Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Few Basic Training Stories

Some people know that I was a draftee during the Vietnam War. I was inducted into the Army in August 1967 -- three months after I graduated from Rutgers with a degree in physics. I was very unhappy at this turn of events.

I had grown up in an Eisenhower Republican family. I considered myself in my high school years a similar kind of Republican. I will admit, though, that my curiosity was stimulated by Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative."

By October 1962 I had an idea of what I wanted to do with my life -- pursue a career in physics. That, by the way, was early in my senior year at Steinert High School in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. A frightening event happened that month. We came too close to nuclear war because of the Cuban missile crisis. I went from being a standard issue Republican to a Republican pacifist. An immature decision? Sure -- I was less than month from my 17th birthday. I could think like an adult -- but I was not nearly as mature as I became in succeeding decades.

After that, though, I did not think much about politics. I was majoring in physics at Rutgers. I paid more attention to science than politics -- by a long shot. I had no contact with the opponents of the Vietnam war. While I opposed the war, I considered it of no importance to my life. Physicists were essentially exempt from the draft -- or so I thought.

My first draft notice surprised me. It came the summer after I graduated from Rutgers. I was already working for IBM. They put in a request for an exemption. That failed. I was faced with the choice of fleeing to Canada or accepting induction. Upon everyone's advice, I chose to enter the Army. My backup plan was to apply for a conscientious objector discharge when I was in the Army. I thought the situation would be cleared up quickly. Who on Earth would want a pacifist physicist in the Army? That effort failed. Friends predictions that I would be put into some kind of research outfit eventually proved to be true.

But basic training turned into a kind of hell on Earth for me -- and for my antagonists as well.

This is what they found out about me in my first week.

They discovered I had a degree in physics -- and the highest IQ of anybody at Fort Dix. That latter fact did not surprise me. I knew how well I had done in the GRE exam my senior year at Rutgers. That IQ was sufficient for me to get into both Mensa and the Triple Nine Society.

The physical fitness tests had one major surprise. I had not been at all athletic in high school or college. I thought I was terrible at every sport. The first four tests involved some sort of reasonably coordinated movements. My performance was what I expected. It was possible to get 100 points on each test. In the first four tests I got two 0s, one 17 and one 18. Then came the mile run. I had never run a mile in my life. A little over 6 minutes got me 95 points. I could not figure that out. Neither could the sergeant who became my first victim.

Victim? How could a draftee make a sergeant into a victim?

This story begins with a private who was waiting transfer to his educational group. The powers that be made him an assistant to the sergeant in charge of my basic training platoon. One evening said private gave me an order that I considered ridiculous. I simply told him "Go fuck yourself." He stomped away somewhat angry. A few minutes later he came back and simply said "Come with me." Since that was reasonable, I did as he asked. He led me into a room where the sergeant was sitting with a critical expression on his face. A corporal was standing next to him with a silly smirk. The private looked mildly hostile.

The sergeant began the conversation by asking me "Did you tell Private (name forgotten) to go fuck himself?" I simply replied "Yes." The sergeant then turned to the corporal and said, somewhat relaxedly, "Well, at least he admits it." The sergeant then turned back to me and asked "Why did you tell Private ? to go fuck himself?" I answered quite simply "Because he told me to do something stupid." The sergeant then said "When Private ? is speaking, he is speaking for me!" The sergeant had raised his voice when saying this. I had been on the debate team in high school and college. In responding, I lowered my voice and spoke quite earnestly. I have since learned that is what is called the command voice. I simply said "Then you make sure your stupid pet soldier doesn't tell people to do stupid things." Everybody's mouth dropped open. I was allowed to return to my bed. The private was the only one of the three who ever spoke to me again -- and then it was with real respect.

Remember my comment about being a physicist with the highest IQ at Fort Dix? That played an important factor in my next story.

We were on the rifle range. I had never held a real gun in my life before the Army. I haven't held one since. I had apparently made some sort of mistake on the range. A second lieutenant whom I did not know walked up to me and began, I gather, severely criticizing me. Since I had in ear plugs, I could not hear what he was saying. I finally got one of the ear plugs out. The lieutenant said "By any chance you would not be on the college op plan, would you?" His tone of voice was not respectful. Since I did not know what he was talking about, I simply asked "What's that?" The lieutenant raised his voice and replied with a clear lack of respect "That's a plan where the Army sends deserving, capable soldiers off to college for four years!" I immediately thought "My God, what a straight line!" and "He doesn't know who I am!" I simply replied, projecting my voice as I had learned as both a lay reader in church and in debate, "Oh. I doubt that I would be eligible. You see, I received a degree in physics from Rutgers last May." Everybody within ear shot broke out laughing. OK, not the lieutenant. An angry expression came over his face. He turned very red. He turned around and stalked off.

My eventual duty assignment was what my friends predicted -- with a twist that no one could have predicted. I was assigned to a research group -- at Lawrence Livermore. I was required to wear civilian clothes and live in an apartment. That assignment, though did affect my basic training. I had not learned how to throw a hand grenade. People at Fort Dix delayed my transfer for two months, blaming my lack of ability to throw a hand grenade for the extension of time in basic training. I think the real reason was that the Army had actually lost ground in my case. When I began my stay in the Army, I was a somewhat angry, rebellious physicist. By the end of basic training, I had added being funny and even more independent in my thinking than when I started. That change could have influenced my life in some interesting ways. Since then I have stood up to authority much more than I suspect I would have. I can accept authority -- provided that it is kept within the limits of a free, democratic societies. Too often these days it is not.

1 comment:

greenbriar said...

Interesting post!

Things like this could be why we have a volunteer, although paid, military, now.

Pat