Did I Mention It Was Hot?

John W. Pinkerton



When I graduated from LSU in January of ‘65, Vietnam was going pretty strong.   The draft was going pretty strong also.  Everywhere I applied for a job in Houston, they didn’t like my draft status, 1-A.  I went to my local draft board in Alexandria, Louisiana, and told them to draft me or let me go.  Not the brightest move I’ve ever made.  They sent me to Shreveport, Louisiana, where they inspected me, let me have a lovely evening in Bossier City where I spent my last dime, and sent me off the next morning to Fort Polk, Louisiana,  on a bus filled with me and other equally unfortunate souls.

The main purpose of basic training is to eliminate all of the head cases.  The only fellow I recall being sent home was a young fellow I called the “Gray Ghost” because he could disappear like Mascavity.  I was once in formation next to the Ghost, and before we were dismissed, he had disappeared.  He wanted to go home, and they thoughtfully accommodated him.

I was twenty-three when I entered the service.  Most of my fellow draftees were closer to 18 than 23.  I had had a little more time to ruin my body than most of these lads, but, of course, I hung in as well as I could: not much choice.  Did I mention that it’s hot at Fort Polk in August?  Sleep is what I missed most. I recall one evening after a particularly grueling day, trying to go to sleep while my bunkmate, a rather healthy all-state Arkansas football player, wanted to whistle the night away.  I don’t recall the tune, but when I had had enough, I rolled from my bunk and offered to whip his ass if he didn’t desist his whistling.  He, mercifully, declined my offer and ceased whistling: thank the Lord.

We went on forced marches.  I did mention that it was hot, didn’t I?  In order to torture all of us, they always chose the shortest man to lead the single file march.  Of course this little hillbilly, as a matter of mountain pride I suppose, set a pretty deadly pace.  After the first hour, I drank no water from my canteen, saving it for later.  After the second hour, I drank no water.  After the third hour, I emptied my canteen.  I think this was the first time I learned to truly appreciate water. 

We marched, threw grenades, shot targets in various configurations, did push ups, crawled on our bellies, learned a little hand-to-hand combat, and fought with pugil sticks.  Pugil sticks, for those uninitiated in the military world, are sticks about four feet long with padded ends.  They are used to simulate battle with bayonetted rifles.  I listened attentively to the drill instructor’s instructions hoping to avoid having my head removed.  I actually won my one-on-one battle with a physically superior fellow, but, yippee, we weren’t finished.  Because I had won, I was placed on a two-man team which was to do battle with a three-man team.  The fellow I was teamed with was a bit of a giant who was of mixed heritage: Mexican and Indian (India).  Of course two of the opponents went after Pedro Ghandi while I was up against a fellow as wimpy as I.  We just halfheartedly feinted at each other while both of us kept an eye on the other battle.  At last I saw two from the three man battle on the ground and a fellow who looked pretty angry charging down the hill toward me.  At the last moment, I turned to meet the mad rusher.  I met him perfectly with our pugils crossed.  Pedro looked a little surprised as he brushed past me to dispatch the fellow I had been sort of trying to beat.  I win?

Hand to hand training was interesting.  I guess you remember that it was hot.  I learned how to put someone to sleep in a few seconds--other than talking to them.  It’s a combination of simultaneously cutting off the air supply and the blood flow.  Works like a charm and doesn’t cause any real discomfort if done properly;  my partner in this little endeavor, fortunately, was also a college graduate.  I also learned that this was a good opportunity for the drill instructors to apply the hold improperly with fellows who had been less than cooperative.  Not pleasant.

Our last week in basic was particularly Hellish (You do recall that it was pretty hot?): in addition to the forced march, we went through some pretend crap that lasted a couple of days.  As I recall, at one point, we were supposed to move forward to different stations where we would say “Bang.”  I had been on a two day forced march and had immediately followed this by pulling KP (kitchen patrol duty) which started at about three in the morning.  I suppose I had lost my enthusiasm at this point because one of the sergeants seemed offended by my version of “bang.”  He got over it.

Well, I “graduated” from basic training and was awarded two weeks at home in Houston before moving on to Oklahoma and advanced training.

What I remember most about my visit with Mom and Dad was Dad’s offer over a couple of beers to get me out of the service, something which I have little doubt that he could have done.  I am surprised a little even today by my response.  I told him that being in the service was not my idea of fun, but being that they had deemed me fit to serve, I had an obligation to do just that.

The draft was with us until Nixon’s administration.  With his administration we went to an all-volunteer army.  I’ve never been sure how I’ve felt about this.  However if it’s ever necessary to reinstate the draft, there should absolutely be zero exemptions.  If you don’t think I’m sincere about this, prepare to see an angry old man.

After my two weeks at home in Houston, I moved on to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where I encountered almost 100 degree heat, but it was a dry heat.  When I arrived in Lawton, I spent one night in a hotel: the first thing I asked for was a pint of whiskey.  The bellhop looked at me as though I had lost my mind: apparently, when it came to whiskey, Oklahoma was a dry state: not a good start.  I was there for artillery fire direction control training.  It was more interesting and not as physically challenging as basic.  Firing artillery rounds is more complicated and more accurate than one might assume.  Even military weather reports are calculated into the firing.  Most of the artillery pieces I encountered could fire rounds about fourteen miles.  If the target was not hit the first time, the second round would be closer and the third round would be right on target: pretty impressive.

After eight weeks of training, half of us were sent to Korea, half of us were sent to Germany, and one fellow was sent to Alaska.  The group graduating two weeks ahead of us were all sent to Vietnam.  I’m sure the class two weeks after ours were also sent to Vietnam.  I’ve always been lucky. 

Thank the Lord, Germany, my next stop, was not hot.


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