The Vietnam war was still going strong in the winter of 1970. Training centers throughout the United States continued to process new, raw meat for the war. One such camp was Fort Polk located in southwest Louisiana near the bustling towns of DeRidder and Leesville.
It mattered not whether one was a gung ho warrior or weenie reservist, when appearing in public in uniform during Vietnam era one expected frequent and vigorous displays of contempt, particularly from the Woodstock types, usually female. During the course of my military career, I was spat upon in public on two separate occasions while in uniform, an injustice that rankles me to this day. The garrison cap, more commonly known as the unmentionable “C word” hat, worn during that era was a particular magnet for derision.
The basic deal for enlisted reserves (ERs) was six months active duty and six years of weekends including an annual two-week summer camp. Of all the people I encountered during active duty, few had less skin in the game than I. Months earlier I enlisted as a reservist in the dental detachment of the 325th general hospital brigade. Our unit motto was to later become “All we are saying is give teeth a chance,” with apologies to John Lennon. As a fighting dental assistant my potential exposure to real danger was significantly less than most everyone else in the Army, and I was not displeased. I presume military planners prefer their warriors to be alpha males. I was barely an omicron on my best days, but these were the days of the draft, and they weren't too picky.
I arrived at Ft. Polk in January 1970 to start basic training. I was 24 years old, married, and a recent graduate of an Ivy League school with an advanced degree. Each of these attributes set me apart from my fellow trainees. A wise man at the time told me, “If you have an Ivy League education and/or a second home, keep it to yourself.” I didn’t have a first home, but I took his advice to heart. My gangly stature provided an even more visible distinction. I was 6’2” and weighed 131 lbs. While assessing my options as a prospective draftee, I learned that had I weighed 123 lbs, I would have been ineligible for military service. This would, however, have required the amputation of a major limb.
As I contemplated my new circumstances, I figured, “Hey, basic training is only eight weeks, I’m in good shape, I’ll resist the urge to spew my normal flow of witless blather, do what they say, and this will work out.” I arrived by air, flying over the pine-covered forests of Louisiana in a WWII generation DC-3, along with a planeload of fellow citizen soldiers. We entered the reception center for two days of orientation. They shaved our hair to the scalp, ran us through a gauntlet of poorly trained medics armed with pneumatic powered vaccinators, made us wait in innumerable lines, handed us our gear, and administered various tests. I was feeling good after being congratulated by an officer for having scored well on a language aptitude test until he suggested, “The U.S. Army is willing to invest in sending you to language school in Monterey, CA to become a Vietnamese translator. Just forsake your enlisted reserve status and sign up for the regular army for three years.” I declined. Truly, this was Robert Frost’s notion of the road not taken. We were then assigned to basic training companies and platoons.
Basic training units are organized into brigades comprised of five companies, each with five 80-man platoons. Each platoon was housed in a wooden, two-story WWII era barracks crammed full of bunk beds and footlockers. We were loosely assembled in our first formation, and trainee platoon leaders were selected. The drill sergeant searched among those gathered, located the biggest, meanest looking black guy and commanded, “You’re the platoon leader until you f___ up.” Then our personal effects were confiscated, and the training began.
Like most recent college graduates, I was familiar with Abraham Maslow’s 1943 treatise Theory of Human Motivation categorizing the hierarchy of human needs ranging from physical, safety, social, to esteem. More simply stated, “breathing trumps self actualization.” Basic training brought this theory home with the subtlety of a two by four to the head. In the weeks to come, I thought of Abe often when tired, cold, and hungry. Youthful rebelliousness is readily tamed in this environment.
A typical basic training day consisted of arising at 4 am, taking care of personal needs, and assembling outdoors. Once in formation, we would freeze and wait. It was bone chillingly cold in Louisiana that January. Then we started physical training (PT) featuring pushups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, and a two-mile jog in formation. Around 6 am we ate our chow, then it was back for more PT. We were introduced to weapons, marching, the obstacle course, military organization, and the importance of obeying orders. We went to the rifle and grenade ranges for live fire exercises, to the swamps for orienteering, and the parade grounds where the dominant activity was standing and waiting.
For some mysterious reason the designers of basic training decided we should be exposed to tear gas. I don’t know if they thought we might develop a level of immunity by breathing the noxious fumes, or if they just wanted to see body fluids gushing out of our orifices. We were given gas masks, instructed how to put them on, and escorted into a small building the size of a garden shed. They tossed a tear gas grenade in, required us to remove our masks, sit a few minutes, and emerge suitably impressed with the unpleasantness of the experience. Up to this point, I could see a hint of logic in our training.
Sleep was limited and often interrupted with assignments for duty consisting of walking around some part of the fort until relieved, or staying awake in the barracks as a fireguard. Every other week I was assigned to kitchen patrol (KP) duty which required getting up even earlier to work as a dining room orderly (DRO) or cleaning pots and pans.
The threat of being recycled, restarting at day one of basic training, served as the primary sanction to insure compliance. Lesser penalties included extra duty and pushups. “Drop and give me 50 you puke!” All in all, these tools were highly effective. However, one black kid from Alabama had already been recycled once and had no intention of ever completing basic training. He put on a shuck and jive routine so extreme it would have made the 1930’s movie character Stepin Fetchit look like a Prussian grenadier. Whatever the order he’d do the opposite. He was mildly amusing because he infuriated the brass, but he disappeared after a few weeks.
The physical training was hard on overweight trainees, particularly the long distance runs and the overhead bars. My least favorite event was the low crawl requiring one to crawl under strands of barbed wire for 50 yards. Intermittent bursts of machine gun fire with tracers provided even further inducement to stay low. The physical part was tolerable, and I could feel myself getting stronger.
We were fortunate to have one of the least flagitious drill sergeants in the brigade. A smallish black man, probably in his mid 30s, he was all business and found no pleasure in making things harder than necessary. He was also a highly creative curser, even by military standards. He would insert the f_ bomb in any combination of words or syllables: out f’ing standing, un f’ing believable, in f’ing credible, fat f’ing puke, any f’ing time. I looked forward to hearing a new one each day.
Our platoon was made up primarily of young men from the mid south. Platoon placement was apparently made on geography. Since my home address at the time was Missouri, I was assigned to a platoon populated mostly by lads from Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. I was the oldest trainee in the unit, as most were 18 or 19. We were further segmented by our military status: Regular Army (RA) who were mostly draftees, Enlisted Reserves (ER) of which I was one, and National Guard (NG). ER’s and NG’s were universally despised by the lifers, as we were correctly perceived as poltroons seeking to avoid combat. Five or six of the 80 were college graduates. My social network was limited to two fellows, one from Chicago and another from Boston. How they became part of our “Sons of the Confederacy” platoon, I’ll never know.
Noah* was our platoon leader, and in real life he was a running back for the Miami Dolphins undertaking his active duty in the NFL’s offseason. He was a bespectacled African American, a graduate of Boston College, and a good guy. We developed a kinship with our Boston roots. At 6’ 3” and 215 lbs, Noah had a body like an anatomical chart. After 3-4 weeks of training we were out in the Louisiana pine forests setting up tents. One of the junior drill sergeants, a chubby white guy, wasn’t happy with our progress and yelled at Noah, “Boy! What the f___ do you think you’re doing?” Noah charged and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, slammed him up against a tree, and held him dangling with his feet kicking in the air. Two drill sergeants intervened, both black. Noah dropped the guy to the ground and was steaming. On that afternoon he lost his platoon leader stripes but made one thing clear, “Don’t f___ with Noah.”
One day we piled into cattle trucks to drive to the firing range. We carried full field packs and rifles and wore helmets like ones seen in a WWII movie. They rest on fiberglass liners with webbing designed to fit one’s head. Unfortunately, they are heavy, about 5 lbs. No doubt someone got the idea for the bobble head doll by observing a steel pot on my spindly neck. In any event, it was my misfortune to be seated next to a big, redheaded kid from the hills of east Tennessee.
“Red” was one of about ten young men in our platoon who hailed from the hollows of eastern Tennessee. It occurred to me that I had more in common with the average Viet Cong sapper than with these guys. The movie Deliverance was still two years in the future, but when I later saw the country folks portrayed therein I thought to myself, “Jesus H. Christ! I served in the army with those people!” I developed a strong distaste for the recently written Tennessee state anthem “Rocky Top,” as the hill boys were wont to break into that chant with little provocation. The redheaded kid was the leader of their hillbilly tribe, and, in that truck, I was as close to him as is possible without engaging in intercourse.
Ordinarily a truck ride was a luxury. It meant we weren’t running, hiking, or standing. You could set your steel pot in your lap and rest. Sadly, this temporarily, luxuriant state was interrupted as I observed the big redhead spitting chewing tobacco into the steel pot on his lap. I thought, “What the heck is he going to do with this gross reservoir of spittle?” Soon my question was answered. When disembarking from the truck, he placed the half full steel pot back on his helmet liner unleashing a curtain of spit on his shoulders. It was week five of basic training, and thus far I had kept to my vow to basically, “Shut the f___ up.” But this scene overwhelmed me, and I was emboldened to say, “That is possibly the most disgusting thing I have ever seen in my entire life.”
Whereupon he attacked me! And we started to wrestle. This presented three distinct problems. Red was 6’3” and 250 lbs and could have easily disemboweled me with his bare hands, he was covered with a repulsive mixture of spit and tobacco, and we were armed with M-16 semi-automatic assault rifles and bayonets. Miraculously, other soldiers pulled us apart before harm could be done to me. He glared at me, and I scowled back as best as I could, given my timid persona.
A week later I was assigned to the 3 am shift to guard the Ft. Polk airport. This unwanted duty consisted of walking the perimeter, carrying a baseball bat and an M-16 rifle without bullets, and searching for any Viet Cong miscreants trying to infiltrate this strategically located hub of military activity. Unfortunately, Red was assigned to the same shift and duty. He walked the perimeter clockwise, and I walked counter clockwise. We passed each other twice during our shift, glowered at one another, and I survived. From that point forward I stayed as far away from the Tennessee clique as possible.
Towards the end of basic training, the powers that be allowed a traveling carnival to set up shop on the base the weekend after payday. It was a pretty cheesy troupe that consisted primarily of games of chance and un-amusing rides. I avoided it but was saddened to hear the tale of woe from one of the Tennessee boys who slept in the bunk above mine. He lost his entire monthly paycheck of $124 in an attempt to win a prize worth $1. He was a total naïf and was perfect bait for the carnival’s grifters. I could never understand, nor forgive, the Army leaders who allowed this travesty to occur. It was one thing to be transformed from a civilian into something remotely resembling a warrior, but quite another to be robbed blind whilst in the process.
I had mixed feelings about character guidance sessions. On one hand, this part of basic training involved sitting in a warm auditorium with no hard physical labor. On the other hand, it involved listening to an officer, usually a chaplain, explain the Godliness of obeying orders. One freezing, drizzling day the company was sitting in an auditorium for another round of these lectures. This session was devoted once again to the standard topic. For some reason this particular version set my hair on fire. I raised my hand, amazingly was called on to speak to the assembled trainees and trainers, and said something to the effect, “In light of the recent My Lai incident it greatly offends my sense of order for you to suggest that there are no circumstances under which a reasonable person might not question orders.”
Instead of politely noting that the U.S. Army field manual cares naught for the sensibilities of a lowly trainee, a large drill sergeant grabbed me by the collar, dragged me to the front of the auditorium, read my name tag, and declared, “Because of trainee Wells here, I want you to know that we are going to leave this warm auditorium, put on our field gear, go out into the sleet, and double time to the rifle range and back.”
This is where Noah comes in. Amazingly, I wasn’t harmed, though I probably deserved a major ass kicking for disturbing my comrades’ serenity. I was later told Noah put out the word, “Anyone who harms him, deals with me.” I haven’t seen Noah since basic training, but I will be forever indebted to him for this kind act.
I was able to make a minor down payment on this debt to Noah. The last week of basic involved a final PT test. The events included the overhead bars, low crawl, one-mile run, and 150-yard man carry. The last was a timed event where one man carries another over his shoulder in a fireman like fashion. The reward for doing well on the PT test was a weekend pass. Thus my spare frame made me an attractive partner for Noah, although he could just as easily have carried a dump truck. The bad part was I had to stumble through the course with a rock of a man on my back, a small price to pay for my life.
Other than sitting next to spit boy, the events that left the deepest impression on me during basic were sessions with soldiers recently returned from combat in Vietnam. These occurred in Tiger-Land, a portion of Ft. Polk designed to replicate Vietnamese villages. The combat veterans addressed the assembled trainees with barely concealed contempt and said, “Listen up, you festering pieces of shit, I’m going to tell you the shit you need to know to keep your sorry asses from coming home in a body bag.” This compelling salutation caught my attention. Even though my probability of seeing combat was slight, I did in fact listen up and took to heart the valuable information being conveyed. I was amazed to observe how many of those heading to Nam didn’t.
The highlight of every day was mail call. The platoon would be assembled and then a shit knuckle of a junior drill sergeant distributed the mail, usually accompanied by witless commentary such as, “Must be another Dear John letter.” Despite this annoyance, nothing lifted my spirits like a letter. I was fortunate to have many correspondents, in part because I wrote letters feverishly in the hope of receiving same. The most memorable were from Rex, a fraternity brother, who was an active grunt in Vietnam at the time. His letters described being in firefights in the pitch dark firing weapons blindly, contracting malaria, experiencing the abject terror of being on point while on patrol, seeing comrades get wasted, and developing an abiding hatred for his LT who kept assigning him the most dangerous duties. His letters reminded me that my discomforts were rather insignificant.
In week seven the platoon was assembled and the head drill sergeant announced the military occupation specialty (MOS) assigned to each trainee. Since I was an ER, I had little suspense as a 68 E (spoken 68 Echo). By now we knew that the MOS’s to fear were the combat specialties: 11B and 11C (11 Bravo and Charlie), infantryman and indirect fire infantry (mortars and radio). Hearts sank when a trainee’s name was matched to 11B or 11C, a front row seat in Nam.
I was assigned to KP for Easter Sunday, awakened at 3 am, trundled into the kitchen, and awaited my assignment. The company’s baker had already arrived and had assembled what I believe were intended to be Hot Cross Buns. Interestingly, the guy was on an LSD trip, and his buns were an indication of his impairment. The mess sergeant arrived, surveyed the situation, called the MP’s, and they hauled the offender off.
At graduation, we pooled a few meager dollars from members of the platoon and bought a small radio for our drill sergeant. A man of few words, he said, “Thank you very God damn much.” And that was that.