Mistaken Identity

It was late 1964, I was in the middle of my basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. and was looking forward to my parents’ visit, which they had previously arranged with my training company.

It was after the initiation period when we were not allowed visitors and were restricted to the training area, but before we would graduate and move on to Advanced Individual Training (AIT).

Our barracks were at the very bottom of what was called “tank hill,” not because there was an armored vehicle nearby, but because there was a water tank at the top of the hill, one we always ran toward at the beginning of our morning runs.

Across the street from our barracks was what we called the snake pit, a football size area that had been dug out to a depth of 5-10 feet, and where we performed various exercises and drills. It was supposed to be a repository for snakes, but I can’t remember ever seeing one.

Nevertheless, my parents arrived at the company orderly room on a day when we were training at the far end of the snake pit.

Our first sergeant, surname Odom, greeted my parents and asked them to stay with him while he summoned me. Having a voice that needed no boosting, he walked out the orderly room door, turned to where we were training, and simply yelled: “Harris, get over here!”

By this time my parents, who followed Odom out the door, had their eyes anxiously glued to the far end of the pit, looking for their first glimpse of their only son.

Soon, a trainee came running, but after a few seconds something didn’t look right. What was approaching them was a tall skinny African American soldier, maybe 3 inches taller than me, 20 pounds lighter, and certainly not the same race, me being a poster boy for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

As soon as Odom saw this mistaken substitution, my parents heard him say: “Not you Harrison … I want Harris.” The soldier stopped dead in his tracks and returned, with a gaggle of soldiers watching this exchange.

I apparently was involved in some activity and did not hear the first sergeant’s call, but that was quickly resolved when I heard my name loud and clear: “Harris – get over to the orderly room … now!”

Off I ran (that’s all you did in basic training, no walking allowed outside your barracks) and in a few short minutes I met up with my parents at the orderly room. They looked uneasy and the first sergeant looked perturbed.

I wasn’t sure what I did to cause this and once we were alone my parents filled me in. My parents knew that the Army transformed boys into men, but they never knew how complete this process could be! It was an experience they relived with their friends for years, to my expense, of course, despite my complete innocence.

But it’s still a good story, even when I tell it!

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