Part III — May I leave now?
I was vaguely aware of sharp tapping sounds. My eyes opened ever so slightly. The room was dark except for the band of light emanating from under the door to diffuse across the bare linoleum floor. I was cold; where was I anyway? Was that music? I jerked awake with a start. That was reveille; I was in Texas. I heard a series of knocks that steadily grew louder, finally arriving at my door accompanied by a raised voice. “Get up! Be outside in ten minutes.” So it begins. I rushed to get dressed and filed out with a group of strangers, no time to even get a shower or put on my makeup – a particularly undignified beginning. I was in the Air Force.
Outside, we were assembled into flights, I was assigned to flight seven; our color was an awful mustard yellow. Oh why couldn’t we be red or some other more flattering shade? My flight mates were all male save me and my roommate who was to arrive that day, a mix of rank civilians and prior enlisted. Our flight commander was Lieutenant Bishop; he was short, fit, with thin reddish blonde hair matched by his red complexion. He addressed me as “Miz Lynch” in a slow, southern drawl. ( I came to hate the sound of his voice speaking my name; it was never good.)
Medina Annex was a small circumscribed base in the San Antonio area, highlighted by old barracks buildings, classrooms, a small post exchange, athletic grounds, chow hall, and a small Officer Trainee School Open Mess, where we could spend our scarce leisure time. This was to be my home for the next twelve weeks. Our prescribed routine was as I should have expected, but it still took me by surprise. Our days would start at 5 am and end sometime before 10 pm. Our rooms were subject to daily inspection by senior OTs or officers, to include furniture placement (strictly prescribed in terms of inches from fixed walls), floor (no scuffs, highly polished and absolutely clean), beds perfectly made, all personal items, and on and on. We would be filling our days with physical training, classroom instruction, drill practice, and meals, all done as a unit. In fact, those first few days, we were required to march everywhere together, and so we did. That first day we marched to supply and I was issued my blue uniform, low quarters (imagine the ugliest lace up black shoes you can), and ugly mustard yellow shorts complete with matching shirt. We marched to the chow hall, but I subsisted on water and salad, having not yet weighed in. If I was here, I would at least try to stay. My stomach was now in the persistent state of growl.
There was a good deal of buzz over my roommate who was due in that day. She had a private pilot’s license and over a thousand hours in the cockpit. I expected a ringer, but I was sadly mistaken. From our first conversation, I was concerned that she was even more clueless than I.
The sun was down and so was I. If every day was going to be so busy, I wasn’t sure I would survive, especially on a diet of zero calories. The upside was that I didn’t care about where I slept; any horizontal surface would do, including the small bed in my room. Despite my roommate’s rather unnerving habit of talking to herself, I was out.
The OT grind started in earnest the next day. Again, no time for a shower; I was getting mighty grumpy. Finally, we weighed in that afternoon. After nearly three days of not eating, I had lost exactly two pounds, just what I needed to. I had passed, but barely.
I learned some new terms in my first week at OTS. The first was “demerit”. We were required to have writing materials on us to record any demerits assessed on us by senior OTs or officers. I am proud to say this was one area in which I excelled. I had the distinction of writing more demerits that first week than anyone else in my unit – 108. I might as well have been wearing a target on my back. To add insult to injury, I was required to laboriously hand write all my demerits on a blank single page in a specified format – it took me hours. The second term was “PT” or physical training. Somehow my five minutes of preparation that one February morning in Boston had proved insufficient and, despite new running shoes, I found myself anchoring our squadron each and every run by lagging far behind. To run my mile and a half without stopping seemed unreachable, let alone under 14 minutes. I would run until I couldn’t run any more, every muscle in my body cramping simultaneously. “Miz Lynch! What are you stopping for? Get a move on!” This was simply not civilized.
The third term was “DPR” or Drill Performance Report. This was when we had the opportunity to exercise our leadership skills by directing our fellow squadron mates in formation around a drill pad. It sounds easy, but to remember the correct commands at the right time can be harrowing, especially if one habitually confuses “right” from “left”. I was told I marched like “a girl” and my ability to steer the group was somewhat compromised. Fortunately, I was not the worst; that distinction belonged to my squadron mate, “Rajesh”, who famously marched us off the drill pad as he cried “stop!” over and over (not the approved term of “halt”). Nevertheless, Lt. Bishop had a dismal assessment of my DPR ability that was remarkably consistent with his appraisals of my running skills, weight management, and officer potential in general.
I can’t say I really blame Lt. Bishop. My weight didn’t budge for weeks, and I struggled. My roommate, “Janet”, and I were a terrible combination. Between us, we managed to pour floor stripper full strength over our linoleum floor; the shine never returned as it should. When we tackled the buffer, the buffer prevailed, dislodging every piece of carefully measured furniture in the room. Our hasty efforts to repair the damage led to gross miscalculations of fractions of inches. While I was surviving academically, “Janet” was not. I would fall asleep to the sound of her nonsensical laughing. Then there was the morning when, entrusted with marching the squadron to the chow hall, which included the rendering of any military courtesies, she encountered officers approaching from the right and left. She did the only practical thing, but nothing that was part of accepted military protocol — she turned to the right and smartly saluted with her right arm, then to the left as she raised her left arm in a second salute. The next day she was gone, and I learned another term, “SIE”, or “Self-Initiated Elimination”. “Janet” and her thousand plus pilot hours were not destined to be Air Force assets. I was alone in my room again, which somehow suited me.
There was always too much to do in the day and not enough time to sleep at night. Although it was the spring, many days were stifling hot and muggy if it wasn’t raining. I developed some coping mechanisms. I learned to get up before 5 and sneak into the shower, reveling in the hot water and the solitude. I would habitually show up for morning formation with wet hair and a turned collar – they were my unfortunate trademarks. Although we sat around a single table for instruction with Lt. Bishop, I would allow my eyelids to drift south for short cat naps – all while sitting straight up. For some reason, either through inattention or grace, I was never disciplined for my temporary mental absences from class, although my squadron mates never failed to notice and criticize me for my lack of military bearing (which by the way was the number one cited reason for a demerit – a sufficiently vague categorization to permit wide latitude on the part of the issuing party).
I became adept at writing my many demerits, but was growing more and more irritated. There was the time I found the really interesting rock on my walk back from chow and brought it to my room, leaving it unfortunately in plain sight on the radiator. Write it. I had the small luxury of a security drawer with a padlock which I left unlocked on more than one occasion. Write it. My short hair hung below my collar (which it would do any time I put my head back). Write it and cut my hair (for the third time). My shoes were not shiny enough. Write it. My hair was wet. Write it. Then one day, I reached my limit. I returned to my room to find a demerit slip. My underwear, specifically my bras, was not folded according to guidelines. This was the last straw. I called my father. I was going to quit, unwilling to undergo any further indignities. How dare they go through my unmentionables like that? He managed to calm me down. I swallowed hard and wrote it, still fuming.
Here’s another term – “bed-posted”. This was when your conduct had been so egregious that you were confined to the barracks for the weekend while your squadron mates whooped it up on the river walk in San Antonio. I was bed posted for two of the twelve weeks, lost any off-base privileges for another eight, leaving me just two weekends of precious freedom. Combined with these insults was Lt. Bishop’s persistent haranguing. “Miz Lynch, you need to learn to push away from the table.” “Miz Lynch, you’ll never pass the DPR.” “Miz Lynch, you’ll never make the run test.” Fortunately, I had an outlet for my frustration. I could run, and I did, week after week. When I wasn’t doing that, I worked on my DPR skills. When I wasn’t doing that, I studied. Gradually, it all became a little easier.
Finally, it was week twelve. I had passed my academics. I actually had scored second in the DPR final, behind one of the prior service OTs. Then there was the dreaded run test. A mile and half still seemed a long way, especially on the huge paved surface of a former runway, but my legs didn’t fail me. I ran; I wasn’t the last, and even sprinted at the end. My time was a very respectable 11 minutes 46 seconds, good enough for the men’s qualification standard. You’re darn right I was proud. Take that, Lt. Bishop!
I earned my commission. My parents were there, my father in his uniform to do the honors. I was a slimmer, fitter, better me. I was ready. My orders were for March Air Force Base in Riverside, California (I was actually offered a choice). I was to be a section chief, but first there was Personnel Officer School in Biloxi, Mississippi, another hot, muggy location, but at least they wouldn’t be inspecting my underwear.