23. November 2004 · Comments Off on Great Warks!!! · Categories: General, Military

Since I was fairly well-read (even for an English major) and had attended public schools, and a state university at a time when one could be assured of having indeed received an education thereby, I was not entirely taken back to encounter seriously surreal aspects of the military. Basic training was one long adventure in surreality, even after I divined the general purpose— which was that it was a long series of mind-games intended to weed-out the unfit and maladjusted, while administering a sort of collegial hazing on the rest of us, until we were pronounced fit to become One with the Elect.

On that happy day and long-looked-for day, most of the other girls had already departed by bus to various training bases, but two of us who still waited on school dates, orders and travel vouchers for slightly more exotic courses dragged our duffle bags down to the base shuttle bus stop and crossed the training side of Lackland AFB to the World War II-era barracks that housed the female airmen assigned to Personnel Processing Squadron, or as everyone ordinarily referred to it as “casual”. It was a sort of holding tank for the handful of us who had graduated from Basic and were stuck awaiting further orders, and the much greater number of those who had washed out of Basic for any number of reasons— injury, inability to adjust, incapacity or baying-at-the-moon insane— and were waiting on release from the service.

It was not too bad a place, after the rigorous discipline and supervision of basic— we had base liberty after duty hours, and took our leisure over meals—but the housekeeping in the ancient barracks was overseen by a dyspeptic female TSgt, who was not actually a TI but had the same command of scathing sarcasm. One of the other graduates showed the two of us around the open bay, where two ranks of bunk beds lined up on either side of an open aisle, and put us wise to how things were done;
“Never walk up the center aisle, in your shoes. Socks are OK. Walk up the side aisles, if you can.”
“Why?” I asked reasonably.
“It’ll scuff the polish on the floor! They come around and inspect on Fridays, and everything has to be perfect.”
Indeed, the polish on the center aisle was perfect, the old industrial linoleum gleamed with a dark, adamantine luster, fit to warm the heart of any NCO standing at the open door to the bay, and looking down the length of the building and the ranks of bunks on either side of that unbesmirched expanse. I knew very well how much work it took to buff and polish linoleum to that degree of perfection, it was only sensible to try and preserve it as much as possible, but still…

“And you can’t put trash in that trash can,” said our guide. “Or any of them, really. That’s why they’re turned upside down. The only one you can put trash into, is the one in the washroom.”
“But why have trash cans, if you can’t put trash into them?” I asked.
“You have to have trash cans, “our guide explained patiently. “You just can’t put trash into them. They have to be clean for inspection.”
My very first bit of military surreal. Floors you couldn’t walk on, trash cans that weren’t for trash. If I hadn’t read a lot, I would have really been boggled.

These are some of the books that dealt with the experience of being in the military— the real bits, and the baffling bits, and the tragic and the surreal. Discuss amongst yourselves and add the ones that are your particular favorites:

Herman Wouk— “The Caine Mutiny”
One of the characters described the military (specifically the Navy) as a vast, complicated, sophisticated bit of machinery, designed by geniuses…to be run by idiots.

Richard Hooker—- “M*A*S*H”
When I first read it, I was in college and thought “Funny— but the language and jokes and morals—eeeeuuuuw!” Then I read it again after my first tour and thought “Well, seem normal enough to me.”

George McDonald Fraser— “The General Danced at Dawn”, “McAuslan in the Rough”, “The Sheik and the Dustbin”
Absolutely priceless. I never worked with a real McAuslan, but I heard about a couple of them, second-hand.

Lloyd Little —- “Parthian Shot”
Expert scroungers at work!

(Add your own favorites and suggestions in the comments)

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