My life took a major turn when it was time to graduate from high school. Receiving a diploma was something I’d done as little work as possible to achieve. I seldom did homework, just managed to skate by, probably from the amount of prodigious reading I had done all my life.
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. I naturally chose the military.
The Army recruiter showed me all the wonderful schools available to someone with my preliminary test scores 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, “Is this some kind of joke? This is for a Dale Day.”
She reddened slightly and stammered that it was. “Yes, sergeant, that is his birth certificate.”
When I asked, the recruiter handed it to me and I stared in disbelief. Scanning down to the names of my mother and father, they sure as heck weren't those of the people I thought were my parents.
Eighteen years living a deception!
Shock? Anger? You better believe it! Everyone I thought was family wasn’t. I’d been lied to all of my life. And, to add insult to injury, Duple (I could no longer call her Nana) apologized to the recruiter for causing the inconvenience of having to make up new papers!
Duple wouldn’t explain. I quickly signed the new papers the recruiter typed up and returned to the foster home where I'd lived for the past four years to get my things in order.
The recruiter took me and four other enlistees 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.
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 medic 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!
I wasn’t 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 questions ,and definitely not 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 test results 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 male bovine excrement hit the flabellum!
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, 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 and complained that I'd signed up for the other school.
“Listen, 'Cruit, there is one thing you'd better learn right now,” the sergeant said, “is that the needs of the service come first. You have the scores and the army has the need. You're already sworn in, so that's it. Got it?”
I muttered something and bit back the anger. 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.
LA Train Station
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 set aside for us.
I hadn't 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 soldier in fatigues 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 Bologna on stale white bread 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 because I was a member of the Mormon church.
I was on my way!
MY INTRODUCTION TO THE REAL ARMY
It seemed to take forever for the train to get out of the railroad yards. I knew we headed north toward the San Fernando Valley. The train car appeared a little on the worn side and didn’t seem like any I’d remembered from a couple of trips I previously took. It was only after a bit of looking around that I spotted the US Army Transportation Corps logo on the door at the front of the car. How had they hooked up an Army troop car to the regular train? That also explained the narrow aisle with two rows of three across seats.
A strange thing occurred. We were all new recruits but it seemed everybody somehow sorted themselves into very distinct groups. There were the acne-faced, beardless kids like me who had just signed up. Another group clearly had more than two years of previous service under their skins. We young RA’s [for Regular Army] smiled and joked with each other, eager for the adventure before them. And then there were the US’s [Draftees} who glumly sat in their seats, most with eyes closed, showing no interest in the passing sprawl of LA. The Prior Service types quickly dropped off to sleep.
We RA’s calmed down by the time we got to Ventura, turning our attention to the ocean to our left. The train briefly stopped there before going on to our next stop in Santa Barbara.
The train car had only two toilets and a constant line formed up outside of them. I noticed another area in the front of the car and had no idea what it was for. The hour grew late and the sun lowered close to the horizon. All of us were hungry and wondered if and when they would feed us.
That’s when we learned what the compartment up front was for. Two men in dirty white jackets, olive drab pants tucked into shiny brown boots, came out and ordered four recruits in the front row to follow them. They in turn returned carrying stacks of boxes. K-Rations! Our first real Army meal. The stuff that had carried GI’s across Europe, the Pacific and Korea.
We were really soldiers.
K-Ration Supper Unit: canned meat, consisting of either chicken paté, pork luncheon meat with carrot and apple (1st issue), beef and pork loaf (2nd issue), or sausages; biscuits; a 2-ounce D ration emergency chocolate bar, Tropical bar, or (in temperate climates) commercial sweet chocolate bar; a packet of toilet paper tissues; a 4-pack of cigarettes; chewing gum, and a bouillon soup cube or powder packet.
The only difference between the picture above is, instead of the little metal key-like thing, mine contained a can opener I knew from my Boy Scout days - a P-38.
We recruits eagerly opened them and dug into our packets, examining every item. I quickly learned that being a non-smoker provided me with some good leverage. My small packet of cigarettes and matches earned me two extra chocolate bars. One of the older guys who’d sorta been put in charge of us because he’d been in before, made it a point of telling us to keep everything we didn’t eat for “future use,” not explaining exactly what that meant. What on earth would I need the Tee Pee or soup packet for?
The same guys who’d passed out the food came by an hour later to gather up the empty boxes. It grew dark outside and all we soon saw were lights and small towns quickly passing by. We stopped at San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and King City. [Growing up in California, it wasn’t until many years later that I learned Paso Robles meant Oak Tree Pass.]
Sometime about four in the morning, we stopped and the motion of the car jerked all of us awake. It became clear the car was being uncoupled from the rest of the train. Once something shoved us unto a siding, a gruff voice shouted, “All you ‘Cruits! Outa yer seats. On yer feet. Grab yer pitiful stuff and fall in outside.”
Somehow, the way he said “Cruit” told us we were the dumbest, most worthless pieces of excrement in all the universe. I must also point out that never once did I hear any of those noncoms use profanity or vulgarity at any of us. Yet, they could make one feel no bigger than an ant by the way they “informed you of the proper Army way.”
The stripes on his sleeve told us he was some kind of sergeant. I almost smiled at the cowboy hat he wore.
"1911 Hat, Service, M1911 (Campaign Hat.)"
[Another lesson – it denotes a Drill Instructor, one of the most bad-ass noncoms in the entire universe! At least back then.]
He spent the next half hour shouting and “lecturing” us in getting into a formation. We of course heard what was to become a litany I can never forget. “Do not call me Sir, ‘Cruit. I work for a living and you will call me Sergeant! Am I clear.”
“Y-yes, Si --- Sergeant.”
“What did you say, ‘Cruit? I can’t hear you!”
He sorted us out, tallest in front, shortest in the rear. At 6’ 1”, I was in the second row to the front. “Ah-left face!” he shouted. “You there! Your other left!”
Most of us were numb from the long day and even longer train ride. It was cold and dark and misty. But somehow, he got us into some kind of order and marched us to three school buses painted olive drab with “US Army” in black on their sides. We climbed in and found a seat, wondering what came next.
We crossed some hills and, as the sky turned gray in the east, we saw the ocean as the buses turned left through a large gate with Military Police guards waving us through. They carried rifles and all of us wondered if they were real and filled with bullets.
We stopped in front of some buildings right out of the movies. Sergeants shouted and yelled as we stumbled out of the buses and somehow got ourselves into an almost orderly formation. Each of us carried a large, sealed manila envelope with our names and serial numbers on them.
Oh yeah. Did I mention that one of the things we heard over and over again at the processing station was, “You will memorize your serial number. Failure to do so will result in punishment.” I had to drop down to hands and feet to do pushups at least twice at the processing station but had it down pat by the time we got to Fort Ord. Yes - I still have it memorized more than 55 years later!! RA-19-xxx-xx8.
We lined up and passed through a series of stations. We turned over our records, had a quick run through a barber shop where our glorious hair was shaved to the scalp, moved to another where someone took our picture, yet another where we filled out a form before watching a soldier stamp a couple of pieces of metal with our names, ranks, serial numbers and blood types. We walked to the next station proudly wearing our Dog Tags. [However, the draftees weren’t all that happy with ‘em.]
Our next stop was a desk where we filled out another form - Last Name first, First Name and Middle Initial. “Not your middle name dummy!” That led to one other stop where we signed some kind of list and an officer wearing a single gold bar handed us three five dollar bills!!! Our first military pay.
Then, came the issuance of our gear. A large, olive gray duffel bag was soon filled with Olive Gray underclothing, socks, outer clothing, work uniforms, dress uniforms [to include an Ike Jacket], coats, jackets and hats. And, we got fitted for brown boots - combat and shoes - low quarter.
Finally, we stopped at one more station where we were given patches - shoulder, tags - name and cards - identity. [I didn’t recognize the guy in the photo!]
Our final journey was to a WWII barracks where the sergeant told us to select our bunks. Each had a footlocker and a wall locker. We put our duffel bags on the bunk we were able to claim and followed the sergeant to where we were issued thin mattresses, sheets, a wool blanket, a pillow and pillow cover - all Green, Olive, Shade 107.
But, there was no time for rest. Several sergeants with three stripes on their sleeves came in and shouted, cajoled and otherwise bullied a bunch of stupid ‘Cruits in how to properly make a bed, fold and store our things in our footlockers and wall lockers.
Finally, properly dressed in our OG fatigue uniforms, we were marched to a building that turned out to be a mess hall.
Some of you veterans and even active duty types are probably lifting your noses and sneering at Mess Hall Slop, but I’m gonna tell you, that was probably the best banquet I’d tasted in as long as I could remember. The tin tray partitioned off into sections was heaped with a steaming stew, mashed potatoes, vegetables and a piece of chocolate cake. A plastic glass came to be filled with cold milk, a couple of pieces of white bread, real butter and we moved on to gather up our paper napkin and silverware.
We were marched to a small store after dinner where be bought some necessities from a list. Besides toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, comb, razor, shaving cream and so on, it included shoe polish, shoe brush, shining rag and Brasso. [All you GI’s recognize that, don’t you!]
Back in the barracks, with sergeants hovering over us, we polished our boots and shoes and the brass insignia we were to wear on our Class A and B uniform.
Lights Out came at 9 pm and every one of us collapsed into our bunks. I am certain I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.