The formerly torched Taco Bell finally reopened in Brunswick. If you eat Taco Bell, that’s great news, I reckon. Judging by the catty comments circulating on social media, the lines have been long.
I’m not a big fan of the restaurant’s fare, but allow me to share my own Taco Bell story.
This is a tale of betrayal, war, long-distance love, revenge, chalupas and dry ice. It’s got more extras than the Nachos Bellgrande could ever hope for.
Unlike most fast-food stories, it doesn’t begin in a late night drive-thru line. It starts on a charter bus shuttling a few dozen lost souls to what felt like the world’s coldest place: November at the U.S. Navy’s Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill., just north of Chicago.
The moment my 20-year-old foot touched the snow-packed soil, I belonged to Uncle Sam. In November 2005, the war in Iraq was a mess and Saddam Hussein was on trial, looking disheveled and indignant. A month later, President Bush would admit we’d gone into Iraq based on faulty intelligence, but that’s beside the point.
On our 45-minute bus ride from Chicago’s Midway Airport, a video was shown. The “what-to-expect” film condensed nine weeks of training into nine minutes, as if to say, “look, this will be over before you know it.” Just like the dentist prying open your jaw.
I quickly realized why seasoned sailors call Great Lakes “Great Mistakes.” We shuffled off the bus into a sprawling room three stories tall and as long as a football field. Flags from every state hung overhead as drill sergeants, called “recruit division commanders,” or RDCs for short, barked orders. Occasionally, they’d pick off a stray recruit who, either because of exhaustion or incompetence, had failed to respond quickly enough to the RDCs’ directives. It was like those National Geographic shows where a lion pounces on a stumbling gazelle.
The first three days of boot camp are a whirlwind. You’re not allowed to sleep, and they herd you from station to station — taking your photo, shaving your head, fitting you for uniforms. You can’t do anything right, and the RDCs constantly remind you of that.
Eventually, things settle down and a routine begins. The days start early in a long, concrete barrack (at the Navy’s boot camp, they call it a “compartment”). For the first few days, once we were allowed to sleep, the sound of banging metal trash cans would awaken us at 4:30 a.m.
You learn the rules quickly. The first one is to shut up, keep your head down and do exactly as you’re told. That’s the most important one. The second rule is when one person makes a mistake, it’s everyone’s mistake. It’s just like Stanley Kubrick’s flawless 1987 war film “Full Metal Jacket,” but there are some differences.
Unlike the movie, the RDCs use profanity sparingly (but they have other words like “dirtbag” that have the same demoralizing effect). They don’t hit you, but they have an exercise routine called “intensive training” (“IT” for short) that leaves you so exhausted you’d prefer a gut punch.
Every once in a while, to make a point, the RDCs would “make it rain” in the compartment. That’s when they would IT us for so long the sweat would condense on the compartment’s ceiling and drip down on us (that’s a true story, and you can take that to the bank).
What might be the worst IT session came on an unassuming Sunday during “holiday routine.” That’s your precious few hours of free time, when you shine your boots, fold your laundry and write letters home.
Once a week, during holiday routine, the mail would come. I remember the junior RDC, Petty Officer Cloninger, haplessly flinging letters down the long compartment. He shouted our names and we recruits scrambled to grab envelopes as they slid across the spotless concrete floor.
On that particular day, a package arrived. The name of the recruit to whom it was addressed escapes me, but I remember his face clear as day. You see, packages are a bit of a no-no in boot camp. You’re not allowed to have many personal items, and you’re certainly not allowed to have cigarettes, booze or other contraband. For that reason, packages raise great suspicion among RDCs. Usually, they contained candy that was immediately seized and consumed by the RDCs, but this day was different.
Petty Officer Cloninger stood over that baby-faced recruit as he sliced open the brown cardboard box, unfolding its flaps and revealing the contents.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the petty officer exclaimed — except he didn’t say “kidding,” instead opting for a swear word that begins with S. We all turned our heads, intrigued by the response and anxious to know what prompted it.
Inside this box was a Styrofoam cooler, lined with dry ice keeping cold a drive-thru bag of Taco Bell chalupas. No, Petty Officer Cloninger, he was not kidding.
The recruit’s mother had lovingly packaged the combo meal and overnighted it to him, surely with best intentions. It arrived — still in the plastic carry-out bag — with packets of sauce and napkins. Apparently, it was the recruit’s favorite meal. Yet, as eating Taco Bell often does, it betrayed him.
“Division 9-0-9, on your feet,” Cloninger ordered. “Eight-counts. Begin.”
An eight-count is an exhausting exercise, which I’ve heard the Navy later discontinued. It’s a mixture of push ups, squats and scissor kicks. Suffice to say it is one gnarly workout. The RDC “made it rain” that day, as we all paid dearly for the chalupa sent by the recruit’s mother. The petty officer seemed to enjoy the chalupa as he paced up and down the compartment, eating it as the whole division of 88 young men counted the exercises off.
We all had to write letters home later that day instructing our parents not to send us Taco Bell on dry ice. I’m sure those letters were received with great curiosity.
The whole affair was one of the strangest learning experiences of my life. The lesson, though, was not lost on its oddity. A team is only as strong as its ability to work together. Although it wasn’t really the recruit’s fault, we all paid for the mistake, and you can best believe it was a mistake the rest of us did not repeat.