Chapter 4 – Like a Fat Fuck in a Dodgeball Game, I’m Out
My final session with the military psychologist had taken place on a Monday. I was due to be discharged that Friday. Since I could feel the end so near, I was a bit nostalgic about my time in the service. Every evening that week after dinner I’d walk to the top of the hill on which the Defense Language Institute is situated and I’d watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. I’d sit there listening to Linkin Park, crying. “Sometimes solutions aren’t so simple. Sometimes goodbye’s the only way.” Well put, Chester. Well put. I couldn’t wait to get the fuck outta there, but at the same time I really did enjoy the experience. And I don’t regret it at all. But…it was just time for me to go. And that’s the way it had to be.
I actually had a lot of fun in basic training. It’s a totally bizarre social experiment if you think about it. Taking a bunch of people ranging in age from eighteen to thirty-nine with drastically varying personalities and from drastically varying racial, cultural, religious, economic, educational and geographical backgrounds and stuffing them all into the same place, hoping to turn them all into functioning parts of the world’s largest war machine…well, let’s just say that that makes for some good-ass comedy. I’ll never forget the karate-obsessed Cajun from Louisiana who always insisted on practicing his martial arts on everyone despite specifically having been ordered by our instructors to cease and desist. Or the massive Samoan whose thunderous snoring could set off a car alarm two counties away. Or the Filipino guy who had a bunch of pet turtles back home that, at our request, would always do his impression of said turtles having over-the-top orgasms. I thought he was just making that shit up. But then I looked up “orgasmic turtles” on YouTube and it’s a real thing. They really do get off the way that guy would depict it. Or how about the really ripped black dude from Alabama – a self-proclaimed ladies’ man who wrote crappy poetry, preached of polygamy, said he never does “butt stuff” and used the phrase “…and things of that nature” to end every other sentence. Or the Chinese-born genius who quit his job as a gynecologist, thus disappointing his parents to pursue his dream of being military intelligence. Or the guy who didn’t sleep for five days straight, went nuts and was found in the middle of the night under someone else’s bed banging his head on the floor, babbling to himself. Or the hilarious impressions of the training instructors a few of the guys could do so very well. I laughed my ass off so many times.
I’ll never forget having a casual conversation with the tall, lanky, goofy-ass eighteen-year-old who always had this dumb shit-eating grin on his face as he shaved his junk in the bathroom stall next to the one I’d been shitting in, peeking over the top of the partition and asking me if I thought he’d get a disease from dipping the razor in the toilet bowl to clean off the hairs. That was a few days before our graduation. He’d been readying himself for the impending visit of his girlfriend to whom he planned on proposing. I wonder how that ever worked out. I’ll also never forget the psychopath who’d make direct eye contact with you in the shower while hunching his back and slowly masturbating at you before bursting into a fit of raucous laughter once he knew you’d been sufficiently weirded-out. And I’m sure many other people will never forget all the times I opened up their lockers and pulled my pants down to bareass-fart into ‘em and shut the door real quick to trap the fart in there in hope that it’d smack ‘em in the face the next time they went to open it up. Or how one buddy and I would pull our ballsacks out our shorts and leave ‘em hanging there while standing at attention next to our lockers at night as taps played just before lights-out. Or the time a fellow wingman had been telling a group of us about his family and mentioned that his brother was born abroad and I immediately but casually interrupted him to ask, “At what age did he have a sex change?” There’s too many good times to mention them all here.
During the first few weeks of BMT our marching was a total fuckin’ mess. But towards the end of it we as a flight had gotten pretty good. Our moves were smooth and we could all shout out the military cadences known as “jodies” in perfect unison. It was pretty cool. It really was a point of pride when in our seventh week of training to be functioning like a well-oiled machine as we’d march past all the newby “sneaker-weekers” who hadn’t even been issued their boots and uniforms yet getting hounded by packs of sergeants, cussing them out in creative ways. Creative cussing…lemme explain to you what I mean by that.
Ya see, the Air Force went PC a few years back. I was told there was a massive scandal with irresponsible sergeants making all the trainees pack into the bathroom and turning all the showers on to full-blast so it turned into a steam room and making everyone do push-ups until they passed out. There’d also been – between 2011 and 2015 – like thirty-five instructors under investigation for sexual misconduct with trainees or something like that. I’m not sure if the changes were military-wide or just within the Air Force. I’d probably guess military-wide. Because during this same time I know there was some army sergeant who’d been convicted of recruiting, as prostitutes, and pimping out lower-ranking women under his supervision – literally selling them for sex and making money off them – when he was supposed to be furthering their military training. So, all this shit caused a bunch of controversy and reform and they began regulating the shit out of everything. We had to attend a sexual assault prevention symposium every couple weeks in which speakers would remind us that rape is bad. It was really condescending and insulting. At least to me it felt that way. Who knows – maybe some rapists learned the error of their ways when handed a free plastic cup that says written on the side “the contents of this cup are not an excuse for me to rape anybody.”
Outside of our hour-long physical training sessions in the morning, instructors could only make us do like one set of thirty push-ups a day as punishment for fucking up. These exercises we were threatened with took on the name of “military training tools.” The instructors could no longer trash our dormitory and throw our belongings everywhere the way they used to in the past. The most they could do was tip over the garbage in the bathroom and make us clean it up. I think they only did that once or twice. And perhaps most G-rated of all, they weren’t allowed to swear at us. The instructors must’ve been given a list of banned words from their command that they had to cut out of their vocabularies when yelling at us. As it turns out, “piss” wasn’t one of them. So, on a daily basis it wasn’t unusual to be told to “Wake the piss up!” or be asked what the piss we think we’re doing or be told to “Stop acting weird!” or something along those lines when behaving in a way that didn’t align with the standards set for trainees at Lackland AFB.
The one area where instructors seemed to have some leeway in the things that they could get away with saying had been in the aforementioned jodies we’d sing while either marching or working out in the morning. One of the most memorable ones had started with the MTI yelling, “I went to the pool…” and we’d all shout back, “I went to the pool…” and he’d go, “…where all the terrorists swim!” And we’d repeat, “…where all the terrorists swim!” “I pulled out my toaster (I pulled out my toaster), and then I threw it in! (and then I threw it in!) Screamin’ left, right, left, right, left, right, KILL! (Left, right, left, right, left, right, KILL!) Left, right, left, right, you know we will! (Left, right, left, right, you know we will!)” And then it’d start again. It could be any scenario really, as long as it was sufficiently violent and whatever activity the terrorists were doing rhymed with the method of murder we were to employ as their punishment for being terrorists. Like, another popular one’d been, “I went to the store…where all the terrorists shop…pulled out machete…and I began to CHOP!” Or “I went to the park…where all the terrorists play…pulled out my AK…and I began to SPRAY!”
So, like I said, it was pretty entertaining to watch the instructors push their limits with this. But it wasn’t nearly as funny as when we’d be up in the dormitory unsupervised, crowded around and taking turns coming up with our own disgustingly violent jodies. I’ll never forget what this one dude said. He was probably the most responsible guy in the group too. Always keeping everyone else in line and making sure everyone does what they were supposed to do and making sure everything gets done and shit like that. But when his turn came around to jump in the circle and drop his jody, this dude goes, “I went to the maternity ward” and naturally we all echoed what he said, “where all the terrorists are born (where all the terrorists are born), pulled out my camera (pulled out my camera), and started filming kiddie porn! Screamin’ left, right, left, right, left, right, KILL!” The rest of us couldn’t even keep going after he said that. We were rolling around on the floor. My eyes were tearing up I was laughing so fucking hard. That was one of our last days together. Then we all got sent to our separate tech schools. We kept in touch for a while via the occasional text message but then we pretty much all lost contact with one another.
The Defense Language Institute just wasn’t the same as basic training. The place was just way too fucking stuffy right from the start. If basic training had a college dormitory feel, the DLI had more of this overbearingly suffocating corporate office feel that I simply can’t thrive in. I didn’t really feel free to goof around to blow off steam or to be myself in any way, shape or form. Everything was so serious. On top of being in class from 8am ‘til 3pm and having to memorize a hundred new words a night, every minute of my day was allotted to military duties and partaking in team-building obligations – “mandatory fun” as we called it around the squadron – such as compulsory games of hide and seek and Saturday picnics where alcohol wasn’t allowed. I wither and die in places like that. I felt smothered to the point of insanity. Which, as you now know, is why I ended up getting an entry level discharge for “failure to adapt to the military lifestyle.”
Don’t get me wrong, I still had my fair share of laughs at the DLI. It’s just that they were few and far between and weren’t nearly enough to make that environment tolerable, ya know what I’m sayin’? Like, my primary source of humor had been in class when certain Arabic words sounded like dirty words in English. For example, this one old Lebanese teacher had been giving a lesson on food items. He asked if anyone knew what the word for “honey” was. I did. I studied ahead and already knew all the vocab for that lesson. I knew that “عسل” – pronounced “ossul” which is like the way a Valley Girl would say “asshole” – was the answer. So I said it. And the teacher was surprised. He asked me, “How did you know that word?” And I looked him dead in the eyes and told him, “I just love eating عسل.” The other five students in the class burst out laughing and I felt so fucking proud of myself in that moment.
Also along those same lines, in the Levant they have these crunchy breadsticks called “كعك” which is pronounced the exact same way as we say “cock.” And one time this cute, sweet little Syrian woman in her early thirties had been standing in front of our class, teaching us about foods from her homeland. She used Google to pull up some pictures of this bread on the projector screen right before asking, “Has anyone ever showed you guys Syrian كعك?” It made me so happy to hear her say that. And then this other dude in my class – real smart dude but total narcissistic asshole with whom I happened to get along really well – says back to her that, “Yeah, Ustaz Ray (this other teacher from Syria who’s in his sixties) was just showing us some Syrian كعك the other day.” I’m having a hard time containing myself at this point. The imagery in my head is too much to handle. But then she keeps going. She says, “You guys see the way Syrian كعك is? It’s long and it’s hard and sometimes it’s covered in sesame seeds.” And after she said that, the dam burst. I just couldn’t stop laughing. I put my head down and was pounding my desk with my fist and stomping the floor. I was the oldest guy in class by at least six years but easily the most immature.
And then there was one more. It was right before I dropped out. Me and the other dude I mentioned who made the “cock” comment decided it was a good idea to write “الاسهال شَوْرَبَا” on the board in between classes. This phrase – “schwarba al-iishaal” – translates into English as “diarrhea soup.” And the old Lebanese guy from the first story came in the next period and started teaching the class. He didn’t immediately see what we’d written. But then about ten minutes into his lesson he stopped dead in his tracks with his eyes locked on the board. “What is this!?” he says and rapidly shakes his head in disbelief, his chubby cheeks jiggling as he does so. “Schwarba al-iishaal? What does this mean?” He looked around the room for someone to answer him. “Uhh,” I finally responded, “I think it means ‘diarrhea soup.’” “I know that!” he spat back. “I know what it means. I know that it means ‘diarrhea soup.’ But what is it? What is ‘diarrhea soup’? These are two concepts that don’t belong together. On the one hand we have soup which is a food and on the other we have diarrhea which is…well, diarrhea. I’m so confused,” he said, again shaking his head incredulously. He again looked around the room for someone to explain to him what was going on. No one did and, palpably frustrated, as if we didn’t know this basic truth, he raised both his arms in the air and proclaimed, “People aren’t supposed to eat diarrhea!” I again was prompted into laughing like a fuckin’ hyena.
A couple days before my discharge, I was called into the office of the First Sergeant. This is the chief at the end of the first chapter who had me sent to jail for refusing to go back to class. He gave me a list of signatures I needed to go around the base collecting to get all my paperwork in order before my Friday morning departure. I thanked him and walked out his office and was practically clicking my heels. The end finally felt real. I was in such a good mood. And when I’m in good moods like that, I feel creative and wanna make other people laugh. So I came up with the following scenario in my head and typed it up on my phone and sent it to a bunch of people via text. It went…
“You think back when ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was still a thing there was ever a gay military porno in which the premise had been one guy trying to get out of the army by claiming that he was a fanny bandit after purposefully getting caught by another soldier jacking it to some hot dude-on-dude action on VHS? And he has to meet in the office of his leadership and the commander’s like, “I know what you’re up to soldier. You don’t have a gay bone in your body. You just wanna get out. But if you really wanna get out, it’s not gonna be that easy.” And he starts taking off his belt. “In fact,” he unzips his fly, ‘if you wanna get out, it’s gonna be much, much harder.’ And he pulls out his dick and says, ‘Go ‘head. Prove it. Put this gay bone inside your body.’ And gay porno music starts playing and they get it on and then at the end, as the commander jizzes all over the soldier’s face, the camera pans up to that of the commander as he scowls, ‘There ya go soldier, you got what you wanted. You’ve just been dishonorably discharged.’”
Some people thought it was funny. Some thought it was disgusting. I was in too good of a mood to care either way. I got all the signatures I needed and packed up my room. Friday morning rolled around and I turned in my paperwork. I walked into the First Sergeant’s office and let him know I did everything he told me I needed to do.
“Great,” he said. “How are you getting to the airport?”
“I’m not sure yet,” I replied. “Maybe a taxi or an Uber. I dunno.”
“I can give you a ride,” he suggested. “Because now you’re officially a civilian. And there’s no rules in the UCMJ against chiefs giving rides to civilians.”
“Uh, yeah…” I kinda hesitated. “Okay.”
“That is, if you want me to. If you feel uncomfortable, I totally understand.”
“No, I don’t feel uncomfortable. That works for me. I just don’t wanna cause you any more problems.”
“It’s no problem at all. You got your bags?”
“Okay. Why don’t you go grab your bags from your room? I’m finishing up with something here and I should be done by the time you get back and then we can go.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sounds good.”
So I got my bags and get in the car with this guy and we pull off the base. He asks me what time my flight is at. I tell him and he says we have plenty of time. He says he’s gonna take the scenic route to the airport. I tell him that that’s fine by me. Between five and ten minutes later, we’re out on some winding verdant mountain road.
“You ever go hiking out here?” he asked me. “Beautiful area.”
“No,” I told him. “The only time I left base during the three-and-a-half months here was when I got sent to jail.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Well,” I began, “the first couple weeks I was here, you know, I wasn’t allowed to leave base because of my BTP phasing. Then during ITP when I could’ve left base, I spent all my free time studying. Because I’m a very obsessive person. Or instead of ‘obsessive’ we could say ‘passionate’ or ‘intense’ if we wanted to use euphemisms here instead. Either way, I wanted to be the best Arabic linguist to ever come out of this school. I loved it. It was what I lived for. On top of studying after class every night, I studied for fourteen hours every Saturday and every Sunday. I learned a ton. I felt like I was pulling so far ahead of everyone in class. But then after a month, I had enough of it. I didn’t necessarily get bored with the language itself, but I got bored with this way of living. Doing the same thing and feeling the exact same way every day started driving me insane. It’s the same way I felt in high school and at college and in taekwondo class and at pretty much every job I’ve ever had. And I hate to sound pessimistic, but there’s really nothing in Monterey that seemed to interest me. I’m not the type to get excited by hanging out at malls or eating at over-priced restaurants. So, I wasn’t really interested in leaving base to take a break from my studying to go explore the area. And on top of that I was scared to leave because I hated it so much there and knew that once I was off base, I would never wanna come back. I would just wanna run away. I was considering running away to Mexico. But that way I’d have been a fugitive and could never come back and see my family again. And so, instead of running away, I marched into your office and…well, you know the rest of the story.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Yeah, I know what happened. And about that…I just wanna let you know that that wasn’t personal. There’s some things I don’t like about my job. And that’s definitely one of ‘em. I didn’t wanna hafta send you to jail but you really didn’t leave me with any other options that morning.”
“I understand. I know you can’t have any random airman asshole walk into your office and tell you what he does or doesn’t feel like doing at your squadron. The system would fall apart that way. I knew you’d send me to jail. I knew that that was the most likely outcome walking into your office that morning. But me laying it on the line and showing you how willing I am to accept whatever you throw at me in return was the only way to get through to you that I needed to get outta there ASAP. And just as planned, my message was heard loud and clear. So, I’m sorry too. I’m sorry to you for fucking up your whole Friday with that ordeal. I’m sorry for creating an unnecessary amount of paperwork for you these past couple months to get me outta here.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. It’s part of my job.”
“But I am though. And I’m sorry that I’m a piece-of-shit quitter who wants nothing to do with the military.”
“You’re not a piece of shit. You raised your right hand. You tried. You came here and you gave it your best. That’s more than most people ever do. It’s just…not for you. And that’s okay. You’re not a piece of shit.”
My bottom lip started to quiver as I held back my tears. Maybe a minute later, after I’d regained control of my emotions, I asked…
“Why did you join the military?”
“Well, there wasn’t much opportunity in the area I’m from up in Washington. I had a few baseball scholarships coming out of high school I could’ve taken but accepting any of those would’ve meant leaving my girlfriend behind and that was something I didn’t wanna do. Because I loved her. And that was a good choice. We’ve been together since then and have two kids.”
“How old are they?”
“They’re in high school. One’s getting ready to go off to college next year. I joined the Air Force because it was just a way to support my wife and the family I knew I wanted to have with her. But it became more. I kept climbing up the ranks and here I am today as chief.”
“You gonna call it quits any time soon now that you’ve maxed out your retirement?”
“Maybe,” he said. “But I don’t have anything else lined-up. And I mean, the Air Force has been pretty good to me. And as long as I’m still out here making a difference, I’m not in a real rush to get out, ya know?”
We sat for a few moments in silence.
“What are you gonna do next?” he asked. “When you go back to…?”
“Chicago,” I replied. “I’m going back to Chicago. I plan on working with my dad. He’s got a nice little business there he’s built over the years.”
“What type of business?”
“Window washing and gutter cleaning. The fall is coming so it’ll be gutter cleaning season soon. It’s good money. It’s probably the only job I’ll ever have where I can make up to four-hundred bucks a day. And it’s not bad work either. I actually kinda like it. Treating people’s houses like my personal jungle gym ain’t the worst thing in the world. And the element of danger keeps me engaged all day – keeps me in the moment and from getting lost in the labyrinth that is my mind,” I said. “That and…”
“And while I was in air crew fundamentals down at Lackland – a few days after my family came down to San Antonio to watch my graduation from basic training – my dad fell off a roof and literally broke his face and didn’t remember who he was and couldn’t walk for a month and it wasn’t really clear if he was gonna live or what was gonna happen. When my mom called me she told me to not blame myself. I told her I wouldn’t and I don’t on a rational level. He’s the captain of his own ship and I can’t take responsibility for his recklessness the way I always felt I had to when I was a kid. But part of me knows it wouldn’t have happened if I was there. Because I’m the best. I have fifteen years’ experience and I’m in my physical prime. I know exactly what I’m doing. I carry all the ladders and set them up in the safest way possible. I walk all the dangerous roofs. And it’s my job to make sure my dad doesn’t do anything stupid and hurt himself.”
“He’s recovered now?”
“Yeah, he’s recovered. The doctors told him his roof and ladder days are over. His sixty-third birthday is coming up next month. But he’s a stubborn asshole that thinks he’s still got five more years of this shit in him. But he hobbles around like a gimp with a crooked neck and his view of his own limitations is so distorted that I’m always worried he’s gonna end up doing something stupid. I mean, I love him and I know that that sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. People don’t want this fuckin’ guy on their roofs anymore, man. He’s a major liability. My parents are in so much fucking debt as it is. The insurance company didn’t pay shit for his last fall. And so…they’d be ruined if he took another tumble which – if I’m not there to make sure everything goes smoothly – I feel is practically an inevitability. My mom would be destroyed if they lost their house. I couldn’t live with myself if I let that happen to her after all the sacrifices she’s made for me over the years, knowing that I had the power to make a difference and chose not to. So…is this loyalty I feel? Or is this just some good old-fashioned codependent guilt? A mixture of both perhaps? I dunno. The only thing I know is that someone’s gotta make sure this guy doesn’t kill himself, ya know what I mean?”
He nodded and the car returned to silence.
“Do you have any future travel plans?” the chief asked, a minute or two later. “Everyone who you’ve talked to at the squadron throughout your discharge – even the doctor – they’ve all either told me or sent me emails talking about your travels and your writing. Hell, even your arresting officer had good things to say about you.”
“Yeah? The guy from India? The Bengali? Officer Seth? Used to do Special Forces stuff up in Kashmir?”
“Yeah, him. Even he was telling me about how you were riding a bicycle across Pakistan last year. I wish I could sit down and have a beer with you sometime and hear some of your stories. It seems like you’ve lived an incredible life.”
“Ha, yeah, well…I appreciate you saying so,” I responded and took a deep breath. “Yeah, actually,” I exhaled. “Yeah, I do have some plans. I was thinking about doing this thing called the Jordan Trail in February. It’s a four-hundred-mile walk across Jordan – ya know, the country in the Middle East. It’s supposed to take around forty days. I figure I’m about the same age as Jesus was when he spent forty days walking through the desert so…I dunno. Why the fuck not? It’s not a popular thing. The trails aren’t marked or anything. It’s just a route the tourism board there drew out a couple years ago and marketed as a hiking trail to attract visitors. You either wild-camp or stay in the homes of hospitable Bedouins along the way. I figured it’d be a good opportunity to use all the Arabic I learned while here. My one travel buddy and his girlfriend are fixin’ to join me.”
“That’s somethin’ else, man,” he looked over at me. “I’m jealous of you. I’m jealous of the life you live – of all the experiences you’ve had.”
“It’s funny that you say that,” I said as we pulled into the airport. “I was just thinking the exact same thing about you and your life.”
“Yeah. Your life sounds perfect. I wish I could have a family. But I love my lifestyle too much. I’m incapable of holding a job to support a family because I just can’t bring myself to give a shit. Everything I could have a career in bores me too fuckin’ much. It just feels like a waste of the one life I have. I always feel trapped and get desperate and go insane. No job in the world is as exciting as throwing out all my responsibilities, shedding whatever roles I’ve assumed during a certain time period in a certain place and quitting whatever job I have to up and go traveling whenever I feel like it. To go be a completely different person. To go be who I feel like being, not who other people have come to expect me to be.
“But four years ago, I was head over heels in love with this one girl. She was from China. It was a toxic relationship from the start but all the conflict excited me. I lost myself in her. And I couldn’t imagine my life without her in it. But in the end she told me she didn’t want a life with some travelling hippie who has no ambition. She told me I was a really fucked-up person with a receding hairline who looks ten years older than I really am. She said she wanted to marry a rich guy who would take care of her. I was fucking destroyed. Because I thought she loved me for me. Not for what I could provide her with. But she said to not be an idiot – that no woman but my mother would ever love me unconditionally. I didn’t know women could be so shallow. My life didn’t feel real for several months after she said that to me. I felt like I was in a cloud. Like I was watching myself go through the motions of my own life. And I never really recovered. And so…ever since then I’ve felt like a worthless reject loser. I’ve felt ashamed of the life I loved full of traveling and new experiences. I felt ashamed of living with my parents and doing some dumb-ass job with no upward mobility like cleaning gutters. And so, on a subconscious level, I joined the military to prove to this girl – and to all the women of the world, really – that I’m not a traveling hippie. I joined to prove that I’m worthy of being loved. Because I feel like I can’t have both, ya know? It’s either one or the other. Like, I can’t live a life I love and have someone I love love me back at the same time. I dunno. It’s stupid,” I shook my head. “Look…I’m sorry. I know you didn’t ask for this mushy explanation and…”
“Don’t be sorry,” he said as we pulled up to the departure area of Monterey Regional Airport. “We’re talkin’. It’s all good, man.”
He popped the trunk, we both got out the car and I grabbed my bags. I shook his hand and thanked him for the ride. I thanked him for doing everything in his power to get me out the military as soon as he could after the day he had me arrested. He told me he was glad he could help me out. He told me the world needs people like me in it. He wished me the best of luck in all that I do. I don’t know if he was being sincere or just blowing smoke up my ass to keep the public relations end of this shit neat and tidy or if maybe the doctor had told him that I was a psychopath and he feared me coming back and setting his car on fire if we ended our relationship on a bad note or what, but that’s the way things unfolded on the day I was discharged. The chief and I said goodbye to one another, I hopped on the plane and never looked back.