Most folks hear the word ‘barracks’ and a big wooden building with poor heat and huge open bays and motherfuckers on fire guard come to mind.
Yeah, I never saw that – not in Basic, not in school and not at my permanent duty station. Wait, we had those at the Reception Station when we in-processed prior to Basic Training, but that was for something like 3 days is all.
In Basic we had either 6 or 8 man rooms, I don’t remember, AIT was 2 man rooms and in Germany I lived in 3 and 4 man rooms but they were rarely filled to capacity.
Our barracks rooms weren’t just bunks, lockers and footlockers all lined up against the walls, either. We could decorate them to taste within reason – my 4 man room had 3 occupants and we had the bunks closest to the door and hallway, then a partition of our lockers with a walkway through them and then beyond that a living area with a couch, desk, chairs, lamps and a beer refrigerator on the other side, more like a small apartment more than anything else.
We furnished our rooms with trash. No, seriously. Twice a year in Heilbronn, the Germans had a discard day where they would take their old furnishings down to the curb for free pick-up. We’d find somebody with a car or truck and cruise the streets the night before the pick-up looking for what we needed. There was nothing wrong with most of the shit, I think most of it was Mama wanted a new couch and so the older but still serviceable one got kicked to the curb. The couch I had in my room had 3 legs – we had planned to cut a chunk of wood to fit it until Bill discovered that a genuine US Army helmet was the perfect height for a substitute. But yeah, we had a couch, recliner, lamps, a couple of mismatched end tables and our beer refrigerator, all salvaged from Herman the German.
The building itself had a single stairwell and entrance in the middle with 3 floors and a basement. When you entered the building you walked up a half dozen stairs and there was a CQ (Charge of Quarters/babysitter) desk with the mailboxes just to the right and behind that.
To the left of the CQ desk was the women’s wing behind a locked door. In order for a man to access that wing he had to sign in with his name, time and who he was going to visit with a 2 guest limit per room. Female soldiers usually had a room to themselves or maybe one roomie. All male guests had to leave the wing by 10 PM. Female soldiers technically weren’t allowed for any reason beyond the first floor but I never saw that enforced after the CO, XO, and Top went home for the evening.
If you hung a right at the CQ desk, the mail room was just to the left. Across the hall was the orderly room, the First Sergeant’s office and then the Executive Officer’s and Commanding Officer’s offices, all connected by interior doorways and also doors from the hallway, but those were usually locked to keep us peons away from barging in any time we wanted to have a word with the HMFIC.
After that there were barracks rooms on either side of the hallway. Those were usually reserved for troublemakers that needed a constant eye kept on them. At the end of each hallway was a latrine.
If you continued up the stairs to the second and third floors, the first thing you saw was a laundry room with a bank of sinks. I think we had 4 washers and dryers. Between the washers and dryers was an open doorway that led to the shower room that was maybe 20’x20′ with a half dozen shower nozzles on all 4 sides. That shower room fucking rocked – it had super hot water, more pressure than a fire hose and if you took off all the shower heads and really cranked up the flow, the streams would nearly meet in the middle of the floor. It was perfect for beating your body or field gear clean when you came in from the field.
Barracks rooms started on both sides with a latrine at both ends. Next to the laundry room on each floor was a beer machine with canned German beer in case you ran short. Some of that beer had been in the machine so long the tops of the cans were corroded. Who the fuck drinks German beer out of a can? My room was the second one to the right, Room 201B, and was directly above the First Sergeant’s office and that wasn’t by accident either.
The fourth floor was a huge common attic with only one room in it, the Pigpen. There was a single barracks room directly across from the stairwell but it was empty for the most part because who wants to walk up and down 4 flights of stairs? The attic was used as a party room/classroom/ or holding area if they need to corral all of us for one reason or another like a Health and Welfare inspection.
The Pigpen was a room a little larger than our 4 man rooms that housed the slobs, people that had hygiene issues – couldn’t maintain their areas, wouldn’t shower regularly or failed numerous inspections for whatever reason. The occupancy varied from zero to maybe six at one time, I think. If you were in the Pigpen, you went through daily inspections, you had somebody assigned to retrain you on shining boots and doing laundry and physically watch you shower every day, and you pulled the messy details like scrubbing the motor pool’s pits until you got your shit together. If you had somebody like that in your room, all the other occupants of the room just beat his ass and threw him and his shit out into the hallway. Top would take care of the rest – he usually knew about it beforehand anyways but he’d wait until the roomies got tired of covering for the slob.
I was assigned to retrain a guy in the Pigpen once. That motherfucker stunk. I mean, he’d gag you if you were standing next to him in formation. I started from Day One, explaining to him the importance of changing his drawers and socks every day, doing the sheet exchange, the whole works. And yeah, I even watched him shower, making sure he soaped up his washrag with Irish Spring soap to overpower his own stench. Nothing fucking worked. He still stunk and nobody could figure out why. The poor guy was hating life, swearing up and down he knew all that shit but it didn’t help. I ended up sending him to the dispensary one day for a minor ailment and when he was there I guess they noticed his odor and he told them his sob story, so they ran a bunch of tests on him and come to find out, he had a dairy allergy. Once he quit drinking milk and quit eating cheese, his issues disappeared and I mean within a couple days. The next day after Top apologized to him, he went up to the Pigpen and told everybody else up there that they were no longer allowed any dairy products. Didn’t help, those motherfuckers were just pigs.
The basement of the building was all team rooms, the supply room and the arms room. Each platoon had 1 main room with 2-3 team rooms in the same vicinity. They were used to conduct meetings, work on equipment if it was repairable, do paperwork and to fuck off in.
Okay, that was the layout of the barracks for our company and most other barracks on the kaserne that I’d been in. Basically what you had was 150-175 young men from all walks of life from all over the fucking country all crammed in together. Sounds fucked up, doesn’t it?
It wasn’t really all that bad. Sure, we supposedly didn’t have any choice as to who we roomed with but over a period of time occupants were shuffled around for one reason or another and friends within the different platoons ended up rooming with each other. Hey, it’s the natural progression of things.
We really only had 3 different groups of people – we had the chucks (white boys), the spooks, and the PRs (Puerto Ricans) with the occasional Indian and Mexican thrown in. For some reason we had a dozen or more PRs, but only a couple Mexicans and they were real Mexicans that had enlisted to help them get American citizenship. Good guys. They always gave 110%.
We had a shitload of spooks for some reason and when I call them spooks it’s not meant as an insult – the terms spooks and chucks were left over from the Vietnam years. I didn’t take offense when I was called a chuck and they didn’t when they were called spooks.
I remember one time Cable Platoon had something to do and Doc, the platoon sergeant, was dividing them into two details. “All right, I want all the chucks over here and the spooks over there. Jose, stick with me, amigo.”
In spite of the racial problems during the Vietnam war, we didn’t have much of it at all during the late 70s or early 80s when I was in. Sure, there were a few incidents, usually involving some motherfucker trying to show what a badass he was, but most of the time it was settled before the NCOs or officers got involved. We all had a job to do, we all got paid the same and that was that. Nobody was treated any differently than anybody else.
The PRs were clannish as hell. There was some mixing of the blacks and whites as far as socializing was concerned, but not the PRs. They roomed together, they partied together and if one of them had to take a shit, they shat together. If you or your folks weren’t from the Islands, you weren’t welcome. And that was cool with me because all they did was listen to that steel drum ‘music’ and shoot heroin. You can imagine the consternation of the CO and First Sergeant when the company armorer got busted with a quarter pound of pure heroin, right? Yeah man, they had a Health and Welfare inspection (more about that later) and found the dope inside his fucking wall locker of all places.
There were a few rules and regulations if you lived in the barracks.
1) No drugs. That was a fucking joke. After hours the predominant smell was hash. Not only that but drugs were sold from door to door. If I had hash to unload, all I had to do was walk from room to room and ask who wanted what. I could make a trip down my floor, checking in at maybe 20 rooms, and after it was known I had pieces for sale I retired to my room and let them come to me. It was so prevalent that you might have 3-4 guys selling dope in the same barracks.
2) No fighting. Again, a fucking joke. If you put 150 guys together, all of them drinking, in one building, there’s gonna be differences and they’re gonna get settled with fists and boots. As long as nobody whined about getting their ass beat, a blind eye was turned. But those fights were usually alcohol fueled and done and over with the next day.
The only time I ever saw the MPs called over a fight was when Gunn, a guy from another company, got busted for heroin a week before he got out of the army. CID (Criminal Investigation Division) got involved because it was heroin and told Gunn to roll over on his connections or they were going to pull his orders and send him to the stockade for a few years, so Gunn snitched off his buddies. It wasn’t hard to figure out – Gunn got popped, then a couple days later several of his partying partners got busted too. Then the silly sonofabitch went to the EM club where he was promptly jammed up, physically carried out of the club and then nearly kicked to death on the street. The entire 26th Signal Battalion as well as B/44 was locked the fuck down for 3 days while they interviewed anybody and everybody they thought was involved or witnessed it. All for nothing, they never did arrest anybody for it. Nobody saw nothing. Even the bartenders in the club couldn’t come up with anybody they knew inside the club that night.
3) No music or noise that could be heard from the hallway. That wasn’t a real problem. Sure, you’d have somebody get all fucked up and crank his music up but the CQ usually hustled right up there and had them turn it down. Nobody wanted an Article 15 with loss of rank and pay as well as some extra duty over loud music.
4) No cooking in the barracks. HAHAHAHAHA!!! Everybody cooked in the barracks. If it wasn’t crockpots, it was sterno stoves and hot plates. With most of the guys, it was just warmed up C Rations or a delicious can of Dinty Moore beef stew and shit like that, but the women’s rooms? Shit man, my girlfriend had a crockpot a month confiscated from her room. She’d put on a roast before she went to work and when she came back 8 hours later it would be done with me and her sharing a meal and a bottle of wine. She wasn’t the only one, either – you could walk down the hall midday and it smelled like a fucking restaurant on a busy night.
The men didn’t have too much of a problem getting our shit confiscated as long as our little propane stoves or sterno stoves were stored with our field gear. We could always say it was used when we went out on remote sites, but it’s kinda hard to claim that when you’ve got fucking dishes and silverware and 3 hot plates and a crockpot like the women had.
And that was about it as far as rules went. I mean, obviously there were other ‘rules’ but they pretty much fell under you Basic Rules For Living Among Others Without Getting Your Ass Beat, shit like respecting other’s privacy and belongings, don’t call motherfuckers names or talk shit, that sort of thing – no big deal really because you either got to be friends with your roomies or you swapped room assignments around until you ended up with your friends.
Personally, I found that the best solution was not to room with somebody your worked directly with, for or under, that way you’re not around somebody 24 hours a day. Hey man, everybody needs a break, right?
Even in a room with a couple roommates there’s still privacy, even if it’s in your own mind. You just have to learn how to close that curtain. If I was in the common area reading my book, I was cool, but if I was in my bunk don’t even bother talking to me because you’re not even going to get a grunt back. On the same token, if you see one of your roomies reading a book, writing a letter or listening to music with headphones on, leave him the fuck alone. His curtain is drawn.
Partying in the barracks was a given. It was a 7 day a week deal although it really picked up about oh, 5:15 Friday evening which was immediately following our last formation of the day for Retreat. Motherfuckers would fall out, head upstairs and knock back 2-3 half liters of German beer, another one in the shower, and then go find someplace to go for some free beer and hash. I say free beer and hash, but everybody took a turn eventually. Shit, I counted heads and bottles in the Redneck Rooms one night and there were 9 people (8 conscious) and 9 jugs of different kinds of whiskey, not to mention chunks of hash and pipes laying around.
Some of the shit you see, though…
I was kicking back one night and I heard this low rumble getting louder then fading as it passed my room, people cheering, then clattering. What the fuck? I hit the door and looked out and motherfuckers were bowling using beer cans for pins. In the hallway. On the floor we waxed and buffed, and using our walls as bumpers. They didn’t give a fuck.
Several guys owned bicycles to get around town and one night they got fucked up and decided to play chicken. At each end of the hallway was a large window with a fire escape landing and ladder. These guys were hauling ass down the hallway on their bikes and slamming on the brakes at the last possible second, seeing how close they could come to the wall without actually touching it with their front wheel. This is on the third floor, mind you. Luckily they had presence of mind to open the fucking windows because one of them waits waaaay too long, slams into the wall and catapults himself so far out the window that his head and shoulders were hanging in thin air on the other side of the landing, about 4 feet out.
I had been TDY for an 80 hour first aid class up in Rhein Main. The weekend in between, I had spent with some German friends and I was eager to get home, hoping somebody would get their ass whipped really good or maybe have a horrible accident so I could show off my newly acquired skills.
As I walked into my room there was the familiar smells of home – hashish, tobacco, stale beer, and….. sawdust? I walked through the bunk area and damned near tripped over a plastic tube that ran about 8 feet into a square plastic cage that had another 3-4 pipes sticking out of it running to other cages and inside this motherfucker must’ve been a dozen hamsters zipping back and forth. “What the holy fuck is this?”
Bill looked up from the modular cage him and Wally were fucking with. “Hey, Lane. Did anybody die in your class? Check it out, hamsters!” and he holds one up proudly.
He’s nodding his head up and down all excited and shit. “Yeah, Junior found a pet shop downtown that had a deal on cages and hamsters so he bought a couple. Then I bought a couple so we could fight them. The ones we had must’ve been hippie hamsters because they wouldn’t fight so we bought more. These won’t fight either.” He hands me a beer and his pipe.
Seriously, Bill? For real? “Did you see any of them getting their asses kicked at the pet shop? Hamsters don’t fight, bro.”
“Nuh-uh. Can’t race ’em either. They’re too fucking stupid. See?” and he took the one in his hand and vroom vroomed it across the floor and let it go, where it immediately stopped and turned around in a circle while looking at us stupidly. “What we can’t figure out is why they’ll run in the tubes, but not on a track. We can’t even do straight line drag races because the stupid fucks wander off.”
“Have you tried laying two pieces of tube side by side, maybe rig a little starting gate or something?” I can’t believe I’m helping.
“Won’t work. Little bastards try and go back out the way they came before they run the tube. We can’t get ’em to start at the same time.”
“Try burning them in the butt with a cigarette? That oughta get ’em moving in the right direction.”
Bill was shocked. “Not my hamster” he says, and then he lifted it up and started giving it kisses and rubbing his cheek on it.
Fuck this, I need to go to the Redneck Room for some sanity. I changed, grabbed a bottle and walked down the hall muttering to myself. Wait til the rednecks hear about this shit, they’re gonna laugh their asses off.
The first thing I heard, before I even smelled the sawdust when I walked in the room was “RUN, YOU LITTLE FUCKER!!!” and then Gregg yelling “Hoagie, git that fucking cigarette way from Freckles!!!”
Then there was The Screamer.
Every so often, maybe every couple of months, somebody would scream bloody murder for about 5 seconds and stop. You could hear it from anyplace in the barracks and it came at any time during the day or night, but every once in a while somebody would cut loose with a scream right out of a horror movie. Nobody knew who it was or why they did it. It was happening when we moved in there and I heard it about 2 weeks before I left.
That in itself kinda sorta narrowed it down – if a guy rotated out and it was still happening then it obviously wasn’t him, right? The only problem was, we never found out that it wasn’t him until he was already gone and by that time we’d forgotten about him and The Screamer – until it happened again. “Welp, it wasn’t Jackson. That motherfucker done gone home.”
It never happened in the field, only in the barracks which led me to suspect one of the clerks that didn’t go to the field, until about halfway through my tour they had all alibied up tight.
Then the fucking rumor got started that the barracks was haunted. After all, it was an old Wehrmacht barracks, right? Them Nazis were some evil motherfuckers, right? The only problem with that was when they reactivated the 44th Signal Battalion and we went from D/26 to B/44, we swapped barracks the B/26. I had several friends over there and I asked if they ever heard it and they all denied it. Hell, I had never heard it before we moved in. It had to be somebody in the company.
The haunting rumor was cool, though. I don’t believe in ghosts or hauntings or whatever, but some of those guys evidently did. Catch one walking past your door, slip in behind and then goose him and you had a screamer for real.
Latrine parties – not what you think. These were actual parties with a keg of beer in the latrine. I served for a while as the head the EAC, the Enlisted Advisory Council. In spite of its official sounding name, basically what we did was plan parties and events for people in the company to participate in like tours and shit like that. Mostly parties, though – the special services division on post had tons of tours anyways. We used our money to get fucked up.
There was a special fund that everybody was expected to ‘contribute’ ten bucks to every payday and when we got enough, we’d throw a party. “Okay, we need x amount of charcoal, x pounds of steak and brats, and xxx kegs of beer and a couple bottles of wine.” We always bought too much beer. You don’t want to run out of beer, right?
At the end of the party, any partially full kegs got spirited away with the empties being returned a day or two later, no questions asked – at least it didn’t go to waste. The full kegs – usually one, sometimes two – went down to my room where they were supposed to be safeguarded until the next party. You bet.
Now, I wouldn’t tap that keg for myself. Nossir. It wasn’t mine, it belonged to the company, bought and paid for with their supposed contributions. So the weekend following or maybe the next, I’d set it in a tub of ice and let it cool while we shut down the latrine for cleaning and disinfecting. We’d keep it shut down for use, putting garbage bags over the shitters and pissers then scoot that keg in its tub of ice down and park it inside, inviting everybody we saw down for a beer. If we had two kegs, we’d horse one up to the third floor too. Word would spread, guys would stop by for a beer or two, then they’d move on to wherever they were headed. Me, I was the self appointed beer pourer so I’d pour a beer, drink a beer, pour a beer, drink a beer and be rolling drunk by 10 PM.
Then there was the usual shit you’d expect to find. The company loan shark. Some guys lived on their army paychecks, some guys pulled duty for extra cash, some guys black marketed and/or sold hash and this guy made his extra money loansharking. I never had to use him myself so I don’t know what his terms were but he did pretty good – he was an E-4 and driving a Mercedes sedan. Sure, it was a few years old but damned few enlisted men could afford the operating expenses of a VW, much less a Mercedes.
And the gambling rooms – two that I know of. The chucks had a poker room and the spooks rolled dice. These games were floating games – they’d be in one room until they got busted, usually because somebody got fucked up for cheating, then they’d move to another room.
The dice games were usually the violent ones because craps is such a fast moving game and if you take your eyes off the dice for one second, somebody’s taking your ass to the cleaner. It’s almost like it was a rule that you had to at least try to cheat.
All in all, barracks life wasn’t bad – you made it what it was.