Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Green is the new black

I always consider October 16th as “Thanksgiving Day.” It was on October 16th, way back in the day, that I entered the Army and reported to basic training. Back then there was a draft lottery. If you drew 1-150 (based on your birthday) you got drafted. I was lucky number four. So I managed to get my ass into a Reserve Unit. You weren’t on active duty for two years, but the trade off was you had to attend meetings and summer camp and be on stand by to be called up in case of an emergency – for six years.

And you had to attend regular Army basic training for nine weeks and then learn your assigned skill for another ten.

October 16th was my reporting day and now every year on that date I pause and think to myself, “No matter where I am or what I’m doing, at least I’m not in the Army.” So it’s my “Thanksgiving Day.” (Note: this is not to dissuade any of you thinking of enlisting. You’ll love the military. Really. It’s just me.)

I was assigned to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, which is at the top of the Ozarks. We’re talking DELIVERANCE country. The nearest town was Waynesville, but so what? We trainees were not allowed off the base.

When I watched ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK on Netflix I thought, “Oh my God! This is just like me in basic training except with no cunnilingus.” Cut off from the world, being processed in, living in open barracks with maniacs, Jesus freaks, illiterates, rednecks, Rambos, and chronic snorers.

Like the main character Piper who had trouble adjusting, I found that being a princess did not help me fit in to Army life. A guy who’s not good with his hands shouldn’t be assembling rifles and throwing grenades. (Again, if you’re reading this at the recruiter’s office, you should be fine. And there’s great camaraderie when four of your buddies are doing their business in open stalls as you brush your teeth two feet away.)

Just like in OITNB, everyone was referred to by their last names. Mispronunciation was common. For instance, I pronounce my name Lee-Vine, but they thought it was Fuckhead.

The ruthless guards might as well have been drill sergeants. Both were equally stupid. And both called everyone “ladies, women, and pussies.”

We all had lights out at the same time and awoke early every morning. We had inspections, roll call, bad food (C-rations at one point -- muffins canned in 1962 that lost their freshness in 1970), and of course – communal showers (which made for terrible acoustics when you tried to sing).

We had movie nights at Ft. Leonard Wood, like the women inmates did. We could only go on Sundays however. And their choice of features weren’t exactly tailored to their target audience. One Sunday, in a theater that sat 400, five of us trained killers watched FUNNY GIRL.

There were some differences between the show and my experience. No one ever visited me. No Jewish parent misses their child enough to go to the fucking Ozarks. And if any recruit listened to NPR he’d probably be fragged.

I only had to put up with this for nine weeks. Imagine being sentenced to several years. As it is, I give thanks that I’m not doing it now.

Of course, I did meet my writing partner in the Reserves, and I never would have been able to write MASH without being exposed to the military way of thinking. Damn! I owe a great deal of my career to being in the Army. (Don’t leave that recruiting office just yet.)


Oren Mendez said...

You're so right. I couldn't stop thinking about the army while watching this show. Nor did I stop thinking about prison while I was in the army.

Murray said...

I won't be the only Canadian (but maybe the only one to bother posting) who read your first line and thought "Well, duh, that's because it is Thanksgiving!" Or, a couple of days off.

I never had the pleasure/horror of being in the military. Or prison. But some of the images resonate with various summer camps and high school gym class.

Pete In NY said...

Ken, did your fellow recruits think (I use that word with caution)you were the big red guy below because you were Jewish?

Aaron Sheckley said...

I can't compare prison with the military (since I've never been in prison), but I do recall feeling like I'd been paroled when my enlistment was up. I was in the 82nd Airborne though, so a more accurate description would be doing time in a monastery full of alcoholic warrior monks.....

Dan Wolfe said...

Thank you for your service, sir!

Jon J said...

This is about the same time I was sent to Ft. Leonard Wood followed by Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. The differences were night and day.

I wonder if Ken ever had the pleasure to cross paths with the mess hall head guy...Sgt. Stein. He maintained his food was just like mother cooked except that she didn s..t in it.

Hamid said...

Well, the gunnery sgt portrayed by R. Lee Ermey in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was said to be a 100% accurate depiction of army drill sergeants. And it also gave us one of the funniest lines I've ever heard in a film:

"You're so ugly, you could be a modern art masterpiece".

Dan Ball said...

"Just like in OITNB, everyone was referred to by their last names. Mispronunciation was common. For instance, I pronounce my name Lee-Vine, but they thought it was Fuckhead."

This paragraph is great.

The military was my dream job before filmmaking. In 7th grade, I joined the Civil Air Patrol (it's like the Junior Jr. ROTC) and had dreams of becoming a pilot. After a week-long summer encampment in BFE, Wisconsin, I was done with that. I went back home and for a year, languished in struggling to find a new path for my life (but mostly I wanted a hot girlfriend). At the end of that year, I saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK for the first time and the rest is or will be history.

I once read that John Milius, who chose the filmmaking route over the military (despite his obsession with it), often compared being a director to being a general, leading the infantry of grips and PAs in a great battle to make money for the studio industrial complex.

Ed said...

Also assigned to Ft. Leonard Wood at around the same time was LA Kings broadcaster Bob Miller (one the best in hockey and in any sport at the mic). Any idea how close your assignments were there?

Waynesville has also grown up a little. They now have a bunch of restaurants and some nightlife (translated as strip clubs).

You need a return trip to the Ozarks. If Branson is missing from your travel book then that piece you've written about your travels remains incomplete!

John said...

My friends were actually in the Army when they met and later married (actually, they were at a dart tournament in a bar in Austin after traveling there separately from Fort Hood when they met and later married). Depending on what day of the week it is, to them this is either a good or bad thing about the military.

One Sunday, in a theater that sat 400, five of us trained killers watched FUNNY GIRL.

Although the comedy timing just was off in Season 11 compared to the pace of 4-5 years earlier, my favorite final season bit from MASH was the one where Hawkeye and BJ tried to get "The Moon Is Blue" for the 4077th and ended up with "State Fair". Having a bunch of Army guys stuck watching "State Fair" isn't as good as "Funny Girl', but it's close.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Coffee out my nose again this morning, upon reading the word, "...Fuckhead."

This blog should come with a warning label.

Tim said...

Army. Feh! I opted for the Navy. The Army called us "The Navy." The Air Force called us "The Navy." The Marines called us "F****t C*********s." But I think the Marines called everybody in the service that who wasn't a Marine. Damn Marines. One thing about being in the service, life can only get better from there.

Eric J said...

Good or bad, the military is a life altering experience like no other. I owe a lot to my brief 3 years in the Army. Repo Depot and Basic at Fort Ord account for a disproportionate amount of that experience.

Tim W. said...


My thought exactly. Although I was going to write, actually I'm pretty sure the 14th was Thanksgiving.

Of course, our Thanksgiving isn't as much of an event as it seems to be down there.

Stephan said...

@Tim W.: Thanksgiving is much more important in America than in Canada. Down here, we cherish any opportunity for gluttony.

Chuck said...

Joining the Army was the best thing I ever did. Doesn't take much of that to convince you of the benefit of higher education.

Chris Kindler said...

Hey Ken,

A new sitcom called Enlisted is set to première as a mid-season replacement on FOX.

Do you think it will be as successful as MASH?

Let's just hope it replaces that God-awful show, Dads.

The very first original pilot I wrote is 10 times funnier than Dads. It shows how much luck goes into getting a show on-air.

Cap'n Bob said...

I did AIT at Leonard Wood during the winter, 1966-67. It's not by error they called the place Little Korea. The movie I saw there was Day of the Triffids, but we were free to do what we wanted on the weekends. I also remember us guys sitting around the cold barracks and feeling sorry for the poor Reservists and National Guard members. How rough they had it. I'm glad you made it through in one piece.

Hamid said...

D'oh! All this time I thought it was pronounced Le-veen.

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Jeffro said...

Air Force twerp here. Did my AFROTC summer camp at Lackland AFB (San Antonio, TX). No kidding, there were days that were so hot that by 8 or 9 am they would cancel all outdoor activities—mostly drilling and marches—for the rest of the day (still had to do plenty of PT way before sun-up). Just goes to show how tough it is compared to the other branches, especially the Marine Corps. However, even though the AFROTC camp is only 4 weeks long, we did have to do plenty of training throughout our 4 years of school. And I have no idea how hard the enlisted had it with their "boot camp" (I'm sure I was told plenty of times but I forgot).

Ron said...

Did basic at Fort Lost in the Woods in 1996. This blog is one of the few places on the internet where I feel young.

There is another reason to be thankful for reporting in October to Fort Leonard Wood, you missed the summer. the weather while terribly hot and humid was nothing compared to the bugs, poisonous plants and snakes. I learned about something called "chiggers" which my Californian life had never prepared me for. I don't remember getting anything more than a four hour pass and our only movie night was at the end, the evening after graduation,(our platoon got to pick a movie, either Seven or some Snipes/Harrelson film with a subway).

As much as basic training was tough it was actually was something I would do over again in a heartbeat, first year of law school, no way. There are worse things than the Army.

Anonymous said...

The military is the best organization in the country. Nowhere else are you going to be thrown in with people so different than you and forced to work together for something greater than yourselves. Kind of like the exact opposite of Hollywood.

Of course it isn't for everybody, but there are alot of mouth breathers, especially liberals in places like NYC and LA, who are clueless about the military (and a large part of the country).

CrankyYankee said...

Reading about your Army experiences caused me to reflect on how I joined up. I had a low draft number, so to beat the draft, I enlisted! HA!