Previous story # 62 of the young lady who saved herself from an attacking bear with her .25 caliber pistol reminds me of this story of a character I knew very briefly in 1964 during US Army basic training in Fort Gordon, Georgia. It is taken verbatim from my The Vietnam War Its Ownself.
“The third day of basic training my newly formed platoon of recruits were issued field web gear that we had to display over our lockers — packs, canteens, ammo pouches, canteen belts, and suspenders.
We also received helmets along with their protective metal outer shells, called “steel pots.” I noticed one man was having difficulty putting his gear together properly and I watched him for several minutes. Even with his GI haircut it was apparent that he was balding. He had a large head, a skinny neck, no shoulders, a pudgy middle, big butt and short legs. He wore thick glasses which he kept pushing up his nose as he tried to adjust his gear. I resisted an impulse to help him. The chore was so simple, and the fellow seemed so helpless. I decided he was exactly the reason that my old buddy growing up – Cottonpicker an 82nd Airborne sergeant – had told me to mind my own business during basic training.
A recruit I had talked with briefly during day 1 and 2, Pvt. Elmer Van Pelt, went over later and arranged the man’s web gear for him. He also helped adjust the webbing inside the helmet liner and with the steel pot encasement in place. I watched as Van Pelt put the helmet on the head of the man to check the fit. It fit too low and the man looked silly. His big glasses barely showed underneath, plus his neck was so skinny that he had trouble holding his head up under the weight of his steel pot. His head wobbled from side to side. He looked like a turkey.
Van Pelt continued to make adjustments until he got the helmet to fit properly. The man sat silently as Van Pelt worked. Van Pelt finally left and, after going to his bunk for a moment, came over to my bunk. Looking the other way, he said that he thought the “professor,” a draftee, was out of his element. He said the man smelt a trifle rank too.
Later we were told to put on our web gear and fall out into formation outside — falling into and out of formation being a large part of our first few days. I noticed that the professor had his web suspenders twisted in the back. They were the least of his worries however, because he was having considerable problems as he tried to hold up his head under the steel pot.
Drill Sergeant McGee came up to the formation from the rear and spotted the professor’s twisted suspenders. He walked up to the man and said, “How do ya feel, Molly-Wolly? Don’t shake ya head at me, recruit. Do ya hear me, quit shaking ya fuckin’ head!”
McGee’s face was contorted in anger. “I said goddamnit quit shaking ya frigging head.”
I could see McGee’s face soften after a while. “Is ya hat too heavy for ya, Molly-Wolly? Are ya so fuckin’ weak dat ya can’t wear a steel pot? OK, I can understand dat. I can understand.”
McGee stood there for a moment and looked the professor in the eye. “But ya know ya look like a smart young fellow to me. I gotta question for ya. How come ya fucking suspenders are twisted? Dat don’t take no goddamned strength. Ya got to think, Molly-Wolly, think.”
The professor turned his head to one side, still wobbling from the weight of the steel pot, and I could see tears welling up in his eyes. McGee continued to look into the professor’s face, and he too saw the tears. I quickly turned my gaze to the front as McGee looked around to see who else was watching the man cry.
“Go inside now, double time, and get ya suspenders fixed, soldier, and come back out here. Now, move out. Now. Go.”
My first thought was that McGee was maybe a nice guy. A nasty individual, like he pretended to be, would have embarrassed the professor about the tears. McGee told the recruit squad leaders to check each member of their squad to make sure the equipment was on right, and he went into the barracks. The professor soon came out and regained his place in the formation.
That night at retreat, the professor fell out of the barracks with his shirttail out of his pants. McGee hesitated as he saw the man awkwardly run by to get in formation, but when he saw the professor fall in without tucking his shirt in, McGee walked up to him. He told him that he was a disgrace to the platoon, the U.S. Army, and the human race and, because of that, he was number one on McGee’s list of people to watch.
Before lights out that night Van Pelt sat on my bunk and polished his shoes. He said, “Life’s relative, you know. It’s a proven scientific theory — the theory of relativity. You are judged against your peers. Like, for example, two men in the woods, surprised by a bear, were running away, the bear at their heels, and one man said he sure hoped he was faster than that bear and the other man said, ‘I only hope I’m faster’n you.’ That guy understood the theory. Wasn’t necessary to be the fastest man in the universe there, only the faster of the two of them. The bear got the slow one. You see what I mean, things are relative. Life’s relative to the situation. Here at Fort Gordon, it don’t help if you’re smart or rich, look like a movie star, or got the greatest little sports car in the world back home. Not relative. Takes primitive instincts here. Semi-developed playground skills and the muscle tone of a marathon runner don’t hurt either. Don’t think the professor, relatively speaking, is packing the right gear here. He ain’t playground material.”
The professor was sitting on his bed, awkwardly bent over shining his shoes. He stopped often to push his glasses back up his nose. “You know,” Van Pelt said with a smile, “it makes me feel better about myself here when I see how out of place the ol’ professor is over there. Relative to him, I’m OK.”
I told Van Pelt that it was because he was basically a blunt instrument — primal man, comparable to Tate, a Neanderthal-looking black man in our platoon. Van Pelt said that was a clever observation. “Not correct,” he added, “but a good comment anyway, about a three on a scale to five. Above average. Maybe you should be the one dealing with the professor, since you’re so clever.”
“No,” I said, “you are the one with the mother instinct. I’m here to learn to kill.”
“You, my friend,” said Van Pelt, “are the blunt instrument, but I like you anyway.”
The next morning when we fell out for reveille, Sergeant McGee inspected the barracks. He came out and addressed us from the top of the stairs before we marched off to the mess hall.
“OK, slimeballs, I walked into da barracks just now and hit smelt like a urinal. Like a goddamned piss pot. Ya hear me. A fucking piss pot. Someone peed in dere bed last night!”
McGee was talking so loud that people standing in formation by other barracks could hear.
“Then goddamnit made da bed up on top of da stinking piss!” He walked down the stairs and up to the platoon. “My fucking platoon. We got ourselves a bed wetter. In da fucking Army.” Softer, meaner, he asked, “Guess who it is?” He walked through the first squad line to the professor. “Who Molly-Wolly? Who?” McGee fixed a hard, steady look at the man.
“Me, Sergeant,” said the professor softly.
“Ya go in dere while da rest of us are in da chow hall and ya get dat stinking mess and ya exchange it for clean stuff and ya have ya bed made before we get back. And ya take a shower. And, Molly-Wolly, I ain’t finished.” McGee grabbed his arm, “I am going to help ya get over dis. I’m going to stop ya from wetting da bed. Tonight. Ya’ll stop. I’ll show ya. I done it before.”
That evening, Sergeant McGee walked into the barracks and everyone quickly braced to attention. The drill sergeant’s footfalls were loud as he walked toward the professor’s bunk. McGee scowled at him a moment, then went down the line to Tate’s bunk. He told the man who slept on the top bunk over this big human being to trade places with the professor.
Van Pelt was standing across from me. He pursed his lips and squinted his eyes, as if in pain, when he realized what McGee was doing. In addition to being very large, Tate was enormously ill-tempered. Not only did people leave the shower room when he entered, they were reluctant to stand behind him in the chow line for fear they might accidentally bump into him and set him off. He was an animal. No one even tried to get along with him.
After McGee left, Tate grabbed the professor’s t-shirt and told him in words that were hard to understand but whose tone was expressively clear what would happen to him if he peed in the top bunk. One of the black men suggested that Tate kill the honkey right now rather than later, because he was sure to piss in his sleep again.
The last thing we heard that night after lights out was Tate’s muttered warning to the professor, “OK, mudder fucker, wet da bed and I’ll knock ya fucking head off, ya hear?”
The next morning the professor was up and dressed before anyone else. He looked tired. Van Pelt guessed that he had not slept at all that night. And he did not sleep the next night.
The professor went on sick call the following morning after breakfast. When we returned from training before lunch, his equipment was gone. We never saw him again.”