All You Can Be Starts Here

My head started pounding immediately after I opened my eyes. I tried my best to focus them, but it was dark and I could only make out a few blurred points of light in the distance. The side of my face was wet and cold, and it started to occur to me that I was staring out a fogged bus window that I’d been using unintentionally as a pillow. Which might be the reason for the pain in my skull.

My neck cracked as I tried to pick my head up off the glass. It was stiff as hell from sleeping in such an awkward position, and for a second, this new discomfort took my mind off how bad my head hurt, but not for long.

Totally disorientated, I took a deep breath and did my best to look around in the dark in an attempt to figure out where I was. Judging from the glowing red exit sign ahead of me and the cold vinyl seat I was sitting on that provided about the same amount of cushioning as a slab of concrete, I determined that I was on an old classic Blue Bird School bus. Slowly I began to sit up, grateful for the fact that I at least had the seat to myself. I rubbed my eyes and tried to figure out what time it was, how long I’d been asleep, and where in the actual hell I was.

Slowly it all began to come back to me. I was on a bus somewhere in Missouri, best as I could figure a few hours west of St. Louis. I looked at my watch and pressed the little button on the side to illuminate the digital face. The warm green glow lit the LCD numbers on the watch and I could see it was a little after 2:00 in the morning, which meant it was September 15th.  The day I was to report to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for Army Basic Training.

Now it was all coming back to me. My head didn’t hurt because I was slumped in an awkward position, with my face pressed up against a window. It hurt because I had drank my bodyweight in alcohol the day before with my friends.

Not knowing what I had in store for me, I did what any healthy 20 year old would do the day before he left for the Army. I stayed up all night drinking. Life as I knew it was about to change, so I decided there was no way I was going into this sober. That was kind of how I approached everything back then now that I think of it.  So why would joining the Army be any different? In fact, I’m pretty sure I had been drinking the day I decided to enlist which would explain how a guy like me would ever wind up in the Army to begin with.

I fished through my jacket and found a half pack of cigarettes and a Bic lighter. Sadly, yes, I did smoke back then, and in those days, smoking was allowed in things like buildings, busses and planes. I was told I wasn’t going to be able to smoke while I was in basic, so I’d been trying to burn these things up before I got there. I pulled one out from the pack, lit it up, and took a long slow drag.  I inhaled deeply and let it all out as I exhaled, as if I was trying to expel the smoke, pain and stress all in one breath.

My throat was real dry, so I fished around in the dark to find the bottle of coke I’d bought at the airport. I found it between my back and the seat cushion, which explained the discomfort I had in my spine. It was still a little more than half-full, so I opened it and took a long sip. Even though my body heat had warmed it up  and it was a bit flat, it still did the trick. I took another drag off the cigarette and looked back out the window. We were coming to an area that had bright street lights, and after being in the dark for so long, looking out at them was kind of like staring directly at the sun. That’s when I saw it. A rather ordinary looking brown sign on the side of the road, with a spotlight on it that illuminated the words:

“Welcome to Fort Leonard Wood – All you can be starts here.”

“ All you can be starts here.” I said aloud to myself. “What the hell did I get myself into?”

“Oh man,” I heard one of the guys ahead of me say to the guy sitting next to him, “Shit’s about to get real!”

That’s the first time I had ever heard someone use the term “shit was about to get real,” so maybe it was the combination of that statement, and the now ominous sign, that only moments ago seemed so unassuming, that gave me the sinking feeling in my stomach. It was at that moment that it all hit me. I had made a terrible mistake.

All you can be starts here.

The words kept going through my head as the bus continued to make its way into the Fort.

What the hell did that really mean anyway? The Army’s recruiting slogan then was “Be all that you can be”, so it was a funny little play on words. Maybe it was to help put your concerns at rest and reaffirm that you had done the right thing by joining the Army. Except it didn’t do that at all for me.

I suddenly realized that the Army was going to kick my ass. I was going to be all I could be whether I wanted to or not, and up to this point in my life, I really didn’t want to be all I could be. Hell, I never even cared to be half of what I could be, since I really didn’t think I could be all that much to begin with.

What if I already was all I could be? What if I already was all I could be way back in my junior year of high school? Come to think of it, I probably peaked in eighth grade, so I’ve been kind of faking for the last seven years or so.  No, I was an underachiever and had been for most of my life. Trying to make me all I could be, would really be making me more than I could be, and that was a recipe for disaster.

I had only joined the Army to learn how to drive a truck. My recruiter told me that I’d learn to be a truck driver and get my commercial driver’s license if I signed up for six years. So that’s what I did. I didn’t want to jump out of planes or drive tanks, fire cannons or hike for miles with a machine gun. I wanted to drive a truck for six years and be done with it. I was the least Hoo-ah guy that ever joined the Army, so being all I could be was out of the question.

The bus began to slow down in front of an old wooden building that I was sure had to have been built during the Second World War. I took that as my cue to put my cigarette out, so I took one last haul off it, dropped it to the floor and stamped it out with my foot. That may have seemed like a shitty thing to do, but I was sure they paid someone to clean the bus (at the time I didn’t know it was going to be me) and I was too tired to care. I finished my coke and set that down on the floor of the bus as well. Whoever was going to clean the bus could get the empty bottle while they were sweeping up the cigarette butts.

The bus pulled up in front of the doors and came to a stop. The driver, without saying a word, opened the door and got out of the bus. The rest of us just sat there in the dark, with no idea what we were supposed to do. Everyone started to shuffle around; collecting their things, but no one would get up to get off the bus. I just sat there and watched the door.

Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad. I had envisioned pulling up to the barracks and having a hundred screaming drill sergeants yelling at me, but so far, the whole trip was pretty laid back. Maybe everything was going to be alright after all. I was getting all worked up for nothing. I took a deep breath and sat back on the seat. I was ready I thought, to try to become all I could be. I had begun to relax so much that I didn’t really notice as soldier in a funny looking hat come out of the building and up the stairs of the bus.

That’s when I met Sergeant Crook…

“GET YOUR DIRTY, GOAT SMELLING ASS OFF MY BUS! YOU HAVE TEN SECONDS TO GET IN THAT BUILDING AND FIVE OF THEM ARE ALREADY GONE!!! LET’S GO.. MOVE IT!”

Yup, I had made a mistake. This man hated me and he hadn’t even got to know me yet. When he did, I was sure he would kill me. Or worse. I should not have joined the Army.

That was 33 years ago today, and even though I’m still in the Army Reserve, I’m still the least Hoo-ah guy you’ll ever meet in the Army, and I still think I made a mistake.

But on the plus side, I’ve learned that I’m still not “all I can be”… not yet at least. I still have a long way to go before I get there.

But “all I can be” did start there, that night, on that bus…

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