My Life As a Soldier


Part 3 of 4

THE MISTAKE OF VOLUNTEERING

“Are you busy right now? I can use your help,” Arata said.

“I have a class in a half-hour.”

“This won’t take longer than about fifteen minutes.”

* * *

My brother, who had been in the army band, warned me, “Never volunteer for anything in the army.” Not everyone heeded this sage advice, though. Just before the first weekend pass during basic training, our company sergeant, Torres, asked who played an instrument. A number of hands went up. He told them to bring their instruments from home, for he was creating a marching band. From then on, the musician soldiers marched through the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the summer, not only with rifles and packs, but also with their musical instruments.

Once, the bass drummer, trying to balance himself on a log as he crossed a creek, stumbled and fell in. Maybe Sgt. Torres had shouted a warning to him. But, even if he had, there was no way to know what he meant. Everything in “this man’s army” was a grunt—haa, huu! or huu, haa! With his thick Spanish accent, it became impossible to understand anything he said.

Another time we were in formation in front of our barracks, ready to break at the end of the day. Since this was basic training, we had been trained to respond to orders the split second they were issued. So, when Torres barked and our platoon sergeant repeated the same “Haa, huu!,” some of us thought we were ordered to fall out, but others thought he said “Huu, haa!,” and stood at attention. There was a crash and clang of steel and rifles, helmets and bodies piled up quickly.

Nothing stopped the marching band, though. Wherever we went, they went, too. While other soldiers marched to the cadence of left-right, left-right, your-left, your- left, we double-timed to the beat of the bass drum. Other troops waited quietly in front of the mess hall, but we arrived in style and did the bunny hop to the chow line.

I violated the “never volunteer” advice once. My company was going to the field, a dirty day when we might again be exposed to tear gas. A deal was offered: Donate blood, take the rest of the day off. I raised my hand.

Cots filled a large gym. Mine was somewhere in the middle. Orderlies began inserting needles at one side, moved to me, then to the end of the line. By the time they were finished putting the needles in, they returned to the beginning to take them out. By now, the bags were filled. Mine had little in it, though. Thin veins, I think they said. They reached the end of the line and returned to me.   Only a trickle collected. Now they took out the needle and stuck it in again, in another part of the arm. Five minutes later, there was no more blood than before. They put the needle in the other arm. Same results. Finally, the doctor came over. He looked down at my pale face and saw that the tube to the bag had a knot in it. He untied it, the blood flowed. Only when I’m feeling sufficiently guilty for not doing a good thing do I now donate blood to the Red Cross.

* * *

“What do you need?” I asked Arata.

I thought that maybe he wanted me to read something he had written.

“I want you to be part of the panel.”

Was I going to make a mistake by volunteering yet again?

* * *

The first year after active duty, at summer camp in Ft. Drum, I was directed by my commanding officer to run the projector for our weekly meetings. This prospect didn’t appeal to me because it meant coming early to meetings to get things ready, then staying late to pack away the film. But my CO was sending me to projectionist school, so I could receive a license. The army wouldn’t let anyone touch a projector without a license.

“Don’t worry,” the teacher said, reassuring the class. “By the end of the day, everyone will have a license.” Not me, I thought. Most of the mornings, I sat diligently writing not notes but letters to Lyn who by then was my fiancé. At first, the instructor was impressed with my eagerness to take down his information, but he grew suspicious as the morning drew on. He’d walk by my desk, and I’d put my arm over the paper so he couldn’t see. Finally, he insisted, and I had to show him my love letter. He didn’t find this amusing and issued me a warning. I put away the paper. After lunch, I decided to ask questions. I wanted to know how the picture appeared on the screen; I wanted to know how to get sound from celluloid. I continued to ask technical, obscure questions, and all he wanted to do was show us how to thread the film and fill out a packing order.

At the end of the day, he gave out certificates to everyone but me. “You’re going to the CO,” he told me.

The commanding officer sat imposingly behind his dark desk. This wasn’t a reservist, like my reservist CO. Perhaps I had gone too far this time. “I’ve heard about what you did today, private,” the colonel said. “I’m going to report you. Your commanding officer will discipline you.” He dialed the phone as I left. When I returned to my barracks, a group was outside, including my CO. They cheered and congratulated me. My CO, it turned out, had no more military discipline in him than anyone else in my reserve unit.

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