When I was in Army basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in the summer of 1988, the most anticipated part of every day was mail call, the one link back to a life before drill sergeants orchestrated your every move. Along with the usual letters from home, it wasn’t long before guys began receiving care packages, many of which included baked goods of some sort. And every time, the drill sergeants made the recipient toss the treats right in the dumpster without even a nibble. They soon offered up a deal, though: If a loved one sent enough homemade goodness for all 60 guys in our platoon to get a taste, we would be indulged.
Word got out fast, because we soon started receiving packages containing five dozen cookies or cupcakes from someone’s mom, wife or girlfriend seemingly every other day. But when multiple boxes of sugary treats started arriving on the same day, the drills put an end to our arrangement. I knew my mom was planning a shipment of her own, and I called her from a pay phone that night to stop her. But it was too late. The cookies would arrive any day.
I told her I couldn’t wait.
The call came two days later: “DeFrank, come here and open this package!” I looked at the large box before me, so carefully bundled, a precious cargo with a damned fate. I opened it and saw not 60, but 120 delectable chocolate chip cookies. Two for every guy! Mom outdid herself this time.
“C’mon, drill sergeant!” I pleaded. “She sent them before you disallowed them! Look at all the work she put into this!”
He just pointed to the dumpster, about 50 yards away.
I thought about eating a cookie as I walked off, but it seemed too risky. That kind of defiance would bring harsh consequences. So I opened the dumpster, which was nearly full, placed the closed box neatly atop the pile and gently lowered the lid.
That night in the barracks, I told a few of the guys how I had rested the box safely in the dumpster, and that I was thinking of going to retrieve my lost bounty. They all thought I was crazy—except for Kelton. But then no one in our platoon was crazier than Kelton, a bearish free spirit who once pleasantly startled me at 2 a.m. when he ran into the laundry room with a large pizza and six-pack of Coke he had ordered on a pay phone down the street. Of course Kelton was in for this mouth-watering mission. We would sneak out after most everyone had gone to bed.
Wearing shorts, T-shirts and sneakers, Kelton and I crept down the stairs, edged along the wall outside and slipped into the darkness. We reached the dumpster, lifted the lid and turned on our flashlights. The box was sitting exactly as I left it. We grabbed it, extinguished our lights and slipped behind the dumpster, hidden by a concrete-block enclosure.
We started scarfing down chocolate chip cookies with a speed and intensity that would have made a jackal nauseous. Barely a minute after we started our binge, though, we heard a door open. Huddled in the darkness, Kelton and I peeked around the dumpster to see someone walking toward us, the glare from the man’s flashlight outlining the wide, flat brim of his drill sergeant hat.
I knelt behind the dumpster, the container of cookies in my hands as the footsteps drew closer. Kelton and I braced ourselves, knowing we were about to get busted, when the dumpster lid creaked opened and we heard a wastebasket being emptied. The metal lid of the dumpster slammed shut, and the footsteps began to recede. I finally started to breathe again as Kelton and I caught a glimpse of the drill sergeant returning to his office, the door closing behind him. Filled with sugar and adrenaline, we put the box back in the dumpster and stealthily returned to the barracks, where we laughed in disbelief. Our mission was a total success. They were the best cookies I ever had.
I couldn’t wait to tell Mom.
Sean DeFrank talks about our Storytellers issue on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.