Fifty-some girls, now called trainees, were sitting in various positions around the room with stacks of paperwork balanced on their laps. Everyone was wearing different clothes, had different hairstyles, came from different backgrounds, and they were all strangers to each other. This was their first night together in a new place with one common goal in mind: to survive the next six weeks and graduate from Air Force boot camp to become airmen.
A few hours earlier, we had all flown into San Antonio from various locations all over the world. Uniforms wouldn’t be issued for a week or two, and I still didn’t know the names of anyone sitting in the room besides our training instructor (TI), Tech Sergeant Lakes, a massively tall black man with bulging brown eyes and a lump on his forehead. He sat behind a desk in the front of the room and watched his sea of trembling trainees, multiplying their fears simply by casting a glance in their direction.
Amongst the large group of trainees, I sat cross-legged on the left side of the room, near the only door. All the girls were quickly scribbling their personal information on the various forms using stubby pencils with dull lead. I hadn’t looked at my forms yet; I was gazing around the room, attempting to study my surroundings. The urge to better understand where I’d be spending my next month and a half was more important.
“Hey you! Trainee!” the deep bass from the voice across the room interrupted my visual study session.
I whipped my head towards the voice. The TI was pointing his thick sausage finger in my direction from behind his desk. I pointed at myself, my mouth dry, unable to find the words to answer him.
“Yeah, you! You’ll be my new chow runner. Come see me in the morning before chow.”
The smirk on the TI’s face filled me with a sense of dread for the coming morning. I nodded slowly as 50 trainees looked at me, the whites of their eyes glowing. My mouth tightened into a thin line as I turned to my paperwork. I blinked a few times, trying to focus on our task. What the hell was a chow runner?
The next few hours consisted of 50 females bumping their bare asses against one another in their first attempt at showering together. Some girls hesitated to drop their towels and join the nude frenzy to cleanse, while others charged forward into the narrow alcove with only six shower heads. I joined the mad dash and pretended not see every nipple and ass crack in my view.
Thankfully, a week before shipping off to boot camp I’d cut my dark hair very short to my jawline, hoping for easier upkeep during my stay at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas during the month of August. I ran a comb through my hair once I returned to my lower bunk and towel-dried my body quickly before the crackle of the intercom sparked to life and froze the busy dormitory of female trainees. “Taps” began to play over the sound system and, one by one, all the girls snapped to the position of attention to honor the song, as we’d been instructed to do earlier in the day.
I stood at attention, naked, with my fists clenched by my sides, as a single drop of water rolled down my forehead, along the bridge of my nose, and dripped onto my upper lip. I didn’t dare lick my lips, for fear of breaking military bearing during the 24-note song. Immediately following, the lights in the dormitory were turned off signaling the end of our first day in boot camp and time for sleep. A few of the girls, including myself, who stood naked during “Taps,” were now dressing and drying off in the dark.
At precisely 4:45 the next morning, “Reveille” shouted its presence through the intercom, jolting the entire dormitory to life. Our TI’s voice boomed through the intercom, screaming at us to “MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!” as the girls bumped into one another, peeing without flushing, turning around backwards t-shirts, and tying the laces on their physical training (PT) tennis shoes. We lined along the wall and ran down the right side of the stairs onto the black training pad underneath of our dormitory.
Our brother flight was lining up next to us, their freshly shaven bald heads gleaming in the moonlight—dawn had yet to appear at this hour of the morning.
“You better lose that morning wood before your run!” Our brother flight’s TI was walking with wide strides around his flight of male trainees, his black boots tapping against the ground, signaling his presence. His campaign hat was cocked forward, creating a dark cloud over his eyes, and his uniform was stiff from too much starch. His aggressive walk around his flight became faster as he searched for the runt of his litter. “You better stop pointing that tiny prick at those females, trainee!” his mouth snarled as he over-pronounced the word trainee and spit flew from his upturned lips, showering one poor trainee from our brother flight, daring him to flinch.
I stared at the back of the girl’s head in front of me. Her tangled locks provided a focal point and I kept my bearing as orders were barked at us from the front of the pad. Several TI’s without an assigned flight were snaking through the groups, looking for easy prey to taunt and harass. Standing at attention, I ran my tongue over my teeth, remembering how much I loved brushing them every morning. The entire training pad was thick with the humidity of Texas and the funk of morning breath.
Our first PT session in the moonlight consisted of an insane amount of upper body and core workouts. We pushed our bodies towards the stars and back to the pavement too many times to count. Flutter kicks made my belly ache and tiny pebbles from the ground were getting lodged in my skin. A female trainee held my feet as we took turns completing sit-ups with our arms carefully crossed and fingers touching our collarbones as instructed. When we returned to the pad, a layer of sweaty slime coated our bodies.
“CHOW RUNNER!” all of the TI’s were shouting the words at the top of their lungs and a few trainees ran forward. I looked around, too afraid to make a move.
“CHOW RUNNER, NOW!” our TI had his hands on his hips, waiting for me. The girls in my flight pushed me forward and whispered, “Go!” as I stumbled forward.
Standing at attention in front of him, I accepted a tiny laminated square with a few typed out phrases.
“March into the chow hall, go to the snake pit, and announce our arrival at the chow hall. You’ll come back out and start calling our flight, element by element, into the chow hall to eat.”
I must have mumbled some sort of acknowledgement to our TI, Tech Sergeant Lakes, because before I knew it I was walking through the double doors of the chow hall.
The frigid air chilled the slime sweat on my body and I marched alongside the steel bars sectioning off the food line from the tables and chairs. The steel bars led me to the infamous snake pit table, where all the TI’s sat to eat. Two chow runners were in the process of announcing their arrival and I stood at attention, waiting my turn.
My heart pounded against my rib cage as I stood in front of the one of the scariest places in boot camp. I looked at the array of campaign hats and locked eyes with the TI in front of me.
“DID I SAY YOU COULD LOOK AT ME, CHOW RUNNER?” the explosion from his voice vibrated into my blood stream and my legs started to shake. I immediately averted my eyes to the white cinderblock wall above his head.
“Oh I see, now I’m too ugly to look at!” he stood up and leaned his arms on the table, his face a foot from mine. I kept my eyes locked on the cinderblocks and felt his gaze sweep my trembling body.
“Well, this female wanted to wear shorts to boot camp to show off her tan legs!” he sucked his tongue against his teeth, making a squeaking sound. The rest of the snake pit howled with laughter, but the master sergeant, the man in front of me, froze me in his sights without laughing.
Trainees weren’t issued uniforms until the second week of boot camp and were forced to wear the civilian clothes they brought with them instead—because of the many colors of civilian clothing, new trainees were often called rainbows.
“Mmmm, mmm, she is just too good to wear pants. And look how short they are; cut offs, no wonder all the males have morning wood! She’s practically naked!”
It took everything in my power to keep my jaw tightly shut. I’d never had anyone make such harsh remarks so blatantly to me. The other TI’s were still chuckling and slapping him on the back with approval. The Master Sergeant tilted his head to the side and furrowed his brow, waiting for me to break.
“Go ahead, chow runner, tell me what you’ve got.”
He remained in his stance in front of me.
“Sssssir, Trainee Martinez reports as ordered. Permission to adjust?”
I lifted my stiff arm up to my face to read from the laminated square. The urge to bend my legs and lie on the floor was immense. Exhaustion had replaced the adrenaline I was feeling and a lump in my throat began to form. I blinked a few times, trying to read from the square.
“Flight 526 is prepared to enter the dining facility.”
“Bring them in.”
“Bbbbring them in, yesss sssir, thank yyyyou.”
I stammered through the last sentence, completed a left-facing movement, and hightailed my way out of the chow hall. There was no resting as I pushed the double doors and felt the Texas heat on my body once again. I stood at attention in front of my flight as they were collapsing one by one by doing push-up after push-up. My TI saw me, but had them finish their push-up punishment before calling them to their feet.
I looked at the sea of rainbow trainees in front of me, messy hair with red faces, tears streaming down a few, and started to second guess my decision to join the Air Force. Tech Sergeant Lakes walked to the front of the group and held his binder above in the air, letting it hover over a trainee’s head, silently threatening to smack her with it as he shouted in her face. He gripped the binder with his fingers and used it to point in her direction, blaming her for something.
“If I hear one more of you pathetic females crying for your mommies, we’ll kiss that floor over and over until you forget about her! Do you understand me?”
A few low grumbles of agreements could be heard throughout the group, but not enough. “AM I UNDERSTOOD?” Tech Sergeant Lakes’ veins were bulging in his throat and he slammed his binder onto the training pad.
“YES, SIR!” a shrill chorus of female voices rang forward.
“There! Was that so hard?” Tech Sergeant Lakes bent to pick up his binder as one of the female trainees in the front of her element fell to her knees and threw up orange chunks all over his shiny black boots. She immediately started to sob into her hands.
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME? GET ON YOUR FACES!” Tech Sergeant Lakes threw his binder across the pad, and we slammed our bodies down and began to push as his hand reached beneath his campaign hat to massage the knot protruding from his forehead.
“UUUUPPPPPPPPPP!” he shouted and followed with, “DOWWWNNNNN!”
“ONE!” we answered in unison.
The double doors of the chow hall swung open as other flights went to eat breakfast. My stomach was cramping and grumbling. I could smell the bacon. I could smell the pancakes. I swear I could even smell the cereal and bananas and plates and forks.
I pushed my body up and waited for him to give the next command. I held the position and heard a few girls whimper.
We immediately thrust our bodies back into the air. I just wanted to eat. I stared at my little hands holding my body up against the pad and the little laminated square lying on the pavement. I wanted to lie down. I wanted a cold shower. And more than perhaps ever in my life…I really did want my mom.
Austrie Martinez, a military veteran, is pursuing an MFA in the University of Baltimore’s Creative Writing and Publishing Arts program. She lives outside of the beltway with her two kids, two cats, and one wife. As an avid Orioles fan, she dreams of one day wearing the mascot costume and dancing on the dugout.
- Baltimore Writer’s Club #7: Rethinking Possible: A Memoir of Resilience, by Rebecca Faye Smith Galli - July 7, 2017
- Chow Runner: When a Girl Joins Up - July 20, 2016
- Meeting Adam Jones: A Magically Real Memoir - August 19, 2015