Blue Falcons

by Hannah Pralle | January 26, 2022

I talked to a psychic yesterday. Rip asked why – if she’s psychic, oughtn’t we simply commune in silence? I said because I’m not a psychic, that’s why. Anyway, she said “Nobody’s getting away with anything, right now.”

Nobody’s getting away with anything, right now.

That’s interesting, right? I’m confronting this blank page; this desire and obligation to create a new Starting Stronks essay on the heels of my last, humdinger of an essay. I’m radically grateful to have an outlet and a readership; the digging deep part has never been an issue.

Nobody’s getting away with anything, right now.

I just like it. It brings to mind –

I attended Army Basic Training in the summer of 1997, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. (“Attended” lol. Quite the soiree.) There was this odd moment, this disconcerting moment, this wonderful moment that’s stayed with me all this time. Imagine Snow White in a sun-dappled clearing: sounds of birdsong, lush green grass; regaling her Seven Dwarves, arranged about her in a semi-circle.

Now, mentally replace Snow White with this angular motherfucker of a Drill Sergeant in woodland camo named Sgt. Johnstone (we must address the drills as “Sergeant”, not “Drill Sergeant” – I’m not sure if this still holds true); and replace the Seven Dwarves with twenty four disheveled Army Privates.

We’d just arrived from our week at Reception Battalion, where the males had been shorn, blood had been drawn, DNA samples and dental records stored against the event of a total bodily immolation at some future point, dog tags with religious preferences printed, the bejeezus immunized out of us, etc. We’d generally been screamed at non-stop, mostly as a means of drills-in-training getting to practice their screaming, I realized. When it’s happening to you, it feels quite serious, but there had been this split second, on one occasion, where the drill screaming at us faltered for one single beat, and another more experienced drill segued in so smoothly I’d have missed it if I blinked. I realized: Oh! This is hard for them too.

The final day at Reception Battalion, surprisingly, entailed having our graduation photos taken. Not only did this seem incredibly optimistic, not yet having begun our eight weeks “downrange,” but we didn’t even get real dress uniforms for the occasion. We took off our camo tops, sat down in the chair one by one in just our brown tees, pants, and boots, and the photographer slapped a pre-fab uniform assemblage over us, that only covered our chests — sort of like those lead aprons the dentist gives you when it’s time to get your teeth X-rayed. There was one pre-fab for the males and another for the females, collared shirt and jacket and ribbons and medals appropriate to soldiers who have yet to accomplish anything, and we were screamed at to pin our name tag onto it and smile for the camera, and god help those fuckups who’d forgotten their name tags at the barracks. Then we must shrug back into our camo tops and stand at parade rest while everyone else went through. So my graduation photo shows a twenty-one year old gal with freckles, a sweaty French braid, eyebrows almost connected across the bridge of my nose (my mom neglected to teach me shit about being a girl), and a dazed, beseeching smile.

The next morning at oh-dark-thirty we were loaded into cattle cars and taken “downrange.” Shakedown was – I probably don’t need to explain it. Just like falling into a river filled with piranhas, except the piranhas’ job is to make sure you have all your required gear, while eating you alive. I’d already had my little revelation, though, and I saw that it was a max effort for them too, the drills. It’s a performance, and an important one, and they have to give it everything.

We were broken into platoons and each platoon assigned two primary drills, and these platoons were screamed off in their own separate directions and I didn’t see them again until chow.

Second platoon, though – mine – was herded off into this grassy, sun-dappled clearing at the far side of the three-story brick barracks. Sgt. Johnstone produced a metal folding chair for himself one-handed, with frankly a badass flourish, and in a normal speaking voice told us to sit down on the grass and get comfortable. It seemed like a trick but it wasn’t, and we settled cautiously.

He calmly outlined a psychological map of the experience we were about to have.

“When this talk is over, I am your enemy. Every drill here is your enemy. It is our job to cause it to be necessary for you to rely upon one another. We’ll teach you things, and you’ll learn, and we’ll create a set of conditions in which you must abandon your usual ways of walking, standing, speaking, sitting, thinking. You have to do all those things our way, now, and we’ll be watching for those of you who can’t, or won’t. But you want to know what we’re looking for, most of all?”

We glanced around at each other.

“Who knows what a Blue Falcon is?”

I almost laughed, but stopped myself. I’d had JROTC in high school. I raised my hand.

“You, with the eyebrows.”

I was supposed to scream every reply at the top of my lungs in this environment, I’d learned, and also not use curse words, but I was confused by this casual format. I settled on raising my voice.

“A buddy fucker, Sergeant!”

He did a little pistol thing with his hand, index finger extended, like he shot me. “A buddy fucker,” he confirmed, sweeping us all with his gaze. “You will each be assigned a Battle Buddy, from your bunking arrangements. If you pretend to be sick, your Battle Buddy will do your work in addition to theirs. If you pretend to be hurt, your Battle Buddy will carry your gear along with their own. If you attempt to fail, your failure will be made everyone’s problem. If you don’t do what we say, or do what we say not to, you will all be punished. We are your enemy. But you have no greater enemy than the Blue Falcon. And there is at least one in every group.” He paused and looked at us significantly, watching for that observation to sink in.

It was a pensive moment, and then he continued. “I want each of you to ask yourself right now: am I the Blue Falcon Sgt. Johnstone is talking about? Do I have it in me to fuck over my buddy so that I can have an easier time? Because I’ll tell you right here, right now: it will come out in the wash. It always comes out in the wash. You might get away with it for a day, or a week, but it is our job to find you; and we are very good at our jobs.”

After that, it was game on. And just for narrative arc’s sake, I’ll tell you we had three in our group of two dozen. And it was a problem.

One tried to commit suicide by drinking CLP (clean, lubricate, protect fluid for our M16s), and we had to staff around-the-clock suicide watch on top of everything else; sleep deprivation was already built in to the agenda.

Another refused to take off her mask in the CS gas chamber, after the rest of our small group had done so per instruction. The count would only start once the last private removed their mask. Coughing and blinded, snot streaming from our faces (and blood from mine – apparently CS gas eats through scabs and I had banged my lip a few days prior), we didn’t understand why the count hadn’t started. It was chaotic, and difficult in all the pain to even look around, let alone see through the dark chamber and the clouds of yellow smoke. We fell on her like wolves once we realized, though, wrestling her to the ground and ripping the mask off her head. She fought us, but we won.

The third was constantly ill, and didn’t fight through it to prevent the burden it became on everyone else. It’s better to fall down under your own rucksack than to hide in sick bay while somebody else humps theirs and yours too.

So. Nobody’s getting away with anything, right now…what a thought. I consider myself lucky to have had someone like Sgt. Johnstone lay it out so clearly, so early in my life. I searched my heart, crosslegged there in the grass, and knew I wasn’t the Blue Falcon. But I’ve always wondered: did the Blue Falcons know they were Blue Falcons? Did it surprise them? Did they disappoint themselves? Or only disappoint us? It’s an interesting consideration, distinct from morality per se, because while moral relativism is anathema to me, the Blue Falcon question is necessarily relative. “I can see you’re in the same situation as me, so I’m not going to make it better for myself if that makes it worse for you.”

I’ve failed at a lot of things, and hell, I’ve probably been the Blue Falcon myself, once or twice, distracted by some other variable. I thought it was interesting, though, to have the most overtly aggressive authority figure of my life – a drill sergeant whose literal job was to yell in my face and find fault with me – give me the secret of life, in a sense. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune strike us all. It’s only too easy to strike back, at whoever happens to be standing nearby.

I wish it were as simple to identify the Blue Falcons, in real life, as it was in the gas chamber at Fort Leonard Wood.

Anyway, we’re coming up on the time of year when all of us who have been going to the gym are about to be temporarily inundated by those who New Years Resolved to work out more and lose ten pounds. They’ll be underfoot, and curling in the squat racks, for January and half of February. I’ve yet to see a treadmill placed inside a squat rack, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me. I don’t know that I need any 2022 Resolutions. All I need is for it not to be 2021 anymore – 2021 hasn’t been a friend. Or maybe it has, and I’ll understand that later.

Thank you all for being a community based on the definition of integrity — or at least my definition, which is “this cannot be faked.” I suspect the psychic is right, and we’re all getting away with less and less, energetically. But I know for sure no one’s getting away with anything under their barbell, and that’s quite a running start.     

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