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Old 05-30-2011, 10:22 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Fear and Loathing at the United States Air Force Academy

By EventHorizon

My first order as an incoming appointee to the United States Air Force Academy:

“Get on the bus.”

Having just been informed of the seven basic responses, or the only seven phrases we would be able to say for the better part of a year, the bus was silent, sweat oozing from every palm the way blood oozes from a diabetic’s lanced fingertip. Not 20 minutes before, they had the personality of signposts, wearing stormtrooper-white cotton gloves and donning service caps with silver eagles pinned on the front, gleaming the same way lakes do at high noon. The collars that lay flat on their shirts without collar stays, the sleeve creases matched in sharpness only by their voices, all added to our anticipation of impending doom. Switch on! We turned into terror-stricken statues while the once stoic, yet helpful, cadets performed a silent headcount and with a nod suddenly came to life with more vigor than a goldfish hatchery full of 9-volt batteries. Gunshot voices.

Then, in a voice that wasn’t the annoyance of a girlfriend, the anger of a father, the frustration of a mother, the taunting of a schoolyard bully, but rather pure hatred: “GET OFF OF MY GODDAM BUS AND ONTO THOSE FOOTPRINTS!” Thus began the first of 46 days of basic training.

That first day left an impression on me the same way that “Little Boy” left impressions of shadows on the concrete in Hiroshima. The first day’s proceedings moved along with a mechanical repetition. We were greeted with an assembly line of blank faces on seated bodies. Each one demanded that we “Sign and date at the bottom, and fill out your personal information on the back.” The conference room was the only room whose detail is worth remembering. Rows of cadets decked in camouflage stood behind chairs that were obviously meant for us newcomers. “Please raise your right hand and repeat after me…” Once the solemn swear/affirmation was recorded, the discomfort followed. Each station on the assembly line scarier than the last: optometrist, bank account, health insurance, life insurance, vaccine. That first day’s work concluded with an evening of a “mere” 120 pushups and a minute long shower. The next morning, each of us was reborn due to being “in the Air Force now.” As newborns, we needed to learn how to talk, how to walk, how to eat. Some learned that tears only moisturized the air at 7,258 ft. above sea level instead of currying sympathy. Others learned that a human body needs to drink more water than it loses waking up on the concrete with bruises from the impact and esteem issues for failing their classmates.

Some fourteen days after in-processing, a reprieve from screaming took form as the Fourth of July. Every Independence Day, the basic cadets are placed on a granite balcony to witness the fireworks miles away while civilians throw hamburgers and candy into the throng of basic cadets for sport. While the fireworks are too far away to impress any sort of grandeur on the basic cadets, each face holds the faint possibility of a longing smile, the same kind of smile that Robin Williams gives when Patch Adams realizes that laughter doesn’t cure cancer. Through a mouthful of burger someone sighed and told nobody in particular: “I would no-lie give my right ear for a lawn chair, some bottle rockets, and my family right now.” This particular event, with the Armageddon of Jolly Ranchers and McDoubles instead of fire and brimstone, is why the Academy is sometimes called “the Blue Zoo” (also because visitors come and stare at us like we’re hyperintelligent and motivated versions of the pissed off orangutans they’re used to seeing behind Plexiglas).

Basic training finally ended which led to the milestone of Parent’s Weekend, all 46 days of basic training: complete. Slaps on the back for everybody and epaulets for every basic cadet turned into a Cadet Fourth Class (See Also: Freshman, C4C, Four Degree, Four Dig, Four Smack, Smack). That’s where the real Academy begins. Every freshman’s standards for good food, social interaction, and attractive folk develop gangrene and slowly decay, creating a wholly new creature out of Billy the Eagle Scout and Brenda the valedictorian, appointees.

Speaking of attractive folk:

Q:“What did the ugliest girl in the world say to the second ugliest girl in the world?

A:What Squadron are you in?”

-Air Force Academy Joke

Cracking jokes about the Academy isn’t just for entertainment value to be worked into a conversation. They aren’t witty and calloused black humor jokes from the movie: “Black Hawk Down.” They are more like the short severely balding insurance salesman’s jokes to other balding men garbed in slacks and Hawaiian shirts in a bar on a Friday night with no wives waiting at home: socially worthless. All of 1300 losers in the bar, each of them sweating and wide-eyed in the face of talking to people whose only commonality is A-type personalities and fighter pilot dreams. We all felt awkward. Heaven forbid someone of the opposite sex walks in and they become attracted to the newcomer, lest they actually work up the courage to walk over and talk about the weather and Iraq. The one exception is roommates.

While not required for survival at the Academy, the psychologist/ego-check roles that roommates play for one another helps cope with the daily sandpaper grind, but identifying the roles is another task altogether. A supportive roommate is constantly egging on and daring his residential comrade to push his limit in confidence. An ego-checking roommate will make sure that should an overinflated head come near, embarrassing facts are sure to fly into open airspace, where any ears can catch them. Even a greeting to a roommate returning from class can be lost in translation. Indeed, roommate-roommate is the only close relationship every cadet has in common.

Most freshmen dread any emotional connection deeper than chemistry lab partners, they still retain the same depth of mistrust towards strangers. Even within a few months of interacting exclusively with people in uniform, we view visitors to the Academy with a shake of the head and a chuckle in tandem, dragging the utterance of “civilians…” without fail. As if the non-military folk could never understand what their tax dollars were going towards. That is to say that observing a cadet at the Academy is like trying to observe a repeat ignorer of stop signs who is pulled over so frequently that he greets the officer by first name and a query about the well being of his family-in full knowledge that he will owe the courthouse about a hundred dollars more than last time. You can see it happen, but you can't see what's happening.

A dancing couple, not very well acquainted, at the blues club had the following conversation so that the balding insurance salesman speaking to the civilian girl might seem cool:

“My friend told me this place was like a normal college but with uniforms. Aren’t the classes here really hard?”

“Yeah, but it isn’t that the classes are hard so much as the long hours.”

“Oh my god I totally get what you mean! Like last week I had a test and I woke up so early to start studying.”

This last sentence would be followed by a geeky smile from the cadet and the private utterance of “civilians…” One could put themselves in that physical situation and make believe that this is what it must feel like to be a cadet! when in fact being a cadet is far more scarring to a life than anything Freud’s mother ever did to him.

Although often changed by the experience for the worse, your garden variety cadet will not take this sort of punishment lying down. By punishment I mean training sessions; and by training sessions I’m not talking about sitting around and learning the parts to an aircraft. I’m talking about early morning and late night flutter-kicks (a form of torture requiring nothing more than gravity and a pair of legs as the primary instruments of pain) in the hallway until the sweat that drips off each flushed face makes the floors too slick to run on. I’m talking about running to the nearest small mountain, then low-crawling all the way up in the snow. I’m talking about donning cold weather gear rated to keep a body warm at around freezing, then running stairs for fifty-four minutes because the upperclassman will be graduating from the fifty-fourth class. Then running for one more minute so as to stop on the fifty-fifth class, a slight form of simultaneous motivation and a mild "fuck you" to The Man.

The one of many more creative forms of rebelling against The Man (a.k.a. the established order, and by extension, upperclassmen) is a little not-so-bundled miracle known as Naked DI, a practice no longer performed, but replaced by equally creative counter-training. The practical and rational purpose of Naked DI has yet to be rationalized, much less documented. The events that unfold in the performance of a Naked DI are very simple and are known to even the squeakiest and most hairless of the Academy: When 4 degrees and upperclassmen dislike each other very much (not quite the birds and the bees tale, but mutual hatred is just as prevalent at the Academy as fornication is at a normal college), the upperclassmen will put his freshmen through intense and physically exhausting training. In return for this favor, the 4 degree(s) will wait until moments before the nightly accountability check, commonly referred to as DI, to strip oneself completely of any clothing and sit in front of the door wear naught but a guitar or a strategically placed textbook to the shock and disgust of the upperclassman who has, by policy, no choice but to shut the door until the next day. 4 Degree Stamps informed me that it was “our only way of getting back at them. Sure, anyone ask to go to the bathroom every 30 minutes, but once the upperclassmen walk in on you wearing nothing but an unaddressed envelope, asking where the stamp goes, you know you’ve gone pro.” Eventually the upperclassmen learned to avoid opening that particular door and will therefore be trained, only to physically train the freshmen harder the next day, resulting in both sides exercising their creative hemispheres in order to punish the other, and essentially themselves.

To be fair to the upperclassmen, however, the physical hardship of training is usually invoked in the name of making a more appreciative and physically healthy cadet. The mental (sometimes emotional depending on how much of a Type A personality the cadet is) stresses of studying for knowledge tests in addition to nightmare classes such as Chem 100 and Intro to Computer Science are the origins of sleepless nights and hot tempers. Compounded with weekly knowledge tests that prove victorious over the 4 degrees when they forget that one of the bomb types that B-2 carries is the GBU-28/31/38 or other such minutia, tolerating upperclassmen becomes a titanic challenge. All of these evils brought on by Academy life take longer and are more painful than multiple courses of rabies shots. For the most part, even the upperclassmen hate training. Not because they don’t want the next generation of 4 degrees to be poor officers, but mostly because they are so near death from exhaustion, the psychology department declared that cadets fall asleep faster than narcoleptics.

However, there are the few, proud, and “super hooah” upperclassmen who truly, no-joke get their rocks off over any opportunity to “beat smacks” (beat = physical training, smacks = us). These are the gems of cadets that reach such a magnitude of toolishness that even some off the senior enlisted folk give them the “holy shit, calm down!” look. Despised by both fellow upperclassmen and 4 degrees alike, they are the cadets everyone hopes will be pilots or acquisitions officers, or anything that keeps them away from commanding other human beings upon the receipt of their commission. Officers will sometimes drop by and tell campfire stories about how, once upon a time, a 2nd lieutenant thought his Academy diploma made him infallible.

The story goes that once upon a time there was an Academy graduate who had just received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant, the lowest of officers, into an aircraft maintenance unit. On his first day, he called a meeting with his unit before they continued with their assignments and he announced to them that if not one of them was unable to surpass him in physical fitness, they would be required to attend daily physical training before the beginning of that day’s work. Of course, this early twenty-something hotshot beat all of his men handily. However, once his commander, a Major, found out that aircraft mechanics were being ordered to train as if they were competing athletically, instead of working on damaged and faulty aircraft, he corrected the lieutenant’s mistake and forced him to follow around a rank-poor and experience-rich sergeant to learn how to actually deal with subordinates. The private execution of 2nd Lieutenant Academy Grad’s pride concluded with the major instructing the sergeant: “if he doesn’t do what you say to the ‘t’, let me know and I’ll take care of it.”

Immediately each freshman vows to himself that he will learn from the folly of 2nd Lieutenant Academy Grad and treat the enlisted folk under his command with the utmost respect. Once again, the instinctive type-A kicks in after awhile and the Academy graduate is dumbfounded as to why he is in trouble when all he wanted was to have the best unit under his command. I don’t claim to have an answer to the problems that many an officer faces. What I do know is that having the false sense of excellence dripped like a poison into one’s ear over the course hour-long briefings in a hot auditorium after a disgusting lunch:

“I understand that you all had a delicious meal at Mitchell Hall’s fine dining bar and grill (an overly used joke, nobody likes Mitchell Hall food) and that it’s really hot in here so please bear with me. I remember when I was a cadet and I fell asleep during briefings but what I need to tell you is important… (20 minutes later)… leadership… (half-consious daze)… world’s premier institution. Now the colonel in the back is telling me that my time is up so have a great Air Force day cadet wing!”

When the Air Force outside of cadetland catches wind of this, they wrap a tight deathgrip around your ego, shake it like a magic 8 ball, and repeat until they get the fortune that this officer will be worth following in the future.

Even Hunter Thompson, God rest his beer-soaked soul, was in the Air Force while the Blue Zoo was hatching lieutenants aplenty from fledglings. Only to have them face MiGs and AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) and POW camps. What would Dr.Gonzo say of the Academy grads who only got in because of the family connections to a colonel, or because a congressman owed his uncle a favor? Although excruciatingly too late to find out what the good doctor would say, it would probably be along the lines of: “those poor spoiled trust fund babies who suckling at the power teat are going to be in for a rude awakening when they find out that Charlie doesn’t give a shit how many semesters they were on the Dean’s List.” While we can only guess as to what wisdom Thompson would impart, the Thompson’s contemplation is a fact not to be ignored by the young and boastful graduates. Each class commissions more cocky and overconfident 2nd Lieutenants. Clearly shown by the famous quote:

“Yea I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil. For I am at 20,000 feet and climbing”

-SR-71 Pilot

That isn’t to say that arrogance has no place in the Air Force. Who would trust a fighter pilot that wasn’t 110% confident in their skills to maneuver a hunk of aluminum faster than the speed of sound? The first female to join the ranks of the Air Force Thunderbirds, Nicole Malachowski, once said that “nothing really matters once you’re up in the air. The joystick is the ultimate equalizer.” The same applies to the Academy; each cadet’s grades, physical ability, and military prowess are all quantified and run through a computer that decides who is first and who is last in the class. Since class standing determines whether one will be a fighter jock or a UAV pilot (a generally unwanted job due to a low risk of fun) class rank is an important, yet rarely discussed issue. When someone asked 4 Degree Burns how he was doing academically he replied by informing them:

“I’m doing pretty good I guess. I’m somewhere around 190 in the class. Which is tough though since my squadron gave us morning training sessions with rifles and rucks (another word for a rucksack which is really just a heavy green backpack).”

“Tell me about it Burns, there’s no time for anything.”

“You think so? I’ve got all kinds of free time. I’m about this smart even though I only do this much work.”

His conversation was followed by a visual demonstration of his “smart” hand nearly dislocating his arm from its socket upwards while the “work done” hand rose no higher than his hip. At least he wasn’t bragging right? One professor’s philosophy on cadets was that “they could build you a dual purpose rocket/glider for fun, but if you ask them which band MacJagger was in, prepare for ensuing hilarity.” Burns shares his abundance of intelligence and the absence of common sense with the majority of the cadet wing. Burns was caught naked under the sheets and geared for physical exertion with an enlisted woman in the cadet clinic. When I asked him about the events leading up to the dirty deed with off-limits personnel, he said that “she seemed pretty cool and she gave me her number. One thing led to another and on Halloween she was drunk texting me to come over, so I did.” After a flicker of gloom and longing for his old squeeze, he politely excused himself to his next class and departed with his backpack in his left hand.

Among the military traditions and hardships that each cadet endures, no burden induced by the Academy, upperclassmen, training sessions or homework can shake a harpoon to the white whale of discomfort each cadet inflicts upon himself. Just by showing up on in-processing day, they’re giving a polite middle finger to the cubicle, Starbucks, party-in-college-and-sneak-by-with-a-bullshit-major, and 401k way of life. Each of them reflects on the life they could have pursued with the same nostalgic smile and mannerly departure that Burns gave me. With no exceptions, each 4 degree I have talked to shared a story where someone at the airport or someone on the street asks them “Why are you throwing your life away at such a young age? Don’t you know real college is ten times easier, ten times as fun, and altogether happier for the exact same education?” Of course these young Americans realize that.

This is the cream of the crop that got into Stanford and Notre Dame as safety schools. These are the walking embodiments of potential who will become doctors, astronauts, pilots, architects, engineers, and artisans of the future to take up a hammer and anvil and strike eagerly at the red-hot opportunities in life to make the country better than they found it. They are the ones who smile at vomit on the ground and dribble from their mouth during a training session because they know they will accomplish greatness. But they won’t accomplish greatness for themselves, at least not intentionally. They accomplish greatness because, as Wolfe put it, they have “the right stuff.” It’s just what they do, and America, they do it for you.


/story


its still undergoing TONS of revision (i really dont like the last paragraph) but criticism is eagerly welcomed. I'm also going to write about the years that follow (if i manage not to get kicked out), some advice on where to take this would be immensely helpful. also, to you more militarily experienced people, feel free to put me in my place as i've heard Academy grads have quite the egos to contend with
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Pretty simple really, do your own thing as long as it does not fuck with anyone's enjoyment of life.

Last edited by EventHorizon; 05-30-2011 at 10:26 PM..
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Old 06-07-2011, 04:14 AM   #2 (permalink)
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For what its worth, it was an interesting read.
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