Tough Guy

This is an old military story, but it’s true. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember the events like it was yesterday.

We were all raw recruits in basic training. It was at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, the fall of 1968. It was the second day of basic training and the drill sergeant assembled us all together on the first floor of the barracks. He put a big garbage can on the floor and yelled at us. He never talked — he always yelled. He yelled that we could not have any dirty pictures or any weapons or any drugs. He yelled that he would leave the room and we should put any of those things in the can. There would be no questions asked and if we were caught with any of that later, there would be big trouble.

He left and guys stepped up and put things in the can, mostly pictures. But one guy dropped something in that hit the bottom with a thud. The drill sergeant came back and took away the garbage can. We waited, joking that the sergeant was adding to his collection of dirty pictures. Then he returned. He was holding a six-inch switchblade knife. But now he wasn’t yelling — he was screaming.

“WHO PUT THIS SWITCHBLADE IN THE CAN!!!” No one said anything. He screamed it again. No one said anything. We looked at each other thinking this didn’t make sense. He had said no questions asked.

But his sense was different than ours. He said we would all have to stand at attention until the guy who put in the switchblade stepped forward. No one stepped forward. He left and we stood.

He came back 30 minutes later and no one stepped forward. Our legs were getting tired. He came back an hour later. No one stepped forward. He came back an hour later and finally one guy stepped forward. The sergeant grabbed him and dragged him into his office.

We heard a lot of screaming. After 10 minutes, the guy came out.

From then on we called him Tough Guy. Not to his face — behind his back. We knew he was from Buffalo, New York, and figured with that switchblade, he must have been a tough guy from some Buffalo gang. It wasn’t like he said anything to us, but we gave him room. He was Tough Guy.

One night I woke up in my bunk and saw Tough Guy having a drink of water from the fountain opposite my bunk. He wasn’t supposed to be there. Basic training was full of little stupid rules. One of the rules was that from lights out at night until lights on in the morning, you could not go anywhere but straight from your bunk to the bathroom and straight back.

Tough Guy wasn’t supposed to be getting a drink — and there in the dark behind him was the sergeant. He yelled at him, and Tough Guy didn’t say anything. He screamed at him, and Tough Guy didn’t say anything. He grabbed Tough Guy by the shirt and smashed him into the wall so hard that his head broke through the wallboard — and Tough Guy didn’t say anything. He could take it. He was Tough Guy.

Eventually basic training ended and everyone got their orders. Many went to Vietnam. Some went to California. Others went to Europe. But two stayed behind because their orders weren’t ready yet — me and Tough Guy. We had to work odd jobs each day while we waited for orders.

I got to know Tough Guy. He was very shy and very polite and one of the nicest people I ever met. Eventually I asked him about the switchblade. He said he grew up on a small farm about 100 miles from Buffalo. The biggest town he had ever been in was a nearby farm town of 4,000 people. When he joined the air force, he knew he would have to go to Buffalo and spend the night by himself, because he had to get on the plane to San Antonio at 5:00 A.M. He was scared — real scared. His friends told him that the guys in Buffalo were tough and would beat the crap out of you if they thought you were a country boy. He was so scared that he couldn’t sleep at night.

But he was lucky. An older boy on the farm next door said he had just what he needed — a six-inch switchblade. He would sell it to him for $10. All he needed to do was show that switchblade and people would think he was a tough guy and leave him alone.

Well, he did show that switchblade, and we did think he was a tough guy, and we did leave him alone, but it wasn’t in Buffalo.

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