At the end of our sixth week of training we received a 24-hour pass. With three friends from my platoon, I headed into a Fayetteville. The streets were crowded with hawkers standing outside jewelry stores and pawnshops entreating young soldiers to purchase something for the “girl back home;” inebriated soldiers from the 82nd Airborne and Special Forces—many looking for “slick sleeve” army trainees to torment and less-than-reputable women looking for a “date.” Not wanting trouble, we purchased beer and snacks and checked into a local motel.
Late that afternoon, we decided to go to a steakhouse for dinner. As we studied the menu the guy seated beside me whispered, “I need to speak with you in private. Come with me and bring the menu.” I followed and when we stopped he said, “I’ve never had a steak; I mean I’ve heard of them and I’ve had a hamburger but not a steak and I don’t know what to order.” He was a big kid from Arkansas, so I suggested he order the 24-ounce porterhouse. When the steak was served he took a bite, chewed contemplatively and then devoured it. I had finished only half of my dinner when he got the waiter’s attention and ordered a second steak.
After finishing his second steak, he leaned over and said, “I want dessert but I don’t know what to order: what’s a baked Alaska?” When I explained that it was a meringue covered ice cream that was baked in the oven, he exclaimed, “No way! Baked ice cream—I’ve got to try that.” After two large porterhouses, I was surprised when he ate his first dessert; I was amazed when he ordered and finished the second baked Alaska. Full but happy, walking back to the hotel room he kept repeating, “Momma isn’t going to believe I had ice cream baked in an oven!”
We grew up in a world in which people were identified as part of a group: you knew the “greasers” by their hair, jeans and boots; the “nerds” by glasses and pocket protectors and the “preppies” by their clothes. However, with everyone dressed and looking the same, in the army, you didn’t know if the guy in the bunk next to you was a greaser, nerd or preppie.
Stereotypical perceptions were erased by enforced conformity thus creating the opportunity to know people for who they were. Rather than clothes, family circumstances or education, you discovered that hard work, loneliness and shared experiences bring people together.
I learned valuable lessons during my time in basic training: no matter how they appear to conform, people are individuals; even if different, a friend is to be cherished; character, not looks, matters and never underestimate how much a hungry kid from Arkansas can eat.
Judging A Man
“When you meet a man, you judge him by his clothes; when you leave, you judge him by his heart.” – Proverb