My last letter from Grandma arrived while I was in basic training at Fort Benning’s U.S. Army Infantry Training Center.
Private Borchard, July 1984
Evening mail call in our Sand Hill Training Area barracks was one of the few lighter moments in the land of sunshine and fire ants (otherwise known as west-central Georgia). I looked forward to it not only for the letters from home, but also for our drill sergeant’s performance.
Drill Sergeant Bobby McDonald was the loudest, scariest, most intimidating person I had ever met. From the soles of his spit-polished boots to the top of his Smoky the Bear hat, he seemed about 8 feet 3 ½ inches tall, or thereabouts.
Like Grandma, Drill Sergeant McDonald was an entertaining storyteller: A self-described good ‘ol boy from Alabama, his dad had been a tanker for General Patton in World War II. During the Vietnam War, then Private McDonald survived three days alone behind enemy lines. He ran nearly nonstop the last two days back to his base with a 60-caliber machine gun over his shoulders and a squad of Viet Cong on his butt.
Also like Grandma, Drill Sergeant McDonald was very funny … partly because he was the most-amazing cusser I had ever heard. The things he could do with a booming voice, scowling sense of humor and well-placed expletive were spectacular. But in basic training, you pay for your laughter with pushups, and I’ve always had difficulty keeping a straight face. So I did my best that summer to help push Fort Benning closer to the earth’s core for Drill Sergeant McDonald.
During mail call, Drill Sergeant McDonald would hold court at the front of the barracks with our platoon gathered around him, sitting on the floor like a bunch of anxious children on Christmas morning. One difference was that rather than festive holiday colors, everyone was dressed in drab-green camouflage with accents of drab-green camouflage. Another difference was that rather than a big jolly Santa, our gift-giver was a big scary drill sergeant. Details.
Drill Sergeant McDonald’s mail-call routine was to pull a letter out of the mailbag, holler the recruit’s last name, and expect him to be on his feet and standing at parade rest before the last letter of the recruit’s name left his lips. Guys with one-syllable last names were doomed.
When the envelope’s handwriting and return address called for it, Drill Sergeant McDonald would add the appropriately embarrassing miss-you-so-much girlfriend or momma’s boy insult, fling the letter like a Frisbee in the recruit’s general direction and move on to the next.
A few times every mail call, something about an envelope would inspire Drill Sergeant McDonald to deliver special attention to the letter’s recipient. Whether it was the envelope’s pastel color, the vague scent of perfume or – the ultimate sin – a small hand-drawn heart or two, Drill Sergeant McDonald would call the recruit to the front of the barracks and give him one of two choices:
- Read the letter aloud to the platoon without laughing. With this choice, you could edit out the juicy parts as you went, but usually without first turning red and laughing … followed by pushups.
- Allow Drill Sergeant McDonald to read the letter aloud to the platoon with no edits and no pushups.
We did a lot of pushups during mail call.
My letters managed to slip under our drill sergeant’s lonely girlfriend/momma boy radar through the first month of basic training. My luck ran out on the evening of June 26, 1984.
“Borchard! You’ve got a letter here from Mary in Indiana! I thought you were from I-o-way?! Don’t tell me you’ve got a girl in Indiana too! Get up here!” (Everything Drill Sergeant McDonald said ended with an exclamation point. I suspect he was also a sleep exclaimer.)
As I hurried to the front of the barracks, a panicked voice in my head was pounding, “Oh, crap! It’s from Grandma! What am I going to tell him?! Oh, crap! Oh, crap! Oh, crap!” (Not everything I say in my head ends with an exclamation point, but it sure did then.)
I took my place up front and snapped into parade rest facing Drill Sergeant McDonald.
“So who’s this Mary in Indiana, private Borchard?! Are you so hard up that you have to look that far for a girl or are you some kind of LO-thario?!”
“No, drill sergeant!”
“’No, drill sergeant,’ WHAT?!”
“No, drill sergeant, I a … “
“STOP YER YAMMERIN’ PRIVATE, AND TELL US WHO MARY FROM INDIANA IS!”
Being a family-conditioned smartass, my mind instantly concocted about three answers guaranteed to make the situation worse. Not being a complete idiot, I decided on the fourth answer: Tell the truth.
“Drill sergeant, the letter’s from my grandmother!”
“Yes, drill sergeant!”
Drill Sergeant McDonald then leaned into my face until the rim of his hat was burrowing into my forehead and bellowed, “Do you LOVE your grandmother, Private Borchard!?”
Well of course I love my grandmother … what did he expect me to say? It occurred to me then that telling the truth was setting me up for about 5,000 pushups. Worse yet was the thought that he was guiding me straight to The Two Choices.
Drill Sergeant McDonald didn’t intend for The Two Choices to ever work in a recruit’s favor. But a letter from Grandma had the potential to lead to something cataclysmic either way. So I ran all the smartass answers through my head again, and decided the truth was still the best option. An 8-foot fire-breathing drill sergeant in your face helps you find the truth real fast.
“Yes, drill sergeant!”
“Yes WHAT, private Borchard?!”
“Yes, I love my grandmother, drill sergeant!”
“YES, I LOVE MY GRANDMOTHER, DRILL SERGEANT!”
“Well that’s just out-FUCKING-standing, private Borchard! I love my gran-maw too! Now take this letter, sit down, shut up and STOP WASTING MY TIME!”
No pushups and no two choices … wow. I wasn’t sure how thoroughly hell had frozen over, but I wasn’t about to stand there and contemplate it – I scurried back to my place on the barracks floor and focused all my physical and mental strength on not wasting Drill Sergeant McDonald’s time.
After mail call broke up, I returned to my bunk and read Grandma’s letter. I realized I’d have been fine if Drill Sergeant McDonald had offered The Two Choices. I’d have read the letter aloud without editing and probably started my pushup marathon after the first sentence. They would’ve been worth it:
Hi there “Soldier Boy,”
How does your haircut suit you? If it’s not too hot there, I’ll be down. We went without rain for three weeks, and the temperature’s 90 in the shade every day. The nights are nice though, so I do get my sleep and since this is Sunday, I’m like your dad – I’m getting my afternoon nap. We did get a good rain this morning and it’s a bit cooler, so maybe I’ll live through another day.
I’ve got strawberries coming tomorrow, so I’ll be busy cleaning them. What we don’t eat, I’ll have to freeze. Maybe there’ll be some berries and ice cream left if you make it out here before your school starts, but don’t hold me to it if there’s a hillbilly reunion before then – you know they all eat like hogs. Ha!
Outside of that, I’m not hurting myself with work. Just answering the phone and talking to those crazy campers when Lynn’s gone. Rhonda and baby Amanda will be up over the fourth. She’ll help Lynn with the food, and I’ll be babysitter.
Your mother said your brother got his little finger broken at playing ball. I had to laugh as he’s so slow and clumsy, it wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t step on his own hand and mash his pinky. Oh well – look at the grandmother he’s got.
I hope you’ll like it down there, and the time will go fast for you. If you find time, write me a note.
Good luck in your adventure. I love you,
Your “dear sweet” grandma
I missed the chance to eat strawberries and ice cream with Grandma that summer or any after. I returned to “I-o-way” in late July and getting ready for graduate school immediately consumed my time. Grandma died about three weeks later.
Looking back, I’m sure Drill Sergeant McDonald knew from the start that my letter that evening was from Grandma. How many other letters had he seen written by a grandmother’s hand, and how many times did he go through the same routine with previous recruits? Hundreds, I imagine.
Maybe Drill Sergeant McDonald’s “gran-maw” was also a crazy letter writer, and he spared me because he understood the potential embarrassment contained in such a letter was more punishment than even the U.S. Army would allow.
If I’d had the time to see Grandma one last time, I imagine if we could have magically transported the non-drill-sergeant version of Bobby McDonald to join us for a day. Grandma and Bobby would swap “war” stories and tall tales, and I’d do my best to stay out of the line of fire – listening and laughing pushup-free until strawberries and ice cream jettison out my nose.