Friday, April 14, 2017

A Tale of Two Malcontents

A trip down memory lane some 50+ years ago and a tale of two reluctant soldiers.

He caught my eye as we waited to board a slow train to Missouri under the watchful eye of two Army NCOs. Newly sworn into the Green Machine, it was off to Ft Leonard Wood, MO, to become trained killers (opps, Army not Marines) one September day in 1963.

About 5’4”, 140 lbs, red hair, map of Ireland face, he radiated surliness. From Boston, he had committed some  offense against society on his way through Denver and, as was common in the early 1960’s, a kindly prosecutor suggested he join the Army and all would be forgotten. Little did we know then we would become tight buddies and be in the same units our entire time in the Army.

Our bonding began after I went between cars to smoke a cigarette. Per the PSG  (prior service guy who couldn’t make it on the outside) and was “in charge” of our group, this was forbidden. Tom joined me. When the PSG got proddy I offered to throw his sorry ass off the train. Tom offered to help.

The five days spent at the reception center was an eye opener. Picture a grim moderately sloped hillside covered in crushed gravel, about the size of a tennis court, no shelter of any kind, with cut off telephone posts strung across the top. Each post had alphabet letters. Per your last name, you stood in a line behind the appropriate post. All fucking day except for noon chow. Need a latrine? You should have taken care of that before formation. Thirsty? Tough shit.  From time to time we were herded to haircuts, to the medical staff, to testing, and were issued our uniforms and such. Then we were trucked to our basic training battalion (and the last time I rode anywhere until after basic).

 The reception center was within earshot of the infiltration course. For several hours at night you could hear machine gun fire and explosions.

Leaving the reception area was absolutely forbidden! Tom and I used our free evening hours to explore some of the area.

Basic was basic. Millions have experienced it. My normal response to inter personal conflicts wasn’t approved by the cadre.

Corporal Arnold. “Goddamnit shithead, gut punch them. I get pissed off dealing with bloody noses.”

“Yes, sir”!

With the Army running on the alphabet, Tom was in the third platoon and me in the fourth. Both platoons shared the same building after week three when the whole company was relocated after one of the barracks collapsed.( WWII ‘temporary’ barracks)

At the rifle range, the first step was zeroing our rifles. From a standing position in a concrete pipe on end (simulated a fox hole) we fired three single shots at a bulls eye six feet away. For many, including Tom, this was the first time they had ever fired a weapon. I grew up with rifles and was in the NRA Junior program for years. My three holes could be covered with a nickel. Tom struggled with a rifle. After evening chow and before lights out I worked with him on fundamentals. He never got to the expert level but did qualify.

We moved about a mile to AIT, Combat Engineer School, along with about twenty from our basic company. Tom kept a low profile. I didn’t. We did manage a weekend pass. Six of us, four in the back of a pickup with a camper shell, took off to Columbia, MO to chase college girls.

 Tom was initially the most successful of our group but her boyfriend and his pals objected. Had to rescue him. The local constabulary suggested we load our sorry asses in whatever vehicle we arrived in and get out of town.

 The Daniel Boone hotel also requested we vacate our rooms but didn’t offer a refund.

Our next opportunity for trouble was Fort Dix, NJ as we awaited sea transport to Germany. Tom was from a Boston longshoreman clan and understood shipping.

“The next troop ship sails in eight days. That means eight days of pulling shit details. Let’s go to Boston”.

“Hell, yeah”.

We returned in time to make the load out for the buses going to the Brooklyn Army Terminal. As the irritated Sergeant read off names and the named person responded, he either directed the individual to a bus or ordered them to a spot near him. Not surprisingly, Tom and I were in the second group.

“Where have you two fuckers been the past few days”, he demanded.

“We’ve been stuck guarding some fucking duck pond, and with no relief. I demand to see the I.G.”!

“Yeah”, said Tom.

Glaring at us, the Sergeant said,

“Get on the fucking bus”.

 Which we did.

Whenever we weren’t in a permanent unit, I removed my name tags. In a mob of green uniforms, everyone a slick sleeved Private, it was the rare cadre that would remember your face.

“What is your name, and where is your name tag?”

“Private Anderson, Sergeant. Lost my duffle bag and was given this to wear”.

“OK, Anderson. Tomorrow after formation report to supply for a work detail”.

“Yes, Sergeant”. (Yeah, like that is going to happen)

Aboard the good ship General Maurice Rose, Tom was assigned to the kitchen detail. While he had never been seasick, he managed to puke on a hot grill covered with cooking eggs, and was banished.

The voyage was scheduled for nine days but took fourteen. Why was never explained to we cattle. Those who understood such things explained the ocean state wasn’t conducive to a fast voyage. This landlubber didn’t understand the bow and foredeck underwater wasn’t the usual condition.

Had the trip went as scheduled, my malingering wouldn’t have mattered. On the eleventh day, I was cornered by three pissed off NCO’s. Traveling steerage, they were still assigned supervision of the numerous shit details. I had become an irritant, and needed, in fine Army tradition, instant correction.

One thing I knew before going into the Army, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. NCOs can be quite creative in devising attitude corrections. They respect the malcontent who accepts his punishment without whining. Not that they don’t remember you, and watch you a bit more closely than your peers.

Disembarking in Bremerhaven, we stood for three hours in the freezing wind on an open area at the railroad station. Gave Tom and I ample time to deduce a nearby building might be a liquor store, slip away to verify our assumption, and exchange a few US dollars for something called Steinhaeger. Nine hours later, arriving at our final destination, Hanau, Germany we were drunk on our asses. 

This didn’t please First Sergeant Richard Nelson or Sergeant First Class James J McGarity Jr. They decided to ship our sorry asses to a three week demolition course in Bavaria with the hope,

 “You will blow your asses off and we won’t have to deal with you”.

Nine of us from AIT were assigned to the same float bridge engineer company. Another five or so were in the next door fixed bridge company. This made our transition easier.

Tom and I had a lot of fun in Germany, and got into a lot of mischief. As an example, after winning a drinking contest, we found ourselves at a dispensary being treated for acute alcohol poisoning. Don’t believe the term, stomach pumping. A tube in forced down your gullet, chemicals are introduced, and you puke your guts out, repeatedly. After release, we headed back downtown and resumed partying, but did pace ourselves.

Toward the end of 1965, we got a nice Army wide pay raise, and promotion slots opened up. By 1966, both Tom and I were E-5s. He was a buck sergeant, me a SP 5. I think the First Sergeant’s reasoning was this:

“I take the biggest assholes, put them in charge of the other assholes, and make them responsible for the assholes.  Then I can concentrate on just a few assholes. Makes my job easier”.

After the Army Tom went on to college and then medical school. He became a shrink.

The one thing I’ve always admired about the Marine Corps is the way they go about making each Marine proud to be a Marine. If the Army had an official song in the early 60’s I never heard it.  Certainly never learned the lyrics. Keep your boots shined, march in step, and do your job was all that was expected.

Tom struggled with basic soldier shit. I found it to be easy and usually was the guard mount supernumerary, the extra in case someone couldn’t complete their duty. I helped Tom with soldiering, and he helped me with what is today called “anger management”. We had each other’s backs even when we developed other circles of buddies. He was the only person I trusted completely.

Hope this trip down memory lane didn’t bore you, and you got a few laughs.

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