Kenneth L. Hardin: My military memories — part 7

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2024

By Kenneth L. Hardin

Prior to joining the military, I had only flown on an airplane once. It was to visit my mom’s people in the Garden State the summer before my senior year in high school. I had been up and down the East Coast highways several times as a child sitting in the back seat of my parent’s Buick, but I didn’t remember much of it from that young perspective. When I flew to New Jersey, I was looking at it through the eyes of a young man and the experiences were much different than when I wore children’s clothes in that car. I had the same feeling a couple of years later as I planted my feet down in the Cornhusker State now as a military man.

I was excited to get my adventure started that first day and threw on the work uniform that would define my life for the next four years. After leaving my squadron’s administrative offices, the sponsor who ghosted me at the airport and never showed to pick me up, was standing in front of me full of apologies. When we got out of earshot of our commanding officers, he admitted that he had partied way too hard at the Airman’s Club and had overslept. I would come to find out this was a normal routine in the military. You were expected to show up on time, dress to regulations and perform at the highest level, but when you took that uniform off, you were allowed to engage in as much legal spirits and debauchery you could withstand as long as you never brought shame or discredit upon the organization. On the outside of the rear gate of the base where I was stationed was a huge lake similar to the one at Dan Nicholas Park. At the end of each seven-day rotation, our commanding officer had an unwritten and unspoken rule that each squadron member was to report to that lake to engage in team-building exercises that involved multiple kegs of beer and bonfires. I was new and young, so who was I not to follow a direct order from a senior officer? People ask me now why I haven’t consumed a drop of alcohol since 1997 and I share with them a quote I recently read online, “I went pro in drinking early in my life and was so good at it, I decided to retire early.”

Coming from the South, I was used to speaking to everyone, asking questions to establish a close personal relationship, and impressing them with my genteel manner born and bred from good ‘ol Salisbury Southern hospitality. When I finally arrived at my permanent barracks room, I met two brothers who looked like me. I noticed they were huddled around a massive rack stereo system with equally large speakers. I would later learn that owning this type of system and having a closet full of custom-designed clothing was the easiest way to tell if a person had served in an overseas Asian country. I dropped my belongings down on the second empty bed in the dorm-style room and directed a big, “What’s up fellas, how y’all doing” in their direction. In response, I only received a couple of polite obligatory up and down head motion nods in return. Undeterred and armed with my AME Zion church upbringing, I asked a series of rapid-fire questions to try to find commonalities. They looked at each other with irritation and my bunkmate replied, “Damn man, you trying to write a book or something?” I learned a valuable lesson on the spot that is similar to prison — you don’t ask anyone what they’re doing time for until you’ve been in a while yourself.

The other eye-opening introduction I was ill prepared to endure was the harsh midwestern weather gathering and waiting to lean down heavily upon me. Coming from the manageable winters of North Carolina, I didn’t own a wardrobe or a heavy coat that would prepare or sustain me for the Nebraska kind of cold in 1984. One of the first jobs assigned to me as a newbie was to work installation entry control. I was issued a side-holstered revolver and an M-16 rifle and stationed at various entry points where I would control who was allowed on and off the secretive military installation. If anyone breached the gate without stopping, I was authorized to fire my weapons and use deadly force. Until I joined the military, I had never touched a gun, so this was a bit daunting. My barracks was a half-mile walk to the armory, where each morning I made the 5:30 a.m. trek to pick up my weapons and assignments. I recall one November morning, the temperature was minus 30 degrees with the wind chill and the snow was at knee level. The wind was blowing so hard, I could lean forward as far as I could, and not fall over. It was so cold that the military working dogs were not allowed to be used outdoors. As I stepped high through the snow doing knee lifts walking towards the hangar where the armory was located, I thought to myself, is this what my new life is going to be like?

Fortunately, it didn’t last long because I took typing and keyboarding classes at Knox and Salisbury High. Computers were new in the mid ’80s and no one could type, so I was pulled to work an indoor desk job and given a high security clearance. Things were looking up for this transplanted kid from the ‘Bury.

Kenneth L. (Kenny) Hardin is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and founder/owner of the Veterans Social Center. 

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