“A decent boldness ever meets with friends.”
Homer, The Odyssey, c. 800 BC
Johnny Kilroy wondered exactly how he wound up in the middle of an army barracks in South Carolina surrounded by a group of crazed Alabamans who were about to beat the crap out of him. Was this some cruel April fool’s prank or were they serious about doing him grave bodily harm?
When he left the Induction Center in New York City a few days before, the United States Army gave him subway fare, a meal voucher and a train ticket. With a small group of other young men from New York, he made his way by subway to New York City’s Penn Station to await his train to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He was now a bona fide GI (Government Issue), the universal label given to every grunt who ever served in the army in World War II and after.
In a corner of the waiting room in Penn Station, he and his new found New York acquaintances discussed advice about never volunteering for anything and never acknowledging you had special skills or attended college. The Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) would absolutely torture anyone who appeared smarter than them.
“Try not to get noticed,” was another tidbit of good advice offered by a hulk of a kid from Brooklyn named Vinny Larini. “Those sergeants will crucify you if you answer back or if they think you’re a wise-ass. They’re always looking for scapegoats to show us how tough they are. And those southern sergeants hate New Yorkers.” Vinny had a year at Brooklyn College and Johnny took a liking to him right away. They had some things in common. Here was somebody he might be able to buddy up with.
The conversations continued until late in the afternoon when the announcement was made over the loudspeakers for their train. Like so many condemned prisoners, they morosely ambled toward their track number. Rose asked Johnny to call her so she could come down to Penn Station to say good-bye. It was a farewell Johnny could not endure and he knew it. He never called.
Once on board the train, he was directed to a cramped private compartment, called a Roomette, which served as his sleeping berth. The conductor took great pains to explain how unusual this was, that most of the inductees were assigned to bunked beds in Pullman sleeping cars. But with the shortage of rolling stock in America – steel had to be used for more important purposes – exceptions had to be made to squeeze every ounce of space from every trip. Johnny felt fortunate he didn’t have to share this closet-sized room with another GI. After a few minutes, the train jerked and lurched and got underway to begin their long trip to South Carolina.
Johnny brought a small gym bag that contained his shaving kit, a few chocolate bars, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste along with two paperback books; The Robe, a novel by C. Lloyd Douglas and the non-fiction comedy, See Here, Private Hargrove by a reporter named Marion Hargrove. He had hoped to gain some insight into the military by reading about the adventures of the author regarding life in the army. Johnny always tried to gain some advantage or get an edge by simply knowing more and being better prepared than the next guy. He sat back on the bed, his back against the wall, and gazed out the window.
The train started out in darkness under Manhattan and remained so as it crossed under the Hudson River. It emerged in New Jersey to a bright setting sun perched on the distant western horizon. Johnny shaded his eyes as he watched the landscape race by. His mind wandered as he took in the scenery. Eventually the huge oil storage tanks and refineries gave way to wooded pinelands and a broad landscape of budding trees in emerging forests.
The wheels raced like galloping steel as the train bounced along the rails and the bumpy, swaying motion of the train merged with his conscious thoughts. He wondered what Rose would think of this turn of events? What did that lieutenant mean when he said, ‘You won’t make it’?
A sharp knock on his door interrupted his thoughts. “Dinner served in the dining car, “ said the anxious voice of the conductor.
Johnny locked his berth and made his way to the dining car. While it was obvious most of the passengers on this train were young male inductees, there were a number of civilians. The dining car was emptying out as the meals were served in shifts. It was an old World War I era railroad car with a pot-bellied stove at one end for heat and old-fashioned oil lamps for light. Every last bit of the rolling stock in America was being pressed into service.
Johnny took a seat by the window and continued his solitary gaze out into the scenic panoramic view as if the answers to his questions were written somewhere out there for him to find. He noticed a small sign propped up on the table. It politely exhorted diners to finish their meal quickly so as to make room for the next shift of diners. He smiled to himself.
Every place he looked he could find evidence of how profoundly life in America had changed in just a few short months. An entire nation had been joined together with one purpose, one goal, and one mind. Because America had been so far behind the rest of the world militarily, it had to be inventive and creative to overcome its many deficiencies. He wondered how long it would take his country to catch up and surpass its enemies in men and material. Not long, he concluded.
The conductor seated a family at his table, a couple and their daughter who looked to be about ten years old. Introductions were brief and Johnny politely resisted the small talk the father was trying to engage in. Seeing he preferred not to engage in conversation, the parents stopped talking but the young girl continued to ask questions.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“South Carolina. A place called Fort Jackson.”
“We’re going to Florida. Will you be going to fight overseas?”
“Millie,” her mother interrupted. “Please leave the nice young man alone.”
Johnny suddenly realized how rude he must have appeared and for the first time cracked a small smile. “It’s okay,” he said to the mother and then looked right at the young girl. “I don’t know where I’m going yet Millie, or what I am going to do. Today is my very first day.”
Dinner was simple and served quickly. Rationing had already begun to take hold and various foods were hard to come by. They were served bean soup and roasted chicken with broccoli. Dessert consisted of a small slice of apple pie with ice cream. Millie devoured hers before Johnny was even served his piece and he graciously offered it to her. She accepted despite the frowns from her parents. As the family left the table the mother clutched his arm and said, “Good luck to you, son. God bless.”
The dining car was emptying out. As Johnny made his way through the car he noticed a card game at the last table. The young men from New York City were playing poker. There was some money on the table. Vinny Larini noticed Johnny walking down the aisle and said to him, “Hey, Johnny. Can I borrow a sawbuck?”
“For that?” Johnny replied pointing to the cards on the table. “Not a chance.”
Johnny continued back to his compartment. He had brought twenty dollars with him. That was a whole month’s pay in the army. He decided he would use it only for essentials or emergencies. The card game was neither.
When he returned to his compartment he decided not to take any more meals in the dining car. He fished out his Private Hargrove paperback and began reading. At midnight he finished the book and tried to get some sleep but he was too wound up to sleep for long.
The train sped along through the night, stopping only in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. At each stop more young men boarded. The stop in Washington D.C. was a long one. It was there the yardmen replaced the electrified locomotive with a steam-powered one. There were no electrified rails south of the nation’s capital. The rest of the journey would be just as harsh as crossing the Great Plains in the era of the Westward Expansion. After the train left Washington D.C. he tried unsuccessfully to sleep. He would doze off for an occasional catnap but never to a sound slumber.
After a fitful night, the dark gave way to the dawn. He took a partially melted chocolate bar from his bag for breakfast and devoured it. Once they were beyond Washington, the view barely changed. He was traveling through the rural South and it reminded him of a jungle compared to the sparse vegetation of the North. As the train traveled deeper into the South, he would periodically see a shanty or shack alongside the tracks and was amazed to realize people actually lived in them. The structures were small, ramshackle and dirty. The roofs were made mostly of tin sheets cobbled together. Laundry hung from clotheslines and blew in the breeze like the surrender flags of the pitiable and the destitute. There were no windows, only openings and the brief glimpses he had of the interiors revealed more squalor than he had ever imagined. He wondered if most southerners lived like this or just the Negroes he saw living alongside the railroad tracks.
The train moved on late into the afternoon. Finally, at dusk, the conductors began pounding on the doors of the compartments.
“FORT JACKSON, FIVE MINUTES!” They yelled over and over as they walked the length of the train.
Johnny began to collect his belongings. Everything went back into his gym bag except the paperbacks. No reason to let on he was a reader. He stashed the books under his bed. Just as he finished, the train began to slow and pull into a station. As the train crept to a stop, what he saw out the window shot a bolt of fear through his stomach.
About a dozen NCOs were standing, waiting, hands on hips, staring up at the slowing train. They were spread out across the length of the train platform. They all had the cocky swagger of men with the authority to hand out mischief and mayhem. Near the center of the platform was a group of white circles painted on the ground, four deep and half the length of the train. Stark, bare floodlights illuminated the whole scene. They were inside Fort Jackson.
The train stopped and the boys began to get off. The NCOs immediately began yelling and screaming at the recruits as they directed them onto the white circles. Johnny couldn’t hear much through the window of his compartment but it was obvious all hell was breaking loose outside. Satisfied he had a sneak peek at what was going on, he left the room and stepped off the train and into the pandemonium. Boys were shuffling around trying to find an open white circle as the NCOs screamed insults and obscenities at everyone. The circles were filling up fast, but not fast enough for the agitated NCOs. It wouldn’t be a good thing to be milling about after everyone else had found a spot. Johnny saw an open circle just a few feet away inside the ranks and made a move toward it. Suddenly, a large foot from an adjacent circle stepped over and covered the open spot.
“Reserved for a friend,” said Vinny Larini as he leaned toward Johnny and blocked him.
Johnny was surprised. “I thought we were friends,” was the only thing he could think of in reply.
“If you want to have a friend, you need to be a friend,” answered Vinny obviously referrig to the fact Johnny didn’t lend him money back on the train.
Johnny just nodded. He was angry but certainly didn’t want to do or say anything to attract attention. He stepped away just as another soldier stepped in to take the spot. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said to Larini as he stepped toward the back of the rapidly forming ranks.
The stream of recruits pouring from the train had slowed to a trickle. Two NCOs on either end of the group began closing down on both ends. They quickly compressed the formation by squeezing out empty spaces. Johnny worked his way along the back of the formation, closest to the train. He found an empty circle and quickly hopped on it.
Once the NCOs had tightened up the formation, they signaled to the NCO in charge. There were roughly 200 recruits in the formation.
“Do not speak and do not move,” he yelled at the assembled boys. He signaled to the conductor and the train hissed, bucked and pulled out of the station through a cloud of steam.
“We lost a few yesterday because they didn’t listen to orders,” he barked at the formation. “Running around like chickens without heads and went right under the train’s wheels. Crushed ‘em so bad there was hardly enough to send home to Mama.” Johnny didn’t believe him but it was a good attention getter.
“Listen up, ladies,” the chief NCO continued. “I’m Sergeant Lupton and I own all of you sorry swinging dicks! When I give the order we’ll move out. Then, we’re going to feed you, because we have to. After that, we will issue you GI gear, skivvies and sheets and find you a rack. Pay attention and we’ll get this over with before dawn. Left face!”
Most of the men turned to their left but a few turned to the right and quickly corrected themselves. “I see we have a bunch of goddamn idiots in this train load,” screamed Lupton.
“You all must be from New York or Philly. Only Yankees can be that stupid.” Lupton was on a roll. “It’s getting dark and I know y’all are afraid of the dark so let’s all hold hands as we march to the mess tent.” Some of the men were reluctant to reach for the hand of the man next to him. Lupton went apoplectic. “If I catch anyone not holding hands, I will make him sorry he was ever born.” All the men quickly grabbed a hand.
The formation walked, rather than marched, despite the “left-right” cadence being called out by one of the NCOs. After a few minutes, they were ordered to halt. Then the ranks formed a single file that wound its way into a large mess tent.
Inside the tent was a long table behind which were soldiers with large shiny stainless steel pots containing the ingredients of the meal. The first item each man took was a steel tray with shaped food compartments, then a spoon and fork. As they filed by the long table, the servers would ladle the food into the tray. At the first station a server dropped a piece of toast onto the tray and then ladled a creamy glutinous mixture on top of it.
“What’s this?” asked one boy.
“Chipped beef,” barked the server.
“Looks like shit”, answered the same boy.
“Funny you should say that,” laughed one of the cooks. “The unofficial, official name of this meal is SOS. ‘Shit on a Shingle’. Enjoy.”
“I can’t eat this crap.”
Sergeant Lupton was observing this scene. He stepped in at that moment and turned the soldier around. “You’re right, girlie. You can’t eat this.” He grabbed the tray and flung it across the mess tent. “You go hungry tonight.” The recruit proceeded without saying another word.
After that, everyone else took his chipped beef, peas and carrots, and mashed potatoes without protest. Johnny gulped down his meal. At least it was hot. If one could ignore the metaphor, he concluded, it wasn’t all that bad. He ate standing up or walking as everyone else did. There was no place to stop and sit. After just a few bites, the order was given. “Move out!”
The line quickly exited the mess tent. Once outside the men disposed of their steel food trays and whatever morsels of food might be left in appropriately marked cans. Johnny wiped his mouth of the last vestiges of food just as he noticed the first lightning bolt in a deep, dark sky. A thunderstorm was brewing and it was not far off.
The line of men then snaked into a long warehouse. Again, there were long tables with army personnel lined up on the other side. At each station, the recruit would be issued some element of military gear. The first few stations were easy. The men were issued folded sheets, pillowcases, blankets, a poncho and a barracks bag. They all were folded flat and the bundle formed a foundation for what was to come next. Then it got harder.
The next station doled out fatigue shirts and pants. A sergeant would eyeball the recruit and say “small, medium or large” to a private who would reach into a stack and pull out shirts, pants and a web belt. The next soldier would pile underwear and undershirts onto the rapidly mounting pile of gear. A field jacket would come next. By now the pile was agonizingly clumsy as the men would have to support the weight with one arm, contain and balance the pile with the other arm all the while not being able to easily see in front of themselves. Almost everyone had a small personal travel bag they had to support as well.
At the final station each recruit was issued socks and a pair of boots. Another sergeant would ask the recruit, “What size shoe?” and proceed to issue a different size boot. That any boot fit any soldier at all was a minor miracle. Johnny began to experience the sinking feeling of the abandoned. He didn’t like it one bit.
Once he was issued his socks and boots, Johnny made his way out of the building along a blacktop path marked by overhead lights. It was pouring rain under a black sky filled with thunder and flashes of lightning. The raindrops were thick and heavy and he was soaked to the skin within seconds. The next stop would be the barracks and he could not get there soon enough. He struggled with his load as he strained to see where he was going.
The line of GIs went off into the distance. To the right of the path was a series of buildings lined up side by side as far as he could see in the dark. It appeared the line of men was entering the fifth or sixth building ahead. At least he would be reunited with his buddies from New York. Although already drenched, it would not be long now.
Johnny noticed a soldier dressed in a poncho standing in front of him alongside the path.
The soldier said something to the GI in front of Johnny but he could not hear what was said.
Then the soldier addressed Johnny. “Where y’all from?” he asked.
“New York,” answered Johnny still moving clumsily along.
“Come with me,” the soldier, whose rank Johnny could not see because of the poncho, grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the first barracks building, almost spilling his delicately balanced load of equipment. “I have one open bunk in here.”
“But…” Johnny decided not to continue his objection as he assumed this voice of authority was probably an NCO.
The soldier all but dragged him into the dimly lit barracks. It was after curfew and the main lights were out. They walked past the stairs that led to the upper floor of the barracks. There was no noise except for the rain pelting the windows. On the lower level the double bunks were lined up side-by-side pointing inward from the windows. They ran along both sides of the barracks. The space between the two lines of bunks created an open corridor, which ran down the center of the barracks. On the near side, to the right of the entrance hallway, was a single double bunk nestled against the end wall perpendicular to the length of the barracks. It was obvious this placement was not normal but rather a function of trying to squeeze more recruits into an already overcrowded situation.
The soldier pushed Johnny toward that bunk and said, “Bottom rack,” turned on his heels and abruptly walked back out of the barracks area.
Johnny Kilroy shook his head in disgust. How the hell did he wind up in here? He was drenched to the skin. His hair was matted from the rain and partially covered his eyes. He was still hungry and dog-tired. When he carefully placed his pile of clothes on the bare mattress of the bottom bunk, he noticed the upper bunk was occupied. A young soldier in a white T-shirt was lying on top of the covers writing a letter in the dim light. His face was friendly despite his bushy eyebrows and lantern jaw. He put down his pen and reached out his hand. “Hi, my name is Tom Swanson. Where you from?”
Johnny detected a slight Midwestern accent. He swept the wet from his eyes with his forearm, blinked a few times and squinted. He wiped his hand on his bunk and shook the outstretched hand. “Johnny Kilroy, New York City,” he sighed.
Tom Swanson let out a big smile and a small laugh. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered to himself.
“You too?” asked Johnny hopefully.
“Oh, no,” answered Tom. “I’m from Idaho…Boise.” Tom picked up his pen and continued writing. “Welcome.”
Johnny sat down on his bare mattress. He pushed his hair out of his eyes and began to sort through his pile of clothes. First he would find his bedding and try to make up his bunk.
Then he would shove everything else into his barracks bag, shed his wet civilian clothes, dry off and hit the sack. Reveille, he knew, would come early and he was beat. In the morning, he would try to fit into his misfit uniform the best he could.
Suddenly, through the faint light of the barracks came a sharp high-pitched voice in a deep southern drawl. It pierced the shadows like a knife. “Like ah was sayin’, I was up there in New York once and them boys up there are all pussies.” There was a smattering of quiet laughs and chuckles. “Why, they would even try to fight dirty, just break off a car antenna and try to use it on you. I would take it away from them and whip those poor boys like their Pa taking em’ to the woodshed.” More snickers and laughter followed.
Johnny was sitting on his bunk and looking down the length of the corridor in the center of the barracks. Shafts of moonlight slipped through the windows and crossed the corridor floor providing just a flicker of illumination. The voice was moving along the far wall, crossing back and forth from one side of the central corridor to the other. A bolt of lightning lit up the room and then another. Johnny saw a young soldier of medium height with blazing bright red hair. He could see the brightness of the hair even in the faint light. The redheaded soldier continued to talk to his buddies but in a voice intentionally loud enough for everyone in the barracks to hear. The thunder drowned out his words but not the laughter from the rest of the barracks. He was walking back and forth, into and out of the flashing glow of the lightning, talking and laughing in a scene, which was both macabre and surreal.
“So, ah must say,” he continued, “if a New Yorker ever showed up in this barracks, ah would have to spank his ass and send him back home to his Mama.” Some boys in the barracks were laughing loudly and making exaggerated sounds of rebel yells.
At first, Johnny assumed this just might be a silly coincidence. He figured it was just some goober popping off for the benefit of his redneck friends. He was about to let it all pass but that last comment seemed to be directed at him. In fact, there was something about this bizarre scene that convinced him all the remarks were aimed directly at him.
Johnny was not a tough kid as tough New York City kids went. Nevertheless, he learned how to fight at a young age and was capable, if not proficient at it. But there were other lessons he learned on the streets of Washington Heights that transcended the ability to fight. He easily remembered those hard-earned lessons. Never show fear! Never back down! If you sense fear in the other guy, be aggressive! Swing first while everyone else is talking! If any situation in his entire life screamed out for him to apply those lessons, this was it.
He weighed his options quickly. There were two choices; either ignore the provocation or
confront it. If Johnny challenged him, there would be a fight. There was no telling how many others would jump in. More than likely, he would get in a few good shots before some NCO would eventually show up and break up the brawl. Then there would undoubtedly be disciplinary action taken against all the participants. His army life would instantly turn to shit. He might even be thrown into the stockade. So much for not being noticed.
To do nothing, on the other hand, meant he had backed down. He would have to live here, in this barracks, with all of these guys for the next four or five days with that stigma hanging over his head. It was a humiliation he couldn’t handle.
The shrill voice of the redhead, punctuated by the laughs of the other soldiers, continued to pierce the darkened barracks. Johnny was now focused on what he had to do. He continued to hear “Red” talking along with the howls and laughter of the men but could no longer understand the words. Their meaning was lost in his tunnel vision. His focus was entirely on Red and he glared at him through the darkness. Johnny stood up slowly and took off his wet jacket. His heart was pounding and the adrenaline as surging as he began walking down the central corridor toward Red. It had already been a long day and he would end it by taking on half of the state of Alabama.
Red continued to pace back and forth spouting his rancor, oblivious to Johnny slowly walking toward him. Someone quietly said, “Oh shit,” and the barracks went silent. Johnny continued walking deliberately toward Red who had stopped and was facing him.
“I’m from New York City,” Johnny said in a firm and steady voice, “and I don’t have a car antenna, ” he held out his hands palms up. “So come and whip my ass.” Johnny wagged the fingers on both outstretched hands in a ‘come-to-me’ gesture.
Red wasn’t expecting this. He froze and then took a step back. Through the dim light Johnny thought he saw fear in Red’s eyes. That was all he had to see. He kept closing the distance. In a few seconds he would be all over Red. Suddenly, he heard some of the recruits hop off their bunks behind him. He figured he was about to get jumped by Red’s friends and he sensed someone directly behind him. Johnny quickly turned ready to defend himself.
Tom Swanson came up behind Johnny swiftly. He positioned himself solidly between Johnny and Red before Johnny could do anything. “Whoa,” he said in a booming voice. He had one hand lightly on Johnny’s chest and was pointing at Red with the other. “This is not going to happen. Not here. Not tonight.” Swanson was obviously trying to prevent the fight. He wheeled around to the few boys who had jumped off their bunks and pointed at them. “Get back on your racks,” he commanded. Swanson was an intimidating figure at nearly six foot five. The men quickly jumped back into their bunks.
“There’s not going to be any fight in this barracks tonight,” Swanson continued. “I don’t need this trouble.”
Emboldened by Swanson standing between him and Johnny, Red suddenly recovered his bravado. “Ah was only foolin’ with you Yank. Can’t you take a joke?”
“This is not over between us, Bubba,” Johnny called out over his shoulder as Swanson guided him back to their bunk.
“Fuck you, Yank,” Red managed to respond in a weak and squeaky voice once Swanson had maneuvered Johnny back to their bunk.
“Remember, it ain’t over between you and me,” Johnny pointed back at Red.
Suddenly, the NCO who brought Johnny into the barracks appeared in the doorway. He wasn’t wearing his poncho and Johnny could see he was a corporal. “Everything all right in here?” he yelled rather than asked.
“Yeah, Corporal. Everything is fine,” answered Tom Swanson. “No trouble here.”
“Well keep it down. It’s past lights out,” he said as he left.
Tom Swanson climbed back up onto his upper bunk. He was as calm as he was when Johnny first showed up. Tom resumed writing his letter as Johnny was still trying to come down from the adrenalin high.
“I suppose I owe you a debt of thanks,” Johnny finally said after a few minutes.
“They set you up,” Tom replied not looking up from his writing pad.
“What?” Johnny asked.
“The corporal is from Alabama too,” Tom said, putting down his pencil. “Apparently, they all got along famously since this morning. I came in this afternoon with another guy from Michigan. That guy got sick so they took him to the base hospital and an officer told the corporal to fill the bunk. Then he actually asked his fellow Alabamans who they would like to have added to the barracks and Red asked him to get them a New Yorker.”
All of a sudden it became clear to Johnny. “I guess it was all a joke,” sighed Johnny.
“A bad joke,” answered Tom. “You were right to stand up to them. If you hadn’t your life here would have been miserable. But I had to stop it. You were taking it a lot further than they thought you would. I think you surprised them by standing up to them. You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that, but I think they would have kicked your ass and my corporal friend back there would probably have reported the brawl. Then we all would have been in deep dung.”
Tom was right. Johnny knew it. He was outnumbered by a lot and would have taken a bad beating. “You’re right, Tom,” said Johnny. “How can I thank you?”
Tom grinned. “You can lend me five-bucks?”
“Really?” Johnny was surprised by the request.
Johnny remembered what Vinny Larini said to him about being a friend. Besides, Tom Swanson just got him out of a big jam. He reached into his wallet, fished out a five-dollar bill and handed it to Tom.
“Thanks. My family is wiring me some money. I’ll pay you back.”
The next few days went by swiftly. The army had the recruits running ragged all day, every day. First order of business the next morning was haircuts. Immediately after the haircuts, the recruits packaged their civilian clothes to be mailed home. The rabble began to look like they were actually in the army although most of the men wore ill-fitting fatigues. Next was a battery of written tests. More inoculations were given and then another medical exam.
By the time Johnny got back to his bunk at the end of the first full day, Tom was gone. His barracks bag was gone and his bedding had been removed. No one knew why and no one replaced him. Johnny kissed his five bucks good-bye.
The next day was more of the same. Forms upon forms were filled out. Insurance beneficiary forms, pay forms, forms for everything. After lunch the entire regiment was lined up in formation when the cadre asked all members of Barracks One to step forward. Johnny watched as all the Alabamans dutifully complied. He remained in formation. The cadre quickly picked out a dozen men for Kitchen Police (K.P.) and some other work detail. Red was one of them and Johnny caught his eye as he marched by. Johnny cocked his head with a look that said, go ahead and open your mouth and I’ll kick your ass. Red said nothing and just kept marching.
The army was expanding rapidly and the growing pains showed in many different ways. “Hurry up and wait” became the bywords of the daily routine. Recruits would stand in lines for hours not knowing what they were waiting for before they would be shuttled off to another line, again to wait for hours. They were given work detail upon work detail including policing the area of trash and cigarette butts, painting (the army saying was if it moved, salute it, if not, paint it), K.P., cleaning latrines, digging ditches and on and on. Then they would be rushed to and through the mess hall for meals.
Finally, after days of this mass chaos and confusion the company received word they would ship out by bus the next morning for Camp Gordon, Georgia, for Basic Combat Training.
Everyone had enough of this madness the army called a Reception Center. Now they would get down to the nitty-gritty of getting into shape and becoming soldiers.
On the last day Johnny was moving along the chow line having food ladled onto his tray by the servers. First the beef stew was slopped on, then the green beans, and in between the mashed potatoes server and the ice cream station a disembodied hand came through the soldiers serving the food and dropped a folded five-dollar bill onto the green beans. It was Tom Swanson who was on K.P. duty. “Thanks,” Tom grinned.
“You’re welcome,” Johnny replied as he was swept down the line. “Where you been?”
“Infirmary. Sick call. I’ll be leaving in a few days for Gordon.” Tom was raising his voice as Johnny moved along the line.
“See you there. We’re leaving tomorrow,” he hollered back as he reached the end of the line and looked for a seat. There was something about what Tom did that made Johnny feel good and it wasn’t just the money. The chances of running into Tom again were pretty small and Tom could have easily let Johnny pass by on the chow line without paying him back. It occurred to him that Tom was the sort of young man who always paid his debts. That gesture helped reinforce Johnny’s rapidly depleting faith in human nature. If you want to have a friend, you need to be a friend.
Johnny had survived the Reception Center without being noticed. He managed to duck all of the work details and stay under the radar. With the help of Tom Swanson he dodged a bullet in the barracks and avoided a brawl that would have surely caused him great difficulty if not significant injury. The cadre didn’t give him any trouble and he didn’t give the cadre any trouble in return. He also earned the grudging respect of the Alabamans in his barracks although he was sure while respecting him, they surely didn’t like him.
From time to time, over the days at Fort Jackson, some of them approached him about the “incident”. They were mostly contrite about their part in the “joke”. He accepted their grudging comments graciously. Thanks to the Alabamans, Johnny would be leaving for Camp Gordon with a nickname and a reputation. Behind his back they called him “Yank” and it was no secret they believed him to be one ballsy, crazy son of a bitch!
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