It turned out that arriving at Officer Candidate School two days early was not such a smart idea.
The few of us who made that mistake were immediately set upon by middle classmen–officer candidates who were in their 8th to 15th week of what was supposed to be a 23-week training period. Although for me it would be a month longer.
Some poor unfortunate slob whose name I never knew, had arrived before me and had been found to have included, among his personal belongings, a giant, 1-lb. bag of M&M’s.
When I first saw him, he was already lying on his back in the doorway of the barracks with the pointy end a makeshift white paper funnel in his mouth. One of the middle classman had filled it up to the top with green, red, orange, yellow, brown and blue m&m’s and commanded him to,
Then that same sadistic middle-classman handed me the bag– and told me to keep re-filling the funnel, until he had eaten each and every last “m”. Upon entering the service, I had sworn to “follow all lawful orders.” This was the first time I had to think about it.
I don’t know who the victim was, I made no mental note at the time to remember his face, and would not have recognized him the next time I saw him, which would probably have been later that day– and probably every day– for the next six months.
He was just another officer candidate. We were all brand new. No one knew anyone. We were all strangers, bound together in a crazy, intense “experience” that would last only half a year, but one we would all remember for the rest of our lives.
I doubt that candidate ever ate another m&m. I know I have never eaten an m&m when I didn’t think of that candidate.
It was ironic, in a way, because for most of the next six months we officer “candy-dates” practically lived on candy, or “grotto” as we called it.
In the evenings, when most of us, dressed for bed in our olive-drab boxer shorts and matching tank top, were down on our hands and knees with white towels—wiping and polishing the red linoleum floors to a mirror-like shine (we were not allowed to walk on the floors, but hopped from place to place on our tiptoes across footlockers)– others were cleaning the latrine, polishing the brass on the spigots of the white porcelain sinks, while still others were engaged in polishing the toilets.
One lone “candy-date” would be designated “grotto NCO”. That was me.
It was my job to make the rounds between my fellow candidates, who were all busily engaged in cleaning the barracks and my job to write down their candy order on a slip of paper and collect all their nickels, dimes and quarters. A candy bar cost ten cents in the 1960’s.
Then, with a pillowcase to carry the coins in and to carry the candy back in, I, the “grotto NCO” would be hastily dispatched to a small wooden building a few hundred yards away, which contained a number of vending machines dispensing Baby Ruth, Fifth Avenue, Snickers, Oh Henry, Butterfinger, Zero, Mounds, Almond Joy, Mr. Goodbar, Clarke’s, Hershey Bars (with or without almonds) and of course small bags of m&m’s.
There was plenty of great food in the mess hall, we just couldn’t eat it. We were too busy being harassed by the middle and upperclassmen.
One bright early September morning , after cleaning the barracks for daily inspection and daily PT (Physical Training) we were marched to the mess hall as usual.
Streaming in at a rapid pace, we took our places on either side of the long wooden tables, each candidate with his eyes glued onto the nametag of the officer candidate directly across from him.
At one end of the table was the “table commandant” a middle-classman, whose job it was to enforce strict OCS table etiquette.
At the opposite end of the table, was the “assistant commandant” whose job it was to enforce strict discipline at his end of the table and to assist the table commandant in making every officer candidate’s life miserable during mealtime.
At all times, you must sit bolt upright on the front four inches of your chair, your eyes fixed on the nametag of the officer candidate directly across from you.
Any hand not actually engaged in the act of holding a knife or fork must be kept in your lap, under the table. Once the food was passed around to the table commandant and then to the assistant commandant, at the opposite end of the table, the candidates passed the food around the table to each other.
Once the table commandant observed that everyone had food on his plate, he gave the order to “begin eating.”
Each candidate was allowed to seize a piece of food no larger than his own thumbnail, and with his right hand, stick his fork in it , and with his left hand, simultaneously place his knife on the upper left-hand corner of his tray with the blade facing in, replace his left hand in his lap, replace the fork on the upper left corner of his tray, put his right hand back into his lap under the table and then begin chewing.
You were allowed three chews and then you had to swallow.
And they were counting.
Many times it was hard to swallow something that small. Once in a while, a starving candidate, probably out of desperation, would take what was known as a “gross bite”. This would result in the TC shouting out,
“CANDIDATE THIRD ON MY RIGHT—- HIT A BRACE!!!
To which the offending candidate would immediately panic/drop his knife and fork, place both hands in his lap, sit bolt upright in his chair as if he were being electrocuted– and say quite loudly,
“SIR!! CANDIDATE CURLEY!!” (or whatever his last name was).
Then the TC would command, “SWALLOW, CANDIDATE……”
This was usually followed by the candidate making a series of small, strained, gurgling noises as he tried to swallow a tiny morsel of food on demand.
Any officer candidate whose eyes strayed would be called out for “dog-eyeing”.
All underclassmen at the table would immediately have to place their forks back on their tray in the upper right hand corner at a 45 degree angle and their knife on the upper left corner of their tray at a 45 degree angle with the blade facing in.
I arrived at OCS on the 28th of August, 1966. The first time I was ever allowed to eat a meal like a “normal person” was on Thanksgiving Day of that same year, when a handful of us candidates, who had no place to go, and by default, remained on the grounds of OCS, were “casually” marched to the mess hall and then once inside, were allowed to sit wherever we wanted and eat whatever we wanted.
I was starving.
That Thanksgiving, while other soldiers were fighting and dying in Vietnam, the mess hall at Fort Sill Artillery and Missile Officer Candidate SChool, had been prepared as if two hundred people were expected.
About a dozen tables were all set up for a sumptuous Thanksgiving Day feast, complete with red tablecloth (the official color of the artillery). There was a large golden-brown roast turkey with all the trimmings set out on every table. There were big bowls of mashed potatoes, a gravy boat, fresh pears and peaches, platters of roast beef, ham, large bowls of fresh steaming vegetables, carrots, squash, corn, broccoli, candied yams, bread, butter, cranberry dressing with walnuts, a pitcher of water. Apple pies, cherry pies, sweet potato pies and pecan pies.
There were only twelve of us, so we each sat down at our own table.
I have never been so hungry in my life.
All alone, I stuffed myself with a large plate of everything I could heap on it and ate it all unsupervised. In about eight minutes I was full. It’s amazing how quickly you lose interest in food once you have had enough of it.
One morning in December, right before Christmas, we arrived for the morning meal and the table commandant said, “Candidates, bow your head for a moment of silent prayer.”
That was standard and after a moment was followed by, “God Bless our mothers and fathers and our fighting forces in Vietnam.” Occasionally they added, “….and all officer candidates.”
But this day was different.
After ordering us to bow our heads in a moment of “silent prayer”, he went on to add,
“One of your contemporaries choked to death on a candy bar last night.”
I felt sick at the thought of a starving kid lying flat on his back in his bunk after lights out, trying not to mess up his bunk, by actually sleeping in it, and trying to unwrap a candy bar and eat it without making any noise.
That’s what we did every night, but none of us ever died doing it.
I was guiltily glad he wasn’t in my barracks. I found myself wondering what kind of candy bar it was, if perhaps it was m&m’s, and who he was.
I wondered if it was that guy I had met on my very first day.
And then I wondered what they were going to tell his parents.
Then I thought what a terrible way for a young man to die for his country.