I had a little anniversary a few days ago. It seems that 32 years ago, when I was 21, I raised my right hand to become a private in the US Army. An odd institution, the Army. Although I had signed a contract, the oath was the binding instrument:
“I Dal Ogle do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
I took that oath at a MEPS center in Nashville, Tennessee. MEPS was one of the first in a long line of acronyms I would learn and use every day in the Army. In this case it stood for Military Entrance Processing Station. Later I would learn the art and the joy of the backwards acronym. You know, Bag, Sleeping or Jeep, Personnel…Yup, the American military is its own subculture and they teach you everything you need to know about your new chosen culture in twelve weeks.
Do you know anyone shipping off to Basic Training?
Basic Training is probably the understatement of the millennia. The physical part of basic gets all the press but, the important part is unlearning everything you have learned in life to that point. Once you have properly forgotten you can then relearn the Army way. From rank identification, who to salute, to how to sign and date your signature, you have to learn it all. I still date some documents the Army way. The beautiful simplicity of the day, month, last two of the year, is a sort of secret handshake for all in the club. See, the numbers are separated, it avoids confusion, if you go to Europe you won’t be lost…
I guess you can take the man out of the Army…
After my basic at Fort McClellan, I went to advanced training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. In case you are unfamiliar, Fort Gordon, outside of Augusta, is the hottest place on earth. I drank more water out of a smelly canteen there than…well, I drank tons of water. I drank it mostly out of fear. They told me if I contracted heat stroke I would be Court-Martialed for insubordination and who needs that? I guess they would have gotten me well then sent me to stockade.
Doesn’t the Army have curious ways of looking at things?
On a 90-degree day in October I left what I knew of the world in Charleston, South Carolina and my crying mom. When I landed in the alien land they called Germany, it was 45. It snowed two feet that night and stayed on the ground till July. The first order of business for me was to get a roll of what looked like play money, put that money in huge toy telephone and call mom. I reassured her that we were not lost somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic then asked her to do me a favor. I asked her to dig out all those catalogs we had received for years and find the largest coat she could buy. I asked her to ship it immediately.
Have you ever had long stretches where your bones were chilled?
After a time of self-pity, God spoke through Private Donald Sponcelor from Los Fresnos, Texas. We were not men of the world but, during a Dopplebock fog, he had a moment of clarity. “I heard you could go to Frankfort on a train for ten marks,” he said. I could even do the math on that one. With our exchange rate, that was about three bucks. We weren’t sure what waited in Frankfort but, it was better than a drunken pity party in the barracks of Bad Hersfeld. A month later we began our tour of 22 countries for train tickets which cost less than cab fare.
My work in Germany was spent on the East/West German Border. Someone called it the Frontier of Freedom. I was a Calvary Trooper. I must say, I still love the smell a Lycoming gas turbine makes when it warms up in the morning. I would love to report to you some heroic exploits but, it was mostly boredom. The only shots fired at me in anger were mostly from drunken East German and Russian conscripts trying to shoot defectors or something.
I don’t think I was ever in any real danger from the enemy.
Later in the Alabama National Guard, I would go to the other border in South Korea. The difference was stark. The East Germans and Russian conscripts acted as if they could shoot you if it was a necessity. The North Koreans acted like they would take great joy in killing you and eating you. No one ever seemed to escape over that border. Korea was also a cold place. At the time I was in South Korea, it was also very poor. They were very nice people who were desperately poor.
Have any of you been to those places lately?
They tell me goat herders have taken over the fences on the former German Border. I also have word that those South Korean rice fields I witnessed being fertilized with human feces have given way to huge car and TV manufacturing facilities. Being an old Cold Warrior, I am happy things turned out so well in Germany. I am sad however, when I hear that hundreds of thousands of people continue to starve under the thumb or Kim Jung-un or whoever is in charge North Korea these days.
I miss MY Army.
My experience has now, apparently, been relegated to history. All those countries and good times are a thing of the past. My new Army brothers and sisters have been in a real shooting war for over fifteen years now. They deploy, rest for a few months, deploy…Most of them have lost at least one of their brothers and sisters-in-arms. Many of them have been maimed. Most of them suffer deep mental scars few will ever have to feel. The scars that come from seeing things which should never be seen and doing things which no one should ever have to do. I think about my Army experience and how different it is from the 21 year-olds raising their right hand today. I am honored, humbled and grateful, beyond words, that someone would raise their hand for me. I feel so blessed everyday that they will.
Godspeed my brothers and sisters.
This will defend.