Dated November 16, 2017
I was looking at Vietnam in my rear-view mirror. I had done my duty as painful as it was at the time. I had served my country. My bride and I had served at Fort McClellan Alabama from 1971 to 1973. In military speak, it was 1 year, 8 months and 24 days (which included basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri). I must recount one short story from that experience.
I had enjoyed camping, on occasion, as a young man. When the order of the day was called it was time to embark on bivouac. I was not unduly stressed. I had matured in the last few weeks and at 21 years old, I was mature. I was not an eighteen or nineteen year- old like most of the other guys. Hmmm
We loaded everything onto our backs except the food that we would need for who knows how long. We were never told anything in boot camp. I imagine it was so that these green behind the ears inductees would not dream up some preconceived incorrect expectations. Of course, my thought was that the Army just thought we were too dumb.
The march began out to the bivouac area somewhere on the enormous Fort Leonard Wood MS base. It was the home of the Combat Engineers (the guys with the big trucks and things that went KABOOM!). It was hot! It was muggy! This was Missouri. Not the Minnesota I had left such a short time ago. In March or April, whatever month it was, Northern Minnesota had a history of being still blanketed with snow. If it was April there wouldn’t be too much left from the blizzards that paid a regular visit in March. Of course, there would still be snowbanks left by the snowplows and they would still be too high to step over.
The significant part of this little tale is not that we sweated all day, ate Army rations (K rations, not the fancy MRE’s of today. Those cookies and tiny sausage weiners stuck to the ribs pretty well.)
The misery began as we put up the tent for the night. The Army in its wisdom gave every man one-half of a tent. They were called shelter halves. A pretty good name for a really heavy cotton tarp. I don’t think any camping gear is made that heavy anymore. But this was forty some years ago! Well, it got dark (not completely dark) but not too much good light was left as we started to pitch our tents. I was teamed up (we didn’t call it ‘teams’ back then) with another young man from the same town. I didn’t know him before getting on the plane to my new future. It as an adventurous trip to basic (another tale for another day). He was shorter than I, wore glasses and he got one heck of a urinary tract infection in basic! Understand that sidling up to the urinal trough (not private, white porcelain ones) and urinating red was not a badge of honor in basic!
We were getting our packs off (damn they were heavy but not as heavy as they were going to get). Just then began a Missouri deluge. In Northern Minnesota terms, we didn’t know about deluges but it rained buckets back there. We were miserable. Why? Because in the dark and in the wet and in a hurry we mixed up the front and back of the shelter halves. We had hooked my front end to his back end of the shelter halves. Start over, bozos. Well into one of the buckets that had come down we managed to toss our sleeping bags. US Army issue mummy bags (down, with an enclosure that would cover your head so that only your nose popped out. A soldier looked like a mummy.) We struggled to rearrange the pup tent and gushed water when we took our boots off. Wet boots, wet pants, wet field jackets and a down sleeping bag. (Did I mention that the sleeping bags were made of goose down?) When we pulled them out of that proverbial bucket that had come down, they weighed not 20 pounds, not 40 pounds but who knows? They were heavy. And wet down? Clammy, wet, cold sleeping bags. We didn’t even try to get into them. Somehow, we just quit wrestling and swearing and fell asleep. All I remember was MISERY!
The morning came. We had hot meals – delivered. The mess hall cooked up something and shipped it out to us. (I’m glad they knew where we were!) That meal felt so good! We dunked our trays into each of the three barrels of hot water, soap then rinse, then fluff rinse. We grabbed our last slurp of coffee and had a smoke. In those days smoking was a necessity. It was a good thing. At least if you had one minute to call your own. After the Drill Instructor called ‘Light ’em up if you got ’em and then hollered ‘put ’em out’, was about a minute. ( I know they loved doing that!) The worst part came next. ‘Police your butts.’ That was not an anatomical connection. No, a company of stupid inductees had not yet learned the value of non-filtered smokes. We had to strip the tobacco from the butts and put them in our pants pocket until we remembered them while the pants were spinning in the washing machine. (If we had watched the DI’s we would have seen that Palls Malls were a very smart idea. Rip the paper open and let the unburned tobacco and the paper just float away in the breeze.)
Washing machine? Oh yeah, I was enjoying that smoke so much I.forgot were I had left off. Yes indeed. This was the modern Army. Half of the building was showers, the other half latrines. The middle half was washers and dryers. Only a few though, can’t spoil the troops you know. (Another point in passing. Do you see that neat picture above with the scrubbed troops all lined up on the stands? Not in my day! Photo day was wearing your muddy boots and fatigue pants, putting on your Class A uniform jacket and cap and procedure into the latrine to get your mug shot.) Classy!? I’ll say.
The fun begins!
Now the fun begins. The formation was called. Everybody groaned under the weight of the now soaking wet packs and shuffled into line. Hmm. The ground was different this morning. Not firm but squishy. We proceeded forth. MUD! Not MUD! But WORSE! Every step was excruciating! The mud stuck to my boots until it was 6″ thick. I then became intimately acquainted with something I seldom ran into. Not MUD! CLAY! The clay I was familiar with lined the banks of the Mississippi River that ran thru town. We only went near the stuff when we had the green mud boots on. RED MISSOURI CLAY! (Are you getting the flavor of why we called it ‘Little Misery?’)
The clay weighed the each boot down by ten pounds. The march, or slog it was rightly called, all the way back to the barracks. Our company was most fortunate, we lived in Quonset huts. The rest of the battalion had the fancy brick buildings. (That too is another tale.) After hours and hours of slogging under the hot Missouri sun, in the horrible Missouri humidity, we finally arrived. Now nap time.
Nap time? Are you nuts? Clean up time! The DI’s (Drill Instructors, this wasn’t the Marines! Not all were sergeants. Some, by force of their nature got busted down a rank a time or two or more) made sure no one got to eat or sleep until our boots were scrapped off, the mud hosed off the rest and then crawl into the bunk. I was so exhausted I don’t remember that night. Was that the night I fell asleep on fire watch? Don’t ever, I mean EVER do that.
I remember waking to the thought of spending the day getting those boots ready for inspection.
Sitting in a field on the few hours we got off a week, scrapping and digging, and wiping and digging. Then came the polish. Hours of rubbing and rubbing and rubbing to get at least a semblance of shine back on them.
Well, I am out of time. I will have to get to the most important part of the tale, The Tribute, next post.
Thanks for stopping by.