Memoirs of a Good Conduct Medalist

mewRAINBOWRAINBOWsignedVeteran’s Day 2019. – I joined the U.S. Air Force 55 years ago last September. My experience was shared by millions of women and men who joined the Aerospace Team since it was founded in 1948. I salute them all.

My memories are not unique. On September 10, 1964, nine of us adolescents were sworn in at an induction center in Syracuse, N.Y. It was a hot day in Central New York and I remember the soothing hum of the air conditioning as we raised our right hands. We were so overcome by the weight of the occasion that it was hard not to snicker.

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

I wondered who domestic enemies were and what I was supposed to do about them, but as I lowered my hand I felt a huge weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I was no longer just a recent high school graduate; I was now in the United States Air Force. My carefree summer had come to an end.

The recruiting sergeant handed us mimeographed orders. I noticed my name was misspelled: two l’s in Philip. Still feeling the new burden of responsibility, I figured there was no sense arguing minor details with the Air Force. I kept the redundant l all four years. (Later I confused the orderly room by arbitrarily adding “Kennedy” to my name in honor of my idol, the late president, so my name began appearing in orders as Phillip E.K. Jenks. I dropped the K in college, but in the current clownish political climate, I’m considering adding it again.)

“There’s a bus outside waiting to take you to the Hancock Field for the flight to San Antonio,” the recruiter said. “I’m going to give you your first order: look at your serial number and memorize it by the time you get to Lackland.” Immediately the nine of us stared at our orders and began reciting the numerals silently.

The aircraft from Syracuse to San Antonio, Tex., was a sleek jet tossed around by heavy turbulence as it skirted the fringes of a southern hurricane. I had never flown before so I assumed the severe bumps were normal. An attractive young flight attendant was thrown off her feet and fell into the uncomplaining lap of one of my fellow recruits, her shapely legs kicking in the air. The recruit tried to help her up, but she scowled and jabbed her elbow into his ribs.

It had been a humid pre-Autumn day when we left New York, but the steamy humidity of San Antonio was suffocating. We arrived in darkness at 0430 and were quickly collected by a civilian bus driver to be transported to the training center. Several of the recruits, oozing white New York entitlement, ordered the Latino driver to move his ass so we could get to the base and go to bed. The driver smiled and said, “When we get there, you will wish you were back here.”

The sun was rising as we filed sleepily off the bus and were met by training instructors Tech Sergeant Saxon and Airman First Class Ellefson. Several more young recruits who had just arrived from Chicago gathered with us. If we had any expectation of getting sleep that day, it vanished when the two TI’s – training instructors – roughly grabbed us by the arms and forced us into marching formation.

The TI’s began berating us loudly, using obscenities that were unfamiliar to most of us. We weren’t used to this kind of verbal abuse, but the stream of sexual and excretory invective, uttered in crude iambic meter, seemed almost poetic. In a comparatively gentle gibe, Ellefson shouted into the face of a large, lumbering recruit, “Jesus, you walk like a girl.”

For some reason the boy, who had been a running back in local high school, thought he was expected to challenge the sergeant.

“I don’t care for your attitude,” the boy said with a look that must have been intimidating on the line of scrimmage.

“What?” Ellefson said.

The boy didn’t get a chance to repeat his challenge.

“Sarge,” Ellefson screamed to his colleague. “We gotta wise ass here!”

Sergeant Saxon, a muscular man with a flattop haircut and barrel chest, stepped over and quietly pulled the boy out of line. He escorted him several feet away.  I couldn’t hear what the sergeant was saying but he seemed to be quietly menacing the boy, questioning his manhood and emphasizing each threat with a poke in the chest. Whatever the sergeant said. it was effective. The boy returned to the line in a more docile mood.

Somehow the two sergeants managed to get us into a formation suitable for marching. Nearby, training flights marched past us on the way to morning mess. They had had been on base long enough to be outfitted with green fatigue uniforms, which made them vastly superior to us. In our civilian clothes, we felt like teenagers playing war, which wasn’t far from the truth.  Military discipline forbade the senior uniformed troops from laughing at us, but their drill sergeant led them in a taunting marching song,

“Rainbow, Rainbow, Don’t Be Blue, My Recruiter Screwed Me, too!”

The song derided us for our multi-colored mufti. We would wear the clothes we arrived in for the next several days until the sergeants arranged for us to receive our uniforms. The only concession to uniformity was a large pith helmet that was designed to protect us from the searing Texas sun. The helmets wobbled on our heads as we marched clumsily to a GI barbershop where our civilian locks would be buzzed away. In 1964, none of the young men had long locks so the sheering was not an Elvis moment,

My memory is hazy, but I think we spent most of our first day at Lackland Air Force Base learning rudimentary marching skills. Boys who had been in high school marching bands had a distinct advantage over the rest of us.

Late that night when we finally got to the barracks – a World War II vintage building– I was so sleep-deprived I was hallucinating. Earlier I had sighted a recruit with a vivid port wine stain on his face and I wondered for days if I had dreamed it.

It was hot in the barracks, but we were ordered to hang our clothes on hangers and slide beneath the heavy wool GI blanket on the bed. Despite the heat, most of us fell asleep immediately.

At 0500, Airman Ellefson walked between the rows of bunks.

“You people get up and make yours beds.”

Several recruits slid out of bed and began to head for the latrine, but Ellefson blocked their way.

“I said make your fucking beds,” he said. “I know the first thing the human body has to do when you get up is take a piss. But now the first thing you do is make your bed.”

Compared to the initial shock of arriving on base, the rest of Basic Training was easy. We marched in the Texas heat, ran around a quarter-mile track in heavy brogans, polished our low-quarter shoes, ran the obstacle course, learned to salute, sat many hours in air conditioned class rooms learning military customs, and generally learned how to absorb illogical orders and homophobic taunts from the sergeants. Most of us got through it.

Our open bay barracks had 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, as I said, 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 into 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. We were instructed to dismantle the shaving cream nozzle to remove excess lather so it wouldn’t dribble out.

But sometimes the cans dribbled.

Each morning the TI’s 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, moved stiffly among the beds.

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 fuck is this?” he asked shrilly, pushing the can onto my nose.

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 fucker is a filthy fucker.”

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.

I stayed in the Air Force for four years after basic training, and they were good years. With each succeeding Veteran’s Day I reflect back on basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and marvel how an event so far removed in time and space has never faded from the memories of my life.

Fifty-five years on, I no longer worry about spit-polishing my shoes. But I notice when my shaving cream leaks and I still won’t leave the house without checking to make sure my gig line is straight.

As time goes on, I hope my fly will be zipped, too.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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