February 17, 2013 1 Comment
There were only three times a day while in Army basic training when I was completely alone, and that was in the port-a-johns just outside of the mess hall. It became the only time I would be able to smoke, so I developed the habit of wolfing my chow down then holing up in the crapper hot-boxing a cigarette.
It was a brilliantly blistering July day, and we had just arrived for lunch en masse, standing at attention in our uniforms, web gear and helmets. As was the established routine, at command and in unison, we all took our helmets off and held them in front of us until we heard the barked order to place them on the tarmac between our feet, and it had better be with one sound of fifty helmets clopping onto the pavement or we’d do it again until we got it right. Then came the web suit – a wide, strong utility belt with thick suspenders designed to hold a rucksack, a canteen, a small shovel, two full clips of .22 shells for our M16A1, and various metal loops for grenades – placed around the helmet, also in unanimity.
The drill sergeants had us go into the chow hall in single file, take our plate of food and eat it as quickly as we could. I always tried to be one of the first ones out, just so I could get a prime seat in the portable toilets outside and smoke. This day, as I puffed away, trying not to notice the lung-searing chemical smell wafting up from below, I spotted a pigeon feather caught in the vent. Almost unconsciously, I picked it free and sat twirling it between my thumb and forefinger as I inhaled smoke.
In a couple of minutes I was done, so I hot-footed it over to my position in the platoon and waited. About half the group was already milling about, chatting with each other. As there was nobody close to me, I squatted down and sat on my helmet, absentmindedly putting the feather in an elastic headband wrapped around the helmet’s base, designed to hold the forest-colored liner in place. And then I forgot it was there, plain and simple.
Soon, the drill sergeants sauntered out of the mess hall and the entire platoon stood behind their gear. A couple of commands away, and we had out gear back on and were marching back to the barracks
when one of the drill sergeants yelled at the platoon to stop, came within an inch of my face and screamed, “Harding, what in the hell are you doing with a goddamned feather in your helmet?”
Without hesitation I stammered, “Whawhat feather?”
The DI yanked it out of my headband and held it out in front of me, and though he didn’t say a word to me, I could feel his eyes burning into me. I’m sure my own eyes must have been as large as frisbees as I felt all the blood drain from my head, threatening to take me down in a white cloud of unconsciousness. My brain screamed Deny!, and I found my voice squeaking, “I . . .duhdon’t know!”
Instead of scorching me with his tongue, the drill sergeant took a step back, held the feather up high for everyone to see, and thundered, “So which one of you shitheads thought it would be a good joke to pull on your platoon leader (me, btw)?” After a few seconds of nothing but fifty scared men breathing and looking around, the sergeant added, “Somebody better come clean, or you’ll all be low-crawling all over the company grounds!”
The drill sergeant had us double time (meaning a jogging run) to our barracks and proceeded to make everyone but me hit the ground and crawl themselves through a maze of dirty obstacles. I stood next to the sergeant as he punished the platoon, reminding them that one of our number had brought this about, and that when he found out who the culprit was, he’d make sure they all found out who the clown was. One of the things he said was, “I’m not going to punish Harding, because he was the object of your little prank!” Knowing I was indeed the one who had done this, I felt shame as I’d never known before, witnessing the entire platoon being grilled in the indomitable heat.
Finally unable to take it anymore, I approached the drill instructor and blurted out the truth, willing to face whatever derision would befall me. To my utter shock, the sergeant made the platoon stop and stumble into formation, then told the ragged lot, “Your platoon leader has just informed me that he’s willing to take the blame for this, and I find that so damned honorable I’m going to show each one of you how unworthy you are to be in his presence! Now back to your bellies and crawl!” If this story happens across the view of any of those poor guys in my platoon, I want you to know that life has a way of balancing everything out, and I’m sure at least three of my own personal hells were in payment for that day.