Monday, May 11, 2009

"Dancing Lessons From God", Part 18

The military used to have an NCO club and an Officer club on pretty much every post but for the most part, they didn’t really exist anymore. Every post had a club but it was open to anyone and rather than call it the NCO club, it had a name, usually something sports related. Ours was called The End Zone but most people just called it the NCO club. They had different themes to try and please the variety of soldiers on base and Friday night was always country night. Country night was extremely popular and always had a good mix of Americans and Germans, most of the latter being of the female persuasion. Well I liked this concept right away. This was the kind of thing I had signed up for. I had always seen military movies where they go to the NCO or Officers club on base and mingle with foreign women who were there to meet American men; and now I was one of those men. I was liking Germany more and more. The first thing I realized when I entered the club was that I really needed to update my wardrobe. The only civilian clothes I had brought with me were a few things that would fit in my duffle bag and that wasn’t much. The second thing I noticed was that there were a lot of rednecks on the base and they were all in the club. The place was filled with people in starched shirts, dinner platter sized belt buckles, cowboy hats and cowboy boots. The DJ had country tunes blasting on the speakers. The whole entire place was like one big cliché of what many think of when they think of military people; white, southern, and very patriotic. I chuckled when the DJ played the song “Sweet Home Alabama”; as soon as the first few chords were heard, a bunch of guys would jump out of their seat and start high-fiving each other and yelling yee-haw. As for us, we just kind of hung around, some of us at the bar, some of us at a table. Falcon was sitting at the table, drunk and holding court once again with some of the guys and a few women who had joined the party. He was really in his element there. Though from Louisiana, he didn’t look or act like a redneck when he went to the club. I spent the night taking in the scene, observing and analyzing my new social surroundings. The End Zone was a huge club and I walked around, beer in hand, checking out everything. In addition to the main part which contained the dance floor, they also had a couple pool tables, video games, and some televisions, including one huge screen used to show sports or other testosterone laden programs. On this night, they were showing “Wrestlemania” and there were a half dozen guys standing in front watching it who would just go crazy every time something happened, as if they’d never seen anything so amazing. It was quite amusing. I’d certainly watched my share of wrestling but these guys were just taking it to a whole new level. I still kind of felt like an outsider so I didn’t bother trying to chat up any women or anything so bold as that. I just kind of enjoyed being there at that moment, experiencing a scene that we had nothing even remotely close to back home. I loved every minute of it. Around midnight some of us decided to leave so we walked out and as I walked through the parking lot a half drunk German girl approached me. Almost as if on cue, the other guys I was with said “see you back at the barracks Thib!” and hastily took off, leaving me alone with this girl. She didn’t waste any time making conversation either, she came right out and said in her broken American accent “I am drunk and I cannot drive…you can drive me home?”. Well, I might have taken her up on the offer were it not for two problems; one, I was drunk myself and two, I had no car and no license. When I informed her of these unfortunate facts she frowned a little, bade me farewell and went off in search of some other soul to bring her home that night. “Man,” I thought myself, “this is one crazy place…”

Never having been on active duty before I had no idea what the day to day life or the weekends were like but now that I was starting to learn, I liked it a lot. I loved the fact that I had no responsibilities, nothing hanging over me like a dark cloud. Everything was just fun and new. It was like starting life all over again. The next morning a few of us headed out to the chow hall for some breakfast. We were very lucky because the chow hall was located across the parking lot from our barracks so it was a very short walk. The chow hall was one of my favorite parts of my new military life. Back home, neither I nor any of my roommates knew how to cook so I lived off sandwiches and canned or frozen food. If I couldn’t slap it between two slices of bread or heat it up in the microwave, I couldn’t eat it. But now I had a place right next to me where I could get three square meals a day, totally free of charge. In military parlance, a chow hall is called a “dining facility”, or DFAC for short. It’s a time honored tradition in the military to joke about how bad the food is but I’ve gotta tell you, I thought the food was really good. There were two sides to the DFAC; one side was short order and the other was the main line. On the short order side you could get your fill of greasy spoon type stuff like burgers, fries, fried chicken, things like that. The main line side was the healthier stuff. They always had a pretty good variety to suit most tastes. I was still trying to get myself into army shape so I always eschewed the short order line for the main line and stuck to things like baked chicken, rice and vegetables. Breakfast however was a whole different ballgame. Where I was from, breakfast usually consisted of some kind of austere combination such as coffee and a bagel. We are always on the go and don’t have time to sit down for a home cooked breakfast. The breakfast served in the DFAC contains pretty much everything you can imagine. Eggs and omelettes made to order, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, grits, pancakes, it’s all there. They also had lighter fare such as bagels, cereal, fruit and yogurt. For someone who had survived on Ramen, sandwiches and Chef Boyardee for the past five years, this was paradise.

The next afternoon I realized that I just could not survive without a television any longer so I headed up to our little PX to buy one. The term PX refers to the Post Exchange. It’s basically a military department store and the size and selection vary depending on the size of the base and the military community which it serves. Kitzingen is small and Larson Barracks is very small so ours was tiny and had a limited selection of stuff. Next to the PX is the shoppette. The shoppette is basically the military’s version of a convenience store. It usually contains a video rental area and sometimes a small bookstore with books and magazines. Barnes and Noble it’s not but at least it’s possible to get American books and magazines overseas. I settled on a 29 inch Panasonic TV, a cheap VCR – this was still 1998 remember, and DVD’s were nonexistent – and then was dismayed to find that I also needed to buy a transformer for them. Anyone who has been overseas is familiar with transformers. In the US, the electricity runs at 110 volts but in Europe and elsewhere it runs at 220 volts. So if you plugged your American item into an outlet in Europe, it would blow up. What a transformer does is converts the 220 power into 110 so you can still use your American appliances overseas. Transformers can be expensive though, with a medium size one running upwards of around 100 bucks or more. I bought one that would be powerful enough to run my TV and VCR on and it costs 120 bucks, more than I paid for the damned VCR. But I was going to need something to keep me occupied in the room so I wouldn’t have to deal with Roberts’ shenanigans so I had no choice. The only problem I faced was that our room was pretty small and there wasn’t much space to put everything. As it was I only had two large wall lockers in which to keep everything that I owned and one of those wall lockers was for all my military related clothing and items. That meant that all my personal belongings had to fit inside one wall locker. I also had one small end table that sat at the end of my bed so I put the TV and VCR on top of it so that I could just lay in bed and watch TV. The barracks rooms were not that big and were designed to house two soldiers each. In them were four wall lockers, two for each soldier, two beds, two small end tables, a desk, a small refrigerator, and a bathroom. What you would do is try to arrange everything to get the maximum amount of space and, in most cases, try to create some privacy for both of you. The way Roberts and I had it, our beds were separated by the wall lockers, each of us had a little private area with just barely enough room to move around, and there was sort of a small little common area with a couch. The desk was supposed to be for writing or doing work but Roberts had put it in front of the couch and stacked his TV, VCR and stereo on it. He said it was for both of us and I would sometimes sit on the couch and read but I never felt comfortable since it was all his stuff and even though it was my room too, I always felt like I was an unwelcome guest. In a way it was strange because, technically, I outranked Roberts. I was an E4 (Specialist) and he was an E3 (Private First Class or “PFC”). However, in the army, there is usually little to no formality between ranks below E5 (Sergeant). The army likes to pretend there is but the reality is often different. In the army’s view I, as the senior ranking person, should have been in charge of the room. But in reality I had no real authority or power at all and Roberts knew it so in the absence of such authority I just kind of let him do his thing and I kept to myself most of the time. Once I got my TV and VCR I usually spent all of my time in the room on my bed watching TV or reading, since my bed was in an enclosed little area that afforded me some measure of privacy, however small. Often I would get a bit stir crazy in my little space and would go down and hang out in Hanover or Falcon’s room with the other guys. Hanover and Falcon lived on the first floor and both had their own rooms. Hanover was an NCO, and NCO’s got their own room. Falcon was an E4 like me but got his own room because he had seniority. I was so jealous of them and longed for the day when I wouldn’t have to share such a small living space with anyone. But both of them were cool enough to make their rooms open to any of us to come down and hang out anytime. After work we’d usually hang out in Falcon’s room watching a movie or TV. TV in the barracks was pretty interesting. All the rooms had cable hookups and we received AFN free. AFN is Armed Forces Network. At the time there were three or four channels showing all sorts of American programs. AFN showed most of the same shows that were being shown in the US but they showed them a season behind. It’s a pretty interesting arrangement; the production studios sell the shows to AFN at an extremely low cost so that military members overseas can watch American TV shows but the cut rate bargain AFN receives comes with two conditions; first, they get last season’s episodes and second, they are not allowed to profit on the programs by selling ad space. This means that there are no commercials. Actually, there are commercials but they are not advertisements for commercial products and services. Instead AFN fills the ad time with public service announcements and ads for military related things. For example, instead of an ad for a new car AFN would show a 30 second spot on something like how to dress in your new country or who to call if you have a gambling problem. Most of them are extremely cheesy and making fun of AFN commercials is another one of those infamous time honored military traditions. The funny thing was that I was able to watch some of the same shows I had watched back home but because they were a season behind I had the advantage of having already seen them so sometimes we’d be in Falcon’s room watching something and I’d be “predicting” everything before it happened.


(Stay tuned for Part 19...)

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