Air Force Days, Part 2: Induction, Basic Training, and Some Elective Surgery

November 30, 2015 by  

lacklandBarracksI finally got the go-ahead to head to the Induction Center in Miami in late January 1973. The first night, I was put up in one of the many slowly-decaying downtown Miami hotels, all gone now, and the next morning, I did the Induction Physical (turn your head and cough—any of you who served know what that meant!), was herded onto a bus that dumped us off at Miami International Airport, and then herded onto a commercial airline flight to San Antonio, where I would be undergoing Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base. We were “greeted” by our Military Training Instructor (TI), Technical Sergeant Tyree, who got us into the dorm (similar to the one pictured) and got us into our bunks. At 5AM, it was a true rude awakening, as a trashcan was hurled down the center of the bay, crashing and clanging the whole way. We were definitely up, and were definitely instructed commanded to get our swinging, er, appendages, er, out of bed and to get dressed so we could march to the dining hall for our first Air Force meal. I had no idea Texas was so cold. It was probably 40 degrees that morning, and I only had a light coat, being from Florida, after all. We soon learned that everything was regimented. In order to maximize the number of troops in line to be served, we were instructed commanded to stand “Toe to heel,” and to “make the man in front of us smile.” We finished breakfast and began learning how to march in formation. As a former Boy Scout, I had a short head start on my “roommates.” We were issued our uniforms, and after a few seconds with the tailor, we left our dress uniforms and packed everything else into our duffel bags. The next day, it was time for calisthenics, running, and lots of drill. Being a tad pudgy, being a two-pack-a-day smoker (at 18), and being generally out of shape, I really struggled to keep up, and in fact fell farther and farther behind my fellow trainees. Then by my fourth day of Basic, it snowed. I had not seen snow since I left my birthplace in Indiana when I was four years old! My body immediately reacted and within a few days, just before I was transferred to a remedial physical education “flight,” in order to comply with Air Force physical standards, I contracted pneumonia. It was off to the hospital for what turned out to be almost ten days.

During my incoming exam on the hospital ward, one of the interns noticed I had a pronounced underbite (my lower jaw stuck out), and after a few days of inhalation therapy and some antibiotics, I was sent down to the oral surgery clinic, where the head oral surgeon, a Lieutenant Colonel (to a basic trainee, this was the equivalent of God), who examined me, and ran me through a bunch of tests, including so many x-rays that I thought I might glow in the dark. A day or two later, he told me he could help me (like I knew I needed help). He proposed to put me under general anesthesia, make two incisions in my neck, sever my lower jaw, and after removing about ¼ inch of bone from each side, reconnecting the severed ends. The upper jaw was also to be severed along one side to help line things up. Everything in my mouth would then be then wired up for about six weeks, anchored to the only part of my jaw that had not been monkeyed with. I agreed to do this, and after I recovered from the pneumonia, as well as a severe allergic reaction to a combination of Tylenol and Robitussin, I was returned to my basic training unit, with a full waiver. In other words, for my remaining time in Basic Training, I had a waiver from almost all physical activity, other than marching to class, or marching to the chow hall for eats. I attended classes and pulled a lot of dorm guard duty. On days when guys in my flight had to pull KP (kitchen police) duties and had to be up at 3:30 AM, I could “sleep in” until 5:00 AM. This, of course, didn’t sit too well with my “roommates,” but there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot they could do about it. At least one student leader even tried to “engineer” my early departure (in disgrace, if at all possible) from “his” flight, because people like me (someone with a physical activity waiver) didn’t belong in “his” Air Force (this “student leader,” another basic trainee, whose father happened to be a US Air Force full colonel, and wing commander of a major SAC bomber wing, was, as we used to put it, “ate up with it,” and had the Vietnam war continued and had he been sent over there, he certainly would have been “fragged” early in his time there).

Two weeks later, I went back to the hospital, and went straight to the Oral Surgery clinic to have my four wisdom teeth extracted, in preparation for my upcoming surgery. I was bedridden until Sunday afternoon, when I returned to my unit.

During this time, I also took another aptitude test, to see if I was capable of rapidly acquiring foreign language skills. I was, as it turned out, and they offered to let me back out of my contract for the guaranteed job for Defense Language School at the Presidio in San Francisco, but I decided to stick with what I knew. In 1973, most likely I would have received Russian language instruction.

I finally graduated from Basic Training, and spent the next few days in “casual” status, waiting for the hospital to receive me for the surgery, which they did by the end of the week. I checked into the hospital, and had my surgery the next day. I remembered that they warned me I would not be able to speak (there were breathing tubes going down my nose, and between my vocal cords) when they woke me up in the Recovery Room, and by golly, they were right. With the warning, I was able to accept this without panic. Amazingly, when I came to, there was almost no pain at all (there must have been some pain meds mixed in with the other stuff they were giving me, which I had to either take through a straw or suck through openings in my teeth.

The next few weeks were wonderful. When the pressure bandage around my face was removed, I was allowed to go out on pass and enjoy the sights and sounds of San Antonio, though I couldn’t eat. The hospital dieticians tried their darndest to come up with tasty, nutritious foods for the men and women who were recovering from this surgery. The best things were the enriched milkshakes. Breakfast was usually pureed oatmeal or cream-of-something. Lunch and dinner were pureed anything. I particularly remember the experiments with pureed hot dogs and pureed lasagna. Neither, as you might have guessed, went over too well. Mostly, I took their instant mashed potatoes, mixed with lots and lots of enriched gravy, and stirred it into a soupy affair that I could suck through my teeth, which, by the way, were getting kind of funky (on the inside of my mouth), as they couldn’t be cleaned with my jaws wired shut. I only added insult to injury by smoking my unfiltered Pall Malls or Philip Morris Commanders through it all, further adding a patina to the inside of my mouth. In hindsight, I feel real sorry for the Oral Surgeon and his assistant who had to clean the inside of my mouth after the wires were removed (when I could still only barely open my mouth). By the time I had the wires removed, I had lost over 40 pounds.

While in the hospital, I was pleasantly surprised by a visit from a lovely young lady. My stepdad, Bill Serle (bless him!), when talking to a San Antonio-based supplier in the ice machine business (Bill sold commercial ice machines, and did a darned good job of it), mentioned I was in the hospital. His supplier mentioned he had a daughter who had just graduated from high school and was attending one of the local community colleges, and told Bill he would ask her to come and visit me. Well, let me tell you, I was the talk of that ward for some time to come. Vickie (she always got mad when I called her Victoria) was a lovely girl. I took her to the Hemisfair Plaza downtown, where we had dinner (well, SHE had dinner—I was still wired shut!) at the top of Tower of the Americas, right down the street from the Alamo. I took her out a few more times, but Vickie already had a boyfriend, and believe me, I was no competition. I am still grateful to this day for the lift to my spirits she brought me with her surprise visit.

When the doctors decided it was time to cut the wires, I spent another few days at the hospital while I acclimated myself to solid food once again, and then was sent back to that “casual” unit, where I waited for an opening to my technical school assignment at Keesler AFB, in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was going to be about six weeks before another slot opened, so I was able to fly back home for a week’s leave. During this time, I had also earned my first stripe, so that by the time I got on the bus from San Antonio to Biloxi, I was about the only one on the bus with a stripe (from Airman Basic to Airman, paygrade E-2) and certainly the only one who had more than a buzz cut of hair on his head. I was looked upon with great fascination and awe—wow, he has a stripe! Those buzz cuts resulted in a derisive term for those just arriving from Basic training. They were called “pingers,” for the sound the hair made when a hand ran down the scalp.