I had ridden on trains many times before, but never on an overnight trip. We slept in Pullman cars, four to a room, and ate in dining cars. All-in-all, it was a comfortable beginning.
We were transferred to buses in Columbia and driven to the U.S. Army Reception Center at Fort Jackson. It was not prepared for the rapid buildup in forces and we were assigned to six-man tents with wooden floors and coal-burning stoves. I shared one with four boys from West Virginia and one from Massachusetts. The Yankee sat on his bunk with a grin on his face. He finally turned to me after our first hour together and asked it I understood a word of what the others were speaking. Actually, I understood them better than him.
Then, of course, came our haircut. Everyone has seen films and photos of recruits and draftees getting their locks shorn. What they fail to show is the final step, the shampoo. It smelled like Pine-Sol and felt as though it was applied with a steel wire brush. It made your scalp tingle.
We were corralled into “mobs” and led to classrooms where our “processing” began. Rumors were rampant that the food was laced with potassium nitrate (saltpeter) to suppress our libidos. The rumor was encouraged by a corporal who wandered among us ordering us to keep our hands out of our pockets. Strangely, he never removed his from his pockets.
The most useful lesson I ever learned in the Army came that first morning. We were ushered into a large classroom. About two hundred school desks, the type with a writing arm attached to a wooden seat, were arranged in columns and rows with military precision. A stack of papers and two sharpened number two pencils, all bound with a rubber band, sat on each desk. A sergeant posted at the door instructed us to stand next to the nearest unoccupied desk and keep our hands in our pockets. I worried that he and the corporal outside might end up in a fight over the “hands-in-pockets” business. Most of all, he admonished us to not touch anything on the desk. Several young men picked at the papers and were instantly “jumped” for their transgression.
Finally, when the room was filled, we were told to sit at our desks and fold our hands on top without touching the papers or pencils.
“Could we take our hands out of our pockets?” someone asked, and the sergeant glared. His first troublemaker.
After repeating these instructions several times, we were told to sit.
Next came the instructions for completing the first line of the first form, a blue card at the top of the stack, just under the pencils, with our name – first name last, first name, and complete middle name – in the spaces provided. We were also instructed to continue to the second line and provide our date of birth and Social Security Number, if we had one. We were to stop there inasmuch as we were not yet considered qualified to continue to the third line that obviously awaited our home address. The instructions were repeated several times.
I was becoming angry. They were treating me like an idiot. The damn card was self-explanatory and we had many more forms to complete. This was going to be a long, boring day at this rate.
Finally, the command came to pick up a pencil and complete the first two lines only. As I complied, I felt a movement to my right. Looking up, I found my neighbor with his hand in the air. Was he kidding? I turned to my left to draw my other neighbor's attention to this idiot and found that he too had his hand in the air.
In that moment, I came to understand the Army and its ways.
Most of our meals at the Reception Center came in boxes. I decided that someone had a brother-in-law who held stock in the company that baked Twinkies. They were a staple with almost every meal. And, there was coffee, lots of it. Cowboy coffee – thick enough to float a horseshoe. I came to appreciate it.
Blessed relief came when we were finally led to the quartermasters building and issued our first set of uniforms. It was almost like a cartoon machine where they fed civilians in one end and soldiers emerged from the other. We began by handing them a form that we had kept from the processing station and they began making stencils with our name and service number – preceded by an “RA” for recruits and “US” for draftees. By the time we were measured and passed down the line, we were handed uniforms with name tags sewn on and duffel bags stenciled with our names and service numbers before we exited the building. I found the nearest changing room and tried to put on every stitch they issued to me: four sets of fatigues, boots, wool socks, underwear, field jackets, etc. I was even tempted to climb into the duffel bag to get warm.
We placed our civies in whatever bag we carried with us or in a cardboard box if we came with nothing. The Army paid the postage for it to be returned home together with a pre-printed postcard telling our families that we had arrived safely and were having a wonderful time.
On the third day we were issued our first orders, to report to such-and-such a place forthwith for Basic Combat Training. Most of us were assigned to basic training companies at Fort Jackson, but loaded on buses that night to head for Fort Gordon, Georgia. Spinal meningitis broke out and they wanted us out of there before it spread through the ranks.
I liked that. Adaptable.
Surprisingly, we lost a few of our number in those first days at the Reception Center. They broke under the pressure of all that paperwork, I suppose, and received medical or “other than honorable” discharges. Seriously.