We got off of the bus at 4:30 a.m. on a late October day in 1988. There was a Sergeant and a few other Non-Commissioned Officers waiting for us when we pulled up. They immediately began barking at us to get off the bus, line up, follow them. We had to be processed and assigned bunks and then luckily, we were allowed to go to sleep.
The next day was really only one and half hours after we arrived, which was really just a few minutes after we went to sleep in our newly assigned bunks. We had breakfast at the Mess Hall, then went to be weighed and measured and perform simple exercises most of which I could do, but I could not do a push-up. I never could; I still can’t. However, if you are to be regular army, a push-up is mandatory. It’s a part of everyday army life. I felt inadequate, but try as I might (and I did try, even though I did not want to be there), I just couldn’t do it. I was assigned to Fit Co, which was Fit Company, which was mostly for the overweight and out of shape. Even though I was underweight, and every other soldier in Fit Co was overweight, I still had to be there because I couldn’t do a push-up.
My Drill Sergeant was four months younger than I was, and though we were very dissimilar, we respected each other and found each other exasperating and amusing at the same time. The Captain of Fit Co was a six foot four inch mountain of a man who wore Polo, so that he sort of scared the bejeezus out of me, but I found myself sidling up to him to sniff him. He caught me doing this a few times, and even though I explained that it was his fault for wearing such an intoxicating scent as Polo, he still would reprimand me and make me leave him alone. That is, until he found out I could type. He needed someone to type up some lists for the company, and I needed to avoid as much of the manual labor was that expected of us as possible.
I spent most mornings with the Captain in a place that smelled like Heaven because the scent of Polo wafted in the air, but was really his office. Then came lunch, and we would head to the Mess Hall. We were not allowed to have dessert like the other trainees, because we were the out of shape company, so we had to watch our calories. The company had to all do things the same, so even though I was underweight, I had to eat what the overweight trainees were eating. After a few days, I found my way into a crew of mean girls. We weren’t the meanest girls though. There was one 19 year-old who thought she was our Drill Sergeant…or a snitch. She wanted to be a Drill Sergeant, but she was really a snitch. She told the Drill Sergeant when we didn’t comply with the rules; any rules, no matter how minuscule. She really tried to make our lives miserable and make herself look good, but she just ended up getting picked on incessantly. Looking back, of course I feel bad for her. There is a balance between standing up for what you believe in and almost consciously ostracizing yourself.
One day, some of us mean girls were pulling guard duty, so we had to go to lunch late, without our Drill Sergeant. When he came back with the rest of the company, we were allowed to go. We ate the lunch we were supposed to eat, but when it came time to leave, we decided collectively that since the Drill Sergeant wasn’t with us, and we weren’t fat, just mean, there was no reason why we shouldn’t have ice cream for dessert. Who cared if we had just a small, inconsequential little ice cream bar? Who was it going to hurt? It’s not like it would blow us up so much we wouldn’t be able to crawl on our bellies. We weren’t that out of shape, anyway. It was the other dummies in the company that were slowing us down. Not ice cream.
So, we did it. We had ice cream. No one in the Mess Hall knew we were with Fit Co. So we thought. When we got back to the company barracks, my crew and I were called into the Drill Sergeant’s office. He played coy, and forced us to admit openly that we had the dreaded ice cream, enemy of the US Army’s fat troops. We were all pretty sure that the snitch somehow found out and ratted on us. Once it was out in the open, he decided that the other members of the mean girls were just that, girls, but I was twenty-eight and should know better. He made the others say penance and let them go with four Hail Marys and an Our Father (okay, he wasn’t a priest, but it felt like a confession). Then, he turned to me and said, “Marlowe, Marlowe, Marlowe. I don’t know what I should do with you. Should I just let you go to your dorm and think about what you did, or make you wax the floors?” I said, “I think you should make me wax the floors.” I don’t think he liked that answer.
I got out the wax machine; oh, what a beauty she was. She was a hummer, and she practically ran herself. I hummed myself, pushing her around and feeling very smug, bringing up a brilliant shine on the barrack’s offices floor. The Drill Sergeant walked by me, and I saw the smoke coming from his ears. He yelled at me, “No HUMMING!”, so I stopped and giggled a little and that made him even angrier, but he did nothing else except walk away in a huff.
In the mornings, we had to exercise, for hours. Isometrics, isotonics, calisthenics, relay races, whatever they could think of. I loved the races and surprised our dear Sarge by beating out several younger girls. Calisthenics was okay, but I just could not hang with isometrics and isotonics. Ugh, those sit ups really hurt my stomach. I was in pain one day, and getting a migraine, so I told Sarge that I couldn’t do anymore exercises. He made me go to the hospital, and I had to bring a chaperone, so I wouldn’t get into any trouble. Okay. Silly Sarge sent one of my crew with me!
We got to the hospital, and there were a bunch of soldiers outside smoking. Smoking! I missed it so much. We all did. I think we made it even harder on each other, because we would talk about how we really wanted ‘a cigarette right now’ all the time. Of course, our first course of action was not to head into the hospital to get my now gone headache taken care of, but to hit up the soldiers for cigs. Oh that first glorious puff. Ah, ah. We looked at each other with sly and happy smiles. Then, we went into the hospital and the doctors prescribed Advil®. When we came out, we bummed another wonderful cigarette each, and then returned to barracks. As the isotonic and isometric exercises continued, and I continued to hate them, my ‘migraines’ became worse and worse, and Sarge had to keep sending me to the hospital for more Advil®. I always took the same chaperone, and we always had our smoke breaks. We were learning how to get around the system.
One morning, the Captain came in with the Chaplain. He was looking for someone to work in his office, since his assistant, a Specialist, had been caught having sex with a Basic Trainee. The Specialist was promptly shipped to Germany, and the Chaplain was left without office help. The Captain really liked me organizing his office, and I knew how to use a typewriter and a computer! I knew how to file. They both wanted me, but the Captain still gave me to the Chaplain. The Chaplain was not very handsome and did not wear Polo. How I would miss sidling up to our giant Captain and smelling him.
I was immediately sent with the Chaplain to his office. He had a small office, about half the size of the Captain’s. Where the Captain had a neat and efficient office, the Chaplain had papers all over and the general sense was disarray. I took care of that right away, and while doing so, chatted with the Chaplain and found I really liked him. In fact, I thought he was the sweetest, funniest person I had met on base yet.
We had to march in the morning, before breakfast, before exercise, before I worked for the Chaplain. It was so cold out, even cold for November, but we were not allowed to wear our long underwear or even gloves. We were told that it would be much colder and we needed to acclimate to the cold. Many of these trainees came from all over the country, and they believed this line. I was from New Jersey, though, and I knew it was damn cold. I would pull my hands into my sleeves, but I would always be caught by a superior who yelled at me to take my hands out, which I did, until they were out of sight, of course.
I became pretty close with the Chaplain in a short period of time. He told me his life story, and I told him mine. We made each other laugh. He really laughed when I told him that I didn’t like the Army after all, and I was going to figure out a way to get out. He said, “You are in this for four years. There’s no way out.” I said, “You wanna bet?” We bet his Chaplain’s cross insignia. I cannot remember what I promised if I lost. That was inconsequential to me, because I knew that I would win. I do remember that he was not really allowed to give his insignia away, but he never thought I would win, and felt it was a safe bet.
My ‘migraines’ became more severe, and the Army sent me to a neurologist at the hospital. The doctor took out a polka-dot scarf and waved it in front of my eyes. Please. I knew this drill! I blinked and squinted and scrunched and rubbed my eyes and said, “Ow”. Then, they sent me back to my barracks. I realized that the migraines were my ticket out of Fort Dix. I didn’t tell the Chaplain my plan, but I became convinced that if I could just keep a straight face, if I could just play this as High Drama, with no comedic undertones, I just may pull it off.
I continued to work for the Chaplain, and do all the other things that were required of me. That no longer included exercise, as the neurologist gave me a medical pass because of my ‘migraines’. I almost got beat up a few times by the other soldiers, since I was a wise-ass who didn’t have to pay the consequences. If the Sarge and I had an argument on a march (He and I always argued. He wanted me to do something and I always had something to say about it), he would make the others “drop and give me twenty”. They wanted to pummel me a few times. He knew it. It was his way of getting back at me. I think he knew what I was up to, but he was a by the book man, and he followed the rules to a tee. He would not challenge me on something he couldn’t prove. He loved his job. I really liked this Sarge. He was a good guy. We just clashed. We were both twenty-eight, and from two vastly different worlds and mindsets.
Then, the day came, and I received word that I would be released from the Army on a Medical Discharge. Hallelujah! The first thing I did was run to the Chaplain to tell him. He was flabbergasted. He lost! He said he would miss me, handed over the coveted cross insignia, and then we set about getting his office in the best working order we could for when I left and there was someone who obviously would not be as good as me or fun or smart as me to take my place. He loved me and I loved him. What a guy.
I had lots of paperwork to fill out and packing and planning to do. Sarge seemed torn about how he would feel with me leaving, but I think he mostly felt relieved and also a little duped. My crew said they would miss me, but they were so young, and I think they would probably go on to become better soldiers without my presence. I was allowed to go the PX (Post Exchange) before I left. I also had to bring a chaperone there, so I brought my usual companion, and we entered the land of all things good.
Beautiful, beautiful PX. If you have never been to one, think of Costco time five. We bought jewelry, clothes, make-up, and two cartons of cigarettes. We walked back to our barracks smoking and laughing and promising to stay in touch. We did, for a few years, but then like so many people before and since, we lost touch. And then you are left with your memories; and then you lose most of them and they are replaced with more memories. I am glad I remember this much of my army month, because it really was an adventure!
I took a bus home from Fort Dix to Newark Airport the day before Thanksgiving. I kept a solemn look on my face the whole trip, in case there were spies to see if I was faking. Inside, I was awarding myself an Oscar and smirking wildly. Even when I got off of the bus, I remained poker-faced until I was in my sister’s car on Route 22 on our way to South Orange and Daddy, and I realized that I could finally smile. And I smiled the biggest smile I had smiled in months.
Looking back, of course I wish that I had never joined the army, or took it seriously and stayed in the army. But then again, I wish so many things in my past were different. They just weren’t. And I am here, now, so I do the best I can each day. I do try to ‘be all that I can be’! This is not a story about the army, really. It’s a story about me. I know that we owe so much to the men and women who serve our country. It’s a very hard job which they do very well. And I commend and thank them. But, it’s a fun memory, now that I am so removed from it!