Military History, Chapter Two, 1956

Barracks, Fort Chaffee, ArkanasasWhen you’ve found yourself standing in the light of revealed truth, every detail of that instant, every sight, sound, smell, what your were wearing, the weather, all of it, is yours forever. In the unlikeliest of settings, the cloud of life’s confusions can lift, if ever so slightly, but enough. And no matter the years, it will remain with you as if it had occurred this very morning.

Over a half-century ago, I stood as ordered, in the at-ease position, with two hundred of my fellow field artillery trainees, my hands atop each other at the base of my spine. I felt anything but at ease. Again, something had gone wrong or gone badly, and in the usual military way, we were, all of us, somehow guilty. The winter afternoon was raw and overcast. I was at an isolated army post in northwestern Arkansas. I was eighteen years old. 

On a low wall in front of us, flanked by his senior NCOs, stood our battery commander, an officer, unapproachable, to us almost a god. A tough guy, not as young as me, but young, a no-nonsense second lieutenant, roaring at us, telling us what “a sorry bunch of assholes” he believed us to be. It was damp and cold, and we had been outside all day doing the repetitive, mind-numbing gun drills known to us as the “cannoneer boogie.” During noon chow, which we ate from metal mess kits while standing beside the guns, it began raining and it rained just long enough to add an asterisk to our misery. I had begun to forget what it was like to be outdoors without the big mud-caked, metal-buckled rubber overshoes that covered my combat boots.

Lieutenant Olson had a slight speech impediment, but most of us knew instinctively that it was something to stay away from. Lieutenant Olson cultivated an image that he was nobody to fuck with. The few barracks room Elmer Fudd imitations drew more anxieties than laughs. I had decided to take Lieutenant Olson at his word. The rumors and stories about our fearsome, but less than esteemed, leader had begun churning from our first days on post as artillery gun-crew trainees.

Olson, we knew was an OCS man, a one-time enlisted man who had attended and graduated from Officer Candidate School. I knew about OCS because my induction test scores had qualified me to apply for an OCS commission. I had heard enough about OCS, and I had no desire to subject myself to that cauldron of military excess. The program also required a three-year enlistment. I had come into the army for the minimum two years under the draft law, and after just a few days in uniform, those two years had begun to look like a long time.

Even when junior officers were in short supply, OSC was an ordeal that spit out half the applicants after chewing them up and finding them wanting. In 1956, the Army had a glut of company-grade officers, and the OCS washout rate was said to be at seventy-five percent. Many of those were tossed back into the ranks in the final weeks of their six-month ordeal. Adding insult to it all, the failed officer candidates then had to serve out all of their remaining time as enlisted men, including the year of extra time taken to get into OCS.

Our Lieutenant Olson had survived a process that had obliterated three quarters of his peers, He had made it, speech impediment, low-rent cracker accent and all. The President of the United States, Dwight David Eisenhower  had signed the order commissioning twenty-three year old Duanne T. Olson a second lieutenant, an officer and gentleman, in the Army of the United States. But like everything, there was catch to it. Old Ike himself had been an army officer. But unlike Olson, Eisenhower had been a regular army man, a West Pointer, a careerist with tenure, not some OCS or ROTC officer with a temporary reserve commission. Olson’s reserve commission promised no career security, only a kind of tenuous, slippery hold on his status as somebody maybe a bit higher on the pole than where he had come from. 

If all of that were not bad enough, his appointment was not to be to one of the Army’s established units, not to a field division with its flags draped in battle streamers, a unit with up-to-date equipment, with a posting to a place like West Germany or Japan or even Fort Riley or Fort Bragg or Fort Benning. No, Lieutenant Olson was sent to a backwater training unit in Arkansas. We were not gung-ho marines, nor were we the Eighty-Second Airborne or the Big Red One, we were a sorry lot of recalcitrant draftees, high school dropouts and, as Olson himself went out of his way to remind us, “untrainable military refuse.”

I suspected that Lieutenant Olson figured he had made a bad bargain in trying to escape his humble roots. He would spend his three-plus-years as an officer watching one batch of us after another wallow through the muddy eight-week cannoneer courses in the Arkansas hills. His chances of converting his reserve commission to the status of a regular officer were remote in the extreme. Lieutenant Olson was not a happy man. But he was a man who had learned a little something about the realities of life, and he proved willing to share what he knew, even with the likes of us. 

Somewhere in the depths of his ranting about our miserable performance, our “piss-poor imitations of soldiers,” he let drop a jewel that locked itself inside my barely post-adolescent mind, a gem that shines and sparkles on, even to this day, as Olson himself might have put, “like a diamond in a goat’s ass.” A half century later, no degree of education I’ve attained has better illustrated the human condition than the small lesson delivered that cold February afternoon by a lowly and dissatisfied junior officer. No listing of the voluminous reading that has filled my ensuing fifty years can begin to approach the vision of truth contained in the words of this Lieutenant Olson as he reared back his head and spat out his introduction to the realities of the life on this planet. 

His oration began with the iteration and reiteration of two simple words. Those words were, “you people.” Then he repeated them slowly, “you people.” And then once more just to let us know that something of universal, eternal import was about to follow. “You people.” A deliberate pause as the cold rain began again to patter upon our plastic helmet liners, “You people remind me,” another pause and a another deliberate and scornful scan of our ranks, “of a bunch of blind piss-ants,” and then the windup to the final connection with ultimate truth, the punch line, “crawling around trying to finds the flat side of the marble.” 

Over the decades, I’ve sat at the feet of learned academics, I’ve seen Sunday morning interviews of senate committee chairman, I’ve had to watch the smooth, undoubting faces of presidents, prelates and CEOs blathering out ungrounded certainties. I’ve listened to born-again true believers start on about “end days,” and straight-faced financial advisors on the long-term viability of the market. In all such cases, I am transported back over the years, a full half century, to the winter rain of Arkansas. I stand once again braced at-ease in my galoshes and helmet liner, hearing again for the first time those simple words of an even simpler truth, from a colloquial Solomon doing an original rural American riff on the vanity of all human endeavor. “You people, you people remind me of a bunch of blind piss-ants crawling around trying to find the flat side of the marble.” 

As a touchstone on what it all comes down to, as a succinct and verifiable description of the world and the terms of our existence as it is, has been, and ever shall be, and I’ve heard nothing since that trumps it.

 

 

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