They had told me the construction surveying course would be very intensive—and it was. Sergeant Carlson, the chief instructor explained on our first day that since we had come from a variety of levels of education, he would assume that none of us had the any of the math skills needed to be a surveyor.
So, in order to keep everybody at the same level, he would start us out learning basic addition and subtraction—and take us through college geometry and trigonometry—all in just two weeks. Then we would divide our time pretty much equally between classroom work and field work.
This sounded good to me—alternating indoor studies with outdoor work. I was looking forward to it. However, the daytime temperatures were now in the low thirties most of the time—and I didn't take to that too well.
But I survived, and managed to get pretty good grades, even though simple math had always been my weakest point in school. I was usually able to understand complicated formulas readily enough, and figure out how a problem should be solved—but I'd frequently end up with the wrong answer because of an error in simple addition.
But in spite of this handicap, I was getting passing grades in math, and did quite well with the field work—until one day when I triangulated us right into the flower garden of the Commanding General's private quarters.
We'd be sent out in groups of three to see if we could follow a map that was supposed to lead us sequentially around a string of pre-determined markers that had been placed out in the woods. You'd find these markers by using a transit, a Philadelphia rod, and a measuring chain.
Without trying to get technical, the idea was that if you measured the angles and distances indicated on the map correctly, you'd eventually end up at a predetermined destination.
Usually I did pretty well at this, but on this particular day I somehow misread a couple of angles and was surprised to find that the map was apparently leading into a garden near this rather stately-looking house just beyond the edge of the woods.
As we got close to the house, a young woman came out and said, "I don't think you're supposed to be here. What are you doing, anyway?"
I was about to explain that we were just following a map when a pair of MPs came racing around from the opposite side of the house with their hands on their holsters. "Hey!" they were yelling.
Well, to make a short, embarrassing story shorter, we were told by the MPs that this was the Commanding General's home and that the young lady was his daughter and that we were lucky we didn't get shot. So I apologized and took a closer look at our map to see if I could figure out where we were actually supposed to be.
I did find my error, and quickly got us back on course. But from then on we were known around the School Battalion as the three guys who got into trouble with Base Commander's daughter.
The time at school seemed to pass quickly. The weather began getting a little warmer and the construction surveying course would soon be coming to an end.
Thinking Of Dropping Out Again
But about a week before I was due to graduate, I found myself giving serious thought to dropping out. (Does this sound familiar?) Not that I wasn't doing well—I'd been getting a B+ average, and was looking forward to getting my diploma. We had been told that Corps of Engineers Tech School graduates were needed all around the world to help build dams, bridges, and highways in what surely must have been exciting and exotic places.
But I decided to forsake all this for a desk job at Fort Belvoir.
I don't remember just how I became acquainted with Master Sergeant Francis M. Baggott, the school company's First Sergeant and ranking NCO—but when he found out I knew how to touch type he asked me how I'd like to stay there and be his Company Clerk. (In those days it was mainly girls who took typing in school—so a competent male typist was a rare commodity. And Sgt. Baggott needed one.)
So what would be the advantages of remaining at Fort Belvoir?
Well, for starters, I would be out of the barracks and into a semi-private "cadre" room. I would have a steady 8 to 5 office job, with weekends off—and I would always get to go to "early chow" (meaning I didn't have to wait in the regular student chow line). An automatic promotion to corporal also came with the job, and remaining at Fort Belvoir meant I was just a few miles from Washington DC and all the interesting things our capital city had to offer. Also, there was a very nice roller rink a few miles up the road, just outside of Alexandria, Virginia.
Sounded pretty good to me, so I said I'd take the job. However there was just one catch—you couldn't just "drop out" of this kind of a military tech school. Sure, you could ask to be reassigned, but I was told the army took a dim view of spending thousands of dollars training someone, only to have him ask for a different assignment. If I really wanted to do this, there was only one way to do it—fail the course. And the only way I could do that was to completely flunk the upcoming final exam.
So there I was, looking at an exam I knew I could pass—maybe not with flying colors, but with at least a B—and was about to answer every question wrong that I could. This was not a comfortable feeling, and several times I found myself starting to erase the incorrect answers to replace them with correct ones. But then I would think of the skating rink where I'd spent many pleasurable hours, and how they might not have any roller rinks in Saudi Arabia or Formosa—so I went ahead and flunked the test.
Well, Sgt. Carlson was fit to be tied. What I'd done was pretty obvious, but he demanded to know why. And didn't I realize my test score was going to make him look like an idiot? (Well, no, I hadn't thought of that.) Then he said he had half a mind to grade all my answers with their opposite scores and pass me anyway. But he decided that would probably make him look like a bigger idiot, so he went ahead and let me flunk—but not without telling me he hoped I would have a miserable time at my new job.
"RA" All the Way
Sgt. Baggott had assured me that if I did flunk the course, he could pull the strings that would get me assigned as Company K's Company Clerk—and he did.
The sergeant was a career soldier who had close to twenty years in, and liked what he was doing. His job was mostly administrative, and struck me as being a fairly easy one. He was the one responsible for keeping the normal stream of bureaucratic red tape flowing through his office, and, with an efficient Company Clerk, he wouldn't have to work too hard at doing that. He rarely came out from behind his desk (which may have had something to do with the fact that he was about 30 pounds overweight). And he appreciated having someone in the office who could type with all ten fingers—although he was almost as fast with just two.
Well, I settled in and quickly learned the ropes. Before long I was handling all the paperwork, and even designed a number of forms to help smooth the flow of the omnipresent red tape. Sgt. Baggott appreciated my efforts and we got along well—for a while.
But I began to get restless. I had a comfortable job—and probably shouldn't have rocked the boat—but the First Sergeant and I had totally different views on military life. He was strictly RA (regular army) and didn't have much use for anyone who was just "putting in some time" till he could get back to civilian life (which, of course, was exactly what I was doing).
And if you thought Sgt. Baggott was RA all the way, you should have met his wife. I ran into her in the waiting room of the infirmary one day. Down the hall we could see a line-up of soldiers of varying ages and ranks filing slowly into another room.
Mrs. First Sergeant