(To get the full story, you may want to go back and start from the beginning)
I would like to say that much of the memories of basic training have not faded, but alas time is the great thief of memories. There are a few bright images from that period that stand out that I will never forget, either because they were frustrating, poignant, or amusing. The hat apology was one of them. To set the stage, even in the brutal environment of basic, I attempted to be a shadow. That’s not to insinuate that I took crap from anyone, but it does imply that I did not have an aggressive personality. One of the points of basic was to cull the timid out of you. There is no place on the battlefield for a timid soldier. The drills, being excellent at assessing the troops under their tutelage, spotted this tendency in me and worked to remove it.
The turning point for me came one morning in the mess hall. During meals, all the drill sergeants sat at the head table. Directly behind them was the entrance to the kitchen where trays and plates were dropped off for cleaning. They would make it a habit to place their drill hats on the ledge of the low wall separating the mess hall from the scullery, which ran behind their table. I believe their purpose for sitting there was four fold. First, it gave them a full view of the mess hall so they were able to see if any trouble was developing among their charges. That's not to imply that fights were common. I guess they might have been if we weren't all so damn tired most of the time. Secondly, it faced the entrance of the hall, so they could see if anyone important came in (like a lost officer) and when their troops were exiting. Thirdly, they could monitor the plates being returned to ensure that everyone was eating. Eating was extremely important as the activity during training was necessarily at a high level and the caloric intake had to match that demand. It is safe to say that I never ate so much and lost weight as quickly as those first few months in the Army. Finally (and probably most important) the wall was a great place to put their hats while they were eating.
So on this particular occasion I was rushing to get my tray returned and back outside. You see we were not allowed to idle over or meals. We had a very limited time to eat, and were expected to do so with as much dispatch as we could muster. To this day I don’t know if I was bumped, careless, or just tired, but on the way out of the scullery, I brushed against Sgt F’s hat at the end of the wall, knocking it off and onto the floor. Now in a normal society such a transgression would be no big deal. You would pick the hat up, brush it off, put it back, and go about your business. This was not a normal society. A drill’s hat was his mark of authority. The mere act of touching it was transgression that was at the root of many a motivational speech. For example “You little weakling, if you think your tough come & knock this hat off my head” (no one ever did). As I watched the hat drop, I knew I was in for it. Everyone in the mess hall did too, for a hush fell over the hall, as my fellow recruits waited for what was sure to be a swift and entertaining retribution.
Sgt F responded immediately. In his best Barney Fife voice, he demanded “Who knocked this hat down?” I immediately confessed to the transgression, and made the mistake of saying “I’m sorry, I did it”. I suspect that my frequent use of the phrase “I’m sorry” was starting to bug Sgt. F, as he responded “I’m SORRY? Are you SORRY? Or did YOU make a mistake and want to APOLOGIZE? ‘I’m SORRY’ means you’re a SORRY person! Are you a sorry INDIVIDUAL? TELL you what – since you’re SORRY, why don’t you tell the hat how SORRY you are? Drop and give me 30 pushups!” As I dropped and started, he stopped me. “NO – you are NOT doing that RIGHT. With every pushup I want you to say ‘I’m SORRY hat!” So there, to the amusement of all the drills and my training company, I did 30 pushups, yelling “I’M SORRY HAT” with each one. To this day, I never say “I’m sorry”. I’ll say “I was wrong”, or even “I apologize”, but never “I’m sorry”. The one lesson I learned from that experience is that to say you’re ‘sorry’ diminishes yourself, while admitting a mistake does not. There is a fine but infinitely important line there, and a valuable life lesson.
Much of the rest of basic was conditioning. We walked everywhere we went, whether it was a range 5 miles away, or a confidence course 5 miles in the other direction. On these long marches we walked in two columns, one on each side of the road, rifles slung. More often than not there was one poor sap jogging a circle around the group, rifle held aloft, working out some transgression (usually in attitude). For want of anything better to do, I ended up getting the Hispanic guy that I usually followed on these marches to teach me Spanish curse words.
The most frustrating thing I recall from basic training was the grenade training. The drills were less than thrilled to do the grenade training at all. After all, most of us were not destined for the combat arms, and would never see a live grenade after leaving basic training. That being said, since the Army had determined that all recruits would be trained in the use of grenades, we were. Now naturally, the drill’s goal in this training did not necessarily mean that we would actually be able to use a grenade in combat. No, I suspect their goal was mainly to get everyone through the training without a drill or a recruit getting some critical piece of anatomy blown off. With that goal in mind, we were taught to pull the pin, throw the grenade, and duck!
This was an excellent instruction method for training safety. However, it vexed me that I couldn't watch the arc of the grenade and thus correct my throws and improve their accuracy when working with the practice grenades. The value of the ‘duck’ instruction was realized when it came time to use ‘real’ grenades. I had never seen the drills so formal or grave as they were at the grenade range. For the real deal, you would join a drill in the throwing pit. He would hand you the live grenade, instruct you to pull the pin and throw it. I suspect their greatest fear was a troop with a live grenade, pin pulled but unable to release it.
My time with the live grenade was uneventful and anticlimactic. I may have come close to the target, but given the ‘throw – duck’ execution, I will never know. It was grenade next to the chest, pull the pin, extend the arm, for the briefest of moments consider releasing the spoon and letting it cook off like they do in the movies - then reject that as something that would cause me much pain in running around the formation, an awkward overhand lob, then a duck! (not so kindly assisted by the hand of the waiting drill). As I recall there was one guy that muffed the throw and did not clear the throwing pit. The drill grabbed him and jumped in the pit behind, placed there for just that purpose. They weren't injured - well unless you count the burning ears of everyone in audible range of the drill in question. As I recall that guy was circling us the whole way back to the barracks.
Next: Final Blowout, Graduation, and Orders