after a.i.t, i went home for a couple of weeks to do some ‘hometown recruiting’. this was one of the many examples in my life where i had found the loophole in some system and used it to my advantage (one of my prouder talents). hometown recruiting, if you are not familiar with it, is a program set up for new soldiers to share their experiences with all their buddies back home with the end goal being that the army hopes this will lead to an increase its enlistment. they figure that me going into the army and finishing basic training would somehow make me want to come back and convince other suckers to do the same thing. well i wanted no part of that, but i did want part of the 2 free weeks of leave it gave me to go home and visit tiff.
so after my two weeks at home, when it came time to leave, i remember my aunt and uncle driving me over to miami where i was to be flying out of. i hadn’t been to miami that much while living in florida and everytime i had been there, i always felt out of place. it’s funny because florida is sold to the tourists as this sunny paradise with funky pink birds, golf courses, alligators, jimmy buffet music and margaritas. the problem is, in real life miami is like that picture of florida...only, on an acid trip. a very bad acid trip. so there i am getting on the plane, out on the jetway in this little beater-plane that is taking me to charlotte before heading to germany, with tiff saying goodbye to me, and my aunt and uncle there, and i’m trying to hold on to tiffany as hard as i can, with my mom for some reason in another state and why isn’t she here to see me leave?, and why wasn’t she there for my basic training graduation?, or even high school graduation...or for anything for that matter, as i am heading to a foreign country for the first time. does she not care about this? do they even speak english in germany? don’t you understand?? I AM GOING TO A FOREIGN FUCKING COUNTRY HALFWAY ACROSS THE FUCKING WORLD WHERE THEY DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH!!! and all the while i see pictures of pink birds and old people as i try to kiss tiff goodbye and get on my plane.
the flight to germany was long, i remember that. i remember flying at night on a big plane with rows of like 8 passengers and everyone sleeping cause its nighttime and wondering if i could maybe get served alcohol on the plane. afterall, this is an international flight and that means i can drink. or something. i get served a dinner which comes with a miniature bottle of red wine. i take mine and ask the old lady next to me if she is going to drink hers. she lets me have it and i sneak both bottles into the bathroom. i chug both of them down because i am excited about drinking at 19 in public and because i am afraid i am going to get busted at any moment. i finish the wine, get sleepy and fall asleep with the other 360 passengers on board. when i awake, it is morning and we are flying into frankfurt, germany. there is snow on the ground and it is sunny out. we land, i get out and immediately have no idea what i am supposed to do. i am jetlagged, struggling to determine where to go, who to talk to. it’s a dream. i somehow end up on a bus, riding along the autobahn. because it is the autobahn, i am looking for cars going 100 mph but see none. it is 10 am.
the bus drops me off at an old army barracks. it looks like a ghost town and i wonder if this can really be the right place. it is small, mostly a collection of parking lots joined together with about 10 or so buildings, all surrounded by a chain link fence. the entire area takes up the space of a couple city blocks. this is a holding facility. its where the army sends all soldiers new to the country to ‘process’. here, they get your paperwork in order, figure out which unit you are going to, teach you how to brush your teeth (not kidding), teach you a bit about the country you are living in, etc. the standard stay is about two weeks before going off to your regular unit.
there is a mix of people here. old E-6’s, 7’s and 8’s, new recruits, people who have been stationed here before, people who have been stationed overseas elsewhere before. the majority of people are black, followed by hispanics, followed by whites. not that it really matters. color doesn’t equate the way it does in the civilian world. maybe its because everyone in the army comes from a poor family (otherwise if you aren’t poor what the hell are you doing in the army!?). or maybe its because of the shit the army puts you through in basic training, that someone’s ethnicity quickly and repeatedly gets pushed to the bottom of priorities, or whatever. you can tell the old timers have the system down because they are always the ones getting out of training or classes or P.T. to go to some ‘appointment’. usually this will have to do with their family back in the states that they need to get money to or get paperwork for. its all a sham and everyone knows it. the army is a good ol boys club and the senior NCO’s have put their time in and ain’t no one gonna call ‘em out on it. (by the way, being married in the army is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card for everything. and i do mean everything. more on that later).
so the first day, i begin the ‘process’ process. we don’t do too much that first day as most of us are jetlagged and there are people in our ‘group’ that are still yet to fly in. they release us in the early afternoon after assigning out our rooms. i get bunked in a rundown barracks room that probably was last used for some real purpose back in the 80’s. the barracks themselves are really just shells of concrete. concrete walls, ceilings, floors, hallways, stairs. when in the common areas, everything echoes. the rooms themselves are usually big enough for a bed and a wall locker and not much else. seeings how i am in processing, i get a single room all to myself for the two weeks – something that wouldn’t happen at my regular duty station as an e-2 private. i don’t really unpack...what is the point? and rather than sleep, i just want to get away from that place. i quickly get changed into my “civi’s” and walk out the front gate of the barracks. i walk a couple of miles, trying to wrap my head around all that i had been through in the last 24 hours. i am in a new world, same as the old world, somehow just a bit different. cars are like the ones they have in the u.s., but mixed in with them were cars with weird names, shapes, and symbols that i have never heard of. street signs are different, people dress different and i know i stick out like a sore thumb. i keep walking wondering what it is i should do. i duck into a little bar, or imbiss, and immediately everyone turns to look at me. old guys are playing some gambling game i have never seen, everyone is drinking beers...beers bigger than any beer i had seen before. no one gives me a dirty look or any look for that matter. their eyes are blank. i walk around the bar like i am trying to find someone and immediately leave. i keep walking, wondering what it is i am supposed to do. until finally it is answered for me. i come across exactly what i had been looking for – a pizza hut.
i cruise in, this time with all the confidence in the world because ‘hey!’...i’m an american! i take a seat, order a couple of slices of pizza (hey they do speak english!) and a pilsner. they serve it in this weird wine-glass looking thing, but i could care less. i am 19. drinking a beer. in germany. i am finally coming into my own.
four beers later, i stumble home the couple of miles back to the barracks. i get up to my room, lock the door, turn off the light and open the window to see a huge full moon shining in. i think about that cartoon movie with that mouse named fievel and the song he sang about seeing the same moon as someone he cared about did even though they were far away. i crack up thinking about this – if for no other reason than i am drunk and i am thinking about cartoon mice. then i remember that the moon i am seeing right now has not yet hit florida. it is still early there.
my smile fades a bit at this realization - a quick reminder that i am now ahead of everyone i knew and getting further away by the moment.