What do Enter Sandman, Eye of the Tiger, Sweet Home Alabama, and Jump (by Van Halen) have in common?

If you answered, “songs blasted across an empty field at 0530 on a Friday morning before running five miles,” you’d be correct.

Many units in the Army have “morale runs” on Fridays, where everybody gets together, some unlucky chump gets picked to carry the unit flag, and the rest of the unit follows behind, running really slowly (so as to maintain a “dressed-up” formation, since the main purpose is showing off the unit, rather than any fitness benefit) and chanting the same five cadences over and over.

Friday we were subjected to our first of these “fun runs” at the NCO academy. We were told that “formation was at 0500.” The problem with any time hack (particularly here but also generally in the Army) is that it’s never clear if a given time is the actual time of an event, or a pre-calculated time that already includes the assumed “ten minutes prior” factor. Therefore, I had to decide between the two, and I made the decision that almost everyone else did: better to be there ten minutes early, just in case. I walked outside at 0450; it was a pleasant 50 degrees and a near-full moon hung low over the SLC barracks (luckily, too, because almost all the lights on that side of the compound are broken).

Of course, we all guessed wrong, and spent the next hour shuffling around the field while the cadre tried to decide where to position us. Meanwhile, a crack team of audio experts set up a pair of loudspeakers, which prompted murmurs among the soldiers: “I thought we were going for a run, not having a speech,” one said.

All questions were answered when the familiar guitar intro of Enter Sandman began. I just laughed and someone joked about Eye of the Tiger. As if the erstwhile DJ was listening, that song played next. I asked if they were taking requests and one guy suggested Free Bird; he wasn’t far from the mark, as Sweet Home Alabama was next. Another then said, in his best TV announcer voice, “This album not available in stores!”

Eventually the commandant appeared and addressed us, spinning some incomprehensible tale of his recent trip to California, where it rained every day and a guy in a cardboard shack offered him marijuana on the beach (“I guess it’s legal there, you know, crazy!”) and he met with college educators who had developed some kind of talking recruiting robot for the Army that he hoped we’d be able to use in our future careers. It was totally bizarre and I was glad it was still dark, because we were all stifling laughs and looking at each other, wondering if he had lost his mind.

He called us to attention and more Van Halen began to play, and we marched off, about 200 of us in one snaking mass. We shuffled across Fort Gordon for the next ninety minutes, which included about six laps around the movie theater (God knows why), a lap through every parking lot along the way, and five or ten minutes of running in a circle, Ouroboros-like, while the sergeant major ran counter to us on the inside of the circle, chanting odd administrative things in cadence like, “be sure to update your personnel records” and “don’t drink and drive.” This part bordered on the tribal and I thought for sure that the human sacrifice would begin at any moment.

Luckily I was wrong, and we wrapped up the run at about 0715, marching back to the start point while Queen’s We are the Champions played. Once again, I had to laugh – this kind of thing only happens in the military, which is why I simultaneously love and hate my job.