Arts & Culture
Book Excerpt—Johnny Cash: The Life
Published: October 23, 2013
After being trucked from the train station to Lackland, the new arrivals were quickly introduced to Air Force routine. They were given GI haircuts and issued dog tags, clothing, and supplies, then taken to the mess hall for dinner. Afterward, they were assigned places among the double-deck bunks that lined the main section of the two-story wooden barracks. Most of the recruits stayed up late memorizing their Air Force serial numbers, learning how to make their beds military-style, and getting to know one another. They didn’t get to sleep until shortly before being roused for a six a.m. roll call.
In rapid order that week, John and the others were administered typhoid and smallpox vaccinations. They were ordered to ship all their civilian clothes and shoes home, then given explicit instructions on just how to arrange their belongings in the footlockers by their bunks. The regimentation reminded him of the auto factory. He asked himself, Four years of this?
Even so, his immersion into Air Force life proved a blessing. Between the grueling physical training, intense classroom sessions, and battery of aptitude tests, Cash didn’t have time to brood over possible rejection or failure. He was so exhausted after the long, demanding days that he spent much of his Sundays, his only time off, sleeping. He rarely ventured out of the barracks except to go to church or pick up necessities from the PX.
While others in his training squadron grumbled about the lack of free time, John embraced the nonstop schedule. Though he hadn’t shown much interest in sports in school, he proved to be fairly athletic, mastering the various exercises designed to turn young men into soldiers. He did so well on the classroom instruction that others turned to him for help, just like the students had done at Dyess High.
Near the end of the stay at Lackland, John’s squadron took yet another round of aptitude tests, and he showed potential in several areas, including air police, aircraft mechanic, and radio operator. He didn’t know exactly what the last entailed, but he liked the sound of “radio.” When his application for that school was accepted, John was overjoyed. He had stood up against the big city boys and, in most cases, outshone them.
When he went home to Dyess for a few days before reporting to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, for more training, he felt like he belonged in his blue Air Force uniform. Even his father offered a rare handshake. During the third week of September, John R. Cash’s family again said good-bye to him in Memphis, but this time his mood was entirely different. John’s earlier nervousness was gone. On this trip, he didn’t stare anxiously out the window. When he finally went to sleep, he wasn’t looking for escape. He was looking forward to the six months in Biloxi. He was eager to get to know his classmates better, maybe play some music, and maybe even meet some girls.
During his final weeks at Keesler, John was rewarded for his hard work when he was approached about joining a new, elite group of radio intercept operators. The USAF Security Service was set up in the fall of 1948 in response to the increasing complexity of enemy communication techniques.