I laughed my way through basic training. It was a hoot. Watching small people try to intimidate us with their small presences, with canned insults and one-liners, and stories so old they could only be apocryphal…a time of hilarity despite all the stress. Particularly amusing was a talk one training instructor gave about “acme,” which he thought was the correct term for the skin blemishes associated with adolescence. He even spelled it for us, and said, “Like the company that Coyote gets his anvils from.”
It is so easy to intimidate the average person into conformity that even this high-school wash-out could master the movements. Given the setting and the institutional support, it is hard to imagine someone who could not have managed it. I was a clear exception—nobody else was much laughing. They took the abuse all too seriously.
A bunkmate “fell” from the top bunk and hurt his arm in an attempt to get sent home. (He got sent to the psych hospital instead). Some people found faith, some tried to run, most found enough mettle and came through unscathed. I just laughed and carried on.
But that is not what I want to write about today. I want to tell you about one day of liberty.
This is a free day you get towards the end of basic training. Until this day, you have been locked into the barracks, locked into a formation, locked into a dining hall, locked into position and discipline and subservience and appearance and protocol. On this one day some weeks into your incarceration, you get to put on your blues for the first time and go out into the civilian world for a few hours. You are free for the day to pursue real life.
It feels strange, like entering adulthood again. Some people break the rules set up around this liberty (drinking, smoking, sex), and some people find the freedom they have to be enough. My squadron went straight to Hooters (what other behavior do you expect from young men being trained to conformity and social order?) and then to the movies. Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We carefully observed the boundaries of our liberty, stayed in line, came back to our temporary prison on time to be locked in for the night. Liberty ended.
For the next four years, even if we were in the larger world, we were not at liberty. Our movements were watched, if not very closely, even on leave. Visits to foreign countries could be scrutinized, our urine could be sampled, our quarters no less a prison for having no locks on the doors as they could be searched at any time without suspicion. If we took loans, they were guaranteed by the government, making us huge targets for local businesses.
That one day of liberty trained us more than anything else to experience freedom as relative, within the accepted boundaries we signed ourselves into. We gave up certain rights others consider fundamental, and we did it at least aware that freedom was a larger goal, freedom for civilians. We were happy to do it, didn’t understand even what it meant. But for the four years I served, for all the years braver and better people have served, they sacrificed many essential freedoms on behalf of other people.
I have been out for longer than I care to think about. And now, I see that we are still only relatively free, even those who never served in the armed forces. Your day of liberty occurs within boundaries, too. You can only take what you can pay for; you have to be considerate of others; you have to die one day. And the people on the outside have mastered the language and behavior of inducing conformity just as well as that ragged old technical sergeant who didn’t know how to say acne. You are intimidated and coerced every day into thinking you need a luxury car, fat-laden food, coal and oil power. The latest phone or tablet.
The sad truth of the matter, though, is that you did not sign up for it. It is being done to you. Your silence is assent, but you never consented, even when you paid extra for the name brand identical to the generic. I willingly signed away my rights. You never did.
Imagine you had one day of liberty and, at the end of the day, did not have to take the bus back to your barracks to be locked in once more? What would you do with that day?
What you can do:
Whatever you want to do. Literally.
— Jason Dias