Daily Life in the Military: Weekends

Contrary to what you hear on TV and in books, we did not need a pass go leave the post for the weekend. Once we were off Friday, we were hopefully off for the weekend.

That wasn’t always true for me, unfortunately. Sometimes the other platoons would pull their person from CQ duty on Saturday, and this guy’s not complaining. He’s out of the 24-hour duty, works a couple of hours, and then he’s off. But the line platoons would say “We don’t have any more people. Get someone from Headquarters Platoon.” Since I was the only one in the barracks from my platoon, I learned very quickly not to answer knocks to my door or to get out of the barracks.

I would often go to the library (it wasn’t like any of the soldiers were going to find me there!). Fort Lewis had a pretty decent library, though the hours were always getting cut. The library always had this book out that listed all the banned books, so I could pick up one of those if I want.

I also could go to the community center. It had chairs for hanging around, TVs, and phones in private rooms that we could call out on for a certain amount of money. In those days, we didn’t have cell phones and there weren’t any phones in the barracks, so this was what was available to us.

Fort Lewis also had an auto shop of sorts where soldiers could go work on their cars. There were also some movie theaters as well.


Food on the weekend was tough for the barracks soldiers. The dining facilities didn’t get much headcount then, mainly because the soldiers were trying to get away from being sucked up in additional duty. The result was that our Group decided to have the mess halls open on a rotating basis. There were two problems with it. Sometimes the Mess Halls were pretty far away, which was a problem if you didn’t have a car. Fort Lewis did have a shuttle of sorts, but it was so unreliable because a lot of the times the drivers would pull off somewhere and go to sleep.

The second problem was that no one seemed to care enough to tell us what Mess Hall was actually open. A lot of time I’d have to go hunting around and hit two or three buildings, so Burger King on main post became a much better option.

The food also tended to not be very good. One four-day weekend I ate in the Mess Hall all four days. They served the same food for the four days. Not the same menu item–we got the dried out leftovers.

For a little while, a couple of us got smart and headed over to the McChord Air Force Base Mess Hall, which was like eating in a restaurant. The food was better, and the place had nice tables and carpet. But then the Air Force got wise and put their mess hall off limits to Army unless we were up there for appointments, which we would have to show proof of.

So the post Burger King became a staple for many soldiers.

Then there was Domino’s. We had one right off the post, so they got a lot of orders on the weekend. To help generate more orders, they send over one of the drivers with a bunch of boxes of cheap pizza with coupons taped to the top of the box to get you buy more. The driver would come through the barracks with their boxes, hollering, “Pizza!”


Most of my shopping ended up being on the weekends. Because I lived in the barracks, I didn’t have to buy groceries at the Commissary. I sometimes thought about buying Diet Coke there, but the hours were very strange. It wasn’t like a normal store, where the hours are the same every day and maybe some variance on the weekends. They were different every single day.

And crowded. It looked like the lines at Costco, except there was one long one filtering into all the cashiers. No “10 items of less” for someone like me with a few twelve packs. I’m sure it had great prices, but the time wasn’t worth spending for me. I bought my sodas at a Target and just watched for sales.

Sometimes I’d go up to the Post Exchange, which we called the PX. The building was new to Fort Lewis, having just opened about the time I arrived. In terms of what they sold, it was kind of like a Target. It had clothes, and magazines, and just a lot of different stuff.

But not cheap. In many cases, if I waited for sales off post, I could do a lot better.

Clothing Sales was also sometimes a weekend stop off. That’s where we bought new uniforms. The Army gave us an initial issued uniform, but after that, we received a clothing allowance on the anniversary of our first enlistment, and used that to buy uniforms and boots that wore out.

It was a store made for men, so all the uniforms were just folded up on shelves like the way you buy men’s clothing. You had to know your size; there wasn’t any place to try things on.

Calls Home

This was in the days before cell phones. I’m sure every soldier now has a cell phone. Then, we didn’t have a phone in the barracks. There was a phone in the main company area, but that was for company use. You couldn’t go down there and use it to call home. A lot of guys had their girlfriends call it though and leave messages. If you got the messages or not depended on who manned the phone that day. Sometimes I’d come out in the evening and find one of the guys practically melting over the phone, talking to his girlfriend.

Mostly though, we made our outgoing phone calls on the payphone outside the barracks. We bought time on AT&T calling cards, and the code could be punched in to dial home. The only problem with all of this is that no one could really call us. We always had to initiate the calls.


Doing the laundry was like apartment laundry. We had two washing machines and dryers, but no coin charge. First come, first serve. You had to sit and watch your laundry in the women’s barracks. Sometimes some of the other women would come back and pull your wet clothes out and stick theirs in.


Nights over the weekend were often bad because some of the soldiers like to play their music really loud. Usually they were also the ones who would take great offense if you asked them to turn it down, so all I could do was suffer in silence.

Of course, it always seemed like the weekend was too short, and then it was back to work!

Daily Life in the Military: The Workday Starts

We went back out for another formation at 9:00. Usually the first sergeant or the company commander will put out some information, then send us on our way to work. We were a transportation company, so most of the soldiers would head out to the motor pool to work on trucks. Some would go on missions to haul equipment or supplies. I worked as a training clerk, so I stayed in the company area.

Training is pretty serious business in the Army. The Army’s primary mission is to train for war, so we lived and breathed training every week.

When I first stated in the training office, we kept the records on 5×7 index cards, one for each soldier. Had their name, when they last went to the rifle range, etc. Computers were just starting to come out then, so my squad leader, who was also the training sergeant, bought one and we used DBase IV on that to keep track.

One of my duties was helping to maintain all the training records. In those days, the Army put social security on everything. If you had a sign in sheet to prove you attended a class, your SSN was on it. If you took a PT test, your SSN was on the form. It was just everywhere, and, in hindsight, really didn’t need to be. Towards the end of my time in the service, the Army started removing it from forms unless it was really needed.

I also prepared training schedules. We did one for every week–I think we did it two weeks out. It was a Fort Lewis form on legal size paper and had to be typed (electric typewriter; we weren’t that behind the rest of the world). The schedule planned out every part of the day. We started with “Morning Parade,” which was about 5 minutes at 0600, led by the first sergeant, then went into PT. Even breakfast and lunch went on there.

We also get the planned training for that schedule from the platoon sergeants. We did training on Wednesday, which usually meant going out to a training area. The platoon sergeants would scribble the training on a sheet of paper or in a notebook, tear it out, and give it to us. So we’d get all these different sizes of paper, something with the torn paper hanging off, and try to translate the writing.

Everything had to include the location in case the battalion commander or group commander wanted to inspect us. So if we were going out to a training area, I usually had to drive around during the week and do coordinations. Coordinations were for sites that we shared we other units. It was to keep us from having artillery fired on us, though that did happen once anyway.

I’d make copies and deliver it to the battalion, and we post a copy up on a bulletin board for everyone to read.

I also had to do the quarterly training briefing, which was known as the QTB. Briefings weren’t like they are today where you can keep changing it and changing it until the last minute because it’s all electronic. While we had software to build the briefings–this was initially even before Microsoft PowerPoint–everything had to be printed, and then copied onto transparencies.

That was always a nightmare because the copier would get very hot and start melting the transparencies. If the melting wasn’t too bad, we went with it. Sometimes we ran into problems because the copier at battalion had a set number of copies per month it could run, and we always seemed to run out about a week early!

The slides themselves consisted of what the world refers today as metrics. How many people were qualified on the rifle, how many people needed to do deployment preparation (i.e., make sure shots were up to date, review their emergency contact information, etc.). We did anything specifically training related, and the orderly room (the administration office that handle awards, evaluations, and mail) did the deployment preparation numbers.

We also ended up with this weekly slide that became a horror for a while. The slide was called “ups and downs” and was due to the group commander once a week. We had to put in three good things about the last week’s training, and also three bad things, the downs. The way it was explained was that it was to help figure out how to improve training.

We had to have three each. We couldn’t put down on or two, or leave anything blank. So for the downs, I think we put down something like “Instructor wasn’t prepared for training,” which was true. The sergeant had blown it off and half-assed through it.

We got nuked by the group commander. He pounded his fist and demanded to know why that sergeant had not been prepared. Anything on that down list was trouble coming for us.

And we were required to have three downs each week.

So it was Washington State, and we put used “It rained during training” as a down. I think it was only nearly every week’s slide. We were also constantly trying out different downs, guessing at what the group commander was going to have a melt down over. We were positively elated if the Training and Audio Visual Support Center screwed up with the equipment because we had a great down that no one could nuke us on!

Apparently the group commander got tired of seeing “it rained” from all the companies under him, and the requirement for three went away. We started leaving off the downs entirely, and then the slide was discontinued.

In addition to slides and training schedules, we had a steady stream of people coming in every day, asking for help on something training-related.

Which made it most annoying when the soldiers from the other platoons said we never did any work. I guess they thought paperwork was easy …

We’d break at 11:30 for lunch, so back to the mess hall, then my room to watch TV. Formation was 1:00, then back to work until formation at 5:00, and then I was done for the day. Wednesday of each week was the only day that was different, because it was training day.

Desert Storm War Memorial

I ran across this article today on a proposed Desert Storm Memorial in Washington, DC.  Right now, they’re trying to find land in the area.  For some reason, I haven’t heard of this before, even though they clearly had some events here in Washington, DC.  But I also don’t look around for veteran’s events.

Would I visit the memorial once it’s completed?

I have mixed feelings here.  The Wall, which was for the Vietnam War, had a healing quality because the war became so controversial that the returning veterans had not been welcomed back.  The Wall said recognized what they did was important, so it was more than just honoring the dead — it was healing a scar.

I’ve been to it about twice, to the World War I memorial once (they’re trying to raise money for a national one), the World War II memorial twice, and the Korea one twice.

I think a lot of the memorials since have been trying to capture what The Wall did, and I don’t think they can.  That was a very different time in history, and it came at the right time when people needed it.  People were not just damaged by the war, but by the treatment of society after war.

So if I’m still in the area when it finally gets built, I’ll probably visit it once for the initial visit, and then, like the other memorials, wander by because I happen to be in the area.

Here’s the official site for the memorial if you want to donate money.



Tales of the White Cat

This has been a nice fall so far.  The weather in Washington, DC usually bounces up and down — gets really cold, then gets really hot, and then everyone gets sick.  It’s been cool, with the wind a bit gusty, like nature knows it has to come along and blow the leaves off the trees.  Not much in the color changes yet though.

So I went out early in the morning for a walk around the neighborhood.  The gray squirrels were busy digging at the grass with their tiny paws and burying nuts.  Up ahead of me, I saw this flash of white on the street:  A cat.

Okay, I definitely wanted to stop and pet the cat and say hi.  I figured the cat wouldn’t go near me.  You know how cats can  be.  I kept walking on the sidewalk and calling to the cat.  He disappeared for a moment, and I figured he’d gone under a car.

One of the squirrels darted in front of me, so I stopped and waited for him to finish his squirrel business.

Four houses away, the cat appeared on the sidewalk and headed for me.  At a cat walk.  Not the slinky walk cats have when they’re not in a hurry.  It was more of a fast walk, like when food is coming out.

So I stood there and waited, and the cat trotted right up to me with some serious head bumping, and his engine got started right away.  He was a bit chunky for a cat, but had feathery white fur.  Very soft.  He got some serious spoiling, and we both enjoyed every minute of it!

Rabbit on the Army Menu

I was surprised to hear on the radio today that Whole foods decision to sell rabbit is such a big deal.  It’s even getting protests.

The reason I’m surprised is because rabbit has been on the Army’s master menu.  I don’t know if it still is, but it definitely was in the early 1990s.  Now, if you know anything about how the government works, deciding what went on this menu would have gone through many hands and been vetted and changed before anyone down the chain saw it.  The fact that rabbit wound up on the menu probably means that it’s popular in the places most of the soldiers came from (possibly also that it was popular at the time the menu was created, but the Army hadn’t gotten around to changing it!).

One of my additional duties was to be on the Dining Facility Council.  I ate in the Mess Hall, so I was happy to make suggestions so my eating would improve.  At the time, we had a mess sergeant was actually pretty receptive.  I suggested adding cream cheese for the bagels, and it was in the Mess Hall for breakfast in a few weeks.  He also mentioned the master menu the Army had, so I was curious and asked to see it.

That’s how I found out rabbit was on the menu, alongside of the Chili Mac and Breaded Veal.  Granted, I had never seen it served in the Fort Lewis Mess Halls.  I also wasn’t about to do any food experimenting if it was made in an Army mess hall.  I still remember Southern food day.  They’d gotten a new mess sergeant, and she thought to make all Southern food for dinner.

What she didn’t think about was that some types of food are an acquired taste.  Like pigs feet, which was the main course.

They ran out of hot dogs and hamburgers.

I imagine the same thing would have happened if they’d tried serving rabbit.

Time traveling back to the Colonial Era

One of the really nice things about the Washington Metropolitan area is that there’s a lot you can see without necessarily going on a long, expensive trip.  I usually dislike going into Washington, DC, where all the tourists tend to be, not to mention even drive through it to get to Maryland.  It’s because the roads are convoluted to navigate, and the city is hungry to give tickets for anything.

But Virginia has many different places to visit that I have sometimes dig around to find.  Not all of them are advertised.  Some are free, some cost $3-$15, so it can depend both on budget and what I want to see that day.  Last weekend, I happened to run across a community advertisement for the Claude Moore Colonial Farm.  They were having a Market Fair on Saturday and Sunday.  I decided to go Sunday because I figured they wouldn’t be crowded.

The Claude Moore Colonial Farm is located in McLean, Virginia, right near the CIA.  I believe I drove right behind the CIA to get to it!  At least I couldn’t explain why there were gates and armed guards.

When I got to the entrance, I was shocked to the parking lot was packed.  People were parking on the grass and the shoulder.  I drove several times through the parking area, trying to find a spot that wouldn’t block someone in.  I finally found one, and this guy pulled in beside me.  We’re looking around, wondering if it would work.  My concern was someone parking behind me and blocking me in.

Keeping my fingers crossed, I heard up to the entrance and paid my $7.  During regular events, the site is a historic demonstration of a family working a farm.  They rotate the crops four times a year, so visitors can get a different experience from summer to winter.  The family dresses up in clothing of the time and interacts with the visitors.

The Market Fair was probably more like what you would see in a fantasy novel.  It consisted of market stands set up in the area, though in this case, they were selling things like perfume soaps and men’s products.  The stands were manned by volunteers in period costumes.  There was also a puppet show and a juggler for the kids.

The chicken was cooked on a giant spit, and corn was boiled in a pot over an open fire.  The corn was absolutely delicious.  It was sweet and succulent.  It was also very popular.  They kept running out!

Chicken roasting on an outdoor spit as smoke blows out.
Chicken roasting on a spit.

After that, I wandered down and checked out the farm.  It’s quite large, which is good to get walking in while enjoying the history.

I found a pen with pigs in it.  They didn’t seem at all bothered by the humans gawping at them, and I was able to reach down and touch one (the one on the right in the photo).  His/her fur was very sparse, almost wiry.  Not soft at all.

Down angle of two pigs in a pen.
Pigs in a pen


I wandered inside one of the buildings.  A woman was at a table making a simple cake while a fire roared in the fireplace.  I checked out the contents of the pot in the fireplace, and she told me it was an apple chutney.  She was going to use a dutch oven for the cake and put it on the fire (enlarge the photo so you can see the chutney).

A pot of apple chutney hangs over a fire in a fireplace
Apple chutney cooking

On the way to it, I spotted another place that I’m going to have to drop in and visit, Turkey Run Park. So more exploring is in order!

A conveniently timed The Daily Post Prompt:

‘Tis the season for road trips — if time and money were out of the equation, what car-based adventure would you go on? (If you don’t or can’t drive, any land-based journey counts.)

Hitting the Rail for Raleigh

I went on a train trip this month.  It’s been years — really decades since I traveled on a train.  When I was a teenager, my parents would put me on a train to travel along the California coast to Morro Bay.  Oddly, the only thing I remember about the travel is seeing the familiar streets when I was coming home.

This train trip was from Washington, DC to Raleigh, North Carolina.  There was a science fiction convention in Raleigh, which is about a 5 hour drive from me.  I’d been sort of thinking of not going just because I really don’t like to drive (Washington, DC will do that to you.  The drivers are terrible and very Type A, Me-First types).  But I saw an article in the Washington Post about personality and different modes of travel:

  1. Airplane: You’re in a hurry or on a timetable.
  2. Car: You want to be in control.
  3. Train: You want someone else to do the work.

So I booked the trip on Amtrak.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  All my more recent experiences with travel have been long, dull, driving trips or jammed into a seat on an airplane.  I’m a short person, so jammed in really means something.  Never mind the added problem of go through security …

I hunted all over the Amtrak site for how long in advance I needed to be there, which it didn’t have, and settled for 90 minutes.  I’ll tell you, looking at Union Station from the outside, you’d never even know there were tracks behind it.  Very hidden.

They boarded like airlines.  First class, senior citizens, then everyone else.  As we went out the cars, we were separated out by where we were going, so I ended up in the last car.  I was able to sit by the window (yay!  I do that even on an airplane.  There is always something to see!).  The seats were large and roomy, with lots of leg room.  The aisles were also relatively wide.  I didn’t feel like a sardine packed in like I do on an airplane.

I’d brought my computer and thought I would write along the way, but as it turned out, it was fascinating watching the world g0 by out that window.   This time time of the year, everything was green and really growing.  Sometimes I could catch glimpses of the engine as we followed the curving track, and I heard the horn every few minutes.

I got up at lunch time and went down to the dining car, which was quite a hike.   The dining car has tables so you can eat there or back at your seat.  I stayed and read as I ate, and watched as we passed through what looked like warehouses.  When I came back, I saw this one man at the end of my car, looking out the window.  I was curious, so came up behind him to look, too.

Seeing the tracks falling away behind us gave me an instant pang of homesickness.  It reminded me of leaving things behind, like leaving my parents when I went to Morro Bay.  A plane kind of depersonalizes the trip because you can’t really see anything.

But on a train you can see what’s ahead and what’s behind.

The Magic of Rain

We just had several days of rain and thunderstorms in Washington, DC.  The humidity gets so high during the summer that the rain just bursts in a thunderstorm like it’s releasing all this pressure.

It’s also the opposite of where I grew up, which was in Los Angeles.  If you’ve never been there, Los Angeles doesn’t get much rain.  In fact, I gave my father a hard time when he drove up to where I was stationed in Washington State because he couldn’t figure out why his windshield wipers were smearing.  He’d had so little experience with rain that he didn’t realize they’d dry rotted!

The rain in Washington, DC, comes first with clouds that roll in, gray deepening to almost black.  They might be like that all day, but there’s a point somewhere late in the day that the humidity seems like it’s reached a peak.

At that point, the winds start kicking up, always ahead of the storm.  The leafy green trees sway back and forth.  Screech!  Thin branches scratch the windows.

And, as the storm starts to advance, it gets darker outside.  Sometimes the middle of the day can look like evening.

The first drops of rain splatter the windows.  But the asphalt outside isn’t wet yet, and the cars don’t have on their windshield wipers (or lights, for that matter.  We have a lot of drivers who will drive in heavy rainstorms without lights).

I look away for a while, then look back and it’s raining so hard that the drops are hitting the ground and bouncing up. My area is all hilly, so the rain runs in streams down the sidewalks.  Washington, DC, is a city of stone, so there’s not many places for all this water to go, except to flood.

Soon after the rain starts, thunder rumbles across the sky like someone hurling around one of those metal trash cans.   Sometimes there’s a bright flash of light from the lightning, but most often, the show is somewhere else.

Then the clouds march off, and the sun peaks out.  An hour later, it’s like it didn’t even rain.

Kindness in Washington, DC is an infrequent thing

After being in Washington, DC for a number of years, the one thing that’s struck me is that city is conceited and arrogant. Maybe it’s that political climate, but every person seems to be in it for him, or her, self, and anyone else is only a means to get to the goal, or in the way. I see this every day:

  • People drive like they’re the only one who is important. They will drive up a line of cars waiting to get off the freeway and force their way in, or immediately speed up if you even look like you’re thinking of changing lanes.
  • Customer service is nearly non-existent in a lot of places, as if the stores just want to take your money and push you out the door.
  • The DC government focuses so much on making money from parking tickets that if makes me wonder if they even like business.

So it’s was a surprise to me when a stranger came up and not only helped me, but everyone else who was around.

We’d just had a big snow storm that dumped 8 inches on the city. The DC area is never very well-equipped to handle it, and any sign of snow is immediately followed by school closures, government closures, and maybe federal government closures.

Snowy covered street
This is what we usually look like after a snow storm

The sun came out and brightened up the day, making the snow pretty and sparkly, at least for a little while. The people came out with the sun, all bundled and trudging out to see how bad their cars were.

My looked like a snow covered mound, and I began clearing it off. It was still cold enough that my breath came out in little clouds.

Then this Indian guy bounces up and starts helping me clear the snow. I’d never seen him before. In a short time, we got the car cleared off, I thanked him, and then he bounced off to help the next person. I sat in my car, letting it warm up, and watched as he went around the parking lot and helped anyone who was cleaning the car.

He didn’t have to do that, and it was nice that he did.  It’s a shame that Washington, DC seems to be losing even basic kindness.

This is a prompt from The Daily Post.