We got to the company and Hanover took me in to meet the First Sergeant, 1SG Holmes. 1SG Holmes was instantly intimidating but friendly. He sat at his desk and gave me a quick welcome and told me a little bit about the company and what would be expected of me. Then he asked some questions.
“How old are you?”
“26, First Sergeant.”
“Are you married?
“No, First Sergeant.”
“No, First Sergeant.”
“Do you have a college degree?”
“Yes, First Sergeant.”
At this point he looked over at SGT Hanover.
“Damn SGT Hanover, it looks like we found the perfect soldier.”
I can only imagine what SGT Hanover must have been thinking when he heard that. But to his credit he just shook his head and said “Yes, First Sergeant.”. From there it was time to meet the other people in my section that I’d be working with. I was assigned to the Retrans section, which was primarily responsible for setting up radio retransmission stations between two points that were too far away from each other to be able to communicate. Hanover took me into the Retrans office and introduced me to the guys in the section. Nobody was particularly welcoming, instead preferring to portray the tough guy attitude until they had a chance to size up the new guy. But they weren’t that bad. The guy I took notice of right away was a short, stocky, loud, cocky show-off named Falcon. He was a Specialist (E4), same rank that I was, and just seemed to command that all the attention was centered on him as he spoke. He talked like he thought he was black and everybody was laughing at everything that came out of his mouth. Falcon and I would eventually become enemies for several reasons (more about that later) but I have to admit that I really liked him at first. He wasn’t very educated or intelligent - that was painfully obvious - but he sure was entertaining. He was also a gym rat and was pretty muscular for such a small guy and he did pretty well with the ladies – or at least liked to brag that he did. Another guy in the unit was Crenshaw. Crenshaw was an E2 (PV2) when I got to the unit and was always good for comic relief. He was from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, he was overweight and couldn’t seem to decide if he wanted to be a redneck, a beach boy, or a “brother” so he kind of acted like all of them at any given moment. As the lowest ranking soldier, and an overweight one at that, Crenshaw got picked on a lot but he was a good sport about it and usually gave just as good as he received. We also had a Mexican-American guy named SPC Martinez who I liked. He was very friendly and easy to get along with. And then there was SGT Stewart, the other E5 in the shop. SGT Stewart didn’t talk much but he was really laid back and easy going as well. Overall I had a good feeling about the guys I’d be working with. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to say the same about my roommate.
At the end of the day I went back to my room to meet the guy I would be living with for the foreseeable future. His name was PFC Michael Roberts and we had absolutely nothing in common. I was a white guy from a middle class town in New England, he was a black guy from rural South Carolina. This, in itself, was not a problem. After all, my roommate for four years in college was a black guy from the inner city who was there on a basketball scholarship and someone with whom I had nothing in common either. However, we got along really well and actually chose to be roommates each year. Roberts was different. He didn’t seem to like the fact that they’d given him a white roommate who might step on his “game”. From the moment I met him he never stopped trying to show off and he also went to great pains to try and make me realize that this was “his” room first and that he had the run of it. He would often come in and put his music on his stereo and turn it up really loud and then play the same song over and over which got annoying. His favorite song at the time was KJ and JoJo’s “All My Life” which, fortunately for me, I really liked so I didn’t mind hearing it 17 times in a row. Roberts was a mechanic and worked in the motor pool so I figured at least I didn’t have to work with him, I only had to put up with his act in the room. Our first day in the room together didn’t go too smoothly as Roberts set me up for failure immediately. I was brand new and had never been active duty before so I had no idea what the daily routine was. The army has gotten much better at helping new soldiers learn the ropes but at the time I felt like I was flapping in the breeze with no one to show me what the hell I was supposed to be doing and where or when I was supposed to be doing it. I figured I’d just follow Roberts since he’d been there for a while. Well, Roberts decided to oversleep that first morning and then jump out of bed in a panic yelling “Shit, we late, we gotta get to formation!” Following his lead I quickly threw on my PT (physical training) uniform and ran out the door on his heels towards the company area. By the time we ran through the gate into the company area the company was already formed up and the 1SG was preparing the company for PT. Showing up late to formation is a bad thing. Do it once and you’ll usually just get a stern talking to and a warning not to let it happen again. Do it once or twice more and you risk increasingly severe punishment. It was my first day and I was already 0-for-1. After formation, SGT Hanover took me aside and asked why I was late and I just said that I had no idea what the schedule was but now that I knew, it wouldn’t happen again. Hanover also called Roberts over and told him that since I was new, it was his responsibility to make sure that I knew where I supposed to be and what time formation was and that he‘d better not let it happen again. I kind of felt like a child being lectured like that but hey, this was the army, so I just told Hanover I wouldn’t let it happen again and he seemed satisfied with that. I really wanted to make a good first impression and do really well there so I was a bit frustrated at my bad start. But, what the hell, it happens. To his credit, Roberts even apologized and agreed that he screwed up.
Since I had just arrived, it would actually be a couple weeks before I did anything with the company, including PT. New arrivals must spend about 3 weeks going through a reception and integration process. During this process, you fill out a bunch of forms, you get issued all your army gear, you get some drivers training for the purpose of getting your German driving license, you get training on so many different things, and then you go through a two week class called Head Start. Head Start was actually pretty fun. The purpose of the class is to give you an introduction to Germany – the culture, the food, the people, the language, the money (this was before the introduction of the Euro), how to take the trains, how to order food, pretty much everything you need to know to make your stay in Germany fun and easier to deal with. Since my main purpose in joining the army was to see Europe and do some traveling, this was right up my alley. For me, it’s not enough to just take a trip somewhere to look at some stuff and then leave. No, I want to know at least a little bit about the place I’m going and things I’m seeing. And I’m not talking about the usual mundane stuff you learn on a tour, “This church was built by King What’s-his-name in the 16th century and took 30 years to complete…” , I’m talking about the actual culture, the stuff you learn almost by accident when you’re traveling. Head Start was perfect for this because it allowed me to suck up all the information about my new country that I could handle. Unfortunately I seemed to be the only one who had such an interest. Most of the other people were young soldiers fresh out of basic training and their job schools and this was their first duty station. They were too young, inexperienced and naïve to appreciate this glorious opportunity that they had. I was almost resentful of the fact they were even in Europe at all. And the older soldiers who had been around were more interested in getting though the class as quickly as possible and getting to their new jobs. I couldn’t fathom why. To me, this was like a three week vacation, sort of the calm before the storm. US Army Europe had a strict policy that new soldiers who were going through reception and integration were not to be touched by their units for anything. They would go to formation in the morning for accountability, but they would not do PT, they would instead go to the reception station and spend the day doing their inprocessing or Head Start. Units also were not allowed to put new soldiers on any kind of duty until they were finished with their three week inprocessing, including Head Start. There were a few others in my class who were with me at the reception station at Fort Jackson such as Bosh and Stephanie and we kind of hung around together during the inprocessing and Head Start. Both of them were stationed at Giebelstadt so I only saw them during the day which kind of sucked because I didn’t really know anybody on my base. There was a guy from Puerto Rico who had come over from Ft Jackson with us named Rivera who was also stationed at Larson Barracks with me so he and I became friends. Rivera was a master at shining boots and tried to help me several times but shining boots was just one of those things that I’ve never been able to do very well. And not for lack of trying either; I’ve spent countless hours trying all kinds of different methods that people have shown me and have just never been able to get very good at it. I could get them to where they looked pretty good but compared to other people’s, they looked average. It was just one of those things about the military that I thought was given too much importance and was stupid. The thing is, it’s impossible to keep boots shined in the army because you’re working in some really dirty areas doing a dirty job most of the time. It’s just not practical. And what used to drive me crazy was the fact that the people who would always get on you about making sure your boots were shined were the First Sergeants and Sergeants Major. Their boots would always be glowing and they’d tell you that yours should be like theirs. Well of course their boots are always so shiny; they sit at a desk all day! They probably only have to actually shine them once a month! One uniform quirk that I didn’t have as much trouble with was making sure they were neatly pressed. I can’t iron very well but I didn’t have to because there was a laundry on base where you would drop your uniforms off and get them back a few days later, neatly starched and pressed. The funniest thing was that some guys would really overdo it and get them pressed using heavy, heavy starch. Their uniforms would come out like cardboard and make a loud whooshing sound when they walked. It was comical. But I did learn pretty quickly that shined boots and a nicely pressed uniform made you feel as sharp as you looked. It really did fill you with a certain measure of pride and confidence.
(Stay tuned for Part 16...)