In the summer of 1966 I graduated from high school, celebrated my eighteenth birthday, and joined the Army. Graduation came naturally as I was a better than average student, and turning eighteen was almost inevitable. Enlisting in the Army however was an act born of shear boredom. I had no desire to become a police officer or a fireman, a college student or get married and generate one child per year until the war ended, and so after a couple of months kicking around the neighborhood and doing nothing in particular my friend Walt and I took the route 5 bus to downtown San Diego and paid a visit to the Army recruiter. Three days later we were in a shabby hotel in Los Angeles and a day after that, at about midnight, I was rolling through the gates of Fort Ord, California. Walt was not with me as he had some issues to clean up before he could enter military service, so I began this journey entirely on my own.
It took another two days of processing paperwork, receiving my issue of Army clothing and equipment, G.I. haircut and so on before we were bussed to our three story concrete barracks on the highest occupied point on Fort Ord. Beyond our barracks was the brush and trees of the undeveloped portion of the vast fort. On a day when it was not foggy or I was not so tired that I showered, shined my boots and brass and fell dead asleep on my bunk, I could look out of my window and see the Pacific ocean and the curve of Monterey Bay as it swept north towards Santa Cruz. Today you would pay $750,000 to $1.5 million for that view. Back then I would have given it to you for a nickel.
Basic training for me contained the usual mix of activities know to so many other servicemen; some demeaning, some exhausting, and some terrifying, but even in this millieu sometimes fun. Fun? You mean while crawling in mud under barbed wire obstacles with dynamite explosions going off around you as live machine gun fire is flying over your head while an assistant drill instructor is blowing tear gas on steroids at you through a three inch hose? Yeah, even with that nonsense going down we still found ways to relax and have a little fun. Young men always seem to be able to ignore the worst of their lot. Maybe that’s why the military drafts them instead of older guys who want to hold a town meeting. There were the usual diversions; writing letters and reading their replies, sharing stories, playing cards and so forth. We filled our few free hours with such activities. There were other times, special times however, when we were able to lift the cork out of the bottle and really have a laugh. This little story is about just such a time.
One of the things that recruits of any branch of the military truly hates is vaccinations. The military seems to have identified about 100 different dread diseases against which a vaccine has been produced to keep government property (us) in top working order. When I was in basic there were several different methods for administering these vaccines, with the air gun being their favorite. Unlike the old needle and syringe method, in which the medic administering the shot would plunge a needle the size of a railroad spike into a targeted body part until it bounced off of the bone, and then injected a wad of syrupy vaccine the size of a golf ball, the air gun used highly compressed air to literally blow the vaccine through the skin.
It was bad enough if you stood there still as a statue while a medic on either side of you hit both shoulders or upper arms at the same time. It got worse if you moved. The force of the air gun would rip the flesh open if it did not encounter a perfectly flat surface, thereby wasting the vaccine and causing the medic to select a new flat surface and try again. Usually we would line up by platoon, with each platoon taking it’s turn to be the first to go through the ominous doors of the barracks and get the needle in the rump and two stations of air guns on either side as you walked the gauntlet before falling out into formation on the company street and await as our comrades in the final platoons got their share of the pain. We would then march off to do physical training or close order drill or throw grenades or whatever sadistic nonsense our instructors would dream up to exacerbate the pain in our violated bodies. As I wrote earlier, we really hated vaccinations.
It was with this history in mind that we were lined up by platoon on the company street one day for the dreaded vaccinations. My platoon, the Third, was to go first, and we waited nervously for the door to the barracks to open and the medic to wave for the first victim to step inside. At last the door opened and our platoon leader stepped up onto the small porch and disappeared into the gloom of the barracks. We slowly shuffled forward snaking our way towards our turn in the gauntlet, but stopped dead in our tracks when we heard a blood-curdling scream and saw our platoon leader stagger out of the exit from the barracks, stumble forward clutching his crotch, and collapse writhing on the grass of the company lawn.
We all stared in horror at this. The line simply froze from front to back. After a moment’s pause however the Drill Sergeant and the medics, with maniacal grins on their faces, began to exhort the line forward with the usual curses and threats. I was in the first third of my platoon and so it was not long before I stood before that baleful portal which led inside where the screams and cries of the soldiers for mercy continued, and men continued to stagger back into the sunshine clutching their family jewels and collapsing on the lawn.
It was finally my turn to step into that torture chamber and as I did so my eyes adjusted to the lower light inside. I saw that the vaccination du jour was for polio. Dr. Sabin had created a vaccine for that nasty disease which was dripped onto a sugar cube which was then popped into the mouth of each G.I. as he passed by the medic’s station. That was it. The first soldier passing through had the bright idea of faking out a company of 250 men, and when he pulled his practical joke the drill sergeant, medics, and every G.I. in line behind him picked up the cue and continued the joke until the last man stepped into the barracks that day.
I played my part to the hilt, and as I staggered to the nearest patch of green lawn I slumped to my knees, holding my guys, and fell forward moaning piteously on my face. From that vantage point I occasionally cocked a surreptitious eye towards the line and I could barely keep from laughing as I watched horror, disbelief, dread, and even rebellion wash over the poor Joes waiting their turn. I would have to writhe a little so that I could turn my head the other way to keep the joke going.
We all had a good laugh with that bit of clowning and the Drill Sergeant and Company Commander were in such a good mood because of it that the rest of our day of training was light and we were released to our platoon areas early. We ate and then relaxed in our barracks and generally felt good about life. At two A.M. tear gas was pumped through the ventilation of Third Platoon and we fell gasping in underwear and gas masks and not much else into formation on the company lawn, while the other four platoons watched out of their windows and laughed at our discomfort. It was a small price to pay for the best act of punking that I have ever been a part of.