All I asked for were a few home-baked cookies... What I got was being smoked to within an inch of my life.
I desperately wanted cookies, and I figured my sister was the perfect one for the job. She was fascinated by the fact that her big brother was in the army and she wrote me about once a week. This required careful planning, because no food or snacks whatsoever were allowed, and all envelopes and boxes were inspected for contraband. I wrote her detailed instructions, outlining exactly how to pack the chocolate chip cookies (my favorite) to slip past the Drill Sergeants' thorough inspections. Laundry detergent was allowed, so I instructed her to put the cookies in a Ziplock bag and bury it in a box of powdered detergent.
Sure enough, that exciting day came and my box arrived! It was the prettiest box of Tide powder I'd ever laid eyes on, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on it, but first it had to pass the drill sergeants' inspection right there in front of the whole platoon, which we did every week night during mail call.
Just my dumb luck, Drill Sergeant Disney was on duty that night. DS Disney was a nightmare. He was like Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann from ''Full Metal Jacket'' with an ingrown toenail and constipation. When he "greeted" us off the bus on day one of Basic, he barked, "Yup, the name's Disney, like the cartoons. But don't let the name fool you, I'm nothing like them." He was a DICK (Dedicated Infantry Combat Killer), and took great pleasure in demonstrating and reminding us of that fact. The only time I ever saw him smile was when we were on the rifle range, and unloading on targets. He'd run from one of us to the next, screaming like a crazed banshee, "Yeah!! Get some!!" He never tired of reminding us that he was an airborne ranger, and the last place on earth he wanted to be was here with us. The other drill sergeants played along, and loved playing the good cops to his bad cop.
Disney pulled open the box of Tide, and I watched his face light up. "Damn, Mandel, somebody really loves you at home.”
I wondered why he was making such a big deal out of laundry detergent, but drill sergeants are notorious for their mind games, so I played along.
"Yes, Drill Sergeant, my family's not too bad.”
"Oh, they're better than not bad, they're great! Look at all the cookies they sent me!"
My heart sank. I was so clear in my instructions. Cover the cookies in powder, and they'll never know. What went wrong? Now they're all going to be taken home by DS Disney. Damn! I'd been jonesing for anything other than the gruel they served us. I hadn't had a morsel of sugar since I'd gotten here, and here they were, so close to me I could almost taste them. It was torture.
"You know, Mandel, ordinarily I would toss out the whole thing, but I have a soft spot for home-baked cookies. I'm gonna make an exception."
He looked at his watch, and said, "You have three minutes and this entire box better be empty. Go!"
I ran up to the table and panicked. The box was filled to the brim. My sister hadn't even put a drop of detergent over it. How in the world was I going to devour five pounds of cookies in three minutes? Drill sergeants don't mess around; when they tell you to do something, you’d better do it, no matter how crazy or ridiculous. That, or they make you live to regret it.
Then it hit me, Basic Training is all about teamwork and learning to work well with others.
"Can I share them with the platoon, Drill Sergeant?"
"Sure," he said.
Phew! I turned around and said, “We have two and a half minutes to finish these, let's go!"
I grabbed a handful just as the first few people dove for the box. Within seconds the box was demolished, and all that was left of its contents were a few crumbs on the table.
DS Disney didn't utter a word the whole time. He let us all sit down, finish our cookies, and all the while just watched us. Finally the three minutes were up, and he asked with an uncharacteristic calm,"You done?"
"Yes, I am, Drill Sergeant.”
"Where they good?"
“Yes they were, Drill Sergeant."
I should have known something was wrong; he was way too relaxed, he hadn't said a word the entire time, and that never happened.
"Why didn't you give me a cookie? I told you I love home-baked cookies."
CRAP! I knew it was too good to be true! I was in full-blown panic mode.
"Um, uh, th-th-the cookies were right in front of you, Drill Sergeant, you were welcome to have as many as you wanted.”
"Why didn't you offer me any cookies, Mandel?"
"I thought you would take some if yo--"
"You thought?! You f*^%@$g thought?! Are you paid to think, Mandel?! Get the f*%^k outside!! All of you!! Get! Out! Side! NOW!" he thundered.
Basic Training is essentially one long "smoking session" where you go from one running/push-up/sit-up marathon to the next. You get used to being sore 24/7 after a while, but drill sergeants have a talent for turning things up a notch just when you thought it isn't possible.
That night we endured the longest and worst smoking of our time in Basic Training. We did push-ups till the palms of our hands bled. We did sit-ups till our muscles refused to give us one more. We ran till we puked.
Those were the hardest-earned cookies of my life. But were they worth it? Who knows? Am I better off having grown up as a Chassidic Jew? Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? What do I know? But it gave me something to rag on my sisters about until the day I die, and I think a good smoking is a small price to pay for lifelong, excellent ragging material.
Note: I can't complain about Drill Sergeant Disney too much, though. It was he who made sure I graduated Basic Training on time. In order to graduate, we had to pass a litany of tests, one of which was the PT (physical training) test, which consisted of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a two-mile run. We had to hit certain numbers in each event. My biggest weakness was running, and he knew it. When it came time to run the two miles, DS Disney ran right behind me the entire time, inches from my ear, screaming "You better hurry up, Mandel! You don't want to spend ten more weeks with me, do you?! Hurry up! Hurry up! Hurry! Up!" I passed, and then promptly passed out on the grass. The First Sergeant yelled at me to get up, but DS Disney shooed him away. The games were over; I'd passed.