I’m in the Army Now
You may not know this about me, but I was in the army once
Not the “Salvation” one, the other one
The green one
The one with tanks, helicopters and artillery
It was only for a day; well actually it was just for a few hours
But this story isn’t all about my brief stint in the army, although that’s certainly part of the story
It’s about My South
It was 1968 and the Vietnam War was raging out of control and threatened to engulf the entire region of Southeast Asian
I was almost ten years old and each night on the news they would open the program by telling the viewer how many casualties the American’s had suffered that day in the Vietnam War and that usually followed by some footage of the war and the occasional interview with a General or some politician.
The Tet Offensive unfolded on the nightly news….
I can still see the footage in my mind’s eye of the fighting and dying in Hue City and Khe Sanh
Then the news would always get around to the War Protestors
The draft card burners
The military hatters
The Ivy League idiots occupying buildings on their college campuses and banging tambourines
It made me mad even as a little boy and it makes me mad thinking about it now
Especially since most of those same idiots are now running the federal government
It was also the time that John Wayne’s movie “The Green Berets” hit the theaters
I remember it well, because I rode a borrowed bicycle down to the theater in Jackson Square to see it
Before the ending movie credits ran, I knew what I was going to do
I had a plan
After my morning chores that following Monday I borrowed the bicycle again and headed to town
I knew exactly where I was going because I had seen the sign in front of the building before
And there it was
I parked the bicycle around the side of building
(You didn’t need to chain everything up back in those days, because we didn’t steal from one another)
I walked in the building covered with posters and flyers and the lobby was empty, I guess this once honorable profession wasn’t very popular anymore.
I looked around the deserted lobby and there were just a few men working at their desks and talking with one another behind a large wooden counter.
I took a deep breath and walked up to the counter
I wasn’t even tall enough to see completely over the top of the wooden countertop.
One of the men must have seen my little bobbing head because he got up from behind his desk and came over to where I was standing and said “Can I help you Son?”
I was standing more or less at attention when I looked up at him and said “I’m here to join the army sir”
With a bewildered look, like he didn’t understand what I said, the young army recruiter replied
“I’m here to join the army sir”
“Wait right here”
The young army recruiter disappeared for a minute or two and returned with an army Master Sergeant that was the biggest man I had ever seen. His coal black face didn’t look happy and his biceps that were flexing against his uniform were as big as my head.
(O.k. this may not have been a good idea after all I thought to myself)
He towered over me as he leaned over the counter
The young recruiter I had talked too was now standing somewhere behind the Master Sergeant although I really couldn’t see him behind the massive giant in front of me but I heard him say
“Tell the Master Sergeant what you told me”
I cleared my throat and said “I’m here to join the army sir”
The Master Sergeant grinned ever so slightly and then he asked me
“Why do you want to join the army young man?”
“There is a War going on in Vietnam and American’s are fighting and that’s where I want to go”
“You WANT to go to Vietnam and fight?” he asked as the smile slowly creased his face
“Yes sir, I’m ready to go”
“So what is it that you want to do in the army?”
“I’m going to be a Green Beret sir and I’m going to Vietnam to fight”
The Master Sergeant was openly smiling now, one of the warmest smiles I can ever remember seeing anywhere at any time in my life and with that he straightened up, placed his hands on his hips and asked
“How old are you?”
“I’m eighteen sir”
I heard giggling behind the Master Sergeant
With a turn of his head he growled “Quite”
And it was, just like that
Still smiling the Master Sergeant said to me
“Give me just a minute young man, so don’t go anywhere O.k.?”
(Heck this was going to be easier than I thought)
The Master Sergeant turned his back to me and with a wave of his hand brought the other army recruiters in the office around him in a semi-circle and he spoke in low tones with his deep voice
“You all keep telling me this is an unpopular war and we can’t get anybody to join the army and that nobody wants to fight. I have a little boy standing over there that WANTS to go to Vietnam and fight, so I don’t want to hear any more complaining or excuses from any of you, are we clear?”
I saw the other heads nod in agreement as the Master Sergeant walked through the low swinging door that separated the desks and the counter from the lobby and in a single stride he was in front of me.
But he wasn’t towering over me now
He had squatted down so that we were almost at eye level
“Let’s me and you go back to my desk and talk about this all right?”
I quickly followed the Master Sergeant like a puppy back to his desk as he offered me a seat next to his desk. Gosh I was excited; I would be on a bus before the afternoon was over headed to boot camp, I just knew it.
All I had to do was stick to my story
He placed his massive arms on his desk and began to ask me questions
“So where do you live?”
Never taking my eyes off the Master Sergeant I answered…
“I’m a foster kid, I mean teenager, and I live and work with a family up the road a ways”
“Where is your momma and daddy?”
“I don’t know I never had either one of them, nobody wanted me I guess”
The giant man dropped his head for a minute and appeared to wipe something from the corner of his eye and then cleared his throat and began questioning me again
“Did you graduate High School?”
“Do you have your High School Diploma with you?”
“No sir but I can have the school send it to you after I enlist, I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem”
(Like I said I had thought this out, I had a plan, but I have to admit that comment made the massive man giggle like a little kid for a minute or two)
“So you want to be a Green Beret and go to Vietnam is that right?”
“Yes Sir, that’s right”
“Do you know what it takes to be a Green Beret?”
“Yes sir, I am the fastest kid, I mean teenager in my school, I mean when I was in school……. and I can swim like a fish and I can shoot better than anybody I know”
That Master Sergeant was smiling and looking at me like a proud father
It made me feel good, like I was doing something “right”; I will never forget that feeling.
While this conversation was going on I couldn’t help but notice that all the other army recruiters were more or less gathered within hearing distance of the Master Sergeant and me so they could eavesdrop on our discussion.
The Master Sergeant rummaged through some papers and then shook his head back and forth slowly
“I have some bad news for you son”
(Crap, here it comes….)
The Master Sergeant uncoiled himself from his chair and walked over to the wooded counter
I was watching him intently
He motioned me over to the counter and I stood next to him
He held his big black had about six inches above the counter top and said
“You have to be this tall to join the army”
(What was this some stupid “ride” at Six Flags? I just want to join the army!)
But like I said I was ready, so I blurted out
“Audie Murphy was only five feet five inches tall and he was the greatest hero of World War II!”
That Master Sergeant had the deepest, warmest laugh I had ever heard up until that point
The kind of laugh that wasn’t ridiculing or demeaning: a laugh that was loud, booming and just full of joy, the way you are supposed to laugh.
After he caught his breath he calmly said “I understand that, but you aren’t even close to five feet five”
I wasn’t going to give up without a fight so I replied with
“I bet I will hit my growth spurt in boot camp”
With that statement the entire office erupted in laughter, I didn’t feel bad about that either, I felt like one of the boys at that point. I was sure I would be on that bus bound for boot camp by the evening and my adventure would begin.
The Master Sergeant motioned me back over to the chair I had previously occupied next to his desk
I don’t know what it was about the short walk back to the chair, but I was suddenly beginning to feel defeated and he must have seen it on my face because the big man said
“Hey now, don’t you start looking all down on me Green Beret……”
I couldn’t believe he called me that and in a second I momentarily forgot all about my disappointment
I felt ten feet tall setting in that chair, I really did
And do you know why?
Because encouraging words can not only change a bad situation at the drop of a hat, it can give encouragement to someone that can last a lifetime.
And I remember his words like they were spoken yesterday.
With that the Master Sergeant then passed across the desk a small stack of “official” government papers and he told me “I will tell you what we will do, fill out this paperwork as best you can and when you get a little taller you come back here and see me, how does that sound?”
That seemed reasonable to me at the time, so I filled out the paper work as best I could and made up what I didn’t know with the Master Sergeant occasionally glancing over at me from across his desk smiling and by the time I finished signing my name I asked him
“So does this mean I’m not in the army and going to boot camp today?”
Looking back, I am sure the big Master Sergeant could sense my disappointment or maybe he felt it but whatever he saw in my young face he had the answer for it.
Looking as official as he could look under the circumstances he solemnly told me
“You will be sworn in to the United States Army today, but only for the day. Then you can come back when you are taller, all right?”
The Master Sergeant then gathered all the recruiters together in a loose formation
They were all standing behind me, grinning for ear to ear….
I was standing at attention next to the desk when the Master Sergeant told me to raise my right hand
His booming voice said…”Attention to Orders”
Then I repeated after him, just like he asked me too….
“I will defend the Constitution of the United States against ALL enemies foreign and domestic…..”
“So help me God”
I was on top of the world
I was congratulated by everyone and all the recruiter’s shook my hand, it was a day I will never forget
For the rest of the day I just helped the Master Sergeant around the office
I took out the trash in the office and he gave me some pamphlets to “study” on tanks, helicopters and of course on the Green Berets.
He even bought me lunch and I ate with him at his desk like we really worked together
Just like two army “guys” just sitting around talking.
I will tell you something else about that afternoon….
I didn’t hear a single dirty word come out of any of those guy’s mouths
One of the young recruiters was in the middle of some story that could have gone either way until the Master Sergeant cleared his throat and shot him a look that would peel paint.
That soldier even said “Sorry Master Sergeant”
You know why?
Because those soldiers were gentlemen in front of a little boy, that’s why
That’s how we were in My South and how I pray we still are in My South
I will tell you something else about that afternoon that you may not know
The Master Sergeant was the only Black Man in the room
All the “other” soldiers in the office, me included, were all white people or Caucasian if you prefer
Because it wasn’t about color, it was about respect, as it should be
That’s not what the news media would tell you back then and it certainly isn’t what they promote now
In fact you can’t turn on the television without seeing someone bashing my South in some form
Every time there is an “anniversary” of something that happened during the Civil Rights era during the 60’s the national media will run black and white images of black people being abused by some white people in the South.
One cable channel or another will force you to watch “Mississippi Burning” on a 24 hour loop
CNN will have a host of commentators that want you to believe that “racism” is “alive and well” in my South and they want you to also believe that black and white people have “never” gotten along in My South.
I am here to tell you that what they are promoting about us is simply not true
I grew up in the sixties in the South, My South
Color may have mattered in some places in the South, just like it did in Los Angeles, Detroit or Chicago
But Color didn’t matter in My South, it was always about character
The Master Sergeant had both color and character and he had something else too.
He had compassion, kindness and he took the time to share both
He made a little boys dream come true for a day and gave him a lesson in life that he would never forget
So if you haven’t enjoyed a warm summer evening in My South smelling the magnolia blossoms
Or seen the Southern sun come up over the mountains or deep in the bayou
Or taken the time to really know the people in MY South….
Then I would suggest that you don’t believe everything you see and hear about us on television
There is a lot more I could say on this subject…
But I will save that for another time
I have to go check the mail
Even after all these years I have a feeling I may be getting orders to report to army boot camp