Uncle John

My uncle John giving me my first salute as a Second Lieutenant

One of the core principles everyone who has ever gone through basic training will understand is that being invisible has it’s advantages. When your bus drives through the installation gate for the first time on your way to training, you develop a pit in your stomach and start to wonder just what you have gotten yourself into. As you watch others get chewed on, you try to shrink into oblivion and do everything you can not to get noticed. At least, that was my experience. No sooner had we crossed the threshold of the base than the Military Training Instructors (MTIs or just TIs) who had met us at the airport and who had been at least moderately tolerant and helpful turned into demons, lashing out at anyone or anything that stood out. The happiest among us were the ones who weren’t worthy of notice. As I sat contemplating invisibility and thinking about the reality of being trapped in this jail-looking compound, I knew I could survive it but wondered if it was worth it. I was determined to stay off the radar. My hope for anonymity, however, didn’t last long.

As it turned out, just one year prior I had three uncles who were stationed there. All well known. All happy to make my life a little uncomfortable. And one of them was still stationed there and working at the confidence course. What I didn’t know, was that these fine family members had apparently let the cat out of the bag and told all their buddies that their nephew was inbound for training. I would soon find out that I was destined for a lot of special attention.

After a short drive through the base, the buses from the airport generally pull up to a training complex and trainees shuffle off under the very close supervision and barked instructions of half a dozen angry looking men wearing “smoky the bear” hats — the TIs. Commands like “ground your bags” universally result in at least one trainee not understanding what was meant, which immediately draws the attention of the pack of TI piranhas hovering just a few inches away waiting for an opportunity to chew on some fresh meat. The pack would circle and divvy up the likely victims based on how it would have the most effect.

As an example of the kind of effects they looked for, one of the TIs in charge of our group couldn’t have stood taller than about five foot five. He universally paid special attention to the tallest and largest trainees. He would find something they were doing wrong (which never took long), get right up against them, stare upwards into their face as he stabbed a pointed finger into their chest, and yell at them while almost foaming at the mouth. The moment they would look down at him, all hell would break loose with one-sided discussions about why it was wrong to look down on a superior like that.

A contrasting example was another of our TIs who was well over six foot six, was very muscle bound, and extremely dark-skinned. His tactic was to find the shortest, most timid little white girl and tower over her, whispering in a menacing tone. He almost never spoke loudly, but when he did, everyone for miles heard what it was you were doing wrong. He terrorized short people.

As for my bus, we entered the gates at Lackland Air Force Base in unremarkable form and proceeded to the training complex. However, instead of the typical routine of ejecting passengers and corralling them into a formation, a TI came on the bust shouting for Johnson. There were several, me among them, and we had the pleasure of being the first off the bus and a few minutes of special attention. As luck would have it, my uncle John had told some of his friends about his nephew, and they were on the look-out. Apparently they had done this on every bus that had come in that day, and in the process had made me a bunch of rather disgruntled friends that had the misfortune of sharing my last name. Instead of being invisible (as I had tried hard to be), I had an enormous target tattooed indelibly on both my front and back sides.

On the whole, the theatrics all looked to me like a comedy routine, and I had great difficulty not losing my composure. In fact, much of the special attention I got all was justified because I had been “smirking,” or something like that. Thankfully, after a few days people mostly forgot about my linkage to SSgt Johnson and I was able to at least blend in with the worst of the trouble makers. I never did manage a week where I didn’t have so many demerits that I would be policing cigarette butts or cleaning toilets on Sunday afternoon, but at least the most interesting of the attention faded away.

Towards the end of my training, we were shaken out of our bunks at roughly 2:30 and forced to go through a simulated deployment line. The remainder of the day we went through the process of out-processing for deployment, a simulated flight to Korea, and a full-day of “ground operations” on the Medina Annex before finishing up a very long day with an exhausted run through the confidence course.

Everyone was exhausted after weeks of little sleep and hard training, and the day’s activities added a rather acute insult to the underlying injuries. As I lined up to begin the course, I was put behind a very tired female who was almost in tears. She climbed up to start across the monkey bars that hung over a greenish pit of swamp water, but didn’t make it past the first rung before splashing down into the slime. Unsatisfied with her effort, the TI barked at her to do it again. I stepped aside to make room as she swung her now soaking body to the second rung before falling off again. Again, the TI wasn’t satisfied she had tried hard enough, so she circled back around and I watched her make it three rungs before falling off and finally being granted the mercy of moving to the next obstacle.

I reached out to the first bar. It was completely soaked and very slippery. I made it to the second. Then, on the third and final wet one, my grip slipped and down into the green water I fell. The TI chuckled, knowing exactly why I had fallen. I got the distinct impression she had tormented the girl in front of me just to make sure I fell in. Since I had so obligingly complied, I was sent forward to the next obstacle without getting the bars any more wet for the people behind me.

Besides the discomfort of being soaking wet in humid 90+ degree weather, falling into the pit meant that the low-crawl under camouflage netting through sand was akin to turning every article of clothing I had on into 80-grit sandpaper. It chafed, rubbed, and generally tore skin away from anywhere that came into contact with. However, as uncomfortable as it was, I finished the course and stumbled my way towards the dinner that was waiting for us. The camp commander had promised us barbecue for our last night before graduation.

As I shuffled along in line, I was surprised to see my 15 year old sister dishing up food. It turns out that the camp commander had contracted my uncle (who did barbecue on the side) to feed us, and my uncle had co-opted my sister (who was in town visiting family) into helping. She didn’t look 15, and was dangerously pretty. All the guys were trying to flirt with her, and anyone who was brave enough to try immediately earned a set of supervised push-ups.

Unlike everyone else, I had no desire to flirt, but that didn’t change the fact that she came right to me and gave me a big hug right in front of everyone. Instantly, I was completely surrounded by TIs who were in the process of fully dressing me down for my breach of decorum (even though I had just stood there blankly when she came up to me). At that moment, I resigned myself to an hour or two of supervised pain, but that resolve was short-lived. John came jogging over to me and shooed away the other TIs.

“Hey,” he said, “what’ve I gotta do to get you off base to see grandma?”

Unlike regular basic trainees, they didn’t allow the officer candidates off base after graduation the next day. We were restricted to inside the fence until we got on the buses to go home. Just as John asked me this question, I noticed the camp commander walking about 20 yards away and told John that he’d have to ask “the old man,” pointing to the Colonel. I didn’t think John would do it, otherwise I would have never suggested it. I should have known better. John is every bit a Johnson, and he ran straight to the Colonel to ask him.

In the mean-time, the other TIs had been lurking just out of ear-shot waiting for their chance to reengage. As soon as they saw John talking to the Colonel, they closed in and went to work. But just about the time they had wound up to full-speed, John came back and scared them off again. He had succeeded in convincing the Colonel to let my grandmother take me off-base after graduation as long as I was back in the barracks by 11:30 that night. While my cohorts were wandering between the BX and bowling alley, I was enjoying all-you-can-eat Chinese and taking a nap in an air-conditioned room on a soft easy-chair. I got back to the barracks at 11:29, and had just enough time to back my bags before taking the first bus to the airport at 3:30 the next morning. It turned out, in the end, that knowing one of the TIs had its advantages.

A little under three years later, John had been reassigned to Hill AFB just south of Ogden UT; and I was ready to graduate from the University of Utah, commission, and start active duty. Now, there’s a tradition in the Air Force that newly commissioned officers give a silver dollar to the first enlisted member to salute them. I honestly don’t know where that tradition comes from, but I wasn’t about the give away a silver dollar to just anyone. Since John was close-by, he would get my dollar. In fact, I had to turn to him for help finding a real silver dollar. He rounded one up for me from a great uncle who had a collection of them, and was there and waiting when I commissioned to relieve me of it. I couldn’t have found a better recipient.

My work interactions with John didn’t end there though. Immediately after graduation, I was assigned to Hill, and moved into a house on-base just a few blocks from John and his family. He got no end of fun out of the fact that a Lieutenant was mowing the Staff Sergeant’s lawn while he was out of town, and I didn’t mind having a Staff Sergeant shovel the snow out of my driveway while I was gone. Having family on-base was a nice way to start my career.

About two years later, John was slated for reassignment and I was getting ready to go to graduate school. Before he left, John needed to reenlist one more time in order to get all the way to retirement, and he offered to let me officiate. I showed up at his shop for a commander’s call and helped him sell his soul for another six years. It was the first time I’d done a reenlistment. Six years later, he blamed me for the fact he was still here and let me officiate his retirement, another first for me. The extra attention I got in training was a small price to pay.

One thought on “Uncle John”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *