It was 10 am on a Sunday, Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I was standing in men’s World War II Barracks with a can of Comet in one hand, a toothbrush in the other. What had stopped me dead in my tracks was a series of very large, oddly-shaped white porcelain objects attached to the wall right next to the line of sinks.
Never seen anything like it. I was a farm girl from Florida. Barely twenty-one. I could recite Shakespeare or Shelly, name most Beethoven symphonies from their first several bars, and I had an extensive vocabulary. I was sophisticated.
But this thing, with a handle at the top that distributed dribbles of water down the inside of it smooth, curved, but badly-stained surface, was an utter mystery.
We Need More Women!
In 1973, the Great Eminences in the Pentagon decided that it was time to get more women into the Army. They decided to open up all kinds of Military Occupational Specialties (Army speak for jobs) to women, many of them without thinking much about the physical requirements (like, field medic), or for that matter, the kind of physical training it was going to take to get the average female grunt into shape to actually perform those jobs.
But such is the great wisdom of the Pentagon.
I’d had the good fortune of dating a young man who had joined as a grunt out of Kentucky. He had wised up quickly and used the Army to pay for his entire flight training program. He was just finishing up his Reserve commitment. He was my guide as I looked at each of the services’ offerings at the time. I chose the Army, and journalism. I had a two- year commitment.
The single best piece of advice that Guy gave me just before I got on the bus was that I shouldn’t taken anything personally. What happened was to make me a better soldier. It wasn’t about me. I wore that advice like a lucky charm around my neck the entire time I was in Basic.
Fort Jackson in 1974
Fort Jackson in January, 1974 was not ready for women. It took months to get the PX to stock enough personal hygiene products for those of us of menstruating age- which was thousands- and the drill sergeants were not in the least happy about or prepared for dealing with women. Many of us cried. Lots sniffled. Even more couldn’t manage the PT- which, especially in light of today’s military, was ridiculously easy. As a farm girl I reveled in the physical work. I was short on street smarts. Many of the women in my barracks were tough city girls. I was clueless.
However, Guy’s advice rang true. I wasn’t scared or intimidated, but that led me to ask questions that regularly got me put on additional, and highly unsavory, duties while others were awarded a weekend leave.
I earned a spot as a platoon leader, despite the fact that I invariably careened left when Drill would yell right, which led to my carrying a rock for days on end. You learn. I was the source of much hilarity.
One day I asked one too many probing questions. That led to where I now stood, staring fixedly at these big white curved things hanging on the wall.
I turned on the water, stuck my head inside it. What the hell?
Permission to Ask a Question
Five am, Monday morning. We stood frozen in formation, waiting for Drill Sgt. Green to arrive. I was contemplating my immediate future the way people who are about to be invited the walk the gangplank search the water for sharks.
In my peripheral vision I saw Drill Sgt Green approach. He was a bulldog of a man, short at 5'2", square, to all accounts humorless. He scared the holy shit out of most of us. Right now I was dying to ask a question but I didn’t want to pay the price.
But I HAD to know.
As Drill came up on my left, I thought, Screw it.
“Drill Sergeant Green. Permission to ask a question.”
He halted, spun neatly, and marched right up to me. I looked over him into the distance. He was very short. His hat was right under my chin.
“WHAT, Private Hubbel?”
“Uh….Sgt. Green….that big, white, curvy, porcelain thing hanging on the wall in the men’s latrine…”
“WHAT OF IT, PRIVATE HUBBEL?”
Long pause. I could hear crickets chirping. Somebody barely suppressed a giggle right behind me. I bulled on.
“Is that a fountain?”
Sgt. Green’s head suddenly went south as he stared at his mirror-shined boots. I waited to die. Then I realized that his whole body was shaking.
In fact, my entire platoon was silently doing the same thing. I heard snorts and gasps.
Slowly Sgt Green’s head came back up. This time the edge of his hat tipped back and I took a chance to look at his face.
He had tears streaking down his cheeks. His mouth looked like he had two dogs fighting inside it. He was struggling mightily not to smile.
I looked back over his head at the distant WWII buildings. “I’m going to die,” I thought.
Long pause. Women choked in the background. Despite the cold January morning I felt the sweat trickle down my spine.
“Didja drink out of it?” Green managed to choke out.
Then he collapsed helplessly in laughter. So did the entire platoon. I was the only one standing at attention, while the other ninety some-odd women howled.
I never did live that down. For the crime of busting up the entire platoon, I spent the next few weeks running from place to place at full speed. It was weeks before I got that weekend leave. But finally one of my platoon members — a city girl --took mercy on me and explained the “big white porcelain things.”
Drill Sgt Green couldn’t look at me afterwards without breaking up. My punishment for busting his discipline was an unending series of pushups, sprints, laps around the gym. He turned me into a machine. The men’s urinals practically glittered from my enthusiastic efforts. They’re long gone now, along with all the stories that were contained within. Including mine.
Guy never got to hear that story. He died in a plane accident shortly after basic as I was on my way to AIT (Advanced Individual Training). However I will go down in history as the only recruit who made Sgt Green lose his cool. From such things, good soldiers are made.