As a 16 year old I was packed up and sent from my exceptionally normal small town southern home to a military school, because I was not a prize winning young man there in my exceptionally normal small town southern home. Wasn’t myself necessarily destined for normal.
I had always had this rambunctious imagination and in the 1st and 2nd grade my parents would see me out back talking to imaginary friends and jumping around flailing my arms fighting invading aliens. Dad would say, “Boy ain’t right.”
Then, in sort of a shift of emerging character, my best friend when I was 12 or 13 was a Staff Sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division out at Fort Bragg who taught me how to cuss like a solider. This ability startled my father once when I caught a fish hook in my thumb.
I ran away from home when I was 15 and went to Cuba and my parents decided that I needed an attitude adjustment.
So I was sent to the prep school section of Oak Ridge Military Institute, or as was known among us new cadets, the “You… just… go away… get out of this house” place, where the staff was trained to tend young hellions.
Almost all our time there was committed… week day afternoons for example we had to sign up for mandatory after-class activities. I tried out for and made the Gold Star platoon, the school drill team.
We were issued ‘03 Springfield rifles and I have clear recollection of that long, handsome no-nonsense war tool waiting for me, patiently, in the armory stocks, until each week day afternoon I would go in and pick it up, feel it weight, and silently ask after its health and what it had been doing since the previous afternoon when we had been together.
That rifle in fact was a great friend. Never let me down that I remember in all the movements and turns and salutes and twists we did in unison on the drill team.
It almost became an extension of my body… in doing the very basic right shoulder arms, we were taught to use the thumb of the hand on the butt to snap the rifle as it was goin’ from port arms to the right shoulder, snap it so that it turned the rifle 90 degrees, almost unseen, to fit smartly in the small of the shoulder. And we were taught to only move our arms in doing this order arms to port arm to right shoulder arms, keeping our head and our torso absolutely still. With the thumb doing the hidden-rifle-turning magic, it was a thing of effortless beauty… coordinated and handsome. Very military-smart.
And at 16 years of age, young body muscles remember, and with that great rifle I would soon go through this right shoulder arms and the other stuff absolutely without error. Time and time and time and time again.
Four years later – out of Oak Ridge, in and out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – I joined the US Army as a Private E-nothing.
This is what I remember about parts of basic training that led to my 15 minutes of fame there. It is taken from my book, The Vietnam War Its Ownself:
“At Fort Gordon the bus convoy pulled in front of our training company headquarters. “Company C” was painted on a brick-and-concrete sign out front. The doors to the bus opened, and I saw a “Smokey Bear” drill sergeant hat above a square-jawed black face rise over the two boys in the front row. Standing almost at attention beside the bus driver, the man slowly moved his eyes over the interior of the bus. Outside we heard the shrill shouts of other noncommissioned officers as they rushed recruits off the buses. There was a tense pause as the sergeant continued to look around. Finally he spoke in a low, smooth and slow Southern voice, “Welcome to Fort Gordon, Georgia, boys and girls. Ma name is Staff Sergeant Willie O. McGee. I am ya drill instructor. I’m going to make ya soldiers or y’all find ya ugly asses run clean into this red Georgia dirt. Everyone stand up.”
Everyone tried to push things aside and get to their feet. “Stand up, goddamnit.” The voice suddenly became loud and frightfully mean. “Stand ya worthless civilian asses up, get off dis fucking bus and form four ranks in da company street.”
The recruits in front tried to get off quickly, but Sergeant McGee was blocking their way as he climbed slowly off the bus. As he moved aside, we fought one another to get out and into a sloppy formation.
Standing before us, Staff Sergeant McGee was an impressive figure. Ramrod straight and deathly still, he moved only his eyes. His voice carried easily to the back ranks. He advised us to respond quickly as he “learned” us how to soldier. The Army “weren’t” patient, didn’t cater to individuals. The “onliest” way to act was to do exactly what he told us to — no more, no less. He picked one of the largest men, by the name of McDiarmid to be the recruit platoon leader and four other large men to be squad leaders and positioned them to the right.
He said that he would not attempt anything silly yet, like trying to make us march or even to fall out of formation in a military manner. He said, “Pick up ya duffel bags and go into da barracks behind ya, squads one and two on one side, squads three and four on da other and try to do hit without falling down.”
Sergeant McGee followed us inside and paced the aisle while we claimed either top or bottom of the bunk beds. Calling us to line up at attention at the end of our bunks, he walked by and corrected the stances of most of us. I stared off into the distance when he stopped briefly in front of me.
Finished, he told us that he graduated the best soldiers in the company, possibly in the whole training command. “Nobody skates,” he said, “not no greasy Puerto Ricans,” as he bent down close to one of the Puerto Ricans, “not no angry Negroes,” as he put his nose close to the face of a very large black man, and “not no educated molly-wolly shithead,” as he moved farther down the line past me and bent in close to a skinny country boy from Tennessee.
“I think I have made myself clear about what I expect, but I knows from experience dat some of ya ain’t understood me, gonn’a be slow, won’t follow orders, gonn’a want’a fall out. But listen here. Dis is my platoon. I own ya ass. You’ll learn to do it right or I will get rid of ya.” He turned to leave and then turned back, “Oh, and one more thing. I do not like ya, any of ya, and I don’t want ya for a friend, any of ya. Don’t try to be nice to me. Stay away. Do not talk with me. Do not come close to me unless ya have to. I do not want to know ya first names, I do not want to know about ya dog or ya Momma or dat ya girlfriend’s pregnant. Stay away from me. See the Chaplain if ya want to talk with someone nice. I am Drill Sergeant Willie O. McGee. Stay da fuck away.”
A couple of days later we drew our rifles, the venerable M-14s. As we gathered outside the armory, I inspected my issue and tested its balance. It was an older rifle that had probably been handled by young recruits for years. Its stock had been re-stained and re-varnished many times; the butt plate was scratched from hard landings in the manual of arms. The trigger mechanism was worn from a thousand training disassemblies and assemblies. The weapon looked like a tired old piece of rental equipment with no character. The shoulder strap was old, tattered webbing, and I tightened it as tight as I could so at least that strap would slap smartly against the stock when I handled it.
Sheared to the skull, wearing ill-fitting new fatigues, beat and intimidated by Army basic training, I felt a surge of comfort as I held my battered and abused newly-issue M-14 friend.
McGee called us into ranks and talked about the value of the rifle, the main tool of our trade as infantrymen. He said that before we learned to shoot it, we had to learn to respect it and to handle it correctly. Our training for the next couple of days would be in the manual of arms — moving the weapons from the ground at our sides, as we stood at attention, to “port arms” and then to “right shoulder arms” and “left shoulder arms” and finally back to the ground, “order arms.” I stood in the middle of the platoon and thought about going through the manual of arms ten thousand times at Oak Ridge. If I had as much money as I knew how to do the manual of arms, I would have been a very rich young man.
Taking a rifle from a man in the first squad, McGee demonstrated the movements. He gave himself the commands and brought the weapon up and then back to the ground again, with a bit too much waggle in his movement, I thought; he would have been reprimanded in the Gold Star platoon at Oak Ridge. Then he talked us through them slowly — count one, port arms; count two, right shoulder arms; count three, back to port arms; count four, left shoulder arms; count five, order arms — before giving the commands at regular speed.
The rifle movement felt familiar, and I slapped the rifle strap as I brought it up and down. I also snapped the butt plate with my thumb as I went to right shoulder arms so that it twisted quickly into the crevice of my shoulder. I was careful to move only my arms and to keep the rest of my body absolutely still. With some pleasure, I noticed that the men all around me were awkwardly moving their shoulders and heads as they lumbered through the drill. McGee was counting cadence as we repeated the movement. He abruptly stopped counting in mid-movement, and the platoon finished with the random clamoring of metal butt plates on the company street.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw McGee looking in my direction. Without a word, he came through the first two ranks and stood directly in front of me. He cocked his head to one side and eyed me quizzically.
My face flushed. I had been found out. I had not stayed out of sight, and now I had come to McGee’s attention. He looked at my name tag, then down at my M-14, and slowly up my uniform back to my red face.
“Parker,” he said, “do dat again.”
I brought the weapon back to my right shoulder, but I did not slap the strap or snap my thumb on the butt plate. McGee told me no, do it again and make it pop, and I did. He told me to come out in front of the platoon and gave me the manual of arms orders there. When I returned the rifle to the ground he came around in front of me, got very close to my face and knitted his brow.
“Where’d ya learn to do dat shit?” He asked in a quiet, even voice. I told him at a military school, and he said, “Huh.”
He stepped away and ordered me to do a left face, right face, about face, and then the manual of arms again. I moved with precision. McGee moved in front of me and again said, “Huh.”
For 15 minutes there in that hot Georgia sun on some forgotten Fort Gordon company street, I felt famous… and it might have been the proudest moment of my young life, my highest achievement, getting that impressed “Huh” from the indomitable Willie O. McGee. And for that, I have always been appreciative.
Another quarter hour of fame came ten years later, when I was in the CIA and had to give a briefing at the White House.
The business itself was very routine to a security group going with a member of the White House staff to an area of the world that I was familiar with. But ah, going to brief at the President’s place was something out of the ordinary, regardless of the circumstances.
I wore my best suit, with a new shirt and a new tie. I had a fresh haircut. Had polished my shoes to a rich luster. Brenda had done my fingernails. No denying, I looked good.
The day of the briefing I went through the main entrance at the CIA headquarters to get the shuttle to the White House, a ride that I had reserved a few days before. The shuttle often was only a car if there were just a few people going to specific locations downtown Washington, and I figured that there were not that many people going to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at the same time, so it was important to be early. It does not matter your grade or your position, if you are late for the shuttle and it’s an almost full car, then you sit in the middle up front.
There is no reserving a seat any particular place in the car. First come, first to get a rear window seat. Last to arrive gets the uncomfortable, awkward middle seat up front.
I was the first to arrive, to find it was indeed a sedan and the driver was new to the job. He wanted to impress and as I walked up, he asked after my name and opened the back door for me to get in.
And then he went around and got behind the wheel and started to drive away, when I asked if anyone else was coming. “No, sir,” he said, “you are my only passenger.”
So I sat there in the back, feeling important. Studly. I was a junior officer and this was a very minor piece of business I was goin’ to attend, but I was dressed as keen as I could possible dress, and was in fact sitting in the back of a gov’t limousine heading downtown Washington, DC.
We arrived at the northeast corner of the White House that let out to the walkway to the Treasury Building. And as quickly as possible, after the driver came to a stop, he was out of the car and at the right rear door, that he opened for me.
And I got out.
At about the same time a van came to the curb filled with State Department staffers heading to the same briefing. No one opened the door for them, they had to sling the sliding door back and climb out all by themselves.
My driver was still standing by my door to our car, and because we had been chatting on the way over, he wished me a good day, and touched the bill of his hat in a civilian like salute…
I knew several of the State staffers and they called out to me, and we began to walk the pathway between the White House and Treasury…
When I noticed for the first time the long line of tourist waiting along that pathway to go on the White House tour. The line went out of sight back around the rear of the White House. Hundreds of people were watching us, most groups taking photos, some you could hear trying to figure out where they had seen us before on TV.
It probably wasn’t 15 minutes; 2 or 3 maybe to reach the guard’s post, passing all those people in the line. But I know for sure somewhere out there in photo albums of common ol’ American folks, is the picture of a very young me getting out that limo by the White House with my chauffeur manning the door, to be joined obviously by my staff as we made our way into the White House, probably to meet with the President of the United States. Boy wunderkind.
Sudden, unexpected fame can make a lifetime impression, even if it’s phony.
Makes me smile even now.