View Full Version : Nightcrawlers

February 2nd, 2018, 03:17 PM
Basic Training, October, 1969

Our barracks had a room on the second floor, located above the downstairs vestibule. A buck sergeant had his quarters there. I don't know what his function was; maybe he was a house mother or the military equivalent. We seldom saw him. One day he told us that the following evening, after chow, we would all be trucked out to the infiltration course. He said we would have to crawl about a hundred yards over freshly laid crushed limestone and it would be wise to use some protection for our knees He said that Kotex and surgical tape had been found to work well in this application. He said that we were not allowed out of the company area, but if a couple of us were to sneak down to the PX and buy a couple of bales of this article, along with some tape, he would look the other way. So we passed the hat and sent some guys down there to make a buy.

I had had minimal exposure to such products in the past but it seemed to me that the design parameters of Kotex were far from those needed for knee pads. When the time came, I used my share of the tape to stick a couple of folded handkerchiefs to the insides of my knees.

The next day was cold and rainy. After evening chow we were herded into cattle trucks and driven out to the infiltration course.

The field was indeed covered with crushed limestone. At one end was a trench where perhaps fifteen of us at a time crouched, waiting to go “over the top”. Ahead was an area of barbed wire that we had to crawl under. Beyond the wire there were logs to be crawled over and still farther on were circular raised beds of sandbags and dirt (now mud) that had been planted with quarter-pound blocks of TNT that could be detonated by remote control. At the far end of the field were two M60 machine guns that fired live ammo over our heads. These guns were bolted to tables that kept them from firing low enough to hit anybody.

When were ready to start, a rather misty 40 degree rain was falling. We had to take off our waterproof ponchos, it being very hard to crawl in one of those things. It was after sunset and we were wet before the gunners fired the first few rounds over our heads.

A supersonic bullet makes a snapping noise as its shock wave passes your head. The report of the gun that fired it follows at a much slower pace. This is not the warm, friendly snap of a striking snake, either. It is the cold, blue snap of the high-tension spark. It is the sound of hard physics; the sound of M times V-squared going on over one's head and it tends to concentrate one's attention most wonderfully. That sound was threatening to leak its way into my imagination where some rather primal thought processes live. That wouldn't do at all. I thought about the hundreds of beehives I had opened barehanded and with my sleeves rolled up. I had learned to regard those bees as if they were just big flies. If one stung me, well, “There's one like that in every bar”, as the saying goes. Thinking of those bullets as if they were bees got me “over the top” and headed for the barbed wire trap.

I stayed low and the wire didn't snag me. Heck, I was so low a snake's ass would have looked like the North Star.

When I reached the log obstacles, I rolled over onto my back for a minute and watched the tracers fly over. Every fifth bullet was a tracer. They looked like little orange balls flying w-a-a-a-a-y down range in the dark. When they hit the berm backstop they ricocheted high in the air. Good show!

I crossed the logs and crawled toward the sandbag bunkers. One guy had stopped crawling and was lying still, hugging the sandbags. I crawled over to him.

“Hey, Beetle! You OK?”


Just then, one of the mines went up with a bang and showered us with clods of dirt and mud.

“You're almost through this thing. There's only about thirty yards to go.”

He said, “Take off. I'll be right behind you.”

I crawled away. He stayed where he was. He was frozen there, scared stiff. The instructors probably had to go after him with a basket.

There was a large mess tent set up for us to shelter from the weather. The inside was nearly dark; a little light from the outside floods filtered in through the open doors. There were a couple of rooms in one end (stock rooms? Kitchens?) and guys stood or sat in the corners and shivered. Most of the guys formed a circle in the large dining area and shuffled around, ankle-deep in mud, figuring to generate a little body heat that way. I joined the circle. Once in a while someone would start one of the marching songs we sang every day: “The Yellow Ribbon” and “I Don't Know but I Been Told”. I tried to teach them a couple of new ones but they didn't catch on. The ones I knew were sea chanteys and didn't seem appropriate for the Army.

Every so often, a guy would grab the collar of the guy in front of him and haul it upward and back and then breathe his warm breath down the guy's neck and back. That really felt great – made you feel warm for a half-minute or so. I don't know who started that but soon everybody was “paying it forward”.

Eventually, we were herded back aboard the cattle trucks and shipped back to our company area. I was in the barracks and was just reaching for some dry clothes when word came that I was wanted in the orderly room. I grabbed my rifle and ran over there at a dead run, yelling, “Echo!” every time my left foot hit the ground (I was a member of Echo Company, you see).

There were four or five drill sergeants in the room, sitting at desks or on desks, wearing their Smoky-the-Bear hats and looking at me expectantly. The senior drill sergeant handed me a folded piece of paper and said, “This came for you today.” I took the paper and, as I looked down at it, a piece of limestone fell from my eyebrow and slowly slid down the left lens of my glasses. The paper was a radiogram from Army MARS (= Military Auxiliary Radio System). It said:

“Steam generator blew up STOP
“Steam everywhere STOP
“Nobody hurt STOP
“Have to uncap by hand STOP
“Gene K”

Someone said, “What's it mean?” They were afraid there was some kind of catastrophe at home and I might want an emergency leave and they would have to fill out a ton of paperwork. I told them we were a family of beekeepers. We cut the wax caps off of the honeycombs with vibrating knives heated by steam. The boiler blew up. It's what happens when you lay a brick on the safety valve. Now they have to use manual, electrically heated knives. It means a lot of extra work.

Then they asked, “Who's Gene?”

“Gene is my brother.”

“YOUR BROTHER ????!!!! Get the hell outa here!”

So, I beat feet from there to the mess hall where the cooks had hot soup and cocoa for us. Then, it was back to the barracks for dry clothes and a session of rifle cleaning. The rifle was easy to clean this time; all rifles are clean when the armorer wants to go home.

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