We stand at attention as the hot wind stirs up the dirt and blows it in our faces. Out of some vague notion of self-discipline, we will ourselves not to cough or sneeze as our mouth and noses are filled with grit. The sounds that enter our ears are muffled; the drill sergeant’s voice seems to come from a distance. In this heat sweat runs down our spines and from under our arms in rivulets. Our shirts are darkened with sweat and stick to our skin. Our helmets are weights that add to the tension in our necks caused by keeping our heads up, facing forward.
I stand behind Adams. He has a first name, but I never call him by that, and I don’t call him Private Adams. We’re all privates. He was an amateur boxer before he enlisted. He stands as if he’s about to pounce on someone, like a coil ready to spring. The skin on the back of his neck is sunburnt. Its pinkness stands out amidst the colours of drab olive green and mud brown that surround it, surround all of us. I always stand behind Adams when we’re in formation. I know the shape of his back and the shade of colour of his blond hair so well I see them in my dreams, as attributes of a human figure always seen from behind.
Through the haze of heat and dust, my eyes sting and water as I try to keep them open and facing front. “Eyes front,” the drill sergeant yells enough times to make me always wonder who among us dared to glance away, and how did the drill sergeant notice something so small as an eye movement?
Peripherally, I see Bodey at my left. He grew up on a farm and enlisted to make something of himself. Sweat is pouring down his rotund face. He sways back and forth very slightly as if being gently rocked by the wind. Among the stillness of the rest of us, his almost imperceptible movement is hard to miss. I imagine reaching out my left arm and placing my hand on his shoulder to steady him, but it’s only an imagining.
A sudden gust of wind, stronger than the other, sweeps across the field and blankets Company D in a new layer of dirt. We remain steadfast against this new assault except for someone in the front of the formation who breaks into a hacking cough.
The drill sergeant’s bellowing voice suddenly echoes through the swirling dust. “What’s wrong with you, Porter? There’s no coughing while you’re standing at attention. Drop and give me twenty.”
Porter is from Norfolk where he waited tables before enlisting. There’s a hairline purple scar across his right cheek. Not that he has to, but he mostly keeps it a secret that he’s gay.
There’s a reprieve from the blowing dirt but the late afternoon sun beats down on Company D.
“At ease,” the drill sergeant calls out.
Dirt falls from my shoulders as I relax them. My boots that had been so polished before the day began have lost their sheen. Everyone is looking around, at those standing around them, as if to make sure everyone has survived. We spit out the dirt, clear it from our ears and noses, and brush it from our faces and clothes.
In that moment I look around at the rocky hills that surround us. We’re in a geological bowl.
At times even our whispers are echoed.
“Get cleaned up before chow,” the drill sergeant yells. “Dismissed.”
The barracks is built of wood with practically no insulation, and the accumulated noise of the forty recruits inside is a cacophony of echoes. We’re called recruits unless the drill sergeants have more unsavory names for us. The two-tiered bunk beds are lined up along the walls. A broad aisle down the middle separates the two rows. The aisle is a busy highway of recruits going to and from the bathroom or shower at the end of the barracks. This is the second time in the day that showers have been taken and the barracks is scented with steam and soap. The boisterous voices of the recruits in the shower echoes out. Because of our close proximity more than anything else, Adams, Bodey, Porter and I became friends. Our bunks are next to each other. Bodey and Porter have the bottom bunks and Adams and I have the top ones. By the tenth week of boot camp, Adams especially has become like a brother to me. Sitting on the bottom bunks facing each other we shine our boots and polish our brass belt buckles.
“I thought I was going to throw up,” Bodey says about the day in the sun.
“I’m just glad we weren’t in full gear,” Porter says as he unconsciously runs his fingertips along his scar.
“Only two more days and we graduate,” I say.
The drill sergeant enters the barracks and stands at the head of the aisle with his feet planted on the bare wood floor as if staking that part of the floor as his. All of the recruits stand at attention, arms at their sides, chests out, chins up.
“Adams,” he yells.
“Yes, drill sergeant,” Adams says as he runs into the aisle.
“Move it, recruit. On the double,” the drill sergeant says as he turns and goes out the door, followed by Adams who runs barefoot down the length of the barracks, his feet slapping on the wood.
It’s the middle of the night when I hear Adams climb into his bunk.
“Ain’t no sense in going home,” Company D sings in cadence. The stomping of our boots on the path between the corrugated tin supply huts generates a resounding metallic echo.
The drill sergeant sings out melodically, “Jody’s got your girl and gone.”
“Jody’s got your girl and gone,” we repeat.
“Your left, your right, now pick up your step,” the drill sergeant sings.
At the open door of a hut, we stop and stand at attention as two corporals flip sheets of paper attached to clipboards. One by one the recruits hand their helmets, pistol belts and canteens to one of the corporals, who makes a check mark by the recruit’s name and then puts the items in the hut.
I lean forward and whisper to Adams. “What did the drill sergeant want last night?”
He turns his head slightly and whispers back. “Some money was stolen. They thought I did it.”
“You didn’t do it, did you?” I say.
“Of course not.”
“Shut it back there,” the drill sergeant yells. “You haven’t graduated yet.”
In green dress uniforms the men of Company D enter the barracks, no longer recruits following the graduation ceremony, but soldiers. After handshakes and back slaps, with their wallets stuffed with the last pay as a recruit, most pick up their duffel bags and depart the barracks to go home for a brief leave and then onto their assignments.
At my bunk with my duffel bag open, the last things yet to be packed into it lying on my bunk, Bodey and Porter are standing nearby. Adams is sitting on his bunk fiddling with his cell phone.
“Keep in touch,” Bodey says. “Maybe we can all get together at my folks’ farm sometime for leave.”
“Sure,” the rest of us say with the same earnestness we said to our high school classmates who we’ll most likely never see again.
He and Porter turn to go.
“Porter, will you finally tell us how you got that scar?” I say.
He smiles and says, “It was really no big secret. I fell on a rake while I was playing army when I was a kid. The scar gives me an air of mystery.”
They leave the barracks, their laughter trailing behind.
Adams looks down at me, a somber expression on his face. “I’m going to miss you,” he says. “While you’re home on leave, give that kid of yours you always talk about a good tickle for me.”
There’s a sincerity in his voice that surprises me. “I will. I’ll miss you too.”
I shove the last shirt into the duffel bag and close the clasp. My hat, wallet and bus ticket are all that are left on my bunk.
“I’ll be right back,” I say. “I need to take a piss.”
The bathroom is sparkling clean and smells of floor cleaner.
When I return to my bunk, Adams is gone. I look at my bunk. My wallet is gone also.