Camp King, Oberursel, West Germany, October 1953
Second Lt. Marvin Jacks tied his sneaker shoelaces and stood up. He heard basketball sounds coming from the gym: hard bounces on a wooden floor, the clang when the ball hit the rim, a whumpf when it went through cleanly. Shouts of triumph or despair. He looked at himself in the locker-room mirror and smiled with satisfaction. Smiling back at him was a handsome young face, the only imperfection on it being a slightly bent nose broken in a street fight during adolescence. He'd never had it straightened because it provided the manly touch his baby-face needed if he was to be taken seriously. He was only slightly above average height, too small for basketball, at least for the professional sort.
He opened the door to the gym and was surprised to see one person, playing by himself, in the act of sinking a jump shot. He retrieved the ball and said "Hi" to Jacks.
"Hi. I thought there'd be two complete teams in here, judging by the noise," Jacks said with a smile.
"Yeah. I like to make it realistic. No fun otherwise." He trotted over and offered his hand. He was about Jacks' height but heavier. "Jack Quinn. You're new, I guess."
"Marvin Jacks. Yeah, just got in."
"Welcome to Spook's Paradise." He flipped the ball to Jacks and stationed himself under the basket. Jacks was conscious of the dramatic effect a basket on first try would make. He bounced the ball twice, drifted to the center of the court and let loose a long jumper that bounced vertically off the rim, touched the backboard and went in.
They spent the next fifteen minutes dribbling, passing behind their backs and shooting with uncanny accuracy. An observer would have thought they'd been playing together for years.
"You from New York?" Jacks asked, knowing he was because the accent was unmistakable.
"Sure. You too, I bet."
"No kidding. What part?"
"Flatbush. What other part is there?"
"Bensonhurst, that's what other part."
"You play good ball," Jacks said as he missed a jumper. "Who'd you play for?"
"Playground ball. You?"
"Good teams." Quinn drove in, feinted at nobody, glided under the basket and sunk a twisting left-hander. He retrieved the ball and placed it under his arm, a gesture that indicated that the conversation would get serious. "Play any baseball, Marvin?"
"A little, nothing to speak of."
"That’s OK, you're a good athlete. I can shape you up."
"What do you mean?" Jacks asked, wiping the sweat off his face with his arm.
"I mean this here's an M.I. unit,” Quinn said, “but it's also a jockstrap outfit."
"Sure. The old man's a sports nut, played for Georgia Tech. Don't see how myself. His best, let's say his only shot, is a hooker. I mean Jesus, that went out with Ebbets Field."
"Unless you happen to be seven feet tall."
“Which he ain't. Comes in to work out most every day when he's here.” As if to emphasize what he would say next, Quinn dribbled the ball between his legs, gave it a kick-flip with his toe and caught it. "What I'm saying, Marvin, is that you could spend your whole tour right here in Camp King just playing basketball and baseball. No football, not enough jocks and anyway the equipment's too expensive." He sighed at that misfortune. "It's a great place, food's fantastic, Frankfurt's a half-hour away on the trolley, nothing to do but play ball."
"A little interrogating if you don’t object. Basketball in the fall and winter, baseball in the spring and summer. That's all. We're in the service units league. Bunch of beer-bellies. We win everything. Just say the word. I coach both teams."
The locker-room door opened and a man walked onto the floor in gym clothes. "Hey, I thought no one was here. Didn't hear anything."
"Howya doin' sir? We were just takin' a break," Quinn said.
"Who are you?" he asked Marvin.
"Jacks, sir. Arrived today."
"Oh yeah." He stood in the key and Quinn passed him the ball as he moved to his left. He hooked it high off the backboard into the basket.
"Good shot," Quinn cried. "Sure haven't lost the old touch."
Colonel Moultrie Banks, Commanding Officer of the 509th M.I. Unit, wasn't exactly as old as the hills. He was forty-five, tall and once lanky, red-nosed and high-voiced and came from Moultrie, Georgia, which one of his ancestors founded during the eighteenth century. The three of them tossed the ball around a while, until Banks began to huff and puff and the sweat poured off him in streams.
"See you guys," he said and disappeared into the locker-room.
"See what I mean?" Quinn winked. "Think about it and let me know. What barracks are you in?"
"BOQ," Jacks said. From the look of surprise on Quinn’s face, it was obvious he hadn’t known that Jacks was an officer. He knew exactly what Jack Quinn was thinking because he'd have been thinking it himself if the roles had been reversed: Why didn't you tell me you were a fucking officer? But all Quinn said was "Oh". Then, "See ya," and he went into the locker-room leaving Marvin Jacks alone feeling like a traitor, which in a sense he was.
When the Korean War broke out he had already been influenced by the romanticism of books like From Here To Eternity and movies like Paths of Glory, which depicted officers as an arrogant, selfish, privileged class of incompetent parasites who did not hesitate to send soldiers to certain death for no purpose other than their own aggrandizement. When he was drafted into the army and underwent six months of basic infantry training at a dilapidated Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky, he saw no reason to change his opinion. He applied to the Army Language School in Monterey, California in the hope that the war would be over by the time he finished, and was surprised to be accepted.
What did change in Monterey was his perception of moral necessity. While his comrades from basic training were being killed and wounded in Korea he had become one of the privileged ones – still a Private, true, but in a university atmosphere getting an education for which he was being paid. Most of the students were enlisted men, but the few officers were enveloped by enhanced privilege. They were paid much more, had new or nearly new cars and were treated almost as equals by the aristocratic staff of Russian teachers, who invited them to their homes, something a mere soldier could never attain to.
Marvin saw all this, but combined with resentment he felt envy. He began to like army life. He was part of a great family, the members of which were fed, clothed, housed and paid without having to work. The possibility of being wounded or killed in a war was always present of course, but he had been able to avoid that so far.
Halfway through his one-year Russian course he applied for OCS. Again, to his surprise he was accepted and attended the Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia after Language School, for six months, still not long enough for the war in Korea to have ended. But there was still the Cold War. So he was sent off to Germany and still another school, the Intelligence and Military Police School in Oberammergau, Bavaria, where he was supposed to learn how to be a spy. It was only a three-week course and amateurish. The only thing he remembered from it was how to conduct surveillance and a two-day long course in German history, given by a Master Sergeant who really knew his stuff. Jacks wondered what the hell he was doing in the army, and as an Enlisted Man. He could have become an officer but probably didn't want to, for which Jacks admired him more than for his historical erudition.
Continued in the next issue of SCR.