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No Time for Sergeants

1949 - Basic Training - Fort Ord, California
Teetottling Sergeant

As for Sgt. Jones' admonitions about staying sober - it was a moot point anyway, because (as brand new recruits) we were restricted to the company area and couldn't get to the PX to buy any booze even if we'd wanted to.

But a big day was approaching. We were told that the following Saturday morning we would have our first company inspection, and that if we got the barracks spotless by Friday evening, we'd be allowed to leave the immediate area for a couple of hours.

"But don't forget," glared Sgt. Jones, "you will not get drunk and you will be in A-1 shape for the Saturday Morning Inspection!"

So we spent most of Thursday night and a good part of Friday having a GI party to end all GI parties (i.e. scouring the barracks from top to bottom). And if you're familiar with No Time for Sergeants you can visualize that our barracks had been cleaned by Will Stockdale himself. The place fairly sparkled! And, as a reward, we were all given permission to leave the company area, just as long as were back (sober) in time for 2200 hours taps.

Freedom At Last!

Well, here we were, a bunch of teenagers suddenly being allowed to legally purchase alcohol (beer and wine) for the first time. After working our butts off to be sure our barracks would win the "best platoon" plaque, the temptation to loosen up and see what it was like to get a little tipsy was all but irresistible. Well, we had each polished off one beer and were contemplating a second, when who should walk in but Sgt. Jones? We scrambled to get the bottles out of sight under the table before he could spot them.

But he walked over to our table and gave us all a magnanimous grin and said, "Evenin', fellas - glad to see y'all having a good time. Y'all enjoy yourselves, y'hear? - but don't forget about that inspection tomorrow." Then he gave us another smile and turned to leave, pausing only to give us a friendly wave from the doorway as he disappeared into the night. Well, this was not the spit-and-polish Sgt. Jones we had come to know during the past two weeks of Basic Training - and we didn't know what to think.

So we all decided to settle for the one beer we'd already had and head back to the barracks to rest up for the big inspection.

Hucklebuck to the Rescue

Our barracks was the regulation two-story frame building that had about thirty bunks on each level with the latrine and a private room at one end of the first floor. The private room, of course, belonged to the platoon sergeant and this Saturday morning it was uncharacteristically quiet. Normally, Sgt. Jones would begin each morning by storming out of the room, shouting orders at us to get up and get moving. (What did we think this was - a fraternity house or a country club of some kind?)

Anyway, we had expected the good sergeant to be up even earlier this morning to make sure the rest of us misfits had showered, shampooed, shaved, shined (and some other word I can't remember) in time for the all-important inspection. But no sound came from his room. One of the recruits, who'd had ROTC training and whom Sgt. Jones had appointed "Acting Platoon Sergeant," was urged by the rest of us to open the door and take a look.

So he slowly opened the door and we all strained to get a peek. The moment the door opened an aroma wafted out that curled our collective toes. The room smelled like it had been home to an all-night chug-a-lug contest. We nudged the door open a little farther and could see on the bunk what appeared to be a body under a clump of disheveled covers.

But Sgt. Jones was so skinny it was hard to tell if that was him under the covers or not. Our ROTC boy had been quietly calling his name, and now reached over to pull the covers back. Well, there he was - unconscious in his underwear and smelling like someone had doused him with a jug of triple-digit mountain moonshine.

We all looked at each other in amazed bewilderment. Our teetottling platoon sergeant dead to the world on the morning of the big inspection? Impossible! None of us knew what to do. Portable Phonograph

However, there was a portable record player by his bunk, and some clown suggested we use it to wake him up with his favorite song "The Hucklebuck." I thought he was joking, but before you knew it we were all singing along with the phonograph.

"You gotta wiggle like a snake, you gotta waddle like a duck - that's the way you do it when you do the Hucklebuck!"

"Hey, Sgt. Jones - do the Hucklebuck!"

Well, to our relief he finally began to shift around and utter some indiscernible sounds that suggested he was actually beginning to come to. A couple more choruses of the Hucklebuck and he was sitting on the edge of the bed, shaking his head and asking what day it was.

(Continued in next column...)

We later learned that after leaving us at the PX he went straight to the NCO Club and got so irreparably plastered that a couple of buddies had to carry him home and put him to bed (while the rest of us slept through this undercover maneuver). We also later learned that he was, in fact, an alcoholic and that the two weeks of total abstinence we witnessed was something of a record.

Anyway, the immediate challenge was to get him shaped up for the inspection which was due to start in a couple of hours.

Sobering Him Up

We got him some coffee and marched him into the latrine, where he was given a "GI shower" (a scrubdown with GI soap and stiff brushes, which was normally used by mean-spirited bullies to punish someone suspected of not practicing adequate personal hygiene).

Well, believe it or not, by inspection time Sgt. Jones was dressed, on his feet (albeit somewhat unsteadily) and saluting the inspecting officers as they strode up the street toward our platoon, where we were all standing at attention in anxious anticipation. The officers returned his salute and gave him a nod, then passed by him with sufficient clearance that they couldn't smell his breath. A collective sigh of relief arose from our troops, as each of the four officers chose a row of recruits to review.

Temporary 'Best Friend'

(By the way, we hadn't yet been issued the M1 rifles which were to soon become our 'best friends' - but for this inspection we had each been given a wooden billy club to hold in our right hand. We had been told that in future inspections, having our rifles microscopically inspected would be an important part of the ceremony - but for today the main thrust would be to see if we had thoroughly memorized the prescribed protocol for properly performing military guard duty.)

The intense looking second lieutenant who had chosen my row was very tall and most of the interviewees had to look up to meet his demanding eyes. The recruit whose turn would come just before mine was quite short, but he looked very military with his helmet liner pulled low across his brow (as we had been instructed to wear them). He looked so serious it was obvious he wasn't going to change the direction of his stone-like stare for anything. This meant that when the lieutenant stopped in front of him, he was staring straight into the officer's necktie.

Cool Recruit

The lieutenant stood there for a long moment, then finally crouched in a very unofficer-like way so he could look into the young man's face. I'll never forget the exchange that followed:

"Soldier - are you familiar with the rules for performing guard duty properly?"

"Yes sir!"

"What would you do if you were on guard duty, soldier, and a stranger came toward you?"

"I'd tell him to halt and identify himself, sir!"

"What would you do if he didn't stop?"

"I'd tell him again, sir!"

"And what if he still didn't stop and wouldn't identify himself - then what would you do?"

At this point one was supposed to be able to rattle off a hierarchy of procedural steps that included a third warning, calling for the Corporal of the Guard, who in turn would call for the Officer of the Day, and so on - ending with using one's weapon only if all else failed."

As the serious-minded recruit paused to consider the next appropriate answer, the lieutenant crouched lower and put his face even closer to that of the young soldier. "What would you do?" he demanded.

"Well, sir," said the young man, taking a deep breath, "I reckon I'd club the son of a bitch."

At this the lieutenant's jaw dropped and he stood straight up. He was about to say something, but just shook his head as though he couldn't quite believe what he'd just heard. After a couple awkward seconds, he stepped in front of me.

He was about to ask me a question, but I think the fact that I was trying so hard to stifle a laugh totally unnerved him. He just shook his head again and moved on to the next person.

In fact, stifled laughs, which seemed be getting increasingly less stifled, could be heard all up and down the line by now. The only one who appeared to have everything under control was the diminutive recruit at my side. In fact he was the lone member of the group that was left with anything resembling a military bearing.

As for the inspecting Lieutenant, it was several minutes before he actually started asking questions again - and when he did, they didn't seem to have the same ring of authority they'd had before.

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