Summer 1995, I went to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas for 4 weeks of “Field Training,” which is like Basic Training, but for kids who are in ROTC. I was on a 4-year Air Force ROTC scholarship, and now I had to pay my pittance: we’d get
hazed instructed by older ROTC cadets and some drill sergeants; each flight had an officer in charge, and ours was Major Wench. Major Wench wore glasses with aviator sunglasses frames and looked like he ran marathons for fun, but all I could think about when he introduced himself was that he must be named for a heavy-set woman serving pints of beer to Germans.
A couple hours before I met Major Wench, I landed at the San Antonio airport and saw that anyone young with short hair was being screamed at and made to stand at attention at baggage claim. I saw no need to jump right into the inevitable, so I shuffled past the cadets and fixed my gaze on a row of payphones, dropped in a quarter, and called my parents to let them know I’d landed. I don’t know what else we talked about, but I do recall drawing out the conversation as long as I could, until I saw the bus pull up to take all of us to Lackland. I joined the other cadets wearing my best “Is this where we’re supposed to be?” expression, grabbed my large suitcase off the carousel, and boarded the bus.
“Forrest Gump” came out the preceding summer, and I fully expected to be greeted by a bunch of “Seat’s taken!” rejections as I trudged down the aisle, and though I did not get such, I did happen to sit next to a black guy from south Alabama; his name was Troy, but when the members of our flight realized the only 2 guys from the South were both from Alabama and that one was white and the other black, we became known as Forrest and Bubba for the ensuing 4 weeks, which I’m not sure was a compliment for either of us.
Flights at Field Training are identified by the phonetic alphabet, and we were in Alpha Flight. A classmate from VMI decided we should call ourselves the A-Team, and we all agreed. We pitied any fool who messed with Alpha flight.
A few days into Field Training, however, the 30-something guys in my flight pitied me. One night after lights out, we whispered among ourselves in our open bay barracks, and someone said something about being constipated; a couple guys indicated they had yet to move their bowels, and it was Training Day 3. I was among this group but said nothing. As the next couple days concluded, and we’d get ready to get into our racks every evening, everyone who’d indicated they’d struggled in the aforementioned area revealed they were no longer so afflicted. But I still was. Finally, I spoke up–“I still haven’t crapped yet.” It was Training Day 5. A guy from Johns Hopkins said, “You should go to sick bay tomorrow.”
Me: “I am not going to sick bay to tell them I haven’t taken a dump yet; it’ll be fine.”
I went to sleep.
Training Day 6 concluded, and the Alpha Flight males climbed into our racks and turned out the lights. A pre-med kid from Cornell whispered from across the barracks – “Hey ‘Forrest’ …you shit yet?” Any other whispering ceased, as 30-something college-aged boys from all over America wanted to know if the kid from University of Alabama had pooped after six days of marching, running, polishing, cleaning, and learning. I let the suspense build a few seconds. A future JAG officer from Weber State said, “Well? Is ‘Operation Pinch Loaf’ a success or is it a failure?!”
“You really should go to sick bay, man…that is NOT good” said the Hopkins kid again.
Me: “It’s fine…I’m sure it’ll happen tomorrow.”
Training Day 7 came and went, and Operation Pinch Loaf proved to be another failure, leading to more whispers and concern throughout Alpha Flight. I worried someone would tell Major Wench.
Shortly before reveille on Training Day 8, a stirring began in my gut, and a minute later, victory was mine! Not a thrilling victory, of course, but a relieving one. I kept the news to myself all day.
That night after lights out, the inevitable inquiry came in a hushed tone across a row of 15 cots: “Gump! Did you move your bowels finally?”
I gave it what I felt was an appropriately delayed pause before declaring with triumph, “My friends–fellow cadets of Alpha Flight–I am proud to report that victory is within my bowels. Operation Pinch Loaf has succeeded!” The cheering and laughing that followed caused a visit from Major Wench from wherever Major Wench lurked when we were supposed to be sleeping, and demerits were assigned, but any military campaign is not without its casualties and collateral damage. The spoils outweighed it. I could go back to worrying about graduating instead of worrying about being regular.
I’m supposed to retire from the Air Force in just over a month. When I received my approval order for same, I started working on a speech consisting of funny stories to tell from my 3 decades in uniform from 1993 to 2020, and among my untold tales was this one. Since it’s looking less probable that I’ll get a retirement ceremony with friends and family on June 6 as anticipated, I figure I might as well write the stories I was going to tell there, over here. There are more, and I can’t wait to tell them.
Remembering the first time I felt completely helpless and trapped–stuck in a situation I didn’t choose and not sure I could endure it for 30 days–is helpful right now. I completed Field Training. I got an award for leading my flight through a timed list of drill commands flawlessly; I placed in the top 5 of over 500 kids in both pushups and pull-ups, and I survived the heat of south Texas in July. Eight years later, when I deployed to Kuwait and Iraq, many of the lessons I thought were silly during field training proved helpful. They’re even helpful now.
I still do pushups and pull-ups. I still go days without a poop. I still send (electronic) letters to my friends from childhood. I still call my parents to hide from my surroundings and delay the inevitable; I just don’t deposit 25 cents first.
Every night before he’d flip down our light switch for the night, Major Wench would announce to our barracks the number of days we had left: “24 days and a wake-up, Alpha Flight!” and we’d all cheer as if that was encouraging, even on the first few nights, as at least we knew our situation was finite.
And while we don’t know the number of days plus a wake-up we have left in our current state of imprisonment, at least we know it too is finite.