Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Scrapbook Memories

Ten weeks at Del Monte — Part 1

One of the more humbling experiences I’ve had when it has come to working had to have been the time I worked at a Del Monte canning/processing plant in Mendota, Illinois prior to coming to Korea in 1990. 

It was mid August 1990 and I had just finished teaching an adult education class (ESL) for Illinois Valley Community College. I had been back in the states since February when things didn’t work out for me with the teaching job I had in Japan. Fortunately, this part-time teaching position had opened up for me, but now I was out of work again. 

I was hoping to get back to Asia—either Japan or Korea—to teach again and had applied at ELS International. At the beginning of August, ELS contacted me and informed me that they were looking for instructors for a new school in Malaysia and wanted to know if I would be interested. Of course I said I would and a few days later, I had a telephone interview with the recruiter. I did okay on the interview and was told that I needed to go to an ELS institute at Concordia College (if my memory serves me correct) for another interview. Looking pretty good, I thought.  

So on August 16 I was up at Concordia having my second interview. I thought it went well. Although I didn’t have much experience teaching (just one semester at the WESL Institute at Western Illinois University, nine months at the Four Seasons Language Institute and Cultural Center in Hamamatsu, Japan and the summer course at IVCC) and that I lacked a lot of EFL methodology, I thought that I had a pretty good chance of getting the job. (I was much more optimistic about things back then.) 

In fact, thinking that my chances were quite good for getting hired, I knew that I needed to come up with some money to tide me over until the job started. It just so happened that a day or two before I had come across an ad in the News Tribune (published in LaSalle, Illinois) for seasonal workers at the Del Monte canning and processing plant. Perfect. The job would only be for 10-12 weeks and the money was not that bad. 

I went to Del Monte the next day, filled out an application and went back home. The next day they called me and told me that I had a job. 

Perfect. Everything was coming together. 

I had no idea though just how much the next ten weeks I worked at Del Monte would change my life forever and how it really opened my eyes up a lot. I had felt sorry for myself after things had not worked out for me in Japan and felt a little bad after I had missed out on another teaching job in Japan (I really felt I had a good chance with that one) so even though I knew that it was only going to be a matter of time before I was on my way to bigger and better things, for the moment it appeared that I was going to have to swallow a little pride. After all, there I was an out of work college graduate with an MA in English who had taught in Japan and at a community college. Now I was going to be working in a factory. 

Like I said, it was to be a very humbling experience and open up my eyes a lot.  

Are you a Stooge?

Anyone who has ever served in the military at one time or another is bound to have at least one or two interesting stories about basic training—whether something that might have happened to themselves or somebody else.

When it comes to having or telling such stories, I am no exception with at least one thing that happened to me my first night in basic training.

Let’s just say that I was asking for trouble by what I decided to wear on the day I reported to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in June 1976.

Whatever possessed me to put on an orange “Three Stooges” T-shirt that morning when I got up in the Avenue Motel in Chicago, I’ll never know.  

Ironically, I had cut off most of my long red hair a week before because I didn’t want to stand out too much when I got to basic training. I guess if I had been really worried about standing out, I would have given more thought to my wardrobe choice that morning.

There were eighteen of us—including myself and six other guys from the Illinois Valley—leaving from Chicago that morning enroute to San Antonio and our home for the next six weeks: sunny, scorching Lackland Air Force Base. Those of us from the Illinois Valley even made the front page of the local newspaper. The day we left, there was this F-111 aircraft display at the Peru Mall and the local Air Force recruiter seeing a potential windfall to attract more recruits, came up with the idea to have us pose next to the aircraft. “Off They Go” was the catchy headline someone came up with for the photo. Three months later, only two of us would still be in the Air Force. 

When we got to San Antonio’s airport we were met by a very friendly sergeant who made us feel welcome by telling us exactly what he thought about all us new recruits. Doesn’t make any difference what branch of the military you serve in, you are lower than slug scum as a new recruit. After being herded onto buses along with other recruits who had flown into the airport, we were taken to an inprocessing center on Lackland where more friendly sergeants greeted and welcomed us.

During our inbriefing, one of the guys I came down with from the Illinois Valley raised his hand and asked one of the sergeants if all of us from the Illinois Valley would be put together. Back then, the Air Force had this seemingly innocuous recruiting ploy—the “buddy system”—to get more people to enlist. You and a friend would join the Air Force and then do basic training and maybe, if you were lucky even technical school. 

However, once we were all there sitting together during our inprocessing at Lackland, reminding one of the sergeants that you had joined under the “buddy system” maybe wasn’t such a good thing to bring up at the time. Nothing like calling more attention to yourself when all you wanted to do was just get through what was most assuredly going to be a very long night. Give the guy credit though, that was a pretty brave thing to do. I know I could have never done something like that.  

Then again, I am the guy in the orange “Three Stooges” T-shirt, remember? 

“The buddy system, huh?” bellowed the sergeant. The whole room got quiet.

“Okay, we’ll make sure all you “buddies” are put together.” 

Hey, the Air Force wasn’t so bad after all. And that’s how the “Chicago 18” as we were collectively called all ended up in the same basic training flight. Whether or not the Air Force had this arranged when we all left Chicago or if it was decided right there during our inprocessing I’ll never know, but all of us “buddies” were going to spend the next six weeks together. 

Then came the “piss test” to make sure none of us were under the influence of any mind-altering or mind-expanding drugs. We were all herded into a large latrine and ordered to urinate. With everyone jockeying for urinals so they could urinate on small litmus-like strips of paper, the scene inside the latrine was pretty chaotic—like the restrooms in the late innings of a ballgame at Wrigley Field. 

The problem was, I couldn’t pee to save myself in a fire. I had gone to the bathroom on the plane and as I stood there in front of the urinal, I couldn’t even squeeze out a drop. I was so desperate that I was about to ask someone if they had some urine to spare. I wasn’t alone though. When most of the crowd had thinned out, there I was still standing there with a handful of other new recruits who either were very shy when it came to relieving themselves in front of other men, or like myself, had nothing to give. No problem because another friendly sergeant approached us and said that we could come back tomorrow with our drill sergeant. I was certain that my drill sergeant whoever he was wouldn’t mind bringing myself back to the inprocessing center for my piss test. 

After we were fed in a nearby chow hall we were finally taken to our barracks. Fate was again with me that night because as soon as the bus we were on stopped in front of the barracks, I was the first person whose name was called to get off.  The barracks were on the second floor with an open area underneath for recruits to fall into formation. It was dimly lit and as I stood there waiting along with the other recruits who continued to file off the bus, I could make out some figures emerging from the darkness. As they moved closer, I could make out their distinctive “Smokey the Bear” hats and the sound of their metal cleats on their combat boots clicking on the concrete floor. 

Before I knew what happened, one of my Training Instructors—T.I.’s—was standing in front of me staring at my orange “Three Stooges” T-shirt and yelling at me. 

“What are you? A stooge?” 

It was only then when I realized the serious wardrobe mistake I had made that morning. 

“No sir,” I said meekly. What the Training Instructor uttered next might sound a bit cliché after similar utterances made by drill instructors in countless military movies like Stripes. 

“Don’t call me sir. I work for a living,” my T.I. barked staring me down with the rim of his Smokey the Bear barely touching my forehead. 

This was just the beginning. 

“I think you are a stooge.”

“Yes sergeant, I am a stooge.” 

Around this time a cadet from the Air Force Academy who looked just as threatening as he glared at me joined my T.I. 

“Take off that shirt and turn it inside out Stooge,” ordered my T.I.     

If there ever were a record for someone to take off a T-shirt, turn it inside out, and put it back on, I would have set it that night.     

“Where are you from?”     

“Illinois, sergeant.”     

“Illinois? Do you mean to tell me that you came all the way down here from Illinois just to piss me off?”     

“No sir. I mean no sergeant.”     

Yes, I definitely made a good impression with my T.I. that night.     

We were out there for what seemed like an eternity (as cliché as that might sound) standing in formation, playing “pick them up and put them down” with our suitcases, being yelled at and in my case, being reminded that I was still a stooge.     

Of course, right about now I was beginning to worry about having to tell my T.I. that he had to bring me back to the inprocessing center for my urine test.                     

© 2019 Jeffrey Miller

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑