in the Army now. You are a team. No stealing. Got it?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“I can’t hear you.”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
SFC Hartson took it from here. “You only use the two doors on the front left side of the barracks. Any other exits are fire exits only. These barracks have two floors. There is a row of double bunks on both sides of each floor. The center area on each floor must remain clear and open. There are two columns in each center area. There is a #10 can on the floor by each column. They are painted red and contain some water. Use them for butt cans to extinguish cigarettes. We don’t want any fires in these old wooden barracks. For butts only; not for trash. And, the #10 cans are not your personal ashtray. They stay where they are.”
“There is one large trash can by the stairs on each floor and one in the latrine. The latrine is on the first floor at the back of the barracks and is for all trainees in this barracks. Butt cans are for butts only or I’ll have your butt. In the morning, you will fall out for your first formation of the day. This is a roll call. Then we march to breakfast. And march back. Before you fall out for your next formation, you will make your bunks, secure your gear, and clean the barracks for inspection. I want all butt cans emptied in a commode, cleaned out, filled with an inch of water, and put back. They can’t be used again until after my daily inspection. Trash cans have to be emptied. Use one of the dumpsters behind the barracks near the access road. Clean the latrine. Clean the floors and make sure your personal areas are clean.”
“Okay, Sergeant Cook. Get them moving. Start with the last squad.”
The new trainees moved into the barracks and selected a bunk. I was in the first rank, but the first squad would be the last to go inside. So, when I entered the barracks, the first floor was filled and I was directed to go upstairs. I took a top bunk in the middle of the line of bunks, dumped my duffel bag, and started to put my things away. The footlockers were plywood, painted green, and bolted to the floor.
The drill sergeants walked through the barracks barking at the tired trainees, getting them settled in as quickly as possible. I watched SSG Cook show us how to make our bunks and how to tie our laundry bags to the rail at the foot of our beds. SFC Hartson demonstrated the same things on the ground floor. we spent spent some time getting our bunks made and putting away our gear. Shortly, SSG Cook walked through the barracks, announcing, “Lights out in five minutes.”
I checked the locks on my duffel bag and footlocker then got into my bunk. A minute later, the lights went out. I looked at the pattern of light on the ceiling that came in the window near my bunk.
I thought to myself, “I never saw anyone as big as Johnson. Nobody in my school was as big as Johnson. Squirming Smith is two bunks over. Still babbling. No one is listening or too tired to care.
As I started to doze off, I wasn’t thinking about home. I thought I saw Sergeant Hartson staring at me from the end of my bunk for most of the night.
It was 05:20 the next morning. Drill Sergeant Hartson pulled his F150 pickup into the gravel parking area behind Barracks 37 and turned the lights and engine off. He took a few more sips of coffee. Cold for September. He thought to himself:
The weather for this cycle could be brutal. This training cycle is going to be a bear for all of us. These kids don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. They’re scared about going to Vietnam. My wife reminded me that I’ve got 2 years to retirement. I’m so close. I better train ‘em well; some of these city slickers may be in Vietnam with me some day.
A lime green Corvette rumbled loudly into the parking lot next to Hartson’s truck. As was his custom, SSG Cook pushed the gas pedal to the floor twice quickly to hear his car clear its throat, then shut it off. SSG Cook put his head back and closed his eyes. Boilermakers were half price last night at the NCO club. He couldn’t refuse. Two minutes of shut-eye were better than none. SSG Cook swallowed and thought, “My tongue feels like the top of a pool table.”
SFC Hartson opened the door to his truck, poured the rest of his coffee onto the gravel and moved around to knock on Cook’s window.
“Sergeant Cook, let’s go.”
Drill Sergeant Cook, opened the door, pulled himself out, grabbed his DI hat. SFC Hartson could smell the alcohol as Cook stood up.
“Boilermakers half price again?” Sergeant Hartson playfully punched Sergeant Cook in the arm. Cook, it’s 05:28. You go in through the back and get upstairs; I’ll go around front and get the ground floor. Get them all on the company street by 06:00. Roll call will start at 06:05.”
“Yeah, they were half price. Look, a buddy of mine from 1st Brigade just got orders to ‘Nam. Sergeant Hartson, “Are we next?” A light snow started to powder the street and the grass.
“Don’t know, Sarge. Who knows? I’m this close to retirement. I’m hoping ‘Nam won’t screw it up for me. But if I got to go, I got to go. Don’t forget your gloves and make sure the trainees all wear field jackets, field caps, and their gloves with inserts. Got it?”
“Got it, Sergeant Hartson. See you out front.”
The wet cold of winter was always expected at this training base in southern New Jersey. It was just a question of when. It was early and it was now. The cold air and snow slapped SSG Cook awake. He ran to the back door. SFC Hartson went around to the front and burst in the door.
SFC Hartson stomped on the wood floor to get the snow off his highly spit-shined boots, turned on the lights and announced, “Let’s go, trainees, get out of the rack. You have one half hour to shit, shower, shave, and make your bunks.” Some trainees sat up, others barely moved.
SSG Cook charged up the steps with a garbage can lid and broom in his hands. When he got to the top of the stairs, he flipped the light switch. The three bare ceiling bulbs came to life. Most of the trainees did not. He heard a few groans. Then he started to bang on the lid with the broom and walk up and down the floor.
My eyes opened as soon as the lights switched on, but I couldn’t move. I was tired, achy, and hungry. Moments later, my bed started to shake. Sergeant Cook was kicking his bunk. Fear can be a motivator. I sat up like a spring and got out of bed. Sergeant Cook moved down the line to kick a few more bunks.
“Alright, you maggots. Out of the sack. Feet on the floor. You have half an hour to make your beds, shit, shower, and shave, and get in formation outside on the company street. Get moving.” For emphasis, Drill Sergeant Cook pointed to the door, nodding his head.
“I want to see field caps, field jackets, gloves with inserts, fatigue pants bloused. Out of the bunks; let’s go. If you don’t shave you are mine!”
At the same time, on the ground floor, SFC Hartson turned on the lights, “Rise and shine, trainees. The uniform of the day is fatigues, pants bloused, and field jacket. Field cap. Gloves with inserts.” He walked the floor kicking or shaking bunks, repeating his announcement a few times to make sure all the trainees heard it.
SFC Hartson stood back and observed. He could already tell who were the leaders and who were not. He saw Johnson coming out of the latrine before most trainees were off their bunks. Johnson was not only big, but catching on fast. Not rattled either. On the other hand, there was a trainee sitting on his bunk bewildered. Call it instinct or what you will but SFC Hartson had a feeling about this one.
“Well, look what we have here. A trainee staring into space.”
SFC Hartson walked up to the end of his bunk.
“What are you looking at, son?”
“Me, Drill Sergeant? Nothing, Drill Sergeant.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Smith, Drill Sergeant. Smith, Arnold P. I was just wondering how long I’d be here.
“So am I, Smith. Get moving young man.”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
The first half hour of the day passed quickly. It was time.
“Okay, Sergeant Cook, let’s get them outside.”
Sergeant Cook bounded up the stairs. “Okay, Men, outside. Let’s go. Time for formation. Move outside quickly.”
The men were already getting the hang of it. They loosely formed five ranks in the company street in front of their barracks. Sergeant Cook checked both floors and the latrine. When he came outside, he told SFC Hartson it was all clear. SFC Hartson moved in front of the platoon and assumed the position of attention and said, “Fall in!” He looked at the platoon. He has done this so many times. No different this morning. The uniforms were new. You could smell the sizing. The trainees were new. He never got tired doing this. He loved his job.
SFC Jackson, Reception Station cadre, joined the drill sergeants this morning to help get this platoon through Zero Week and off to their BCT unit. He was an imposing figure. Well over six feet tall. He wore a highly polished black helmet liner with a large decal of his rank on the front. His fatigues were heavily starched and looked like they were tailored to fit his big frame. He was not fat. All muscle. Just big. A trainee’s nightmare. He was originally from Jamaica and still spoke with a slight accent, which for reasons unknown made trainees fear him even more.
SFC Hartson said, “Good morning, Men. This sergeant to my left is Sergeant First Class Jackson. He is one of the finest cadre assigned to the Reception Station. Drill Sergeant Cook and I will be helping SFC Jackson get you processed through Zero Week and on to your basic training unit. SFC Jackson is going to take roll call. I expect to hear you sound off loud and clear with “Here Sergeant!” After roll call, we will march a few blocks down the company street to the mess hall, eat breakfast, then march back here to start your day of processing.” Sergeant Hartson nodded to SFC Jackson. Sergeant Jackson took over.
“Good morning, Men. You better get used to roll call. We are going to do it a lot while you at the Reception Station. We have to look out for your welfare and make sure you are present and ready to perform the tasks for the day. I’m going to call your names out in alphabetical order, last name first. When you respond with “Here Sergeant” raise your hand so I can see you, then put your arm down. Let’s begin.
“Alvarez, Manuel B.”
And so went the roll call. I automatically got more attentive when SFC Jackson got to my part of the alphabet. Everything went smoothly for SFC Jackson until he got to Smith.
“Smith, Arnold P.”
There was no answer. This time a little louder.
“Smith, Arnold P.”
Again, no answer. It was colder outside after the sun came up. It was quiet. Except for the sound of the barracks door slamming shut. A soldier ran from the barracks right in front of SFC Jackson.
“I’m Smith. And I stole the laundry bags. And next time, I’m going to throw up all over your boots.”
SFC Jackson couldn’t believe this. “Get in formation, son.” Smith melted into the formation. Meanwhile, SSG Cook ran into the barracks. Smith stole the laundry bags alright. Steal may not be the right word. He untied them all from the ends of the bunks on the first floor and put them in a pile in the middle of the floor. Roll call continued. Sergeants Cook and Hartson figured that Smith went outside the barracks during Cook’s check, then came back in again. He was the same Smith blubbering in formation last night. They would have to keep an eye on him.
Roll call came to an end. All present and accounted for. SFC Jackson continued.
“Men, shortly, your drill sergeants will move you down to the mess hall for breakfast. When you get there you will be released to get into the back of the mess hall lines. Each mess hall rank has ten men. Not nine. Not eleven. If Staff Sergeant French, the mess sergeant, counts more or less than ten men in your line, he will send your whole rank to the end of the line increasing your wait time for breakfast. So don’t cheat and try to move into a different lines. Stay together.”
SFC Hartson came forward.
“When I give you the command “Platoon. Attention” you will come to the position of attention, feet together, hands down at your sides, your eyes on me. Then, at “Right, Face” you all are going to turn to your right so you are not facing me, but looking down the company street. When I tell you “Forward March” you will start moving forward with your left foot first. Stay together as a platoon and move toward the center of the street. As you will see, there are many other platoons are on the company street having roll call and moving to the mess hall. When we get to the mess hall, I will release you to get into the mess hall lines. Remember what Sergeant Jackson said. Only ten men per mess hall line. You’ll have about twenty minutes to eat. We will let you know when you have to get back outside.”
The platoon made its way to the mess hall. These men were hungry. No chow since dinner in Newark the night before. Add to that, a long bus ride to Ft. Dix and a late night getting settled in. The smell of bacon greeted them when they arrived at the mess hall. The trainees were released by SFC Hartson to join the mess lines.
Hundreds of men stood in lines of ten approaching the mess hall entrance from two opposite directions. One man stood between these hungry men and their next meal. One man told the lines to move into the mess hall or go to the end of the line. That man was SSG Samuel French, mess sergeant. He wore a skin-tight white T-shirt, starched fatigue pants bloused over highly spit shined Corcoran jump boots. Over his T-shirt and down to his knees, he wore a white apron. The mess cap on his head was white. The short stick he carried in his hand was a short piece of a broom handle.
They called him “Frenchie” when he was out of earshot. He knew it and enjoyed the notoriety. After all, he carried the stick. Rumor had it that more than one trainee was on the receiving end of his corrective stick. Nothing said. Nothing seen. Nothing to report.
My line was next up to enter the mess hall. I watched as the mess sergeant tapped the stick in the palm of his hand as he walked by. Sergeant French was waiting like he did at the beginning of every meal because he knew that there was always a few who had to try.
“Okay, you sorry jokers. This rank and the one behind it go to the back of the mess line. Nine in one; eleven in the other. Get a move on. Hate to see you run into this little stick.”
SSG French pointed at me with the stick, “This line here, move into the mess hall.”
I looked at his watch. I think we spent at least twenty minutes in line. I followed the men ahead of me into the mess hall for my first Army meal. I watched the trainees ahead of me. I picked up a US Army mess tray. A metal tray with six sections. One large section at the center bottom part of the tray was for the main meal. The five smaller sections were for things like side dishes, salad, or dessert items.
As I went down the line, the servers behind the steam tables put food on my tray. Scrambled eggs, pancakes, syrup, bacon, and potatoes. I grabbed a fork, knife, and spoon from the containers at the end of the hot line. I found a seat at a long table. I put my tray down, then got up to get a glass of milk. The glasses were hot. Just washed. I ate quickly and realized that the bad rumors about Army food were not true.
Army chow tastes good to me. Big breakfast. And I’m not the last one finished. Things are looking up.
SSG Cook walked around the mess hall telling his trainees to finish up and get outside. I looked around to see what to do with my tray. Then, I saw the line of men at the washing station near the exit. First, I put my waste paper in the trash can. Then I put my tray on the conveyor belt, putting my utensils in a big roasting pan filled with sudsy hot water. That was it.
On my way back to formation, I figured that the first rank in the mess hall got about twenty minutes to eat. The last rank in got about ten or so. I never ate a meal so fast in my life. I joined the platoon outside the mess hall.
SSG Cook told the men to put out their cigarettes. It was time to return to the barracks. A few moments later, SSG Cook gave the command, “Fall in.” The trainees responded like a herd of cats. SFC Hartson looked on smiling and shaking his head. The platoon started to march.
SSG Cook cautioned them, “No talking, trainees.” It didn’t take long to get back from the mess hall. SSG Cook gave the command, “Platoon, halt; left face. Trainees, if I am not to your front, you are facing the wrong way.” The sound of shuffling feet followed. “At ease.”
SFC Hartson came forward. “Listen men, I’m going to put you on a ten minute break. You can go into the barracks to use the latrine, but no smoking. Don’t dirty any of the butt cans. When you are asked to return to formation to start your work day at reception station, make sure you have your field cap, field jacket, and glove shells with inserts. SFC Jackson will conduct another roll call, then he and Drill Sergeant Cook will take you for haircuts. Then, the groups will switch. One to testing, the other to haircuts.”
The ten minute break went very fast. There was a few men in the latrine waiting for commodes and a few rows of men at the urinal trough. I don’t like latrines. I didn’t know why, but I didn’t want an audience when I use the latrine. I waited until the latrine emptied out, then was in and out. Seconds later, everyone was on their way to formation.
SSG Cook had them “fall in.” And, he called SFC Jackson to the front.
“Good morning, men. I’m Sergeant Jackson from the Reception Station. After roll call, I’ll let you know what you will be doing today.”
Sergeant Jackson started roll call checking his clipboard and calling the names like before. Once again, everything went smoothly for SFC Jackson until he got to Smith.
“Smith, Arnold P.”
There was no answer. This time a little louder.
“Smith, Arnold P.”
He looked over at SFC Hartson and tried again.
“Smith, Arnold P.”
The barracks door slammed. Out came Smith weaving his way across the lawn towards SFC Jackson. Everyone could see Smith except SFC Jackson. Smith moved directly in front of Sergeant Jackson surprising him. SFC Jackson looked down at Smith. The morning sun glistened off of Sergeant Jackson’s polished helmet liner. It happened so fast no one moved or said a word.
“Sergeant Jackson, remember me? Smith, Arnold P. Here sergeant.”
Then it happened. If you couldn’t see it, you heard it. Some could smell it. Smith puked all over Sergeant Jackson’s spit-shined boots.
“In eighteen years, well I never…!
Sergeants Hartson and Cook moved and apprehended Smith. SSG Cook took Smith into the barracks. The medics were called. SFC Hartson excused SFC Jackson to clean up. SFC Hartson finished the roll call. Shortly, an Army ambulance arrived and Smith was taken away. No one saw Smith again. Later there were rumors that he got a Section 8, a discharge for being mentally unfit for service. The platoon stood very still. Many of the trainees thought what I was thinking:
Is Smith crazy or just smart? He won’t be going to Vietnam. He is going home.
Drill Sergeant Hartson continued. “Men, SFC Jackson will join us later. This morning you will be getting your first Army haircut. No beards, no facial hair in this man’s Army. The first haircut is free. Paid for by your Uncle Sam. After that, it is up to you to keep your hair trimmed to meet Army standards. That will take us up to lunch. Then, after lunch, here at the barracks you will receive your first Army partial pay. It is an advance of twenty-five dollars. After getting paid, we will march to the Reception Station PX extension to get some necessities. You will buy the items you must have in BCT. This small PX has things like shoe polish, shaving cream, tooth powder, blousing rubbers, smokes, stationary, stamps, pens, and notepads. Don’t waste your money on magazines or the like. You will only be in Reception Station barracks for a few days and you can’t take them to BCT. And don’t forget, no food, snacks, or drinks back in the barracks.”
“Okay, Sergeant Cook, let’s get them to the barber shop.”
Trainees in all shapes and sizes came out of the barbershop with the same haircut. I was in the last squad again, so there was a long wait. My squad moved up to the door. The barbers looked like they could cut hair in their sleep. One barber used a large push broom to clear the floor of piles of hair. Then, leaned the broom up against the wall and returned behind his chair.
My turn. I sat down in his chair. The barber shook out the barber cape, covered me with it, and attached it in back of my neck.
“Look down, son.”
The barber turned on the large electric clipper and started to cut. No talk. Just the sound of clippers. A few minutes later I was done. I looked in the mirror. My hair was very short. Very clean on the neck and around the ears.
The barber spun the chair around, took off the cape. I put my field cap back on. It felt different. I looked in the mirror on my way out to rejoin my platoon.
Short hair makes my nose look bigger.
A few minutes later, SFC Hartson marched the platoon back to the barracks. On the sidewalk between the barracks and the company street, there was a small green field table and a folding metal chair. A young lieutenant sat at the table. There was a briefcase beside him. Drill Sergeant Hartson halted the platoon in front of the lieutenant.
Sergeant Hartson said, “Right face. At ease.”
“Men, you are starting to look like soldiers. I hope you are enjoying your haircuts as much as SSG Cook and I. 1st Lieutenant MacPherson is your pay officer today. Drill Sergeant Cook will demonstrate what you will do to get paid. Sergeant Cook.”
SSG Cook walked to the field desk. He stopped a few paces in front of the desk and stood at parade rest. When the Lieutenant said, “Next,” SSG Cook came to attention and moved to the front of the desk facing the lieutenant, assumed the position of attention, saluted, and said, “Sir, Sergeant Cook reports for pay.” The lieutenant returned the salute. SSG Cook dropped his hand salute and remained at attention.
“At ease, Sergeant.”
Sergeant Hartson added, “At the command of right face, report for pay, the first squad will move to my left a form a line in front of the lieutenant. No talking in line. When you are next, you do what SSG Cook demonstrated. You come to attention, move in front of the desk, come to attention, salute, and say your rank, name, followed by “reports for pay, Sir.” The pay officer will tell you to stand at ease while he checks his list and counts out your twenty-five dollar partial pay on the field desk in front of you. You watch him count it out to make sure you are getting the right amount. Then, he will tell you, “Dismissed.” At that time you pick up your pay, put it in your pocket, come to attention, salute, keep walking past the lieutenant, and return to your position in your squad.”
“Platoon, attention! Right face. Report for pay.”
The first squad started to move to form the long pay line. I was toward the end of the platoon. I almost forgot to salute. But it was okay. The lieutenant up close didn’t look much older than me. Then, we marched to the PX and back to the barracks before lunch. Lunch came and went without incident. After lunch we marched to a classroom and took tests until dinner time. Dinner was uneventful and the meat with gravy over it was unrecognizable, but good. Back at the barracks, our sergeants painted white dots on the top back of one pair of our boots. Tomorrow we were to wear the boots with the white dots. Next day, no dots. This way the drill sergeants could tell if we rotated our boots every day. Just before lights out, there was a rumor that tomorrow would be a company detail day. I had no idea what that meant.
I slept well. I didn’t move until I heard SSG Cook’s garbage can lid routine and the lights came on at 05:30. I was getting used it. It still got me moving.
We were outside in formation wearing the same uniform of the day by 06:00 and roll call as usual. At breakfast, I realized that I was beginning to like grits with a little butter, salt, and pepper. I let the over medium eggs run into the grits. Good stuff. I started to drink coffee. Not black. I had to put in a lot of cream and sugar to drink it. I think I drank it to warm me up more than anything else. I wanted to drink hot tea but it was too much trouble in the little time we had to eat.
The sun usually started to come up as we waited in line to go into the mess hall. No warm sun today. Rain clouds and cold. No rain yet. Back at the barracks in formation, last night’s rumor was confirmed.
SFC Hartson explained, “Men, today is company detail day. This platoon will participate. While you are processing to go to your BCT unit, every platoon here at reception station has one day of company detail where you get farmed out to do various chores around the base. And you are lucky again tomorrow. Our platoon will provide four personnel to Sergeant French for KP. I’ll let you know at the end of the day who will be selected for KP detail.”
While Sergeant Hartson put us on a latrine break, three Army green trucks pulled up and stopped behind the platoon on the company street. Drill Sergeant Cook broke down the platoon into three groups and we were herded onto trucks and told to sit in rows shoulder-to-shoulder facing the back of the truck. The trucks pulled out. Wood panels on the sides. Canvas on top. I had no idea where we were going.
Because I sat to the rear of the truck I could see behind us. The truck pulled through a gated fence line, drove slowly on a few small roads then got on what looked like a long very wide road. The truck came to a stop. We were told to get out of the truck. That was when I looked back along the road. It wasn’t a road. It was an airport runway. Next to the runway was a pile of runway rubble about fifty feet high. An old runway was in a pile in big chunks. The detail sergeant walked us over to the pile.
“Men, your detail today is to move this pile by hand to the back of this here truck.”
Some chunks took two men to lift. We climbed and carried the rubble until lunch time. We were trucked back to our mess hall for lunch, then trucked back out the to rubble pile. The dump truck must have unloaded during lunch. It was empty. We started again after lunch. The rain started after lunch too. We were wet. Field jackets were wet. Our leather gloves and wool inserts were wet. And we were cold. Sweating and cold at the same time. Dinner time. We were trucked to our mess hall and back to barracks.
Some guys discussed the day to see who had the worst detail. I think my truck at the airstrip won. After a shower, I crawled into my bunk. I hoped I wouldn’t hear the words “company detail day” ever again.
As I lay in a top bunk, I saw a flashlight coming toward me. It had to be to dark and cold to get up. The flashlight stopped a few bunks away from me. I could see it was Drill Sergeant Cook. He hustled two guys out of their bunks for KP duty. I tried not to move or breathe in case the drill sergeant looked in my direction and choose me. Looks like he chose to guys with names at the end of the alphabet. Does that mean I’m safe from KP for a while? I hope so. I must have fallen back asleep because the next thing I knew the lights came on. I could hear a drill sergeant. I didn’t want to move; it was cold. Then my bunk shook.
“Out of the bunk, trainee, feet on the floor. Get moving son.”
It was Drill Sergeant Hartson. Somewhere between “get” and “son” my feet hit the floor. I threw on my shower shoes, grabbed my toilet kit and towel off of the end of my bunk, and ran for the latrine hoping I’d get a sink and hot water. I got one. I tried to ignore the bathroom activity around me and focus on shaving without cutting myself.
Since I had the top bunk, I had to sit on my footlocker to finish dressing. I put on the uniform of the day: A clean set of fatigues, clean and polished combat boots (no dot) with blousing rubbers, field jacket, gloves with inserts, field hat. I headed toward the door. No wait, I forgot my dog tags. I ran back to my footlocker, but I was in such a hurry it took me two tries to unlock my combination lock.
I wasn’t the last one in formation. Almost though. Drill Sergeant Cook called us to attention and took roll call. This was the day we were all waiting for. Our last day of testing at Reception Station. The day moved along quickly.
Back at the barracks after the evening meal, I polished my boots. At lights out there was a lot of chatter. I wasn’t the only one who was nervous about tomorrow, our first day of basic training.