Mar 27

Military Service for Dummies

In Brief—Memories of the author’s years in America’s army, the good, the bad and the ugly.


A Good Decision?…Maybe—

“I gotta get outta here!”

At the time, volunteering for the draft seemed like a good way to escape being smothered by my socialite mother. Similarly, she thought it was a great way to shed responsibility for a restive twenty-year-old. Her brief discussion with an influential military officer led to me guarding a tub of floor wax in an empty barracks in Ft. Bliss, Texas, and thinking I had made a big mistake.

stupid groupsFt. Bliss was a hellhole of rattlesnakes and scorpions where you could stand in mud up to your tutu and get dust in your eyes. Not the best place in the world for a young man to start learning what it’s like in the real world. Although…

Peeling potatoes is the image you think of when someone mentions the army. Well, they had a machine that did a dandy job of peeling potatoes: A rotating lidded container with small teeth that removed everything but the eyes. We discovered that leaving the potatoes in a bit longer got rid of not only the peel but the eyes, too… except the potatoes were reduced to the size of marbles. Oh, well.

Lines are to the army as jelly is to peanut butter. One time crawling under barbed wire hearing 50-caliber bullets crack overhead was enough for me. I noticed that there was one line for those who had completed the required two crawls. I joined that line. The other recruits stood in line to crawl under barbed wire the required second time.

The barracks was home to white recruits drawn largely from the south. With the exception of the “Yankees” I hung out with, I felt like I was mired in a swamp of red-necks who thought high culture was an auto demolition derby and Hank Williams. The Trump supporters of today.

Germany Here I Come—

In their infinite wisdom—the military way, you know—the army flew the first five guys on the roster to Europe (Bay being #4) while the rest went to Korea, still simmering after the “police action” supposedly ended. In Germany, they scared our socks off by telling us we were outnumbered 20 to 1 by our former ally during WWII. Then they sent me to an anti-aircraft battalion that had no anti-aircraft guns.

I was a crack shot, so they gave me a pot-metal badge that attested to my skill. Later, they handed us colorful ribbons that told the initiated we were veterans of the army of occupation. Not true, but that ribbon sure looked good on my crisp uniform.

With no anti-aircraft guns, they decided to send me to code school where I learned Morse code. Every Sunday, the major in charge stopped in front of me, whipped off his hat and pointed to his nearly skinned head and told me that next Sunday he wanted to see my head similarly skinned. Thereafter, he marched all of us to the Christian chapel…including the Jewish guys. The next Sunday, the same major doffed his hat and told me he wanted my hair to be as short as his. I completed the school with my hair as long as it had always been.

Back at my anti-aircraft battalion I became a member of the division net with a permanent pass in my pocket. Four days on duty, four days off. To say it was cushy is to understate it. On my days off, I donned my civilian suit and headed to Weisbaden and the club frequented by officers.  Lots of German women. Nobody ever knew I was a mere private.

Everybody had leaves. With this in mind, it paid to have friends in the office sign you out so you could enjoy an extra day or two of leave. I may have set a record for being AWOL without being caught. On one occasion, I crossed into Austria a day before my leave pass was valid. I kept the sergeant at the border so busy that he date-stamped my pass that showed I was a day early. Needless to say, I conveniently lost my leave pass and had to get a new one on my return.

One sergeant—not the brightest bulb in the marquee—didn’t like the cut of my jib so he got me transferred to the motor pool as a truck driver. Since Europe was experiencing the coldest winter in 200 years, I drove my truck exactly once and got stuck in the snow. An arrogant motor pool lifer climbed behind the wheel and promptly stripped the gears. The truck had to be towed away.

Without a truck, I was assigned to the Graphics section. My job was to make signs when needed. None were needed. I grew cobwebs waiting to make signs, and finally signed up for the track team. Talk about getting in shape. Of the hundreds of men tested in the two battalions, I came in second.

At last, the year’s first army track meet rolled around. As chance would have it, I never got to compete. I sea-sicked my way home to be honorably discharged. Somewhere, there must be a God with a sense of humor.

Thus endeth my military adventure…a small illustration of military brilliance. One more episode in my tossed salad life.


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  1. I think there is a template for all, “I was in the army” stories. There is something about the army that makes all the stories vaguely similar and apply to anyone who has every served.
    I decided to join rather be drafted, which I knew was about to happen. My thinking was that I would have some sort of choice as to my type of service. Well…..sort of. Through a strange series of events I actually was able to join the California National Guard in 1969. No easy task at the time the Vietnam War raged on.
    Basic training was the same as the regular Army and we were mixed with draftees at Fort Leonard Wood where I too had my chance to operate the automated potato peeler. Falling asleep after loading 50 pounds of potatoes, it produced M&M sized nugget by the time a woke up.
    Joining the ‘Guard’ turned out to be a bad choice as my engineer unit was called up to go bang heads in Berkeley….you know….to calm down those UN-American war protesters. Fortunately, we never actually went, in spite of being put on alert three separate times.
    I eventually transferred to the Army Reserve at Fort MacAuthor California where I was never really assigned to a job . So, with my shoulder length hair up under a wig, I was often seen walking about with a meaningless clip-board under my arm so as to make it look as though I was on an important mission. I frequently went off post to fly my hang-glider along the cliffs of nearby Point Ferman while wearing fatigues. I smuggled my dirt bike onto supply trucks when we headed off to annual summer camps, sat in dark empty barracks watch porno movie produced by a fellow reservist, and all the while being promoted up through the ranks. Like you Don, I was given a ribbon. It signified having served during the Vietnam War even though California was as close as I ever got Southeast Asia. Ah…..Good times!

      • Don Bay on March 28, 2016 at 10:56

      Military service, like corporate life, proves once again that humans are as unreliable and sometimes stupid as ever. The only two differences that separated us were that 1) I served in the military at the end of the so-called “police action” (normal people correctly call it “war”) in Korea, and 2), I wisely volunteered for the draft (2 years) and you volunteered for the regular service (3 years) during the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War). Fortunately, neither of us were cannon fodder.

      I had two uncles who were officers during WWII, and both related the narrowness and rigidity of the military. Along with my own experiences, their revelations probably explain my jaundiced view of the military mind and of the military itself.

      To those who tell us that corporations are more efficient and better than the government, my experiences in the corporate world prove how stupid and biased are the dimwits who proclaim that nonsense.

        • Susan Harris on March 29, 2016 at 01:25

        I have 0 army stories but I was in a club in high school called the Tierres for whatever that’s worth🐰 I wish I still had my cool blue and white sateen jacket w my name on the front and club name on the back,

          • Don Bay on March 29, 2016 at 17:18

          You’ll never have to go through the stuff we went through, so you can count yourself lucky. Dave and I were happy to have turned in our olive-drab satin jackets. No regrets for us. Maybe there’ll be a next time for you.

    • Donna on May 29, 2016 at 23:14

    hilarious, Don – you were lucky not to have suffered worse consequences for your risky behavior in the army. Glad you were safe and lived to tell some really good stories about your experience.

      • Don Bay on May 30, 2016 at 10:02

      My military experience shows that the die was already cast. It was a matter of paying attention, of luck and military stupidity that I skated through those years the way I did…and, of course, timing is everything. Dave’s experience pretty much parallels mine, so it wasn’t just me. The risk was minimal.

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