Full Mettle Junket

For gangbangers and delinquents, Project Challenge boot camp is a last chance to avoid prison

"YOU'VE JUST EMBARRASSED ME IN FRONT OF THE SHIFT LEADER," explodes Hammonds. "YOU KNOW I TAUGHT YOU HOW TO SOUND OFF."

Hammonds and Yturralde have worked out this charade in advance. Shift leaders will pretend to be angry with a CI so the platoon is held accountable for their mistakes.

"Sir, sorry sir," a few members of the platoon say.
"There are no sorry individuals at Project Challenge," says Hammonds. "Say, 'I apologize.'"

The whole platoon loudly belts out an apology.
On another day, blue platoon is broken into four groups of seven for Lifeboat Exercises. It's a role-playing game in which the group is forced to leave a dying Earth in a spaceship for another planet they'll colonize. There is only room for four on the spaceship.

Each person is given a card telling them what they are. The group must decide who goes to space and who dies. A counselor sits in on each group. They make similar notes as in the Silver Bullet.

Acosta, whose card identifies him as an intelligent, female movie star, is chosen as the leader of his group.

The rest of the potential crew of the spaceship: Martinez is an armed law enforcement officer. Cole is a professional basketball player. Linton is pregnant. Greyeyes is a biochemist. Sainz is an accountant. The counselor is a liberal arts major.

Martinez is the first to be left out. With only four survivors, they agree there will be no need for law enforcement. There's also the worry that he'll go crazy and start shooting.

In real life, these kids have records. They have no love for the police. Even as a pretend cop, Martinez refuses to argue for his life.

"I shouldn't go," says Martinez. "I'd just use my gun to make you take the spaceship where I wanted to go."

Basketball player Cole is the next to be left for dead. He makes a weak attempt to argue his worth by shopping his entertainment value. Cole almost wins a spot by suggesting they drop the pregnant mother instead. A baby will be too much trouble.

"How would you guys feel leaving a pregnant woman to die?" says Acosta. That was all the group needed. There will be no hoops in space.

Last to be left behind was the counselor. The survivors figured they could teach what they knew. Acosta argued in favor of the liberal arts major. He offered to give up his own seat.

"Yeah, but [the counselor] is not a girl," says Cole.
In every group, all the females were brought to the space colony. The best part of abandoning Earth would be repopulation. Teenage astronauts have their priorities straight.

Don't allow what you've learned here to go unpracticed. . . . Being stupid is easy. It doesn't take any effort at all. The hard thing to do is do the right thing.

--Lieutenant Colonel Pisano at the final assembly

After Pisano congratulates the 118 graduates of Pre-Challenge, a video from the last class is shown. It's a larger episode of the week just completed. There are scenes of hard work under an oppressive sun--morning physical training, pushups and screaming CIs.

But there are times that look more like summer camp. There's a prom at the end of Project Challenge. There's a barbecue every week. When Hammonds appears on screen wearing a pink tutu, blue platoon sounds off.

Students must fill out a survey after the video. They list the best and worst parts of Pre-Challenge. The key question is if they want to return for the five-month program.

Parents have gathered outside to take their rebellious offspring home. An army of denim and white marches outside. They showcase five days of strict drill and ceremony training. Punks who came with slouched shoulders and pissy attitudes show the discipline of military vets.

The marchers are a proud crew. Handing over your freedom for five days is hard to accept for teenagers. Especially for the gang members.

"These are the guys who come in here with the 'I'm tougher than you' type attitude," says Graser. "But they're the first ones who break down. They realize they've goofed in life and let everyone they've loved down. It hits them worse than anybody else when they realize they're not productive members of society."

Platoon colors have replaced gang colors. Gang signs and lingo have made way for cadence. The graduates have an identity now that will impress beyond the street corner.

Some of the parents wear the stunned expression their kids had the first time a CI screamed in their face. Others want to yank their son out of formation and get home in time for the soaps. Not everyone is returning to the healthiest lifestyle.

"I don't want to go," says Romero. He looks like he might cry. "I want to hang here."

Names are called. As the person leaves formation to go home, the CIs show off their vocal cords for the parents.

"GET DOWN AND GIVE ME 10."
The parents don't know what to make of all the yelling. Their kids do pushups with a smile.

"NOW GIVE YOUR MOM A HUG AND GET OUT OF MY FACE."
Freedom.
With the students someone else's problem, the CIs meet to decide who will come back. Hammonds, Dowler, Donald Adams and Janelle Koch argue the fate of blue platoon. They read over the surveys and automatically nix anyone who didn't want to come back.

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