Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lost and found in the woods

The active army of the mid to late 1980’s I served in no longer exists. It was a peace time army whose primary mission at the time was to prepare and be ready for a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The term “Dog and pony show” was used a lot to describe the daily affairs that seemed to bog down into the mundane waiting for the legions of Soviet tanks to cross the Fulda Gap starting the next world war. Such duties spawned less than motivated attitudes and at times let some slip into leadership positions whose approach to how they lead men could be less than inspiring.
For me being a Southern boy winters in Colorado were right from the start a learning experience. Many times during the morning hours of a new day that I would watch heavy, dark clouds slide in from the west only to sink over Cheyenne Mountain literally flow down the eastern side like a liquid knowing that a snow storm was highly likely later on.
It was during such a morning as the First Sergeant read off such things as who had head count at the mess hall, the revised CQ schedule for the barracks, and what poor fool was on his weekly shit list the snow, which had only been light flurries until then, within minutes became a raging snow storm.

For us enlisted standing in formation it was par for the course with everyone standing at ease listening to the First Sergeant but for the fresh batch of young lieutenants that were newly arrived to the unit from the various places such refuse is compacted, given a gold colored bar to wear as rank and then sent out with maps to get soldiers lost it was a new experience. These young military leaders could easily be heard jumping around behind the formation trying to keep warm in their starched, brand-new uniforms and heard whispering about how damn cold they were. So when the First Sergeant finally called us to attention to have us fall out and begin that day’s duties both the NCO’s and us enlisted couldn’t help by snicker some at the genuine sighs of relief coming from behind us.

That day was spent at the motor pool doing simple maintenance on the assorted company vehicles and just trying to stay warm. For the young lieutenants playing platoon leader for the first time it was a hectic day running back and forth from offices with policy papers, duty forms, and sign-out sheets trying to become fully integrated with the unit. The snow storm, which had only gotten worse over the hour or so it took us to arrive at the motor pool, was making matters harder as they often had to go looking for their platoon sergeants to ask how something was done or if they could go to the latrine by themselves.

Being grizzled and experienced veterans many platoon sergeants get tired of offering wisdom and advice to little boys who upon receiving their gold bar signifying the rank of Second Lieutenant immediately believe they are Patton, Macarthur, or even Alexander the Great and went to great pains to legally adjust their misguided and delusional attitudes.

Sergeant Terrance Lewis was such a man. After twenty-five years of service he was as burned out as a NCO could get. Lewis had joined the army to escape a bad neighborhood full of crime and family violence only to finish training and be dropped into the middle of Vietnam with all sorts of locals trying to kill him. Well humans being a strange breed Lewis completed his year in country having survived both the locals overtly trying to kill him as well as a nasty case of VD that came close on its own and after some soul searching decided he would reenlist. Reenlistment brought a tour of duty over in beautiful Germany in which the young man found that all foreigners don’t automatically hate Americans, unless they get caught dating a young frau whose father had very 1940’s ideas.

Years later after all sorts of adventures the now tired and weary Sergeant Lewis found his closing days in the army being spent in a cold place far from his hometown Atlanta dealing which such fine examples of the American educational system as an addled brained country boy from South Carolina. Lewis found that if he gritted his teeth hard enough and his truly lovely wife kept his blood pressure medicine prescription filled he could deal with the assorted misfits that battalion personnel had assigned him. That is until Sergeant Lewis was saddled with about the worst example that the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) had let slip through the cracks.

Second Lieutenant William C. Caldwell was the only son of now retired army colonel, and combat veteran, who by all accounts had raised his son specifically for the purpose to make him a combat hero in one of America’s wars and to achieve the rank of general. That is son never should have worn the uniform much less been part of the officer corps was evident to everyone from the moment he arrived at the unit.

The poor fellow had a very short stature, was skinny and physically weak, and making things worse had such a high pitched voice that he always sounded like he was whining no matter what he said. After Caldwell had taken over duties as our platoon leader, Sergeant Lewis soon found himself not only guiding him, as was his responsibility to the inexperienced officer, but correcting the most simple and basic affairs that he should have known from his Officer Basic Course where he was suppose learn such things as drill, ceremonies, basic leadership skills, and customs to name a few. After a few months it became very apparent that Sergeant Lewis had cut the young lieutenant loose and was going to allow him to figure everything out on his own and swim or continue to be a walking example of the term FUBAR and sink.

Where I came into the picture was during that snow storm in which had a few others and myself cranking up and running our brand new humvees to charge up the batteries along with securing the interiors of the vehicles to prevent the snow from getting inside.

These humvees only had soft panel doors made of vinyl with a very primitive door handle made from about the weakest plastic available to American manufacturing. Add very cold weather and the handles would often break at the slightest touch resulting in some tiny increase in the profit margin for the corporation and I'm sure huge bonuses for some suit sitting in his corner office that thought up the idea of selling crap to the army.

Which given chance and purposeful crappy design is what happened. I accidentally broke the door handle and in a blur I was pushed out by my loyal comrades who were sitting inside the vehicle with me enjoying the one thing the manufacture got right, the heater. Knowing they would not let me back until I got the replacement I made my way to the maintenance garage to sign one out.

The motor pool was sectioned off with the other companies of the battalion each having a portion where their vehicles were lined up along with a large shipping container used to store equipment and a few tools. My quest for a new door handle would have me walking diagonally through the motor pool to reach my unit’s garage and as I was doing so I began to hear someone whistling the ABBA tune “Dancing Queen” and immediately realized that my platoon’s beloved lieutenant was walking nearby. Now if the world was fair and just no one who would openly whistle “Dancing Queen” would be allowed to possibly lead men into combat but at least I knew my ABBA loving platoon leader was close and adjusted my course to greet and salute him.
I stepped out from behind a shipping container well enough in front of the man that I shouldn’t have had to worry about surprising him even with the snow obscuring visibility. Caldwell, at least to me, was clearly visible carrying his expensive briefcase he kept all his paperwork in and about ten feet away I snapped a salute and said “good morning sir”.
Somehow I had disturbed the young officer with him jumping in surprise, dropping his briefcase which of course popped open with the wind blowing away his papers, and him coming to attention and saluting me.
“Good morning colonel,” Caldwell said awaiting a reply and holding the salute which at the time me being only a private first class, not quite the lowest rank in the army but with the difference not being enough to brag about, I was at a loss to say anything so I just returned the salute and kept on walking noticing the headphones somewhat tucked under his BDU cap and trailing wire leading to what I believed would have been an old Sony Walkman with built in cassette player. Such an addition to the army uniform was not allowed for enlisted and for and officer, well let’s just say it would have called for a major ass chewing if in fact the colonel had caught him wearing it.
Momentarily enjoying my totally improper and utterly impossible field promotion, and not wanting the lieutenant to realize his mistake, I picked up the pace to get away from the man now chasing his papers being blown across the motor pool. Only to have Sergeant Lewis step out from behind another storage container with me realizing almost instantly from the look on his face that he had been hiding behind the storage container and that he had seen the entire incident.
“Please tell me he didn’t salute and call you colonel.” Lewis said sounding both tired and resigned staring off in the distance as the lieutenant disappeared into the blowing snow chasing his papers.
The idea of getting stuck between two people, both with far higher rank that I have has never appealed to me. But when it came to a choice between the lieutenant who by all visible signs would have a hard time finding his way out of a water paper bag and the grizzled combat veteran who survived the best the Vietcong and a Saigon brothel could throw at him I found it a no brainer.
“Yeah, Sergeant he did seem to have me confused.” I said trying to be at least a little diplomatic. Sergeant Lewis ignored my remark and just walked away snatching the briefcase the lieutenant had dropped and left behind to chase down his paperwork.
I sort of felt bad about the situation since I was the one who had now set the lieutenant up for more trouble which would be even worse once Sergeant Caldwell saw the Walkman he was wearing. In truth Lieutenant Caldwell had been pretty cool toward us enlisted and daily gave the other sergeants of the platoon plenty of shit. The main reason for this may have been because he was about the same age as us. It wasn’t until I became a noncommissioned officer myself that I realized how off base he was with this behavior.
A couple of months later the battalion went out on its own for a week long field training exercise namely to integrate all the new arrivals. For Lieutenant Caldwell this relatively minor field exercise was going to be his crunch time being that he simply wasn’t getting the hang of actual military life despite the best efforts of all who had contact with him.
At first things went fairly well for the struggling lieutenant until it came time for him to lead a convoy back to the rear. The battalion cooks had been left at the mess hall for the exercise with them making the morning and evening chow which was picked up and transported out to the battalion bivouac area. Lieutenant Caldwell was tasked one day to lead the group in, pick up the chow along with other items and be back before nightfall, which of course just didn’t happened.
Nightfall came with an over 400 man sized unit wondering where in the Hell evening chow was and looking longingly at a small nearby colony of prairie dogs with them hovering visibly nearer to their holes as if a coyote was nearby. Sergeant Lewis right from the moment the lieutenant became overdue knew the worst had happened and went out looking for the lost convoy.
Not only had the lieutenant gotten lost taking the three deuce and a half cargo trucks and drivers along with him but had somehow guided one into a pond with the cab flooded up to the seats. Being that radios at the time were not normally installed in such vehicles there was no way for him to contact the unit so and with it being dark Caldwell decided it would be best just to wait for the unit to find him.
While Fort Carson is a large post the battalion was bivouacked just a short distance on a secondary road just off the main highway going down range. Once all concerned were accounted for with the evening chow being served and the nearby prairie dog colony breathing a sigh of relief it was determined that Caldwell was delinquent for listening to his Walkman instead of helping the lead driver navigate.
Caldwell was relieved as platoon leader and reassigned to the post Public Affairs Office which amounted to death sentence for his military career and the hopes of his father for another combat hero in the family. At his new assignment Lieutenant Caldwell actually seemed to find his niche dealing with the news media and writing articles for the on-post paper. Given the situation it will be no surprise that Caldwell soon faded into oblivion never stopping by the unit or keeping any contact with the people in it.
What brought on this dubious and long winded romp down memory lane? A few weeks ago as I was surfing the internet looking for something to write about I stumbled upon a somewhat obscure Chicago newspaper with a familiar name listed as one of the writers. Yeah, it was the man I have named in this post as “Caldwell”. I sent off an email just saying hi and got one back yesterday confirming it was my old platoon leader. He seemed to have gotten a kick out one of his former troops finding him writing that leading that truck into the pond was the best thing that had ever happened to him taking him the very place he needed to be. I have come away thinking how funny life can be and how our mistakes at times can be more important for our happiness than our successes.


Oso said...

Good post Colonel Bum sir.

Distributorcap said...

that was great.......
you have the best stories

Brooke said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Commander Zaius said...

Oso and DCap: This post was an offical pain in the ass. Started several days ago but a bunch of things got in the way. Not only that the urge to write this post drifted in an out, normally out when I did have time to write. In other words its a pile of shit.

Middle Ditch said...

Memories eh?

Loved the read. Great that you got back in touch. The internet is a weird and wonderful place. I found quite a few long lost friends again.

Commander Zaius said...

Middle Ditch: I apologize for posting this mess but after several days struggling to write just a few words without someone screaming for me this sort of became an obsession. I promise there was actually a point to this mess early on.

Randal Graves said...

Now I'm afraid some yokel from the past is going to find me. As long as they call me Colonel.

Laura said...

This was a great story Beach!
I have to admit.. I came in yesterday.. saw the length and got scared away. :p
Once I read the first couple of paragraphs I was hooked.
You are an excellent story teller and I like the army stories.

That is cool that you found him!
And you're right. A lot of times our mistakes and not our successes are what take us to where we truly need to be in life.


Keshi said...

Merry Christmas & a very Happy New Year to ya BB!


Laura said...

Am I detecting a new font???
Hmmmmm.... :P

Love it!


Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

I agree, double b, sometimes the mistakes that we make are a far better learning tool (this, in that sometimes our "successes" are a simply a by-product of following) than our successes. The only protocols we have to follow are 1) admit to them and 2) attempt to never duplicate them. Oft-times easier said than done.

lime said...

ironic indeed.

Laura said...

Where are you? Miss you!

Kentucky Rain said...

Bravo friend Beach! Bravo indeed. As a former "troop" I can relate to [almost] every word:-)

Commander Zaius said...

Randal: Curious you should write that. Early in the 90's when America On Line was the about the biggest thing on the internet I got an email from someone I didn't know saying that I had gotten his daughter pregnant and that I should do the right thing about her.

The kicker in all this was that I had actually listed my name on the AOL profile and after realizing that I went back to the email and noticed all the email CC's with guys whose names were close to mine.

Needless to say I removed my name from the profile after that.

Sunshine: No really, but it does have the benefit to being the truest one I have written in a long time.

Keshi: Merry Christmas and miss you very much.

Sunshine: Nah, it was a cut and paste from a Microsoft Word program. Which was a pain all by itself since it wanted to do all sorts of crazy things when I posted it. Had to dive into the HTML on Blogger to fix it.

Will and Lime: You know the guy I called "Caldwell" was not a good guy by any means. I did feel sorry for him then and even now to a certain point but he honestly was danger. I can't imagine how much trouble he could cause with the army now at war.

I am glad he found his place but I almost asked in him in our recent, and limited, communications whyin the bloody hell did he salute me and call me colonel. I figure he had to clearly see me since I could see him even in the snow. The thought has crossed my mind that his fuck-up at that particular moment was cause he knew the platoon sergeant was watching and hiding from him.

Sunshine: Tired and my eyes were crossed from lack of sleep.

MadMike: Can't the army be a huge cluster fuck at times my friend?

Kentucky Rain said...

Beach the Army is a cluster fuck at ALL times. I know. I was Army Intelligence for christ's sake:-) Lol!

Middle Ditch said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours Beach Bum