You’re in the Army Now
By Patrick F. Cannon
I can’t recall his name now. After all, it’s been 56 years since my country called me to the colors under the auspices of the Selective Service Act of 1940. I’ll call him Joe Schmoe, which kind of fits. Anyway, Joe was my bunk mate during Army basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia.
Nowadays, with the all-volunteer Army, I suspect the living conditions for soldiers, even during basic training, are much better. In 1961, we were housed in World War II vintage barracks, which were never meant to be permanent. Simple, two-story frame structures with no insulation, they were heated by coal furnaces, which were tended, on a rotating basis, by the occupants. Since few of these fine young men had any relevant experience, the heating was unreliable at best. While March in Georgia (when I arrived) wasn’t quite as cold as Chicago, it was damn cold enough when revile sounded at 6:00 am the morning, particularly if the furnace had gone out overnight, which was most of the time.
These particular barracks had been unoccupied since the Korean War, and we spent many of our off hours trying to scrub them clean. We never quite succeeded, to the horror of our platoon sergeant. Back to Joe. When some of us arrived at Ft. Benning by bus from Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri, where we had spent two weeks of misery before the Army decided to send us south, we were directed to the barracks and told to throw our duffle bags on any available bunk. All of the first floor bunks had already been taken by earlier arrivals, so I trudged up stairs and threw my bag on the first available lower bunk. By the time Joe arrived, all the lower bunks had been taken, so he favored me by choosing my upper. Now, if you equate “bunk beds” with the kind that families use to furnish kid’s rooms, you would be mistaken. These were in a more minimalist tradition, consisting of a three-inch thick mattress atop a single layer of saggy springs. Nor was there a charming little ladder to provide access to the upper. Since the mattress itself was only about three-feet wide, many a young soldier, accustomed to more generous accommodations at home, found himself tumbling to the floor during a fitful sleep. One got used to these thumps in night. I can’t recall that anyone got seriously injured as a result of these unexpected nocturnal flights.
Trying to be a good neighbor, I welcomed Joe. “My names Pat Cannon,” I said, and put out my hand. Joe was a frail thing, maybe 5-8 and 140 pounds, with what looked like blonde hair (it was, like my own, mostly fuzz). He held out his limp hand. “I’m Joe. Where are you from?”
“I’m from Chicago,” I said. “How about you?”
“I’m from Chicago too…well Maywood.”
“Maywood? I went to Maywood Park once…to the race track.”
“Oh, yeah…I’ve never been there. Have you been to Skip’s Drive-in?”
“No. I’ve just been to the track. Where’s Skips?”
“It’s not too far from the track. You should go. On Fridays, guys bring their rods
and customs and park in the lot. You can see a lot of cool cars.”
“Well, maybe I’ll go there sometime, but I live kind of far away.”
That was it, except that a couple of weeks later, we had an almost identical conversation, since poor Joe could summon up very little in the way of repartee. He wasn’t much of a soldier either. I certainly wasn’t a budding George Patton myself, but poor Joe was a ringer for Beetle Bailey. He just managed to scrape by, sort of like a D student. Nevertheless, I think he might have graduated, but fate intervened.
We were probably about two thirds of the way through the eight-week ordeal when we finally got paid. As I recall, recruits earned about 70 bucks a month, enough to perk up morale. There was an immediate exodus to the enlisted men’s club down the hill, where a beer could be had for 25 cents. We even got a chance to visit the nearby metropolis of Columbus, Georgia, where beer was a bit more expensive and rumor had it there were loose women to be found.
In addition to cheap beer, available cash always meant gambling in the army. Let me pause here for some demographics. In 1961, our world was at peace, but the draft was still in effect. Of the 200 or so recruits in Company B, 2nd Engineer Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division (charged with training us), about half were draftees and half enlistees. Draftees would serve two years; for enlistees, the term was three. Draftees tended to be older and better educated; I had finished two years of college and we actually had several college graduates. Enlistees, who we fondly called “lifers”, were as young as 18. Many were from the South, and some were barely literate. While Joe was from the North, he more or less fit that profile.
When some of us went into Columbus, Joe got lured into a poker game. The big winner was a draftee from Brooklyn. I can’t remember the exact amount, but let’s say poor Joe lost 50 bucks, or most of his pay. Brooklyn lived at the last bunks in our row. His winnings were in his wallet, locked for the night in his wall locker. The next morning, he discovered that someone had gotten into his locker and removed exactly $50 from his wallet, which contained a good deal more. Apparently, someone had pushed up the bottom of the locker far enough to reach the wallet, remove the money, and then replace the wallet. How this was managed with bunks full of sleeping warriors was a matter of wonder.
Brooklyn recalled that Joe had seemed stunned at losing the exact amount missing, and went in search of our platoon sergeant, who was a decent guy and decorated veteran of the Korean War. He confronted Joe, who readily admitted taking the money, which, he said “was mine…I was just taking my own money back.”
This explanation didn’t square with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so Joe was ordered to pack his belongings. The Military Police (MPs) duly arrived and Joe was driven away, never to be seen again. Perhaps some day he made it back to Skip’s which, alas, is long gone.
Shortly after, it was discovered that two of the recruits who had gone into town had not returned. The same platoon sergeant commented that they would probably end up going home, where the MPs would be waiting for them. We found out later he was right.
In the event you think only lowly recruits run afoul of the Army, before basic training was over one of the mess sergeants was arrested for stealing meat, and the assistant platoon sergeant of Company C was busted for showing porn movies at a buck a head. I didn’t see the movies myself, but several reports deemed them barely worth the price of admission.
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon