The bus ride to Fort Dix landed me at the repo-depot (don’t ask) in the early evening. I was so out of my element that I almost tried to get back on the bus. However, a kindly non-com escorted me into a room filled with other dazed young men, all looking around for some comfort and solace from anyone.
I can even recall some of the faces and names of those guys. There was Robert Fudd, a tall and lanky black guy, whose great skill was his ability to sleep standing up. The other name, and I know I am not spelling it correctly was the manager of the Glen Cove movie theater, Ozzie Kulamanian. All of the gents had a certain category to be in. R.A.’s were those whose serial number began with those letters and were volunteers for a three year tour of duty. The U.S. serial number was the draftee. The NG’s were the National Guard and the ER’s were the enlisted reserve.
After the sort of all of these groups, there was only one group left and that was me. My serial number was FR 532166 (or something like that). No one who was in charge had ever heard of such a thing. I told them that FR stood for Federal Reserve. Of course they did not believe me and stuck me with the ER’s.
I believe that they marched us into barracks to secure a bed and we certainly were tired enough to go to sleep. However, that was not to be. The Sergeant in charge took that time to bark out a long series of do’s and don’ts and told us that we would be getting up at five o’clock in the morning to begin our day of quartermastering (whatever that was) and get divided into jobs that would hold us until we began basic training.
Although that seemed reasonable enough, somehow I got the idea that all would not go smoothly. Sarge was right, except for a few things. We did get up at five, marched to the mess hall, with even larger groups than ours, already uniformed and picked up our metal trays (more on that later) and had food dumped into them- runny eggs, dry throat clearing toast, burnt potatoes and something that was labeled coffee.
Because we had not eaten for a day, everything slid down our gullets to be met by the dry toast. It was our first experience with the Army way of doing things. Later that morning, we appears in a supply building, run by the quartermaster, something like S-4 or G-4 or some sort of 4, to get our uniforms, fatigues, boots, belts, underwear and suchlike. It all fit into a duffle bag that we slipped, or in my skinny case, thrown over by someone next to me in line, over my shoulder.
We were expected to go back to our barracks, get into our fatigues, dump our civilian clothes into the duffle bag and fall out front (looking smartly of course). We were ragged at best. Many of the guys had the wrong sized fatigues, the wrong sized boots, the wrong hats and suchlike. Actually, from my jaundiced perspective, it was kind of funny.
You must understand that when a non-com spoke to you it was not normal speech, it was barking. Some of the guys did not understand any of what was being said. So, if the sergeant said something like about face, it sounded for the entire world like buttfay. Some of the inner city guys, whose own language was a patois of another sort, had the most trouble with those barked orders. Luckily for them, they could always ask, “What the **** did he say?”
When we came outside in all of our splendor, the sergeant had a roster of names from which he read off with a job attached to them. At first, he asked if there were any there who had graduated from college with a degree in engineering. That sounded like I should have raised my hand to get a good desk job. A number of the guys raised their hands and were taken away by a ¾ ton truck to dig ditches. Was there some sort of anti-intellectual bent to these divisions? You be there was and it continued during my tour of duty.
The rest of us were divided into other jobs. I was fortunate enough to get a job in the mess hall. This mess hall served meals for 5,000 soldiers a day. My job was twofold- potato peeler and tray washer. The potato peeling was kind of fun. There was a large round machine with short spikes on the inside of the globe. You put the potatoes in the machine and it twirled and twirled, finally dispensing glorious white (slightly yellow) potatoes into a large vat. I and some others would carry the vat to another station for slicing and cooking.
My true job was washing the metal trays. I wish I had scarfed up one of those trays and sent them home to be put into a trophy case. Can you imagine washing thousands of trays by hand? I believe that I lost most of my feeling for heat and cold in my fingers from those days in the mess hall. We were on 12 hour shifts and were dead tired by the time we were finished.
Yes, they did allow us time to eat. There were also down times between meals to kind of cavort and learn about the army from some of the cooks and non-coms who came in for a cup of that detestable coffee.
I believe that we spent about a week or so at Fort Dix. We were all expecting that in a short period of time we were to be placed in other barracks to begin our 9 week stint of basic training. That was never to be. That never happened. One morning the sergeant entered our barracks and told us to fill up our duffle bags, we were going somewhere else for basic training. Evidently Fort Dix was filled to the brim with recruits and we were not able to train there.
So, along with about 600 others, we were taken to McGuire Air Force base and loaded into DC-3s (I believe, I am not a good plane observer), which had no seats. Yes, most of us had never been on an airplane before and yes there was retching. I believe there were bags given out to prevent us from drowning in vomit.
I am not sure how long it took us to get to our destination, but it seemed interminable. We still did not know where we were going. When you are sitting on the floor in a large plane wondering when you would start feeling queasy, you are not concerned about where the plane would land. In fact, we landed in a place called Columbus, Georgia home of Fort Benning and the paratroopers.
We were soon to learn all of the army stuff and a bunch about paratroopers. We were load onto buses and driven around the town toward Fort Benning. We were really happy to see a billboard welcoming us to KKK country with a hooded rider on a white horse. The black and Puerto Rican guys were really happy to be welcomed. It was the South in 1957. Our adventures were just beginning.