True Tales II
I hope you don’t mind if I skip a decade. It’s not that nothing happened between the ages of 12 and 22, but the events described below came to mind during a recent conversation about experiences in the military. I was in the United States Army during the Korean War, although thankfully not in Korea. You see, I was not in the least patriotic or concerned with saving the world from Communism. I was drafted.
As we all know, there is good and bad karma. One element of my good karma was having read James Jones’s From Here to Eternity at an impressionable age and having received from that excellent book a dim view of officers before even having met one. So I never regretted my desire to be as un-officerly as possible, which means, above all, not becoming one. You may think that they wouldn’t have had me anyway. Possible, but unlikely, considering the imbeciles with bars, leafs, chickens and stars on their shoulders I encountered – some close up, others at a distance in reverse proportion to their rank – during my relatively lengthy (five year) military career.
So I became a Private Soldier, without a Gunga Din to slake my thirst – first in Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky in a wooden, drafty barracks in winter. I remember a few guys from those days - Sgt. First Class Silas Taylor, a 21 year-old bemedaled Korea veteran, and possibly one of the best soldiers who ever lived: “If y’all fuck with me, I’m gonna fuck y’all right back, and I can fuck y’all better’n y’all cin fuck me!” were his first words to us after we had loped unenthusiastically behind him up a hill on our first day of basic training. Average height, skinny as a rail with a long Roman nose and deep Mississippi accent, he won our respect quickly because he meant what he said and he could do everything he demanded of us better than we could. And he was fair. And he had a monumental job to do.
The army was so depleted by the rotation system in Korea that we had few real cadre – only Sgt F.C. Taylor, First Sgt. B. and a Company Commander, the latter an African-American lawyer who couldn’t figure out why he was the commander of an infantry basic training company. Aside from appearing every morning to take the reveille salute, he mostly stayed in the office signing the things prepared by the First Sgt. Now, an infantry company must have Platoon Leaders (lieutenants), Squad Leaders (sergeants) and assistant Squad Leaders (corporals). We had none of these, although there was a Mess Sergeant - luckily. So acting officers and noncoms were “appointed” by Sgt. Taylor. On the first day he asked if anyone had military experience. I thought of saying I’d been a Boy Scout, but imagined the howls of laughter which would have accompanied such an admission and remained silent – as did everyone else. Our Platoon Leader was a cop in civilian life, and the others were appointed according to age. Anyone 20 or over was destined for instant virtual promotion. In other words, Sgt. First Class Silas Taylor did it all by himself.
Then there was Pvt. John Fricero, fellow trainee and about as different from Sgt. Taylor as it’s possible to be – a graduate student in history at some East Coast university who was inattentive for a moment and let himself be drafted, somewhat pudgy (though he lost the excess fat during basic), with an sardonic sense of humor. While marching we sang silly army songs accompanied by our jazz drummer, such as, “Left my wife and 49 kids in a starving condition without any gingerbread, thought I did right…” John recognized the need for improvement, so he taught us to sing Avanti Populi, the Italian Communist anthem – in Italian. Actually he did most of the singing, and we joined in the chorus. sing along
We also sang the “Internationale” in broken Italian:
Arise, you prisoners of starvation!
Arise, you wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world's in birth!
No more tradition's chains shall bind us,
Arise you slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations:
We have been naught, we shall be all!
'Tis the final conflict,
Let each stand in his place.
The international soviet
Shall be the human race
'Tis the final conflict,
Let each stand in his place.
The international soviet
Shall be the human race.
No one, least of all Sgt. Silas Taylor, understood a word and John wasn’t telling. He told me later in Germany when he got his comeuppance that it was the greatest joke of his career and he only regretted that none of his academic colleagues believed him. We were members of a Military Intelligence unit in Frankfurt and one day John was purged and his security clearance lifted, he didn’t know why, they never told you why, but one could imagine. He got himself assigned to the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper, which was a hell of a lot better than M.I.
Then there was Pvt. Magarino: I come to this country for the American Dream and what happen? They put me in this fockin’ army, they make me save off my mustache, so my wife not know me anymore, then they call my name and I say “Here!”, and they say, “Sound off like you got a pair of balls.” I ask you if I got a pair of balls or no. (He pulls down his underpants and cradles his genitals lovingly before our eyes.) They should have such a pair of balls as me!
Then there was Agnello from Queens, a pop-eyed anarchist who swore he would go AWOL at the earliest opportunity, that he was only delaying his departure because of the rule that if any member of the company went AWOL none of us grunts would get the promised week-long leave halfway through training (sixteen weeks), but that he would never come back from that leave. About a week before the leave was to take place, the Chinese army invaded Korea from the north and pushed the Americans back. President Eisenhower cancelled all trainee leaves so we could be finished earlier and thrown into the gore. This was a blow to morale, but a positive signal for Agnello. The morning after the announcement as we stood shivering in the Kentucky chill, the Second Platoon leader shouted, almost proudly: “Second Platoon one man absent and unaccounted for, Sir.”
Agnello simply went home, where the MPs found him in no time, he was brought back, first to the stockade, then shipped to Korea in a disciplinary company which, we heard, got the worst shit of all. Now there was a guy with a pair of balls.
We were a conscript army and thus had an interesting mix of social elements – from near criminals to cops to professors. There was little or no consciousness of the futility of war or the need to oppose it. That came later during the Vietnam debacle. We didn’t want to go to Korea simply because it was dangerous. All except Pvt. Dumbo, that is. I forget his real name, and the Dumbo moniker was aptly applied not only because of the size of his ears, but because of the lack of gray matter between them. He volunteered for the newly formed Special Forces, and was accepted. Obviously IQs played no part in the selection process.
Apropos Vietnam: where are all the students who so vehemently protested against that war now, during the Iraq debacle? I suspect they're not thinking much about it because there's no draft and they're exempt from the boodshed. Senator Kerry was right when he said young people should get themselves educated in order to avoid going to war in places like Iraq. Politicians' words are often political blunders when they're true.
Actually, I intended to tell a different military story, which took place in Germany. You see, I was selected to go to the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif. after basic to study Russian for a year, so no Korea for me. Most of the rest of the guys from my company were shipped through the “pipeline” to Korea, a few died there, but most survived. (The First Sergeant, close to retirement, on giving us our orders during the last formation, had tears in his eyes. I swear it’s true.) Others were sent to Germany in the infantry, which meant nine months of the year in the field playing soldier. After a year at the language school I was based in Frankfurt sending German spies into East Germany, at least half of whom were probably really East German double agents. Did we care? Some of us did, at the beginning, but for others only the self-serving inflated progress reports were of importance. Who? The officers of course.
Anyway, I got carried away with basic training, so the German saga will have to wait for next time.
For more basic training lore, see: Medic
Frank Thomas Smith, Editor