Monday, January 30, 2017

Experts, One and All

     It snowed a lot in January and then continued on into February. Forty-nine inches of white was a January record as I recall. Down in the main fort the snow melted near as quick as it hit the ground. Not so much in the back country. There it piled up and was pretty as could be. The cold made eating in the field a rush to finish while whatever the stuff that came to us from the mess hall was still warm. However, gobbling it down was a danger. Cut the roof of my mouth on a piece of crispy liver. Yup, that was some crispy all right.
     The day we learned to operate and fire the LAW was a lesson in how quick hands could go numb at a humid ten above. Figured it at about forty-five seconds, give or take. Would've been nice if the cold had made our ears numb also.
     We were hepped up to fire that little, cardboard, rocket launchin' baby. Damnation, it was like a little bazooka and we all knew about bazookas. The name was cool and every set of the green, toy, plastic soldiers had more than a few tiny GI Joe's with one of those tubes perched atop a shoulder. Plus we'd all seen the war movies. Yup, we were excited. Sat there in the bleachers while the Sergeant up front droned on and on about how to set it up, aim and squeeze the trigger. Then blithered on and explained in detail all the bad things that could happen should you be in line of the back blast or set it off while peering down the tube. Blah, blah blah.
     A volunteer was called for. A hundred, forty-two hands shot up (would've been two more but they were on sick call. Unlucky bastards). One was chosen and he strutted down from the bleachers and up to the man. There was shown how to squeeze the trigger and use the aiming sight. Then was directed to an all blown to hell tank about a quarter mile away. You could see the strain on the man's face as he bore down on the trigger with all his might. Then it fired. Holy-crapamundo was it loud! Like a stick of dynamite being being lit off on his shoulder. Surprised me his head was still hitched on when that baby launched. Then there was the rocket, floating slow motion toward the tank; first and only projectile I ever saw move through the air (couple of months later we became familiar with the shower of red and green tracers greeting us in an ambush but we only saw the trail of light, not the bullet). Lucky sucker actually hit the tank, where we were told it would knock a hole in the side, fire ball bearings through the opening then bounce around inside at high speed till they were stopped by something soft like a teddy bear or an eyeball.
     Of course we all got to fire one. Don't know what they cost back then but nothing the government bought was cheap, so us boys in green no doubt ran up quite a tab for our hour's play. Seemed like everyone hit the tank, even me. I looked real close, figuring there must be a wire or something guiding the rocket but saw nothing. To that point, it was the finest show of sharp shooting I'd ever seen. But there was an even better moment a week later.
     Over the weeks we fired pretty much everything the Army had to offer a grunt, grenade launcher, thirty caliber machine gun and finally, the fifty caliber. All I have to say about the fifty is the Army didn't make good enough ear plugs. I was deaf for two days and still can't hear worth a damn.
     Finally came the day we fired for record with the M16. We did ourselves proud and set a post, Army, Western Hemisphere, world and solar system record. Came real close to the galaxy record but fell one target short of a company from somewhere in the bowl of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor for you nit pickers). Truth is I can't say how good we actually were. You'll see what I mean.
     The range was uphill a dozen or so miles from the main fort. Right up there where winter reigned in all its majestic whiteness. Once off the bus and into the bleachers, our weapons squeaky clean and oiled to the gills, the sergeant in charge let us know the company that was supposed to arrive and individually mark our scores, couldn't make it. The man said it had to do with the weather. My thought was, "we'd made it, why couldn't they?" Made no sense at all.
     Next, the man let us know that about half the pop-up targets were buried under a couple of feet of snow and would stay that way no matter what he did. Then added we'd have to score ourselves,
"There will be no cheating! I repeat, no cheating! You'll just have to figure out what to do when there's nothing to shoot at! Also, the maximum score is one hundred and eight, I repeat, one hundred and eight! No one, but no one will score more than one hundred and eight!! Understood!!!"
     Yeah, we understood all right. Understood how good that Expert's badge would look on our dress uniforms.
     As I recall, three of our self-scored marksmen did in fact score higher than one hundred and eight. That was to offset those of us who barely broke one oh five. From what I learned later on in combat, how good you could shoot didn't matter a whole lot when you were firing at someone you couldn't see. So maybe those pop-up targets that didn't pop up made a lot of sense. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017


     Mail call was a big deal. Letters from home were treasured and read many times. The written word was the only way to keep in contact with those who cared enough to take a few minutes to put their thoughts on paper. I can still recall the people who posted me an envelope now and then. My mother wrote every month. Each came as a pleasant surprise. When I read them my mental voice took on her tones and my memories painted in her face. Not so much the others who took the time. There weren't many of them. Probably no more than three or four.
     Then there was Lois. Can't say that she wrote every day but she might have. Not always much to say but I didn't care. Her words conjured her image. Started a mental conversation that found its way through ink, paper and the mail back to her. In the Army our mail wasn't a regular, everyday stream. Not sure why but when there are two government agencies between people, like the U.S. mail and Army, unexplained things happen. 'Bout all you can do is shrug your shoulders and move on. Some days I'd get nothing. On others, maybe three. Regardless of flow, no one received more mail than me. Thank God for Lois.
     Mid-cycle we found ourselves in the snow and woods of the Rainier foothills, camped out in tents and praising the Lord for Army sleeping bags. Wasn't Minnesota cold at Fort Lewis but ten above'll hunker most any man deep in the protection of down and cotton. As usual, it was Earl and me under those joined shelter halves. Yeah, the Army didn't call them pup tents but that's what they were. No floor, front and back flaps, all held up by a pair of steel-tipped sticks. Earl brought a couple of cans of Sterno to burn with the idea a little fire would warm us up nicely. Can't say that it did but the blue flame sure was pretty. For decoration I brought the Dylan poster that came with his Greatest Hits album. Warmed us up about the same as the Sterno. Might have worked better had we burned the poster.
     I figured the reason behind our four-day bivouac had to do with acclimating us to field life. Of course I was wrong. Had it been a military training exercise you'd have thought no one would've been driven from the field to pull KP. Well, that's what I'd have thought but somehow I found myself on the back of a deuce and a half one dark, four a.m. morning and on the way back to B-4-3. Also wasn't one bit unhappy about it.
     Even in the field we received our mail. The day before my KP, I got a couple of letters from Lois. In one of them was her response to a question I'd asked her several times before induction. She said yes, she'd marry me and added we could hitch up when I was on my pre-Vietnam leave. Instantly turned me into a happy camper. When I told Earl his face formed that squinty-eyed look he always got when he was in the presence of stupidity. Though I explained to him I'd already popped the question and it'd taken Lois a few months to respond, he just didn't see it that way. Kept saying, "Women don't ask men to marry them; men do the asking. You got it all backwards Peters." I didn't care. All I knew was, come morning I was pulling KP and would have access to the pay phone hanging on the pole outside of the mess hall. So that's why I was on the back of a deuce and a half with a smile on my face.
     All I recall from the times I pulled KP was, expect the worst and you won't be disappointed. That and being thankful for the eight o'clock de-greasing shower. Anyhow, ten a.m. found me outside the mess hall with a pocketful of change. Boy was I excited. That lasted no longer than it took for me to dial the phone and Lois to say that she'd had a talk with her father. He was a WWII medic in the recapture of the Philippines and knew the score about combat. Didn't take him long to paint a picture of me in a body bag and her a widow with no more than a few days under her belt as a wife. Maybe a baby also. That was the long and short of it, heavy on the short. Oh well, I still had pots and pans to drown my sorrows in.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Attitude Adjustment

     There were two things going on at the same time in our version of infantry training. Could be we weren't unusual in that regard. There was the level you could see, learning weaponry and walkin' a lot of miles, and on the other side, the things you couldn't. Mostly that was attitude. As in Basic Training we always yelled out our company slogan when taking seats. Not sure where that came from, we knew who we were and no one else gave a damn. Why should they? Outside of a few close relatives and a loved one or two, no one really cared what happened to any of us. Maybe that's just my opinion but it's the only one I've got, so I'll stick with it.
     Anyhow, in Basic the yell was, "Alphagators! The best by test! Grrr!" Not a one of us had any say in writing those words and probably didn't care but we were told to yell them so that's what we did.
Our days in Infantry Training changed that, at least the author part. You could say our take on our new yell reflected a change in attitude, a change the Army seemed to accept though it had several levels of meaning. At first our instructed yell was "B-4-3! Rough and tough! Hard to bluff! We don't mess with no one!" Not grammatically correct but seein' as how we weren't being trained as editors, I doubt it mattered. Next phase a couple of weeks later, the yell evolved into, "B-4-3! Rough and tough! Hard to bluff! We don't really care!" Finally, at the suggestion of an outsider, it became, "B-4-3! Rough and tough! Hard to bluff! We don't give a f***!" Yup, there was something to that last one that spoke to the soul. I figure the Army saw it as an expression of aggression. Maybe. Could also be an expression of depression. Or resignation to our fate.
     Don't know if it was that way with those dog soldiers in WWII, looked to me like they had a cause worth fighting for. As for us, it was different. Darkly different. I can't speak for everyone of us grunts in the making but I was sure sinking into a hole. Not that I gave it much conscious thought. I knew where I was going and that place was someplace I didn't want to be. People died there. Were maimed there. And for reasons based on opinion, not fact. So I did what I figured most of us were doing; tried my best to not think about it. Take it one step at a time. As for our company yell, it was about the same as our attitude toward punishment; what're they gonna do, stick us in the infantry and send us to Vietnam? Maybe our fates weren't the worst they could do but it had to be close.
     I recall it being the seventh week of training. Maybe about five in the afternoon of a spring day. Our training company was divided into four platoons, three infantry, one mortar. The mortar boys found themselves at the far end of a long line of tradition, that of being loose cannons with bad attitudes and generally free with their language. Not sure where that came from, out of having to carry heavy chunks of metal and ammo around just for the fun of it. The way I see it, the Army figured them the lowest of the low when it came to talent. Lower than cooks, even lower than us grunts. When shit flowed downhill it was cleaned up by the mortar platoon. Yeah, us grunts had bad attitudes but we were nothing compared with the mortar boys; they'd dragged attitude down into the realm of art. Even poetry.
     We often added chants to our marching. Helped pass the time and keep us in step. Most of those chants were passed onto us from above though we sometimes were allowed to add a word or two. Not always better words but it was nice being included as human beings now and then. So it was that on that afternoon the mortar boys approached the company area with a jingle of their own. A good one, real good one. Brought us grunts to the windows just to bask in the radiance of their words.
     Let me step back one more time. FTA. Those letters meant a lot back then. For us it simply meant F*** The Army. Not that we could or even was physically possible but somehow saying or thinking those words made some of us feel a little better. Not much you can do when you're impotent. We did what we were told but didn't have to be happy about it.
     On the flip side there was some kind of traveling, Hollywood freak show of a carnival headed by Jane Fonda, called Free The Army. Personally I didn't see that happening anytime soon. Though I felt their intentions were good, I found them pretty much as impotent as us boys in green. Also had much less chance of having their shit blown to the winds. To my way of thinking, softening the word F*** to Free was dishonest, fearful and something of an insult to us grunts. Maybe being able to stay at home in the peace of the Hollywood hills just didn't give them attitude enough.
     Back to the mortar platoon. Softening light of sunset behind them. Idyllic scene of repose in the foothills of Mount Rainier. Our heroes striding out in unison, doing their country proud and even more so us teary-eyed grunts at the windows as they called out the Delayed Cadence Count (beginning of course on the left foot as all things in the Army did that involved boots in motion. One word per stride). Sheer poetry.

One, f*** the Army.
Two, f*** the Army.
Three, f*** the Army.
Four, f*** the Army.

One, f***-it,
Two, f***-it,
Three, f***-it,
Four, f***-it.

One, two, three, four.
One, two, three, four.


     We heard them through two cycles of the chant. There may have been more. There may have been many more. In my warped, little mind danced visions of the mortar platoon parading through residential neighborhoods and schoolyards, mothers and teachers running in terror, covering the innocent ears of children in hopes they not hear such vile language. Yeah, such thoughts made my grin even wider.
     Once in the company area they were met by one of our drill sergeants. As though that mattered to our heroes. We rarely saw our Drill Sergeants. We were guided to the field by trainee squad leaders and shake 'n bake sergeants (seemed a lot of buck sergeants were being picked off in Vietnam so the Army came up with a six-week school to transform trainees into leaders of men). There he yelled for all to hear (in what we thought of as a Philippino accent),
     "No one f*** with the Army in two hundred years, you not be the first!"
     That was about it for punishment. What could they do to them, stick 'em in the mortar platoon and ship 'em off to Vietnam?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Other People's Money

     Don't recall how it started. Could be due to age though in most ways my gray matter's in good shape though I have to be careful how hard I blow my nose. Got a head cold a few months back and I blew most of Fourth Grade into a strip of toilet paper. What remained told me I'd not lost much of value. A fair amount of my school day back then was spent after class repenting my evil ways. In 1950s parochial school it didn't take much to be evil. The road to hell was paved by my maturing sense of humor or so the ladies in black said.
     Could be it was Earl who led the way down to the bunk at the far end of the barracks. There we formed a group of Saturday afternoon regulars who whiled away the hours with nickels, dimes and a deck of Cincinnati made playing cards. Our idea was entertainment and that no one be financially ruined. When you're pullin' down ninety bucks a month ruination doesn't take much. Yup, we kept it simple and innocent till the day Russ spoke up and introduced us to the rite called Guts. Guts added spice to our lives and emptied a few pockets along the way.
     It was a simple game, two cards only and was a cause for a man to look deeply into his soul to see what was there. Most times when the pot grew exponentially, I saw a coward looking back at me. Also a mathematician. Guts was a game suited to a knowledge of odds and a fit Russ' knowledge of numbers just fine. Like I'd said earlier, Russ knew 'em backwards, forwards and upside-down. At least he did till alcohol befuddled his thinking. I took to it like a slug to the bottom side of a garden rock. Maybe not a pleasant image but you get the idea.
     Let's say there are six men in green sitting around the bunk. Me being one of them. Winter sun beaming its way through the window over my right shoulder. We each ante a nickel. The dealer, he be two hands to the counter-clock side of me, shuffles and runs the circle twice, each man gettin' two cards. The rules were simple, straight poker, no flushes, no straights, pair of aces was the best you could hold. I look at my hand of ace, ten. Not great but has potential. For a change my mouth isn't running. Hell, there's money on the green-brown blanket. This is serious business. Not real serious seein' as how the pot's only thirty cents but business nonetheless. First man to the left of the dealer declares his intent; guts if he's in the game, folds if not. He folds. Next man's weighing his options and makes a bold statement, says he's got guts. My turn. I'm thinkin', my ace high with an ten kicker has to my way of thinking, a hair better than an even chance of winning even if my buddy to the right isn't bluffing, plus it's only a thirty cent pot, so I'm in, got guts. On it goes around the blanket. Men weighing chances and declaring. Turns out three of us are in. Also turns out the first man in ain't bluffing and shows a pair of fives. Good hand. Us two losers now have to pay up, match the pot, thirty cents each and now there's sixty cents on the GI wool. Deal passes and we go at it again.
     The beauty and also the devilishness arrives as the pot grows. Most often there's only the thirty cents but at times, thirty grows the sixty, then a buck twenty, two-forty and so on. The higher the pot the more you search your soul. Twice in the training cycle the pot built to over thirty dollars. Ten days pay. That'll get you thinking. I wanted badly to win those pots but both times I spectated. My game was close to the vest, an occasional bluff, rarely won big and even rarer, lost money. Most Saturdays found me five bucks ahead and having had a couple of hours of fun. Long story short, my nine weeks of training expenses were paid for by others. Not great but I had better uses for my pay down the road on leave.
     Earl was a different animal. Mid-way through the cycle he won three hundred dollars in a high stakes game, sent most of it home and bought himself a portable stereo at the PX. Smart man. Over the next few weeks he tried to interest me in joining the big games. He saw the way I played and figured me as a way to another big kill, I saw nothing but loss. Yeah, I was a small potatoes kind've man. Small ponds and lakes have always suited me best. Also figured those with rich tastes probably knew their odds better than us blanket gamblers and would find good uses for my fleece. Come the end of the cycle I had all two month's pay in my wallet and a half-dozen albums to boot. Of them, Earl said nothing when I fired up Dylan. Could be his revenge was wearing me down on the double Ray Charles album he'd been eyeballing at the PX but was beaten to the punch by his bunk mate. Hope he still has it and cherishes my memory each time he slips one of his ill-gotten LPs from its sleeve.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


     There were four of us. Sometimes fate throws people together, sometimes adjoining bunks. Can't say we thought alike but we seemed to share bad attitudes. Bad is good. Not a one of us was a reservist or national guardsman in the making. Yup, we all shared where we were going. Russ and Joe were bunk mates like me and Earl. Russ was married and sending every cent home to his wife. Joe was single and with his outlook on life looked like he'd be that way till he died in the old soldier's home. Earl was the son of an mortician in Memphis and the only black man of us four. Me, I was the German/Swede who'd fallen from grace.
     Joe had a French last name filled with silent letters that confused Drill Sergeants no end. Why us English speakers kept all those unsounded letters in imported words remains a mystery to this day (don't get me started on feng shui. Take my word for that). And it pissed Joe off no end that none with stripes even came close. That doesn't seem like all that big a deal till you give it some thought. Should a man have been paying attention while going through high school he'd have no doubt noticed there were a lot of French words mixed in our language. Also might have noticed some names aren't pronounced as they appear. Also might have learned to ask a man he was in charge of his name should it look unpronounceable. Joe took those things under consideration and came to the conclusion he was being led and trained by the incompetent and uncaring. Probably was right about that.
     As for Russ, he was always broke and appeared to be festering beneath the surface. Yeah, he was an unhappy man who saw no future where he was heading. More on him later.
     Earl seemed an outsider to both races on our floor. He saw aspects of white culture that didn't seem all that bad. Saw that the war in Vietnam put us all on the same footing which was mostly underfoot. Top that off with being willing to listen to Bob Dylan and as a result, took a fair amount of grief from the other brothers. Don't know how or why but the two of us hit it off.
     Me, I woke up every morning with my mouth set on high in the quiet of the barracks. Can't say that I was happy but I sure seemed to have a lot to say. I guess no longer being squad leader freed my mouth. One morning Earl took a look at me and said he was glad I wasn't his father. Added I most always had a stern, pissed-off look about me. I'd have checked his words out in a latrine mirror but by then I had a grin on my face 'cause I looked so mean. Me, mean? Ridiculous. Just didn't have that killer mentality. At least I didn't think I did and supposed the next year would let me know.
     Russ was from Minneapolis, and from what his brother told me years later, very intelligent in a calculus kind of way.  But he had his problems, 'specially when it came to being in the Army.  Could've been a case of depression, a fear of going to Vietnam, against the war and somehow was drafted into the infantry.  Whatever the reason I knew him as a quiet man who had the ability to come up with a beer or two at the EM Club most every night even though he had little or no money.  Gettin' tippled on other people's money seemed one of his talents.  Another asset was his affability, easy to like with nary a bad word for anyone.
     We agreed to get together on leave before heading to Vietnam.  And we did.  That afternoon I came to appreciate the man's tolerance for alcohol.  I showed up at his apartment mid-afternoon with a quart of Southern Comfort to go with the beer in his refrigerator.  Russ never said if he liked what I brought 'cause he was too busy puttin' it down to get a word out more than now and then.  We, I s'pose it wasn't a fifty-fifty kind of we, more of seventy-thirty kind of we, polished the bottle off but seein' as how he was still thirsty, Russ suggested we head to a local hangout, a workin' man's bar name of Pearson's, Home of the King-Sized Drink.  While Russ continued with what he seemed to do well, I payed a visit to the men's room.  There my body ejected as much excess alcohol as it could through my mouth and nose; not a pleasant experience even if the floor around the stool had been dry.
     By that time I was ready to head home and sleep for a day or two.  The problem was we'd invited his wife and Lois to meet us after they got off work.  Which they did.  And the three of them had a fine time while I sat in the corner of the booth doing my best to stay awake.
     During our afternoon's drinking and babbling Russ said he wasn't going to Vietnam.  At the time I paid no attention 'cause he was drunk.  Probably would've written it off even if he wasn't.  At one time or another the thought of not going must have passed though most of our consecrated, grunt heads.  My friend David G., who'd done a tour in Vietnam with the Marines, told me on the phone to head straight for Canada when he heard I was in the infantry.
     Also, during AIT, one of the trainees in our company went on a hunger strike for some reason or other.  I don't know if any of us knew exactly why though we suspected he was against taking part in the war.  And considering how bad the food was, we figured it might also be an excuse to not eat in the mess hall.  More or less he was shunned by the whole company even though some of us quietly agreed with him, each in our own way.  His strike went on for a week, then he was gone.  Poof!
     At one time or another the idea of not participating in something that might kill me had also passed through my head, so when Russ said he wasn't going, what could I say?  Probably something stupid like, "Me too."
     But, in the end, I went and Russ didn't.  Didn't find that out for twenty years until a cocktail party conversation with his brother Dennis.  Between those two times an article in the paper had caught my eye.  On a back page story that would've normally have passed by unseen, I saw Russ' name.  He'd died with his daughter in an apartment fire.  That he was living in an apartment at an age when most of us were homeowners got me wondering what road his life had traveled.
     His brother filled me in on the missing years.  Russ had remained AWOL for some time.  Whether the Army caught up with him or he turned himself in, I don't recall.  Regardless, Russ refused to serve in Vietnam, was court marshaled and spent six months in the stockade.  Time up, he still refused to go to Vietnam.  Six months more.  At that point the Army offered to change his MOS to Intelligence but still send him to Vietnam.  Again he refused and ended up finishing his two year hitch in the stockade.  The story as I recall it may not be perfectly correct but is close.
     Of the men I served with, Russ returns to my thoughts more often than any other.  No matter which side of the fence you sit on, it's obvious that the circumstances we faced during the Vietnam war caused many tragedies, Russ' among them.  His name is not on the Wall in Washington and never will be.  But, in my mind, Russ was a casualty of the war.
     Then there was Earl. Like I said before, Earl was black.  And also like I said, I'm a German-Swede  hybrid from Minnesota.  That's about as white as an American can get unless they're an albino Norwegian-Swede from North Dakota within ten miles of the Canadian border and not only can polka, but actually like the dance, 'specially when there's a concertina in the band (did I miss anything?).  As for size, we were about the same as to height and weight.  He was a good lookin' man. Had I been black, I'd have been outstandin'.
     I'm not sure why we hit it off but bein' in the same boat at the bottom of the military peckin' order might have had something to do with it.  We dressed the same, ate the same foods, played poker together and were to end up to in the same place (probably in the hereafter also since we shared some left-leanin' views).  Under the circumstances, race didn't seem to matter to us.  But there was still a line we didn't cross, one way or the other.  Call it mutual respect or maybe a wartime truce.
     'Bout the only time he was pissed at me was during our FTX, Field Training eXercise (seems the Army was pushin' the envelope when it came to purposely misspelling words).  During it we spent five days in the field operating under similar conditions to Vietnam except no one got killed, or maimed, had leeches crawlin' up their backsides and it was about fifty degrees cooler.  The two of us were buddied up as usual.  That meant we each carried half of the canvas tent, with poles, and a sleepin' bag, neither of which we were going to use.  Why we carried them didn't make a lot of sense.  Didn't use 'em at Fort Lewis and sure as hell didn't in Vietnam.  But we were sharin' the twenty pounds of it and sleepin' bags. Act of love, buddy-buddy, made it seem like nothing at all.
     Till the Man came up and said, "Peters, you be the ace of aces when it came to larnin' up the PRC25 radio.  I want you to be my man and carry that twenty-five pound baby.  Give your tent stuff and bag to Greene - that be Earl - over there and come follow me."
     So that left Earl with an extra ten pounds and he wasn't happy.  Also he was odd man out when it came to pullin' watch at night.  Instead of gettin' a half night's sleep he got, well, I don't know exactly how much sleep he got.  But seein' as how he was the definition of resourceful, I figured he turned it to his advantage.  Me, I got the twenty-five pound box and slept with the command group.
     Night on the FTX was good practice for Vietnam. Got us good and tired, zombie like, from a day's worth of walkin' around over hill and dale with a load on our backs.  And dirty.  Got so we smelled and looked like the ground around us with a little sweat mixed in.
     Every so often Earl and I would get together for a minute.  He sure looked tired.  And he let me know what he thought of me havin' a share of the good life.  Like I had any control over that.
     Come our last night the Lieutenant left us for a shower and a beer.  Now in charge was a two tour, Sergeant First Class who ran the outfit like he knew what he was doing.  'Cause he did.
     The plan for the night was to hunker down on the top of a hill.  Made sense seein' as how it'd been used as a pretend defensive position since Teddy Roosevelt was training his Rough Riders.  Fox holes were already dug and the hillside prepped for Metcalf to head down and work his anal-retentive magic with trip flares and barbed wire.  And the boy did us proud.  Spider webbed the slopes for the attack that was on the schedule for 2:47am.  Seemed the Army was just as anal as Metcalf.
     Our Sergeant had a plan for the night.  He wanted to be warm and not disturbed by any idiot infiltrators who might be comin' up the hill.  Metcalf's trip flares and barbed wire took care of that.  Gave us a show to watch as the little torches were accidentally set off one by one and followed by soft cursin' that was music to Rich's ears.  Keepin' the Man warm was my job.  And he said I should get a partner to help out.  That's where Earl came in.  The two of us kept a blaze atop the rise that could've been seen for miles, infiltrators be damned.  We slept good that night even though we didn't sleep much.  Warm side to the fire, cold side to the dark.  Rotate once in a while to even out the scorch and freeze, stoke the fire and cozy down.
     The last time I saw Earl was at the 90th Replacement Unit in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. I'd just arrived and he was on his way to the 101st Airborne Division.  Not a happy lad to be goin' up there where the NVA was waitin' to ruin his day.
     Earl Greene was from Memphis, Tennessee.  Born and raised.  Over the years I've spent a few days there 'cause I worked for FedEx and Memphis was home ground for them.  Each time I tried to find him through the internet or phone listings with no luck.  Even tried to see if his name was on The Wall in Washington, DC.  All tries came up empty.  Wherever you are Earl, I hope your's has been a good life.
     As usual there were the others. Already mentioned Metcalf. He was sittin' on the other edge of my double-edged sword. Yeah, it had felt good giving up the squad leader job. Still did in most ways. But it did upset me some that Rich was now my boss. That's me all over. Been that way since day one and still am. I don't want to be the Man but whoever is the Man pisses me off no end unless they think just like me. I'd have made a fine hermit. As it was, Metcalf was just like a little puppy in his new role. Not that he peed himself, more that he was innocently enthusiastic. Hard not to get caught up in his idea of fun. Why not? Training was a game. No real bullets flying. I figure Rich knew that. IT was like a Boy Scout jamboree to him and he was out to get every badge in the place.
     Then there was the thunder storm in the upper bunk to my right. Good man till he fell asleep. And he could fall asleep faster than I could get my pillow fluffed just right. When the man dropped off, he was loud enough to loosen nails in the walls and ceiling. Moved bunks across the floor like one of those kid's electric football games moved players by vibration. Wasn't an every night occurrence. Some night's I figured he tossed and turned a bit fretting over all the sleep he was taking from the men around him. Maybe also wondering how many lives'd be lost with him sawing night position logs over in Vietnam.
     I don't take well to snoring and can be a first class prick when I feel my evening's repose is upset. Took it as my duty to shut the man up. Maybe stifle his snores with a firmly held pillow. One night it happened. His window rattling finally set me off. I dropped from my bunk. Soon as my feet touched the linoleum, he stopped. Son's-a-bitch. Climbed back atop my perch. Fluffed the pillow just so. 'Bout the time my sigh of happiness sounded so did the thunder. I dropped from my bunk. Soon as my feet touched the linoleum, he stopped again. I don't recall if I said anything out of frustration but if I did it probably bordered on death threats. More likely crossed the border over to no-man's-land. Then a voice sounded a few bunks away and was immediately joined by several others, all were of the opinion I was a bigger pain in the ass than the snorer. I climbed back atop my perch. Fluffed my pillow and could swear I heard a soft chuckle from the bunk to my left.

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Fool in Charge

     What was the Army thinking when it made me a squad leader? No doubt they could not see inside my head and the spider webs of confusion and consternation that reigned there. Being in a state of constant misery made my sole purpose in life to not add to it. Since my inside wasn't smiling I figured it in my best interest to keep those on the outside as happy as I was able.
     Near as I recall my job had two functions; lead and inspire my men to clean the upstairs latrine to the best of their God-given abilities and when in the field, inspire them with my intelligence and ability to adapt to circumstance. I'll give the latter a go first.
     Since we were training as infantrymen, we were taught many things. Some useful in civilian life, most not. Early on we were instructed in the use of the lensatic compass. Using in much the same way as the sights on a rifle the compass was a sure way to find your way home should you know where you were to begin with and also had an accurate map. Odds were slim that an infantryman would have either if he'd been separated from his unit (and senses).  
     Once instructed we broke up in squads and were given a sheet of paper with both starting point and headings. Our task was to find and write down the numbers on several stakes to be found off in the Washington woods somewhere. And would have proved something of a challenge had we not been able to follow the paths beaten into the soil by thousands of GI boots. Most would call them clues. We fired up the compass at each and every found point and agreed the paths were true. Finally, under the setting sun we stumbled our way out of the undergrowth to report our findings.
     We were third in line as I recall. What caught my ear while waiting was the report of the squad in front of us. They had the first five posts right as rain but missed on the last. Interesting that their findings matched ours to a tee. So I did what any right thinking American boy would do when our turn came. I lied. Changed our last finding even though I knew ours to be right. Didn't matter to me if the Sergeant in charge was wrong. What mattered was being in agreement with the man. Lo and behold being wrong in the right way turned out to be right, more or less. That's what leaders do, say what's necessary to get the boss's approval. There's a lesson in there somewhere and bein' a hypocrite, even in a little way, didn't sit right with me.
     The next moment came the second week and found us in the latrine, a place ripe for change. We were given fifteen minutes to spit shine the room from one end to the other. Not a problem for twelve men. After a few days I'd seen that we were done in ten and spent the last five looking busy. Keeping up appearances and our hands from helping out in the devil's workshop. To me it seemed a waste of effort and all that extra rubbing would wear down the nickel plating and enamel that much faster.
     Bein' a leader I gathered the men around me and let them know my take on the situation, "Men," I said in a commanding tone of voice, "Men, the way I see it, and no doubt you do as well, we can clean this latrine top to bottom and still have five minutes free to do with as we please so long as it doesn't involve messing up the latrine. Are we agreed on that?" Seemed we were and that's what we did.
     I recall it as being the second Tuesday of training that it happened. That's when our acting corporal, still waiting on orders, found us in the break phase of our duties. Even though he was still a private just like us and only wore pretend stripes, he had himself a fit and called me aside. There he asked me just what it was that was goin' on in the john. I understood his concern and explained the logic behind our actions. Somehow he didn't see it the same way as me and said how we were to clean the latrine from that day forward - or - I could just hang up the stripes I didn't have and he'd find someone who would. Have to admit my ire was up and told him finding another man was fine with me. So that's what he did. As it turned out Rich Metcalf was way more into the job than I was. The Army needed far more Metcalfs than they did fools like me. Rich took his job seriously. More on him later. In one way it kind of burned my butt a little that I was no longer in charge. In another it suited me just fine. Story of my life over the next fifteen years.

It Changes

     Yes, leave was good. Yes, I didn't miss the Army one bit. And yes, I felt like an outsider. Didn't help that I was scalped but the problem was deeper, on the other side of my skull. Also it didn't seem like those my age had much use for a soldier on leave. Us soldiers been squeezed out of society. My generation had been split between the going and not going. Shouldn't have been that way but that's the way it was. Half of me had changed, cut free from who I'd been. The other half came later in infantry training and more so in Vietnam.
     Twenty-one days after arriving home, Lois drove me to the airport where I boarded a plane half filled with GIs off to Fort Lewis, Washington and points east. Once again I was joined by my buddy misery and we shared a seat. Misery makes for a poor companion. Takes the fun out of most everything. At its base is loss and fear. And its memory dogs me to this day. I can conjure up that little beast any time I want. Doesn't take much effort as it sits just below the surface. Two years of misery's company sure did wear a wrinkle in my brain and has spawned an attitude that'll never go away. Best I can do is look the other way when it tries to make eye contact.
     It was raining in Seattle when we landed. Rained all the way past Tacoma and into Fort Lewis. Over the next nine weeks the only time it wasn't raining was when the temperatures dropped and it snowed. Once off the bus we were greeted by smiling sergeants holding up placards that read Future Grunts and Other Assorted Scum, This Way. Neatly printed but not a good sign of things to come. We shuffled off to our new homes at B-4-3. Once there I was sifted down to the fourth platoon, then re-sifted upstairs in another white, wooden, fire-trap of a temporary barracks.  There I met Earl Greene who'd been in my basic training company. Seems he remembered my boots, figured I was just the man to polish his and we became friends. A flip of the coin said it was my choice as to top or bottom bunk. Though I thought I preferred the bottom, Earl said I was wrong in my thinking. Being open to the possibility that I might be wrong, I took the upper. Earl smiled, no doubt out of joy that I'd gotten what I'd truly wanted and learned the error of my ways.
     First day in the barracks I was approached by an acting corporal. He'd already finished infantry training and was waiting on orders for NCO School. There he'd become a leader of men and hopefully'd make good decisions in combat so he'd not lead anyone to an early grave. Those things happen. As it was, I'd been chosen 'cause of my wonderful record in basic training to be a trainee squad leader. Immediately my mind traveled back to Williamson and his nightly mourning of his lost fifi bag. I hoped they'd been reunited behind military bars. Also to my trainee squad leader who'd been on guard when my boots'd gone AWOL. Figured to myself, "Damnation, there's no doubt I could do a better job than those two. Maybe also teach the Army the error of its ways and throw that in for free." Quickly I said, "Yowsah. I'm your man." Made my ego feel good. Yup, I had no idea what I was doing.