In the late summer of 1984, I arrived at Ft McClellan, Alabama for basic training with the United States Army. It was the farthest I had ever traveled from my home in Pembroke, Massachusetts. My first stop on post was the “Reception Station.”
In those days, the Army would welcome the new recruits by temporarily billeting us in a barracks and almost gently easing us into the initial Army experience. You would spend about 3 or 4 days getting acclimated at the Reception Station, living in an open barracks with about 70 other recruits, drawing your initial uniforms, and in general, having some sergeants explain tell you over and over again that once you left the reception station and reported to your actual Training Company, life would change dramatically.
Living in those barracks for those few days, I kept asking myself, “what exactly am I doing here?” It was tough to feel settled or sure of yourself sharing quarters with so many strangers.
Growing up in Pembroke, a middle class (at the time anyhow) town about 35 minutes South of Boston, I always had always felt like I fit in to my community. For the most part, our town was made up of people who shared the same values and the same experiences. Pembroke was a homogenous town, and I liked that about Pembroke.
My first morning at the Reception Station, I went into the bathroom to shave, not because I needed to shave at that age, but because the sergeants had told us to shave. As I stood at the sink, I overheard a conversation the likes of which I’d never heard in my life.
Behind me and to the left a young black man was holding court, telling stories to a group of recruits. The stories were filled with some of the vilest expletives you can imagine and centered on fighting, stabbings, and what I could only describe as gang activity.
I got a good look at the man telling the stories. He looked incredibly angry. He was regaling his audience with a story of how a rival gang had taken his jacket and shoes one night and left him to walk home in stocking feet. “I’m talking about Newark! In %^#$ February!” The guys laughed and called him crazy.
I couldn’t have agreed more. This story-teller did seem crazy. I decided that day that this was a person I would intentionally avoid. There was no sense getting caught up with a guy like that.
The day finally came when we left the reception station and boarded a bus to the other side of the post. That is what we recruits had been told was the real basic training. We called it the “other side” as if we were about to cross over some threshold into another hellish world. We had that about right.
As I boarded the bus with two duffle bags and a nauseous stomach, I noticed the Newark Story Teller was seated in the second seat. I took my place in the fifth row and began to mentally prepare for our real welcome. Despite my fear of the drill sergeants who were waiting on the “other side,” I focused my prayer on Newark, “God, please don’t let the kid from Newark be in my platoon.”
After a short bus trip, we rolled slowly to a stop and I saw what appeared to be 15 – 20 of the largest people I had ever seen. The Drill Sergeants were waiting, wearing their distinctive round brown hats, glaring with disgust at the bus. Finally one of the behemoths climbed aboard and said very calmly, “You have exactly 60 seconds to get off this bus and 30 of them are gone. Now move!”
What followed was some of the toughest hours of my life, standing in the Alabama sun, incapable of doing anything right. The Drill Sergeants swarmed. They were everywhere at once. I didn’t look at a soul. I just responded to commands and did push-ups, a lot of push-ups.
We were shuffled from station to station to get dog tags, I.D. cards, and training manuals. There always seemed to be some kind of emergency that a drill sergeant was yelling about. Finally, after getting measured and weighed, I was told by a drill sergeant, “Cheetham. You’re fourth platoon – up stairs turn right, look for your name on a bunk. Move!”
I scrambled up the stairs fumbling with two ridiculously heavy duffle bags, sweat pouring down my back. “I don’t think this day could get much worse” I thought as I entered the barracks. I walked down the row of bunks and looked for my name. I found it on the eighth set of bunks on the right; the top bunk read: CHEETHAM, C. I looked at the bottom bunk: WILCOX, B.
“I guess Wilcox is still getting his tail kicked downstairs” I said quietly as I dropped my gear. Some of the others in the room were engaged in hushed conversations. After about three hours of initial Army Training, I sat down on the floor, closed my eyes, and rested my head on my hands. I was actually starting to doze, when I heard someone drop two duffles on the lower bunk.
Wilcox, B. had arrived.
It was the kid from Newark.
It’s hard to describe how I felt at that moment. Aside from questioning the efficacy of my prayers, I quickly moved on to “this is not going to work out so well.” Wilcox, B. barely acknowledged my presence and we stumbled around until lights out. I lay awake on my bunk, and wondered which was worse: The Drill Sergeants who were no doubt resting in preparation for day 2 of training, or having Wilcox, B. on the bunk below mine?
Morning came early and we all hustled to dress, shave, and make our beds. Many of the privates were working together on their racks – but not me and Wilcox, B. Instead we ignored each other. When we finished our sloppy effort at tucking sheets and blankets we were universally panned by the Drill Sergeants. We paid dearly for that.
Over time, a strange thing happened with me and the kid from Newark. We started to work together and look out for one another. I found out that the B. stood for Bobby, but that he preferred to be called “Cool Bobby.” I also found out that Cool Bobby was actually not as angry as he first seemed. In fact, he was a happy, funny kid who liked the same movies and sports that I did.
As training progressed, Cool Bobby and I would spend our days training and helping one another to succeed. I’d help him assemble and disassemble an M-60 machine gun one day and the next he was helping me over a wall on the obstacle course.
I learned an awful lot about Wilcox during those eight weeks of basic training and the eight weeks of Military Police School that followed. His Dad was a Baptist preacher who had died when Bobby was only 14 years old. Cool Bobby told me the story of how he had come home from school to find his father dead in the kitchen. I also learned that Wilcox didn’t really swear all that much, he loved his mother, and that he genuinely cared about everyone in our platoon.
Cool Bobby was not a gang member at all. He was just a kid who grew up in a very tough town – Newark, New Jersey. In fact, as I got to really know Wilcox, there were times I thought he wouldn’t, and maybe couldn’t, hurt a fly. All I remember now is that he would laugh and make fun of my Boston accent. “JFK Cheetham” is what he would call me.
In 16 weeks, the United States Army performed a miracle. They took a white kid from a small town in Massachusetts, a town that was almost exclusively white at the time; and they teamed me with a black kid from Newark, New Jersey. The two of us couldn’t have been more different when we started. I know I didn’t initially trust Wilcox, and I don’t think he trusted me either.
The Army put us through a very difficult training program that was designed to test our wills. The training was often grueling, sometimes unfair, and occasionally ridiculous. Yet, that training did something that I don’t think any other program could do – namely, it got two teenagers from different places and races to become great friends. We battled the Drill Sergeants together. We battled the Army together. We battled Alpha Company together (because we knew: a Bravo Bulldog Leads the Way).
When we finished Military Police School I was slated to go home to Massachusetts and join my National Guard Company and start college. Cool Bobby was off to Hawaii. As Wilcox got ready to board his bus we embraced and said our good byes. I will never forget that last conversation.
“Cheetham, man. I gotta tell you something. You are the first white person I’ve ever had for a friend,” Wilcox said with tears in his eyes.
“Cool Bobby. I think you are one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. One of the best friends I’ll ever have.”
We smiled shook hands and Wilcox got on his bus.
I never saw Wilcox again. I think we may have exchanged letters once, but in that pre-internet era, it was easy to lose touch. I could tell stories about Bobby D. Wilcox for hours, still to this day. Hardly a week goes by where I don’t at least think about our exploits at Ft McLellan, Alabama.
The Army taught me a great lesson back in 1984 and I am forever grateful for that lesson. It’s a simple lesson really. When people are willing to sacrifice their own selfishness, when they commit to a team, to a vision, and to a goal they can achieve great things; but even more important than achieving the great things is the relationships that people can forge when they put aside differences. In life, where you came from as an individual matters so little, when compared with where you go together as a team.
I can’t think of any organization on this planet that better understands that truth, than the United States Military. Only the military can take people from sprawling incoherent diversity and forge purposeful unity. Throughout our time together no one ever said “Cheetham and Wilcox, put aside your differences and work together.” They didn’t have to say that. Rather, it was the very essence and culture of the military that created our friendship.
It’s the greatest thing the Army ever taught me.