|Every so often, when I am a tad irritated with my son, Chuck, and am reading him the riot act, I realize with a strange kind of deja vu that I sound remarkably like my drill instructor back in boot camp. It isn't so much a matter of what I am saying as it is the way that I am saying it. When your drill instructor is giving you the evil eye and ripping you into tiny little pieces he or she uses a particular cadence and style that is unique. They must teach it in drill instructor school. My drill instructor never raised her voice; she never had to. She was a tiny little woman who was terrifying and intimidating. The first woman to go through drill instructor school with men. We knew, without a shadow of a doubt that she could take us and kill us without breaking a sweat. Come to think of it, I never saw her break a sweat, even while running double time across a sizzling parade ground in the middle of the summer in Alabama. The woman was not human. She was so impervious that we used to call her the six million dollar WAC.
Two weeks into boot camp I was pretty certain that she hated me and that I had made a really, really stupid mistake when I stood there with my hand up and took the oath I couldn't even remember. I believe that she thought that I was a smarty-pants. That wasn't the expression she used, but you get the idea. I had tried to be perfect but had fallen far short of the mark, if the abuse I took was any indication. I discovered later that she was always hardest on the ones who had the most potential, but I had no idea about that at the time. I just figured that she despised me and wanted to see me do push ups for the next 6 or 7 weeks, or possibly, forever. I was one of those girls who never, ever got in trouble, I was quiet, shy, and kept largely to myself, but Army boot camp changed me. It made me want to rebel.
It started innocently enough. I am a very curious person and I like to know stuff, so I ask questions. A lot. No one told me that the Army doesn't like questions. I found out the hard way.
In those days all women were trained at Fort George McClellan in Anniston, Alabama. I found it rather interesting that an Army fort in the deep, deep south would be named after a Union General during the Civil War. I asked our company corporal if she knew how it had been named. Our corporal was a nice young woman, but she wasn't the sharpest saber in the cavalry's armory. She just looked at me, blinked a couple of times, and told me to go polish my boots. Later on I asked my drill instructor the same question. She raised her eyebrows and gave me a long look while slowly chewing her gum. Finally, she asked me why I wanted to know. I told her I was curious. She stared at me without blinking for another full 60 seconds.
“You remember what happened to the cat, Anderson?” she asked.
“Honestly, Drill Instructor,” I responded, “I doubt if me knowing how the fort was named is likely to upset the balance of power in the free world or cause the breakdown of civilization as we know it.” I knew within milliseconds that I had made a terrible and possibly fatal mistake. She was still staring at me, and although her expression changed not one iota, her blue eyes, which were cold enough to begin with, slowly turned to ice. I thought about what I wanted written on my tombstone when I died after doing a thousand push ups in 100 degree weather.
My actual punishment was far worse. I had to go to the fort's military library, research the history of Fort McClellan, and deliver an oral report to the entire unit while standing in the sun in my full dress uniform. The instructors and the other recruits all got to sit in the shade and drink lemonade and snicker at me. Even then, I had to engage in some small act of defiance, so I made the speech really boring and used a lot of big words. So there.
During the course of our training we were all marched to the fort chapel to get a pep talk from the unit chaplain. This was a tall, elegant gentlemanly catholic priest who was a light colonel. He had been in the Army for awhile and Heaven only knows how many of these speeches he had given over the years. I figured that he was probably bored, I knew that I was, so when he asked for questions I stood up at proper parade rest and asked him if he would explain about the chaplain service, when it had been formed and by whom, and how many denominations were represented, and if there were special recruiters for Holy Men or if they just waited for volunteers. The poor man looked confused and turned to look at my drill instructor for guidance. She gave a heavy sigh, the only sign I ever saw out of her that she felt anything, and said to him, “You'll have to forgive Private Anderson, Father – she reads.”
It was the nicest thing I ever heard her say about me.