There were only three times a day while in Army basic training when I was completely alone, and that was in the port-a-johns just outside of the mess hall. It became the only time I would be able to smoke, so I developed the habit of wolfing my chow down then holing up in the crapper hot-boxing a cigarette.

It was a brilliantly blistering July day, and we had just arrived for lunch en masse, standing at attention in our uniforms, web gear and helmets. As was the established routine, at command and in unison, we all took our helmets off and held them in front of us until we heard the barked order to place them on the tarmac between our feet, and it had better be with one sound of fifty helmets clopping onto the pavement or we’d do it again until we got it right. Then came the web suit – a wide, strong utility belt with thick suspenders designed to hold a rucksack, a canteen, a small shovel, two full clips of .22 shells for our M16A1, and various metal loops for grenades – placed around the helmet, also in unanimity.

The drill sergeants had us go into the chow hall in single file, take our plate of food and eat it as quickly as we could. I always tried to be one of the first ones out, just so I could get a prime seat in the portable toilets outside and smoke. This day, as I puffed away, trying not to notice the lung-searing chemical smell wafting up from below, I spotted a pigeon feather caught in the vent. Almost unconsciously, I picked it free and sat twirling it between my thumb and forefinger as I inhaled smoke.

In a couple of minutes I was done, so I hot-footed it over to my position in the platoon and waited. About half the group was already milling about, chatting with each other. As there was nobody close to me, I squatted down and sat on my helmet, absentmindedly putting the feather in an elastic headband wrapped around the helmet’s base, designed to hold the forest-colored liner in place. And then I forgot it was there, plain and simple.

Soon, the drill sergeants sauntered out of the mess hall and the entire platoon stood behind their gear. A couple of commands away, and we had out gear back on and were marching back to the barracks
              when one of the drill sergeants yelled at the platoon to stop, came within an inch of my face and screamed, “Harding, what in the hell are you doing with a goddamned feather in your helmet?”

Without hesitation I stammered, “Whawhat feather?”

The DI yanked it out of my headband and held it out in front of me, and though he didn’t say a word to me, I could feel his eyes burning into me. I’m sure my own eyes must have been as large as frisbees as I felt all the blood drain from my head, threatening to take me down in a white cloud of unconsciousness. My brain screamed Deny!, and I found my voice squeaking, “I . . .duhdon’t know!”

Instead of scorching me with his tongue, the drill sergeant took a step back, held the feather up high for everyone to see, and thundered, “So which one of you shitheads thought it would be a good joke to pull on your platoon leader (me, btw)?” After a few seconds of nothing but fifty scared men breathing and looking around, the sergeant added, “Somebody better come clean, or you’ll all be low-crawling all over the company grounds!”


The drill sergeant had us double time (meaning a jogging run) to our barracks and proceeded to make everyone but me hit the ground and crawl themselves through a maze of dirty obstacles. I stood next to the sergeant as he punished the platoon, reminding them that one of our number had brought this about, and that when he found out who the culprit was, he’d make sure they all found out who the clown was. One of the things he said was, “I’m not going to punish Harding, because he was the object of your little prank!” Knowing I was indeed the one who had done this, I felt shame as I’d never known before, witnessing the entire platoon being grilled in the indomitable heat.

Finally unable to take it anymore, I approached the drill instructor and blurted out the truth, willing to face whatever derision would befall me. To my utter shock, the sergeant made the platoon stop and stumble into formation, then told the ragged lot, “Your platoon leader has just informed me that he’s willing to take the blame for this, and I find that so damned honorable I’m going to show each one of you how unworthy you are to be in his presence! Now back to your bellies and crawl!” If this story happens across the view of any of those poor guys in my platoon, I want you to know that life has a way of balancing everything out, and I’m sure at least three of my own personal hells were in payment for that day. 

The Dark Side of People Watching


Awhile back I wrote an article called “The Art of People Watching” and I described the proper way to observe others and have fun doing it. Since then I’ve been sharpening my skills, but have learned in the process that the Art of People Watching is not all sunshine and rainbows. Today is an example, and I’ll be glad to share it with you. While a friend waited in line at the pharmacy today, I kept my eyes peeled for interesting folks, and was not disappointed.

The plump woman standing in front of my friend was pushing a shopping cart, but there was nothing in the bowels of it. This in itself is nothing unusual, except that I think the only thing she intended to use it for was a prop. It was doing a fine job in that respect, as she leaned half her body over it while flipping through a clothing catalog, but as I looked closer at the cart it seemed to be straining under her enormous weight. Either the metal was beginning to warp beneath her, or it had been used to move a house prior to this. In the small area usually reserved for children I saw what I thought at first was a thirty gallon garbage bag but turned out to be her purse. She kept dipping her hand into it and extracting something that I can only guess was some sort of food, because it went into her mouth with the speed of a cobra striking its prey and I was able to catch a glimpse of something orange. I tried to detect any stains on her fingers or mouth in an attempt to prove my theory that the snack was cheese puffs, but her lightening-like reflexes eluded my casual observations. Next to her purse was a two liter of Diet Mountain Dew (further evidence that she was trying to offset a high caloric intake), and from time to time she lifted it to her face, wrapped her inner tube-sized lips around the mouth and inhaled a draught, all with the ease and grace of a prima donna ballerina, or a pregnant yak – I’m not sure which.

When I was able to pry my bulging orbs from this spectacle, I spotted a young mother and her daughter in the headache aisle. The woman was poring over the five hundred choices of pain relief in front of her while her little girl curled up her tiny body and squeezed it in one of the shelves between boxes of blood pressure machines and diabetes testing kits. I immediately had to fight the urge to get up, walk over to where the child was crouched and ask in a loud voice, “How much for the little girl?” with visions of Jake Blues in my head. As I fantasized about the reaction this might bring, I saw the darling girl shove her forefinger into her nose, seemingly all the way to the third knuckle, dig around as if panning for gold, and then withdrew her digit and inspected whatever it was on the end of it before slipping the same finger into her mouth. I fought the urge to empty the contents of my breakfast all over the waiting room area of the pharmacy while actually longing to watch the circus lady in front of my friend, and shifted my wretched attention to the child’s mother, only to see the woman mimicking the actions of her little girl, oblivious to the crowd around her. The fruit indeed did not fall far from that tree, I mused, forcing myself to look away even as my morbid mind wondered if the duo ever shared their treasures with each other in private.

One aisle over in the constipation section stood an old man and what was obviously his wife. I say obviously, because I cannot imagine any man having to put up with the verbal pummeling he was privy to without being married. The woman had a bottle of pills in her meaty hand and was reading the ingredients to him as if it were a passage from the bible. I could tell right away from the haggard look of bored acceptance on his face that he had been subject to her voice for years, and I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance between his appearance and the pictures I had seen of Holocaust survivors. Indeed, as I heard the woman’s droning from over thirty feet away, I had the overwhelming urge to slice my wrists with whatever sharp object was within arm’s length. I instinctually knew that if I were to suddenly walk up to him and put a gun to his forehead, he would look at me as if I were the Angel of Mercy and cry, “Thank God!” My eyes began to bleed just seeing the torture in his countenance, and I had to divert my gaze to my own hands to keep from weeping out loud.

I stayed that way for the rest of the time there, afraid to look up lest my eyes found themselves locked helplessly to one of the theaters of the grotesque transpiring around me. Finally my friend pulled me from my tiny prison of a vantage point and I almost swooned from gratitude upon seeing the front doors. People watching can be fun – don’t get me wrong – but sometimes it can be downright horrifying.

Don’t Hate the Haters


A friend of a friend of a friend of someone who I’m trying to be friends with on Facebook just posted this long rant about how people with nothing better to do than complain should keep her name out of their mouths.  When people spout off like that, it really whets my curiosity and leaves me a little frustrated for being left out of the loop of whatever drama they’re going through.  So next time you decide to let off some steam on a social network, remember to be social about it and fill us in on all the gory details.

But that’s not what tweaked my interest.  A friend of that friend of a friend of a friend of someone who I’m trying to be friends with replied by saying the woman should be lucky to have haters, because haters tell you things about yourself that you wouldn’t have known otherwise.  She went on to say that if weren’t for haters, our lives would be completely boring.  That’s when I realized what I’ve been missing my whole life.  I gotta get me some haters!  I mean, how am I going to achieve any degree of Self-Actualization unless I’m able to learn everything about myself?  Here I’ve been going through life trying to be a good guy to everyone, you know, some poor schmuck going around like everybody’s feelings were made of eggshells.  I really had to sit back and review the way I’ve dealt with folks, and I was ashamed to discover that whenever a hater drifted into my life I bent over backwards and jumped through hoops to turn them into whatever a hater isn’t.  I’m here to tell you it hasn’t been easy doing all that hopping and bending, especially at my age.  If I wanted to achieve any sense of Enlightenment, I’d better start hunting up some serious haters.

So that’s what I did.  Since I’m chronically lazy (and proud of it) I started with the Yellow Pages.  No such luck.  I guess if I wanted to get some haters, I’d have to go out and find them.  But first, I had to find out what a hater really is, so the first person I came across – this young guy with his hat sideways, his pants down below his ankles and a mouth full of automobile parts – I asked him to define a hater.  He looked at me as if sizing me up for a coffin and then said, “Man, a hater is someone who talks shit about you because they ain’t got what you have.  Haters are jealous!”  As he shuffled on I was left scratching my head.  He must have had fleas.  I couldn’t really buy that explanation because nobody in their right mind is going to say, “Yeah, I’m jealous coz they got an Armani suit and I don’t, so I’m gonna put ‘em down.”  No, that’s envy.  Jealousy is when you think you possess something – usually another person – and you’re afraid someone else is going to take it from you.  I guess you could hate anyone trying to steal your friend of a friend of a friend, but I’d rather put my hater eggs in an envious person’s basket.

The second person I came across was an old man with tobacco drooling from his mouth and who smelled like he’d been wetting his pants for years, so I decided to skip him.  Then another young man strolled toward me, this one dressed like someone who should have been named Biff, with corduroy pants, a violet shirt and a sweater tied in a knot around his well-groomed neck.  I asked him to tell me what a hater is and he said, “That’s someone who can’t be happy about someone else’s accomplishment, so they feel compelled to put that person down.”  I really liked that definition, so I shook the guy’s hand and went on my way, my ears and eyes peeled for any unemployed haters I could hire.  Unfortunately, people don’t go around with big neon signs on their forehead flashing “HATERS”, so I really was back to square one in my hunt, whatever a square one is.

I must have passed a dozen people without having a clue if they were real haters or not, and I was beginning to think I’d have to advertise when this big, hairy, gruff-looking guy came plodding toward me.  I found myself feeling nervous which I took as a sign, and stopped him.  As his eyes bored into my brain (or was he seeing the fleas I’d picked up?) I asked him, “Excuse me, could you tell me what a hater looks like?”

His bushy face kind of imploded in on itself as he frowned and pursed his toothless mouth.  “What the hell do you think I am, some kinda damned answer girl?” 

That’s when I realized he was a she and I fought the sudden urge to turn tail and run.  Instead, I stammered back, “Um, I just thought you – “

Sasquatch cut me off.  “That’s what you get for thinking, idiot!  I hate people like you!”

I signed her on the spot.  Now my life’s complete.