"You're in the Army now!"
The Barracks: home to young soldiers
Sometimes life grabs us and shoves us down a road that we would never have chosen on our own. Later, maybe much later, we look back and realize that it was the best course to follow after all.
I had such a journey and it began with a letter. It arrived on my 21st birthday. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. I had complied with the law and signed up for the draft when I had turned 18. For the past three years I had been looking over my shoulder, wondering if my number would come up. It did.
I reported to a processing station and began an odyssey of lines and forms and questions with long periods of waiting in between. Sometime late in the afternoon our group of "draftees" boarded a bus and began our first official journey as soldiers. We headed south to Fort Knox, Kentucky. I can remember getting there sometime in the middle of the night. We were taken to a barracks building where I was singled out as a "fireguard." A conscientious sort, I asked the details of my first Army assignment and learned that the fireguard was supposed to stay awake and spread the alarm if any fires broke out during the night. Just my luck. I was assigned a duty before I even had my first night's rest as a private in Uncle Sam's Army.
The next morning we were awakened at 5:00 and arranged into our first "formation." I can still feel the chill of the morning air, combined with the increasing chill I felt from the realization that this was to be my new lifestyle for the nect two years. It was here, too, that I first noticed the mysterious aromas of the Army mess hall, since our formation was just outside one.
The mess hall was to play a big part in my experience of that first day. We were at the reception station and I was "volunteered" for KP, a time-honored duty for those in uniform. My "uniform" of the day was the same shirt and pants I had worn the previous day. We had not yet received our olive-drab wardrobe.
I'll never forget that KP duty. I was the "pots and pans" man. Old soldiers reading this will probably nod and smile in sympathy. This was the worst of all KP duties. It was the "industrial strength" version of dishwashing. I stood over a vast sink of scalding, soapy water. All around me were stacks of the largest pots I ever had laid eyes on. To make matters worse, one of the cooks would come around every few minutes, poke his finger into the water, and then pronounce it "not hot enough."
As I scrubbed away at the crusted pots, I couldn't help but wonder how my life had changed so suddenly. Only 24 hours earlier, I had been a "civilian," blissfully unaware of the role that fate was preparing for me. Now I was the pitiful "pots and pans" man. Little did I know at the time that I would learn to like the Army, that I would make many friendships, and that it would lead me to an education and a career.
Yes, the Army was really the best course for me at that stage of my life. I just didn't realize it at the time. I had some living to do first. That's what I try to tell young people today. If life seems to be serving you lemons, maybe there's some lemonade in your future.
The future seemed very distant for me as I faced the reality of those greasy pots and pans. At some point during my enslavement over the sinks, I asked one of the mess sergeants for the time. He took a long look at me. I was drenched in perspiration; my civilian clothes were wet through with sweat and soapy water.
"Time? Makes no difference to you now, boy. You're on our time. You're in the Army now."