I faced a problem; I had no way to go on to college, a Juvenile Court judge told me I would have to spend the remainder of my sentence for Grand Theft Auto in the Juvenile Detention Center or -- and that was a big or -- I could learn some discipline from a military drill instructor. The Army recruiter showed me all the wonderful schools and I instantly selected the one to become a veterinary assistant. It was all worked out so, four days after my eighteenth birthday, I would enlist in the army with a promise to go to a great school -- if I successfully completed basic training.
It was too good to be true.
The first sign of what was to come was the day my grandmother went to the recruiter’s office with me to sign the papers. She handed over my birth certificate (which I had never seen) and the recruiter asked her if it was some kind of joke. It seemed the name I had lived under for eighteen years was not the one I was born with.
Shock? Anger? You better believe it! Everyone I thought was family wasn’t. I’d been lied to all of my life. Nana, what I’d called her all my life, wouldn’t explain. I later learned the truth from Uncle Stu [again not my real uncle]. Anyway, I quickly signed the new papers the recruiter typed up and returned to the foster home to get my things in order.
And, to add insult to injury, Duple (I could no longer call her Nana from that moment) apologized to the recruiter for causing the inconvenience of having to make up new papers!
[the Suburban was, of course, Army Olive Green with big US Army signs on both doors.]
The recruiter took me to the big induction center in downtown Los Angeles and, with at least a hundred other young souls, I raised my hand and swore the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. What a proud moment. And freedom!
A long battery of tests followed after the humiliating physical examination. For those who aren’t familiar with that, they put about a hundred of you in this big gymnasium-like room and have you strip down to your t-shirt, shorts and socks. Then a doctor and nurse go up and down each line, poking, prodding, listening through that ice cold thing they wear and - most humiliating of all - making you bend over, drop your shorts and suffer the indignity of having this guy shove a finger encased in a rubber glove up you-know-where!
Surprisingly, I wasn’t all that offended by the various sergeants treating me like a moron with step-by-step instructions in the minutest detail. I looked at some of the others, wondering how they’d managed to get a diploma, learning that no few of them had not. There were also a number with lots of college and/or university time - there courtesy of The Draft.
“You will print, not write, your last name first, then your first name and then your middle initial.” And, they had to go over it for at least twenty men who could not, for the life of them, understand just what that meant. We were then handed some test papers and went through another agonizing [to me] instruction period of how to only mark between the little brackets, carefully erase any mistakes, not to raise our hands to ask question and definitely not to talk to the person next to us.
I was a whiz at passing tests and those were no different. Multiple choice was so easy I finished well ahead of everyone else in the room. That meant I was sent to another room to wait. And wait.
The time came to learn the results of the tests. The interviewer showed me the scores, commenting about how they were among the highest he’d seen from someone without college credits. He explained that my IQ score of 142 put me in the upper percentile, something I just shrugged off as I’d already figured that out. Next came a rundown of the various aptitude tests.
And the shit hit the fan! While my scores were more than high enough for the veterinary assistant school, my mechanical aptitude score was even higher. It seemed the army had a severe shortage of people able to maintain and repair heavy construction equipment. And, “For the Needs of the Service,” I was going to be assigned to a school for just that after my completion of basic training. I wasn’t exactly thrilled by that but, there was no turning back. Being a grease monkey was better than being behind bars. Besides, they already had me as I’d signed the papers and swore the oath. I was in, like it or not.
The processing center was in the middle of downtown so, when we’d finished all the administrative processing, they lined us up and marched us [more like straggled us] to the Los Angeles Union Train Station. It didn’t take that long and they gathered us in one spot so we could wait - and wait - until it was time to lead us through some big gates onto the tracks. We boarded a passenger train and were herded into one particular car the army had apparently set aside for us.
I had not eaten since early morning. We’d missed lunch. So, all of us wondered if they were ever going to feed us. The train barely started to move when a porter came in pushing a big cart filled with boxed meals. I don’t remember what kind of selection they offered but, as I sat towards the back of the car, I think my choice was Balogna on white smeared with oleo, a small bag of chips, an apple and a small carton of milk. At least, once we were underway, they brought a huge urn of coffee - which I didn’t drink back then due to religious considerations.
I was on my way!