If you have ever been to Columbus, Georgia in the early spring, you will know what I am talking about. It is really cold in the mornings and very warm in the afternoons. It’s something that you have to get used to. Since we arrived of an afternoon, we were not prepared to fall out in our fatigues at 5 in the morning. It was blasted cold.
I remember that morning well. Our company Sergeant Barnwell called us to attention. It was really hard to understand what he was saying. He had a large chaw of tobacco in his cheek and spoke with the worst southern drawl that I have ever heard. Just remember, we were all from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We were not fellas from rural areas or from farm country. So, we thought we were doing what we were told when the sergeant gave us an order. You can imagine the silliness of each person’s hearing different commands at the same time.
Sergeant Barnwell also had a habit of wiggling his hands when he wanted something to be done. This always preceded his commands. We were mesmerized by these motions and most often got confused about what he wanted us to do.
As I look back at those nine weeks (there was a zero week), I now understand that we were involved in a clash of cultures. Remember, segregation was still rampant in the south. Schools were not yet integrated, even 3 years after Brown v. Board of Education. For the minorities in our outfit, this was not a pleasant place. I should issue a rejoinder; it was not a pleasant place for any of us.
All of the non-coms were from the south, as were our officers. I have seen enough movies portraying how tough it was for marines in their boot camp. I am not sure that ours was any easier. We were ordered around in typical army commands, but we knew from the outset that the people who were leading us were intentionally making it difficult for us. What they did not understand was that we could make it difficult for them.
It is true that a couple of the recruits were singled out for a section 8 discharge- not fit for military duty. They gave us rakes to rake the sand and gravel in front of the barracks, for hours at a time and mostly under the sun in the afternoon. As payback, the Puerto Rican guys went to the PX and purchased general’s stars and fell out with them on their fatigues at roll call in the morning. Sergeant Barnwell threw a seven right there in front of the barracks. You could tell he was very angry because his fingers moved very quickly and the sounds coming out of his mouth were accompanied by large bits of chewing tobacco.
It couldn’t be all bad. We did have some off time on post and a few weeks later everyone got a weekend pass to go into town except for yours truly. Sometimes I wonder. Each Saturday morning we had an inspection by our battalion commander. Sometimes he would bring the base commander, and look us up and down. Sometimes they would stop in front of a soldier and ask him a question. In most cases, the correct answer was given. That Saturday morning, the Battalion Commander stopped within an inch from my nose. Remember, those were the days of horned rim glasses. I could feel my knees quaking when the Major asked me to recite the chain of command. I started with my squad leader and ended with President Dwight David Eisenhower. I was not sure that I had gotten it all correct until the major said to Sergeant Barnwell, give this man 10 merits. They moved along and finished their inspection.
It appeared to be a really good inspection and everyone was happy with their weekend pass. As the guys got into civilian clothes and were leaving the barracks, the squad leaders handed them their passes. I looked longingly at my squad leader for my pass and he just shrugged his shoulders. I went over to Sergeant Barnwell and asked him where my weekend pass was. He said, “Asswipe, you ain’t getting’ nuthin.” I asked him why and he said, “You ain’t gettin’ no 10 merits either, you are a suckup and an asskisser.” From now until you leave here, you ain’t getting’ no weekend passes.”
Well, I stood there in astonishment. I could not imagine that this had turned out this way. I guess that I was too smart for my own britches. I guess my glasses and my demeanor bothered the sarge. He saw me as the quintessential northern wiseass and he was going to show me. I have also suspected over the years that he knew that I was Jewish. What else could it have been?