There were about twenty of us who’d climbed off a bus in the Texas darkness and were being herded into a large room containing several rows of folding steel chairs. My Recruiter back in Denver had warned me to bring only a small suitcase with one change of clothes, some extra underwear, and a small shaving kit. I was feeling smugly superior to several other guys who’d brought large, and obviously heavy, suitcases with them. We were told to sit quietly and wait.
On February 9th, 1964, The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and the course of my life was suddenly and irreversibly altered. For good or ill, one thing led inexorably to the other and six months later I found myself newly sworn in to the United States Air Force and sitting on a metal chair in a holding room at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
I was a short fellow with an oversize nose and a receding chin. A year before I had given up on ever getting my hair to slick back into some kind of fashionably acceptable ducktail hairstyle and had let it follow its own inclination, which was to fall straight forward over my forehead.
So, in one February night I went from being “that funny-looking kid” to “my God, you look exactly like Ringo Starr!” I even got kicked out of High School and told not to come back until I had gotten a haircut. Suddenly, not only was I wearing the face of a celebrity, I was a rebel to boot. Girls who would formerly walk right by suddenly found me amusing and irresistible. I went from being an easy out at the plate to reaching second and even third base with ease.
With tight, pegged pants and black velvet Beatle Boots, I partied my way through the last few months of my Senior year. The C’s I received in my classes were more gifts of charity rather than grades I had earned. And I drifted into a Summer of water-skiing with my family or my friends and driving down to the Colorado state line for 3.2 beer. My future was as free of goals and ambitions as a cloudless, Wyoming Summer sky.
But there was a part of me that took a dim view of this hedonism. This was the part of me that was anxious to crawl out of the cocoon of childhood and spread its wings. This was the part of me that wanted to be a “man”. After a night of carousing, a drunken friend and I decided we would join the Marine Corps together on the Buddy System. In the sober light of the next day I found I was having some second thoughts, so in a letter to my older brother, Chuck, who was serving in the Air Force, I asked him what he thought. He wasn’t a big fan of the idea.
“In the other branches of the military,” he wrote back, “they will train you in something you might be able to use after you get out. In the Corps all the training you get is how to knee someone in the groin without ruining the spit shine on your boots. In the other branches of the military they give you some choice as to what field you want to be trained in. In the Corps the only choice you have is which side of your butt you want to get kicked on.”
Needless to say, I didn’t join the Marines, but I knew if I went on to College, I’d just have a good time and flunk out. The University of Wyoming’s policy at that time was to accept any student from any Wyoming High School regardless of grades. And my grades had risen only occasionally out of mediocrity into the dizzying heights of lukewarm.
In August I told my parents that I wanted to enlist in the Air Force. The Old Man was disappointed. He wanted me to go to College, join the ROTC, and become an Officer – mainly so he could sit around the Lions club and brag about his son the Officer. But my Mother heard what I was saying about wanting the Service to “make a man of me” and signed the forms.
For several hours my fellow recruits and I sat in the holding room smoking cigarettes and talking in low voices. Periodically, a bus would pull up and fifteen or twenty more young men would be told to join us. The two Airmen with “AP” armbands and Sam Browne belts who watched over us tried their best to be quietly intimidating.
Then an angry man wearing an impeccable uniform walked in and began to shout. He demanded that we immediately get out of our chairs and stand up straight. He said he was Sergeant LaCroix and he was “pissed off at having to get out of a warm bed and come down here and look at your ugly-ass faces.” After reaming out a couple of new recruits – one for having the temerity to leave a hand in his pocket and the other for briefly glancing sideways at the fellow getting blasted for leaving a hand in his pocket – Sergeant LaCroix lined us up in a double file and marched us out into the night.
We walked for several blocks past dark and sleeping barracks buildings, then across an expanse of blacktop, then down the middle of a wide strip of concrete between two more rows of barracks. Suddenly all Hell broke loose. Bugle calls at high volume blared from speakers as lights flashed on and people began to shout. Within a minute or two, uniformed men were running out of every door and hurriedly lining up.
“What the Hell is going on?” I thought. “Why is everybody getting up and running around in the middle of the night? Are they insane?” To my horror, I soon found out that this pandemonium in the pre-dawn darkness is how everyone in the military is expected to start their day.
Later that morning, the good Sergeant gave us our “orientation lecture.” The main purpose of this was to remind us that when we signed our names and took the oath, we had forfeited any and all rights to basic respect and fair treatment. Furthermore, we were now officially human scum. Or as Sergeant LaCroix put it, “a Basic Trainee is so low that whale shit on the bottom of the ocean looks like clouds in the sky.”
He told us that on nothing more than his personal whim, we could at any time be set back to a Flight that had started days or weeks after we had. In effect, be made to start over.
“The easiest way for y’all to get through Basic Training,” he said in his thick, Tennessee accent, “is for me to never know your name. But if y’all screw up and make me look bad – make this Flight look bad – I’ll get to know who the fuck you are. And then every time some little shit detail comes along, guess who’s name I’m gonna remember.”
Not but twenty minutes later I was tucking in the blanket on my assigned bunk when I heard the click of heels approaching down the center aisle. As I renewed my efforts to get the blanket tucked in tightly, I heard the clicking stop. I glanced up to see Sergeant LaCroix eyeballing me as if I were a newly-noticed insect swimming in his coffee.
“You know what, son?” he sneered. “You look like that silly God-damned Ringo Starr. I think he’s a fuck-up and I think you’re a fuck-up too. So I’m gonna call you ‘Ringo.’ And I’m gonna remember it!”
But he didn’t remember my new name in the same way he’d christened me with it. The name soon became “Ringoyousillylittleshit” as in “Y’all see that? It’s a God-damned cigarette butt on my sidewalk. Ringoyousillylittleshit, get over there and police up the God-damned area.” Or “The following troops have KP tomorrow. Anderson, Jefferson, Kowalski, and Ringoyousillylittleshit.”
Sergeant LaCroix was not yet done with me, nor I with him.