I woke up one morning recently from what may well be the weirdest dream I’ve ever had. I was dreaming about one of my Drill Instructors in Basic Training fifty years ago.
I’ve never known what sets a dream off, but this one was even more puzzling than most. Sometimes the impetus for a dream is obvious: one about dead parents or pets, for example; and everyone has some of the “standard” dreams, such as the one where you’re naked in a public place. Sometimes I have what I call “The Frustration Dream”: the details vary but always I’m trying to do something or get somewhere but I can never quite manage it because various obstacles occur to prevent the dream from coming to the “desired” conclusion. I think every man has the dream about searching for a toilet; the trigger for that is fairly obvious: a full bladder in the middle of the night. Then there is the dream about going home, which in my case is always the neighborhood in the Bronx where I grew up. The last time I had that one I was riding the IRT Number 1 Broadway line, but somehow it never reached my stop at 231st Street.
But…a dream about a Drill Instructor? From half a century in my past? Moreover, one I seriously, deeply, disliked, as did everyone else in my training flight? Where did that come from? Maybe God and Freud know, but I don’t.
Sergeant W— was young, probably no more than 30 at the time. He was a sarcastic, hard-bitten and thoroughly dislikable character, always ready with a put-down or a nasty remark. He was an E-5, a “Staff Sergeant” which isn’t a very high rank, but holding it implied that he was a “Lifer.” Few people attained E-5 in a single term of enlistment.
I should note that in the Air Force of 1970 there was a pretty sharp division between “Short Timers” who’d enlisted for one hitch (mostly to avoid being drafted into the Army, as was true in my case) and “Lifers,” who were assumed to be making a career of it. Both groups heartily disliked each other. Sergeant W— seemed to operate on the assumption, which was not entirely unjustified, that virtually all his trainees were Short-Timers. They were to his mind therefore worthy only of contempt.
There were three DI’s per flight, of whom Sergeant W— was clearly the junior man; I suppose, looking back now, that he resented that status as well. I can only say that if he did ever attain the position of a senior DI, I’m damned glad I wasn’t in his flight when it happened. He seemed to take as his muse the sort of DI you see in the movies, or perhaps Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, relishing having power over us. I don’t know what the selection process was that chose who would become a Drill Instructor; presumably it had some mechanism intended to filter out the psychos and sadists, but obviously some got through anyway.
Once I made the mistake of asking him about post-Basic-Training opportunities. With his typical sarcastic intonation, he replied, “Troop, they’re gonna send your sorry ass to Timbuktu! ” Amazingly enough, he was right: in 1973 the Air Force did send me to Timbuktu on a relief mission. While that’s a story for a different time, his reply was typical of W—'s contemptuous and contemptible approach to trainees, training, and service. As a role model he left a great deal to be desired.
Towards the end of Basic training I again made a mistake by inquiring about what the odds might be of making E-5 as a short timer. I was rewarded with a snort of utter derision and condescension: “Troop, you’ll be lucky to make E-2!” But only 33 months after I enlisted I did get promoted to Staff Sergeant. Truthfully it wasn’t all that hard to do because there wasn’t a whole lot of competition nor was a very high level of achievement required.
Doing it in 33 months was a pretty fast rate of promotion in those days. Interestingly, once I had that fourth stripe, I was treated very differently on Andrews Air Force Base. Everyone I dealt with assumed I was a Lifer, because nobody could make E-5 in a single term, right?
I never saw Sergeant W— again after I left Lackland AFB, but as happy as I was to get away from the son-of-a-bitch I do wish I’d had just one opportunity to encounter him after I was promoted. I’d have waved my fourth stripe in his ugly face and told him, “See that W—? I made it to the same rank you’ve got, and what do you have to say about that, hey? How long did it take you? Did you have to re-enlist to get that high? I didn’t!” It would have been a petty victory, yes, but I’d have rejoiced in paying him back in his own coin.
But now I return to my earlier question of what on earth brought this man into my head the other night. What could possibly have triggered the memory of a man I detested, to the point where I dreamed about him? I haven’t even actively thought about him for 50 years and he suddenly pops up in my subconscious? This is weird beyond my understanding.
Sergeant W—, if you’re still alive and by some bizarre chance you ever do read this post, consider my nose thumbed at you; and I sincerely hope the Air Force eventually sent your sorry ass to Timbuktu.
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