There was once a time when the serving
in the Army National Guard was fun. But that was largely before my
first enlistment in 1984 when the “old timers” would tell stories
about massive weekends barbecues deep in the woods of Fort Jackson.
Those parties were only topped by the ones that supposedly occurred
during the two-week summer camps. Raging poker games in the barracks
and quite illegal beer and food runs off post in army vehicles had
become only whispered legends by the time I was a private (E-1) fresh
out of basic training.
By 1984 the entire Army National Guard
was entering another stage of its evolution. During the Vietnam era
the National Guard was more of a joke being a much desired refuge for
rich and well connected kids wanting to avoid the dangers of those
distant jungles. After Vietnam the National Guard languished in a
benign, apathetic limbo where the only thing worse than the
insufficient training and discipline among the soldiers was the
broken and out of date equipment they were issued.
When I finally joined in 1984, Ronny
Raygun had already set in motion the changes that would totally
remake the National Guard into the professional force it is today.
I stayed a weekend warrior for two
years before going active duty in 1986 and during that time I caught
an echo of the easy going style of the Old Guard. By that time
weekend drills in the local armory were well organized with the
required maintenance on equipment being performed as well as
professional training classes being held. But still, there was an
underlying understanding that we were not active duty troops and that
at the end of the day our family and civilian jobs took first
It was during the two-week annual
training where the most hints of the Old Guard could be found during
that time. Those two summer camps before I went active duty the first
week would be spent in the field sleeping in leaky tents and vehicles
along with playing at our various military occupational specialties.
The second week had us in the barracks still largely playing soldier
during the day but sleeping in hot and miserable barracks at night.
Yeah, the hot and miserable barracks were an improvement from
sleeping in the field. That is if you could sleep during the raging
poker games that went on most the night and breathe the thick
secondhand smoke from all the burning cigarettes.
Concerning those poker games, I have to
mention that many of the wives of these guys had apparently been told
that their husbands did not receive that much in pay for those two
weeks. This was cover for many returning home almost broke after
having lost it gambling. Now between the first week in the field and
the second week in the barracks was the middle weekend. I remember it
as a time when all discipline evaporated and the troops did what they
wanted. Some just drank themselves into a weekend stupor with what
money they had on hand. We're literally talking about whole mountains
of empty beer cans at the start of the second week.
Not wanting to deal with clouds of
cigarette smoke and Olympic-level drinking, I got in my car and
hauled ass to a friends' house or went back home. Understand, I'm not
passing judgment on those guys staying in the barracks. By the
mid-1980s when I joined, all the rich and well connected Vietnam
draft dodgers had returned to full civilian life. That just left the
lower-middle class guys who worked rotating shifts during the rest of
the year at Georgetown County's two major employers, the steel mill
and the paper mill. The middle weekend of summer camp was in many
ways their only vacation away from the demands of their jobs and
families. I just didn't want to endure the smell of stale beer and
breathe their second-hand smoke.
Of course, I went active duty army in
1986 and didn't have to deal with annual summer camps again until I
returned to the National Guard in 1990.
When I returned to the National Guard
in 1990 a great deal had changed. The Old Guard with its laid back
attitude along with its lack of discipline was a bad memory. Even the
more responsible but reasonable National Guard that existed when I
joined in 1986 had evolved into an excessively gung-ho organization
that was beginning to look upon its members civilian jobs as
impediments to the mission. This was a situation that would only get
worse over time.
What had also changed was the middle
weekend. My first couple of summer camps back after leaving active
duty had me traveling to some interesting posts with small groups, so
I couldn't complain too much. The training was actually fun and I was
still single and interested in having a good time. By the time of my
first summer camp with the rest of my unit though, the whole basis of
how things went had changed.
Not only did my unit still spend the
first week out in the field playing soldier, but the second week as
well. We would return to the rear area to stay in the barracks for
the middle weekend. But even then the officers and NCO's weren't
going to allow anything like the freewheeling antics that were once
As a former active duty soldier I
completely agreed with those changes. My problem came when the senior
NCO's started making noises that they were going to no longer allow
us to leave the post during the middle weekend. I'll put it to you
frankly, there isn't any army base my National Guard unit frequented
for summer camp that I would want to be stuck at for a weekend.
By 1996 I was married and had a son and
as you might expect, the idea of being forced to hang around at the
barracks during the middle weekend was supreme bullshit. That year my
unit was doing summer camp at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Now understand,
Stewart is amazingly close to beaches but as a new dad I wanted to be
with my son.
It took a little persuasion, but my
first sergeant decided to let me go leave Fort Stewart and go see my
son. It was going to be an easy trip for me since all I had to do was
hit I-95 and drive up to Manning, South Carolina where I would meet
my son and wife at her parents' house. So that Friday afternoon at
the beginning of the middle weekend, I got in my 1988 Ford Escort and
hauled ass heading north.
I love my wife and kid by one of the
sacrifices I had to make for them was selling my 1984 Chevrolet
Camaro and getting the Escort. My Camaro had class and style, and
been the reason I had scored as well as I did with the ladies back at
Fort Carson. But as a family man, my Camaro pretty much sucked for
driving your kid and wife around.
So we got a used four-door escort
hatchback with four-cylinder engine and a crappy radio. It was
dependable, it had cargo space, and I could fit a baby seat in the
back. Surprisingly enough my Camaro turned out to have better gas
mileage that the Escort but my wife didn't find that interesting.
About about two hours later I'm driving
north on I-95 with the pedal to the floor doing about sixty miles and
hour. The radio has lost all reception so I'm listening to the one
cassette tape the player had destroyed and getting pretty tired Kenny
Rodgers crone about his damn card game. Yes, I had a Kenny Rodgers
tape in my car, it's a long story in its own right but understand I'm
not a fan. The cassette player seemed to have its own idea of good
music so I went along with its choices.
At some point after I passed the I-26
interchange the terrain around me opens up enough to allow me to see
some sky. To the west I see clouds, some dark and heavy but nothing
unusual for South Carolina. The weather that day for the entire state
was sickeningly hot and soul-sucking humid but at least the AC on the
Escort was a real winner.
The drone of the road and Kenny's
whining about some woman leaving her family with a crop in the field
caused me to zone out for a few minutes. What suddenly pulled me back
to consciousness was a totally unexpected flash of lightning and the
corresponding boom of thunder after that. Once I gathered my meager
wits and wiggled my butt in the seat a little to make sure I hadn't
shit my pants I looked over to my left and saw what was happening.
In the space of a few minutes that
party cloudy day had completely changed. To the west of me a huge
chunk of the sky had gone completely black, with the lightning
flashing it looked like someone had opened the gates of Hell.
Instinctively, I switched over to the radio and almost immediately
heard the blaring noise of a weather alert.
At first all I heard was the Weather
Service's robotic voice saying that a tornado warning was in effect
for numerous counties along I-95. Yeah, no shit I thought to myself
as the wind began trying to push my car off the road.
Mr. Robot was soon replaced with a
panicked human voice saying this storm was throwing softball-sized
hail and that if you were between certain mile markers on I-95 that
you should seek shelter absolutely right now. Now I've never been
good with math but right after I heard his words I saw a mile marker
sign and realized I was smack in the middle of where he said all shit
was about to fly.
Low and behold that was when the funnel
cloud became visible on the left side of I-95. After a momentary scan
of surroundings, I realized I was the only car on the road. Yeah, all
the other smart people had probably heard the weather report on their
dependable car radios and found shelter. I had somehow hit the one
bleak and undeveloped section of I-95 in the whole damn state.
So, I said fuck it, gripped the
steering wheel harder and ignored the funnel cloud and the growing
sound of a train. No, I didn't look back on the funnel cloud so I
don't know for certain if it had touched down and became a full
The rain went from a few drops to
torrential and the booming of thunder made me feel like I was driving
through an artillery barrage. Luckily, I somehow stayed on the road
and didn't hit any fool who decided to stop in the middle of the
The sound of the train faded away but
the rain never really letup. I did find the exit for Manning and
successfully navigated the county roads to my in-laws house. These
roads are seriously in the boonies to the point visitors traveling in
that area might want to stay alert for any banjo playing.
Much to the chagrin of my dad-in-law, I
pulled into his driveway before nightfall and was greeted by my
smiling wife and young son. Weather reports did say that a tornado
had touched down near that area but it was impossible for me to know
for sure if the funnel cloud I saw was it.
The rest of the weekend was great with
me having lots of time with my family. When I returned to Fort
Stewart Sunday evening I found out that commanding officer had
restricted everyone to the barracks just minutes after I left. His
stated reasoning was to keep accountability and prevent needless
accidents during annual training.
This decision by the CO pissed off the
first sergeant and with me walking around with a huge shit-eating
grin because I got laid and saw my kid over the weekend didn't help
with his disposition. So much that I caught a bunch of crappy duties
during that second week in the field.
I didn't care, outrunning a tornado was
probably one of the funnest things I ever did during summer camp.