Authors: Doug Beason
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #war, #Contemporary Fiction
“First we’re going to start by putting your clothes away. Every item has a specific place, and a certain way it must hang in your closet or be folded.…”
For the next two hours Rod tried to keep up with remembering all the little details that poured from Lieutenant Ranch. He learned how the hooks on each of his hangers must face the same direction and be spaced precisely an inch apart. The shirts were all buttoned and hung in the same direction; underpants, t-shirts, and handkerchiefs were all folded and stacked neatly in the top dresser drawer; his socks were tightly rolled and placed in a line, facing with the “smiles” up; his toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, and soap were stacked in the right hand front of the next drawer; his rack—Lieutenant Ranch’s name for a bed—was made with tight hospital corners, with the blanket serving as a “hood”; his shoes and boots were arranged in order by height at the back of the closet. The instructions went on and on, until it seemed that every molecule in the room had its assigned place.
Finally, Lieutenant Ranch glanced at his watch. “You have a shower formation in five minutes, so get back to your rooms. Uniform is underpants, shower clogs, bathrobe, towel, and soap. Line up outside your rooms, backs against the walls. Now move it.”
The basics stiffened. “Yes, sir.”
“Dismissed.” The other eight basics started for the door. “Wait a minute!” Everyone jerked to attention. “When you’re dismissed by a superior, you sing out a cordial ‘Good evening, sir.’ Got it?”
“Then you’re dismissed.”
“Good evening, sir!” The basics spilled out into the hallway.
He started to walk out the door while Rod and Sly remained at attention. As if in afterthought, he turned. “Let’s see, Basics Simone and Jakes, right?”
“Simone, since your rack is the only one in the flight that is made, you’re going to learn one of the most important duties you’ll have over the next year. You’re going to be our first minute caller. Be outside your door in two minutes, understand?”
“Then get moving.”
He left as the two yelled, “Good evening, sir!”
Rod started stripping off his clothes. “What’s a minute caller?”
“Beats me,” Sly said as he hastily unbuttoned his shirt. “But whatever it is, you’re going to have the pleasure of being in the hallway two minutes before anyone else.”
Rod kicked off his shoes and struggled out of his pants. He debated throwing them onto his bed to save time but instead neatly hung them up.
Lieutenant Ranch’s voice thundered from outside the room. “Simone, you’ve got thirty seconds to get your butt out here and start calling minutes! You’d better not be late!”
“Yes, sir!” The memory of Ranch’s patient disposition melted under the sound of the officer’s voice.
Rod dumped his clothes in a pile on the closet floor. He threw on his bathrobe, slipped on his shower clogs, grabbed his towel, and headed out the door.
Lieutenant Ranch lifted an eyebrow as Rod flew outside the room.
Rod slammed up against the wall. “Sir, Basic Cadet Simone reporting!”
“Simone, you’re out of uniform! Can’t you remember a simple order?”
Out of uniform? How?
Rod clammed up, remembering the five allowed responses.
“Start knocking off pushups. Maybe next time you’ll listen up.”
Rod dropped to the floor. “One, sir! Two, sir! Three, sir!”
“Pipe down, Simone, while I tell you how to call minutes.” Rod shut up, but he continued the pushups. “There’s a clock down the hall across from the CCQ desk—CCQ stands for Cadet in Charge of Quarters. When you call minutes, you position yourself across from the clock five minutes before first call.” He rattled through a menu of instructions. “Understand?”
“You have one minute before first call for the shower formation. Let’s hear it.”
“Yes, sir.” Rod started to get up from the floor.
“Get back down, Simone! I didn’t say you were finished!”
“Yes, sir.” Rod kept up the pushups and started yelling, “Sir, there is one minute before first call for the shower formation. Uniform is: underwear, shower clogs, bathrobe, soap, and towel—” he groaned. He forgot his soap; that’s why he was out of uniform! “First call for the shower formation is in one minute, sir!”
“Louder, Simone.” Lieutenant Ranch raised his voice and looked up and down the hallway. “Get out here, B-Flight! Your classmate is doing pushups all by himself. Are you going to help him out?”
Rod’s arms started trembling, but since he hadn’t been told yet to stop, he kept pushing up and down against the floor. Basics started pouring out of their rooms.
“Drop and support your classmate!” Lieutenant Ranch said.
“Yes, sir!” A line of basics began chanting in unison as they followed Rod’s lead. “One, sir; two, sir; three, sir …”
The sound of a bugle blasted through the hallway, drowning them out.
Lieutenant Ranch’s voice bellowed over the bugle call as he strode through the stairwell at the end of the hallway. “That’s first call, basics. Up against the wall!”
Rod jumped up and joined his classmates.
Emerging from the stairwell, their AOC, Captain Justice, marched down the long hall. “Welcome to your first shower formation. And from the smell in this hallway, you need it. An officer and a gentleman bathes on a regular basis. This is how we end every night of basic cadet training. But first, just in case you might have forgotten some of the fine points that we have tried to teach you, we’re going to review.”
Justice looked around at his ATOs, took a step back and barked, “Officers, fall out and make corrections.”
Déjà vu. Except for being in a bathrobe and shower clogs and holding a towel over their arms, it was a repeat of the blasting they had gotten at 1100 this morning. The ATOs lit into them, poking fingers at their chins as they yelled for the basics to press up against the wall.
The basics started double timing in place. The entire floor vibrated in a thundering rhythm. The walls reverberated, magnifying the yelling, the running, and the smacking sounds as they slammed against the wall.
Time seemed to grind to a stop. As far as Rod could tell, he had been there forever, an eternal state with no hope of escape, one in which he rotated from standing rigidly at attention to doing squat-thrusts and pushups; to double-timing in place to hoarsely singing songs he should have known the words to.
Finally, Rod heard the sound of a bugle drifting somewhere in the background. Captain Justice’s voice raised above the din. “Up against the wall, smacks!”
Silence. Except for heavy breathing, and the low, angry muttering of ATOs as they corrected individual basics, the sound in the hallway dropped from a rocket roar to a whisper in a church confessional.
Rod strained to keep the back of his neck pressed against the wall. Although he wanted to collapse to the floor and gulp breaths of air, he stood rigidly at attention, eyes locked straight ahead.
Justice stood in the middle of the hallway with his hands on his hips. “All right, basics, hit the shower. Soap up and wash. I don’t want to smell anyone tomorrow morning. Right turn, harch.” Shower clogs squeaked. “Forward, harch.”
The basics marched down the hallway in their bathrobes, still holding their towels and soap. The day before, the sight would have looked ridiculous, but here and now it made perfect sense. They marched everywhere else they went, so why not to the shower?
An ATO at the end of the hall directed them to take a right turn into the bathroom. Steam tumbled out of the gang shower as another ATO directed them to hang up their bathrobes and towels. He herded them into the open shower area. “Speed out! Form a line and step under a showerhead, count to ten, then move to the next one! Soap up when you’re out; wash down when you’re in. You’ve got to get through here in five minutes!”
Like an efficient machine, the basics moved through the showerheads. Rod was not about to bring up the fact that he had forgotten his soap. There was no telling what wrath he’d bring upon himself for this deadly sin; he’d already paid once for not having it.
The shower stall held thirty bodies, and the line moved continuously. Once out, Rod toweled down, slipped on his bathrobe, and took his place back in line, relishing the chance just to be still.
Within seconds they marched back to stand at attention in front of their rooms.
Once again Captain Justice surveyed the group. “Now that you basics are part of my Air Force, you will start a tradition to honor our glorious service. Drop and start knocking off squat-thrusts while you sing the Air Force song. Move it!”
Fifty bathrobed and shower-clogged basics fell to the wooden floor. Within seconds it was obvious that no one yet knew the Air Force song.
“Pathetic!” Justice moaned. He strode up and down the line. “You men had better learn the words or next time you’re going to be out here all night. On your feet!”
They scrambled up, grabbing at dropped towels and slammed back against the wall. Rod breathed hard. Feeling a drip of perspiration run down his forehead, Rod wondered why they had even gone to the trouble of taking a shower.
“When you are dismissed, you men have exactly thirty minutes to get your room in shape, memorize all stanzas of the Air Force song and the “Star Spangled Banner,” and most importantly, write your mommy and daddy, telling them that you’re having a wonderful time and that you are proud to be a basic cadet and an American. Got it?”
Unable to take a step backwards, the basics turned, tucked their elbows into their sides, and double-timed into their rooms. Once inside, Rod moved next to the closet, out of sight from the hallway.
Sly entered the room, did a quick look around to insure there were no officers present, then relaxed. “Man, oh, man,” he said. “What a day. When do you think things are going to let up?”
Rod shook out a pair of green fatigues and inspected them; they were so big it looked as if both he and Sly could fit inside. “Never. I just hope it doesn’t get any worse.”
Sly looked incredulous. “Don’t say that! Every time I think things couldn’t get any worse, it does.”
Lieutenant Ranch’s voice snapped from just outside the door. “Quit yappin’. Get your room in order and write those letters home. You men are already late.”
The two stiffened. “Yes, sir!”
In a flash, they flew around the room, picking up clothes from their bed, either folding them neatly or hanging them up. It was as though the two were in a movie suddenly speeded up by a factor of ten.
By the time the sound of taps blew eerily around the quiet campus, their room was in order and they each had penned a letter to their parents.
“Lights out, and don’t talk! You have a big day tomorrow, basics, so get to sleep.” Someone reached inside their room and switched off the lights.
Too exhausted to reply, with his pajamas on and the room looking in fairly decent shape, Rod crawled into bed. It had seemed a shame to mess up the immaculately tightened sheets, but they felt so comfortable that Rod didn’t give it a second thought.
As he drifted off to sleep, he couldn’t imagine having a busier day. For a fleeting second he wondered how they were going to wake up in the morning. They hadn’t been told what time they were expected to get up, and alarm clocks weren’t part of the equipment handed out to them.
His thoughts drifted to Sandy. He wondered what she had done today and if she was thinking of him, half a continent away. But unlike him, she probably had a normal, uneventful summer day, one just like every other, and one that she would never think of again.…
“That’s All I Want From You”
July 11, 1955
Red Rocks Amphitheater
Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.
At the end of the evening the Boy Scouts returned to the stage for the closing ceremony. They continued their chants, their feather headbands bright and full. Bells jangled from their wrists and ankles. Their bright yellow and red blankets wavered in the spotlight.
Hank started to speak to Mary when someone tapped at his shoulder.
“Excuse me, General McCluney?”
He turned and saw an Air Force Colonel crouching next to him. “Yes?”
“Excuse me for bothering you, General. I’m Colonel Al Stoltz, Director of the Air Force Academy Construction Agency.”
“How do you do, Colonel. This is my wife, Mary.”
After exchanging handshakes, the Colonel continued to crouch and spoke in a low voice, obviously trying not to disturb the other guests around them. “Sir, would you mind coming with me so I can discuss something?”
Hank lifted the blanket he and Mary had wrapped around themselves and showed the Colonel his missing leg. “Can we stay here? It would be easier if I didn’t have to negotiate these stairs.”
“Is Rod okay?” Mary clutched Hank’s arm.
Colonel Stoltz blinked. “Rod?”
“Our son,” Hank said. “He’s a new basic cadet.”
“No, sir. This isn’t about your son. But congratulations, I’m sure he’s being well taken care of. This is about the Academy.”
“What about the Academy? It seemed fine when we left Lowry a few hours ago.”
“I mean the Colorado Springs site, General. The permanent campus.” Stoltz leaned forward, keeping his voice low. “Sorry to catch you now, sir, but I couldn’t get ahold of you earlier and I was told that you would be leaving for Southern California tomorrow morning.”
Hank smiled and patted Mary’s arm. “We were just talking about staying another day or so.”
“That’s great news, General. Then I’d like to invite you and your wife down to the Colorado Springs site tomorrow and show you around.”
“That’s nice of you, but why do you need me to come now? I was on the site selection committee and my job is over.”
Stoltz hesitated. “My agency is assigned to the Chief of Staff for Installations back in the Pentagon, but I’m remotely detached to Colorado Springs, down on North Stone Street. We’re starting construction and we don’t have any flag officers representing the Academy who actually reside in Colorado Springs.”
“General officers are assigned to the Continental Air Defense Command at Ent.”
“Yes, sir, that’s correct, but we don’t have any generals at our site representing the Academy’s interest. And that’s the problem. We’re getting distinguished visitors that require the protocol presence of a general to fight spot changes these people want to make to the new campus.”
Hank frowned. “Spot changes?”
“Yes, sir.” Stoltz glanced around, as if he were ensuring that there was no one around who might take offense. He scooted closer and lowered his voice. “For example, last week a political appointee ordered us to build the campus on different mesa than the one approved by the engineers. That would have set construction back a year!”
“Can’t your headquarters help out?”
“Yes, sir, and they did,” Stoltz said, “but only after I dropped everything and finally convinced Washington, D.C.to engage. That problem alone slipped our schedule by over a week. You see, what matters to these political visitors is rank; they want to interact with generals, not colonels. Plus, I can’t fight political battles and still keep to my schedule of opening the campus in 1958.”
“What do you want me to do, Colonel?” Hank felt Mary’s hand tighten around his arm. The crowd started clapping as the Boy Scouts completed their dance. After they left the stage, the western band that had played earlier in the day came out and started a set of foot stomping music; the crowd began to disperse.
Colonel Stoltz shifted his weight. “Sir, would you and Mrs. McCluney drive down and take a tour of the site? We haven’t started construction, but I want both of you to visit the spot the Site Commission picked for your son’s campus. After that I’ll make a proposal.”
“I want to hear your proposal now.” Mary’s voice was firm.
Stoltz set his mouth. “You should really come down to the site, first, ma’am.”
“Tell us the proposal, Colonel, or we’re not going,” Mary said.
The Colonel looked at Hank.
Mary said, “What do you have in mind?”
“I’d like your husband to represent the Academy in an emeritus status.”
Mary drew herself up. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning he’d serve as our ambassador to our high-level visitors.” He turned to Hank. “As a retired two-star general, you, sir, have the protocol rank to fully engage these distinguished visitors, allowing me to do my job. With everyone from Senators to reporters showing up, we need some flag-level horsepower to represent the Academy in Colorado Springs.”
Hank nodded, going over the implications in his head. “The Chief doesn’t realize what you’re going through?”
“He’s aware, sir.”
“Isn’t he willing to assign a general officer out here?”
Colonel Stoltz looked pained. “Oh, General Twining understands, sir. The Academy already has a general officer assigned to it—Major General Briggs, the Superintendent, but he’s headquartered at Lowry, 70 miles away. It’s a good two-hour drive to the construction site from there and he can’t do that at the drop of a hat. Also, General Briggs won’t move down to the Springs until the new campus opens. I need a general officer on-site now, not in three years.”
Mary continued to press the Colonel. “This sounds like Hank will have to spend a lot of time in Colorado; he travels too much already. And with Rod gone, I don’t care to spend any more time away from my husband.”
Stoltz’s eyes widened. “Oh, don’t misunderstand me, ma’am. I’m not asking the general to take this on as a part time job—that wouldn’t help. I’m asking him to come to Colorado full-time, for you and him to move out here and set up a permanent residence in Colorado Springs. That’s why I want to show you the site.”
“Leave Southern California?”
“You’d be closer to your son if you do.”
Mary blinked, uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
Hank nodded, having anticipated the need for them to move minutes ago. “We’ll see, Colonel. But first we’ll take a look at the site. Both of us.”