Part II — It’s a long way to Tipperary…or San Antonio.
March in New England is by definition cold and dreary. As I drove north to surrender myself to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Portland, ME, deep steel-gray skies were yielding to warm fingers of dawn that projected hopefully across the firmament. My father was with me, and I was glad, aware that this was a serious long-term commitment; there was no changing my mind tomorrow. Not knowing what prospective military officers wore, I had dressed in my best suit – light lavender, complete with open toed high-heeled shoes.
The MEPS was attractive enough, a two-story brick sided structure, certainly nicer than the nondescript buildings I associated with the military bases where we had been stationed. I was going to throw up (an upset stomach had been my response to times of high emotion since I could remember). At least I looked good in my linen suit I thought as we walked through the front door. That feeling dissolved almost immediately as I saw the no-nonsense uniforms of the staff. The recruits, by contrast were almost all in jeans and t-shirts, and looked like they might have graduated from high school yesterday, maybe. I felt like an oddly placed Easter egg, and an old one at that.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but processing was indeed a process. There was paperwork ad infinitum, and a medical screening, which included a weigh-in. Now, I was aware of Air Force weight standards and knew that I was near the upper end (think flight attendant norms). I stepped on the scale. The sergeant shook his head. “Sorry. You’re about two pounds over.” What? How could that be? It couldn’t be all the food I had been consuming, could it? The last two weeks had been one long stress binge. Ironically, my weight at 5 feet 6 inches was just a few pounds over what my six-foot three-inch father weighed in at twenty-seven years earlier. We both had failed, just at opposite ends of the weight spectrum. My mind was racing. I hated to be rejected, but maybe this wasn’t meant to be after all. I would go back to Boston, look for another job. Nobody could say I hadn’t tried.
It was then that I saw my father and the sergeant off to the side engaged in earnest conversation. After a few minutes they walked over to me. “I’m going to pass you,” the sergeant said sternly, “but if you eat anything between now and when you weigh in at Lackland I’ll say I never saw you.” Who knows what my father said to him; maybe he even pulled a little retired rank. Just that quickly, I was back in the pipeline, minus my key comfort medium.
There were no other hitches, but from here on out, I belonged to the Air Force. I would be transported to the airport (no more Champagne Edition Rabbit) board a flight, then after making three connections, eventually arrive in San Antonio, Texas. (Things haven’t changed much. This from an old radio show: Interviewer: “What city lies between Topeka and St. Louis? Applicant: “Denver, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Omaha.” Interviewer: “How do you figure that?” Applicant: “I took that trip when I was on a military transport.” Interviewer: “In that case, I’ll accept your answer.”)
I wasn’t to travel alone. The sergeant brought over four young men. “These four will be reporting to basic training. You’re the officer trainee. I’m putting you in charge.” We made quite a group, me in my purple suit and heels; they in their jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts.
I had been up at three that morning; it was now late morning. We started our flight odyssey; the airports and connections a blur. My charges followed me like desperate ducklings, even standing post outside the women’s restroom, my only sanctuary. My shoes slowly scraped the skin off the back of both heels; walking was excruciating. I had developed a tip toe gait in a vain attempt to keep the friction to a minimum. I eventually tired of continually tucking my sheer blouse into my skirt and let it drape over one hip. I was starving. There was a large black smudge of unknown origin on the very front of my skirt. My hair and makeup went through a similar decline. Catching sight of myself in a mirror, I could see the dark smudges below each eye which were partially obscured by strands of hair that had escaped and fallen over my forehead. I was convinced that we would never get there. I was condemned to wear this blasted suit and have these 18 year olds follow me down interminable airport corridors for the rest of my sure to be short life.
We arrived in San Antonio. It was almost midnight, and it was steamy hot. There was transport (there’s always transport in the military). This time it was a dark blue bus that treated each bump in the road like Mt. Everest, propelling my tired behind a foot off the hard bench seat, only to suspend it mid-air before unceremoniously dropping me. Not only were my feet hurting, I think my back was thrown out. Finally, we arrived at Officer Training School at Lackland, specifically the Medina annex. I tip-toed into the building housing the 24-hour sign-in desk. It was manned by an officer trainee looking remarkably comfortable in squadron shorts and t-shirt. He looked up at me. I had journeyed far that day, both in distance and confidence. I felt, and looked, positively bedraggled, and not a little ridiculous in my suit. Why, oh why, hadn’t I worn jeans? I felt a little like I did that one horrible summer when I went to camp wearing polka dot shorts and a ruffled shirt lovingly purchased by my mother who herself had evidently never gone to camp. I never recovered.
Finally, I was shown to the room that was to be home for the next twelve weeks. It was spartan – two beds with thin green wool covers, two dressers, two desks. My roommate had not yet arrived. I wish I could tell you what happened next, but I don’t remember. Despite my growling stomach, I lay down on my coarse blanket (did I mention that I’m allergic to wool?), suit and all, and fell fast asleep.