I Was a Teenage Setback

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The fateful day of our graduation from OCS and our commissioning as second lieutenants in the army finally arrived in March of 1967, though, for me, it was a month longer in coming. My old nemesis, math, came back to bite me in the ass once again, when I proved to my trig instructor something I had known all along: That I was thoroughly incompetent when it came to the use of slide rules and their practical application as scientific instruments to make the mathematical calculations necessary for the accurate direction of artillery fire. The Queen would not have been happy with me in charge of the King’s balls. 

So, I became a “setback”. Just as the rest of Golf Battery were becoming “upperclassmen,” putting on their clickers, pinning on their red artillery felt tabs under their brass and walking on sidewalks instead of double-timing on rocks, I quietly, and with hardly a goodbye, packed up my gear as directed and moved out of Golf Battery and into Hotel Battery a few buildings away. I was demoted and stayed a middle classmen for another four weeks. It was a humiliating experience. While my “new” contemporaries, who hardly had time to notice me, were busy polishing their brass and boots and rolling up their socks just right and otherwise insuring that their area was “strack”, thereby avoiding those dreaded demerits, I was quietly pulled out for E.I. (extra instruction) in trig. This didn’t do much for my popularity.

This time-consuming distraction did help me eventually get through the program, but fairly guaranteed that I would accumulate more than enough demerit slips to keep me confined to the area more or less indefinitely. It had me going on “jarks” every weekend. Having arrived at OCS on August 28th, I did not actually get a pass to leave the company area until right before Christmas that same year, when everyone was given a pass regardless of his demerit status. I had never been into town, had no friends or family to visit, had nowhere to go, so I just stayed there.

A “jark” isn’t so much a punishment for accumulating too many demerits, as it is a 5-mile “motivational run” from the company area up a nearby mountain and back. Officer Candidates who have garnered a certain number of demerit slips for such offenses as Boots NSS or Brass NSS (not sufficiently shined) or whose blankets were not tight enough on their bunks, or who were late to formation, or who had a fingerprint on their brass belt buckle, or who had a hair growing out of the side of their face that they had somehow missed while being given 60 seconds to shit, shower and shave were all set upon by upperclassmen and issued demerit slips for these types of minor infractions. 

I resigned myself to the weekend jarks, and in short order, I became in the best physical shape of my entire life. Candidates regularly picked up large rocks from the mountain and “jarked” back with them, placing them on the bunks of their “big brothers,” (senior officer candidates) who were then required to sleep with these large rocks in their bunks. 

In return for this gift, the big brothers were supposed to “watch out” for their “little brothers” and help them navigate what would otherwise have been an endless ocean of harassment from middle and upperclassmen. Little brothers also did things like polish the shoes and boots of their big brothers in return for minor “protection”. After the big brother had slept with the rock, it was placed outside the barracks. There were literally thousands of these rocks, of varying sizes, some approaching a hundred pounds. They surrounded the barracks to the extent that the entire area became a grid of wooden buildings surrounded by a sea of whitish or yellowish rocks. The practice dated from World War Two. 

The absolute worst thing one could do was be the last one out of the barracks and into formation. As one of our contemporaries stood outside the barracks calling out in a sing-song voice, how many minutes remained before the “noon meal formation,” for example, all the rest of my contemporaries scurried around inside the building, like a swarm of busy bees, washing and waxing, polishing and shining everything in sight from the sinks to the lighting fixtures. 

Candidates were not allowed to wear their boots inside the barracks, so anytime you went inside the barracks you had to quickly unlace your boots and leave them by the front door or carry them to your area– while hopping from one footlocker to the next, being careful not to set foot on the floor for fear of leaving a mark. Anytime you left the barracks, you had to locate your boots from among all the others and lace them up and quickly get into formation as the “caller” stood outside and vocally ticked away the remaining thirty seconds, before everyone was expected to be standing at attention in formation. Woe to he who was not there when they gave the order to “FALL IN!”

Lacing up my big size 13 boots quickly and exactly right, using a complicated lacing pattern was not something which came naturally to me, and as a result I was often the last one in formation. This resulted in several upperclassmen, each with a fistful of demerit slips and a really loud mouth, giving me their undivided attention– up close and personal. 

I think I was slower because I am from the South. Southerners generally do things slower because of the heat. It’s just our way. Consequently, I accumulated a large number of demerit slips.

Soon I learned that as everyone was rushing about inside the barracks, doing little, last-minute things, like closing their footlockers, or lacing up their boots in preparation for falling out into formation, all I had to do was keep an eye on an even SLOWER one of my contemporaries, a certain Candidate “Charlie Bess”, twenty-five years old, a former State Highway patrolman, from Pascagoula, Mississippi, a Southerner from even DEEPER in the South. Charlie was a “good ole boy,” who talked slow and talked funny. When he spoke he sounded like he had a mouthful of grapes he was trying not to chew or swallow. His good nature was only slightly diminished by all the demerit slips he accumulated and all the jarks he went on. All I had to do was stay one step ahead of Charlie.

I really hope things turned out well for him. His slow, easy-going, gentlemanly Southern ways sure saved me a lot of suffering.



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