Feb. 7, was the anniversary of my first day in the Army. My memory of that day is indelibly branded in my brain, in great detail.
On the morning of Feb. 7, I was home alone in our house on Glenbrook Rd. I had said goodbye to my dad the night before, since I knew he left for work at 6:30 AM and I wanted to sleep later to prepare for a very long day. None of our family has ever been good at saying goodbye, but I knew that my dad, a flag-waving patriot, was proud of me. My mom left for work a bit later that morning. A typical stoic Scott—raised in Glasgow—she would never shed a tear, but mumbled something like, “Don’t forget to write.”
So home alone for the last time, I left my house and car keys on the kitchen table, called a taxi for the short ride to the Stamford, CT railroad station, and headed for the train to New haven.
Once I boarded the train, the situation began to feel real. Though I had feared and resented the notion of being drafted, I began to see the experience as an exciting adventure. As we arrived in New Haven, uniformed Army people met the train, as stipulated in my draft instructions. I suddenly realized that there had been many other young guys on that train, and that we were all headed to the same destination. At this point, the Army people were relatively polite. We were still civilians. They guided us to Army buses that brought us to the Army induction center. Once we arrived at the center, our uniformed guides were far less courteous.
The induction center was a scene of organized chaos. We each received pre-numbered forms that already had our names and basic information. Since we had all previously reported for our physical exams, we were ready to be sworn in. We all robotically raised our right hands, and swore allegiance to the United States, repeating the words of a young lieutenant who conducted the two-minute ceremony.
The uniformed guys telling us where to go were now MUCH less polite. They brusquely lined us up in groups of 50, for blood-typing, the last piece of data to be stamped into our dog tags. Each of us had a temporary number, and a medical tech guy carried a series of blood-typing modules with corresponding numbers. He simply matched each number, used the module’s tiny, sharp lancet to draw a drop of blood, and stowed each module into a container. Within an hour or so, we each received our two dog-tags on a neck chain, and could read our blood types stamped into them. For the next 30 years I always wrote my type, A+ onto medical forms, as stamped into my two dog tags. Having my type checked again after all of those years, I learned that the Army techs had it wrong. I am one of only 3.4% of the population with blood type AB+.
Leaving the New Haven Induction Center, we boarded buses for the three-hour drive to Ft. Dix, NJ. We arrived after dark, and were chased off of the buses by sergeants who loudly affirmed their control. Though exhausted at the late hour, we took written tests that measured our IQ’s and ultimately indicated the kind of jobs we might have after basic training. We were then organized roughly as a company called Yankee Company, with four platoons of 50. The platoons were created more or less in alphabetical order. For example, all of the guys in Platoon One had names beginning with the letters A through G. Since my name begins with the letter V, I was in the last platoon—Platoon Four. Each platoon had four squads of 12 or 13 members, still organized alphabetically.
It seemed odd to me that my name, beginning with V would be one of the three last names in a company of 200. But then I learned that our platoon was different from the other three. Our first squad was NOT composed alphabetically. Instead it began with names of 12 convicted criminals.
Judges of that era offered certain felons a choice between prison and the Army. When the would-be convicts chose the training they would receive, their choices were limited to combat roles. Typically macho kids under these circumstances chose Airborne, the most dangerous, yet glamorous part of the Army. In a foolish experiment, Army brass decided to keep newly recruited Airborne volunteers together as discrete units through all phases of their training—from basic through Infantry and then Airborne schools. As a result 25 percent of our platoon members were hardened gang-bangers, several of whom committed anti-social acts from Day 1. What could go wrong with this plan?
And that’s how and why I have privately remembered Feb. 7, every year since that first day of my Army career.