PTSD therapy at a Veterans Administration clinic.
Ryan was new to PTSD. He only found out he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder a few weeks ago when the VA evaluated him because he spent time in Vietnam.
Ryan thought the whole thing was silly. He was in the Air Force, working with, by today’s standards, an antique computer, the UNIVAC 1050. In Vietnam, his office had been air-conditioned for Christ sakes. Ryan didn’t feel like he had trauma.
Seven years ago, Ryan experienced a nervous breakdown created by years of depression and forty years of addiction to wine and whiskey. He never thought of himself as a drunk. Recently he learned he was a high-functioning alcoholic. He never missed a day’s work. He earned and spent a boatload of money in a career as an executive that paid him to travel all over the world. He nearly lived in four-star hotels, eating the best food money could buy, and, of course, drinking the best wine and whiskey on all seven continents as well as places left off the continental list. He did all of this while consuming more and more alcohol
Now, sober for six years, nearly broke and living a lifestyle more modest than when he was twenty-five, Ryan thought he was adjusting well to forced downsizing.
The VA disagreed with his assessment regarding PTSD and convinced him to try this program. In the first five minutes, looking at the other veterans gathered around the table, he knew coming here was a mistake.
The group was for veterans over sixty.
He looked around the room and felt everyone present was in worse shape than he was.
The first session allowed group members to introduce themselves and say whatever they felt like sharing.
Ryan introduced himself as if he were at an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting. “Hi, I’m John, I’m an alcoholic, sober six years and counting.”
Unlike an AA meeting, there was not positive, welcoming response.
The group consisted of six other people. Four served in Vietnam, one in Korea and the sixth worked in the San Diego naval morgue for four years, processing bodies coming home from Viet Nam.
In addition to working as a group, each participant received homework, much of which was writing about their experiences.
During a session in the seventh week, it was Ryan’s turn to speak about his experience.
He planned say little, just enough to get by.
He began, “I was not a real soldier. The Air Force sent me to Nha Trang. Nice base, beaches, a town where real soldiers took in-country R&R. Just like you guys, I was a kid. I tried to avoid going to Vietnam.
“I’m guessing how I got to Vietnam is not much different than most of your stories. It was common enough in those days,” Ryan said.
He began slowly, but with each word, his story spilled out. So many things wanted out of him. After forty years, he could not stop talking. The group’s doctor encouraged him to continue speaking, which Ryan did.
As the other group members listened, they heard something familiar. They reminded Ryan of old Indian warriors, survivors of many battles, who knew how the story went but listened because it was a story they lived.
The boy in the well floated face down. A viscous slime of excrement, human and animal, unused parts of fish and fowl, and dirty water covered him. Poncho-covered, white-helmeted men wore thick work gloves to pull a rope through a temporarily erected ‘A’ frame placed atop a well-like cement culvert. The culvert stood buried vertically in a traffic roundabout extending three feet above the roadway. The men pulled the rope, one hand over the other. The object at the end slowly rose. Shallow opened cement-lined drainages ditches emptied into openings in the culvert’s base. The ditches supplied unending trickles of unimaginable foul-smelling mucous textured vileness beneath the steel grates covering them.
The rope pullers stopped at a sign from a man standing at the open culvert. A human body swayed near the lip of the culvert, bouncing lightly against the curved cement walls.
It was a boy. A preacher’s son from a no-horse town in Missouri farm country. He did not have to die this way. He should never even have been here.
Years after watching the dead boy emerge from the well, Ryan shouldered responsibility for allowing the boy’s death. The preacher’s son was part of Ryan’s unit. They were supposed to protect each other. Like Ryan, the preacher’s son was another lost soul struggling to survive in the madness of Vietnam, and as such, Ryan felt he bore responsibility for the loss of Smitty’s life.
Smith instantly became one of the thousands of Smittys, boys wearing various uniforms in this insane war-ridden landscape. Ryan was ashamed to admit he did not remember the preacher’s son’s first name and, in fact, may never have known it. He was just another Smitty to the guys in Ryan’s unit, but his loss made him their Smitty.
Years later, Ryan came to realize young Smitty, all of eighteen or nineteen years old, did not have to be in this country. He, like the rest of the American boys, should not have been there.
How Smitty ended life face down in a sewage drain is known only to those who were there. What this handful of American boys didn’t know at the time was how a boy so obviously not intended for war ended up in this damned country.
Ryan knew how he came to be in the dreaded small spot on a world map. Ryan stood watching the taut rope hoist the boy’s putrid-smelling and broken body from the well-like sewage drain.
Ryan’s journey to Vietnam was, in his mind, common enough among those selected to serve their nation in that era. Even so, it was the tale Ryan lived, and knowing it allowed some understanding of why a preacher’s son from Godforsaken, Missouri lost his life for no good reason.
1964, Slidell, Louisiana
Mr. Herbert Robicheaux, a new high school teacher, degreed and certified in the past year, taught John Ryan’s senior year history class. He recognized a lost boy when he saw one, took John Ryan to wing and gently, sometimes obtusely, nudged Ryan in a better direction than the confused circle that heretofore was Ryan’s unwittingly chosen path to nowhere.
Robicheaux recognized Ryan’s love of words the first time he called on Ryan in class. The boy’s vocabulary exceeded his own.
John Ryan Senior, which is the reason everyone, including parents, called John Ryan Junior, Ryan, began playing word games with his son before Ryan was two years old. Every day the lad discovered his father managed to lodge another word and many of its meanings into his brain.
Ryan constantly used his enormous bag of words to impress and lord over people. He enjoyed the attention it earned him, except when ‘hoods,’ those dangerous boys in motorcycle boots, white tee shirts, and leather jackets, told him he’d better shut up.
Robicheaux encouraged Ryan to join the debate team which, coincidently, the teacher coached. Ryan won most of his debates. Never mind his tactic included the appliance of well-considered lies and fabricated quotes from the same references every debater used to win the argument. Ryan knew every debater was essentially a lazy high schooler and only copied down the part of the quote they planned to use in their presentation. After a year of winning, any way he could, his self-confidence, naturally bloated with ever-present arrogance, convinced Ryan he would be a wonderful lawyer. He could get rich, and all he had to do was talk.
A native of Lafayette, Louisiana, a full-blooded, if such a thing existed, Cajun, Mr. Robicheaux graduated from McNeese State University in Lake Charles where he ascended to the captain of one of the nation’s top collegiate debate teams. Recognizing that Ryan’s natural talent for frequently telling lies would derail any temporary success young Ryan might gain, the teacher arranged for the university debate coach, Mr. Broussard, to grant Ryan a token scholarship to be on the college’s debate team.
Debating made Ryan feel special and important. It provided Ryan a feel-good alternative to playing on the high school football or track team. Though many of Ryan’s friends, at least the ones attending college, enrolled at LSU.
John Ryan Sr., a subtle and a man wise in the ways of government and military, suggested his son accept the partial scholarship, knowing Ryan’s less-than-stellar study habits would quickly surrender unconditionally once assailed by old friends and keg parties at LSU.
A twenty-year career military intelligence officer, John Ryan Sr. was transferred, along with his military service years, to NASA in 1957, the year the Russians placed the basketball-sized Sputnik in orbit. NASA facilities’ rapid expansion moved the family to Slidell, Louisiana. A veteran of World War II, John Senior believed college might be the only way for Ryan to avoid the draft currently sweeping up boys from the lower and middle economic classes to fight against communist nations in their attempts to topple nation-sized dominoes during the Cold War.
Dad’s suspicions cut the target dead center. Ryan shone brightly among McNeese’s first-year debate members. New friends quickly included him in keg parties, along with weekend forays to the Bamboo Room, a club near the Texas border. Owned by B. B. King, it became Ryan’s shrine, to which he pilgrimaged at least once a week to worship the god of rhythm and blues. By the end of the first semester, there just was not enough time for attending classes. Ryan’s social calendar provided endless pitchers of cheap beer and raucous parties populated by many girls anxious to enjoy new freedom.
When the second semester ended, flunked-out Ryan returned to his parent’s new home near Cape Canaveral, Florida. The summer crawled by.
In Louisiana, the legal drinking age was eighteen years old. Florida followed most normal state guidelines setting twenty-one as the first year a person could legally get blasted and killed in a drink-inspired automobile accident. Ryan spent the summer friendless and haunted by the Draft Board, which sent Ryan a membership card and threatened to invite Ryan to a massive jungle party taking place in the exotic Orient.
Dad rescued Ryan again. His disappointment over Ryan’s failing every class at McNeese fell far short of fearing his oldest son faced the near certainty of soon becoming a rifleman in the Marines or the Army. He inquired among his circle of colleagues and learned of a program that might keep Ryan alive until he reached legal drinking age.
The United States Air Force’s ranks swelled with volunteers, essentially legal draft dodgers, who believed serving in the relative safety of the Air Force a better proposition than fighting mosquitos and foot fungus in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Under normal circumstances, those sharing Ryan’s circumstances faced the certainty of being kneed in the balls by an enormous outraged drill instructor as the beginning of a short-term process, which ended with death in a rice paddy.
Using influence accumulated over twenty-five years of service to his nation, Dad arranged Ryan’s inclusion in a special, nearly secret program. Ryan would join the Air Force in July, as an inactive reservist. In January, the Air Force would activate Ryan’s membership in their club, and he would travel to a training base where a smaller, but just as outraged, drill instructor would threaten to knee Ryan in the balls if Ryan’s underwear failed the measurement test for the proper fold. It was a far better proposition than the previous path and one with much less chance of ending up dead or wounded by a feces-adorned punji stick penetrating through a jungle boot’s sole, the wearer’s foot and protruding upward, exiting the bootlaces.
His dad, hoping to keep Ryan occupied and out of any trouble that might jeopardize Ryan’s membership in the U.S. Air Force enlistment program, had Ryan enroll in a junior college. There he, as Ryan’s father knew he would, spent time other than attending classes. He majored in meeting girls at parties and falling in love with a different girl each week. Ryan, trying his best to wear the persona of a Beatnik, grew a beard, and long hair. He wrote poetry and doled out philosophy as people reeking of marijuana poured cheap wine from a straw-encased Chianti bottle into Ryan’s paper cup. Marijuana’s abundance and obtainability made it the choice of highs for the under-aged.
Drinking often sharpened Ryan’s tongue and revealed Ryan for the know-it-all asshole he was. Marijuana mellowed him, allowed Ryan to pull away from trying to impress people. Weed made Ryan want to make love to a woman at hand and then sleep three or four hours before driving home. Girls tolerated Ryan much better when he operated under the influence of marijuana than alcohol.
The fall passed in an opium dream. Since Ryan’s future for the next four years began in January, there was no pressure from the home front. Parties were plentiful, sometimes more than one a night on weekends. Dad, suffering his own midlife crisis, purchased a 1965 Ford Mustang for himself to play in on weekends but allowed Ryan to use it during the week. Life was good.
The dream ended the morning of January 4, 1966. His dad and mother dropped Ryan off at the recruiting station just as the chartered Greyhound bus, containing around forty boys, pulled to the curb.
He hugged his parents, said goodbye and boarded.
Being a self-centered asshole did not make Ryan a stupid asshole. Oh no, he realized his new federally funded country club possessed strict dress codes. Ryan stepped up into the bus clean shaven and hair shorn short. Wearing a white, permanent press, button down collar and a corduroy sports coat, he felt ready, or so he thought, for any bullshit waiting for him at basic training.
The bus held a cross-section of males around his age. They dressed in a broad spectrum of economically dictated fashion. Some seemed like himself, failed draft dodgers, unable to stay in college. Others appeared more sinister, hoodlums and criminals remanded to the military instead of jail time. To his delight, the group was absent a red-faced, bug-eyed drill instructor handing out boots to shine. Ryan knew the devil in green would materialize soon enough, but for now, he took a seat and opened his Kahlil Gibran book. The first line he saw said, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
“Crap,” Ryan whispered to himself. He closed the book as the bus headed north on Highway US 1.
Approaching Jacksonville, Ryan saw the ocean through his window. He wondered when next he might next see another. Then he remembered Vietnam was blessed with a long coastline.
Too soon, he thought.
The boy in the seat next to Ryan boarded at the stop in Daytona. He wore baggy shorts, a tee shirt with a surfboard shop logo, sandals, and cheap sunglasses. He turned his head toward Ryan and whispered, “You gotta joint, man?”
“I’m sorry, man,” Ryan emphasized the last word. “I gave it all to the black guys in the back, the ones wearing handcuffs.”
“Bummer, man,” Surfer-boy responded. “I was hoping to get lit before Jacksonville. I hear the induction center is not cool.”
Not cool described Ryan feelings. Though calm on the outside, Ryan’s composure began a downward spiral in Daytona and progressively sank the nearer they came to Jacksonville.
The bus pulled to the curb next to the John Milton Bryan Simpson Federal Courthouse, an ornate granite block building of the style built by the quasi-free labor of the WPA during the Great Depression. Inside the polished marble foyer and halls was an oversized testament to the WPA. The Work Progress Administration, part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, did not care how large or how much a construction project cost so long as it kept millions of unskilled laborers employed instead of joining the communist movement and fomenting revolution.
At the end of the long hallway shuffled a group of two or three hundred other boys recently unloaded from other busses. All sounds bounced back and forth on the stone walls and floors. A line of uniformed recruiters representing all branches of the armed forces stood spaced along both sides of the hall to usher the newcomers toward the gaggle of boys waiting to take the oath of enlistment.
This particular group of strangers blended into and was absorbed by the mob as boys portrayed their emotions with different behaviors. Most stood silently, shifting from foot to foot, others kept their feet in place but unconsciously swayed slightly left to right. A few spoke hesitantly and softly. Some made quiet jokes, reaping nervous chuckles from those near them.
After about thirty minutes of waiting for more buses to deliver other groups, the huge dark wooden doors opened inward. The uniformed men in the hall formed a line between the fresh recruits and the front door, while more uniformed men acted as ushers and directed the placing of the mob’s asses in folding chairs arranged in perfect rows below a large stage with a podium set dead center.
A spattering of soft nervous sounds ricocheted from the stone surfaces.
Finally, someone Ryan supposed important walked across the stage. He wore a blue jacket of which the left breast seemed to drip with medals hanging from striped ribbons. The decorated man, whom Ryan now considered to be a designated hero, stopped at the podium and faced the audience. The uniformed ushers began to issue urgent hushes to descend silence upon the room.
“I am Colonel Randolph of the United States Marine Corp,” said the man on the stage. He gazed across the large room in the practiced manner politicians use to attempt to create the illusion they make eye contact with each audience member.
“I am proud to share something in common with each of you. Everyone in this room is, like me, a volunteer for the U.S. military.” He looked out again to let his statement sink in.
The room echoed the Marine’s words, reverberating around the room. It reminded Ryan of the famous baseball player, Lou Gehrig’s, speech where he said he felt like the luckiest man alive. Ryan remembered he was lucky enough to have a terminal illness named after him.
So where are the draftees, Ryan thought?
“Volunteers, just like the men who left hearth and home to face cold winters and starvation rations, to wage war against the greatest military power of the time. Men, like some of you, who left families and the comforts of home and friends,” the colonel intoned, raising his voice to create an imaginary bond.
Yep, that’s me alright, Ryan thought, giving up the great life to volunteer so I won’t get to slog through jungles hoping some illiterate, camouflaged son of a rice farmer isn’t about to squeeze the trigger, sending a Chinese-made bullet into my head.
“During the war, World War Two, I slogged my way through jungles,” the colonel said, trying to make himself humble. “I faced Japanese soldiers eye-to-eye in hand-to-hand combat, desperate combat. The enemy then was trained, motivated and well equipped. They would not surrender, for surrender was defeat and defeat was not part of their code.”
“Give us a break.” Ryan could not resist a low murmur. The only thing the Japs had better than us were longer bayonets, which if he recalled, were pretty useless against atomic bombs.
“My brothers and I stood together as wave after wave of Banzai charges assaulted our positions. And on the few occasions when our troops were too few, out of ammo and isolated from the rest of the line, our boys fought with rifle butts, knives, rocks, anything they could grab. They died fighting like the true Americans they were.” The colonel faked a crack in his voice.
“Well, obviously you weren’t with that group of heroes,” Ryan said under his breath.
A few boys issued quick chuckles at the comment.
The colonel’s gaze immediately locked on Ryan’s area of the room followed by a pregnant pause before resuming.
“You are more fortunate than our island-invading warriors in the Pacific theater. You will have the best training, equipment, and supplies in the world. You will, some of you, be in jungles, fighting a desperate enemy. But unlike the soldiers of World War Two, you will carry more ammo because of lighter cartridges; you will pack your own ‘C’ rations and enjoy wonderful meals no matter where you are. Unprecedented air cover and accurate artillery fire provides a shield, when necessary, between you and your communist foe.” He paused, thinking about what he just said.
“Don’t get me wrong; it won’t be easy. Sometimes you will find yourself scared, uncertain if you can raise your head to take a shot at the communist bastards shooting at you. No, it won’t be easy, but you will prevail, you will not allow a young democracy to fall to the godless enemy. I am proud to administer the U.S. Military oath to you.
“Please stand and raise your right hand.”
The colonel came to rigid attention and raised his hand. He began, “I… state your name, do solemnly swear…” He spoke loudly and slowly.
The crowd’s response started as a weak murmur but quickly gained volume.
Ryan swore he heard a few around him say, “I, state your name,” instead of their legal names.
“…that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The Marine officer spoke with great sincerity and solemnity.
Ryan wondered if all enemies, foreign and domestic, included politicians and the people included in President Eisenhower’s warning.
Mr. Robicheaux liked Eisenhower. He loved putting quotes on multiple choice tests. If you knew who Robicheaux liked, the answers were easy. One of Ryan’s favorite quotes from Eisenhower was, “Any man who wants to be president is either an egomaniac or crazy.” Ryan considered that statement to be one of the few honest things to come out of Washington, D.C. in the past century.
“…that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States…”
If he ever gives me one, Ryan thought. Who knew if one or more military knuckleheads missunderstood and issued an order for the opposite of what the Commander in Chief wanted? Like in the old telephone-whispering party game.
“…and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
Military Justice, an oxymoron only surpassed by the term military intelligence.
“So help me God.”
After a short pause, Colonel Randolph addressed the assembly of the newly enlisted. “Troopers, please file out by rows from back to front. Present your orders to any of the men stationed in the hallway.
“Good-bye, and God bless.” The Colonel stepped across the stage and vanished down the stairs and into a side room.
Ryan retrieved his orders, contained in a manila envelope folded three times to fit inside his jacket pocket. By the time the ushers released his row, and he made his way out of the great marble echo chamber, lines stood at each uniformed man examining orders before giving instructions.
In a gesture of comradery, Ryan joined the queue leading to what Ryan considered a middle-aged man, wearing an Air Force dress uniform. Ryan saw the numerous stripes in the chevron on his sleeve, figured this was the type of man who would direct his actions for the next four years, and tried to hear what the sergeant said to the man in front of him.
When the sergeant said, “Next,” Ryan, a newly anointed winged warrior, stepped forward and handed the sergeant his papers who examined them. He wrote Ryan’s military serial number next to a number in a ledger, and thumbed through a stack of smaller documents. He put one in Ryan’s envelope then held the papers out toward Ryan.
“Exit and turn left. Get on a bus to the airport. Do not loiter on the sidewalk, or between busses. Welcome to the United States Air Force,” the sergeant said impatiently.
Ryan took the envelope and said, before moving, “Thank you. Our branch of service will find me servile, loyal and tireless to emerge victorious in our great cause.”
The sergeant looked up. “Some friendly advice since you are new and all, don’t talk like that, or you will end up with unwanted attention.”
The sergeant looked at the Ryan and said, “Next.”
Outside, some lower ranked soldiers wearing khakis and white helmets emblazoned with two letters, ‘MP,’ stood posts along the sidewalk, at each bus’s opened door, and between busses. Ryan realized their purpose. They reminded him of guards, exactly what they were. Guards, watching the moves of every stripe-clad prisoner in a roadside chain gang.
Ryan understood for the first time; he was a prisoner of sorts. His freedom to go where he wanted, eat what he wanted, and sleep when he wanted was suspended for the next four years. Something he’d read popped into his head. A quote, from Oscar Wilde he thought. Ryan loved Oscar Wilde, the professional smartass. The quote was about being in prison. Wilde, or someone else, said, “… and that each day is like a year, a year whose days are long.”
“Crap,” whispered Ryan to himself.
Ryan woke as the airplane landed in Amarillo, Texas.
When the recruits boarded the buses in Jacksonville, it was a sixty-degree day in Florida under sunny skies. Using the boarding stairs to the airport’s well-lit runway, Ryan’s first realized the temperature was freezing, made more frigid by strong wind. Next, he noticed from the top of the stairs how flat the terrain was, with a dark, formless landscape that seemed to merge seamlessly with the horizon. Ryan noticed Surfer-boy on his flight. He instantly felt sorry for the boy dressed in shorts and sandals in the frozen sea of dirt.
They were led through the airport and to the roadside curb by a reasonably tolerable, warmly dressed sergeant who looked too old for the few stripes on his sleeves. Once outside, the boys came face to face with the biggest black man Ryan had ever seen.
Younger than the tolerable man, the shoulder of the black man’s olive drab fatigue jacket contained five stripes, placing him somewhere near the middle of the enlisted pecking order.
“I am Technical Sergeant Jackson. I am not your drill instructor. My job is to teach you to stand and walk the way the Air Force wants you to stand and walk. Once you know how to stand and walk, I will allow you to get on the bus.” His voice was deep with a slight scratching of gravel stones rubbing together.
Ryan kept observing his enormous stature; he must have been six feet, eight or nine inches. With shoulders making him twice Ryan’s width, Ryan hoped he could learn to stand and walk quickly. He did not want to disappoint this man.
Others must have shared Ryan’s eagerness to learn the skills the big man wanted to teach. In a matter of ten minutes, the boys stood in their first formation, four across the front, which was called a rank, and ten or so deep which was called a file.
The only sounds were of teeth chattering.
Instructed to fill the bus from the back forward, the boys walked, trying to stay in step as taught.
Ryan saw Surfer-boy take a seat and stick his hands under his armpits. He heard the boy’s shivers from two rows back.
More than warm, the bus’s heaters cranked out hot air with the subtle scent of burnt diesel fuel. After turning onto the highway, they passed a blue road sign saying Amarillo Air Force Base Training Center with an arrow pointing ahead.
Ryan soon discovered the sign was the newest thing about the Air Force Base.
Amarillo Army Air Corp Field opened in 1942 to teach boys how to maintain and repair B-17s. Not long after, new quarters rose, and it became an Army basic training base. The building in front of Ryan appeared to be a two-story long rectangular barracks. Each of the two floors contained a left wing and a right wing, each called a section. The total number of boys occupying the barracks was a flight.
Four barracks surrounded and faced a larger square of open ground. The collection of four barracks and the square plot of land was called a quad.
The open ground, actually known as the parade ground, might see grass in the spring, but the January night Ryan arrived as part of a group of boys freshly trained to walk and stand, it was a frozen field of thousands of boot prints.
The boys filed off the bus and stood close, using it to break the icy wind.
A parked car door opened and out stepped Tech Sergeant Jackson. He leaned slightly into the wind as he strode toward the bus. Strode was how Sergeant Jackson walked, solid long legs moving with purpose. Tonight’s purpose was to get the first barracks reoccupied for the first time since basic training stopped in Amarillo in 1946.
He ordered the group to ‘fall in’ which most of the boys remembered meant to get back into formation. The scene was a slapstick comedy of freezing boys scampering around to find their assigned spot in the formation.
The bus driver lit a cigarette and, without a glance, left the new arrivals.
Sergeant Jackson walked the boys to the quad and arranged the formation to face a barracks, the only one with lights showing through the windows.
“Men,” Jackson commenced, standing between the boys and the barracks, “You will remain here in formation until your assigned drill instructor and his team arrive to provide you with barracks orientation.
“I will be back with more buses filled with your fellow men at arms. I suspect the drill instructor will arrive soon after I get back.
“I know you are cold. There is no place else for you.”
As Jackson walked toward his still running car, Ryan thought, I guess leaving us at the airport until all the planes were in might have inconvenienced the drill instructor.
They stood under dark clouds, the only light teasing them from behind the barracks’ windows.
The cold was bitter, bone aching. When the wind blew, it felt like it bit their fingers, noses, and ears.
One boy, from Wisconsin, seemed the only recruit likely to survive the night’s arctic conditions. With his lumberjack hat pulled down and a wool scarf wrapped around his neck and face, he seemed unaware everyone else verged on hyperthermia.
Jackson arrived an hour later with a fresh load of those newly learned to walk and stand and placed them in formation. He returned to his car and waited.
Within a few minutes, by the mercy of God, the DI and his two assistant demons arrived, and exchanged words through the car window with Jackson who promptly drove off.
The three of them stood three abreast where Jackson stood an hour before.
“My name is Sergeant Doyle,” said the man who shined a flashlight on his shirt’s blue nametag with white lettering.
“You will address me as Sergeant Doyle but when you speak, the first word out of your mouth is ‘SIR.’ DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
Having seen several movies about boot camp, Ryan answered correctly, “Sir, Yes Sir.”
Only a few added their voice to his, none of them manly enough for Doyle’s acceptance.
“I am going to ask you one more time. If I don’t hear you respond, ‘Sir, Yes Sir,’ you will stand here while I go inside and make coffee. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
The group’s reply sufficed. Sargent Doyle did an about-face, walked up the steps, unlocked the double doors to the barracks and entered.
One of the assistant demons addressed the group. “When I dismiss you, enter the barracks by file, go up the stairs, take a right into the dayroom and sit on the floor.”
The second assistant demon vanished inside and climbed the stairs.
Without further ado, the first assistant said more loudly than necessary, “Flight, dismissed!”
This demon took a position near the door, watched and shouted, “Come on, move! Don’t take all night if you want to get any sleep.”
Ryan entered the dayroom, a large space with a door on each end. Crowded by the time he entered, he found a place to squeeze in and squatted down to sit.
Quite naturally, after facing subzero wind chill factors for ninety minutes, the dayroom offered the warmth of Hades. At first, it felt great. The dry, hot air was taking the chill off. Apparently, the building's furnace had been running at top speed for several hours, and soon everyone, including Surfer-boy, began sweating. Ryan could not tell if Surfer-boy’s sweat derived from the heat of the room or serious fever.
After what seemed hours, the other door opened and in stepped Master Sergeant Doyle, trousers tucked into boots shined to a mirror finish, creases in fatigue pants and shirt that could slice flesh, a Fidel Castro-like field cap on his head and a clipboard in his hand.
The instant he spoke, Ryan decided his survival strategy for the next eight weeks. Taking the advice of the recruiter at the Jacksonville Federal Building, about not flaunting his vocabulary and compound-complex sentence structure, Ryan’s mind snapped to the extreme. He would spend the next eight weeks not talking unless he was answering a question, and then, he would use as few monosyllable words as necessary.
Ryan’s eight weeks began on a miserable first day when, after only two hours of sleep, the boys were rousted awake at five AM and told to fall in outside in five minutes. The first two days were a blur of organized necessities. Uniforms issued, brief medical exams, shots, haircuts, a trip to the Base Exchange store with a list of personal hygiene items to purchase using the pay advance their new employer provided. The advanced pay covered exactly the amount it cost to obtain all the items on the list.
This was the Air Force. The basic training less strenuous than the Marine Corp or the Army, hell, probably less strenuous than any other branch of the service, it still managed to tax Ryan at times, but he stuck to his guns, not talking, not acting in any manner that would single him out. He was not the best at anything, not the worst at anything. On graduation day, Sergeant Doyle handed out each trooper’s orders for their next assignment.