The Good Kind of Crazy

My navy boot camp shirt from 1995

I was ready! I had watched Full Metal Jacket like a hundred times, had worked out every day, and packed everything on the pre-boot camp check list in a backpack. At zero dark thirty on October 30, 1995, I left the MEPS office and hopped on the Metro link train headed to the airport. I had said all my good byes there was no turning back. There was nothing to turn back to. I was nervous and afraid to fail. I knew before I left that I would not allow myself to give up. The crazy part is that I didn’t have this over powering feeling of self-determination, motivation, or drive. My motivation was simply based on the fact that, I would not be able face my family and friends if I failed. Who I was as a person was totally based on my ability to succeed, my ability to obtain the approval of those who knew me, and to prove that I was better than people expected me to be.

Stepping off that bus the cold October wind whipping off lake Michigan slapped me nearly as hard as Leola did by the pool! I wore a navy-blue hoodie with my name embroidered on it, my favorite Levi jeans, and my fancy Gore-Tex tactical boots. The wind blew straight through all that ish! It was COLD! There were lines to stand in and people yelling at you to go this way or that way and no one gave a damn about the fact that my silly ass had flown to Great Lakes, IL in October with only a hoodie and a T-shirt on.

The first few days I only spoke when it was required, I did what I was instructed to do, but mostly I people watched. I was amazed by the way people talked to us. Yes, I had watched Full Metal Jacket, so I expected to be cussed out and yelled at, but I had planned for it to be the drill Sargent that would do all the yelling. The reality was that EVERYONE cussed us out those first few days. There was this old black woman who checked us in and we had to do something like empty our bags, so she could inspect what we had brought with us to boot camp. When I walked in I though she looked like a thin version of my grandma. She wore a green old-fashioned dress and had a press and curl hair style like grandma wore but the instant she opened her mouth the comparisons ended. Initially I didn’t understand the reasoning behind it, every other word was ass or fuck. “Get your ass over here.” “Sit your ass down.” “What the fuck are you doing?” “Who the fuck told you to do that?” “Shut the fuck up!” And on and on! I was fine her language didn’t really bother me but the look on the faces of the many young and spritely white kids was priceless! I would later find out that many had never directly interacted with black people. They had come from small towns in the middle of nowhere America and found themselves face to face with Addie Mae. I enjoyed watching the dynamics of the situation, so much so that after I had been processed I volunteered (like a dummy) to help process the next group. Ester was made for this! She would utter cuss words so forcefully and unapologetically that you would be compelled to apologize even if you had no idea what you had done to earn such abhorrence. Volunteering was interesting but also the dumbest thing I could have done.

Addie Mae, Ester, Mayble, Hattie, Geraldine
(Dionne Warwick)

I soon figured out why Mabel spoke to us the way she did. People are dumb. They rarely followed directions, didn’t pay attention, and never read the signs that told them what they needed to do.  Hattie had to process thousands of recruits a night, she had no time to be nice or lovingly tell you for a third time to go here or do that. Henrietta had ish to do! I worked with Geraldine until around 3:00 AM   or something crazy like that. I made it to my temporary bunk in time to get a full hour and a half of sleep! Then it was just like in Full Metal Jacket they came through banging on metal trash cans and yelling for us to get up. I was so tired, but I hopped my butt up did whatever I was told.

When we finally got settled into our division things were much better, well to me they were. We got our bunks and spent our day putting our names on everything we owned and learning how to fold stuff the Navy way. We learned to make our beds and were shown how to store our things properly. We got every shot ever invented, went to the dentist, the eye doctor, and we had to get a haircut! When I joined it was required that all females have their hair cut. It was a basic flat chop, our hair would be cut to the base of our ears. I had gotten my hair cut before I left home into a cute bob and thought I would escape the unflattering required cut. But my RDC (recruit division commander) informed me that my cut was too stylish (it swung to a cute point on each side) and would also have to be cut. I knew I wasn’t getting a cut no matter what he said! I was the only person that was allowed to keep my scarf and hair products (the one perks of helping Bertha) so I oiled my hair, slicked it straight back, and tied it down that night. When we went to the barber I passed with no problems, no cut needed!

The big chop!

I know this sounds small but at the time it felt big to me.  I looked around the room at the broken spirit of the girls wearing the big block Navy issue glasses with the elastic strap (they were actually called B.C.s or birth controls) with this hideous haircut they were beaten down by the words of our RDCs and I was happy to be me. I didn’t follow the rules, but I also didn’t get caught. Like I said I was the only person with haircare products, all the rest of the girls had to ship their stuff home. I didn’t wear the B.C.s because I was also the only person who managed keep their contacts! My RDC was sooooooooooo annoyed with me!  

Love note from Zimmerman

My name was Fucking Barnes! I actually had fun in boot camp, I know it sounds crazy but its true. I just pulled out my old boot camp T-shirt that everyone signed and had a nice trip down memory lane.  I was not bothered by the yelling, the cussing, the workouts, or the class work. I was from the streets! The streets is what had raised me, and this was nothing compared to what I had been through. I knew that the RDCs couldn’t hit us. All they could do was just cuss, fuss, and make you do calisthenics. I was used to the cussing and fussing, and in my mind I knew that the human body can only do so much. So, I never cried or got all worked up. I just did what I could do until my body completely quit. No matter how much they yelled, that was it. But honestly, my body never quit because half the time I was cheating. When they weren’t looking I would half ass it. The fact that my bunk was near the rear of the room worked out well for me. The RDC that named me Fucking Barnes was named Zimmerman. He was a first-class petty officer and looked a little like Popeye The Sailor Man. If we were doing jumping jacks after he passed, I would stand on one leg and just keep moving the other arm and leg in a fake jumping jack. If we were doing pushups, I would be on my knees and just move the front of my body up and down pretending to do them.

Privet Benjamin

I was a goofball and thought of myself as a smarter and savvier version of Private Benjamin. I got yelled at for laughing, singing, and just being me. I never stopped being me and I was happy to be in the Navy. There was only one thing that made me feel down or out of place. Most of the girls were very emotional, I was not. They sometimes cried and were afraid of the RDCs, they missed their parents, they enjoyed writing letters to their loved ones, and I didn’t really do any of that. I was never compelled to cry, I just didn’t take boot camp that seriously. I wasn’t afraid of the RDCs, like I said I knew that they couldn’t hit me. I didn’t really miss anyone I was having fun; boot camp was only supposed to be two months long that was seriously nothing at all to me. I do believe I wrote a few letters or postcards but mostly to not look like a psychopath doing nothing while everyone else was writing.

I truly enjoyed the process. It felt like an adventure like the early part of the movie when the heroin was young and in training. Someday she would go on to fight for her county standing at the helm of a ship with a sword in hand, wind whipping through her well styled hair, with the theme music from Raiders of the Lost Ark playing (I wish I had known about the new Wonder Woman theme song back then this memory would sound so much better!!). I know, I know, I’m a little crazy. But I am the good kind…

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