One Knock for Salt, Two Knocks for Pepper

“I want to go home,” says a random guy from somewhere ahead. It’s so dark I can’t make out who exactly said it. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway, seeing as I didn’t know any of their names yet.

 

“You are home,” says an equally random guy in response. Everyone had a little nervous chuckle as the bus made a right turn, passing the sign that read:

 

Recruit Training Command

Great Lakes, Illinois

It was at that moment I fully realized that I’d be forced to spend the next 10 weeks slogging through this shit with all these young pussies. It was gonna suck. Equally excited and concerned, the lights of the bus came on at the exact same moment the screaming started.

“GET YOUR HANDS OFF YOUR COCKS AND GET OFF THE GODDAMN BUS!” “WHAT THE FUCK IS UNCLE SAM PAYING YOU FOR?! HURRY THE FUCK UP!” “DON’T YOU FUCKING LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT WHERE YOU’RE GOING!”

We were all lined up, nuts to butts, in a big hallway with lots of flags and ornamental knots and fancywork done up. It looked pretty cool, out of the corner of my eye. The Recruit Division Commanders, or RDC’s for short, were in their Johnny Cash’s. They were these all black uniforms with their ribbon rack on and their ties clipped and their red ropes pinned on. We just called them Red Ropes. Those dudes were dicks. Funny, but dicks.

I forgot to mention it was 0100 on January 22nd, 2007. This was one of the days, for better or worse, that my life would never be the same as it was before. People have these moments in their life, days which completely alter all aspects of their life from that day on. This one was the third of those days of my life, to that point. I can never go back to my pre-enlistment mindset; it’s neither good nor bad, it just is.

I had woken up on the morning of January 21st at 0430, and stayed awake all through that Sunday. We had to go to the military enlistment processing station, or MEPS, in San Antonio, Texas, where we swore in, got vouchers for food and plane tickets, then waited to be shuttled off to the airport. Good ol’ government got that done in just shy of 14 hours. Who says they can’t expedite?

I couldn’t sleep that day, I was too wound up. I was excited to start the journey I had set myself on 5 months prior. I was nervous for the inevitable change I knew was slated to happen. I was 26 at the time, which was older than almost all of the other recruits. I knew this chance I was giving myself was a good stepping stone. I had bright eyes and open palms getting onto that bus in Chicago, waiting to take us to what would be my home for the next several months.

So, getting off the bus and standing in that hallway, desperately trying to understand what the RDC who kept turning in circles, screaming at the top of his lungs, was saying. Good thing the hallway was big and his voice echoed and no one could raise their hand to ask a question because I got every word he said the first time he said it. The Red Ropes were very efficient like that.

Being average height for a Hispanic male, which is to say, 5’7″, I was put in the middle of the height line. That was just fine with me because I didn’t have to try to decipher what the hell he was saying to us. They gave us 50 cents, marched us to the payphones and told us to call home. They had a placard up above the phone telling us what to say and a Red Rope walking around monitoring if we were playing by the rules or not.

15 minutes later and we were waiting in line to get our hair cut. An ancient Asian lady with too much hairspray in her bee hive sat you down and scraped the clippers over your scalp. Didn’t matter if you had a shaved head, they were going to run those clippers over your head and charge you to leave random stray hairs all over, regardless. It was on the checklist, so it got done. Period.

Then we were shuttled into this big assembly looking room, with 6 long tables running the length with room enough between the tables for us to stand. We carried this big box, putting various skivvies, cheap deodorant that made your underarms itch, generic sizing of shirts and sweatshirts and sweatpants and shoes into it. All around the room we went until we had the appropriate amount in our boxes. In front of everyone we get down to our birthday suit and changed out of our old clothes, using the box to ship the old clothes we wouldn’t need, home. I felt really bad for sending Momma a box with my sweat drenched panties but what choice did I have?

They took us to a huge classroom afterwards where we sat at a desk and were given a “20 minute sleep cycle.” I couldn’t sleep with my head on that desk, breathing in all the germs from the desk that hadn’t been cleaned in God knew how long. I stared at the Red Ropes instead. Swinging dicks, Momma used to call them. Standing feet shoulder width, arms crossed and telling stories to each other, obviously pointing out which girl was hot or who they’d like to bang. I’m sure they thought everyone was sleeping but I could hear their voices covering the distance quite well.

Oh snap! Breakfast time? You bet your fucking ass my stomach was growling! Little did I know that that pathetic excuse for what they called breakfast was to be the best meal I’d eat at any Navy facility my entire career. The biscuits were hard, and I’m not talking hard until you worked them around a bit, I’m talking you couldn’t even cut them with a knife, hard.

Several red ropes walked around the cafeteria during our meals. The rules were you couldn’t sit down to eat until everyone had their tray ready to sit down. Then, you all had to sit down together in unison. You weren’t allowed to get up during the meal to get more food. Once everyone was done, you all had to rise in unison, then form a height line and drop off your food. This all had to be done without speaking. So we had a system: one knock for salt, two for pepper, three for hot sauce. We had specified people at eat section of table to communicate when their section was done eating. Oh and all this was done within one hour. I’m talkin from the time you walked in, to the time you walked out. God help the division that broke the rules. They probably would be throwing their chow up from PT within the hour.

Afterwards we got to meet our RDC’s attached to our division, which comprised of a really skinny, short white guy with bad acne and braces. He looked so very comical and out of place in such a demanding leadership role. Next was a caricature of a Black woman; angry and vicious and stern and completely disrespectful to you yet everything done to her is disrespectful. Funny how that worked. Finally, our Chief. This guy was like a fatter, shorter version of Al Pacino. That guy could break you down in 5 seconds with just talking to you, he was pretty intense but an overall cool guy, all things considered.

I remember we were all lined up in our berthing, letting them get to know us, which in reality meant they were memorizing who they would try to push, who the hard asses were, who they needed to break, those types of things. I glanced over at Chief laying into this kid who looked like he was pissing his pants and the shit he was saying was hilarious, so I laughed out loud and glanced over at him. Ya that was a mistake. He walked up to me, his boot heels scraping the ground as he walked, “You fuckin starin at me? You think I’m fuckin pretty or somethin?”

“No Chief.”

“Then just what in the fuck do you think you’re looking at then? Huh, you fuckin cocksucker? You want to tell me somethin now?”

“No Chief.”

“I swear to fucking God I’ll take you into the fuckin laundry room and beat your goddamn ass within an inch of your goddamn motherfuckin life! Do you want that?”

“No Chief.”

“Look at me again and see what the fuck happens.”

All I could hear were his boot heels scraping as he walked away to “motivate” someone else. Needless to say, I perfected the thousand yard stare fairly quickly.

That first night (that actually was the night of the second day, or the third in my case) I pulled the first watch. I stayed awake listening to most of them cry and babble incoherently. It made me sad that there were people their age that were actually like that. It was difficult for me to comprehend how someone speaking to them harshly could elicit sadness from them. At least, I tried to think about that instead of the guys jerking off under their blankets. You have to understand, it was just a big open room with two rows of beds, one atop the other. That meant no privacy, which meant you could see and hear someone jerking off. The crying tapered off after a few days but the masturbation was a nightly staple of enduring disgustingness that everyone ridiculed yet would partake in.

The next morning we got our first hygiene time, which the geeky Red Rope explained to us was “15 minutes to shit, shower, shave and brush your teeth. You WILL find the time to do all of them and you stinky fucks better not skip showering. Just wash your ass, your nuts, your pits, and don’t forget your feet. Don’t want you stinky fucks getting fungus and giving it to everyone.” That was the first time I ever took a shit, brushed my teeth and shaved all at the same time. It was a weird feeling I never quite got used to for some reason.

This one guy that was in our division was a straight up gang banger from L.A. He had a beef with a few of the other guys, which was awkward. What made it even more awkward was when they would argue, he would piss on the other Recruit while we were in the shower. See, the showers are two giant metal cylinders with 5 shower heads protruding from them. That meant while one Recruit was lathering up, the guy in front was rinsing. So he would piss on the back of their legs while they were rinsing, it was hilarious and disgusting but not quite as disgusting as this other dude who would do jumping jacks in the shower and ask if everyone was looking at his junk. That guy would sit down on the floor in the shower and stare at everyone. Needless to say there were some weirdos I served with. They kinda had to be, I mean, look at me.

The best part about the whole experience were the punishments. There’s nothing quite like being woken up in the middle of the night by the Red Ropes and doing burpees while screaming “Row Your Boat” at the top of your lungs until at least one of you pukes. Or that they’d PT us in our clothes and make us wear them around all sweat soaked and stinky. Towel Sniffers was my favorite! 40 minutes of standing with your hands by your knees as you bend at a 90 degree angle, hovering your nose an inch away from your bunkmate’s towel. Dude really needed to wash better. You really don’t understand, the Red Ropes were with us somewhere around 16 hours a day! We were their amusement as well as their children.

I volunteered for all the shit jobs. Literally. I cleaned the head and I was on the mail crew. Eventually I became known for helping others learn how to fold in an anal retentive manner and helped others study. You know, those big brother kinds of things. So the Red Ropes made me a section leader, which basically meant I had to make sure 10 others had all their shit squared away as well as my own stuff, and when they got punished, I did too. 100 pushups became laughable really quick.

I remember one day I was cleaning the head and our division was being a bunch of morons, per the norm. The Red Ropes started making them PT unusually hard. Of course I did the honorable thing and stayed really quiet as I hid in one of the toilet stalls. Suddenly all the recruits in the berthing started to cry. I’m talkin serious sobbing, crying. The Red Ropes were showing them pictures of dead Soldiers and Sailors overseas. You see, in their “misery” of what was right in front of them, they had forgotten to keep one eye downrange. They had forgotten what they were doing all of this for. They didn’t understand why someone could possibly need the repetition of being exhausted to the point of collapsing, to learn to push their bodies farther than what they thought was possible; that while all of the chaos is going on around you, to be able to perform complex, multi-tiered tasks, or be able to communicate without speaking, or to trust in the brothers and sisters around you, and yes, even to pick them up and drag them across the finish line if need be. It was a good lesson and like many I learned during my time in the Navy, a hard and needlessly shocking one.

Finally the Navy cap ceremony came, and we exchanged our Ricky caps for Navy ones! I hated and loved everyone in my division by that time. I shook the angry black Red Rope’s hand, even though she had this smirk on like it was beneath her. My Chief told me he was proud I was going to serve in his Navy alongside him. I didn’t hear him say that to anyone else. It was the first time I had earned the respect of one of my superiors; it wouldn’t be the last.

Several days afterwards the ceremonial ceremony happened. The real one happened when they gave us our Navy caps, a symbolical gesture of passing. This one, with all the bluster and marching and tradition was for the families. Momma and the family was there, waiting to take me out on the town and get away from everything, just for a bit. It was pretty awesome; Momma was so proud, she had a grin on her face the whole time. It was the first time in my life I felt a sense of adult accomplishment. Giving her that hug I felt like a real life adult. It was sublime.

Dad brought his new wife along, which was super awkward. Then, he always was super awkward. What a dick. Anyway I can’t remember what her name was but she kept asking me why I wouldn’t relax or get comfortable. Ya that was a hard one to explain to people. I tried to tell her that I was in uniform, so I had a responsibility to act accordingly, to show civilians that their faith in us was just. That I couldn’t unwind because all I wanted to do was sleep and eat and try to not flip out at the big crowd of people they wanted to take me around in. It was overwhelming and exhilarating and no one quite got it except Dad, which was ironic because everything else he could never understand.

Two days was all I had with them and it ended too quick. Two more days and I had my seabag all packed and ready to ship out. I made lifelong friends that I can recall only two of their names and faces and yet none of the rest. The Keel Book, which is basically a high school year book but for Navy graduation that I never got around to giving to Momma, I look through frequently and can’t really remember much about any of them. I wonder where they went, what they accomplished, if they have any regrets. Ghosts on pages that were once so meaningful.

I spent just over 9 years in the Navy, accomplished almost every goal I set for myself, met countless friends who I’ll never see in person ever again, have countless hilarious stories and insights to people and cautionary tales to share. Since I was medically retired I’ve been asked several times, “Do you regret it?”

Yes, I do, and no, I don’t. And do you wanna know something else? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

©Ramon Sturdivant

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