The Unauthorized Pet
So it was that, when I went to have my picture taken for my military identification at Fort Leonard Wood Missouri, in 1972, I still had a mustache. The guys clipping hair (actually they were shaving heads, and it took them all of about sixty seconds apiece) were not paid to notice facial hair. Since Drill Instructor Gaines had vacated the premises with his platoon in the interim I had been gone, there was no one who now seemed to care one way or another whether I had a mustache. That was then, but the following morning, when we were at parade rest after having come from the chow hall, I drew the notice of Drill Instructor Stephen C. Fletcher, our junior drill instructor, who couldn't have been more than twenty-three.
DI Fletcher was not a big man, but his physique reflected the fact that he was in the best possible shape a guy could be in, an obvious result of working at a job which required tremendous physical stamina, and a tenacious approach to the habitually frigid environment in which we all existed. He stood about six feet, and weighed around one eighty, with a compactness about him that suggested that in an endurance race, he would outlast anyone. He was as light on his feet as Muhammad Ali, and his “Smokey the Bear” hat was tipped slightly forward in a jaunty sort of manner that belied his intensity.
Stopping in mid-sentence of his outline for the day's agenda, he directed his gaze at me and stared. His eyes widened and he extended his index finger and crooked it toward himself, in the unmistakable gesture that means, “Front and center, Trainee.”
When I had scurried up to the front of formation, and positioned myself in front of him at attention, he stood transfixed and ogled my face.
“What is that on your lip?”
Uh-oh. I had a real bad feeling about my hasty decision to follow Drill Instructor Gaines's instructions so literally. He had told me to shave the “rat fuzz” off of my chin, but had said nothing about my upper lip. “Nothing, Drill Instructor!”
His face began to turn pink. “Nothing? Are you telling me that there is nothing on your upper lip, except snot?”
“No Drill Instructor!”
“NO?” he bellowed. “No? Then, tell me Private O'Neill, is that a G*******ed caterpillar? Do you have an unauthorized pet in my platoon, Private O'Neill?” His face began to turn red.
“NO! Drill Instructor.”
“Well, now, I just think you do, because I can see it crawling there on your upper lip.”
“No Drill Instructor!”
“If that is not a caterpillar, what is it?”
“It is a mustache, Drill Instructor.”
“Were you issued that mustache, Private O'Neill?”
All of this was happening at warp speed, and I never do well in the spotlight, but still I could see that DI Fletcher was enjoying himself.
“Yes, Drill Instructor.”
That wasn't in the script. “Who issued you the mustache?” Parry, thrust.
“Drill Instructor Gaines issued me the mustache, Drill Instructor Fletcher.”
DI Fletcher's eyes went from amused detachment, to amused interest.
“What do you mean Drill Instructor Gaines issued you a mustache? That is a load of shark s**t.”
“I mean that DI Gaines specifically ordered me to shave the whiskers off my chin, but he did not order me to shave the whiskers off of my upper lip. Drill Instructor! According to the company clerk, once your military identification picture has been taken with the mustache, it's part of your I.D. and it can't be required that I shave it off.” Ah, the perfect application of the nebulous passive voice. Note that I didn't tell Drill Instructor Fletcher that he couldn't tell me to shave it off, only that I couldn't be told.
Yes, I was a smart-mouthed trainee, a slimy newcomer to his world, and a short-time visitor at that, but I had tickled his funny bone, and that was a key factor in determining the success or failure of any given day for DI Fletcher. He liked humor, and he appreciated it when it was presented to him, as long as it was not perceived by the troops as humor. It was important to him to have an appreciative audience for his wit. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, one that was to come into play a great deal in the following nine weeks.
“You are the one who came in with the beard,” he mused. Unconsciously, he brushed the fingers of one hand across the neatly trimmed mustache on his own face as he studied the razor cuts and burns on mine. “How'd that work out for you?”
“Pretty well, Drill Instructor. I got a mustache issued to me.”