Admittedly, every one's first taste of the boot leaves you with a bitter feeling in your stomach...after all it is a boot...but once you get past the dryness of the leather and the sting of its heel, you get an appreciation for the sensation of change inside you that begins to take place.
My first taste? Since some of you asked and are decidedly quizzical as to where I'm going with this, I'll explain. Barracks life in the Army can sometimes create bad habits, especially after spending time in a Field Artillery line unit in the Federal Republic of Germany during the Great Cold War where we were seemingly in and out of the field for a week, spend the next week in garrison-go to the field the following week...rinse, lather and repeat. I'm not talking summer field trips with knapsacks and bird watching. It's spend the week doing fire missions at 2:00 am in the morning during a driving rain and driving all over hell and creation in "black out drive" in those dark ass German forests just to get bogged down in mud in some farmers apple orchard...who by the way is so mad at the US Army, he sounds like Hitler when he's yelling at you! You then spend another six hours in MOPP gear trying to suck water through those useless little hoses in your gas mask as you sweat to death and even when you limp back into the motor pool on a Friday afternoon your starring down the barrel of another five or six hours of recovery time to make sure all the vehicles, weapons and equipment are clean and "on line" in case the mean 'ole Russians decide to surprise attack the free world on the weekend.
Naturally, the barracks became your sanctuary. After that final formation, you'd head to the PX grab a rack of beer and unwind. It got to the point at times after a nice warm shower and hot food (that didn't come out of a MRE bag) sitting on your bunk and watching AFN TV became almost hypnotic. Your will to do nothing was so overpowering that even thinking of going to the Mess Hall was a monumental effort. That's why you had NCO's whose job it was to make sure you didn't become a certified alcoholic.
I had such an NCO (for the Non-Military in my reading audience...it stands for Non-Commissioned Officer or Sergeant) who after one of these afore-mentioned extraordinary weeks in the field, came rapping on my barracks door on a Saturday morning telling me, "Put on some shorts, sweats and running shoes and meet me in the parking lot!" I complied and grudgingly pulled on my gear and met him by his car, "Where we going chief?" asking him with this look of, "This better be damn good to rouse me out of my stupor!" He proceeded to get in the car and shouted, "I'm going to show you some real living, get in!"
About an hour later we arrive at a sporting complex where I noticed two athletic teams warming up for something, this was March in Germany and still chilly...these fools were in shorts and long sleeve "hooped" jerseys. I kinda figured it out as I knew my Section Sergeant was a Rugby player...it was that I have never seen a real game before. As we're walking up to the field or in rugby terms, "pitch," he explains to me, "I wanted you to get out of the barracks before you went crazy, and who knows you might find yourself playing today." I looked at him with an expression that could only mean that he was crazy, "Right sarge...whatever."
I was sorta interested, after all it was sports...a form of football...and no pads...what the hell, I'll stick around til the ambulance shows up. I watched the kickoff; the two teams collided with each other after about a 20 meter kick; one of the players begins to limp off after what appears to be a turned ankle. Someone yells, "We need a replacement!" My Sergeant, who was on the pitch, begins walking towards me and shouts, "LAUGISCH, take his jersey and get in here!" First off, I've never played Rugby...secondly, I'VE NEVER PLAYED RUGBY!! My sergeant looks at me and I can see him getting angry as I shake my head in absolute defiance. He reaches me and wraps a big 'ole arm around me and we start walking toward the injured player. He is quietly talking to me, "You need this and relax. It's not that hard of a sport to pick up...and besides, you don't want to make me pull rank on you out here in front of all these people...do ya?" Naturally, I'm not one to disappoint people even if they are trying to throw me in a shark tank. "Alright...dammit, I'll do it...what do I have to do?" A big grin appeared on his face and he let out a hearty laugh that sounded eerily similar to that of a mad scientist, "That's my boy! This is Rugby Football, almost like American Football but there is no stoppage of play except for serious injuries, you can't throw the ball forward...pass it backwards or laterally and always remember...release the ball when you get tackled."
Everyone on the pitch knew I was a newbie to the game and I wholeheartedly expected them to let me get a feel for the action before I even came close to the damn ball, sort of like when they put the absolute worst baseball player in right field so that he doesn't impact the game in a bad way. It doesn't work that way in Rugby...your going to touch the ball and there is no way of getting around it...which is why I felt a deep sense of dread descend upon me as I saw the restart kick spiraling toward my unsuspecting, dumb ass.
Raise your hand if you've ever played "smear the queer?" I don't know how to be politically correct and I'm not trying to insult a certain segment of Americans by using that phrase...we were kids and that's what we called it and it's how I viewed Rugby when I first started playing. The only difference was that when you were kids playing, you could just run any damn where til someone eventually dragged you down and took the ball. I knew once I caught that ball in Rugby, I had to run forwards, although in the back of my mind my spider senses were telling me,"Run Away, Run Away!!" I caught the ball and sprinted forward only to see two defenders in front of me and yes, I did run sideways to avoid them but I wasn't nor ever will be compared to Carl Lewis the sprinter and they tackled me quite easily. I was relieved to know that it didn't hurt as I was thrown to the ground, and was pleasantly surprised at my initial effort until...
I looked up and saw the remainder of both teams thundering towards me like the battle scene from the movie Braveheat; my defensive reaction was to assume a fetal position and cradle that ball so tight til it quit raining bodies. They poured over me like a wave and both sides locked in mortal combat pushing and shoving against each other. I look up through this mass of legs and rugby jerseys and see a Viking of man hovering over me with his leg cocked; he looks down at me and yells, "Release the ball!!" I'm pretty much trying not to shit all over myself much less try and comprehend what THOR is trying to tell me as I mutter, "What...ugh??" He repeats himself, but more emphatically, "Release the fucking ball!!" By this time both sides are pawing at me with their legs and feet and I have totally forgotten that seemingly innocuous rule that my Sergeant told me before stepping onto the pitch.
The giant Viking looking dude, who in relative teams has been somewhat patient with me, decides to take matters into his own hands to procure the ball and flatly states, "It's time for your first taste of the boot lad!" He then proceeds to take his cocked leg and "mashes" his cleated boot against the side of my face and upper neck. What do you think my reaction was? You can bet your sweet ass that I let go of that damn ball!! I personally couldn't tell you how the ball came out but I think they, the Viking guy's team kicked the ball to the back of the ruck once I let it go. Was I mad? Hell yeah!! I just got curbed stomped by a WWF wrestler...but discretion is the better part of valor and even if I went after the guy he would have beaten me into a mud hole...he was a big dude.
I made it through the game and even got in on some tackles and got to carry the ball on several other occasions...yes, I released the ball each and every time I went to ground...I might be stupid but having your face and neck raked with a cleat can be a very motivational learning moment. More so than anything it was a revelation of sorts. I really felt alive. I had just participated in something that most of us would have written off as too dangerous or risky. I see those fools who participate in the "Running of the Bulls" in Spain every year and yes, they're crazy but I truly get it. That's how I felt after that first taste of the boot...you can't live your life in a vacuum. I no longer play Rugby; after eleven years, and after several concussions and a permanently dilated pupil from being poked by a Samoan I decided that I didn't need anymore Adrenalin moments in my life. Boy was I wrong.
I don't plan on taking up Rugby to satisfy my desire to feel alive again but we as Americans have allowed this past decade of terrorism and financial strife to make us too meek as a nation. I'm not saying we have to all wrestle alligators, but we need to step away from being so fearful of the real world. It might do us all a "world of good" to get a taste of the boot again. Cheers mates, and get hungry for life.