By Bill Greenhut
As I stepped out of the car in front of the Induction Center, Dad said, “We’ll see you at Fort Dix in a few weeks.” It was the only basic training facility in the northeast, conveniently located an easy two-hour drive down the Jersey Turnpike from our home on Long Island. At the outset, I would be going to a place where I would be able to get home some weekends, see my friends and sleep in my own bed. Knowing this eased my transition into the unknown.
I was four months past college graduation and had exchanged my draft notice for enlistment papers that committed me to an additional year in exchange for the Army’s guarantee to train me as a ‘communications specialist,’ whatever that meant.
As I walked toward the building, the sun was shining and the light spring jacket I was wearing was enough. When I entered, I was directed to take a seat in a crowded room among many others. We were all of a similar age, averaging around 20, and we sat in silence awaiting our fate. A man in uniform sought volunteers for the Marines, which I quickly dismissed from consideration. I was too engrossed in trying to anticipate what would happen next to entertain thoughts going off in a completely different direction with implications that I could not imagine. He received a couple of positive responses, probably from two who had enlisted and were already committed to three years, not from the draftees who were in for two years and were counting down from now, this day, May 11, 1966.
When that business was finished, we were ordered to line up in rows and raise our right hands. Once sworn in by an officer, we sat again we sat, presumably awaiting transportation. The bus arrived. Just before we loaded up, he announced, “At Penn Station you will board the train that will take you to Fort Jackson, South Carolina."
I was horrified, in shock. What happened to Fort Dix? As we filed onto the bus, I was thinking it would be impossible to contact my parents who, as soon as Dad returned home, were leaving for the airport on their way to vacation in Jamaica. I realized there was no possibility of seeing them in the near future.
As the bus rolled away from the curb, I was completely disoriented. The other passengers, Long Islanders all, were probably rethinking their own expectations. I suppose the looks of puzzlement, anger and resignation that I saw on their faces reflected some degree of recognition that the Army now owned us. Silence prevailed; no one screamed, “Stop the bus!” Nobody cried out, “Let me off!” Most of us must have understood that this was only the first unwelcome order that we were bound to obey; we had to follow the itinerary the Army prescribed.
The overnight journey had one beneficial outcome; I was able to befriend two guys who were seated nearby. At least I no longer felt completely alone. We spent most of the time speculating, without any real knowledge, abouit what the experience would be like.
At Fort Jackson Reception Station, it started: the haircuts, issuing of uniforms and bedding and the most basic of basic training, i.e., using latrines with no privacy, cleaning the same latrines, mopping and buffing the barracks floors, extracting cigarette butts from the surrounding grounds, saluting, marching and being subjected to discipline (absolute, unflinching obedience no matter the abuse someone was screaming directly into your face). It all took one week. At its conclusion, many of us were bused further south to Fort Gordon, Ga., for basic training.
The marching continued, more important as a method to de-emphasize our individuality than to move a large group from place to place. After safety and familiarization training, we were issued M-14 rifles, learned how to break down and clean them and were trucked to the rifle range, where we spent a week learning how to shoot.
We were granted our first pass around week four. We had been required to mail home the civilian clothes we’d arrived in at Fort Jackson along with a postcard stating we had safely arrived, so we were leaving Fort Gordon in uniform. It felt like a day pass from jail. I took a municipal bus, along with several mates from my squad, into Augusta.
I had never really experienced the "deep south." I’d been to Miami on college spring break, but you heard more New York accents there than southern ones. And my family had traveled to Louisiana to visit relatives when I was five years old, but I had few memories of that trip. All I knew about the town was that it was the home of the exclusive Augusta National Golf Club where professional golfers competed in the world-famous Masters Tournament. From that television event and movies like "Gone with the Wind," my vision of Georgia was of stately white colonial homes, open porches fronted with columns and expansive green lawns dotted with weeping willows.
The weekend sidewalks teemed with hundreds of drunken soldiers lurching from bar to bar or past or through tattoo parlors when they weren’t blowing up and down the streets on rented motorcycles. Some of them, having downed enough alcohol, would be scraped up and returned to the post via ambulance for treatment at Martin Army Hospital. Assuming they had a successful recovery, they would enjoy repeating basic training from week one.
There were no women visible outside on the two to three blocks of the town's tawdry center. Apparently, the U.S.O. down the street was the only venue where women felt safe enough on weekends. This dozen or so volunteers found themselves the objects of attention of a horde of young soldiers trying to make time and so had become adept at deflecting while managing to seem hospitable.
And that was just the ‘White’ side of town. From the darkened bus filled with disheveled soldiers "sleeping it off" that trundled us back to the post before "Taps." the ‘Black’ side of town was barely visible. As far as I could tell, we came nowhere near the famous golf club. Our less sizeable cohort from Puerto Rico, most of whom spoke little English, probably stayed on post. From the racial division I’d seen on my sojourn, I doubt there was a side of town where they would have been welcomed.
Having experienced what Augusta had to offer, the attraction quickly wore off. We who had ventured into town together, becoming more accustomed to our military surroundings, decided to spend our weekends at Fort Gordon, partaking of the less than stout beer served at the gathering spots designated for that purpose. By this time, anyone could see by the degree to which our oft-laundered green fatigue uniforms had faded that we were no longer raw recruits. Through the oppressive heat and humidity of June and July, at some indiscernible point, we were woven into the fabric of the Army and thought of ourselves as soldiers.
When the eight weeks of basic training ended, those of us heading north took the overnight train due to an airline strike. We sprawled across the seats in an attempt to sleep in the swelter and rotated standing in the open doorway at the end of the car to catch the breeze and get some relief.
My family met me at Penn Station to take me home for two weeks of leave. I had passed a written test and received the recommendation of my basic training company commander for officer candidate school. The commitment the Army had made to induce me to enlist, which would have returned me to Fort Gordon for signal school, was nullified. My next stop, for eight weeks of advanced infantry training, would be…where else? Fort Dix.