EXCERPT FROM -- THE GIRL WITH THE AIR FORCE BLUES

By Madaleine J. Laird

When I was 18, the only career opportunities available to a high school graduate in Atascadero, California were at a fast food restaurant or the state hospital for the criminally insane. As soon as I got my diploma, I knew I had to get out of town.

That's how I found myself standing with two dozen strangers on an endless slab of cement. We'd been lined up in four columns according to height, taller people in front. I stood in the left rear corner of the formation. Even as my breath formed clouds in the chilly November air, I felt beads of sweat running down the sides of my face. I tried to breathe deeply, focusing on the back of the head in front of me, a head with reddish brown hair woven into a tight French braid. Like the women around me, I remained still and silent.

A group of Air Force training instructors formed a knot in front of us, talking amongst themselves. Some of them were wearing green and brown camouflage uniforms, while others had on dark blue trousers and light blue shirts. Their dark blue hats reminded me of Smokey the Bear. One of the instructors looked over his shoulder to make sure we were following the directions he'd given us a few minutes ago. He had pale eyes and hair, a sunburned face, and a body like a wire coat hanger. "Quit moving, idiots!" he yelled. He didn't have to tell me twice. After less than two hours in the Air Force, I knew who was in charge.

I went over everything I was supposed to be doing: shoulders pressed down and back, arms pinned to my sides, hands cupped along the seams of my jeans, feet at a 45-degree angle with the heels touching. From the moment I'd arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, I'd been herded around like an animal. Standing still for a while should been a relief, but the position of attention was far from relaxing, especially outside in a short-sleeved shirt after midnight.

My left knee twitched. Oh, no, I thought. Maybe they didn't notice. No such luck. The sunburned instructor walked past the women standing in front of me, bent down beside me, and put his face in my line of vision. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the pores on his clean-shaven cheek and the individual hairs in his neatly trimmed mustache.

He spoke in a whisper, as if we were sharing a secret. "Female, I just finished telling you all to stop shuffling around and to stand at the position of attention. Did you think I wasn't talking to you? You think you're special?"

My face grew hot as I searched for the proper response. "No." His nostrils flared and his eyes widened. Uh-oh, I thought. Did I say the wrong thing? Maybe he thought I was saying, "No, I didn't think you were talking to me." Oh, great! Now he thinks I'm a smart-ass. Should I explain?

He rose to his full height, surely seven or eight feet. "What?" he roared. Flecks of saliva flew out of his mouth. "What did you say? Listen up, female. Every time a trainee answers a training instructor, that trainee had better call the TI either Sir or Ma'am. My name is Sir, and nothing else but Sir. Understand?"

"Yes Sir." My voice cracked.

Speak up, female, I can't hear you!"

I cleared my throat. "Yes Sir." I heard my voice shaking and wondered how TI's could shout so much without getting laryngitis. "That's better," he said. "Now quit doing the hootchie-coo and keep your eyes facing front." My eyes snapped back to the braided head in front of me.

He walked back to join the other TI's, who snickered as he shook his head. When I was sure they were engrossed in conversation, I stole quick glimpses of the other women in the formation. I couldn't help wondering about the people I'd be living with for the next six weeks.

I tried sending telepathic curses to my recruiter back in California. She didn't prepare me for this, I thought. None of her information seemed helpful at the moment: not the list of required and prohibited items, not the video I'd watched in her office, and certainly not the illustrated handout of rank insignia she'd told me to study so I'd know a captain from a sergeant. I didn't care if the guy who'd just humiliated me had cloth chevrons sewn on his sleeves or shiny metal doodads tacked onto his shoulders. I wanted to melt into a crack in the cement drill pad and disappear forever.

The sunburned TI stood in front of us, reading our names from a clipboard. Last names first, and first names last. I listened to the other women call out, "Here, Sir!" Finally, he barked, "Louden, Margaret!"

"Here, Sir!" I thought my voice would be as loud as everyone else's, but it came out in a feeble croak instead.

"Hello? Louden, Margaret? Better speak a little louder, Louden!" he said, laughing at his own cleverness.

I cleared my throat again. "Here, Sir!" I said, surprised that I could sound so clear and calm when my insides felt like jelly. Please don't look up, I thought. I didn't want him to remember me as the one who couldn't stand still.

"Lucas, Sarah!"

"Here, Sir!" A tall blonde standing at the head of the third column answered. I let out the breath I didn't know I'd been holding. I was so relieved that I missed the rest of the names and jumped when he tapped his pen against the metal clip at the top of the clipboard.
"All right, turkeys. Pick up your luggage in your right hand." I bent down and grabbed the handle of my black suitcase. Another TI broke away from the group, a woman with dark skin wearing red lipstick. She towered over the braided head of the girl standing in front of me.

"Your right hand, female, not your left! Are you deaf, or just stupid?" Without waiting for a response, she looked over at the TI who'd just called roll. "Staff Sergeant Dustin," she said, "This trainee thinks she's special. Thinks she doesn't have to follow orders."
"Is that a fact, Sergeant Holmes?" The sunburned TI walked toward the girl in front of me, the metal taps on the soles of his combat boots clicking on the cement. "What's your name, female?"

"Karen, Sir."

"Your last name, idiot!" Sergeant Holmes said through clenched teeth. "Santana, Ma'am. Oops! I mean, Sir. I mean..." She'd lost track of who'd wanted to know her name. She giggled, and suddenly it was all I could do to keep a straight face. I kept myself from laughing by thinking about sad, serious things: starving children, nuclear war, getting yelled at again.

Staff Sergeant Dustin's face was the color of a steamed crab as he bent down beside the girl I now knew was Karen Santana. "You think you're funny, Santana?"

"No Sir."

"Let me tell you something, funny girl. That attitude can make you a civilian again right now if you want. You want to go home, Santana?"

"No Sir."

"Then you better learn to follow orders pretty damn quick. Or maybe you'd rather call your family and ask them to pick you up at the airport tomorrow. Tell them you got kicked out of the Air Force because you're just too damn funny. Is that what you want?"

"No Sir." She sounded close to tears.

Sergeant Holmes couldn't hold back anymore. "Then pick up your goddamn luggage in your right hand! Now!"

Karen Santana put her duffel bag down in front of her and picked it up again with her right hand.

"I'm gonna see you around, female, and I'm gonna remember you," Sergeant Holmes said.
I didn't feel like laughing anymore. My insides quaked, and I wondered how much longer I could stand there without shivering. Staff Sergeant Dustin started bellowing again. "All right. Starting with the fourth column, you will walk in single file through that door, up the stairs, and into your dormitory. Once you get into that dormitory, you will stand behind a bed at the position of attention. You will put your luggage on the floor beside you. Is that clear?"

"Yes Sir!" we answered in unison.

"Move!"

I was the last one to walk through the dark brown door into the brick building. A thick brown stripe and a narrow orange stripe painted on the slick white cinderblock wall to my right pointed the way upstairs. Letters stenciled in black warned, "Always use handrails."
At the top of the stairs, a scrawny girl in an olive green uniform held a door open, motioning frantically. "Come on, hurry," she said in a squeaky whisper. "They're coming up the stairs!"

Karen Santana rounded a corner, and I pumped my legs a little harder to catch up. I entered a large room with a row of beds on either side of a wide expanse of mushroom-colored linoleum. The floor, waxed to a mirror finish, reflected the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. The walls were still slick and white, but this time a thick orange stripe and a narrow yellow stripe snaked their way around the perimeter of the room. Tall cabinets lined the walls, one for each bed, and beside each cabinet sat a chair that might have been salvaged from a school basement.

I claimed the last free bed, the one on my left closest to the entrance. Like every other bed, it had a gray metal frame and green wool blankets stretched tightly over the twin mattress.
The scrawny girl with the squeaky voice appeared in the entrance. "They're at the door, so stand at attention. Don't move!" She turned around and left again.

The silence seemed endless, but it couldn't have been more than ten seconds before someone pounded on a door and a hoarse voice shouted, "Open up, dorm guard." I heard several pairs of boots in the hall, and three TI's stood in the entrance to our dorm room. Two of them were Staff Sergeant Dustin and Sergeant Holmes, but the third one was someone I hadn't seen outside. She couldn't have been more than five feet tall, and her light brown hair was coiled into a bun on the back of her head.

Staff Sergeant Dustin spoke first. "Is anyone not standing behind a bed?"

No one answered.

"The bed in front of you is your bed, at least for tonight. Turn around and open up that wall locker behind you."

We all turned and lifted the metal handles on the doors of the cabinets. Inside was a rack with several wire hangers and a small dresser with two drawers. On command, we opened the bottom drawer of the dresser and took out a pen, a padlock, a chain with two keys on it, a book with a pale blue cover (our "bible," according to Staff Sergeant Dustin). He told us to take any valuables out of our luggage and lock them inside the bottom drawer. "Those keys will never come off that chain, and that chain will always be around your neck. Is that understood?"

"Yes Sir!" we said.

As the new TI walked around the room with Sergeant Holmes to check up on us, I caught a glimpse of the nametag above the right breast pocket of her camouflage uniform. Her last name was La Rose.

After I'd placed my wallet in the dresser and padlocked the bottom drawer, I stood up again behind my bed. Sergeant Holmes was in my face instantly. "What the hell is this?" she said, grabbing the keys that hung from my neck and waving them under my nose.
I couldn't speak or breathe or even imagine what I had done wrong. The keys were on the chain around my neck, just where Staff Sergeant Dustin had told us to put them.

"This is a security violation, dumb ass! I could take these keys right now and steal all your valuables. Did you realize that, female?"

"No, Ma'am. I'm sorry, I ..."

"Shut up! Now put those keys inside your shirt where nobody can get at them." The keys thudded against my chest as she dropped them. I tucked the keys under my t-shirt.
Sergeant Holmes stood over me, leaning in close enough that I could see the red lipstick flaking off her chapped lips. "If I see those keys outside your shirt again, you're gonna wish you'd stayed home. I will not tolerate any nonsense from people who don't want to listen to directions. Do you understand? I expect perfection!" She paused to take a breath."Answer me, female! Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"Yes Ma'am." My voice was choked with tears, but I couldn't let myself cry in front of her. I knew she'd enjoy it too much.

After we'd stashed our luggage inside our wall lockers, the TI's drove us into the "dayroom," a small, square room with a chalkboard and podium. We sat on the floor holding the books with the pale blue covers. The girl in the green uniform came in and started writing on the board. "Copy this down inside the front cover of your training manual," she said. "And start memorizing it."

I wrote down the "reporting statement" that Green Uniform told us we had to recite any time we spoke to a TI, whether they'd spoken to us first or not: "Sir or Ma'am, Airman (your last name) reports as ordered."

Underneath the reporting statement I scribbled my "chain of command," a list of the names and titles of every person in charge of me, all the way up to the Commander in Chief, President Reagan. Green Uniform paced in front of the chalkboard, looking at the open door every few seconds. Suddenly she snapped to the position of attention and whispered, "Get ready to stand up!" We started scrambling up from the floor until she said, "Not now, wait 'til the TI comes into the room."

We sat in silence for a few moments, our eyes fixed on the doorway. Soon we heard the already familiar clink of metal taps against the floor. One of the taps sounded more bell-like than the other, as if it were coming unscrewed from the sole of the boot.
We leapt up again as the TI named La Rose walked briskly into the room. "Sit," she said, as soon as we were all on our feet. We sat. Once she stood behind the podium, all we could see was her head. She looked down on us with glittering blue eyes.

"My name is Senior Airman La Rose, and I'll be staying with you until Staff Sergeant Causey comes back from leave." I glanced down at the inside cover of my training manual. Staff Sergeant Causey was part of my chain of command, my "team chief."

Senior Airman La Rose looked at her watch. "It is now zero-two-hundred hours, and you will be getting up at oh-five-thirty. I'll be here in my office for the rest of the night, and I'd better not hear one word out of any of you. After I walk out that door, you will go to bed and stay there. Is that understood?" Her voice was husky, as if she'd smoked too many cigarettes.

"Yes Ma'am!" we said.

She headed for the door, suddenly turning to look at us again. "Stand up when I leave the room!" she yelled. We stood up. My bed faced the TI's office. Slivers of light filtered through the slats on the door, and I could hear Senior Airman La Rose walking around. I lay motionless on my back, my legs straight and stiff, my arms at my sides. I listened to the women moving in their beds: kicking off the scratchy wool blankets, coughing, an occasional sniffle. Was someone crying? I wanted to, but I was too afraid.

My mind wouldn't shut down. I kept hearing the voices of the TI's, but they weren't barking out orders. They were asking me the same questions people back home had asked me for months: "The Air Force? Why would you want to join the Air Force?" I thought about my reasons, all the things I had done before tonight, all the decisions I'd made that had brought me to this place, and I began to ask myself the same questions.

Margaret, what have you done, I thought. Was this really such a good idea? Doesn't matter now, because like it or not, you're in the Air Force now.




Copyright 1999 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved