The memory had been lost for fifty years in the dim recesses of my hippocampus. This morning a little dab of shaving foam dislodged it.
There it was, dangling defiantly from the plastic red spigot of my foamy shaving cream can. I gasped and knocked the can into the sink.
It’s not the worst memory I’ve blocked, and now that I’m revisiting it in daylight, in seems relatively harmless. But it’s clearly the source of more than one of my neurotic habits.
The memory dates back to an incident in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in September 1964.
Our World War II vintage barracks were open-bay with rows of GI bunk beds lined up in precisely measured formation. The beds were covered with olive green GI blankets pulled tightly into hospital corners. The blankets were hardly necessary in the stifling summer heat of San Antonio, but we were required to sleep beneath them anyway.
Most of our earthly possessions were neatly organized in footlockers at the foot of the bed. By neatly, I mean in military fashion. Boxer shorts, T-shirts, and black socks were tightly rolled in rows. Shoe polishing rags were also rolled, and toiletries – safety razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a can of shaving cream – were fastidiously cleaned after each use. The shaving cream can had to be dismantled at the nozzle to remove excess lather so it wouldn’t dribble out.
But sometimes the cans dribbled anyway.
Each morning the TI’s – training instructors – conducted a full inspection of our personal areas. The beds had to be firmly made, shoes shined, uniforms clean and hung precisely on a rack, and foot lockers immaculate.
Dressed in white baggy boxers and T-shirts, we’d stand nervously at parade rest while the TI, scowling disapprovingly, would move among the beds.
A1C Elihu Ellefson, a tall, blond, foul-mouthed TI, opened my footlocker and peered in. It looked perfect to me.
But Ellefson reached in, rudely dislodging rows of socks and underwear, and pulled out my shaving cream can. A tiny blob of cream was attempting to escape from the spout.
“What the fog is this?” he asked shrilly, pushing the can onto my nose. (Of course, he didn’t say “fog,” but I decline to use Norman Mailer’s 1946 transliteration “fug.”)
I was silent.
Ellefson glared at me censoriously. He up-ended my footlocker and poured the contents onto the floor. Boxers unraveled among socks and rolled away. My toothbrush clattered on the linoleum, and my safety raiser made a snapping sound. Ellefson picked up the offending can and, staring at me, spewed shaving cream onto the remaining contents of my locker.
“Jenks,” he said, “The only thing I hate more than a lazy fogger is a filthy fogger.”
I was silent. After Ellefson left, I picked up my locker and its contents and went into the latrine to remove the foam and put everything back into GI order. One of other trainees followed me in to commiserate.
“Geez, too bad,” he kept saying. “What a dick.”
Of course, Ellefson was not supposed to be popular with the trainees, and most of us hated him. In 1964, he used racial and ethnic slurs freely, including the N word, and he seemed particularly punitive with Jews. I’m not sure why that was, unless he was angry with his parents for naming him Elihu.
No other GI in our training flight had his footlocker tossed. No doubt Ellefson felt the point had been made.
And, looking back, having one’s footlocker tossed is not a big deal. It probably pretty much of a universal experience for basic trainees in all branches of the service.
Even so, I’m curious about whatever happened to Ellefson. I don’t hold any grudges against him, beyond the fact that he was a racist, homophobic, anti-Semite.
But it was clearly Ellefson who made me mildly obsessive with my personal hygiene habits over five ensuing decades, a habit I may have passed along to some of my children.
And I’d like to thank the son of a bitch.