When I was 21, Sgt. Johnstone sat us down in the grass at Ft. Leonard Wood and talked to us like human beings. Aggressive homogenization and categorical stress is the agenda of Army boot camp, of course, and we’d been through two weeks of “reception battalion” already. This occurred after the Vietnam era, so they weren’t allowed to hit us, but it was well before the advent of stress cards. No one had addressed us in anything less than a sneering scream. Punishments and humiliations abounded, sleep was scarce, days began and ended at oh-dark-thirty, we were no safer eating at the chow hall than would be a gazelle at a watering hole, in lion country. Hunger and fatigue and nerves were a constant — and this was only our administrative introduction to the experience! Just a pre-boot camp purgatory, where they drew our blood and gave our shots and issued our camo and shaved the boys’ heads.
When it was time to go “downrange”, they loaded us into literal cattle cars and off we trundled. When we arrived, we were greeted at the cattle car doors with a “shakedown” that was one of the craziest actual experiences of my life. I’d give anything to have had a hidden GoPro back then. Anyway, it was like every boot camp stereotype you can imagine plus a few you probably can’t, and designed to maximally demoralize, intimidate, and psychologically prostrate us, which it did.
So all that happened. We got organized into groups and assigned into platoons. The other three platoons were immediately engaged, by their drill sergeants, in various pre-emptive punitive group activities, but for some reason our guy, Sgt. Johnstone, took us around the corner to a nice shady spot and had us sit on the grass. I mean, even something as simple as sitting on the grass was beyond belief — it had been nothing but heavily scrutinized, postural rigidity for weeks. So, we sat, and he talked to us. In a conversational voice.
He said it was his job, and the job of his fellow drills, to spend eight weeks making our lives so impossible that we would have no choice but to rely on one another, and to turn to one another in absolute trust. He said it was the drills’ job to be our enemy. “—after this conversation, it’s open season on you.” He said that failure would not be an option, as any attempt to dodge, duck, break, or bolo out would only result, at worst, in a stint at the Holdover Battalion, followed by a recycle through boot at some point in the future, at which time any recycles would be particularly targeted. He said the easiest way through was forward.
He said the one thing he’d be looking for, more than anything else, was a Blue Falcon — a buddy fucker. Whoever shirked their duty even one iota — pretended to be injured so their bunkmate must carry both packs, pretended to oversleep so the fireguard shift before must work even longer, pretended to be sick so their squad must to cover their work — the slightest inkling of making our own lives easier by fucking each over, and “I will light you up”, he promised. And the thing I remember the most: “It all comes out in the wash,” he said, looking each of us dead in the eye, scanning the group — black, white, brown, male, female, tall, short, weak, strong. (Vegan.) “I’ve seen it all and you’ve got nothing we won’t catch. It all comes out in the wash.”
This memory is on my mind a lot, lately, as I watch the warring ideologies…drift around. They move more like hot blobs in a lava lamp than chess pieces on a game board. Both the pandemic and the BLM movement, ostensibly about disease and race respectively, have more pertinently given each of us the chance to ask ourselves: what scares me most, and why? Boot camp was nice because the real enemy took the time to helpfully self-identify as such, and then directed us to rely on our real allies, one another.
I wasn’t stoked on necessarily all of my Johnny-come-lately allies, at Ft. Leonard Wood, but there they were, so we all got through it together. But interestingly, I feel most grateful to Sgt. Johnstone himself, 23 years later — my most antagonistic ally.
The same can be said now, of the coronavirus and the race-scrutinizing social unrest, if we look at them through squinted eyes. No matter how we try to default to ourselves, or others, as holding fixed identities along the lines of surface level characteristics, it just never stabilizes there. It can get stuck there for long periods of time, but it doesn’t stabilize there. Existential problems, the kind that ask us to understand what we fear most and why, act as enormous screened shaker trays, like in the old days when they panned for gold — jostling and jostling and jostling us until we’re sorted out by size — the size of our fear. If you suspect that I’m about to advance some far-flung valorization of an idealized fearless state — choose love, not fear! — then don’t worry, I’m not that airy fairy. Fear is our constant inheritance, in this embodied state. And it’s only in fear that we succumb to Blue Falcon posturing, so of course it’s only in fear that we have the opportunity not to.
Sgt. Johnstone took us through the CS gas chamber. This was an exercise in trusting our masks and trusting one another. He didn’t wear a mask, because his balls were just that big. The gas chamber was dim, close, and foggy with chemicals spraying out from nozzles all around the room. A window separated us from a couple other drills sitting at a control panel, cranking on the gas. First, with our masks on, we performed jumping jacks and deep breathing exercises, proving to ourselves that we were just fine. And we were.
Then, over the intercom, they told us to remove our masks, and that they’d start counting to ten once the last private’s mask was removed. We all removed our masks except Private Willard. I couldn’t sort out what was happening, initially — “tear” gas affects not just your eyes but every mucus membrane, and so everything starts burning and seeping — your eyes, your nose, your mouth. I had a split lower lip at this time, from some other impact, scabbed over, and my scab immediately disintegrated and blood filled my mouth and flowed down my chin.
There was a lot of confused yelling, but no counting to ten. I couldn’t see except through a napalm haze of tears, but fucking Private Willard, still in her mask, had run to the entry door and was yanking on it. It was locked from the inside. Sgt. Johnstone was screaming at us to handle her, and my squad mates were screaming at her to take off her mask. Several of them tackled her — I would have, but I just couldn’t function at all — and ripped her mask, plus a good quantity of her hair, off her head.
With a flight airline attendant level of amused calm, the female drill inside the control station began counting to ten, over the intercom. She counted quite slowly, it seemed to me. Private Willard hollered and flalloped on the ground, and no one gave two shits about her. I stood like a statue, in a personal hell.
An enormous bright aperture appeared and we all jostled towards it. I emerged, blinking and bleeding, into the bright place, gulping down lungs full of increasingly fresher air as I moved in whatever way seemed forward. Sgt. Williams strolled about with his bullhorn: “DO NOT RUB YOUR EYES. DO NOT RUB YOUR FACE. COME THIS WAY. PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER.” Another drill recorded our exit with a videocamera.
My squad made it to the greatest hits reel, played on the big screen for our graduation, and I saw us emerge with snot strewn faces, mine also carmine from the mouth down, and Private Willard crawling behind on her hands and knees. She’d dropped her M-16 and they tried to make her go back in and get it, but she wouldn’t, and we saw red-eyed Sgt. Johnstone stride back in and get it for her with a particularly displeased set to his posture.
It was a memorable way to learn that courage is less about yourself and more about other people — refusing to fuck them over, specifically. Scared people do crazy things, as Private Willard so graciously demonstrated. Fear either refers us more deeply to our own values — which should ideally include some inkling to not fuck each other over — or away from them, depending on our presence of mind. The limbic brain is a prey brain, hardwired for speedy response to snakes and fire, and in that response no “other” exists, except perhaps our own children. I know what my own response to immediate threat feels like, and while it cannot include others (except perhaps my dog Buffy) meaningfully in the first several seconds, I know that I quickly arrive at a place where I’m like: well hang on. Just hang on a darn second. What is happening here.
I really value that “hang on a second” place that I get to, because that’s my rational brain kicking back in. Even if I’m just standing there bleeding, it’s still better than a Blue Falcon reflex. Limbic fear is the smartest thing in the world for about five seconds and then it’s worth at least a little scrutiny as possibly the dumbest thing, immediately after.
I received some marksman mentorship from a brilliant Arizona desert-billy named Derrick Martin, years ago, who owned his own range and gunsmithery. Derrick was to my skill set what the sun is to a Mag light with dying batteries, but he continued in his own professional development anyway. He was at that time enrolled in a tactical self defense course — I forget the name, but it was like self defense outside of any particular tradition, just for regular ass people who aren’t martial artists or even gun owners. I found this fascinating. He told me that, according to this course, the biggest barrier to individual self defense in any situation is the mind’s tendency to deny the reality of what’s occurring as it occurs. This can’t be happening — seconds, even minutes, wasted with that thought. All the irrationality of a limbic response, but one that has unfortunately become so sedentary, it simply can’t get off the couch. Still, it inevitably gives way to that next phase: what is happening here? — and by that time whatever is happening has probably happened to a greater degree.
Moving from an irrational fear response, however initially functional it may be, to a rational fear response — what is happening? — as quickly as possible is the best way, in my opinion, to not be a Blue Falcon like Private Willard, or a straight up victim like in these self defense scenarios, locked into a paralysis of denial. Coming to our senses enough to ask this question: Hang on a second, what is happening?, bears an importance I really can’t overstate.
So as I introspect on the conjoined lava lamps of pandemic and racial unrest, that’s where my head is at. What is happening, here? I’m being asked to get frightened, be frightened, remain frightened, every day, everywhere where I turn, on every subject. Who benefits from my fear? Me? If not, where’s the incentive and why? The only good thing that happens in fear, after the first five seconds, is the eventual decision to stop operating from fear. While I’m focused on Private Willard’s dumb ass, someone in the control room is turning the tear gas knob up to eleven. While I’m deciding whether or not to fuck over my buddy for ten minutes of sleep more, Sgt. Johnstone is watching what comes out in the wash. While I’m thinking I need years of martial arts training to effectively defend myself, Derrick Martin is learning how to turn his t-shirt into a garrote. I’ll jump through my own asshole just like everyone else when literal snakes or literal fire confront me, but I’m pretty darn picky about what fears I choose to chronically entertain otherwise, when given the luxury. We’re useless in our fear, after the first five seconds. After that, some values need to kick in. Revenge is a dish best served cold, they say, and I’d argue the same is true for self defense.