Love in the Time of Spies
Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, 1974
Not that we were going anywhere or there was any reason for the march, except that it was in the training schedule: ten-mile night march with weapons and full field pack. That was during one of the hardest parts of the Vietnam war when we were getting the shit kicked out of us by the Vietcong. That meant that there were very few noncoms and officers around to train new guys like us. In fact, we only had the Company Commander, Captain Nugent, who was an Enlisted Man at heart, but couldn’t help it if they gave him a battlefield commission for being a hero in Vietnam. He was full of shrapnel and stuff, which must have hurt a lot, so he consumed quite a bit of whiskey – you know, to ease the pain. Then there was First Sergeant Quinn, also a battle-scarred veteran. He ran the company, but I guess First Sergeants run most companies. The Field First Sergeant – the one who did the actual training – was Silas Taylor, a wiry little guy from Georgia who had spent a lot of time in Vietnam, was wounded a few times, and even had a Silver Star. I was surprised – we all were – when I learned that he was only twenty-one years old, because he had eyes that looked a lot older.
There were no more noncoms, except for the mess sergeant, who doesn't count because that's another world, so on the first day First Sgt. Quinn asked if anyone had military experience. No one had, but one guy was a cop in civilian life so they made him Acting Platoon Leader. Another guy was a lifeguard at Jones Beach, so they made him one too. And so on. I thought of mentioning that I had been a Boy Scout, but decided not to. They might have made me Acting Company Commander.
One day during the first week, Field First Sgt. Taylor ran us up a hill. He went first and got there about a hundred yards before the first trainee. We straggled up puffing and groaning and Sgt. Taylor waited until the last one arrived before he began his speech, which went something like this. “Ah said run up this here hill and you pussies didn’t run, you crawled.” He didn’t shout, just talked loud enough in his southern accent for all of us to hear. Some of us had never even heard a southern accent before, except in the movies. “Now, if y’all keep doin' things that I tell y’all to do like that, I mean crawlin' instead a runnin', your gonna be fuckin me, cause ahm supposed to get this here company in shape to go over and fight the enemy. That means you-all. In shape! Now ah don’t like to be fucked, and if y’all fuck me, I’m gonna fuck you-all. And you can bet your sweet asses that I can fuck y’all better than y’all can fuck me. On the other hand, if y’all do what ah says, and do it like ah says, y’all will not have any problems in this here company. Is-that-understood?” Silence. “Answer me, goddammittafuckinhell!” He did shout the last word, if you can call it a word. “Yes, Sergeant,” someone mumbled. “Louder! All a yuh!” He made us say it louder about five times until we were screaming. “OK, now we’re goin’ down the hill and we’re runnin. If any of you city slickers don’t know what runnin means, I’m telling ya. It means moving fast.”
Sgt. Silas Taylor had won our respect, and he was as good as his word. A couple of wise guys who thought they could get away with goofing off found themselves on a week of KP; one guy even got sent back to a new company and had to start basic all over again. And when we did things right we sometimes got off some shit details or got weekend passes.
The first problem with that night march was that Freddy Polanski, the medic, had the flu and couldn’t go. Some thought that Freddy had some medical school, because he was pretty good, but I think he just took the three-day first-aid course they give for medics because it was better than the rifle range or some such shit. It wasn’t like in the movies, where the medics can practically perform a heart transplant on the battlefield. The second problem was 2nd Lieutenant Scumbag. I forget his real name, but that’s what we called him. He simply appeared one day standing alongside Sgt. Taylor when we were in formation. Sgt. Taylor said this is Lt. Scumbag (he used his real name, naturally) and he’ll be with us from now on. End of introduction.
“Who wants to be medic until Pvt. Polanski is back on his feet?” Sgt. Taylor asked. We had been in training for two months of the four month course and had already learned the basic army rule: never volunteer for anything. But I wasn’t sure that was always a good rule to live by. Look at Sy Abrams. On the first day they asked if anyone knew how to type. Sy raised his hand and they made him Acting Company Clerk – no lying in the mud at the rifle range, no night marches, no KP. It was from Sy, by the way, that we learned about the argument between Sgt. Taylor and Lt. Scumbag. But I’ll get to that later.
I raised my hand, volunteering to be medic. Sgt. Taylor was glad that he didn’t have to ask if someone had medical experience and when no one answered just appoint somebody. “OK, Jacks,” he said, “Go get Polanski’s gear.”
Every company has a medic and in combat he doesn’t carry his full field equipment, only his first-aid kit and a light carbine rifle instead of the heavy M1. That’s so he can run unimpeded to the wounded. His other stuff goes in the truck with the officers’ things. As training is supposed to be as realistic as possible, our medic went lightly loaded too. That’s why I volunteered. Boy, did I think I was smart!
I’ll tell you about the argument now. Just before the march Lt. Scumbag, Field First Sgt Taylor and First Sgt. Quinn were getting some paper work done in the First Sgt.’s office (actually all they were doing was signing; Sy did all the work) when the Lt. Scumbag asked Sgt Taylor if he was going to carry his field pack or put it in the truck. “We ain’t got no truck for this march,” Sgt. Taylor said. “No truck, no pack.”
“Well, Sergeant, I believe in doing everything the men have to do, so we’ll be carrying packs, too.”
Sgts. Taylor and Quinn looked at him like he was out of his mind.
“I’m sure that Captain Nugent would agree with me,” Scumbag added, sensing the coming opposition.
First Sgt. Quinn just laughed and handed a paper to Sy to retype because he didn’t like the margins. Sgt. Taylor got red in the face though, especially his eagle-shaped nose, which was a sure sign that he was furious.
“Maybe that’s what they teach you college kids in ROTC, but in this here Company A, 101st Airborne Division, we do it our way – Loo-ten-int.”
Now, sergeants are supposed to obey lieutenants and be respectful, but Sgt. Taylor had just spoken with such dripping scorn in his voice that Lt. Scumbag was…well…nonplussed, to say the least. He knew that the sergeant was a Silver Star holder with two combat tours while he, Scumbag, was, militarily speaking, nada. But he didn’t know that last part yet. What if he ordered Taylor to carry his pack and Taylor told him to fuck off? He couldn’t take that chance, so he said he would carry his pack and the sergeant could do as he pleased.
“Durned right,” Sgt. Taylor agreed. “Anything else, Jack?” he asked Quinn.
“Yeah, how about submitting an application for OCS (Officers Candidate School)?”
Sgt. Taylor didn’t miss a beat: “Sure, have Abrams type it up and wipe some general’s ass with it.” He turned and left quick time while Quinn roared laughing, Sy smirked and Lt. Scumbag looked like a turnip.
Left..left..left my wife and forty-nine kids in a starving condition without any gingerbread, thought I did right..right.. and so on. That’s one of the songs we sang while marching through the camp streets. Another one was Avanti Populi, which John Friccero taught us. It was in Italian, so no one except him understood the words. It was only much later, when John and I were in Military Intelligence in Germany and they kicked him out because of his pinko background in college, that I learned it was from the Communist Internationale. John said he wasn’t really a communist, just sang the song to show how ignorant the army was. He was a college professor, for God’s sake. When they kicked him out of M.I. he got a job in Public Information, so he was better off. The whole company sang, shouted rather, Avanti Populi and John sang the rest of the text in his beautiful tenor. We only had to know when to come in again with Avanti Populi.
The soldiers from the other companies always came out to watch us march by. We were the coolest company in the regiment, no doubt about it. We also had a real drummer, a black guy whose first name was J.B. They tried to get him to give his real name, but he insisted that was his real name, he had no other, even had a birth certificate to prove it. Most of the other companies’ drummers just banged on the drum to the marching beat, but J.B. was a jazz drummer and he made marching a pleasure. We skipped, hopped and dragged. Lt. Scumbag was horrified, but Sgt. Taylor, though he didn’t skip or hop, tolerated it looking straight ahead with a small smile. We knew he liked it, although he sure as hell didn’t know what Avanti Populi meant.
We marched out of the camp onto a country road. It was a cold clear night and the sky with the stars pinned to it was so low that you felt you could touch it. Sgt. Taylor gave the “walk easy” command. I was alone at the tail end of the four-abreast column walking lightly without a pack and convinced that volunteering was a good idea—sometimes. After a few miles the road narrowed just as the moon came up, giving us the light we would need. Sgt. Silas Taylor had it all figured out, of course. He knew the moon would arrive just when we needed it. He was in the middle and to the left of the column, where he belonged, and Lt. Scumbag bounced along at its head. We compressed ourselves into two columns twice as long from head to ass-end, that is, me.
The road got rougher as we went, but we had already marched it during the day, so we expected that. At about halfway, five miles, the column suddenly stopped and I, night dreaming, bumped into the guy in front of me. A couple of minutes later I heard the cry: MEDIC! Shit, that’s me. I ran up along the column to where Lt. Scumbag was waving his arms at me. He, Sgt. Taylor and a group of grunts were huddled around someone sitting on the ground. When they opened up for me to pass, I saw it was Fat Boy, his name was George something. Apparently he’d stepped on a rock while going downhill and was holding his ankle and grimacing.
“This man is injured, Medic,” Lt. Scumbag said, as though I couldn’t see that for myself.
I knelt down alongside him and asked what happened. “My fuckin ankle, hurts like hell,” he whined. Sgt. Taylor knelt beside me and whispered, “Take off his boot.”
“Want me to give him a shot of morphine first?” I asked.
“This ain’t the movies, Jacks. You ain’t got no morphine anyway. Just take off his boot and act like you know what you’re doing.”
“Lay down, Fat Boy. I’m going to take off your boot and see what you got.”
“Put a blanket under him first,” the sergeant said.
I unlaced his boot and pulled it off as gently as I could. You’d think I was amputating the way he squealed. The ankle was red and swollen. I looked in my first-aid kit for the first time and found an elastic bandage. I took it out and looked at Sgt. Taylor, who nodded. So I wrapped it tightly around Fat Boy’s ankle.
“Take the extra socks out of his pack and put them on him,” Sgt. Taylor said to someone. “And wrap him in another blanket.”
“Yes, and use a blanket and two rifles to make a stretcher,” Lt. Scumbag interjected. “We can carry him that way.”
Sgt. Taylor ignored him. “Popeye!” he yelled down the line.
“Yo,” came the answer.
“Get yuh ass over here.”
Popeye was a skinny little runt, but the only one in the company who could run faster and farther than Sgt. Taylor, if he was motivated, such as by a direct order.
“Run,” Taylor told him. “And ah mean run back to camp, to the hospital, and tell them to send a ambulance here. Tell them it’s serious, a man down, or they’ll finish their hand of poker before deciding to leave. You come with them so the dumb bastards don’t get lost. Got it?”
“Got it, Sarge.” And he took off like Road Runner.
The ambulance arrived in record time. I half expected to see Popeye running along in front of it, leading the way, but he was sleeping on the patient’s cot in the back.
“Hell, lieutenant,” the young doctor said to Scumbag, “I expected to find a comatose patient, the way your runner described it. This man looks like he sprained his ankle.”
“We thought it might be broken, Sir.” The doc didn’t have any rank on his whites, but Scumbag figured anyone must outrank him. “Of course the runner, the messenger, is prone to exaggeration, but then sometimes it’s better to exaggerate than to ignore a possible serious casualty…” He would have gone on philosophizing, but the doc turned his back and told his driver to supervise getting Fat Boy into the ambulance. That’s when they found Popeye, and unceremoniously tossed him out of the ambulance.
We finished the march and had the next day off. Fat Boy came out of the hospital with a cast on his ankle and crutches. No break but some ligaments were torn. Company A won the regimental award for best company the whole four months we were there. They wanted to promote Captain Nugent to major, but he said no, then he’d have to go to regiment and he thought his work as Company Commander was more important at this time of crisis for our country, so they left him alone. Lt. Scumbag complained to Captain Nugent about Sgt. Taylor, said he was insubordinate. Captain Nugent just glared at him and said, “Get the fuck out of my sight, Scumbag.” He’d heard about the nickname from Sgt. Quinn. Lt. Scumbag applied for a transfer and left a week or two later. You know to where? The Pentagon in Washington, as assistant to some policy maker. No wonder the army’s all fucked up.
Sgts. Taylor and Quinn and Capr. Nugent stayed at Company A to whip the next batch of trainees into shape. They decided that Sy Abrams was more valuable to the war effort as Company Clerk of A Company, so they made him a Corporal and he stayed, too. I don’t know how long Sgt. Taylor stayed. He wanted to go back to Nam. Crazy bastard, but the best soldier I ever saw.
Polanski was out of bed in three days and took over the medic duties again. I’d only had one patient, and Fat Boy gave me the honor of being the first to sign his cast.
Continued in the next issue of SCR