Outcomes:   Good and Bad

 

My first assignment as a newly commissioned second lieutenant was as a platoon leader in Company B of the 339th Engineer Construction Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington.

 

My first company commander was Captain James Parker.  On the day I reported to him for duty, I was joined by another brand new junior officer, Lieutenant Cox.  Cox was a strange bird: he wore very thick glasses which caused him to seem to stare accusingly at anyone he spoke to. Also, he had to manage an overabundance of saliva which he sprayed whenever he spoke.  He was hardly a poster child for the New Army.   Some folks just seem fated to live pathetic lives; to me, Cox was one.

 

When we reported him, Captain Parker briefly detailed our assignments: Cox was to lead the Heavy Equipment Platoon, consisting of operators of road graders, bulldozers, Cat tractors, excavators, etc.  I was to have the Construction Platoon made up of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, HVAC techs, etc.  Captain Parker explained that no officers had been leading either of the two platoons for some time; the platoon sergeants had been acting platoon leaders (positions usually held by lieutenants).  He said our sergeants could be found in the platoon leaders' office down the hall and we should both go introduce ourselves.

 

I let Cox enter the room first.  From the doorway I could see sergeants sitting at the two desks. To the right of the doorway was an old sergeant who looked like he had been in rank since before I was born.  At the far side of the room was a diminutive, dark-skinned man with an engaging, intelligent aspect.

 

Cox stood in front of the near desk and said to his platoon sergeant, "Sergeant, you're sitting in my chair."  The old sergeant stood up immediately.  I could tell by the way he looked at Cox that the two of them would never be on the same page the whole time they'd be assigned to work together.

 

Seeing his companion jump up, the other sergeant began to do the same.  I motioned for him to stay seated.  I went over to him, shook his hand, leaned over and whispered in his ear, "Sergeant, I want you to know I'm new at all this and I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing.  I sure could use any help you might see fit to give me."[1]

 

He smiled broadly, stood up and gave me a snappy salute.  "Yes, SIR!  Sergeant First Class Pedro Vargas at your service, SIR!  I think we'll get along just fine, Sir."

 

I invited Sgt. Vargas to go for a walk with me.  As we strolled the battalion compound I learned that he had been leading the platoon for seven months.  He made me aware of certain problems in the unit that would have taken me weeks to discover on my own.  He requested that I call him Pete when it was just the two of us.  He told me he was born in Puerto Rico but spent his youth in the Bronx; he had played semi-pro baseball in New York; and he was an avid pinochle player.

 

In response I told him I'd have to ease into using nicknames only because one of us might slip at the wrong time and that could be a career killer.  I also told him my dad was born and raised in the Bronx; baseball was my sport too; and I played so much pinochle in college I should have been given a degree in it.  In the months that followed we would prove to be an unbeatable pinochle duo—we could read each other's mind so well it felt like we were cheating legally.

 

He told me we'd be working on a few construction projects on the post over the next few weeks in preparation for a much larger assignment our company would be carrying out in Idaho.  In order to meet the requirements of the big project we'd have to beef up our ranks by taking on unskilled labor in the form of troops returning from Vietnam.[2]  Pete was concerned about the load he'd be taking on training the new people; he was glad I was there to manage the platoon.

 

Over the next few days, as I watched him working with the members of the platoon, I was impressed with his ability to juggle a remarkable number of details and assignments.  We had over 40 specialists, scattered over several construction sites, all requiring continual supervision and approval of work before progress could continue.  Pete tracked all jobs in great detail on his clipboard, and everywhere work ran smoothly and speedily.  I joked that if he were in the civilian world he'd be managing construction of three skyscrapers simultaneously, no problem.

 

One of my favorite memories of Pete was the time he fertilized the grass. 

 

The footprint of each of the barracks buildings in our quad was L-shaped, with a 20' x 60' lawn that filled in the open area of the L

 

In early summer we were told that the commanding general of Sixth Army was due to inspect our area in four weeks.  This was a big deal.  In accordance with ancient Army tradition we were ordered to paint everything that didn't move, except for the lawns which had to look like putting greens.  Our company first sergeant put Pete in charge of making the lawn outside our barracks pass inspection, a job Pete took on the same way he took on anything—full out.

 

Now, as I mentioned, Pete's family was from Puerto Rico and he grew up in a tenement in the Bronx.  Never was there a lawn anywhere in his past.  He had no idea how fertilizer worked on grass, but he went to the supply depot and acquired a 20-lb. bag of it.  By the time I saw what he was up to, he was tossing handfuls of high-nitrogen fertilizer on this tiny patch of grass like it was chicken feed, and the bag was almost empty. 

 

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Pete.  What're you doing?"

 

"I'm fertilizing my lawn, Sir."

 

"Uh, you're supposed to spread it lightly on the lawn, and evenly.  Too much of it and you'll burn the grass."

 

"Shoot.  How was I supposed to know that?  I don' know nuthin' 'bout lawns.  What can I do now?"

 

"Water, Pete.  Lots of water.  Every day.  Make sure it's never dry."

 

Three days later big brown half-moons of dead grass began to appear in the lawn.  Pete took a lot of grief from the other platoon sergeants in the battalion about the huge brown spots.  Every time one of them would pass by he'd yell, "Hey Pete, nice lawn!", and double over laughing.  It was quite the joke around the battalion.

 

Pete was deeply depressed for a couple of weeks, but he kept watering the grass morning and evening.  With a week to go, the lawn started to recover.  The dead swaths started to come back to life, and the green parts turned thick and rich.  The day before the general’s inspection Pete mowed the lawn personally three times and made sure every blade of grass was the exact height of every other blade.  Then he watered it deeply one more time.

 

I wasn't outside when the general passed by, but Pete was.  And when the inspection was over he came running in to tell me that the general had stopped to admire his lawn and said it was the best he'd ever seen. 

 

"The general said it was perfect, Sir!" 

 

And it was.  Pete had had the last laugh. 

 

And that's the moral of this little story: If you're only going to get one laugh, make it be the last one.

 

 

Captain Parker (Jim) was a member of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, local to the area around Ft. Lewis.  He had requested assignment at Ft. Lewis to be close to his family who lived in the Tacoma area.  Jim was a simple soul who loved to hunt and fish.  I think he was living out ancestral rites while wearing green jeans.

 

When our company qualified on the rifle range, Jim had his lieutenants qualify first and he supervised my qualification personally with the whole company watching. He saw me put five out of six rounds through the same hole.  He was delighted, and later when he checked my record and found that I had done the same thing in basic training, he was ecstatic.   He insisted that I take the target home and have Kathy see it and sign it, something that I found to be rather strange, but then Jim wasn't completely all together.

 

Because of my shooting prowess he got it in his head that I'd make a great huntsman.  One winter's day, while I was out on a job site, he drove up in his jeep and ordered me to hop in.  I noticed he had a shotgun in the back seat. 

I should mention that on a construction job we wore Army-issue helmets—the equivalent of civilian hard hats.  That morning I was wearing my helmet at the site, Jim was wearing an Army-standard cloth baseball-style cap.

 

Without saying anything to me about where we were going, he drove us out to a remote area of Ft. Lewis, to the edge of a field where a stream fed into a large pond.  We got out, he took the shotgun with him and we walked upstream through snow and ice.

 

In a few minutes we saw a pair of mallards flying downstream and Jim fired at the trailing duck.  It was winged, hit the water and swam to rushes on the far side of the stream.

 

He then handed me the gun and said, "Your turn.  Finish him off."  Ugh.  He had no idea how distasteful this whole experience was to me.  Hunting in the abstract had no appeal to me, and now in reality it was so much worse than anything I might have imagined.

 

I felt badly for the duck, so I took the gun and aimed at the rushes.  Just then two more mallards flew past my line of vision and instinctively I swung, fired and hit the trailing duck.  It was dead in flight. Its body dropped to the water and floated until it got hung up on a snag in the middle of the stream.  My shooting of that duck was purely instinctual, without thought, and I could not have felt worse.  We had ended the productive lives of two ducks.  For what?

 

We then walked down to the pond, which was frozen over.  We saw several ducks standing on the ice, and another flew in and made a skidding landing.  Jim raised the gun and shot one of the ducks on the pond.  Then he handed the gun to me and again said, "Your turn."

 

I don’t remember exactly what I said to him, but it was something along the lines of ‘I just want to go back to work’.  He expressed his disappointment in me as we headed back to the jeep.  Just as we reached it, we heard ducks overhead.  Looking up, we saw a formation of about a dozen ducks a couple hundred feet directly above us.  Jim aimed the gun straight up at them and fired.

 

Long barrel shotguns are designed to project a fairly tight array of buckshot for quite a distance.  In this case, the shot pattern stayed intact up through the formation of ducks (without hitting any) and continued straight up until gravity slowed it to a stop and then pulled the buckshot back to earth, still in a tight array.

 

Several seconds after Jim fired the shot we heard a single ping on my helmet.  We looked at each other somewhat stupidly, and then all the remaining shot rained on us at once.  I suffered no discomfort; the shot was like raindrops on my steel pot.  Jim, on the other hand, was wearing cloth on his head and the pellet shower was terribly painful for him.  He did a sort of war dance chanting "Ow, ow, ow..." for several seconds.  

 

We got back in the jeep and he drove me back to the work site.  I got out and thanked him for the experience.  He mistook my sarcasm for enthusiasm and said we'd have to do it again sometime. 

 

This was the one and only hunting adventure in my entire life.

 

 

The big construction project our company was tasked with in the Spring of 1969 involved building temporary housing, actually a small city, for over 34,000 people attending the National Boy Scout Jamboree to be held in Farragut State Park, twenty miles north of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. We had six weeks to get the job done.

 

I guess higher-ups decided that the job was too big for Jim Parker, because he was transferred out and his replacement, Cpt. Mike Jacobs, was everything Jim wasn't: abrupt, aggressive, in-your-face, a real take-charge guy.

 

Shortly after Mike took over I played in a volleyball game against him.  The obvious offensive tactic in volleyball is to find a hole in the opponents' defense and exploit it.  That wasn't Mike's way.  He employed the armstrong method: he'd slam the ball as hard as he could without any attempt at deception, on the assumption that no one could handle his attack.  An offense like that is easy to defend simply by creating a wall directly in front of the ball.  I did that time and time again, and he finally gave up in exhaustion.  I later used that same strategy in a very different setting.

 

It was the last day of March, and the convoy to Idaho was to leave Ft. Lewis just after dawn.  Mike had very little time on the streets of Ft. Lewis to stage the assemblage of over four dozen vehicles, more than a third of which were large flatbed tractor trailers hauling all our heavy equipment.  When all the vehicles were lined up, the train was three quarters of a mile long bumper-to-bumper.

 

Mike laid a map on the hood of his jeep and had Lieutenant Cox, the first sergeant and me huddle around.  His plan for maintaining the integrity of the convoy was to have Cox in the lead jeep, the captain's and the first sergeant's jeeps managing the middle of the convoy, and mine in the rear to watch for any vehicle in trouble.  We were to take I-5 north, exit to State Highway 18 thus avoiding Seattle traffic during commute time, travel northeast to meet up with I-90, and head over Snoqualmie Pass.  According to his plan we'd be in Ellensburg for lunch—halfway to Spokane where we'd spend the night at Fairchild Air Force Base.

 

One terrible mistake: He gave Cox the map and the lead.

 

Each of our jeeps had PRC-25 radios with a range of about four miles.  That should have been sufficient, given that we had four jeeps placed at intervals in the convoy.  When we left Ft. Lewis and the entire convoy was on the freeway, we tested the radios and everything was "five by five" (that is, signal strength and clarity were excellent).  Cox called out a mile marker and when I passed that same marker three minutes later, I calculated that by our speed the convoy was two and a half miles long.

 

Everything went well for the first 20 miles through Tacoma.  We were traveling in the far right lane, and cars and trucks would squeeze into our line as they entered and exited the freeway, but we were moving at 20mph below the speed limit so it was obvious to civilian drivers they should use the left lanes to get by us.

 

I was following a 5-ton supply truck as we approached the turn-off to Highway 18.  At mile marker 140 and again at 141 I saw large signs announcing the turnoff to Highway 18 at Exit 142A just ahead.  The exit is at a slight angle to I-5, maybe 30°, and as we approached the exit I could see about a quarter mile down the exit road.  There were no green trucks.  And the truck ahead of me just kept going north on I-5.

 

I got on the radio and called Mike Jacobs.  "Captain, we missed the turn off!"

 

"Yes, I know.  And I can't get Cox on the radio.  I think he's heading to Canada.”

 

I asked what he wanted me to do.  He told me to drive as fast as I could north, past as much of the convoy as I could, and when I got to the interchange where I-5 meets I-405 I should cut in to the convoy and lead as many trucks as I could to I-90.  He'd continue north to try to head off Cox and we'd have to try to meet up and re-form the convoy somewhere east.

 

As we were nearing the I-405 interchange I saw about a dozen of our green trucks in the southbound lanes of I-5 heading back toward Tacoma, but I saw no jeep.  My driver and I couldn't help but laugh.  This was insane.

 

I was able to head off about a third of the convoy and lead them north to I-90 and then east for about 20 miles.  We pulled off the road to wait for the rest.  It was two hours later that Mike arrived with another third of the convoy.  Finally, in another couple of hours Cox showed up with the rest.  We were six hours behind schedule, many of the big trucks were low on fuel, and the motor pool crew had several flats to repair.

 

Cox insisted the map was faulty.

 

We made it to Fairchild AFB well after dark, and several of the big vehicles were in serious need of repair, so we stayed at the base the next day.  That gave Pete and me plenty of pinochle time.

 

We took on all comers and those we beat stayed around to watch the next victims, and pretty soon there was a large crowd gathered to watch. 

 

Somehow it was reported that gambling was going on in the hanger, and when the base MPs showed up and saw a lieutenant playing with enlisted men they started taking names.  We assured them we were just playing for fun and our victims all avowed that they hadn't lost anything but their pride. 

Pete asked if any of the MPs played.  Two said they did so we invited them to the table.  At that the crowd of Army and Air Force people got even more intense, and when we four shook hands after Pete and I took all twelve tricks, the MPs blamed their loss on Army cards and swore we'd be playing with Air Force cards when we came through on our way home.

 

We finally made it to Idaho on the third day. 

 

 

Farragut State Park overlooks the southern end of Lake Pend Oreille, a remarkably beautiful setting.  Opposite the lake is an array of hills which back East would be considered mountains.  When we first arrived everything was covered with snow, but the Spring melt had begun.  We made two-man tents out of ponchos, had a comfortable night's sleep in the snow and were scheduled to start work in the morning.

 

Dawn was heavy with a dense fog when I got up.  I grabbed my towel and shaving kit and headed for a park restroom.  I was about ten steps out of my tent when in the fog I saw a soldier in a fur coat down on all fours.

 

As I took a step closer the fog cleared a bit and I started to have doubts about what I was seeing.  Another step and I could clearly discern a bear cub the size of a large dog.  Turns out I was most fortunate I was downwind of the cub.

 

I froze, the cub froze, and rearing up behind him was momma bear.  She swatted the cub to the side and then stood up and saw me.  I screamed, she screamed and the cub screamed.  I dove back into my tent and by that time my tentmate was awake and making noise.  Soldiers in other tents started making noise, and that must have scared the bears because when I looked out they were both gone.

 

Later on one of the locals told me that in early Spring, as the snow melts in the lower elevations and the grasses start to sprout, the deer and elk move up the meadows gorging themselves on new growth.  And the omnivores follow the herbivores up the hills.  My bears must have been looking for a quick meal in our campground.  I was almost it.

 

 

There were about 80 of us on the construction site.  We were ten miles from Sandpoint, the nearest town, which was how the single guys viewed the landscape.  To us married guys we were about 350 miles from home.

 

Because we were already behind schedule, and the job looked daunting, Captain Mike declared that there'd be no weekend passes and no leave to be taken while we were on the six-week project.  About a fourth of the troops were married, many with young kids at home or on the way, and they missed home.  Morale started to degrade over long evenings after work with nothing to do.  Mike came out with a rule that, since the married guys couldn't go home, the single guys couldn't go to Sandpoint. (Once again, Mike was employing the armstrong method.)

 

Morale continued to get worse.

 

A contingent of married guys came to me during the second week with a list of complaints.  They knew I wasn't the decision-maker, but as a married guy myself with a young one at home and another on the way, I did have their sympathy.

 

We huddled and considered our options. Mike Jacobs was obstinate but we knew he was under a lot of pressure to get the job done right.  It was a large and complex project, we had gotten off to a slow start and morale was an issue.  Generals were scheduled to inspect in the fifth week, and Sixth Army would look good to the Boy Scouts pooh-bahs if Mike's team was doing a professional job.

 

Remembering Mike's approach to volleyball and how a direct block had better results than trying to out-think him, I had the members of the contingent write up a formal letter of complaint, along with their stated commitment to do whatever it took to get the project done on time IF their request for weekends home was granted.  Many of the married guys were among the most skilled and most dependable in the company.

 

I told them I'd present the letter to Mike when the time was right.

 

I had the advantage of picking the time and place.  Within a couple of days a series of reports of delay, due mostly to bad weather and equipment breakdowns, hit Mike's desk.  I let the married guys know it was going down.

 

Mike's office/orderly room was in a GP Medium tent.  I walked in, saluted, and asked for five minutes.

 

"If this is about letting people go back home, the answer is no."

 

"It's a little more complicated than that, Sir.  The married soldiers would like for you to consider this letter."

 

"No, Lieutenant, it's just not going to happen, and that's the end of it."

 

It wasn't the end of it.  He and I went at it for about ten minutes, loud enough that the married men gathered outside the tent could hear everything.  Our discussion was very respectful on both our parts, it was just that we both had a lot at stake.

 

Finally, Mike conceded.  A large cheer went up outside the tent.  He glared at me.  "This was a setup.  This is extortion, you son of a gun." 

 

I said, "I look on it more as a bargain, Sir.  I think we'll both come out ahead on this deal."  This brought a smile to his face.  He said we'd better get back on schedule quickly or he might just have second thoughts.  He needn't have worried.

 

One of the sergeants had relatives living in Coeur d'Alene.  He borrowed a car and four of us went back with him to Ft. Lewis the first weekend.  We all drove back in our own vehicles, so after that first weekend there were enough rides for everyone wanting to head back home on the remaining weekends.

 

And the single guys got to go to Sandpoint.

 

Morale went through the roof.  Even as weather worsened, everyone picked up the pace. By the time the generals arrived we were three days ahead of schedule and the whole place looked strack.  Mike would have been delighted, if only....

 

 

When Mike first took over the company he went looking for a jeep driver, a chauffeur/errand boy.  He didn't want to take anyone from his pool of skilled talent so he chose Private Michael Dewberry.  Dewberry was a nice kid, 18 years old and looking young for his age.  He had a sweet, naïve disposition with the look and mannerisms of a country boy.  To my knowledge he had no vices, didn't smoke, didn't drink.  He took great pride in his appearance and always showed up in crisply starched fatigues and spit-shined boots.  He was perfect for the job of chauffeur.

 

Dewberry took his responsibilities very seriously.  He waxed the captain's jeep at least once a week, washed it after each drive, had it fueled and serviced religiously and stood ready for any assignment.  I don't think I've ever seen anyone happier in his work.

 

When Mike relented and let the married guys go home to Ft. Lewis, he eased his restrictions on the travels of the rest.  The problem for most was that there were no cars in camp on the weekends when the married guys had left, and jeeps were off-limits.

 

Except for Dewberry and Mike's jeep.

 

One Sunday evening when we married guys returned, we were told travel was restricted for the rest of the project's duration.  When I asked why, the one-word answer was, "Dewberry".  He was missing and we were told Mike, the first sergeant and Cox were all called in to Coeur d'Alene on a police investigation.  There had been an accident.

 

We learned later that Dewberry and a friend had taken Mike's jeep to a Sandpoint bar and Dewberry had drunk heavily.  On the way back he was traveling at what investigators calculated was an exceedingly high speed.   He missed a curve and the jeep flipped on its right side.  Dewberry was thrown free into a field, but his friend was trapped in the jeep as it rolled over and skidded upside down along the shoulder of the road.

 

They said what happened to the friend was horrific.  He was killed instantly, but as the topless jeep skidded over him it tore and abraded his body so badly as to be unrecognizable.

 

Dewberry was relatively uninjured.  He crawled back to the jeep and in the headlights of a passing car had a brief first glimpse at the corpse.  When I saw Michael days later, I didn't recognize him.  He could not stop weeping.  He was living a hellish nightmare.

 

Months afterward, back at Ft. Lewis, I saw him one last time.  Preliminary hearings had begun in preparation for his court martial.  When I saw him he was in his Class A uniform, obviously on a break, standing in a grove of trees.  He was just staring at nothing, taking a long drag on a cigarette.  I've never seen a more tragic figure.

 

Because too much alcohol had triggered a series of bad decisions on a single summer evening in his eighteenth year, Michael Dewberry's freedom and joy of living were extinguished forever.  He was no longer the guileless country naif proud in his simple duties.  It didn't appear he'd ever know happiness again for the rest of his life.  That severity made him unrecognizable to me.

 

[1]   Military authorities probably would frown on my introductory conversation with Sgt. Vargas.  They’d probably insist that proper decorum required me to be formal and establish a superior relationship over him (much the way Cox did).  But I never considered myself “career military”, rather a civilian serving in the military. So my relationships, as you’ll see in these stories, were rather informal but for the most part successful.


[2]   See my story of Billy Hicks.