I will never forget the day I joined the Army, January 28th 1986. I was sitting in an International Relations class with my good friend Doug Hutchinson as we watched in horror, at what today is known as the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Seventy-three seconds after take-off, all of us, the professor and students sat stunned. Class was cancelled and Doug and I went to a recruiting office and joined up that day. We would leave for Basic Training together eight months later, August 26th. He would go to Fort Benning as Infantry Airborne. I would go to Fort Drum with the Military Police.
It was a cool August morning just before the sun breached the peninsular mountain ranges that surround Orange County, California. I could smell the ocean and feel the salt air as I left for the Army. Several hours later I would be in Anniston, Alabama at Fort McClellan for basic training. A far different place than I had previously called home.
My good friend Doug was hundreds of miles away feeling the same as I was, as all recruits do. Disoriented and alone.
The humidity was thick. The heat was oppressive. I was hurried from place to place. A new haircut, new clothes, inoculations, a new home shared with forty others gathered together from around the country. My good friend Doug was hundreds of miles away feeling the same as I was, as all recruits do. Disoriented and alone. Reality sets in fast.
Being away from everything that is familiar is unsettling. You quickly get to understand the do’s and don’ts. Everything is explained in detail, step by step, as if you are three years old. How to take a shower, how to dry yourself, how to brush your teeth. There were a few in need of that specific direction. Among those directions given was the receiving of care packages. What could and could not be sent from family. Care packages would become something everyone looked forward to with both joy and trepidation.
Others expressed smiling eyes while standing at ease, holding the highly valued envelope behind their back and imagining what was contained within it.
Mail call was indeed an exciting time that ultimately left some feeling deflated and empty handed. Others expressed smiling eyes while standing at ease, holding the highly valued envelope behind their back and imagining what was contained within it. Loving words from mom, updates to how the Angels were doing in the pennant race, or a picture of a girlfriend. The latter selfishly valued above all others. Some received goodies, baked with love from a loving mother, aunt or grandmother. A chocolate bar from a brother or friend. Contraband.
Some of the “contraband” care packages were divvied up among drill sergeants and other recruits and the soldier who received it was given a few minutes to eat all the rest of it, and you had to eat it all. “Your mother spent a lot of time making this delicious box of cookies, you will not let one go to waste private!” Drill Sergeant Mosely would bark. – You never forget the name of your Drill Sergeant – And after you were done consuming the contraband you were ordered to run the quad, a trash can in each corner, until you regurgitated the contents of the package back up. Hopefully spewing into one of the previously mentioned trashcans. As I said, you looked forward to mail call with joy and trepidation.
The day I received a care package I was stunned. I had written home begging them to tell everyone not to send anything beyond letters. I described what would happen if they did, despite their best intentions. This care package I received was from Dee Hutchinson, my friend Doug’s mother. Sergeant Mosley smiled wide as he called out my name. He seemed to have a special place in his heart for me and not a good place. He stood crouched over me, salivating as he urged me in a harsh whisper to hurry, he was hungry. As I opened the flaps of the box there was paper. Under the paper was a book. Etched in the lower right corner was my name. Relief rushed my body. “I didn’t know you were a church going boy, Austin,” whispered Mosley in a low voice, “You will be attended church each Sunday from now on.”
So as I went off to church each Sunday, my fellow soldiers spent their day of rest scrubbing and polishing the floor of the barracks, cleaning shower stalls and toilets. I would carry my bible everywhere I could and read from it. Drill Sergeant would approached me at times, ready to pounce, he would eye the book, and back away. Turning his wrath towards some other poor undeserving soul.
I still have that bible today, that care package given to me by Dee over thirty years ago. It has survived over twenty moves, and a divorce. I have lost my beloved record collection, tapes, CD’s, novels, and countless cherished items, like my baseball card collection and many pictures of my family. I have held onto that first Bible I ever owned. Dee passed away a few years back. When I hold that bible, that gift, that care package, I often think of her. The Bible, now worn, highlighted, underlined, and notes in its margins, is still bearing fruit some thirty years later.