Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Getting out

After an unnecessarily irritating final Tuesday at the paper here (the next two will be devoted to clearing and leaving active duty), I had an interesting exchange with a shoppette clerk as I was buying a six pack and a box of Camels.

She asked for my ID, which I produced.

"About time for a new one of these," she said, looking at the date -- August 27 of this year.

"About time for me to get out of the Army," I said, taking my card back.

"Oh, you're getting out?"

"Yeah --" I corrected myself. "-- Well, going to the National Guard."

"Wasn't the life you wanted, huh?" She asked, as she bagged my beer.

"It was what it needed to be, for as long as it needed to be," I said. "Now it's time for... well, whatever the 'next phase' is, I guess."


Monday, July 02, 2007


"Don't think you're going to get out of this."

There was a hush over the group of privates sitting in the bleachers.

"This is one of the funnest things you'll do in basic training," the sergeant barked. He spoke in a tone that commanded respect, but it was clear that he was trying to win the privates over.

I was standing in a gravel pit next to Fort Knox's confidence tower, and Staff Sgt. Daniel, a rappel master, was explaining to the incoming company what was expected of them.

When I had approached the scene, the first group from a basic training company had arrived to make sure everything was in order. I saw the first sergeant, and decided to ask if I was welcome.

"Hi, First Sergeant," I said. "I'm with the Turret."

I showed him the large camera bag I take wherever I go.

"I wanted to know if it was okay to shoot your guys going through the course," I said.

"It's okay with me," the grizzled NCO said. "Just don't shoot my guys. You can take pictures of them, though," he said.

"Fair enough," I said, pretending to laugh along with him.

"Who here is afraid of heights?" Daniel demanded of the group of around 200 trainees who had gathered in the bleachers.. About 100 arms shot up -- along with Daniel's.

He regarded the group of new recruits. They were young -- mostly -- and they stank. Word had it that the company had come to Thunderbolt Tower after two whole days in the field.... which translated to two days without a bath. The company was ripe.

But there was an Ohio Valley storm brewing. As the recruits sat in the bleachers listening to Daniel, I stood about 50 meters off, snapping photos and watching the storm front. There were black clouds approaching, and it wasn't a rainstorm. It was the kind of cloud formation that blotted out the day... the kind that made you think, "I better get inside."

Daniel had moved from the bleachers to a stand that rose about five feet above the ground. Aware of my camera, I'd ducked inside the shed that cowered under the 50-foot tower that formed the core of the "Thunderbold Confidence Tower." The trainees had all lined up and been issued lengths of rope that would become the "Swiss seat" each would use to descent the 42-foot tower that loomed over us.

You learn a lot in basic training, even though the curriculum is suitable for an easy night course. What you really learn isn't technical information -- the basic facts about being a soldier are very simple. What you learn, and what's actually valuable, is that you're capable of doing things you had once thought were impossible. That's why everyone goes through the Confidence Course.

The storm grew stronger. Light left the day, even though it was around three in the afternoon. I scrambled inside the gear shed, where a sergeant was handing out the rope equipment each recruit would need to tie a "Swiss seat;" a rappelling term for the knot formation used to keep a climber safe during a descent.

Eventually, the rain and lightening grew too heavy. We had to call the training off.

More to come.