Prior to graduation from basic training, orders came down from above. Before we were provided with individual orders, a permanent clerk in the company read from a list the MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) and next base assignment for each of us gathered in the yard. No one wanted to be an eleven bravo (11B), which meant infantry. We all knew what that number meant. About one-third of the platoon was assigned an eleven bravo MOS and sent to Advanced Infantry Training across the base. Those soldiers were to report immediately upon graduation. (See FYI below.)
I was one of the fortunate ones. I was assigned an MOS of ninety-four Charlie (94C) and sent to Fort Lee, Virginia. I had no idea what a 94C meant until the list came around to me. 94C meant meat cutter. It’s on my DD214 (a discharge form). The Army has since rearranged the MOS list and meat cutter is no longer included – neither is cook. Today, it is Food Service Specialist – 92G. And, of course, food specialists are mostly civilians. I was scheduled to have a 30-day leave and report to Fort Lee, VA on the 31st day.
For some strange reason, I kept getting up early while on leave and continued running early every morning. I drank some beers and did other wild things, but for the most part, I seemed to be conditioned to continue my regimen of being healthy.
I flew into Richmond, VA, on the date appointed. I took a limousine ride to Fort Lee, about 30 miles south. I checked in with 1st FASCOM Headquarters and Headquarters Company (after all these years I remember this outfit, but not necessarily the outfit in which I spent most of my time.) The military is full of acronyms. FASCOM stands for Field Army Support Command. Our shoulder patch was nicknamed “The Leaning Shithouse.”
I have no idea how someone could design this emblem, or even approve it, without realizing that it looks like a yearly Halloween prank.
The clerk I first spoke with thought I was a joke. “Really!?” He said: “We don’t have meat cutters on his base.” I think he told me that the Army hadn’t had meat cutters since World War II, or something like that. He gave me a pillow, an assigned bunk, sheets and a blanket and led me to a ward for incoming and outgoing soldiers – it was a temporary holding ward.
I ate in the mess hall 3 times a day, showered in the men’s room daily (latrines are only in the Navy and Marines), and attended roll call each morning, followed by police call (that’s what it’s called – you pick up trash and cigarette butts). No one noticed I was the only soldier in the holding ward for longer than 3 days. As a matter-of-fact, I was in that ward for 6 weeks.
One day, an old sergeant (probably 40 years-old, but looked 70) who was assigned to the temporary bay, asked if I wanted to go for a ride. Why not? He drove out to the country. He wanted to see a tobacco field. So did I. He walked up to a fence and picked a tobacco plant. I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself: ‘Is this guy crazy? We’re in the South. He could get shot trespassing like that.’ I don’t remember what he did with it. I enjoyed seeing drying barns. I’ve seen photos of tobacco drying barns, but up close was a real treat for me.
I spent most of the time walking up to the PX and buying a Harold Robbins book. [By the way, this past spring, at a Planned Parenthood Book Sale, I purchased a used Harold Robbins book that I hadn’t seen before. The copyright was 1976. It wasn’t available for those years I spent in the Army. I was discharged 5 years earlier.] Robbins’ books were thick paperbacks and took longer to read than some of the other offerings. I would find a nice place to sit and read. It was August-September, and the weather was pretty good for Virginia, even though hurricanes often travel up the east coast during the latter part of the period. I avoided the temporary ward. However, I would occasionally read some of the book on my bunk. It wasn’t like anyone paid attention to who was there and who wasn’t. This would become a pattern in my military career. I was often placed in the backroom. I have heard, “go hide” more than once.
Staying away from soldiers who looked like officers was a challenge. I didn’t like saluting. Walking down a sidewalk one day I saw a soldier coming toward me. As sloppy as he looked, I assumed he was an enlisted man. Nope, a lieutenant. He chewed my ass out for not saluting him. I believe that most officers avoid saluting whenever possible. This guy was arrogant. I have heard more than once that the most dangerous thing in Vietnam was a lieutenant with a map. To this day I cringe when someone calls me sir. “Sir” is an address of respect. There weren’t that many officers that deserved my respect. More on that in later blogs.
Finally, someone found me. I had orders to report to a different company and they were going to make me a cook. I think the company was 260th Quartermaster Battalion. It could have been the 180th for all I can remember. Cooks don’t fall out. That was a plus. No more getting up early in the morning, unless I was on the morning shift. I can’t remember cooking anything. I did make some salads – Jell-O and lettuce wedges. We had two staff sergeants – one on each shift – that were chefs in the citizen life. One was from Baltimore, the other from Boston. They cooked just about everything. And it was great!
Ramon Ortiz was from Texas, and Julio Ortiz was from Puerto Rico. They were not related. Both spoke Spanish, but the dialect was so different that neither could communicate well in their native language of Spanish. The three of us showed up in the mess hall about the same time. Ramon and I became pretty good friends for a few months. Although he was married, he set out to Petersburg every weekend and came back to tell me about the women with whom he had sex. He was a good-looking Hispanic with oil-black hair combed neatly from front to back, a natural brown hue that looked like a great suntan, straight pearly-white teeth, and piercing dark eyes. I don’t doubt many women were interested in him. There were many women to be had in town if you weren’t picky. I was. Ramon and I did not hang together on weekends, unless we were working. I did not like going to Petersburg.
The cooks who were not NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) share a large room. There may have been about 6-8 of us. In the beginning, most of us were Privates and Privates-first-class. Later, most of us were Specialists 4th Class. I no longer remember many names other than the two Ortiz’s, but one guy from North Carolina went home every other weekend to his wife and child. He came back one Sunday night and told this story.
He got off the bus from North Carolina at the Petersburg Bus Station and was waiting for the bus that went to Fort Lee. He ordered a hamburger and sat down in a booth to eat it. A woman came to the booth and sat down opposite him. She asked him if he wanted to buy some pussy. He asked “how much” it would cost. She said five dollars. His immediate response was: “What’s wrong with it?” She got up and left. He wasn’t going to have sex with her, and he wasn’t trying to be a smart ass. It was just his demeanor and the manner in which he carried on conversations. A real Southern boy. His time was up and he was honorably discharged not too long after I met him.
Within a month or so of finding my new home in the mess hall, the Quartermaster Company was moving out of the building it had been in for quite some time, and began operation on the 3rd floor of a modern barracks a few blocks away. The mess hall was on the ground floor. The new location would be my permanent home for the next 15-16 months in the Army. It’s also where most of the comical and unbelievable things happened to me and around me.
I’ll continue in between some serious blogs and other amusement.
FYI: Years later, I would travel to Washington, DC and visit the Vietnam Memorial. I had a list of the people with whom I served in basic training. Not one name was on The Wall.