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Push-ups and the Treadmill of death

INSIDE / OUT

Second of two parts.

“Hey, Sarge! Is it OK if I take this bunk by the window? I’m

really not used to this kind of heat.

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“Sarge?”

Since our drill sergeant hadn’t immediately objected, I threw my

duffel bag on the bunk and sat down with a sigh. I had only been

wearing my Army-issue boots a few hours, and already my feet were

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killing me.

“Man, I knew I should have brought some Dr. Scholl’s,” I muttered,

rubbing my calves. “Say, Sarge! When’s lunch around here? I haven’t

eaten since the flight.”

“Sarge?” Drill Sgt. Treadmill repeated incredulously.

It was only then I noticed that all the other trainees were

staring at me in horror. And that Treadmill’s face was frozen in a

mask of astonishment.

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“Um, is there a problem, sir?” I asked nervously.

Five seconds later, I was on my face. Well, on my hands and toes,

actually, the drill sergeant having roared me into assuming the

push-up position. “Drop and give me 25, Silva!”

It was my first day at Harmony Church, a sprawling complex of

World War I barracks and training fields in the swamplands of Ft.

Benning, Ga., and already I was running into trouble. It was an

inauspicious start.

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I had arrived for basic training determined to show these Army

nerds how we did things downtown. Sure, all my friends had warned me

that boot camp was no place to act cool, and that the best thing I

could do was keep my head down and follow orders. But I had seen the

film “Stripes” three times, and if Bill Murray could cool his way

through basic and still maintain that bemused smirk, so could I. I

resolved to myself that no matter what horrors the drill sergeants

sent my way, I would get through it and somehow make it all look

cool.

That resolve crumbled the moment Treadmill decided to give his new

recruits their first object lesson in discipline.

“THIS is called the front-leaning rest position!” Treadmill

shouted in his Southern drawl to the other trainees as I gasped and

goggled on the barracks floor. “You WILL immediately assume this

position when I ORDER you to drop! You WILL count off EACH

repetition, EACH repetition punctuated with the PROPER form of

address, ‘DRILL SERGEANT!’ Do NOT call me ‘SIR’! I AM a

noncommissioned officer! I WORK for a living! If you MUST address me,

whatever comes out of your holes WILL begin with ‘DRILL SERGEANT’!

WHEN you are finished counting off your repetitions, you WILL say,

‘Drill Sergeant! Private HOO-HAH requests permission to recover’! AM

I BEING UNDERSTOOD?”

“Yes, drill sergeant!”

“I can’t HEAR you!”

“YES, DRILL SERGEANT!”

“Sar ... Drill sergeant! Private Silva requests permission to

recover!” I cried, still on my hands and toes. I had finished as many

push-ups as I could muster halfway through Treadmill’s spiel and was

in a holding pattern of pain, my front-leaning body quivering from

head to toe.

“Are you SURE, Private Silva? Are you SURE you don’t want to call

me SARGE again?”

“Yes, drill sergeant!”

“I can’t HEAR you!”

“YES, DRILL SERGEANT!”

“Permission granted! NO, you cannot have the bunk by the window.

You WILL eat when I TELL you can eat! AM I BEING UNDERSTOOD?”

“YES, DRILL SERGEANT!”

Without another word, Treadmill turned and walked out the barracks

door. I collapsed on the floor, sweat and not a few tears streaming

down my beet-red face.

Well, so much for looking cool. My new resolution, I determined as

I stood up and wiped my face, was to get through basic training

alive.

Which was easier resolved than done. The entire point of basic

training, it soon became miserably clear, was to make us trainees

fear our commanding officer more than we did death. It really wasn’t

much of a choice. Treadmill had at his disposal a thousand ways to

make us feel pain over agonizingly long periods of time. Death would

merely end the pain.

The days passed in a mud-soaked nightmare of muscle pain and blood

blisters. Physical training. Rifle/bayonet training. Grenade and

land-mine training. First-aid training. Nuclear, chemical and

biological warfare training. Grass drills. Marching drills. Formation

drills. It became a private joke to me that I now understood those

Army ads, where they say we do more before 6 a.m. than most people do

in an entire day. It was because we got up so early it might as well

have been the day before, and started humping.

It didn’t help, either, that I was constantly in trouble. I wasn’t

the worst recruit the Army had ever seen, but I had trouble

remembering a key component to military effectiveness, which is to

pay attention. I continually missed important trailheads, forgot

where I put my gas-powered, air-cooled M-16 automatic weapon, showed

up to formation too early or too late, walked into trees and shot the

wrong targets.

Treadmill took to calling me “Silvacide,” saying I was a deadlier

threat to the U.S. military than a Russian tank. The name stuck.

Soon, everywhere I went my fellow recruits greeted me with, “Hey,

here comes Silvacide!”

I spent my days desperately trying to stay out of trouble and

failing. I spent my nights writing frantic letters to my mother,

begging her to please, please invent some kind of family emergency so

they would have to send me home. Mom’s replies, despite the flowery

endearments, all contained the same underlying message: “I’ve already

given away your room. Tough it out.”

So I toughed it out. It took a while, but finally I began to get

the swing of boot camp. I came to understand that two key ingredients

to military success were bluster and courage. If I couldn’t do that

last chin-up, the drill sergeants still had to pry my cold, white

fingers from the bar before I let go. If I shot the wrong targets, I

would immediately scream, “DIE! DIE! DIE, YA COMMIE SCUM!” Treadmill

showed his growing approval by hurting me less and less.

Finally the glorious day came when it was time to go home.

Treadmill marched our company out onto the big parade grounds, where

we performed smart formation maneuvers before our division commander.

Despite all my fears that I would goof up and be ordered to drop and

do 25 in front of a three-star general, I behaved every inch the

soldier. Even Treadmill seemed relieved as he marched us away.

That evening, I was having a drink in the airport lounge while

waiting for my flight to arrive when two heart-stoppingly beautiful

women walked in and sat at the table next to me. My flight was called

over the intercom and as I stood to leave, one of the women leaned

toward me and in a thick Southern accent said, “Ah’m sorry, but Ah

just have to ask: Do you know how handsome you look in that uniform?”

I smiled and walked away.

OK, I don’t know about boot camp, I thought to myself as I boarded

the plane. But that was cool.

* DAVID SILVA is the city editor of the Leader’s sister paper,

the News-Press. His column runs on Saturdays. Reach him at 637-3231,

or by e-mail at david.silva@latimes.com.


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