Monday, 29 August, 2005

The Military School Way

When I was thirteen years old I got the crazy idea in my head that I wanted to attend military school.  After six months of discussing it with my parents and going through the application process, I landed in the big city of Harlingen, Texas to begin my adventure.  Understand, I grew up in Colorado where it's cool and people breathe air.  I was totally unprepared for south Texas in August.  I stepped off the airplane into 105-degree temperatures and 100% humidity.  As my body went into overdrive trying to develop gills, I hurried inside to avoid being attacked by a squadron of mosquitoes.

Registration came bright and early the next morning.  Dad signed me in, and with a few sage pieces of advice such as "keep your head down," and "don't volunteer for anything," shook my hand and walked away, saying "see you in November."  Imagine being thirteen years old, a thousand miles from home and anybody you ever knew, wondering what you had gotten yourself into.

Military school has an incredibly effective exercise designed to keep new cadets from dwelling on thoughts of home.   It's called standing in line, and it's very complicated.  First of all, I learned how to stand.  No leaning against the wall [demonstrate] or slouching with arms crossed [demonstrate].  No.  One stands at attention [demonstrate]:  Feet together, back straight, gut sucked in, shoulders back, arms tight to the side, fingers curled, eyes straight ahead.  No looking around!

And then they gave me a book and a bag.  The bag was for carrying the stuff they issued me.  They told me to memorize the book.  So I stood at attention, shuffling forward now and again, holding my bag open when told to so that somebody could shove something, I didn't know what most of the time, into it.  When I wasn't moving I was reading, trying to memorize the rules, regulations, traditions, and other things that every well-rounded military school cadet needs to know.

Did you know that this [stomp foot] is the deck and that [point to the wall] is a bulkhead?  A door is a port, a window is a porthole, candy is pogey bait and a water fountain is a scuttlebutt, but scuttlebutt is also gossip, and a Staff Sergeant has three up and one down, and a Major has a gold leaf, dinner is called third mess and we eat at eighteen hundred hours?  My head was swimming with so much new information that I thought it was going to push the hair right out of my skull.

No danger of that.  I turned the corner and found myself next in line for the barber chair.  And they weren't giving just a little trim.  If I could have found the comb they'd issued me earlier I would have discarded it to lighten the load.  I'd been dragging my bag since I got my combat boots.

One good thing about standing in line is that I had plenty of company.  A large number of friendly older cadets were happy to help me improve my posture and to ask me questions about the book whenever my eyes strayed from the page.  I still don't know what good it is, but I memorized that stuff.  If, on my deathbed, somebody asks "Mischel, how's the cow?", I will snap to attention and with my last dying breath gasp out "Sir, she walks she talks she's full of chalk.  The lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species is highly prolific to the nth degree!"

I stood in line for another eternity until I reached the medical building where the doctors poked and prodded, asked me questions that were already answered in my medical records, and then sent me across the hall.  By the time the dentist was done telling his assistant how many teeth he was going to remove, I was wondering if I would get to use that shiny new toothbrush they'd shoved in my bag a few hours before.

At thirteen I wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and this military school wasn't making a whole lot of sense.  But after they gave me a comb and cut my hair, issued me a toothbrush and scheduled me for a tooth pulling, I'd figured out one thing:  The Military School Way.  First you stand in line.  Then they give you something and let you stand in line a little longer.  Finally, you go into a room and they take away your reason for having the thing that they gave you earlier.  [Pause]  Imagine my concern when they issued me an athletic supporter.

The Military School Way works in the mess hall, too.  Second mess (that's lunch) rolled around, but one look at the slop they put on my plate convinced me that I didn't need the appetite I'd worked up with all that standing in line.

And that's how the day went:  give me something; take away the reason for having it.  Teach me how to speak, tell me to keep quiet.  Teach me how to march and then make me stand in line.  I guess I should have seen it coming, but by the time Taps sounded I was too exhausted to think.  I fell to my bed, eyes closed, ready to get a good night's sleep.  It seemed I had barely drifted off when ...

 [Make reveille noise]  I shot out of bed just as some evil spawn of Satan who called himself my Squad Leader threw open my door yelling, "Get up!  Make your rack!  PT Gear!  Fallout on the company street in five minutes!"  The door slammed shut and all I could think was "They did it again!  They gave me a bed and they won't let me sleep!"