The Case of the Survival Wardrobe Continuum 

     We were about 4 or 5 weeks deep into US Army Basic Training, back in Ft Polk, LA in the early 1970s – “Little Vietnam” as they called it – and the drill sergeants, were starting to back off a bit with their constant abuse. We were in a formation in our company area, which was right across the street from a small PX, a laundry and a few things, like a an old fashioned strip center. Restricted, we did not dare go over there or leave the company area when off-duty. The drill sergrant asked,“any questions?” right before dismissing us.

      I raised my hand and asked, “when we will be old enough to cross the street?”

      Everyone laughed at my sarcastic ass, even the Sarge.

     “We'll see,” and he dismissed us.

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      My joke worked because within a few hours, the word was passed that we could indeed cross the street! Well! We did. The little store was worthless, but you could get a beer there, and a pretty piss-poor, little pizza and a bag of chips. And then, myself and apparently quite a few others decided that we would deposit several sets of Army fatigues over there at the laundry and get them starched! Yeah! Be all looking like the stract cadre walking around. Yes-sir! Be looking mighty fine for all those damn, morning inspections too.

      Within two days we got them back from the laundry. Cost almost nothing. And the following morning we wore them, breaking that heavy, cardboard starch that only those of us in the “green machines your granddaddy called the service” would understand. Driving your foot through the cardboard leg of poster-board pants. OO-ahh. Draft dodgers have no idea what I am yakking about here.

      And there we stood in morning formation. Hundreds of us in toto, but only about 40 of us were starched up. Suddenly the drill sergeants – once friendly, but NEVER to be trusted – started walking the lines,

      “YOU!” “YOU!” “YOU!”

      They started pulling troops from the lines! One even came by me, gave me a dirty look and called me a “YOU!” and he pulled me out, too! What the…?

      They put us in several, new lines. I took a good look around and we were all the guys who had our uniforms starched. That was the only common denominator I could see. Maybe we were going to get a prize, you know? They marched us over to several of our nearby barracks. Now, these were old wooden barracks and, being in the near swamp levels of Louisiana, the buildings were up a couple of feet, off the ground on support beams. And being swampy, the underneath's of which were also shady, wet, muddy and yucky. The Baskerville Moors of Polk quicksand!

       They lined us up by these buildings, and then they ordered us face down on the ground, Then they ordered us to low crawl up to…and then under those barracks, plum out the other side. All to the delight of the other soldiers watching with glee. WELL! I did what I was told, fearing worse on the other end! Why me, Lord? There are hairy spiders and poisonous snakes down here! Leeches and shit! Hells bells, they got gators in the Louisiana bayou! Lumpy, mud and who knows what-all!

       They lined us up and back again we were so ordered! Then back yet again. Then, they lined us up and the drill sergeants took a good look at us, making contorted and disgusted faces. One sarge, the most articulate at yelling in melodious cuss words and clever phrases of ridicule made a speech as only he could. It was full of cussing and yelling and stomping about and well, it was got-dam, beautiful, it was, you know, in that negative sort of way. But I can't recall it word-for-word, so I will summarize it for you all here.

      In so many words he explained that you cannot love your uniform too much, can't worry about it being too clean or kempt. He explained that we constantly clean and polish and brush our uniforms because we were supposed to get them dirty. Every day. All the time. That was our job to get dirty and clean them. Get dirty and clean them. You didn't love your country if you weren't getting dirty defending it. We were in the Army, and if you worry about your clothes getting messed up or dirty, even for a second, you might hesitate to duck, dive or fight, and that might get you killed in – "This Man's Army!"

      So, he explained, in order for us starchie-low-lifes to get a proper day's training in, we first needed to be roughed up, and made to forget about how "purty" we looked. Then we fell in beside the other troops for the day's other fun and games of mental and physical abuse. And we starchie-low-lifes spent the whole day in caked mud. From there after? They didn't care if you showed up in starched fatigues, because you've been read this riot act. It must happen every Basic cycle, huh? The message must be conveyed. After that, we could go starched-up, but just don't get caught worrying about ruining your look. Just dive into the mud hole then they say “jump!”

       Clothes make the fighting man. Movie critics once mentioned that there was a distinct difference between James Bonds. Said one, “Sean Connery, when all dressed up, looked like he couldn't wait to get dirty. Roger Moore when all dressed up, looked like he couldn't stand to get dirty.” What a great analogy.

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     If my old drill sergeant had heard that line, he no doubt would have yelled that in my muddy face.

     “Whooo are you, boy? Sean Connery or Roger Moore?"

     “Sean Connery, Drill Sergeant.”

     “Whhhooo? I can't hear you! You prissy little, misbegotten excrement from a house-mouse whore!”

    “SEAN CONN…” …you know the routine.

      It was a lesson I never did forget. And it has merit. It is inspirational and gets your head on straight as you step out the door to go to work. But the lesson doesn't always fit the organization. Even in the military.

      Soon after Basic Training, after the military police academy, I was pulling garrison, (standard police patrol) military police duty and in the daytime we had to wear Class A uniforms which was worse than a thick suit and tie. Pistol belt outside the jacket, riding up your torso like a straight jacket. The clod-hopper boots. Are you roller skating in a buffalo herd? The bloused pants with the special rubber-band-thingy on your calf. And heaven forbid you were caught without your big white hat on, even when driving. The whole thing was…

For the rest of the article, read Fightin' Words, click here

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