Excerpt: 'Generally Speaking'

I did not join feminist demonstrations after reading The Feminine Mystique, but the book did open my eyes to much wider perspectives, and I was glad to discover a description for my political viewpoint.

Before I left for the College Junior Program that summer, my father offered advice on what would be expected of me in Army training. He had recently returned from Vietnam, and I think he was both proud of and puzzled by my decision to explore the Army. "Work as a team. Organize your time. Memorize your serial number," he said.

Marilyn Gates and I arrived at Fort McClellan in my 1962 Ford Fairlane on a steamy July afternoon. Our milling formation of college juniors was greeted by a no-nonsense contingent of steely-eyed WAC sergeants in sharply pressed Army green cord uniforms, skirts exactly one inch below the middle of the knee, nylon stockings despite the wilting heat, and highly polished black, low-heel shoes.

As the group was broken into platoon-size clumps, Marilyn and I were separated. "Don't say 'ma'am' to corporals or sergeants," I advised her. "Don't say much at all."

But my advice proved unnecessary. She too was a soldier's daughter. Her father had fought in the Philippines early in World War II and had survived the Bataan Death March and almost four years of brutal Japanese captivity as a prisoner of war. Yet meeting Mr. Gates, who was a soft-spoken family man, you never would have guessed his courage. Marilyn had obviously absorbed some of his resilience. She did much better that summer than I did.

I found some of the program, particularly the unbending discipline, to be rather tedious. We lived in cinder block enlisted barracks, three women to a partitioned space, each with her own dresser. Those dresser drawers had to be set up in exact order, with shorts and blouses folded a certain number of inches apart, toothbrush and toothpaste tube set in the identical positions as illustrated in the manual we were issued. And another requirement was the girdle display. Every woman had to have her girdle laid out in her drawer for daily inspection. At the time I weighed ninety-nine pounds, less than the skinny British model Twiggy, and I certainly did not wear a girdle. But my girdle was perfectly aligned in my drawer and that made my platoon leader happy.

A few of the homesick young women were miserable and cried for days. They experienced the shouted corrections of the drill instructors as personal insults. Obviously, these girls just were not Army material. After a week or so, senior officers took them aside for counseling, and later culled those from the program who failed to adjust to Army life.

We marched a lot that summer, to and from classes, to the mess hall, back to the barracks, and learned to keep in step. And we all learned the words to the WAC song, "Duty Is Calling You and Me," set to the tune of the "Colonel Bogey March."

Classes focused on military organization, customs, traditions, and skills such as map reading and first aid. We learned the proper way to address seniors, how to salute and to stand at attention in the heavy Alabama sun.

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