Monday, May 15, 2006

It's A Gig

(This is the second installment of "You're In The Air Force Now")

“It’s a gig.” The three little words Airman First Class (A1C) Lucius M. Spence, Jr., and A1C James Colbert, drilled into our heads our first day of basic training. One or more gigs were awarded for infractions involving our uniforms, the way we made our bunks, the way we cleaned our area, the list seemed endless. And our surroundings seemed unreal, even more so because of our arrival on Friday, August 3, 1962, which meant that we would be a “rainbow” flight for four or five days until we could be sent to Base Supply to have uniforms issued to us, an unusually long period. Basic trainees wore their civilian clothes plus pith helmet, web belt, and canteen, until Air Force gear could be issued, hence we were called “rainbows” because we were so colorful.

Except me. I wore black slacks and a white shirt. I soon split the slacks all the way down one inseam from the strenuous physical activity for which they were not intended. Marching around for three days wearing pants with a split inseam further added to the unreal sense. Then on our third day, Sunday, we heard that Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her home.

On Monday, still a rainbow, I was sent with a couple of other basics to take a mysterious test. The test was in a made-up foreign language, and I had no idea what it was about, or why I was taking it. Out of such a trivial event, the entire course of my life changed. Unbeknownst to me, I had scored very high on the preliminary tests in Santa Rosa and Oakland. To the Air Force, high scores meant that I was a candidate for foreign language training, and the mysterious test I was taking was measuring my language aptitude. When the tests were completed, I returned to by basic trainee flight just as ignorant and confused as when I left that morning.

The next day we went to the Green Monster and received our military clothing issue. First we were issued a duffel bag and two laundry bags, then we moved sideways down a long counter to fill the duffel bag with the rest of our gear. At one station we received two pairs of brogans, at another one pair of low quarters (black shoes), then four pairs of wool socks, four pairs of cotton socks, six white t-shirts, six undershorts, two towels, a blue uniform suit (pants and coat), one overcoat (horse blanket), two long-sleeve blue shirts, two blue neckties, blue hat with brim and insignia, two blue belts with two brass buckles, two pairs of US insignia, two flight caps, two fatigue caps, two short-sleeve tan (505) shirts, two tan (505) pants, two pairs of green fatigue pants, and (for me) two battleship grey fatigue shirts that did not match the fatigue pants or anything else in my bag.

All of these things were issued to us with little or no input from us. I’m sure the supply clerks thought they knew better than we did what our sizes were. They were probably right. We soon found out that the real reason we were given all these things was not to wear them, but to organize them in our foot lockers perfectly folded or rolled, polished and cleaned, and to keep them at all times in inspection order. Or “it’s a gig.”

(For a very interesting, detailed, and sometimes humorous description of Air Force Basic Training, go to this post by Kihm Winship, who went through basic about six years later. With my usual luck, I had an outstanding Training Instructor, A1C Lucius M. Spence, Jr., who soon was the Honor Graduate of the last Air Force Officer Candidate School. As a result of his disciplined, thoughtful leadership, my basic trainee flight was spared demeaning punishments and physical abuse. I am ashamed to say that basic was actually fun, one of the periods of my life when I never felt more alive, when I and my fellow basics met and overcame physical and mental challenges and hardship, and experienced the comeraderie and joy that comes from shared, memorable experiences.)

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