Basic Lessons of Life – Number Three

The trashcan cymbals had rung at 5:00 am. All Joe could think about was Big John’s warning to stay off the DI’s radar. He was sure Tonga was going to ruin his life after the alarm clock fiasco.WWII Barracks

Sgt. Tonga, fully dressed in a starched uniform, stood by the latrine door and yelled, “Drain your lizards, shave your chins and get your asses dressed! Stow your gear in you duffels.” Then he climbed the stairs to share his greeting with the second floor, clanging his cymbals all the way to the refrain, “Get up. Get up.”

Joe wasn’t going to be the last guy dressed. He grabbed his shaving kit and ran to the latrine at the rear of the building.

The latrine’s overall dimensions were about fifteen feet deep by thirty feet wide. However, the second story stairwell and a mechanical room took up large chunks of the floor space. Access was through a three foot doorway that abutted the right-hand exterior wall. A large window divided the rear wall. Six antique sinks below six mottled mirrors plus a utility sink covered the right half of the real wall. A narrow room formed by the encroachment of the mechanical room on the left side of the building served as a communal shower with six showerheads for forty men.

Joe wanted to get his shave done, but his bladder vetoed the idea. To his left and opposite the sinks was a trough style urinal that could accommodate five men. Beyond the urinal were five stall-less commodes. Joe smiled at them and thought, private is a rank, not a right, in the Army.

Joe kept his eyes to himself but couldn’t help noticing that everyone’s urine was the color of over-ripe oranges and smelled worse. He promised himself to drink more fluids.

The latrine filled with guys as the upstairs recruits reacted to Sgt. Tonga’s drum beat. Lines formed behind the sinks while teeth were bushed and chins denuded. Joe had to wait for Samsonite at the sink, the guy took forever. He brushed every tooth like it was fine silver after which he shaved as if he was going to kiss the Queen of England’s butt. He lathered on shaving foam, made a stroke with his expensive Gillette Techmatic razor and then thoroughly rinsed the blade before the next stroke. Joe would have cut the little guy’s throat with the razor, but he feared making another blip on Tonga’s radar.

JL had landed upstairs when the sergeants divvied everybody up the night before. He saw Joe sitting on his duffle bag and did the same next to him.

“Hi Joe. How you doing?”

“I’m not sure. Tonga jumped down my throat. I’m worried he’s going to make my life miserable.”

“Better you than me, white boy.” JL slapped Joe on the back. “Besides, he might not be your permanent DI. They’re supposed to assign our platoons today.”

“From your mouth, to God’s ear. Tonga’s a madman.” Joe said.

Five minutes later, Tonga ordered everyone to exit the building through the two rear doors on the right side of the barracks. They lined up in four rows of ten on the dirt yard between their building and the next barracks.

Every barracks looked the same. They’d been built as temporary structures during World War II, however three decades later they were still in use. The old oil heaters had been replaced with natural gas but everything else had remained original. The wooden buildings had been designed for function and quick construction, not for beauty or safety. Lapped board siding formed an exterior over tarpapered plywood nailed to exposed two by four studs. Green asphalt tiles topped the shallow-sloped roofs. They were fire traps.

Tonga did his best to keep his forty men together as they trudged to the parade ground in front of their barracks. Three other buildings emptied at the same time and lined up near Joe’s group. One hundred and sixty men formed a rectangle that was sixteen wide by ten deep that stood quietly behind four rigid DIs.

Between the parade ground and the two buildings that made up the company headquarters a flagpole stood, surrounded by a circle of white stones. Four men exited the largest headquarters building and walked toward the flagpole. Joe recognized Senior Drill Sergeant Cocker and thought one of the men was an officer. The other two were enlisted men, one of which, a corporal, carried a bundle. Joe realized the bundle was an American flag when the corporal and the private with him unfolded it and hooked it to a halyard. The corporal manned the halyard but didn’t raise the flag.

At exactly 6:00 am a bugle played reveille over loudspeakers that could be heard all over Fort Bragg. The officer yelled, “Present arms.” And, immediately he saluted as did the DIs. The corporal slowly raised the flag and when his end wouldn’t touch the ground the private let go and saluted too.

One hundred and sixty scared young men raised their right hands and saluted their flag. A chilled ran down Joe’s spine. The energetic reveille tune continued for twenty seconds and ended just as the flag reached the pole’s brass finial. The officer yelled, “Order arms.”

All hands dropped to their sides in unison like a flock of birds changing direction and yet no one had explained the order. Joe didn’t consider himself spiritual, but he felt something happen that didn’t conform to his sense of logic.

Captain Halbeck introduced himself and welcomed the recruits to Company B, 8th Battalion of the 2nd Brigade. He said, “I leave you in the capable hands of Senior Drill Sergeant Cocker,” and then walked back to his office followed by the flag attendants. Joe saw him twice after that.

Cocker surveyed the crowd until the captain was out of earshot. “Today you’re maggots not worth the time it would take me to step on you and end your miserable lives. But, as much as I’d like to grind your fat-filled bodies into sausage, I can’t, ‘cause the Army needs your bodies to fertilize the rice paddies of Viet Nam. So, it’s my job to make you soldiers.”

The DIs moved out of view as Cocker droned on a bit longer before taking rollcall. If someone didn’t respond to their name quickly Cocker would scream and badger them. He reminded Joe of his uncle, a bully with a big ego. Finally he ordered, “Attention,” followed by, “About face.”

Most of the recruits turned around, but a few didn’t, which gave Cocker his chance. Joe had turned and couldn’t see what was happening, but he could hear it.

“Give me fifty,” Cocker bellowed.

“Yes Senior Drill Sergeant…ah…fifty what?” the kid said. His voice cracked at what.

“Pushups, you piece of dog turd.”

“Yes Senior Drill Sergeant.”

“Are you counting dog breath? I can’t hear you,” Cocker yelled.

Joe pictured his uncle’s gloating face as he listened. He had seen the four DIs move to the front of their respective barracks while Cocker’s drama played out and thought the platoon assignments must be next.

“Nineteen, twenty….twenty-one…uh twenty-two,” the kid said. His struggle was obvious as the time between numbers grew longer. Then he collapsed with “oomph.”

Joe noticed Bliss and Tonga glance at each other. Bliss shrugged. Tonga shook his head and spit as if to rid his mouth of a bad taste. At least, that’s what Joe thought.

“You’re weaker than my little sister and she’s disabled. Get in formation, dog crap. Sergeant Bliss, take over,” Cocker said.

Sergeant Bliss explained that each DI would take turns calling out names. The recruits were supposed to line up in the assembly area to the right of the barracks until the platoon assignments were done.

One after another, last names were called with no discernable logic. Joe heard Tonga call Washington and heard JL answer. Poor guy, Joe thought and trusted his three to one odds would hold up because there were about twenty guys left. Two rounds later, Tonga called Samson and beyond belief, Samsonite answered. Joe damn near choked holding back a laugh at the odd turn of events until Tonga called his name.

Joe joined the 2nd platoon’s assembly area with an incredible sense of disappointment. Once again, his desires had been ignored by the fates, or God, or whatever.

The recruits had learned enough to get into a rough four by ten formation. Most of them were sitting on their duffel bags looking away from the parade ground, but not JL, he was watching and waiting. When he saw Joe approach, he stood and gave him a smile that beamed from his dark skinned face and a thumbs-up gesture to reinforce his point—he was glad Joe was with him.

Joe’s eyes met JL’s and knew he hadn’t been let down after all. If he was going to face the unknown, he’d rather do it with JL and besides the California guys had to stick together.

Once the assignments were done, they were told to leave their duffels in the assembly area and were walked to breakfast. The mess hall was a single story building built in the forties like everything else. It could accommodate a hundred and seventy, but rarely had to.

A long line formed at the entrance. Men entered, took a divided tray, grabbed flatware and moved on. The tray was filled with scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and greasy bacon. At the end of the food line the men turned and could serve themselves coffee or a large glass of milk: white or chocolate. The coffee urn was gigantic in Joe’s mind, but the milk dispensers were more impressive. Joe took coffee and realized he hadn’t drunk milk of any kind since his parents had died—it was kid food.

He made his way to a seat and dug in, but he was nowhere near done when he was forced to give up his spot for another recruit. As they exited the mess hall, the flag-raising corporal told them to sit on their duffel bags by the barracks until their sergeants told them what to do.


After breakfast, Tonga assigned each man to a bunk and showed the group how to make a bed and organize their gear. He gave them a half hour to get ready for their first inspection.

Tonga had a private room at the front of the building. He stepped out of his quarters and into the aisle that divided the barracks in half. He stood perfectly straight with his hands behind his back. At five foot six he wasn’t tall, but his width and Polynesian build made him intimidating. The room quieted quickly.

Sgt. Tonga shouted, “Attention!”

The recruits had seen enough John Wayne movies to know that attention meant to standup straight and salute, so they did.

“Don’t you candy-assed excuses for soldiers dare salute me. I’m a non-commissioned officer. I don’t need your floppy hand gestures to make me important—I own your asses.” Tonga pointed to a group by the stairs. “Get your lazy butts upstairs and stand at attention at your foot lockers. That goes for this floor too, move!”

Joe scrambled to find his place at the foot of his bunk, as did everyone.

Tonga gave them their first standing order: keep you area squared away. He didn’t vocalize the order as much as demonstrate it. He overturned every bed on the floor except one. When he came to Samsonite’s bed he pulled a quarter from his pocket and flipped it into the air. It bounced off of the taut green blanket and landed heads up. He nodded to Samsonite.

“That’s how you make a bed. The rest of you better have yours looking like it when I get back.”

Samsonite’s chest puffed like a crowing rooster. Tonga moved on to terrorize the second floor and left nineteen sets of eyes focused on the little guy with criminal intent. As much as Joe had wanted to do him in at the sink not long before, he felt sorry for Samsonite now. The guy didn’t have a clue how damned he was.

Joe had learned another lesson. It was better to face the devil with a friend than by yourself.

To be continued…

© 2015 David P. Cantrell He is a contributing member of the EWI staff.

Links to prior episodes:

Basic Lessons of Life – Number One

Basic Lessons of Life – Number Two




Author: David P. Cantrell

I'm a retired baby-boomer enjoying life.

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