We’d just started our second week of basic training at Fort Benning when they flicked on the TV and we watched the plane go into the skyscraper. It was silky-smooth, the way the building swallowed the jetliner, and I remember thinking it was pretty good for a movie special effect. Yeah, I thought I was pretty smart, the real badass of the platoon, but as it turned out, I didn’t know jack shit.
Six days earlier, I’d tumbled off the bus at Reception along with everyone else, masking fear with bravado, looking at everything through narrow-slit eyes, desperately sucking down two last cigarettes and saying, “I don’t think it’s gonna be as bad as they say it’ll be.”
Another guy—whose name turned out to be Hewitt—looked at me and said, “You’re kidding, right?”
I turned to this guy—a douchebag I hadn’t even noticed on the short bus ride across Fort Benning—and squinched another mouthful of smoke from my cigarette as I ran both hands back through my shoulder-length hair (my beautiful, beautiful mane which didn’t know it only had hours left to live) and I was about to say something badass/smartass to him, but—
Just then, the drills smacked into us like hurricanes. No lie, we were like palm trees ripped out by their storm-weakened roots.
One minute we were standing around smoking cigarettes, sizing each other up, and telling lies about the lives we’d left behind and the next thing we knew we were caught up in this crazed shouting, major invasions of our personal space, our foreheads getting jabbed by the brims of those big hard hats, our faces bathed in a mist of spittle.
“Moveitmoveit! Your ass is grass and I’m the lawnmower!”
Drill Sergeant Lokkanen and Drill Sergeant Squires.
The only thing I could compare them to was Mr. Sampton back at the GM plant, our dick-scum boss who’d scream himself into a hernia if he ever caught us without our safety goggles. But even Old Man Sampton’s eyes never popped out quite so far from their sockets like these red-faced asswipes who were all of a sudden all up in our business, nose-to-nose, saying some pretty terrible things about our mamas and acting like we were useless lumps of flesh put here on this earth for the sole purpose of making the drill sergeants’ lives miserable. It was all “GoGoGO” and “Faster, privates, FASTER!” and we bent like trees under their breath.
The drills picked us up from Reception at 0700 hours and from that point on it was all screams, and bumping into each other, running here, running there, and muscle failure from a thing they called the “front leaning rest position” (though, trust me, there was nothing restful about holding your planked-out body ten inches off the ground with burning, trembling arms for five minutes at a time).
I remember feeling the sweet pancakes from breakfast rising in the back of my throat and already filling with regret over the cavalier way I’d said, “I don’t think it’s gonna be as bad as they say it’ll be.”
I saw that douche Hewitt two ranks in front of me, his face upside down between his muscle-failing arms as he arched his back and gasped for breath. He was just one drill sergeant scream away from breaking down into the crying, blubbering terror we all felt. But he held it in because nobody wanted to be branded a pussy on the very first day of basic training.
At one point, sometime around 0930 (though it was hard to tell because we’d all been stripped of our watches and cell phones and were now floating in a limbo known simply as Drill Sergeant time zone) we were in this gymnasium sitting on bleachers with a stack of papers in our laps, trying to balance the forms on our knees as we filled in our personal information, line by line—taking our instruction from some fat, bored personnel clerk standing under a basketball hoop with a bullhorn—when there was this flurry of activity off to one side near the entrance doors. We weren’t supposed to look—“Eyes on your papers, privates!!”—but we did. A tall, buff dude who looked important had come in, all distressed and shit, and now Drill Sergeant Lokkanen and Drill Sergeant Squires were huddled around him and they looked like they were getting a little freaked out too (at least as far as we could determine from our brief relationship with these two assholes). All three of them disappeared for a little while and we had to go back to paying attention to the clerk with the bullhorn: “Continuing on….Blocks 6a and 6b….”
When the drills returned, they seemed angrier than before (we hadn’t thought that possible) and they really started laying into us for not having already finished our paperwork. The asswipe standing center court just looked on with this smug smile while we were told to get off the bleachers and assume the front leaning rest position for the next ten minutes.
Then Drill Sergeant Squires, his voice higher and shakier than it had been half an hour ago, had us get to our feet, grab our paperwork and hustle outside where he put everyone in formation (ten-man front, four ranks deep) and told us to standby. But when he found out some of us (not me!) had left our paperwork back in the gym, he made all of us get down in the front leaning rest until those forgetful douchebags had gone back inside and recovered their Personnel packets. DS Squires pulled us to our feet with a one-word command (“RE-cover!”), put us at ease and said, “Wait one.” Then he walked away and left us standing there. I’d only just met the man, but I could have sworn there was this odd catch in his voice when he was talking to us and it’s like he had to walk away real fast because he had a coughing fit coming on.
We were just starting to relax and enjoying our “at ease” when DS Lokkanen came roaring out of the gym all screaming and red-faced and asking us why the fuck weren’t we standing at attention? We didn’t know what the hell was going on, but we right away snapped to attention and stood there with little creeks of sweat running along our spines down into the canyons of our ass cheeks. I kept telling myself, This is all part of the game, just go with it. Be cool.
“You better start paying the fuck attention, privates, or you’ll find your name on my Shit List. You want me to put your name on my Shit List, privates?”
“NO, DRILL SERGEANT!” we screamed in chorus.
I’d heard the drills weren’t supposed to swear at us anymore—as part of a new Army policy that was trying to make basic training “a more professional” experience for the modern warrior—but DS Lokkanen apparently hadn’t gotten the memo. He was all “fuck” this and “shit” that. We kept waiting for one of those earthwormy veins on the side of his head to pop, but it never happened.
DS Squires, on the other hand, was what you could call kinder, gentler—as soft and oily as Bush himself—though you could tell he was still struggling with the new no-profanity policy. He was always saying “frick” and had, for some reason, latched on to calling us “douchebags” (my favorite word!) in place of anything else.
While Lokkanen got all up in our miserable fucking faces and explained, in scientific terms, how our mothers were slick-cunted whores who’d obviously had sexual congress with a donkey because how else do you explain the existence of forty barnyard bastards standing at attention before him?—while all this was going on and the sweat was rivering into our ass cracks, DS Squires stood off to one side staring vacantly at the ground in front of him. Which was pretty odd, I thought, but I had no time to dwell on that because just as DS Lokkanen reached his voice-cracking crescendo, the door in the side of the gym banged open and a fat man in a crisp uniform waddle-stomped over to a spot dead center in front of the platoon and right behind Lokkanen. Our drill sergeant stopped in mid-sputter, came to attention himself, and did this little Fred Astaire move which wheeled him around in place so he was facing this new fat douche whose face was as starched as his fatigues. I heard that guy Hewitt hiss, “Shit. The company commander. Captain Meyer.” Hewitt was standing right behind me, so I was worried they’d think I’d been the one to break the silence. But things were happening so fast at that point, no one heard—or if they did, it wasn’t worth putting us back in the FLR in front of the Big Cheese.
DS Lokkanen whipped up his right arm in a salute and yelled, “Sir, they’re all yours!”
Captain Meyer returned the salute and growled, “As you were, Drill Sergeant Lokkanen.”
Lokkanen did another fancy-foot move and slipped around to the back of the platoon where he joined DS Squires, who still hadn’t lifted his face to look at anything but the torn-up earth in front of him.
The company commander had his hands clasped behind him. He looked like an olive-green penguin. I knew if I laughed at that moment, I would regret it for the rest of my nine weeks at Fort Benning. But, really—what a douche….
Captain Meyer picked a point three feet above our heads and stared at it, then said: “Does anybody here have any family members who live in New York City or work in the World Trade Center?”
Nobody said anything or raised their hand.
“Does anybody here have family who works in the Pentagon?”
Nobody moved a muscle, not even the twitch of a lip.
Captain Meyer swept his eyes across our sweating faces. “No one?”
“Okay then,” the commander said. He called DS Lokkanen back to the front of the platoon, exchanged salutes, then turned and went back inside.
DS Lokkanen whipped around and he was once again all up in our business about mothers and donkeys. He hustled us back inside the gymnasium and ordered us onto the bleachers where we were greeted by another specialist from G-1 Personnel—not as fat as the last one—who explained to us the various benefits of the G.I. Bill program. In due time, he was replaced by a female lieutenant from the Judge Advocate General office who lectured us about wills and next-of-kin notifications and made us fill out six different forms, pressing hard with our pens to make sure it went all the way through the four carbon copies. And then Lokkanen and Squires were back, tongue-lashing us into a panicked stampede to the parking lot where they marched us to lunch chow.
Not another word was said about New York City or the Pentagon all day long and we were left to wonder about those two places and why recruits with family there would be singled out.
Our day progressed with more paperwork and classroom lectures. We bumbled our way through these new Rules of Life, getting dropped for pushups at every turn. The drills took us to chow, they inoculated us against twenty-five different diseases, they gave us haircuts and a new olive-drab wardrobe. By the end of the day, our muscles were bands of fire wrapping like vines around our arms, our legs, our chests. Some of us were dry-heaving and most were having second thoughts about why we ever got into the military in the first place.
That night, the drills had us all toeing the line in the barracks, making us stand at attention, and flinging out various insults about our lack of coordination and dubious parentage at increasing levels of voice-pitch (pretty impressive when you think about how they’d been going at it non-stop for nearly fourteen hours). While they were busy face-crowding this poor cross-eyed kid named Hickenlooper on the other side of the room, Hewitt (once again standing right next to me—my bad fucking luck!) made the A-Number-One Supreme Mistake of letting loose a snicker. Right away, the drills were back on our side of the room, like they were steel balls launched by flippers in a pinball machine, and they were in my face with their breath (beef jerky, cigars, soured milk) and yelling “What was that I heard, douchebag?!” and “You think this shit is funny?!” and I was smart, smart, smart—never once cracking a smile or offering up a protest or even sliding my eyes in Hewitt’s direction. I let them have their say, allowed their breath to pollute my face, and went along with everyone else as we dropped to the floor and made like two rows of seals barking the count-cadence for a brutal series of push-ups, scissor kicks and leg lifts.
And then it was over, the hurricane subsided, and the drills were telling us to get up, go take one last shit before lights out, and within fifteen minutes they were all but tucking us beddy-bye into our bunks.
We slipped between the tight envelope of sheets and settled our heads onto our pillows, most of us still panting like we’d just run a marathon.
At the very last minute before dousing the lights, Drill Sergeant Squires stopped in the doorway to his office. He turned to us and said, “Gentlemen, this morning, the United States came under attack for the first time since Pearl Harbor when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and another one into a field in Pennsylvania. Everyone died.” He paused, coughed around something lodged in his throat, then announced, “Congratulations, privates. You are now the first class of this new war.” He went into the office and slammed the door.
We held our silence for something like two minutes.
Then someone very quietly said, “What the fuck?”
* * *
I was older than the rest of the guys in my platoon and I’d seen enough of the world to know a few things they didn’t. For instance, I’d heard basic training was all a head game and that the drills liked to pull bullshit like this all the time. Just before I shipped out, Old Man Sampton called me into his office and said, “Son, I’ve been through it all. I was in the Marines for three years, so I can give you three pieces of advice.” He lifted his stained, scarred hand and ticked off the points on his fingers. “One, keep your head down and your piehole shut. Two, never volunteer for anything, even if it sounds easy. Three, always remember it’s all bullshit.” For all his yelling at us out on the floor, it turned out Mr. Sampton was a pretty decent asswipe after all. He even gave me a $50 bonus in my last paycheck.
And now, here in the early September humidity of Fort Benning, it seemed Sampton Prophecy Number Three was coming true. This bullshit about planes and skyscrapers had to be another of the drills’ crazy tricks designed to separate us from what we came to know as The World. It was a pretty elaborate story, if you asked me.
The next morning at chow, I told the others at my table, “They’re lying to us. It didn’t happen. They’re just trying to scare us.”
Someone at the far end of the table said—softly so the roving drills wouldn’t hear, but loud enough for the rest of us to catch: “It happened. Make no mistake, it happened.”
“Impossible,” I insisted.
Hickenlooper said: “Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe someone dropped the A-bomb on Washington. Someone like Iran or Russia.”
“That’s stupid,” someone else said. “That happened, we’d all be walking around wearing gas masks and staying inside to avoid the radiation.”
“You’ve been seeing too many movies,” I said, shoveling a forkful of grainy egg slop into my mouth. “You don’t understand—this is all a head game. It’s not real.”
“Look at you—Mr. Know-It-All.”
“Hey—” I said.
“I hear they’re going to cut basic training short,” Hewitt said. “Make it an accelerated course and we’re all going to war right after graduation—don’t pass Go, don’t collect $200.”
“You’re all fucking insane,” I said. “None of this is true. It can’t possibly be true.”
Everyone shut up then because DS Lokkanen was back on our side of the room, berating us for being such slow eaters. We went back to concentrating on the mad gobble of breakfast, forks clinking against teeth, draining glasses of orange juice in two gulps. We had seven minutes to shovel it in before heading out for a two-mile run. I didn’t want to waste my precious eating time trying to convince these douchebags that the drills were just fucking with them, but I really hated to see them fall for such an outlandish lie.
“C’mon, guys,” I said when it was safe. “You don’t really believe him, do you? There’s no way terrorists flew a plane into a skyscraper. That’s absurd. They’re just messing with our heads, trying to scare us into taking this shit seriously.”
None of them lifted their head from the food tray. They were pigs at a trough, eager to eat whatever slop the farmer poured out of the bucket.
* * *
We lived in a bubble for the next five days. No contact with the outside world. No calls to our families, no incoming mail, no TV, no computers, no newspapers or magazines. It was all Army all the time. We were the new residents of Mind-Control City and the drills were the mayors. We bonded through fear and ignorance and I grew to kind of like some of the other douchebags in my platoon, even if they were idiots who’d fall for anything.
Nothing more was said about terrorist planes and I walked around with this superior, I-told-you-so expression on my face.
The drills punished our bodies, bruised our minds. From what Mr. Sampton had told me, this was all part of how they did it: break the body, build the spirit. They kept filling our heads with more nonsense about this New War and our role as the Next-Generation Warrior. I wondered how long they’d sustain this lie. I was hoping the day would come when I’d walk around a corner of the barracks and catch them back there giggling like schoolgirls.
We ran and ran and ran. When we weren’t running, we were doing push-ups. When we weren’t doing push-ups, we were jogging in place—even as the drills taught us an abbreviated course in military history and encouraged us to shout out slogans like “Kill a Commie for Mommy” (DS Lokkanen was definitely old school). We held fake rubber rifles above our heads as we hustled from one end of the sawdust pit to the other, roaring like young lions. We were snakes shedding our civilian skins. We were becoming all we could be.
The drills gave us new names, some of which would stick, some which would fall away after a couple of days. For instance, one dude named Campbell was christened “Scramble,” Klosterman became “Klosterfuck,” another kid—pudged out by too many bags of potato chips and afternoons with his video games—was nicknamed “Nintendo,” and there was this other guy, real name Davenport, who one day got called “Sofa” by DS Squires. We all thought that was pretty funny—“Private Sofa”—until DS Lokkanen came along, heard Squires saying the name while chiding the kid for the shitty boot polish job he’d done the night before and overrode his fellow drill sergeant by saying, “Naw, naw, he looks like a Couch to me.”
DS Squires pulled his pop-eyed face away from Sofa nee Davenport and looked at Lokkanen. “It’s Sofa.”
“Sofa fits this wimpy little douchebag like a glove. Look at him—can’t even get a good shine on his boots.”
We rarely wondered about the drill sergeants’ lives, didn’t have time to fill in the backstory of what they’d been before they blew into our lives, but I found myself thinking about DS Squires and how it seemed like he’d maybe had at least a couple of years at a community college somewhere where he’d been made to read, against his will, a Henry James novel.
“Couch, dude,” Lokkanen insisted. “Couch just rolls off the tongue.”
DS Squires gave Lokkanen an odd look, then he turned and told us to drop and start pushing against the ground until he said we could stop. He and DS Lokkanen went off to the side where those of us who dared to look could see them in tight, choppy conversation, and when they came back Davenport was “Couch” and that was the end of that.
The rest of that day, it felt like DS Squires went all Chewbacca on us with increased volume—the roars of lions, seals, and elephants all rolled into one—while DS Lokkanen just sat back and shook his head at our pitiful attempts to march without tripping.
* * *
It wasn’t until the end of that week, a Sunday, when we finally got a day of rest. Correction: half a day. So it could never be accused of religious intolerance, the Army always granted us Sunday mornings off so the churchy ones in the platoon could march in lock-step, left right LEFT, to chapel and catch a short nap in the pews if they were lucky.
But that morning, before we formed up for our first trip to the chapel, Drill Sergeant Squires came into the peaceful drowse of the barracks, brought us to our feet, and made us stand at parade rest on the two stripes running down the center of the polished, honey-brown floor. He said he had something to show us, something he should have showed us earlier, with apologies that he’d waited this long.
We blinked. Had he just said “Sorry”? Had that word actually fallen from his lips?
DS Squires cleared his throat, then barked the commands which brought us to attention and turned us crisply toward the barracks door. “Forward…MARCH!”
We moved out at a fast pace, hoping to get this over with quickly—whatever it was—so we could start enjoying the gift of our first real free time in more than a week—no wall-locker maintenance, no boot polishing, no sock rolling.
It felt strange to have our half-day interrupted like that, but I knew something was really odd when I passed DS Squires and looked him square in the face—his eyes seemed reddened, irritated—and he didn’t go all batshit-crazy on me, yelling at me to keep my eyes off of him (what was I, a faggot trying to flirt with him?) and to stop looking anywhere but at the neck of the guy in front of me or he’d drop me so fast my teeth would fall out of my head. No, none of that. DS Squires met my glance, shook his head slowly, then dropped his watery gaze to a blank spot on the floor.
We marched from the barracks to the chow hall, and I did keep my eyes on Hewitt’s neck the rest of the way. Inside, they made us sit down on the picnic-table benches and told us to be at ease. The place smelled like sweat and sour milk and hardly seemed like the same place where we’d been Hoovering down our meals for the past week.
Then DS Lokkanen came in and we about shit our pants because he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jeans. He rolled a TV on a cart to the front of the room and stopped center mass in front of us.
“Hey, cartoons!” someone at the back of the room said.
“Naw, with our luck, it’s another training video,” said Scramble.
And I chimed in with, “I’m hoping for a little porn.”
Then DS Lokkanen said, “Shut up, privates,” which was my final proof that something was really wrong because he didn’t say “Shut the fuck up, privates” and his voice was round and soft at the edges.
We went still and quiet, hands limp and sweaty in our laps.
“Privates, we’re about to show you something which we should have done a long time ago—”
DS Squires interrupted DS Lokkanen from the back of the room. “I already told them all that.”
“Oh,” Lokkanen said in his weird new voice. “Okay, then. Well, like DS Squires already told you, Privates, what you are about to see is something the rest of the world has been watching for the past week. It’s about time we let you in on the news, too.” His voice sounded like it was scraping against bone in his throat, so he stopped talking. He shook his head as if to clear something away, then he fumbled with the remote and brought the TV to life.
The swoosh of a too-low plane across blue sky. A fireball. A plume boiling outward, turning the blue to grey. Mobs of people run screaming through the streets like they were in a Japanese monster movie. Shredded business suits, briefcases hanging open. Papers everywhere. The building falls, as if it fainted, as if its knees buckled, collapsing it to the ground.
“Ho-lee shit!” someone said
Someone else said, “No way. No fucking way.”
And beside me, Hewitt started crowing, “I knew it! Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I say something bad like this happened?”
DS Squires walked up behind Hewitt, laid a hand gently on the back of his neck, kept it there, and said softly, “Shut up, Private Hewitt. Just shut the fuck up, why don’tcha?”
Then we all watched the same footage over and over again, a loop of crash and burn, our hearts dropping to our stomachs (mine hardest of all for being such a disbelieving jackass), until finally I heard someone sniffling up loose, watery snot and I realized it was coming from behind me and I turned to see Drill Sergeant Squires giving way to tears. Which, at that moment, was more than I could handle.
Photography Credit: Jason Rice