After a couple of months they took me off climbing poles and put me on switchboard duty. Great. Sit on my ass and plug in holes. The only trouble with switchboard duty was that it’s a pivotal function in an artillery battery. I didn’t take any of that stuff seriously, though—everything was just army bullshit to me.
Sergeant Mott must not have been thinking too clearly to have given me such an important duty. You needed a responsible, sober soldier who was aware, at all times, how vital communications were to a properly functioning artillery unit. I was becoming a real army boozer—living from 3.2 beer to 3.2 beer. Sometimes we’d have a solution of alcohol from the medics that we called 180 because that was the proof. Even the most dedicated alcoholic had to mix it with fruit juice, but one night, in a show of bravado, I gulped it down straight, and I immediately knew where the phrase “white lightning” came from. The force of that drink knocked me off the sandbag I was sitting on and onto my back, where I immediately passed out. That night I had the graveyard switchboard shift.
My buddies revived me and poured gallons of hot coffee through me and, after a while, I swore I was OK. And as far as I knew, I was as I sat there on that dead, silent switchboard. No calls were coming in, and after a while I put down the book I had been reading and closed my eyes. Just for one second. One lousy second!
The next thing I knew an elbow had been stuck in my side, and I’d been shoved to the floor. I opened my eyes to see Captain Windham, the battery commander, and Sergeant Mott hovering over the switchboard. The fucking thing was hopping, little copper keys were dropping. Shit! I had fallen asleep.
Captain Windham was now operating it. Sergeant Mott was watching critically—every once in a while glancing at me with a look of pity and contempt. Calls were going into all the guns. My heart sank. I had fallen asleep on a fire mission. The Forward Observer had called it in from his observation post. These missions often involved a coordinated attack on an enemy position or activity. If one battery failed to respond on time, it could endanger an entire operation and cost lives.
I had fucked up royally.
The next morning Captain Windham called me into his quarters. He was a grizzled, older man who had been a warrant officer for years before accepting a regular commission. He’d seemed kind and non-aggressive, and I liked him because he wasn’t an insane disciplinarian.
“Falling asleep on guard duty is a shootable offense,” he said. “Falling asleep on the switchboard is in the same category. I’d court-martial you, but frankly that would expose an error that I think we were able to cover up in time. We ran a successful fire mission, and it seems that up at division they hardly noticed that we came in a little late. However, all good deeds should be rewarded. I’m transferring you to the ammo section.”
He watched me turn pale. There had been an outbreak of a peculiar strain of hepatitis that the medics had no idea how to deal with. Four men from the ammo tent had been evacuated, two of them had died, and the other was in a very bad way. No other section from A battery had been affected. You’d think that the sons of bitches would have burned that tent and fumigated everything in sight, but they kept it as a place to send fuck-ups.
Captain Windham squinted as he looked me right in the eye. “What I can’t do to you I hope the rats can. Report right away.”
I was shocked. Windham seemed like such a nice guy compared to some of the other prick captains we’d had. Well, I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of me catching anything in that fucking tent. I had shared a bunk with one of the guys who had died; I had complete and utter faith in my immune system. I never got sick.
I got hurt all the time, though. Due to my brother Milty’s constant teasing when I was a kid, I had grown up to be somewhat of a klutz. In volleyball, I jammed my finger going up for a spike; in baseball my thumb would get in the way of the ball and swell to the size of a banana. I’d always bang my knee or sprain my ankle. I couldn’t hammer a nail without hitting my finger. But I never got sick. Germs meant nothing to me. I’d never taken biology in school—just physics and geology—so I had no idea how viruses and bacterias and those things worked, so, in my mind, they didn’t exist. I ate off the floor, didn’t cover my mouth when I sneezed or coughed, and I didn’t mind if someone else did the same. I didn’t care whose air I breathed. If you’d put me in a room full of lepers I’d shake hands with the sons of bitches as long as they weren’t too ugly-looking. If I was real horny I’d even fuck a leper girl. Fuck him, I thought of Windham, walking around that ammo tent like Macbeth, thinking he was indestructible. Come and get me if you can.
The ammo section was Hell. The work was miserable: hauling ammo, digging holes—any shit duty that came up. Falling asleep next to those big 155 Howitzers was a severe test for any sleeping apparatus. Sometimes the vibrations from the guns would lift a cot with a sleeping GI on it a full six inches off the ground. Meanwhile, the GI next to me became ill and was evacuated.
The one benefit of having a contaminated tent was that we didn’t get any inspections. We could be as scroungy and drunken as we wanted, as long as we somehow got the ammo hauled. Brass came and went, inspecting the rest of the battery. I was beginning to like life in the ammo tent. Being one of the fuck-ups still alive gave me status. I was in dirtball heaven!
My paradise ended one morning when Captain Windham showed up—for an inspection. When he came to me, he stopped and stared as if surprised.
“Still alive, are you?”
“Yes sir,” I snapped back, not completely hiding a good, old-fashioned Brooklyn-wise-guy smirk.
“We’ll see if we can correct that. They asked me for a couple of volunteers for a 90s shoot. You’re going to be one of them.”
The 90-millimeter gun was brought up to the front line for deep, incisive penetration into enemy territory. Charlie hated the 90 and attacked it ferociously. Missions were usually short and casualties high, because when it started firing, it lit up the sky and Charlie was able to find it easily and take out a whole lot of our men. This grizzled old fuck who looked like some bum on the Bowery was really out to get me. And I had liked him too! I swore right there that I would never like another person who had authority over me again.
However, the one cardinal rule in the army was never to volunteer so I said, “I do not wish to volunteer, sir.”
“You heard this splendid soldier volunteer didn’t you Sergeant?” he said to Sergrant Mott, who replied with a “Yes, sir.” They moved on.
Then, to insure that something bad would really happen to me, they chose Yobbs as the other “volunteer.” Yobbs was the only guy in the ammo section not there because he was a fuck-up but because he was simply Yobbs. His Neanderthal face looked like it eternally could use a vigorous scrubbing; it always seemed factory-dirty. Stupidity glowed from his eyes. His lips were thick and his speech so New-Jersey-ill-educated that he sounded like a bad mimic exaggerating an exaggeration. When he walked he never moved his arms, so that he had the gait of a little wooden soldier.
“It ain’t dangerous up there, is it Brooklyn?” he asked me as we were on the truck following that skinny, vicious, casualty-causing 90-millimeter artillery piece. He hung on my answer, as if what I might say could change anything.
“It’s okay, Yobbs,” I said. “Lots of times they go up there and they don’t even fire. If they don’t fire, they don’t draw fire.”
“I don’t want to get killed in this fuckin’ police action, you know what I mean Brooklyn? This ain’t even a war.
“So it would be okay to get killed if it was a war?”
“At least if you got killed in a war you’re a fuckin’ hero, but if you get killed in a police action you’re a fuckin’ cop.”
I looked at Yobbs with new respect. Maybe he wasn’t so stupid after all.
We got to our position at twilight and set up camp. The 1st Lieutenant in charge of the mission walked us north in front of the gun through some scruffy grass to show us where we were to set up our pup tents for guard duty. Every step brought us closer to the enemy, but I wasn’t scared because I just knew that I’d live to be a really old man. However, with each step I noticed ol’ Yobbs getting greener and greener underneath his dirty skin.
“How come we’re walkin’ so far?” he asked the officer, who simply peered at him contemptuously.
“Where are we goin’, to the Yalu?” The Yalu River was way up north, near the Mongolian border.
The cracker Lieutenant finally stopped at a small clearing. “You boys set up here, and mind sharp now. Those damn gooks’ll slip up to you in the middle of the night and slit your damn throats so quiet-like that even a rabbit wouldn’t be disturbed by the noise. We going to start shootin’ crack of dawn.”
One problem about being with an under-achiever was the absolutely awful conversations. Yobbs was normally quite taciturn, but fear set him off on a binge of babbling, the caliber of his words so low that to call it subterranean would be an undeserved elevation. Finally as the grim, starless night dragged on, weary of hearing about blue-collar aspirations and angst in Kearny, New Jersey, I said, “Yobbs, will you shut the fuck up already.”
“What the hell’s the matter, Brooklyn?”
“I can’t take it anymore.”
“Because you’re stupid.”
“Yeah, you are. You know that. You’re stupid.”
“You’re stupid,” he retorted.
“You see, that proves you’re stupid. I call you stupid, so you call me stupid. If you were smart, you’d insult me another way. In this play, Cyrano de Bergerac, this guy has a really big nose and this other guy,who is as stupid as you are, goes up to him and tells him that he has a big nose. Cyrano then tells this schmuck about ten million other ways that he could have insulted him in a really witty manner. So if I call you stupid, you should really find a way to put me down other than simply calling me stupid.”
“Are they all like you in Brooklyn?”
“That was slightly better. Look you putz,the essence of a good insult is to find some sensitive area in the other guy and exploit it. I have complete and utter faith in my intelligence, so calling me stupid won’t hurt me,” I said. “But there are at least ten other areas that I’m insecure about. Anyone with a modicum of perception ought to be able to pick one out easily and then thrust away at it. Come on Yobbs, use what little imagination you have and try.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Insult me well. Put me down handily. Come on.”
He appeared as if he were thinking a moment. He shrugged. “Your mother.”
“What about my mother?”
“Your mother sucks.”
“Not really good, Yobbs. I don’t particularly like my mother and, even if I did, the thought of her sucking is so ludicrous that it’s simply laughable. Come on.”
“You think you’re so fucking smart huh?”
“Yeah, I think I’m so fuckin smart.”
“If you’re so fuckin’ smart how come you’re in the army?”
“That was a good insult. You scored.”
“I say that to everybody.”
“You see. You’re so stupid that you don’t even know when you’re being smart.”
We tossed a coin and Yobbs pulled the first shift of guard duty. I crawled into the pup. This was going to be an easy night. Everything was so quiet that I forgot I was in a combat zone. The sleeping bag was warm and snugly, and soon I was off. Then I felt my shoulder being shaken.
“Brooklyn, I think there’s somethin’ out there.”
I jumped into my boots, threw on a shirt and stepped out of the tent. Yobbs was crouched, his grease gun poised and ready.
“Over there…I saw somethin’ move.”
There was a soft, summer wind gently moving through the bush. I peered intently at the area that Yobbs had pointed out.
“I don’t see anything.”
“I’m scared Brooklyn. They’re out there.”
We stood for a long time looking out into the dark brush.
“I know they’re there,” Yobbs said.
The less I saw the more I saw. Yobbs’ conviction started to convince me. I started to see shapes in the shadows.
“I’m goin’ to give ’em a blast,” Yobbs said straightening out his grease gun. They called it that because it looked like a mechanic’s grease gun. It was a short, semi-automatic rifle with a hollow metal stock. It was meant to be shot at the hip and was only good for close range spraying.
“Go ahead,” I said, picking mine up and aiming it in the same direction as Yobbs. He fired around six shells and stopped. We peered. Nothing seemed to change.
“Give it a blast, Brooklyn.”
I gave it a blast, and we looked again like a dentist checking a tooth after he drilled awhile. Then we heard steps behind us.
“What the hell’s going on there?”
It was the cracker Lieutenant, running with his shirt open and a forty-five in his fist.
“There was somebody out there sir,” Yobbs stated.
“Yeah, somebody out there.” I affirmed.
The Lieutenant ran back to the gun and soon returned with five guys from the gun crew, helmets on and carbines ready.
“Where did you see movement?” We pointed, and off they went. We sat down and had a smoke, feeling like big shots because we were controlling a troop movement. Before long the patrol came back.
“Now you boys don’t go off half-cocked. There was no sign of any gooks out there. I want to get a night’s sleep. You understand?
“We saw something sir,” Yobbs said solemnly. “Honest.
“We did.” I seconded.
I told Yobbs to get some sleep and I would take over. I was okay for a while. Calm, easy and relaxed, and then I started to peer into the high grass and see things, sort of the way you evolved images from ink blots in a Rorschach. It became preternaturally quiet—was the enemy floating in the wind? There was no sound of shells in the entire area, no flares in the sky. Why? They were out there looking at me, controlling the environment in order to lull me into a sense of unawareness. And then there was a movement off to my right. I faced it, clutching the grease gun tightly. I pressed the trigger and let off around ten rounds.
“What the fuck’s the matter, Brooklyn?” Yobbs cried. There was a sob of fear in his voice.
“The fuckers are out there!”
Yobbs joined me and we poured bullets into the brush, and soon we heard men behind us. This time, the first Lieutenant and the gun crew were on elbows and knees, crawling.
“They’re out there,” I asserted.
“Shitheads,” The Lieutenant said as he passed us. And as each of the guys went past us to go on patrol they each one of them gave us a choice epithet.
The patrol lasted a long time, and when they came back the Lieutenant said, “I don’t want to hear another sound from you boys. You fucked up my sleep. If the enemy is out there I want them to cut your fucking throats. Do you understand me?”
When they left we indeed became convinced that no one was out there. The situation became so safe that we decided that neither of us ought to stay up to guard anything. We were tired. Shit, we hadn’t gotten any shut-eye yet. So we crept into the pup tent and fell asleep.
The next morning when I woke up, I saw the meanest looking major I’d ever seen glaring at me right outside the folds of the tent. I shook Yobbs awake and crawled out and faced him. He was tall and dark with a deep black mustache and a scowl on him that had me quaking in my pants. It occurred to me that we could be charged for being asleep on guard duty, but one quick glance demonstrated that there had been nothing to guard, because the big gun was gone.
“What is your name and your outfit?” he demanded to know in a clipped, upper-class voice. I told him as Yobbs was crawling out of his tent. He wrote it down.
“Because of your actions, our position was compromised and we had to abandon this mission. Your battery commander will get a full report.”
He turned on his heel and walked away, got in his jeep, and was gone.
“Are the bastards going to leave us out here?” Yobbs asked.
“They’ll send a truck out for us. Did you hear what he said? Because of us they couldn’t shoot that fucking gun. Maybe you saved our lives by starting all that shit last night. Maybe you’re not as stupid as you look.”
“Yeah, what is fuckin’ Windham goin’ to do to us now?”
“We got it made. He can’t send us on the 90s anymore because we’re fuck-ups. Same with Forward Observer.”
“What about the infantry?”
“Too much paper work. We’re so bad that we might wind up living through this fucking police action, thereby really getting Captain Windham totally pissed off.”
I never saw Captain Windham again, but he had transfer papers ready for me that day. I was such a fuck-up and such a wiseguy that he must have thought that some other officer would have taken a hate to me, too, and would send me off on some hazardous mission which damn well might kill me. I had to straighten up. I was transferred to another battery, and when the 1st Sergeant found out I could type, he put me next in line to be battery clerk. I wound up with a soft clerical job behind the lines. After a year of duty, I rotated and came back home without a scratch.
Thank you, Captain Windham. You saved my life.