Basic Training, Lackland Air Force Base, Summer 1975

Basic Training, Lackland Air Force Base, Summer 1975

By Mike Boudreau

Mike Boudreau grew up crisscrossing the city of Boston before settling in Tyngsboro, MA, in 2002.   After a 28-year career in the U.S. Air Force, he returned to New England and earned a Masters in Community and Social Psychology at UMASS Lowell in 2004.  This post is part of a memoir, “Acts of Contrition.” His previous post is “Go to England; Discover Kerouac.”

Eastern Airlines.  Well that’s a name I hadn’t seen in decades until just now as I cracked open the dusty orange scrap book that held my earliest memories of my time in the Air Force.  Right there on the first page, now permanently stuck beneath the yellowed acetate sheet, was my very first airline tickets that took me on my very first flight away from Boston, my disarrayed family, and my tearful goodbye with my girlfriend as I headed for basic training.

The ticket information was handwritten on a carbon copy dated June 13, 1975, a Friday, and showed Flight 293 departing Boston at 10:25 AM and arriving in Atlanta, Georgia, at 1:15 PM, the first leg of my trip to San Antonio, Texas.  I smiled as I could suddenly see and hear the television commercials they’d show on Channel 38 between periods of Bruins’ games back in the 1970’s.  A majestic, shiny airliner climbing higher and higher through a blue sky, racing past puffy clouds, then making a sudden, swooping turn to the right as the narrator said in his deepest voice, “Eastern Airlines.  The wings of man.”  I also remembered exactly how it felt as the plane first taxied down the runway, then accelerated so fast and powerfully it pinned me back in my seat, prompting me to begin a sudden torrent of silent “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys.”  Just as it seemed the plane couldn’t race and I couldn’t pray any faster, the pilot lifted us up into the wild blue yonder in a mere forty-five seconds.  Once at cruising altitude, the excitement and fear of what would soon be the reality of basic training began to turn to stomach butterflies.

After finally landing in San Antonio, I made my way to the designated meeting area that was stamped on my orders, and joined up with all of the other young, scared looking men and women who were starting to gather there from flights all around the country.  The sign above the door read “Waiting Lounge for Basic Trainees.”  It looked and felt more like a group of prisoners awaiting sentencing.  We chatted nervously amongst ourselves, most wondering, I’m sure, what in the world were we thinking.

At long last, a very stern, very muscular guy in a crisp tan uniform with four stripes on his sleeve and wearing a broad-brimmed hat, the trademark of the Military Training Instructor or “MTI”, came striding into the room.  You could hear a pin drop as he began shouting a barrage of instructions at us, the first of which was to keep our mouths shut.  We didn’t yet know what standing at attention truly was, but I could see everyone trying to figure it out as we all went rigid, afraid to even blink.

The Training Instructor, we learned, was Staff Sergeant Stalsby, who in what I felt was an unnecessarily aggressive tone, spent the next five minutes telling us exactly how to line up in two lines, one men, one women, get outside to the curb, and get on the designated “Blue Goose” bus that would take us to Lackland Air Force Base and be our last ride in a motor vehicle for the next six weeks.  My motley crew of just the men somehow finally managed to stow our luggage and get seated on the bus.  It was near midnight by now, and our heads began to bob as we listened to the MTI scream at us that for the next six weeks he would be our father, our mother, and our girlfriend so we’d better get used to it.

The bus lurched to a halt in front of the “chow hall,” and Staff Sergeant Stalsby, who’d become quiet, resumed shouting, creating a stampede of tired recruits that poured off of the bus and assembled themselves into a crude formation awaiting the next verbal onslaught.  All the while screaming at us how worthless we were, the MTI managed to organize us into a single line and marched us into the chow hall where a second MTI took over the yelling, instructing us on the proper procedure to go through the “chow line.”

We were to stare straight ahead, move in a “side step,” from right to left, and when asked by the server what we wanted, to make our request beginning and ending with the word “sir.”  Although it was almost one in the morning, the food was leftovers from the earlier meal provided to recruits already in training.   Starving, I finally arrived in front of the server who asked me what I’d like.  In my thick Boston accent I said “Sir!  I’d like a piece of “pawk,” some “kawn on the kawb,” and some “pahdaydahs, sir!”  The server, also a recruit but clearly my superior since he was already a basic trainee, just stared at me.

“What did you say?” he finally asked impatiently.

I repeated what I thought was a perfectly clear request, but again, I got just the blank stare in return.

Sighing he said, “Tell you what Airman, just point at it for me will ya?”

After eating, we were finally brought to our barracks, issued linens to make the beds, then it was lights out after an exhausting day.

Homesickness quickly set in.  Especially those first few days when I lied awake in the middle of the night with everything quiet other than the cacophony of snores that echoed through the stifling open bay barracks that housed me and my fellow recruits.  I was still very anxious about my family’s well-being back home, and of course I missed my girlfriend.  Why hadn’t I just gone to college, I thought in regret, even if it was only to a state school?  My imagination would roam wild about what could be happening back home as I’d sob softly in the dark feeling the isolation.  I’d heard some of the other guys as well and I was sure they were feeling as equally insecure and homesick.  As dawn approached, my apprehension would build at knowing the inevitable roar of the MTI barging in would come precisely at five-o’clock in the morning to roust fifty young men in t-shirts and “tighty whiteys” from their perfectly aligned rows of bunks into an organized frenzy of quick showers and shaves and another day of marching and shouting in the Texas heat.  In spite of what seemed like endless such days, deep down I knew I really wanted to be there and to face this and whatever challenges lay ahead.  As a consolation, I’d think, gratefully, that although Air Force basic training was “demanding,” it surely must pale from what I’d heard about the Marine Corps, almost my first choice.

Paging through the old scrapbook now, some forty-two years later, I reflected with pride, amazement, and most of all appreciation at what became a twenty-eight year career in the Air Force.  One that included tours across Europe and the United States, countless hours in the air, and above all, the privilege of having served side-by-side with hundreds of others, who like me, took that first flight to San Antonio, and of whom so many of which, I’ll cherish always.