Have you ever reached the point in your life where you think to yourself, man, I have phucked this shit up? Know what I mean? The feeling that, you had your chances. For work. For love. For life. And you blew it. Wasted them all.
That happened to me, in the Fall of 1979. I was 19 years old, living in Austin Texas, but…I was at the end of the road. I was living with a long lost aunt who agreed to take me in, but only until I got a job and could afford to get a place of my own! I was four years out of high school, had already managed to blow two separate scholarships, one for college and one for trade school for welding. I had no serviceable skills, I had no money, I’d run out of options.
I say I was out of options, but the truth is, there was one option I hadn’t pursued, and I decided to pay a visit to my Armed Forces Recruiting Center. I was going to join the military. Me? No, you don’t know me, but anyone who did at the time was pretty much aghast at the idea that someone like me would try to join the military. I mean, I no longer have the hair, but I’m an old field hippy, okay? Make love not war! And that’s not the only reason it seemed an incongruous trajectory; I mean, I’m an incorrigible class clown. A total cut up. I do not take orders well. I am not much of a rules guy. I’m kind of sensitive, don’t do well with criticism, constructive or otherwise.
Did I mention that I was desperate?
I was maybe without reason, but I had this very strong sense of being washed up and needing to do something concrete. And quickly. So I went to see the recruiters. Yes way! Me! The original pacifist. What can I say? I scored well on the tests, and bargained hard for an assignment in computers. I told myself I could go in the Air Force, learn computers, and I would be gainfully employed the rest of my life. (Which is exactly how things turned out.)
Wonder of wonders: I passed the physical and I'm going to Basic Training.
I should probably admit…I had the worst attitude of any inductee that ever went through the process. See, in 1979, I thought I was pretty hot shit—because I was going into computers. I was able to convince myself that I was going to be an asset to the military, I would have value, I’d be an important part of the war machine—and therefore, no one would try to phuck with me.
Bummer. Because there was going to be some phucking with.
I had no idea that the purpose of military basic training is to disabuse recruits of just such thinking. The idea at basic is to break you down. I didn't get it—but I would. Not long after my arrival at Lackland Air Force Base, just outside of San Antonio Texas, on the morning of November 19th, 1979, I got my first taste of that…culture. I'd get my exposure to the wrath. Of the dreaded D.I.s.
Lackland was the consolidated training center for Airmen just entering the service, what everyone refers to as basic training. It’s a sprawling base, huge, thousands and thousands of service members, most of them recruits, but there was a population of airmen stationed permanently at the base, and I was to learn, Lackland was not a place people tried to get stationed. I mean, the scenery isn’t so hot, the weather’s not that great, and you got all the dork enlistees running around annoying the snot out of everyone.
I was a typical geek my first day. I was all enthusiastic. "Alright this is the first day of the rest of my life!" Dork. I was going to be somebody. So when that bored-out-of-his-mind clerk at the intake station asked for my personal information, I was only too happy to give it to him, spelling my name carefully for him, “Bill, B I L L. No, it’s not William, it’s Bill. Okay, last name, Boyles, B-O-Y-L-E-S. Boyles, just like boils water.” The guy gives me a look, like, "I’ve seen some dweebs come through before, but right now you are bucking for top dork status."
Now, here’s the thing: Something happened at that moment. Something that would be highly significant for me, maybe not so much for the Air Force, but for me. Right at that very first moment in the service, something completely beyond my control transpired, something that would haunt me the rest of my time at basic.
But…because I am full blown geek, I didn’t notice what happened. I simply scooped up my paperwork and proceeded to the next check-in station. There were many, many check-in stations that morning, and other fun things like getting your hair all cut off! Man, I had some long hair. Longest it had ever been! They just took the clippers and zip! We got uniforms, that was pretty trippy; you walk up to a guy standing there he takes one look at you and starts reeling off sizes, shirt, pants, boots, everything—and he was right. He got all my dimensions right. There’s a trip to the mess hall, where we’re introduced to the Eureka-Hoover method for consuming food, serious, you had three minutes to eat. You better learn how to vacuum that stuff down!
Needless to say, after a rigorous day, a couch potato like me was ready to take a break, right? It’s late, after 6 PM, when we got to our squadron, the building where we would live. Outside of the building, there was an open area where the various units in the squadron line up in formation before movement. Now, in addition to me, there were a bunch of other geeks and goofy looking dudes in my squad. It was actually a pretty rag tag lot, appeared to be more than a handful of low sparkers and good old boys, with a mix of some inner city toughs sprinkled in. And none of us have any idea of about what to do. We’re just milling around, when the door to the squad flies open and out pour a bunch of Drill Instructors.
Now, I’m sure you’ve seen movies or news reports about how basic training for the military is, how drill instructors behave. As I mentioned, they have an agenda. And they have a process, and this process involves a lot of screaming. Extreme badgering. Abuse verbalized. And just a plain old mean streak. It’s a man’s dream job, ‘cause all you have to do to excel is be the biggest dick you can be. Right? Dream job.
So the door flies open and out come the D.I.s and they are yelling at us to line up. So everyone gets in line, doing the best they can to follow instructions and not lose track of your luggage. I couldn't believe what some cats had brought with them in the way of personal belongings. Stuff that everyone was going to come to regret bringing. Because…
Once everyone got lined up, the DI’s yelled at us to pick up all our luggage off the ground.
“PICK ‘EM UP!”
After some vigorous cajoling, everyone managed to get the message about what to do. Bend over, pick up your bags, whatever they were, and all of them, as most guys had at least two pieces.
"Pick them up…and hold them. No, don't you set that down. Did I tell you you could set that down? Where are you from, dumbphuck? Kansas? Did you come all the way from Kansas just to piss me off?!"
Oh. My. God.
In an instant, every single D.I. on the pad converged on this poor guy, who was kind of small and wimpy. After just a few seconds of the multi-voice barrage, the guy just wilted.
Lucky for him, some other guy lost his strength, too, which had the effect of splitting the D.I. monster up so two D.I.s could go yell at the latest failure. And pretty soon, there were failures right and left, so one D.I. yells:
“PUT ‘EM DOWN!”
And everyone drops their luggage. But the respite is brief. Almost immediately, a D.I. yells:
“PICK ‘EM UP!”
There are a couple of groans, which elicits more yelling, more calling of names.
I begin to wonder how long it will last.
“PUT ‘EM DOWN.”
And so it went. For two hours. At least.
“PICK ‘EM UP.”
“PUT ‘EM DOWN.”
“PICK ‘EM UP.”
“PUT ‘EM DOWN.”
Can you imagine? It may not sound so bad—but for some guys, it was ugly. Just think about it. Big old suitcase. Some guys had two. A couple had more! You had to pick them up, and hold them up…until told you could drop them.
And…at the time…I was thinking how I had lucked out, because I…came into the United States Air Force with, literally, nothing but the clothes on my back.
What can I say?! I told you things had gotten bad. They'd been getting bad, for a while. Eventually you run out of stuff to hock. Or sell. Or trade.
Fact is, I owned nothing, which meant no suitcase, or duffle bag, or cardboard box, much less anything to put in it. Just so I had something to do with my hand, I had agreed to carry a very small gym bag, which contained nothing in it.
When they told me to pick 'em up? Well, it was a little different for me than for everyone else.
And don't think that wasn't noticed.
I'll have you know, prior to leaving for basic training, a guy I knew who had been through basic himself had given me a few tips on how to make it a little easier on myself. He had a lot of tips, like, never volunteer, stay away from the females, don't try to go off base. But one thing he said really stuck with me, and that was whatever you do, don’t draw attention to yourself. That makes sense, right?
Standing there, on the drill pad, in the cold, and the dark, that particular advice was sounding an alarm in my brain.
And I’m standing there, effortlessly hoisting my tiny, empty bag…and I look around and I see that my situation is not lost on all of my squad mates. It’s dark, but I can see the looks on a couple of faces. And then, it hits me what’s going on at the back of my brain: That little bit of advice about not attracting attention? It cuts more than one way. I didn’t like the attention I was getting from guys who clearly resented my lack of possessions. So, whereas up to that moment I’d been thinking stupid stuff like “this ain't so bad” when my mind flipped and I started having paranoid delusions about being beaten in my bunk with soap bars wrapped in towels.
Eventually, the D.I.s have had their fun, the torture ended, it was time to get everyone indoors and upstairs tucked away in out little dormitory. In order to do this, they break out a clipboard and begin to call everyone’s name. This particular duty falls to this huge D.I., seriously, one of the biggest human beings I have ever seen—who also happens to have a think southern accent.
So he starts alphabetically, and beings with “Annnndurson!”
Now, I want you to know, I’m paying attention right at this moment. Why. Because my last name starts with a B, so throughout my life, all through school and in church and everywhere, I’m used to having my name called early in any roll call. Also, I’m paying attention because I respect authority, and I don’t want to draw attention or get on any one D.I.s bad side.
So…when the next name the big guy called out was: “Balls!”
All I could do was laugh. And about every other guy in the squad broke out laughing, and this sent the D.I.s on a tirade for another five minutes. When the screaming stopped, the big guy looked closely at the clipboard, and repeated himself.
And of course, there’s another round of snickering, and then yelling, and I am feeling sorry for this guy, whoever this Balls guys is, because, if you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, having a last name like Balls is not helpful.
But. Things are about to get even more interesting.
Because, what is the next step in roll call if someone does not respond to their last name?
You know. It's standard procedure in every roll call.
You read the first name.
So the big guy yells “Balls!” And then adds “Bull! Bull Balls!”
For a second there is a kind of stunned silence, everyone checking their audio to see if they heard right, and, naturally, the big D.I. repeats himself.
“Bull Balls! You better speak up airman, or you’re in for a short career in this man’s Air Force!”
At least people weren’t cracking up. I mean, normally, that would be hilarious. Somebody with the name Bull Balls? Holy crap, the guy must have a pair. That’s worse than being a boy named Sue! And I can see the guys around me, now, everyone’s looking around, trying to scope who the lucky guy is with the name Bull Balls.
But. You can feel it. There's a tension in the air, a rough vibration. The calm before the storm.
When Bull doesn't speak up, all the D.I.s move out among the troops, yelling at us, telling whoever this Bull Balls is "he better get his shit together and say Here!" Before he gets himself—and the rest of us—in real trouble.
Unbelievable! The guy holds his tongue! Oh man, he's begging for it now, isn't he? The D.I.s are everywhere, they are genuinely angry now, this isn't just the act, for the role. These guys are pissed.
Of course, there is one more step to the roll call. Right? You know what I'm talking about. If you shout out the last name, you shout out the first name, and, still, nobody responds?
You spell the last name. Don’t you? Right?
So the giant D.I., the one with the thick southern drawl, who’s face is now beet red from anger over the recalcitrant airman, starts spelling.
“Bull Balls! B, U, L, L, B, O, Y, L, E, S. Bull Balls!”
It takes a second.
There is a moment, frozen in time, frozen in my mind. I can see it, hanging there, like a picture, in my memory.
Me. He's calling for me.
But wait a minute! What is this Bull shit? Bull? My name's not Bull. Even a southern accent doesn't make Bull out of Bill!
A lot of stuff flashed through my mind right at that moment, but I also realizes that it was imperative that I speak up and identify myself, even though I already had an idea of what the response would be.
“Here!” I say. "It's me. I'm Balls. I mean Boyles!"
Oh my God.
First, there's the reaction from the D.I.s. You can practically see the aura of revenge thoughts glowing around their imposing figures.
It's not just them. All my brothers. My team. My fellow warriors. All those guys start to get looks on their faces.
"Try to remember, billy—don't draw attention to yourself!"
I think this is a good time to end this little war story. I could go on. About what happened next. There were push-ups. Lots and lots of push-ups. And of by the way…in basic training? If one guy phucks up? Everyone pays. I mean, everyone. So, as you can imagine, I made a lot of friends that night.
And the mistake on my name? Check it out—look at a keyboard. Any one will do, they're all the same. They're all QWERTY's.
And if you'll notice…the letter right next to the I? Is the U. There was an error, on my very first record! The very first piece of information they took from me, the guy fat fingered the keys, and I became a Bull. It got straightened out. Eventually.
But for all of basic training, I was Bull Balls. And if that doesn't toughen you up, I don't know what does.