by Matt Briggs
Sometime after I had been in my Army basic training unit long enough, I knew how to polish my boots until the surface held a thin, buffed glaze richer than the spay-on polish applied by the Drill Sergeants. The aerosol shine left a mucous sheen still shiny even after trail dirt and field dust coated their heels. I knew how to take my time stripping down the excess, black Kiwi wax and then applying a light touch and buffing the leather with my brush. My brush softened after hours of back and forth blows across the boots. I kept both pairs of my boots rotating on my feet unlike most of my more clever bunkmates. They kept one pair highly polished, ready-to-go. The other pair they wore. They could be instantly ready-to-go for inspection. The problem with this was that their polished, inspection ready-to-go pair remained unbroken. Their feet blistered just standing in line during inspection. And if they had to march in those boots, I didn’t want to be around when they peeled back their socks and their skin pulled away from the meat on their heels in white, fluid filled bubbles. I kept both pairs worn and ready and after some time they became more comfortable than tennis shoes. Weeks later after Basic Training when I finally put on the old pair of KEDs I’d worn to Fort Dix, the sneakers with their thin, faded canvas felt light and inconsequential, really. They were hardly on my feet compared to the bulk and weight and authority of my army boots. They felt as though I wore socks. I liked the additional height in the stacked, rubber heels of the army boots. I liked the sound they made on the crumbling cement walkway where we drilled.
In the sixth week of training we had a surprise inspection. After examining us, our Drill Sergeant marched our company to some massive, inexplicable ceremony. By the third week any real memory of our civilian lives had faded away, and by the sixth week even the memory of this memory had begun to fade. I came from Washington State, from Seattle, but I regarded this fact as something that I had escaped, as an excessive lack of control over myself. I had not intended to be born in Seattle to the parents to which I had been born. It took until I was sixteen to realize there was anything I could do about it. In the Army, I followed orders, but I agreed to follow orders and to obey the example set by the Drill Sergeants with the understanding that one day – one day soon – I would be able to properly conduct myself. I listened to the crush of gravel and the skitter of the loose fragments under our feet as we left and left marched between our barracks and into the vast parade grounds. Our entire brigade moved in formation toward a single spot where soldiers assembled and prepared an American flag. Other brigades from the other side of the base moved toward the field. We all moved down the lanes marked by the neatly ranked sycamores under the cooling, late August sky. Massive anvil-headed clouds rolled toward the West. The snap of the snare drum tumbled across the grass far enough away that the tap didn’t align with the flash of the stick on the drum’s white face. The soldiers unfolded the flag in a precise turn of their hands. The flag came out. It went up, and the breeze caught it and the entire flag billowed out and undulated over the field, casting a shadow not quite as black and dark as the thin slash of the flagpole. I could feel the twinge of patriotism as the flag lay against the blue and white sky hanging over the green fields edged with the thick, heavily toped sycamore trees. I winced in the nearly silent ceremony with almost four thousand solders assembled in tight, neat lines around the flag. The ritual’s purpose seemed obscure and private. There weren’t any witness to it, just the participating soldiers and this spectacle that provide a kind of quiet order and dignity but also mystery since it happened without explanation. Our Drill Sergeant didn’t even explain what would happen. He said we’d best be prepared for inspection even though he didn’t inspect us very thoroughly. I knew the clever soldiers wearing their polished, and new boots had cut deep blisters into their feet after marching across the base to this field. Around me, I could hear all of those soldiers in their ready-to-go dress inspection boots moaning as inaudibly as possible. We followed orders, and one right one left one forward command after another to find ourselves in this quiet field with the wind snapping the flag and rustling the tree leaves, the clouds way above us moving at a brisk pace West. More than the staged sense of patriotism, I felt an aligned, precise order to the world.