“Home for Christmas?, I doubt it!”
A Basic Training Memory
By Peter Werner
Those who completed basic training in winter may enjoy this story.
I entered basic in November 1972 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I don’t think they quite have winters as tough now as the one we endured that year.
Snow and ice storms commenced with the start of December and didn’t let up until February.
Soon after getting into the meat of basic we were told that Leonard Wood had a thing called “Christmas Exodus”. We all considered it a wild rumor or prank our cadre was pulling on us to test us and did not believe a word of it.
On December 23rd, after the usual predawn-to-dark routine of outdoor training, we were told to change into our Class A’s and then at 2100 hours marched to the front of our Company headquarters and were placed in “at ease” yet still in formation by platoons.
Most of us were yet skeptical and still suspected a ruse in regard to this promise of home. It was a very cold day and a light snow was falling. I can still picture my platoon standing in the darkness and a cloud of vapor from our breath wafting over us.
What made this cold night especially difficult was that for all of us — who had been in the army scarcely a month — this was the first time we wore our Class A’s. On a normal day of training we were better dressed for the weather with our multiple layers to stay warm out in the elements: long underwear tops and bottoms, our fatigues, and then a special Army Winter pair of pants and of course field jacket and two pair of warm woolen socks. (sometimes even rubber galoshes).
And so with those thin nylon socks and Class A shiny shoes on our feet started to get cold and this happened quickly to a bunch of guys who had spent the entire day outside.
After a half hour of waiting with no bus in sight, quiet grumbling ensued. It had to be a cruel trick. But soon other platoons and other companies had their buses arrive and off they went. We began to believe. But at the same time guys were getting VERY cold and stamped up and down and pumped arms to stay warm, all while knowing we dare not complain to our Drill Sergeant, who happened to be waiting in the snug company headquarter building. I will recall not being able to feel my feet.
After an hour of waiting, it must have dawned on our Drill Sergeant that something was amiss so he finally came outside and told us the bus was on its way but it had suffered “mechanical difficulties.”
After he went back into his warm building there arose a chorus of belly-aching that would cause a lay person’s ears to fall off. Was this really going to happen? And if so, would we ever get home?
FINALLY, when a decades old Greyhound *came trundling around the corner a cheer went up. But the cheer was muffled due to our chilled condition and also short lived because we were perplexed upon seeing that the bus had no lights on. "Has the Post been placed in black out conditions?", a wise-guy cracked behind me.
Nevertheless we were allowed on and I will never forget the welcoming warmth of that bus! I think that was the coldest I ever got while on Leonard Wood that winter.
To close the story, our driver filled us in on how they had feverishly worked to restore the bus’s head lights so we could be transported to the St. Louis depot where we would all again transfer and go off in our respective directions home. But the lights never were made to work. Instead of leaving us out there suffering in the cold any longer, Greyhound concocted a plan that had a bus with working headlights take up our rear bumper and thus act as headlights for both buses. None of us cared, as we were so glad to be warm and going home. And besides, after some excited chatter, I think everyone was asleep no more than 5 minutes after that bus cleared the front gates!
*To this day I wonder how Greyhound assembled the dozens of buses required that night to get us home, this during a time of the season when I am sure all around the country every Greyhound bus was needed for the extra heavy crush of holiday traffic. Maybe the bus they assigned my platoon had taken out from deep in mothballs!