I arrived in Germany in 1981, fresh faced, excited, 18 yrs old, and more than a little awestruck to be in Europe. What seemed like thousands of us disembarked the airplane and got herded on to a row of buses waiting for us on the tarmac.
The ride to our reception station was uneventful and quiet. Most of us just stared out the window in wonder, hardly believing we were actually here. Once we arrived we were led single file into a large open building with tables scattered throughout that had numbers hanging above them.
Controlled chaos ensued with long lines in front of the tables and soldiers milling about. One of the sergeants that escorted us from the airport pulled out a clipboard and started calling names out. As the person whose name was called stepped up he or she was handed a paper by the sergeant and told to “get the fuck out of his face.” When my name was called I stepped forward dropped my duffel bag assumed a rigid attention posture and let out with a thunderous, “here Sargent!” That got me some giggles and eye rolls from the ones of us not coming from boot camp. The sergeant didn’t seem to notice, he just glanced at his clipboard looked up at me and said. “you’re all set Burton just go to reception and wait”
I looked around doubtfully clutching my orders in one hand and sheepishly picking up my duffel bag with the other. With a disgusted look the Sargent put his hands on my shoulders, turned me about 90° and shoved me forward, “that way ass hole.” As I hurried forward I heard him behind me grumble, “Jesus they just get dumber every year.”
I worked my way through the crowd until I saw a sign above a door that said reception room. As I walked over I saw a group of Sergeants in front of the doorway directing soldiers to different exits on my approach one of the Sergeants said in a Boston accent, “MOS”? I jumped to parade rest, dropping my duffel bag and eager to impress, rang out again with a thunderous “infantry, Sergeant!”
Everyone outside the doorway stopped what they were doing and just stared at me. Again some smiles, more eye rolls, than the controlled chaos began anew. The Sargent I was addressing, barely able to stifle laughter, looked me in the eyes and said, “infantrymen is a job title dumb ass, your MOS is 11 Bravo”
Embarrassed and tired I said in a normal voice, “do you tell me where to go Sergeant?”
He gave me a look that bordered on pity and said, “no son, you’re a grunt, all of us are for support personnel, go inside and wait”
I said thank you and gathered up my duffel bag, my one possession in the world, and went inside where rows of folding chairs had been set up occupied by soldiers like me sitting and waiting. I took a seat in the middle and waited. After about an hour the noise outside started to dim. I felt myself begin to nod off and looking at my watch realized I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. I looked around and saw the guys in the room with me weren’t faring much better. The guy in the chair closest to me had nodded off sitting up, I could see a thin trace of drool rolling down the corner of his mouth. On the other side of me sat a Private first class, rigidly staring straight ahead so intently that he couldn’t have been cognizant of what was going on around him. The others were all in various states of sleep sitting up. As another hour passed I found myself drifting off, jerking my head up occasionally in the head motion that I would do millions of times throughout my “hurry up and wait” military career. It was silent outside the room and it felt as if we were the last people on earth.
As the third hour passed I heard a noise, feet approaching, light banter. I snapped fully awake now whispered aloud, “Yo man get up” to the drooling guy next to me and sat straight upright. A group of sergeants came to the door and got behind a podium that was placed in the center of the room. The light banter stopped now and in hushed tones the sergeants conferred with each other. I could tell they were all business now.
After about 10 minutes of this things seem to be resolved between them. One of the Sergeants stepped up to the podium looked down at his piece of paper in his hand and said loudly, “Jones!” Immediately my drooling neighbor jumped up and said “yes, Sergeant”
“It says you can type 120 words a minute”
“Step over here”
At this he called the next name, “Pvt. Benjamin!”
“Yes, Sergeant”, The private replied. “You work at a library?”
All right step forward.” You will be working in our orderly room and you better keep first Sergeant happy”
He exited the room with his two new soldiers trailing him in lockstep. If they had been treading water they could have been ducks.
The next Sergeant at the podium stood and called the name of the Private First Class with the intent gaze, “prior service”?
“Yes, Sergeant” The Private First Class replied.
“We don’t have an assistant for the armorer think you can handle it”?
“Yes, Sergeant!” He said eagerly.
The next Sergeant to step up looked like he came right out of a recruiting poster, muscles bulging, not a hair out of place and a uniform so starched you would cut yourself touching it.
“My name Sergeant Jamison and I represent hard rock Charlie. We have the number one basketball team in the division. I have been coach for two years. That’s two championships,” he emphasized, “Anyone think you’re good enough to make our squad”? He was scanning the small crowd as he said this and I was involuntary shaking my head slowly.
From the back of the room. I heard a yes, Sergeant. I glanced behind me and saw he was tall and lanky, easily 6’4, or above. The Sergeant had obvious interest showing on his face. “Who did you play for boy”?
“Ole Miss Sergeant”
“I knew it! you are that Darnell boy that scored 22 on Alabama”
“Yes Sergeant that’s me” beamed the lanky private.
What followed was a back-and-forth about the Sergeant’s alma mater, and who he played for and with.
The occupation and talent parade continued. After about 50 minutes of this I was the only one left in the room. Embarrassed, red-faced, and in a, “you didn’t get picked for the sandlot game” way, a little hurt. There was only one Sergeant left, and he had stayed seated throughout the whole ordeal. As he rose from his chair it immediately struck me that he was fat. I didn’t think it was possible to be fat in the Army, but there he was.
He walked past the podium and stood directly in front of me. I looked up and the realization dawned on me that when you hear the expression “grizzled” you were talking about this man. Short, squat, potbelly, with tinges of white in his hair and mustache. He had a rough look to him. I would learn later that he was one of the vestiges of the Vietnam era vets that was slowly being weeded out of this modern army I had joined. I would also learn that despite his pot belly he could run 5 miles loaded down with more equipment then I could run with in 2 miles.
“Just what do you do boy”?
Looking left and right at the empty room around me I choked up. “I guess I’m just a soldier, Sergeant.”
He laughed heartily,”Well boy, that’s good enough for Alpha one five one, come on”
© 2011 Steven Burton All Rights Reserved
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