"You all did well at the range today, so the the CO has authorized a visit to the PX after you've cleaned up your personal items."
Our squad leader has barely finished before the barracks was filled with excited chatter.
"Man, I've been running low on junk food-"
"Screw junk food, I've been reduced to stealing your toothpaste every evening-"
"Hey, lend me NT$100 - I spent all my change in the vending machines out back-"
"ARE YOU ALL FINISHED TALKING?"The noise level dropped by half.
"Aw, not this agai-"
"You in the back. DO YOU HAVE SOMETHING YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE WITH THE REST OF US?"
"You have been here for close to a week now. AND YOU STILL DON'T KNOW HOW TO COME TO ATTENTION?"
We rapidly shuffled back in front of our bunks, mostly covered with our BDUs and half-removed gear.
"You have 5 minutes to neatly put away your items in their assigned places. Feel free to talk as loud as you want as long as you don't mind me calling off the whole PX visit. Carry on."
We went back to arranging things as quickly as we could, shushing each other in the process.
"Hey, lend me NT$500 -"
5 minutes later we were neatly lined up outside the barracks. I can't recall the last time I'd seen everyone assemble that quickly and quietly.
After a quick headcount, our squad leaders marched us off between the lines of barracks towards the PX.
The PX (營站) was a medium sized building near the edge of base, containing a small Mom and Pop commissary; as well as one of the major convenience store chains that are practically an institution in and of themselves in Taiwan. Some aluminum picnic tables were placed in the courtyard. The commissary sold various snacks, drinks, smokes, and personal accessories - all tax free. The convenience store was more or less identical to those on the outside, though lacking in alcoholic beverages. I've also noticed that convenience store clerks on military bases throughout Taiwan tend to be young, female, and (by our admittedly deprived standards) cute.
As far as we were concerned, it was all a little slice of heaven.
The PX was normally off limits to new recruits. We'd been there once on our first day to purchase a few basic accessories including toiletries, a can of boot polish, a shoe brush, a soapbox (for inspection use only - most of us used the quicker shower gel thanks to our 2 minute combat showers), some elastic blousers, a sewing kit, a small notebook, and a foam pad to line the insides of our helmets.
"You will assemble in front of the PX in 20 minutes", our squad leader said. "Until then, your time is your own." He walked off, lighting a cigarette.
We all rushed inside, hurriedly filling our shopping baskets with practically anything that caught our fancy. I picked up a can of cough drops: despite the best efforts of our superiors, the common cold was spreading rampant in the barracks, and 2/3's of us were afflicted with a nasty cough.
Several recruits stocked up on instant noodles, which many preferred to the mess hall food. I didn't really understand that - mess hall food isn't gourmet, but it is at least Real Food, and relatively fresh. The smokers amongst us also took the opportunity to replenish their personal cigarette stashes. Military policy is a bit schizophrenic when it comes to smoking: the barracks walls are plastered with anti-smoking posters, and incoming troops are required to sign forms committing them to quitting. The forms were passed out by a drill sergeant smoking a cigarette. Like everything else, the cigarettes in the PX were tax-free, and many troops stocked up on extra smokes to bring off base with them. I'd estimate that something close to half of the troops in the units I've served with were smokers.
Shoe brush, NT$19, Made in Taiwan.
Rushing back outside, we enjoyed what time we had left drinking our soft drinks and munching on our snacks. I sat at the same table as our squad leaders, who for the moment, had let their drill sergeant facade drop. Both were draftee corporals, and were considered to be some of the more human elements in our chain of command, as long as you weren't too dense.
"By the way squad leader, I forgot to thank you for letting me sneak a shower the third night after lights out."
"No problem. I noticed you were being pulled out of the squad for a bunch of different general details during wash time that night."
"So, do you come here often, squad leader?"
"Not as much as I'd like. Its the only spot on base where I can kick back for a moment. After you guys leave, I've only got 1 month of my conscription left."
Free time on base is rare, and fleeting when it does happen. All too soon, we were in formation marching back to the barracks for evening inspection.
I don't think I've ever had a soda or a candy bar that's tasted as good as they did during those rare visits to the PX.