[Note: this is part 3 of 8 of the complete text for John Sheppard’s book Tales of the Peacetime Army. To start reading at the beginning and for a full list of all parts, please go to the table of contents.
And if you like the story, please visit the book’s page and consider buying a copy!]
THREE MONTHS WITHOUT PAY
I called my mother up from a payphone in the barracks after I graduated from AIT. She wasn’t impressed. “Some genius you turned out to be,” she said. “A private in the Army.”
“I have orders to go to West Germany,” I said.
“Germany,” she said. The phone was silent. I thought for a moment that she’d hung up. “Don’t call collect again,” she finally said.
“Fine,” I said.
“Good luck,” she said. “If you run into your father over there, say ‘hi.'”
“Bye, mom,” I said. I hung up.
Dave had orders to something called SHAPE in Belgium. Murphy had orders to something called TRADOC in Fort Monroe, Virginia. Ron had orders to the fifth mechanized infantry division at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
“Fucking infantry,” Ron said.
I signed out of the five-sixtieth signal battalion, dressed in my class A uniform. Now that I’d passed AIT, I had my first bit of fruit salad for the ol’ uni, the rainbow ribbon. I also picked up a signal corps disc for my class A collar and a signal corps badge (PRO PATRIA VIGILANS, it said) for the front of my uniform. I looked like an actual soldier.
Drill Sergeant Dudeman called me a cab. We shook hands out front. “Good job,” he told me. “What’s the military word for that?”
We both thought for a moment. “Outstanding?” I went.
“That’s it. Outstanding,” he said, looking very pleased with me. “So Europe, huh?”
“Europe,” I said.
“Maybe you’ll get seventh Army headquarters in Heidelberg. That’s a rockin’ town.”
My orders had me going to the 21st Replacement Depot in Frankfurt. I had a stack of copies of my orders that was about a quarter-inch thick. The original orders looked like they’d come out of a teletype machine.
“Can’t believe I passed the PT test,” I said.
“I gave all you guys an extra five minutes on the run,” Drill Sergeant Dudeman said. “Better give up those smokes. Your next unit’s PT coordinator might not be so accommodating.”
“Sure thing,” I said.
I lugged my duffel bag to the curb, past the empty missile, and waited for my cab.
There weren’t too many G.I.’s on my flight from Denver to St. Louis. My flight from St. Louis to Frankfurt was lousy with G.I.’s.
On board the plane, which had all the first class seating ripped out so they could cram as many soldiers as they could in there, I sat on the aisle next to a private second class who was wearing a blue rope. “I’m infantry!” he said when I asked him about it. “Eleven bravo! What the fuck kind of soldier doesn’t know that a blue rope means infantry?”
I shrugged. “I dunno.”
“What kind of soldier says, ‘I dunno’?”
“I outrank you, mosquito wings,” I said. I thumped the rank on my sleeve, a stripe up and a rocker down.
“Fuck me in the heart,” the private second class said. He crossed his arms and closed his eyes.
The inflight movie was “Hot Dog: The Movie.” It was about a downhill skiing competition and girls’ tits. Mainly it was about the tits. It was a crowd pleaser. Soldiers cheered on the tits. “Take it off, bitch!”
The captain announced that we were over the Atlantic.
After the movie was over, the private second class, feeling more favorably disposed toward me now that he’d seen movie tits, asked me what my MOS was. “Eighty-one-echo,” I said.
“What the fuck is that?”
“Illustrator,” I said.
“What the fuck does an illustrator do?”
“Draw pictures,” I said.
“Fuck me in the heart,” the private second class said.
“Are there any medics onboard the plane?” the air hostess asked over the intercom.
Soldiers don’t volunteer, so she had to walk through the plane looking at uniforms. Eventually, she found a caduceus on the collar of the guy on the other side of the private second class from me. He’d crammed himself as close to the window as he could, so she had to lean over me and the private second class to take a look at him. She smelled like a flower that had died an unspeakable death.
“God damn it,” he said, when she pointed it out to him. “Okay, you got me. Fuckity fuck,” he said, taking off his seat belt and getting up and climbing over the infantryman and me. “Jesus fuck.”
Half-an-hour later the captain announced that we were landing in Scotland, but that we should stay in our seats.
The Scottish gendarmes came sauntering aboard the aircraft after it landed. Their hats were banded with checkerboards. “Looky there,” I said, poking the infantryman in the ribs. “Real live foreigners. Have at them.”
“I’ve seen foreigners before,” the private second class grumbled.
The medic returned, climbed over us and sat down. Before we could ask him, he said, “Some dickhead had a panic attack. Fuck him. He should die.”
One of the Scottish gendarmes was a stylish redhead. Nice calves. I have a weakness for redheads with translucent skin. “Maybe I should have a panic attack,” I said, rubbernecking like everyone else on the plane, save the medic.
“I’ll snap your fucking neck if you do,” the medic said. “Don’t think I don’t know how.”
We landed in Frankfurt at Rhein Mein Air Force Base. I peered past the infantryman and the medic through the tiny porthole at West Germany. It was hazy gray out there. I was excited. I thought of the happy aspects of Germany. Lederhosen. Girls trussed up in dirndls serving liters of beer.
I’d only managed to get up few times during the ten-hour flight, so I was sore. Everyone was sore, with travel stink and five o’clock shadows. We trudged slowly toward the exit. The captain said over the intercom that he’d enjoyed flying with us.
All the luggage on the carousel was exactly the same, save for the names stenciled on the sides. A sergeant pointed at the private second class and said, “You, and you,”and then he smiled, “and you. You’re on my detail. The rest of you get on the bus.” The three privates he picked out had to load everyone’s duffel bags on the back of the school bus, painted minty green, through the emergency exit. When they finished, they got on the bus with the rest of us. We rode across the street to the 21st Repo Depot. The same three privates were picked to unload everyone’s stuff. The rest of us went inside and sat in chairs, waiting for the next available clerk to tell us our final destination in Germany.
After half an hour, I found out that I was going to the 191st Ordnance Battalion in Mannheim, an hour’s drive south.
“I wonder how they rated an illustrator,” the clerk said. “I usually send you guys to seventh Army headquarters.”
“That’s the attitude,” the clerk said. She smiled at me like a mom would for a kid who’d done something clever for the first, and possibly last, time. She printed out ten copies of my orders and handed them to me. “Good luck, private first class.”
I boarded a Mercedes-Benz bus along with a couple dozen more privates. Through the haze, I could see the occasional castle and other large-scale German bric-a-brac. I was punchy enough to sing out, “Yodel-lady-hoo.” Which got a few laughs.
We made a few stops and dumped off a few soldiers before we got to my stop, Mannheim. The driver left me on the doorstep of the USO. I pulled my duffel out of the bottom of the bus and away went the bus. I’d had my fill of transportation for the day. I lit a cigarette standing there, travel stink wafting off me. A lieutenant walked past and I saluted him, cigarette in mouth. He performed an on-the-spot correction with me, having me place my cigarette in the ashtray and do a proper salute. He struck up a conversation with me.
“Where you coming from, soldier?”
“Just out of AIT?”
“What unit are you going to?”
I pulled out my orders. “One-nine-one ord bin, sir,” I said.
“Oh, hey,” he said. “Grab your bag and follow me.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I grabbed my bag and followed him. “Is it okay if I finish my smoke on the way, sir?”
“Why not?” he went. I noticed that he had hearing aids in as I walked beside him. I made a mental note to enunciate. “I’m the S-3 for the one-ninety-first.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, sir–?”
“The hearing aids? I was a cannon cocker when I was enlisted,” he said. “Didn’t wear my hearing protection. I was a tough guy. Stupid is more like it.”
“I was going to ask what an S-3 is, actually, sir,” I said. I flicked my smoke at the curb.
“Oh man. You are a newbie,” he said. “Throw your bag in the back, newbie.” He was driving an F-150 that had seen better days. I tossed my bag in the back. He unlocked the passenger side door for me. “The handle sticks.” He jiggled it and it popped open for him. “Can you believe that I had this piece-of-shit truck shipped over here? I had to go pick it up in Bremerhaven.”
I hopped in. I watched him walk around the truck. A light, almost imperceptible drizzle misted down. He got in the passenger side and it started right up. “That’s my girl,” he said, patting the dash. “What’s your MOS?”
“What the fuck is that?”
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
“That seems to be the general reaction, sir.”
“We’re a new unit,” he said. We drove past sad little brick buildings. Water beaded up on the windshield. “And our battalion commander wrote the MTOE. This is one of the few times in his career that he’s left the Pentagon. Anyway, we’re just now beginning to fill out the battalion headquarters. My guess is that you’re going to work for me.”
We drove across a bridge over an autobahn and up to a gate manned by a German pseudo-soldier wearing a fatigue uniform. The rank on his collar was red plastic. We had to show him our military ID’s. We entered Taylor Barracks, my home for the next two years.
We parked outside a battalion headquarters. A red guidon hung outside. The mist clung to my polyester uniform as I climbed the steps inside. We climbed up the stairs to the second floor to the CQ room. I signed into the unit. The PFC behind the desk said, “Welcome to the one-ninety-worst.”
No quarters were available for me, so I had to stay in the temporary quarters, which had a half dozen racks in it. There was one rack available. I took it, the bottom one. I could barely keep my eyes open.
The PFC turned out to be the supply clerk. He had me sign for two sheets, a pillow, a pillow case and a green Army blanket.
“What time is it?” I asked him.
“Zero-nine-hundred hours,” he said.
“I have to sleep now,” I said.
“Of course you do,” he said. He had me sign for my key to the room. I put it on the same chain with my ID tags, along with the key for the Master’s lock for my wall locker. “Don’t get too comfortable in here. This is temporary quarters.”
It would be my home for the next two years.
I awoke, disoriented. A group of soldiers in full battle rattle was banging around my quarters. One next to me shouted at the others, “I told you fucks to be fucking quiet! Now the fucking new guy’s awake.”
“Howdy,” I said, blinking the crust out of my eyes.
“He’s a fucking cowboy!” another soldier across the room shouted. “Giddy-up!”
“I’m the fucking cowboy!” another soldier across the room shouted. “Yippee-ky-yi-yay!”
“C’mon,” the soldier next to me shouted. “We gotta turn our fucking weapons in to the fucking weapons room.”
“What’s the matter?” the cowboy shouted. “Did we interrupt your fucking beauty sleep?”
“Must’ve,” the soldier next to me shouted. “He’s fucking ugly as sin.”
“Let’s turn our weapons in and get chow!” another soldier shouted.
And they were gone. I closed my eyes again.
I opened my eyes and it was dark. The rack above mine was creaking. Soft moans, then harder, ahhh, fuck me, fuck me, ahh, oh shit, shit, shit, gah.
“Oh, man,” the soldier who’d stood next to me whispered. “You got some nice tits.”
“Danke,” went a woman’s voice.
“A guy could fall for a woman like you,” the soldier said.
“Vielen Dank,” she said.
“Do you like me?” he said.
She cooed a bit.
“I like you,” he said. “A lot.”
“Shut the fuck up and pay her!” a soldier across the room shouted. “Cut that baby talk out.”
“Sorry,” the soldier above me said. “Is American money okay?”
“Alles ist gut,” said the woman.
I awoke in an empty room. Another gray day out the window. “What day is today?” I shouted down to a soldier.
“It’s Christmas day, governor!” the soldier shouted back to me in a very bad approximation of a cockney accent. “Would you like me to buy you a Christmas goose? Tiny Tim is ever so hungry!”
I walked down the hall to the latrine. HERREN on the door. I stood staring at the word, a little angry at it, my shaving kit in my hand, towel over my shoulder. A soldier pushed past me. “How’s it going, new guy?” he asked.
I could have given him a very long answer. Instead I grunted and followed him in.
Nickel sinks were lined up along the wall. I left the water running while I shaved. My eyes were bloodshot. I looked down. Silt was building up in the sink. The nickel made it look like I was panning for gold.
“Is there dirt in the water here?” I asked the soldier.
“Don’t drink the water,” the soldier said.
“What is today anyway?”
“It’s Wednesday,” he said.
“What the hell is a roving patrol?”
“They’re down here from the twenty-third ordnance company,” he said. “They drive around the ASP’s in jeeps with mounted fifty-cals keeping an eye peeled for the Bader-Meinhof gang. If they find one of them sniffing around, they get to shoot him.”
“What the fuck is this? Fucking twenty questions from an FNG?”
“You sure do put the new in newbie, new guy,” he said. He picked up his shaving kit and towel and pushed through a swinging door into the shower room.
I finished shaving and followed him. There was a bench and some hooks on one wall, and six shower heads sticking out of two perpendicular walls, three facing three. I chose one in the corner, away from the soldier. He finished before I did and left wordlessly. I stood under the shower head letting the water beat down on me. I remembered the silt in the sink and finished up.
I put on my uniform, gave each boot a couple of strokes with a brush and went downstairs with my stack of orders and my 201 file. I found a door marked S-1 ADMINISTRATION, knocked and strolled on in.
“Uh-uh, soldier,” a female sergeant said. “Halt. One step to the rear. Behind the red stripe.” I put my toes on the red line and stood at an approximation of parade rest. She smiled at me when I did so. “Look at this one, everyone. This white boy’s a baby. Look at this baby.”
All of the soldiers were female in there. And black.
“He’s cute,” a corporal said.
“Do an about-face,” a staff sergeant shouted over at me.
I snapped to attention and performed an about-face.
“You are so new, fucking new guy,” the original sergeant said. “Fall out. Come on over here and give me them orders and that 201 file. Let’s see what we got here.” I did so. The desks all looked like they’d been in place since the Eisenhower administration. Maybe they had. She flipped open my 201 file and proceeded to share the contents with everyone in the room. “You ready for this, corporal?”
“Share, sergeant, share!”
“This boy got a GT of 156,” she said.
“Bullshit! It don’t go that high!”
The whole office crowded around the sergeant’s desk, looking over her shoulder. They looked down at the file and then back up at me like I’d arrived from Mars.
“I cheated,” I said.
“Bullshit! How you cheated?” the corporal went.
“Ancient Chinese secret,” I said.
“You ain’t Chinese!”
“He got a college degree!” the sergeant said, flipping through my college transcripts.
“Nope,” I said. “I dropped out.”
“What you doing in my Army? Huh? Answer me that, PFC,” the sergeant asked me.
“I love the duds, sergeant,” I said. I ran my hands down my uniform.
“Here,” the sergeant said, waving a sign-in sheet at me. “Take this fucking thing and get the fuck out of my office.”
“Yes, sergeant,” I said. I took a step back, snapped to attention and performed an about-face and marched out of the office.
“Fucking smart-ass new guy,” I heard the sergeant say.
The first place on the check-off sheet was the battalion headquarters. I had to report to the command sergeant major, who was approximately five-feet-five and two-hundred pounds. He had a croak of a voice, like he’d swallowed many pull-tabs out of beer cans.
“How you doing, private first class?” he asked me.
“Outstanding, sergeant major,” I replied.
“I’d be outstanding, too, if I had a perfect fucking GT score,” the command sergeant major said. “You a god-damned book-learning motherfucker?”
“I’m a soldier, sergeant major,” I said.
“Ain’t no place in this Army for a god-damned book-learning motherfucker,” the command sergeant major said. “We’ll see about you, smart-ass.” Up to that moment, I’d never felt unwelcome in the Army. I had a bad feeling. I was an ocean away from home, and suddenly felt it. The command sergeant major initialed my check-in sheet and shoved it back at me. “Go on, GT,” he said. “Get on out of here.”
Our building had two headquarters in it. We were headquarters and headquarters company 191st ordnance battalion (ammo), HHC 191 Ord Bn for short. I went downstairs to the company headquarters for my second sign-in. I was met by the first sergeant, who insisted I call him by his first name: Gary.
“Call me ‘Gary,'” he said after I’d called him first sergeant several times.
“Hi, Gary,” I said.
“How’s it going, GT?”
“Love to hear that,” Gary said. He smiled. “Twenty-two years and I’m finally getting out of the Army in another two. I missed the whole hippie era! No free love for Gary! Gary was a baby killer. Nobody fucks the baby killer. Not unless you pay them. And that’s not free love, is it?”
“Did they really call you baby killer?” I asked. “I thought that was a myth.”
“When I came home from Vietnam, in a Pan Am jet, we landed in Oakland. I looked out the window and saw all these MPs wearing ponchos, but it wasn’t raining. Can you guess why they were wearing ponchos?”
“Spitting. Started the moment we got off the plane,” Gary said. “I did two tours over there as a door gunner in a Huey. It was no fun. Those Vietcong guys were serious. Who would have thought they’d be serious?”
“In hindsight,” I said. “I guess just about any reasonable person.”
“There you go, GT,” Gary said. “You nailed it. ‘Reasonable person.’ I don’t think anyone ever accused LBJ or Nixon of being reasonable.” Gary initialed my sign-in sheet. Then he filled in the rest of the boxes for me, scrawling in initials for personnel, medical clinic, etc. “All done,” he said. “Go hide in your quarters. Oh, wait…” He erased two, handed the sheet back to me. “You’ll want to go to this one. The ed center. Tell them you want a regents. They’ll know what you mean, GT. You’ll thank me for this one.” He walked me over to the window. I followed. We were looking out on a courtyard. In the middle was a flagpole with Old Glory flapping in the breeze. We were on one end of the horseshoe in our building. He pointed to the other end. “That’s where the ed center is. Go through those doors and climb up two flights. Ask for Charlene.” He smirked. “If I was twenty years younger…” He leaned against the window sill.
“You’d be getting spat upon, Gary,” I said.
He shrugged, sat down in his desk chair and crossed his feet upon his desk blotter, laced his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. “Venture forth into the world, young private.”
Charlene was a buxom little blonde with crooked teeth. In the world, she would have been considered somewhat pretty. By Army standards, she was a knockout. “Hi,” she said when I came wandering in. “What can I do for you today?” She had a cute little lisp, like Linus in the Peanuts cartoons.
“Gary sent me over,” I said.
“I love Gary,” she said. “He’s like so cute.”
“Gary reciprocates,” I said. “Gary told me that I was to ask you for a regent’s.”
“How many semester hours of college do you have?”
“One hundred ten,” I said.
“So you’re only ten shy? Is that counting basic training and your AIT?”
“No,” I said.
“Then you’re over,” she said. “But let’s make sure.” She pulled out a book and had me sit down across from her. “What’s your MOS?”
“Eighty-one-echo,” I said.
“What’s that?” She wriggled her nose.
“Illustrator,” I said.
She flipped through the book. “The AIT for 81E is worth 14 semester hours. You don’t even need the four hours from basic training to make it over the top.”
Regents College, as it turned out, was a way for soldiers who have semester hours from various institutions to scrape them all into a pile and shape a bachelor’s degree out of them. She had me fill out some forms, including letters to the Community College of the Air Force and my alma mater asking them to send my transcripts to Regents College of New York.
“Is that it?” I asked her.
“That’s it,” she said. “Congratulations. You’ll have a bachelor’s degree in six to eight weeks.”
So at least that was rectified.
The other block that Gary had left blank was supply. I was directed into the basement where I met the private who had given me my sheets and pillow and blanket. “Everything’s in a pile over there,” he said, pointing to a mound of TA-50. “When you’re done inspecting your equipment, sign here.” He shoved a form at me on a clipboard. I dug through it. It was the same pile of worn-out items I’d had in basic training, topped off with a sad steel pot.
He initialed my sign-in sheet. “Gary sign all these off for you, GT?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Word sure got around quick about that GT score.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the supply clerk said. “Everyone around here calls me ‘Socrates,’ because they think I think too much.”
We shook hands.
“Come down to the weapons room with me,” Socrates said. “Gary has a special surprise for you.”
We walked down the hallway to the weapons room, which was like a safe in a bank. He opened the huge door and stepped inside. He had me fill out a weapons card, and shoved a .45 caliber M1911 pistol at me, pistol-grip first. “There’s your weapon,” he said. “Sweet.”
I held it out in front of me laid across my two hands like it was a one-pound chocolate bar. We both admired it. “How’d I get this lucky?” I asked him.
“Oh, you’re not lucky. You’re the assistant M60 gunner. You get to carry the cans of ammo, extra barrel, all that shit. M60 gunners and their assistants get a sidearm just in case they have to defend themselves up close.”
“Crap,” I went.
“It’s only because you’re short. What are you? Five-seven?”
“Five-seven-and-a-half,” I said.
“The Army thinks it’s funny. Big weapon like an M60. Little man. Hilarious,” Socrates said without a smile or a wink or a chuckle. He was about as tall as I was. Turned out he was the M60 gunner.
Gary had another surprise for me, this one pleasant. I had to go take a German class. Everyone who entered Germany had to take a German class, unless they could prove they could speak German. “Sweet,” I said.
“You speak any other languages?” Gary asked.
I thought about lying and saying no, but the son-of-a-bitch had my goddamned college transcripts.
“Not well,” I lied.
For two weeks, my job was to learn German. So I learned German. My class was full of tankers from Sullivan Barracks. They amused themselves by punching each other as hard as they could on the arm and by imagining the German teacher naked and the different positions in which they would fuck her, given the chance. She was in her forties, but well-preserved.
By the end of the class, I could speak German reasonably well. The teacher took me aside and said, in German, “You are perhaps different from the rest?”
I said, in English, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Payday and we all stood in formation in our class A uniforms. We lined up for our checks. I opened my envelope and found that I had a check for 0.00. I looked at my paycheck stub. In “Amt. Carried Over” where the Army tossed the change from your check, because they liked to pay you in whole dollars, my entire paycheck had been stashed.
I went to Gary. I showed him the stub.
“Shit,” he lied. “I never saw that before. Well, if it’s in amount carried over, then it will probably show up in your next check. That’ll be a nice big check!”
The roving patrol had moved on, as did the Bader-Meinhof Gang, according to our S-2 (intelligence), who had gotten the word from the S-2 at sixtieth ordnance group, who had gotten the word from G-2 at the twenty-first support command, who had gotten the word from seventh Army headquarters. All this message traffic went on downstairs in the commo room, which was manned by Vince, an Aryan-looking soldier from Connecticut, who was in love with Rosita, a Mexican-American supply clerk who worked with Socrates. Rosita called Vince, Blondie. “She looks like Pat Benatar,” Vince had told me once. She didn’t.
The headquarters company was still fleshing itself out. I was the concierge for headquarters company, because it amused Gary to keep me in the temporary room and because no one could figure out what to do with an illustrator in an ordnance battalion, including my immediate boss, the lieutenant who’d given me the ride the first day.
After morning formation, after everyone went to their workspaces, I swept up. I emptied the firetruck-red butt-can out front. I answered the phone, one-ninety-first-ordnance-battalion-may-I-help-you-sir-or-ma’am, and took messages. I called attention when the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hake, came stumbling in.
He always tripped over the top step. “Good morning, sir!” I’d call out, saluting and opening the door.
He’d snap up a salute and trip, and then go stumbling inside.
I’d shout out: Attention.
He’d say: As you were.
When I ran out of things to do, or Gary ran out of things for me to do, I would sometimes be allowed to go to my desk, which was one floor directly below my quarters. My office had three other people in it, all German civilians who wore fatigue uniforms, called CSG’s. The one across from me was the battalion translator. The one to the right of me was the German illustrator. She made organization charts, mostly, all on large pads of butcher paper with magic markers. The one diagonal from me, I had no idea what he did.
Oh, and here’s a novel way to quit smoking: Try being so broke that you can only afford to eat at the mess hall. Try being so broke that you can’t buy a Mountain Dew out of the pop machine. After three or four weeks of that, you don’t mind that you don’t have a smoke.
The CSG’s pretended to ignore me while they talked smack about me. I pretended that I didn’t understand what they were saying.
Now that I could speak German, I was reading The Theory of Communicative Action in German with a German-English dictionary on the desk beside me.
Socrates had gone to downtown Mannheim with me, which looked a lot like Cleveland if Cleveland had been founded in the middle ages. We rode the strassenbahn, a streetcar. We stopped in a bookstore and I bought the book with Socrates’ money. We stopped at an art supply store. “You want to go in?” Socrates asked me.
“Why would I want to do that?” I asked him.
The book was helping to fill in the blank spots in my vocabulary. I had been writing my dissertation on it when I’d dropped out of college. I thought I’d have a better understanding in the original German, that’s what my professors had insisted, telling me that I needed to learn German, but I found that I preferred the translation to the original.
On the odd days when I was allowed to sit at my desk, I brought the book with me. It was meant to be a hint to the Germans talking smack about me that perhaps they shouldn’t while I was in the room.
Lt. Col. Hake strolled into my office one day. I snapped to attention. The Germans pretended he wasn’t there. “Are you the one they call GT?” he asked me.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“I understand you have a degree in philosophy,” he said.
“Not yet, sir,” I said.
“It’s supposed to be arriving in the mail in a few weeks, sir.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, noticing that I was still at attention. “As you were.”
I sat down. The colonel grabbed a chair and slid it up to my desk. “Busy?” he asked me, sitting down.
“Are you sure? I don’t want to take you away from anything important.”
“Recreational reading, sir,” I said.
He glanced over at the book, shrugged slightly. “Philosophy majors write a whole lot, don’t they?”
“Complicated stuff. Weird stuff,” he said.
He pulled a folded-up piece of paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and shoved it across my desk at me. “Think you could write something like this?”
I glanced it over. It was an officer evaluation report. “Yes, sir.”
“I’m going to need ten of them,” he said. “All slightly different. Write them out in long-hand and I’ll have my clerk type them up for my signature.”
“Das soll dich beschäftigt halten,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
The Germans continued speaking among themselves, oblivious.
Payday formation and we all stood in formation in our class A uniforms. We lined up for our checks. I opened my envelope and found that I had a check for 0.00, again. I looked at my paycheck stub. In “Amt. Carried Over” where the Army tossed the change from your check, because they liked to pay you in whole dollars, two entire paychecks had been stashed.
I went to Gary. I showed him the stub.
“Shit,” he said. “I never saw that before. Well, it will probably show up in your next check. That’ll be a huge-ass big check!”
Socrates came in while I was writing the OER’s and said, “What do they have you doing?”
“Writing OER’s,” I said.
He shrugged. “Typical,” he said.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said.
“Nobody does. Hey, take a look out the window,” Socrates said.
I walked over to the window, placed my hands on the sill and peered out through the filthy glass. I could see the building opposite ours. The flag flapping in the sickly breeze. We were downwind from the BASF plant in Ludwigshaven. It made my nose run. “What am I looking at?”
“Open the window, stick your head out, and look up,” he said.
I did so. I saw a pair of boot bottoms. “Who’s that up there?” I asked.
“Vince,” Vince said.
“How’s it going?”
“Terrific,” Vince said, swinging his feet.
“You’re not thinking of jumping, are you?”
“Not yet,” Vince said.
“Sure, I’m sure.”
“Because I’d get in a lot of trouble if you jumped from my quarters,” I said. “The Army’s funny like that.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Vince said.
“You want to go back inside?”
“Sure,” Vince said, and the feet slipped back indoors.
I shut the window and sat on the sill facing Socrates. “What was that all about?” I asked him.
“He thinks Rosita is fucking around on him,” Socrates said.
“Yes,” Socrates said.
“You want to go get lunch?”
“You know why everyone hates you?” Socrates asked me over lunch at the mess hall, which was the same as always: The leftover potatoes from breakfast, mashed; cube steaks, battered and deep-fried; and a hideously overcooked vegetable, green beans. I picked at a slice of white bread, drank my juice-like product, red.
I pushed the food around on my plate and gave up. “Everyone hates me?”
“You think you’re better than everyone else,” Socrates said. “That’s why.”
“Noooo,” I went with false modesty.
“We all know you’re smart, but that doesn’t make you better.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Damn it,” I said. “Is that why no one talks to me?”
“Pretty much,” Socrates said. “That and you never go clubbing with us.”
“I’m not getting paid,” I said.
“What’s that mean? Is that some sort of smart-guy code for we’re a bunch of stiffs?”
“It means that the Army literally isn’t paying me. They keep sticking my money in the amount carried over box and I get zero dollars paid out.”
Socrates whistled at the idea like you would driving past a particularly disturbing car wreck. “Does Gary know?”
“Fuck yeah,” I said.
“Well, I guess he’ll take care of it.”
“I don’t think he will. I think he thinks it’s funny that I’m not getting paid,” I said.
“He would, the cocksucker,” Socrates said.
The weather turned cold.
Reagan was reelected.
The command sergeant major came into my office. “Look what PFC GT is doing! Is that illustrator work? Is it?”
I stood up and snapped to parade rest. “No, sergeant major!”
“How would you like to do some illustration work, illustrator?”
“I’d like it, I’d love it, I’d want more of it,” I chanted. “Drive on, sergeant major, drive on.”
“I got something for your ass, PFC,” he said. “Follow me.”
“Hoo-rah,” I went. I followed him out the door and down the hall to the command suite.
We stood in his office. It was a damn sight better than mine. On his I-love-me wall, he had hung a Legion of Merit certificate in a cheap, plastic Army issue frame, one each. His furniture appeared to be made of wood, instead of sheet metal. On his desk, a pad of butcher paper with several sheets wadded up and tossed in the wastepaper basket next to it.
“I need you to make me a twenty-sheet briefing for the sixtieth ordnance group sergeant major,” the sergeant major croaked.
“Yes, sergeant major,” I said, snapping to parade rest again.
Outside, retreat came tootling out of loudspeakers. The command sergeant major ran to the window and shouted down at the two soldiers pulling down the flag, “Don’t let that motherfucker touch the ground!” He stood at the window until he was satisfied that they wouldn’t. “I got every slide written down here in my notebook,” he said. He handed me a green, hardcover notebook, one each.
“Yes, sergeant major,” I said.
“Grab your butcher paper and get the fuck out of here,” he said. “Briefing’s at zero-nine-hundred-hours.”
When I got the butcher paper back to the office, the Germans were gone for the day. Right off, I could see the command sergeant major’s first mistake. He didn’t tear off a sheet of paper and shove it under the sheet he was working on. Magic marker had bled all the way through.
I dug through the German illustrator’s desk and found a set of magic markers and a pencil and a t-square and did what I’d been trained to do. I saved the first page for last. It was a freehand drawing of the ordnance corps regimental crest, which consisted of a red belt, circular, inscribed with ORDNANCE CORPS U.S.A, a pair of crossed cannons and the flaming piss pot, a.k.a. the shell and flame.
I was done just in time for the command sergeant major to come walking in. “Didn’t see you at morning formation,” he said. “Devotion to duty.” He studied the front page. “Outstanding,” he decided. He flipped through the briefing. “Outstanding,” he decided. He took the butcher paper with him and left.
I learned much about our unit from creating the brief and flipping through the CSM’s notebook. We were in the rear, supporting V corps units. In wartime, we would supply combat units and then disappear into the woods around D-Day-plus two. After that, it would be our mission to harass incoming communist invaders.
Our units were:
HHC – Mannheim, Taylor Barracks. 40 soldiers.
23rd Ordnance Company – Northpoint (a secure remote site, guarded by MPs and not CSGs, where the soldiers received remote pay). This was our largest company, about 125 soldiers.
26th Ordnance Company – Mannheim, 25 to 30 soldiers.
44th Ordnance Company – Baumholder, 25 to 30 soldiers.
Plus German Civilian Support Group (CSG) units, which actually did the bulk of work for us. After some “liquid bread” for lunch, things could get interesting, noted the CSM in his notebook.
We had a dozen PSPs and ASPs, which dispensed ammunition. They were all close to where the companies were located.
The PSPs contained about 30 magazines (concrete bunkers covered over in grass) each with a King Tut block (a cube of concrete to block the door) in front. Also, a wire loop, like those used by the electric company on the electrical box, was secured by the lock.
On duty nights, soldiers were to drive out to one of the PSPs and flash a light on each magazine, making sure the wire loop was there, and then drive the fence line, making sure there was no fence cutting.
Apparently, we had the occasional fence cutting, ostensibly by the Bader-Meinhof Gang or Red Army Faction, who were always getting caught in nearby Mannheim, noted the CSM with several exclamation points. According to the sergeant major, we never found anyone inside the fence line after a fence cutting. Reading this, I theorized that it was German or even American teenagers who thought it would be great fun to watch the Americans go nuts searching for communist intruders.
My boss, the LT, came in. “I didn’t see you at morning PT formation,” he said. “Were you at sick call?”
“No, sir,” I said. “I actually had work to do.”
“You look pleased with yourself,” the LT said.
“I guess I am, sir,” I said.
[Note: this is part 3 of 8 of the complete text for John Sheppard’s book Tales of the Peacetime Army. To start reading at the beginning and for a full list of all parts, please go to the table of contents.
And if you like the story, please visit the book’s page and consider buying a copy!]
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