Master Sergeant Bates was one mean, ornery, son-of-a-bitch. He’d survived two major infantry wars, and had more decorations than Macy’s at Christmas. He was a hero, and a guy you never wanted to cross, ever! And you definitely never wanted him to overhear you mentioning his unofficial nickname … Master Bates!
He wore tailored olive drab fatigues starched so stiff the creases could slice cheese. You could shave using his patent leather boots as a mirror. He stood so straight you’d think he had a broomstick shoved up his bottom. And he marched! He marched everywhere with knees lifted high and arms swinging wide. It didn’t matter where he went … to a war, to a bar or to simply to mail a letter … he marched!
But it seemed to me that he marched to a sad tune.
Sergeant Bates was the prototypical strac soldier, ready for danger anytime, anywhere. He lived on base and had a reputation as a loner who drank far too much. No friends. No family. No one but the US Army … and his bottle.
I kind of felt kind of sorry for him … until the final day of basic that is. That was my lotto day … the day I received my orders for AIT (Advanced Individual Training … everything in the army has an acronym).
Those orders would reveal my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), the job that would govern my day-to-day activities for the next three years.
I couldn’t think of any MOS I hoped to see that day, but I had a few I definitely did not want to see, two of which tied for the top spot.
One was the guy with a flame thrower who torched enemy positions with a tank of highly flammable liquid strapped to his back. The other was the chump who ran around the front lines carrying a big radio, like a target, on his back.
I read my new orders warily, fearing the worst. And the worst I got! I was instructed to report to Fort Gordon, Georgia to train as a “radio carrier and operator.”
“Sarge!” I yelled out to Bates who just happened to be marching by, “Sarge! Does this mean I’ll be running around with a radio on my back?”
He studied the orders carefully. A smile almost crossed the craggy terrain of his face, unfamiliar as it was to such jocular eruptions, “Yep. That’s exactly what you’ll be doing son. That’s it! It’ll make a man of you!” With that he made a perfect left face and marched off.
“OMG! OMG! OMG!” I couldn’t believe it!
Sgt. Bates’ confirmation of my lamentable future spoiled my week’s stay at home prior to embarking for AIT. I kept having eyes-wide-open nightmares about lugging a heavy, bulky radio transmitter through rain and snow and snake infested jungles.
But as fate would have it, all turned out differently! Carrier meant telephone equipment, and operator meant I’d be supplying communications between generals who directed big battles from far behind the front lines. Sweet!
I’d survived my first major scare of my military career. And in spite of my week of worry, I couldn’t get too upset at Sgt. Bates. After what he’d been through, I felt giving him even that small pleasure and an near-smile was worth a few days of perturbation. After all, my military sun had just begun to rise in a most auspicious manner, and his was setting in a melancholy, lonely way.
In fact, I saw it my “MOS” was an acronym for a Most Opportune Selection! My three humid, summer months in the red clay of Georgia, near the Carolina line meant no marching, no guard duty and no KP … just classes and weekend passes.
I knew absolutely nothing of practical worth about Georgia. On the bus from the airport to Fort Gordon, I had a difficult time assimilating all the raw data assaulting my eyes, much less make sense of it all.
I’d never seen poverty like I saw in The Peach State. The shanties looked like they’d come straight out of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Dirt poor” was no longer just a metaphor.
I spent three tedious months at Fort Gordon. The Signal Corps classes were geared to the pace of the slowest students … and it was almost unbelievable how slow some of them could be! But, in actual fact it didn’t matter. We had three months to kill regardless.
I did find it curious, however, at how easy three day passes were to get. It seemed to me they’d be prized, especially with all the history that lay all around us! Charleston, Savannah, Atlanta … names that had rich, illustrious and infamous histories.
I applied for, and received a pass every weekend they were available. Most of the other guys just hung-out in the barracks, or maybe ventured into Augusta, but I’d hit the Greyhound station and rush headlong into the old south to check it out.
Charleston ranked as my favorite, not only for its old world charm and fresh ocean breezes, but for one southern belle in particular whose hospitality I found particularly cordial and welcoming. Her southern accent and other outstanding personal attributes drove my young hormones completely out of control!
The “private” nightclubs of Charleston, Augusta and the other cities I visited helped to pass the time most amiably, even if they were private only in the sense that they had a “private club” sign hung over their entry doors. When patronizing one of these establishments you’d ring a doorbell, a peephole would open, and if you weren’t black you passed their membership criterion.
Like these private clubs, remnants of the old segregated south were still to be found all around. Restrooms with signs reading “Whites Only,” or drinking fountains marked “Colored” were largely ignored, but not yet replaced.
I found this absolutely alien to the integrated California of my childhood. But as my mandate was to protect and save the civilized world, I figured it was in my nation’s best interests that I visit as many of the private clubs as possible in order to understand the social milieu I found myself forced to protect. After all, in my capacity as guardian of the Western World, I had to consider the civil liberties of the girls who visited them in order to dance, drink and meet guys like me.
So while in the south, I served my country and performed my duty as I saw it! In fact, I discovered that in doing so, I actually had a most enjoyable time defending those Georgia peaches from all the various evils of the world, such as communism, anarchy and chastity. And so I did my duty as I saw fit!
Discounting the long, tedious hours of signal corps classes, during which I practically mastered the art of sleeping with my eyes wide open, I had a great time … that is until my final day.
That’s when I faced a true nightmare about a friend from Hawaii called Lamabata, about whom I still feel profoundly guilty even today, a full half century later.
Coming next! How I Won The Cold War, Part 5 … HEADED FOR EUROPE, MINUS A FRIEND
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