In the mid-Fifties, I was at UMass, Amherst, and joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) to get commissioned as a Second Lieutenant upon graduation. Both my older brothers, Leo and George, had been drafted, and my brother-in-law Paul had enlisted in World War II. They basically told me: “The Draft is on; You’re 1-A and going in anyway; you might as well go in as an officer.” I took their advice.
The summer between my junior and senior year, the Army shipped me off to Ft. Knox, Kentucky for 8 weeks of basic training. We were “cadets,” the lowest of the low, and quickly made to realize that the Army was really serious about this stuff. It was a long haul.
It was my first exposure to a whole new way of thinking things through. It was upbeat (“Yes, you can!”), simplistic (“Remember the Factors of KISS: ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid!'”) and logical (mostly; as one sergeant shouted at me when I exercised some individual decision making that I thought was better than his, and that somehow displeased him: “Don’t think! Thinking gives you headaches. Obey!”)
I learned so many things in that cycle. Most of all I learned that I could take a lot more punishment than I ever thought I could. It gave me a touchstone for comparisons. In later life, when I had to do something unpleasant, I’d think to myself: “It’s not as bad as crawling through mud,while they fire machine guns over your head, and set-off explosives all around you, and I did that.”
I learned little things too. For instance, we all took turns doing Guard Duty. We dressed up in full gear, complete with helmet and M-1 rifle, and marched around the motor pool all night to protect the tanks from evil-doers. The Army seemed to take this very seriously, but not seriously enough to give us any ammunition for the rifles. Here we were, protecting 50 ton tanks from the Soviets, with an empty weapon.
Every few hours, the sergeant would show up in a Jeep and make sure we were awake and alert. He’d ask questions like: “What is your first General Order?”
The answer was: “Sergeant, my first General Order is to take charge of this post and all government property in view.” I used to make up little couplets in my head which amused me, but never escaped my lips; such as: “Sergeant, my first General Order is to…walk-my-post-a mile-a-minute, with-a-rifle, nothing-in-it.” I knew he would not be amused.
One night, he relaxed and asked me: “Any questions? Ask away.”
I decided to do that, I asked, “Sergeant, if it’s serious enough to have us out here as guards, why don’t you issue us bullets for the rifle?” I know the answer to that question now: A scared teenager with a loaded, semi-automatic rifle. What could go wrong?
The sergeant resisted the impulse to answer correctly. He took my question seriously. He thought for a moment, and replied: “That’s another advantage of the M-1 Garand: The bad guy can know it’s unloaded; he can even know you weren’t issued ammunition; but once you pull the slide back, and let the bolt crash forward into the locked position, and point it at him … he’ll do whatever you say.”
I always liked that one: Intimidation #101.