Life in the barracks that first week was pretty chaotic, in an organized sort of way. At Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, everything had its place, of course. So, on the outside, everything looked neat and tidy, but under the surface, there were a lot of emotions swirling around, and a lot of ungrounded male energy trying to reestablish some sense of order in an otherwise haphazard universe.
My own universe, anchored in Southern California my whole life, had shifted precipitously in the past few days, expanding its horizons to allow entry to a new parade of personalities, such as I encountered at Fort Leonard Wood. To answer my own question, posed back in LA while sitting at AFEES, Leonard Wood, the man, achieved fame by earning the Medal of Honor in 1898, while involved in a military campaign against the Native, Geronimo. Fort Leonard Wood itself was built at the start of WWII and expanded during the Korean War, so many components of the base reflected this era. The Quonset hut we bunked in the first week was as ancient as it was sturdy. The rounded design left it impervious to the incessant wind, and the openness of the bay allowed for heat and noise to circulate evenly.
Heat was good, noise mostly not so good. I was awakened my second night there, shortly after lights out, having dropped off to sleep the second my head hit the pillow, out of shear exhaustion. Having come in that morning at two AM from Kansas City, my day had been interminably long, and my prospects for the upcoming days, dim. Being jarred awake by the sound of angry voices was seriously annoying. I had had little time for social niceties in the previous sixteen chaotic hours, but I had gained a sense of the personalities surrounding me in this forty-man army suite.
I knew I was in the presence of a more representative cross-section of Los Angeles than the little town of La Puente could provide. Once we shifted from Reception to Basic, I would find myself in the midst of forty guys who comprised not only eight or so of the original transplants from LA, but representatives from every geographical neck of the American Woods, but for now, I was still with that bus load of fellow-recruits from LA AFEES.
How surprised was I to note that the voice which had successfully punctured my dream scape was that of Leon, he of the loud mouth on the bus trip to the airport? Where was that thai stick when you really needed it? Whereas I woke up groggy, I was jolted into the present by hearing an unfamiliar voice roar, “What did you say, my friend?” only the words “my friend” were actually not the ones I've written; they did start with the same initials, but I think I'll stick to the tamer version for purposes of this narrative.
Leon held the course. “I sed, 'yo mama ain't here to protek you. Wassup?”
“Talkin' 'bout my Mama's wassup. You don' be sayin' nuthin' 'bout my Mama, o' you be pickin' you teeth out a the gutter, after you pick yo'self up out a that same gutter. Yo lisnen?” The speaker was another brother from Central LA who had done nothing to draw any undue interest from me, except to note that he put up a forbidding front.
“I'm lisnen', but I'm jus' sayin' ya couldn't fight yo way out of a ole ladies' home, sorry sack o'...” The last was muttered loud enough to be heard, but still more to the side for the sake of his captive audience, than for the sake of the angry dude, now confronting him. That was unfortunate, because as his indignant gaze swung back toward this guy, it met his fist. Slowly, almost gently, Leon relaxed as he slumped to the floor. Apparently, Leon had much to learn about what you could say, and what you couldn't. His lesson came by virtue of the School of Personal Experience, and the rest of us were studiously taking notes.
I have to admit that the part of me that felt bad for Leon, did serious, though brief battle, with the part of me that felt mad at him. He picked the worst possible time for his personal tutorial on “Life with Strangers.“
Our bus load of Los Angeles transplants had remained intact, while we went through the initial week of integrating into the fabric of the “Action Army.” That included being inspected, disrespected, and dejected (but not rejected), as we were measured for properly fitting daily wear, and the more formal dress uniform. After all, “Developing disciplined, highly physically conditioned” soldiers, who are “drilled in the fundamentals of soldiery, and of special military duties as assigned,” required a locker full of the basic tools of the trade. To this day, forty years later, I have twenty-one months' correspondence stuffed into a box labeled “Military Headgear,” which I acquired at around the same time we started to acquire mail.
Items in the daily wear category included long woolen underwear, a woolen jacket liner, an inner woolen set of gloves, an outer leather set of gloves which fit over the woolen ones (imperative for “pushing up Missouri”) and a wool-lined cap. This cap had flaps that extended down and around my chin, in such a manner as to leave only eyes, nose and mouth exposed to the elements. We kept our caps with us at all times, because it conveniently folded up into one of the large saddle pockets on our field jackets.
We were only allowed to wear them if we excelled at our given task at the moment. It was a classic application of the Pavlovian theorem: do well and wear the cap, or slack off and replace it with our olive drab baseball caps. These left our ears exposed to the bitter winter winds, routinely dropping temperatures from the twenties down to zero, when you added in the wind chill. In Missouri, affectionately called Little Korea by the old cook, you had to factor in the wind chill nearly every day of the week.
“Slacking off” frequently meant that someone could not keep up in formation with the rest of the platoon, as we double-timed our way around the expansive FLW grounds. According to “The Story of Fort Leonard Wood,” in our U.S. Army Training Center Yearbook, while construction of the base was underway, “The mud was terrific-so bad as to give the budding camp nationwide publicity. But the excavators and the wielders of hammer, trowel and saw surged on in their work.” I can attest to the fact that any movement around the base involved constant contact with mud. In a letter home I noted that, “This place is so rotten. It's either frozen solid or a sea of mud. Every night we have to scrape off the thick layer of mud which is caked cement-like, onto our boots. Then saddle-soap, dye, polish and buff them... Blah!”
We were popular guys on base that first week. Little did we know that every officer in charge of any sort of dirt relocation project, from moving piles of dirt, to scrubbing supply rooms, had his hand in the cookie jar, when it came to requesting recruits for this detail or that. One day we spent an entire morning canvassing the route of a visiting general, for litter, so that the base commander could make a good impression on his visiting dignitary. That afternoon, we were transported to one of the ranges, where we were employed moving and distributing gravel, to further enhance the footing and possibly reduce the amount of mud that each of us had to scrape off of our boots, before we could make them presentable for the following morning.
The most dreaded detail of all, and the one that probably gets the most air play is kitchen police, better known as K.P. The duty itself, if you were lucky enough to avoid that part which required one to work outside, was not in itself repulsive; it was the seventeen hour time commitment that put a damper on the whole occasion. The poor guy who got stuck out in the cold was the one who had it rough. He dealt with the logistics of anything that was coming into the mess hall in the form of supplies, and anything going out in the form of trash, garbage or food to be delivered to on-post locations, as instructed by the powers that be. K.P. was hideous enough as it was without adding the discomfort of freezing all day.
A guy assigned to kitchen police had to hit the deck at three-thirty in the morning, in order to allow time to get dressed, check out with the duty officer, and get over to the mess hall in time to sign in. Failure to arrive at the prescribed time was addressed very simply by assigning said sorry individual to the worst possible detail, thus relieving the rest of us from that particular chore. The other two options were the dining room and the kitchen.
I did kitchen police twice in the first few weeks, and managed to avoid further return engagements when I assumed the duties of assistant drill instructor, a position which attracted me in the first place for exactly that reason: freedom from all conventional work details. ADI had his own set of responsibilities, but those had more to do with helping recruits keep organized. That helped keep “Third Herd” always moving efficiently forward, so as to avoid any sort of distraction which would put an unwelcome spotlight on our unit.
The best of the three options was the dining room because the task, though enormous, was more evenly paced. There was also the added bonus that you completed the task three times a day, just before breakfast, just before lunch, and just before dinner. Those who worked in the kitchen, never got within sight of the end, until that last hour, when they were already getting-bleary eyed from being on their feet for close to eighteen hours.
There were two of us working in the dining room the first time I pulled this duty, and though our responsibilities were simple enough, the sheer volume of troops who streamed through for each meal, was staggering. Prior to breakfast, which began at five-twenty, eighty minutes after our arrival, we had to have the dining room ready. We had to put the chairs down from the previous night, set out that which was required to facilitate more than six hundred recruits from three different companies, and get ready to repeat the procedure for lunch and dinner.
We made sure there was never a minute to spare, because we found out early in our army experience, that having a minute to spare at the end of one task invited notice, and subsequent assignment of another task to guarantee that we had no down time. That wasn't the case here in the dining room. The fellow in charge was a giant of a man, who towered over us, and yet whose movements seemed almost graceful, as he maneuvered himself through the tightly packed mess hall, checking this coffee urn, or that supply of clean silverware. Like many physically imposing men, Staff Sergeant Maris was soft-spoken, and patient. He never raised his voice because he never had to. We worked hard for him because we wanted to, not because he intimidated us. Still, intense as it may have been, it was a cakewalk compared with the kitchen.
At FLW it was a clear case of “good cook, bad cook,” and we're not talking quality of food. The sergeant-major who ran the kitchen was a rooster of a man, whose five foot, five inch frame, exuded insecurity from the tip of his omnipresent chef's hat, to the heels (operative word) of his brilliantly spit-shined boots. Though his head was perpetually covered, the freckles which covered his face and his arms, and his pasty complexion, which turned shocking pink when he got agitated, indicated he was a red-head. Of course, this conjured up in my mind, the image of a strutting farm rooster, always keeping a sharp eye out for the slow-moving hound. Every chance he got, he made that old hound jump with a lightning-fast movement of his beak, or a hazardous thrust of a spur.
In the case of Master Sergeant Lee, a grinder in search of grain, he lived for the moment when he could catch a recruit, whom he referred to as “squid,” violating his kitchen code. If he caught you dawdling, or spotted you copping a quick cup of coffee (not real likely if you'd already had the pleasure of sampling that morning's brew) then he was on you like bark on a tree.
I wrote home, “Wednesday, I spent seventeen hours in the mess hall doing K.P. Except for five-minute meals, and two eight-minute breaks (I am not exaggerating by one minute) I worked nonstop. I was lucky in one respect-I was a house slave, instead of having to work outside with the garbage. Also, I worked inside the actual dining room, as opposed to working in the kitchen.”
Even going out to the range was better than K.P, especially when it came to the anticipation aspect of it. Knowing you had K.P. left a cloud over your head for the several days leading up to it, and if you had weekend K.P. duty, your whole week was shot.
Early on during my stay at FLW, I struggled with the enormity of the task at hand, the two years, the exile from home, the overwhelming nature of a whole bunch of impatient slave-drivers, and the incessant work. I had contended with my feelings of injustice, with my sense of imprisonment, and with my fear of the subsequent assignment to parts unknown. Therefore, that first time when I did K.P, I was in a pretty depressed state of mind, and operating on auto-pilot, when the first company of recruits noisily arrived outside the kitchen. After a thunderous stamping of feet, in an ongoing effort to avoid the wrath of the kitchen crew by tracking mud into the building, they began to enter the mess hall.
Until the moment I heard the approaching platoon of men, I had been mindlessly buffing the stainless steel loading counter, trying to contain my bitterness at my current lot in life. I had known that my platoon would be first, because we were due in the supply room at 0600, so we had to chow down before the others. When I detected the cadence of their boots, double-timing on the sidewalk outside, my spirits soared exuberantly. Eagerly, I anticipated the arrival of my newly acquired brothers, all thirty-nine of them.
For about thirty seconds there, I existed in my own little world of euphoria, before my partners had hustled down the empty aisle up to the loading counter that I had been polishing. What on earth I had been thinking, I do not know, but if I thought they were all going to come straight at me, hollering out greetings and giving me hand slaps, I had only to think back to my own arrival each morning since my arrival a week earlier. As I watched, all recruits had stopped making forward progress.
While stopped, they were required to stand at parade rest, with their feet spread at shoulder width, and their hands clasped behind their backs. Most importantly, their eyes had to be fastened on the back of the head in front of them. My friends were not aware of my presence alongside the counter, and the twelve minutes that they were in there were the loneliest of the day for me.
This little incident was the one that sent me over the emotional edge for at least a week, and threatened to take a bigger toll on me if I could not get a handle on it. The problem was that I had been so overwhelmed with the physical and mental demands on me, that I had simply been operating in neutral. I had been trusting my instincts to keep me going, but coming face to face with what appeared to me to be a platoon of robots had seriously unnerved me. I realized exactly what I had become in a very short time.
I was one of those robots, and the thought almost accomplished what nothing else had been able to: I felt as though I were going to explode, and do something that I would later regret. The most logical choice was to simply split and stick out my thumb because, as long as I didn't travel in uniform, I should be able to avoid the army's tentacles.
How I got through that day of kitchen police, I have no idea, except to suggest that my auto-pilot mechanism must have been operating at a high degree of efficiency. All I remember is going back to the barracks and writing a letter by flashlight to my older brother, Noel, outlining to him the situation. Exactly what that was, I'm not certain, except that I was as emotionally charged up as I had ever been, and I was talking some serious treason. My impulse had been to bolt, but my head kept me in place, at least as long as it would take to get a letter off to Bro Noel, so that I could get inside his head and get some direction.
Again, I'm not sure what it was I expected Noel to say, and more importantly, how I would react to whatever it was that he did say. I had already managed to resist the impulse to bolt; what was I supposed to do if that was the advice he gave me? I told myself to hold on, and wait to see what happens. I wrote my folks a similar letter home, only not quite so desperate. It took about ten days to get a response from Noel, and the words remain with me to this day.
“Hello Markie! Hey jack, what is the story with those a-hole army dudes? You're not the one insane, they are!!! Mark is functioning A-OK. You are the only one with your head together. So long as you realize what they are trying to do, there is no way those bastards can brainwash you. No way! Gather up your inner strength...Don't give up! I can assure you, you're not crazy. You have experienced what it means to be a person and they are trying to take that away. It is a valuable thing.
They can't do it, Mark, you won't let them. Remember, your best friend and brother is standing behind you one hundred percent. Whatever you decide, you can count on me. You can still get a C.O; it is not too late, I'll do everything in my power to help. If at all possible, don't touch a fricking gun... Flourish in your dreams...Resist being taken over, at least on the inside....First we will try the C.O. And then we will get a lawyer. If that doesn't work, we will do what we have to.”
My fear was balanced by my intense pleasure at the support. What Noel wrote made perfect sense, only it may as well have been written in Swahili, for all the good it would do me. I wasn't even able to simply walk out the gate and stick out my thumb; how was I ever going to not “touch a fricking gun?” I could no more stand up to the drill instructors and say no, than I could continue in an existence devoid of any kind of spark of hope, except for that provided by the passage of time.
So what I ended up doing was exactly what I was told. I had known instinctively that if I had been capable of following the advice given me by Noel, then I would never have had to ask for it in the first place. Noel's was just one example of the many instances of support I received.
I was in a foxhole one morning, with only my helmet protruding from the excavation, when DI Fletcher, five days into a rumored ten day leave, approached from behind, and placed his boot atop my head, while greeting me.
“Private O'Neill, are you my favorite boot rest in this foxhole?” Since I was the only boot rest in the hole, it stood to reason that I was his favorite boot rest. It also figured that I would be his least favorite boot rest in the hole, but I wasn't going there.
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“Did you miss me, PFC O'Neill?”
Only half as much as I would have missed you had you been gone the full ten days. Out loud I responded, “DI Fletcher, this trainee has been training too hard to note that the Drill Instructor has been gone.”
DI Steven C. was pleased. “Is that so? I'll bet if I ordered you to give me one hundred push-ups right now, you'd “note” that I was back.”
I had been three steps in front of him; he had been four in front of me. “Unnecessary, Drill Sergeant! I trust you had a very pleasant and yet, most enjoyable time, during the one hundred twenty hours you were gone. Drill Sergeant!”
“But who's counting, right, Private O'Neill?” Was it that obvious?
“Right. Carry on, Private O'Neill.” What else could I do? I carried on.