Fort Hood

 

Basic Training: Becoming “John”


   1960 November 11: (Gregory) Somewhere at Fort Hood. Today is some sort of holiday in the army, so I have this time to write. I will try to give you a description of what has been happening. There were only three called from Fannin County during November, and I believe I am the only one who made it this far. One was a farm boy from Bailey. He was uneasy and may have been turned down for some medical reason. The other was a Negro boy I have not seen again. I was not re-examined. The day was spent mostly in sitting around and getting finger-printed. About 4:30 p.m. we were “sworn in”. This was my first big set-back, though it did not last long. Only then did I realize what was happening. A representative from the Gideon Society gave us little copies of the New Testament with special passages cited: Afraid, Anxious, Disaster Threatens, Discouraged, Facing a Crisis, Friends Fail, Weary. We left Dallas about 6:50 by bus and arrived here at midnight, soon moving into the barracks we are still in. About 28 sleep on the first floor. Most seem to be of the farm boy kind, like me. Unlike me, however, some of them are kind of rough, particularly in their talk, but not in other ways, I imagine. Several seem to be pretty stable boys, and quiet. I have remained a little apart, but friendly to all. Everything is fine in that respect.

    The first morning I was called out on a special little assignment with five others. We were taken over to the top-most headquarters. As we were waiting and wondering what for, one of the boys began to speculate. He wanted to know what we had done, hoping that we were about to be given some favored place. I suggested modestly that if we ever got such a place, it wouldn’t be at this stage. “Why, you never can tell!” So we waited. As it turned out, we swept the place and emptied all the trash cans—our trip to headquarters.... The rest of the day was spent getting shots and a very close haircut. Went to bed at 7:30 and got up next morning at 5:00, the usual hour.

    The food is not too good, but I can see it would nourish. There is plenty of it too.... Last night I was able to read a newspaper, my first opportunity. It was good to see that our hero won the election. Just think, Nixon will be completely out of the government!... I sure would like to be in Dallas to hear the wails of Gay and Blair.

    More and more recruits are being moved in all the time. More and more are being moved out to Germany and elsewhere....

    Never in my life have I heard such talk! The army doesn’t corrupt boys; they are corrupted before they join. Many things are humorous. Our marching is particularly funny. None of us knows anything about it, and we are a sight. When we are supposed to be all solemn and soldierly, I can hardly keep from laughing. Actually, they have been quite lax on us so far. We are still at the reception center. Next week we move out to the place for basic training. I understand that the first week is called “zero” week, and then eight weeks of basic training begin. That makes ten weeks. I will really be glad when it begins. Hard, but easier than this slow beginning. [signed] US54230102


    November 20: It is a chilly, wet day without much prospect for cheer. However, when one expects nothing, it can be accepted. Yesterday I had the first bit of mail since I arrived. I got two letters and a card from you and the letter from Ernest.... In addition to the great bag of clothes, we have also been issued another bag of field equipment. There is confusion in finding a place for it all. In fact, one of the worst things about the army is the hectic nature of it. Now that basic training has begun, everything is “on the run”.  The food is pretty good, but for each meal we have about ten to twelve minutes to eat, and then must move out again and on to something else....

    We have three sergeants over us. One is a Negro with whom I get along well. The second is white, dumb, but otherwise harmless, probably. The master sergeant is the best. He raves and rants in a gruff way, but is just as quick to laugh and joke. About the second day he called me aside and asked what I did as a civilian, and how many years I had been in college. I told him and he said he knew I was a sensitive person and that when he shouted at me, it meant nothing but just the way a sergeant talks. He told me to remember that and not to let it bother me....

    I never get any news from the outside world. I cannot even keep up with which day it is. I know nothing about what is happening in New Orleans, Algeria or Cuba. I enjoyed the report you wrote on how people reacted to the election. It is good to have all the homely happenings; they seem so foreign to me now. I think it is funny how Kenneth is shocked about me. Not only Kenneth, but all of Willie’s bunch, I guess. Of course, it is not over yet; there are still the things I could never do that the army may expect. I plan to talk about it with the master sergeant when the opportunity arises.

    In Dallas we were given little testaments. I am reading the psalms today, but not going to church.  Religion in the army, like everything else, seems to be a servant of patriotism. I have read too much about other countries, their literature, history, art, and their people to be very patriotic.... We will be taught to use the rifle to its most deadly extent, the bayonet to kill, to cut throats, rip out the intestines of the “enemy”. I would never do this; I want the army to know in advance, that is, before I am ever given such a command. Why? Because to disobey in a situation of emergency would be a grave offense. But this is no concern of yours. I alone am responsible for my conscience.

    I can imagine how Gary is enjoying the brown car....


    1960 November 26: This is Saturday morning; the first week of basic training is over. We have been shining boots, etc. I am amazed to see sergeants take two hours on one boot. Let’s say mine will “get by”.

    Right now I’m tired of the army. There is so little change; many unexpected things, but all of the same nature. As I was coming from lunch today some smart sergeant was standing on the side. He stopped me and yelled, “How do you go around here?” I played dumb. “On the double!” So I gave him ten push-ups and “double-timed” on my way. But kindness does run in the hearts of some. Last Sunday night we were all feeling pretty low. I had made the remark that I hadn’t thought I could live without my phonograph and music. One boy who had a small transistor radio brought it over to my bunk and laid it beside me. Snatches of classical music were playing.

    This afternoon I had my first pleasant experience.  I discovered early that to hang around when it is possible to leave is just asking for work. If you stay to take a nap or read, you are sure to get called off on some job. So this afternoon I found the post library. It is a pleasant place with a fine collection of books, a cheerful place, comfortable chairs, and good music playing as background. I found two books I had wanted to read and so passed pleasantly the rest of the day.


    1961 January 4: With a load of other soldiers, I arrived back here at Fort Hood about 3:30 p.m. In all my times of leaving home, I do not remember having felt more dismal than I did this morning. Now that we are back, life is settling into its old manner. Even the sky, as we approached Fort hood, turned back to its cold winter gray and little spots of rain began to fall around...three more weeks of this life. Everyone is anxious to know where he will be sent next. There are whispers of war with Cuba or in Laos, reassurances that we will not be sent out without all our training, and at the same time, word that we will probably not receive as many hours of instruction as previously planned. Bivouac in the field begins next Tuesday, earlier than scheduled. In all this it is essential that I be calm, desire nothing, hope for nothing.... What lies ahead, I do not know; where I will go, what will happen to me and the world, I do not know. Do not worry about me; I can always manage alone.


    January 8: [to grandfather in Gainesville] Probably Mother, Daddy and Gary visited you today. We were all sorry you were not able to spend Christmas with us. I had about thirteen days at home. It was a wonderful time.... In about three weeks my group will finish its eight weeks of basic training. Then we go to some other place which we do not know yet for another eight weeks of training. I hope they will make a clerk of me. Then we go to our permanent assignments.

    We did many things while I was at home, much general cleaning up around the place which would never get done unless I am there to help, and we planted a long row of sycamore trees down the road from Aunt Edna’s on the corner to our yard fence.  I take a great pleasure and pride in this work.

    I am afraid, PaPa, that I will never make a good soldier. In everything I have done before, I have been more or less successful.... Today, if you and I were to talk at length on any subject, there would be many things about which we would disagree....


    [to family] Just after I waved good-bye and stepped on the bus in Sherman, an elderly woman pointed to the “Hell on Wheels” patch on my coat and, in a shocked manner, asked what it means. I could not answer.... I even wonder if I would have avoided the army if, by some chance, it had been possible. I do not think I will ever be the same again, but the change taking place is not one which many people will notice; it is important, though, painful as it is; it continues to mold my mind...hard to express exactly what this means, for these tight-pressed lips are the only sign that shows on the outside. Inside, I experience another dose of what it means to be lonely, continually insecure and tossed about. I have read of these things; now I am learning to take them myself.... I do not think I will ever settle far from Mulberry, and I do not look too far into the future. Life, even my own, does not lack interest, for as slow as it seems to pass sometimes, it still has all the drama as this play I’m reading. That is why I read. Always I learn more about life, helping me understand more my own, and others around me. It is then that self-pity can give way to a broader sympathy for men everywhere.... How can anyone look on these faces and not be sad at times, just as, at other times, he sees their happiness and his own, and smiles?


    1961 January 14: Orders are coming in now, and to a group of army trainees, it is almost as exciting as Christmas. Not only do they find out what they will be doing next, but they all anticipate moving to another place.  When word was received about a week ago, but before it was actually passed out, all sorts of devious means were employed to find out. When the word finally came to each to go to the orderly room, many were soon pleased, figuring how many miles they would be from home, and many also were unhappy, uneasy. The rodeo boy, Folks, who sleeps below me had hoped for Fort Sill to join an artillery group, but instead he will remain right here at Fort Hood in an infantry group. I could tell he was worried, and his few remarks soon told why. Infantry men are “ground pounders” because their jobs involve so much marching and field work. Folks said he had hoped for artillery “because it’s safer” than infantry in wartime. We saw a film on infantry action and were convinced that of all roles in war, it is the most immediate and violent. All my personal fears and protests against the army seemed small as I went to bed and thought about Folks. I wondered if there are things in my background and education that will result, possibly, in a safer job for me. And I felt for several days the worry this boy felt, did not forget or avoid feeling it as my own.

    My own orders are among a few which still have not come through. They will be special orders from the Department of the Army in Washington, D.C. One sergeant said, “Those are usually good assignments.”

    Sleeping in a tent is not so uncomfortable. We got more sleep in the field than in the barracks. The weather is fine now. The whole post is in an uproar getting ready for the AGI (Annual General Inspection). I suspect that our training is being cut a little short, but we are making up for it with added chores.

    Your letters came to me every day out in the field.... Tonight I walk another lonely guard in the motor pool. There I have time to think uninterrupted and take myself far away. Even now after all I’ve been through, I’m not sure I would have wished to avoid the army. I feel some good may come of it, is even now is coming....

    Please remember to feed the fish every now and then. You might throw out something for the birds, too, around the yard. Daddy, please check when you can to see if the trees up the road have been loosened by the wind, and need tamping....


    1961 January 18: (Gladys) ... Clayton has just come in.  He says it is awful cold, very bad on cows and poor people.... I went out to feed Duchess last night.  She was lying right in front of the hallway door that goes into the garage.  I was mad at her for not going to her warm bed that I fixed early in the corner.  I looked over there and Allie’s dog was all curled up in her bed.  So I had to fix Duchess another one.  Duchess is so neighborly; she is very courteous to her friends....

    January 21: Yesterday was a cold day at school. Mr. Finley had a TV on the platform so we watched at lunch time. Saw Kennedy take the oath. All commentators said they had heard many speeches by Presidents but his was far superior and greatest of all....  Last night Clayton and I watched TV until late, saw the “ball” which was everything except a ball.... Jacqueline was lovely, simple, young and slow moving. We can be proud of her....


    January 21: (Gregory) Here in the library, a little island in a sea of confusion, I sit tonight. Actually, I am lucky because most in our barracks are out on various chores. I did mine this morning. Last week, the seventh, was harder because of the general air of panic before the inspection. Monday we had close combat tr
aining which seemed dangerous because we ran through the whole exercise with live ammunition. Tuesday afternoon and night we had the infiltration course, crawling under machine gun fire. The rest of the week...learning to read maps and compasses.... Thursday will be “out” processing, and Friday we start to ship. So far as I know my orders still have not arrived. We were told not to expect to go home on the way.... A boy who came into the army in Dallas the day I did, the duck-tailed rowdy, who thought we were all going to be given commissions the first morning, is out with an “Unadaptable” discharge. He cries at night. All my tears have been inward....


    January 26: My orders were a dark secret until tonight when Sergeant Eggers peeked and told me. I will be a “general clerk” at some place in New Jersey. I’m not sure what this means, or exactly where the place is. We leave tomorrow. The assignment doesn’t seem to sparkle, but it will be permanent; that is, I will probably not be moved for the rest of the two years.