It’s the middle of the night but I can’t sleep, mostly because I can’t get comfortable with all the hoses and IV’s in my arms and chest. I’ve had triple bypass surgery. It seems unreal to find myself past sixty and not nearly so immortal as I had once thought.
It’s 1971 and I just graduated from high school, my last night at home before I went off to the Army. I couldn’t sleep then either. I didn’t know what life had in store for me, but I knew Uncle Sam had first dibs. The next day, I entered the induction center on San Jacinto Street in downtown Houston. I don’t know what I expected but this wasn’t it. The walls were lime colored and the floors a darker shade of green linoleum tile. It felt gloomy and impersonal in the huge facility that was designed to begin the journey from individual to a cog in the national machine. Footsteps echoed off the hard polished floors. Nobody made eye contact. Nobody seemed happy. It all seemed so unreal.
After raising our right hands, we were loaded onto a bus that took us to Houston Intercontinental. There, I flew for the first time. It was the most unsettling feeling to see and feel the entire front of the aircraft angle sharply upward as we took off from the runway. Gripping the armrest and trying not to look like it was my first time, I watched Texas grow smaller and smaller through the little round window. At Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, the fun began for us at an event called ‘Basic Training’. This period of time seemed to last forever, but they tell me it was only eight weeks.
On that first night at basic, I didn’t sleep well at all. I don’t suppose any of us did. We were away from the comfort of our familiar bedrooms back home; for the first time in our lives. People had been shouting at us from all directions all day and nobody knew quite how to react. I remember hearing the sobbing of more than one new recruit in the darkened barracks. Faintly from a radio somewhere in the darkened expanse of bunks and polished floors I heard Karen Carpenter singing. As the pleasant melody drifted to my ears a harsh voice shouted out: ‘Turn that #### radio off!’ And that was that.
I blinked my eyes and I was back at home. My brother was in his bed on the other side of the room. Dust particles danced in the early morning light drifting in through the venetian blinds. I could make out the familiar pictures on the wall, my bedside stand, the lamp, the door to the hallway. I lay there under the covers staring at the ceiling. Had it all been a dream? Basic training had seemed so real. I tried to reconstruct the entire memory, of raising my right hand, of flying for the first time, of being shouted at by sergeants, of the smell of sweat and pine resin, boot polish and gunpowder. It had seemed perfectly real, but was it? I was home, and in my old bed, and safe and warm in the quiet of the early morning as if it had not happened at all. From downstairs came the sound of stirring and the soft opening and closing of cupboard doors. The smell of coffee came drifting up the stairs.
I sat up in bed and stretched and yawned and rubbed at my hair then walked over to the closet. There hanging from the rack was a suit of dress greens, and on the floor a polished pair of black dress military shoes. It was the uniform I had worn home from basic training. It was not a dream at all. Neither was the new tattoo on my left arm as I vaguely recalled that first weekend pass. Neither was the pair of white blousy boxer shorts I found myself wearing or the short haircut. I suppose I felt it was a dream, or perhaps wished it was a dream, at the time anyhow. But I adjusted, and did my three years. That was many years ago but I still vividly recall that morning at home, waking up and wondering if it had all been just a dream.
And as I lie in bed at the hospital and hear the beep of the monitors and the quiet padding of nurses and doctors out in the hallway, my thoughts are once again on those days long past, of lying awake away off in the night, unable to sleep. It’s the same old me except for the tubes in my chest and needles in my arms and stitches in my chest. Thinking back over fifty years of life, I smile and try to relax. I suppose it was all a dream after all.