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Mort in Air Force
Mort in the Air Force

From Striking Through the Masks

My first day in the air force was memorable. Around seventy of us were loaded into a bus and driven north. It seemed the route was purposely circuitous. I think we crossed into New Jersey several times, and I remember driving through one small town after another. The ride seemed endless, and all of us, raucous boys trying to swagger off our anxiety, had no idea where we were or where we were going.

Just before sundown, we arrived at the gates of Sampson Air Force Base on the Finger Lakes in upper New York State. At the gate, we were joined on the bus by a squat sergeant in starched fatigues who shouted that he would be our training sergeant and we were all scum as far as he was concerned. He strode up and down the aisle, yelling instructions and telling us what we were to do when we reached our barracks, pointedly ordering us to ask no questions, keep our mouths shut, and do what he said, glaring at us individually as he talked.

When we arrived at our area, we were issued sheets and blankets, and the sergeant lined us up and marched us to our barracks. He kept us lined up outside and berated us, telling us to stand there, holding our bedding in our arms for the rest of the night. The sun was going down, and although it was Indian summer, a chill breeze we’d soon get to know all too intimately was scything off the lakes. We hadn’t eaten since lunch, and we stood, hungry and shivering, with the night closing in and our arms aching, all of us probably thinking the same thing: we’d made a big mistake by enlisting. I added to that a vow that I would have to follow the rules and not get into trouble, suddenly realizing my four-year enlistment period was a long time.

When we were finally allowed into the barracks, we collapsed bleary-eyed in the corridor outside the partitioned, doorless cubicles, each of which would house six of us on three double metal bunks. The sergeant strode back and forth between our seated bodies, yelling insults, epithets, and instructions, informing us that we were “lower than whale shit” and, more to the point, that we were the worst kind of recruits because we were from New York City, known incorrigibles, along with enlistees from Philadelphia and Chicago. But we were the worst, he maintained, and that was why he, one of the toughest of all drill sergeants, had been assigned to us. And, by God, he was going to make men out of us, make soldiers out of us.



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