And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many … Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return … And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand.

And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there … so he brought down the people unto the water:

And the LORD said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise everyone that boweth down upon his knees to drink. And the number of them that drank, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men …

And the LORD said unto Gideon, By the three hundred … will I save you … let all the other people go …

—Judges VII:2-7

Two weeks after we got there they took our cots away from us. That is to say that we had the dubious pleasure of folding them, carrying them four miles, and stowing them in a warehouse. By then it didn’t matter; the ground seemed much warmer and quite soft — especially when the alert sounded in the middle of the night and we had to scramble out and play soldier. Which it did about three times a week. But I could get back to sleep after one of those mock exercises at once; I had learned to sleep any place, any time — sitting up, standing up, even marching in ranks. Why, I could even sleep through evening parade standing at attention, enjoy the music without being waked by it — and wake instantly at the command to pass in review.

I made a very important discovery at Camp Currie. Happiness consists in getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more. All the wealthy, unhappy people you’ve ever met take sleeping pills; Mobile Infantrymen don’t need them. Give a cap trooper a bunk and time to sack out in it and he’s as happy as a worm in an apple — asleep.

Theoretically you were given eight full hours of sack time every night and about an hour and a half after evening chow for your own use. But in fact your night sack time was subject to alerts, to night duty, to field marches, and to acts of God and the whims of those over you, and your evenings, if not ruined by awkward squad or extra duty for minor offenses, were likely to be taken up by shining shoes, doing laundry, swapping haircuts (some of us got to be pretty fair barbers but a clean sweep like a billiard ball was acceptable and anybody can do that)—not to mention a thousand other chores having to do with equipment, person, and the demands of sergeants. For example we learned to answer morning roll call with: “Bathed!” meaning you had taken at least one bath since last reveille. A man might lie about it and get away with it (I did, a couple of times) but at least one in our company who pulled that dodge in the face of convincing evidence that he was not recently bathed got scrubbed with stiff brushes and floor soap by his squad mates while a corporal-instructor chaperoned and made helpful suggestions.

But if you didn’t have more urgent things to do after supper, you could write a letter, loaf, gossip, discuss the myriad mental and moral shortcomings of sergeants and, dearest of all, talk about the female of the species (we became convinced that there were no such creatures, just mythology created by inflamed imaginations — one boy in our company claimed to have seen a girl, over at regimental headquarters; he was unanimously judged a liar and a braggart). Or you could play cards. I learned, the hard way, not to draw to an inside straight and I’ve never done it since. In fact I haven’t played cards since.

Or, if you actually did have twenty minutes of your very own, you could sleep. This was a choice very highly thought of; we were always several weeks minus on sleep.

I may have given the impression that boot camp was made harder than necessary. This is not correct.

It was made as hard as possible and on purpose.

It was the firm opinion of every recruit that this was sheer meanness, calculated sadism, fiendish delight of witless morons in making other people suffer.

It was not. It was too scheduled, too intellectual, too efficiently and impersonally organized to be cruelty for the sick pleasure of cruelty; it was planned like surgery for purposes as unimpassioned as those of a surgeon. Oh, I admit that some of the instructors may have enjoyed it but I don’t know that they did — and I do know (now) that the psych officers tried to weed out any bullies in selecting instructors. They looked for skilled and dedicated craftsmen to follow the art of making things as tough as possible for a recruit; a bully is too stupid, himself too emotionally involved and too likely to grow tired of his fun and slack off, to be efficient.

Still, there may have been bullies among them. But I’ve heard that some surgeons (and not necessarily bad ones) enjoy the cutting and the blood which accompanies the humane art of surgery.

That’s what it was: surgery. Its immediate purpose was to get rid of, run right out of the outfit, those recruits who were too soft or too babyish ever to make Mobile Infantrymen. It accomplished that, in droves. (They darn near ran me out.) Our company shrank to platoon size in the first six weeks. Some of them were dropped without prejudice and allowed, if they wished, to sweat out their terms in the non-combatant services; others got Bad Conduct Discharges, or Unsatisfactory Performance Discharges, or Medical Discharges.

Usually you didn’t know why a man left unless you saw him leave and he volunteered the information. But some of them got fed up, said so loudly, and resigned, forfeiting forever their chances of franchise. Some, especially the older men, simply couldn’t stand the pace physically no matter how hard they tried. I remember one, a nice old geezer named Carruthers, must have been thirty-five; they carried him away in a stretcher while he was still shouting feebly that it wasn’t fair!—and that he would be back.

It was sort of sad, because we liked Carruthers and he did try — so we looked the other way and figured we would never see him again, that he was a cinch for a medical discharge and civilian clothes. Only I did see him again, long after. He had refused discharge (you don’t have to accept a medical) and wound up as third cook in a troop transport. He remembered me and wanted to talk old times, as proud of being an alumnus of Camp Currie as Father is of his Harvard accent — he felt that he was a little bit better than the ordinary Navy man. Well, maybe he was.

But, much more important than the purpose of carving away the fat quickly and saving the government the training costs of those who would never cut it, was the prime purpose of making as sure as was humanly possible that no cap trooper ever climbed into a capsule for a combat drop unless he was prepared for it — fit, resolute, disciplined and skilled. If he is not, it’s not fair to the Federation, it’s certainly not fair to his teammates, and worst of all it’s not fair to him.

But was boot camp more cruelly hard than was necessary?

All I can say to that is this: The next time I have to make a combat drop, I want the men on my flanks to be graduates of Camp Currie or its Siberian equivalent. Otherwise I’ll refuse to enter the capsule.

But I certainly thought it was a bunch of crumby, vicious nonsense at the time. Little things — When we were there a week, we were issued undress maroons for parade to supplement the fatigues we had been wearing. (Dress and full-dress uniforms came much later.) I took my tunic back to the issue shed and complained to the supply sergeant. Since he was only a supply sergeant and rather fatherly in manner I thought of him as a semi-civilian — I didn’t know how, as of then, to read the ribbons on his chest or I wouldn’t have dared speak to him. “Sergeant, this tunic is too large. My company commander says it fits like a tent.”

He looked at the garment, didn’t touch it. “Really?”

“Yeah. I want one that fits.”

He still didn’t stir. “Let me wise you up, sonny boy. There are just two sizes in this army — too large and too small.”

“But my company commander—”

“No doubt.”

“But what am I going to do?”

“Oh, it’s advice you want! Well, I’ve got that in stock — new issue, just today. Mmm … tell you what I’ll do. Here’s a needle and I’ll even give you a spool of thread. You won’t need a pair of scissors; a razor blade is better. Now you tight ’em plenty across the hips but leave cloth to loose ’em again across the shoulders; you’ll need it later.”

Sergeant Zim’s only comment on my tailoring was: “You can do better than that. Two hours extra duty.”

So I did better than that by next parade.

Those first six weeks were all hardening up and hazing, with lots of parade drill and lots of route march. Eventually, as files dropped out and went home or elsewhere, we reached the point where we could do fifty miles in ten hours on the level — which is good mileage for a good horse in case you’ve never used your legs. We rested, not by stopping, but by changing pace, slow march, quick march, and trot. Sometimes we went out the full distance, bivouacked and ate field rations, slept in sleeping bags and marched back the next day.

One day we started out on an ordinary day’s march, no bed bags on our shoulders, no rations. When we didn’t stop for lunch, I wasn’t surprised, as I had already learned to sneak sugar and hard bread and such out of the mess tent and conceal it about my person, but when we kept on marching away from camp in the afternoon I began to wonder. But I had learned not to ask silly questions.

We halted shortly before dark, three companies, now somewhat abbreviated. We formed a battalion parade and marched through it, without music, guards were mounted, and we were dismissed. I immediately looked up Corporal-Instructor Bronski because he was a little easier to deal with than the others … and because I felt a certain amount of responsibility; I happened to be, at the time, a recruit-corporal myself. These boot chevrons didn’t mean much — mostly the privilege of being chewed out for whatever your squad did as well as for what you did yourself — and they could vanish as quickly as they appeared. Zim had tried out all of the older men as temporary non-coms first and I had inherited a brassard with chevrons on it a couple of days before when our squad leader had folded up and gone to hospital.

I said, “Corporal Bronski, what’s the straight word? When is chow call?”

He grinned at me. “I’ve got a couple of crackers on me. Want me to split ’em with you?”

“Huh? Oh, no, sir. Thank you.” (I had considerably more than a couple of crackers; I was learning.) “No chow call?”

“They didn’t tell me either, sonny. But I don’t see any copters approaching. Now if I was you, I’d round up my squad and figure things out. Maybe one of you can hit a jack rabbit with a rock.”

“Yes, sir. But — Well, are we staying here all night? We don’t have our bedrolls.”

His eyebrows shot up. “No bedrolls? Well, I do declare!” He seemed to think it over. “Mmm … ever see sheep huddle together in a snowstorm?”

“Oh, no, sir.”

“Try it. They don’t freeze, maybe you won’t. Or if you don’t care for company, you might walk around all night. Nobody’ll bother you, as long as you stay inside the posted guards. You won’t freeze if you keep moving. Of course you may be a little tired tomorrow.” He grinned again.

I saluted and went back to my squad. We divvied up, share and share alike — and I came out with less food than I had started with; some of those idiots either hadn’t sneaked out anything to eat, or had eaten all they had while we marched. But a few crackers and a couple of prunes will do a lot to quiet your stomach’s sounding alert.

The sheep trick works, too; our whole section, three squads, did it together. I don’t recommend it as a way to sleep; you are either in the outer layer, frozen on one side and trying to worm your way inside, or you are inside, fairly warm but with everybody else trying to shove his elbows, feet, and halitosis on you. You migrate from one condition to the other all night long in a sort of a Brownian movement, never quite waking up and never really sound asleep. All this makes a night about a hundred years long.

We turned out at dawn to the familiar shout of: “Up you come! On the bounce!” encouraged by instructors’ batons applied smartly on fundaments sticking out of the piles … and then we did setting-up exercises. I felt like a corpse and didn’t see how I could touch my toes. But I did, though it hurt, and twenty minutes later when we hit the trail I merely felt elderly. Sergeant Zim wasn’t even mussed and somehow the scoundrel had managed to shave.

The Sun warmed our backs as we marched and Zim started us singing, oldies at first, like “Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse” and “Caissons” and “Halls of Montezuma” and then our own “Cap Trooper’s Polka” which moves you into quickstep and pulls you on into a trot. Sergeant Zim couldn’t carry a tune in a sack; all he had was a loud voice. But Breckinridge had a sure, strong lead and could hold the rest of us in the teeth of Zim’s terrible false notes. We all felt cocky and covered with spines.

But we didn’t feel cocky fifty miles later. It had been a long night; it was an endless day — and Zim chewed us out for the way we looked on parade and several boots got gigged for failing to shave in the nine whole minutes between the time we fell out after the march and fell back in again for parade. Several recruits resigned that evening and I thought about it but didn’t because I had those silly boot chevrons and hadn’t been busted yet.

That night there was a two-hour alert.

But eventually I learned to appreciate the homey luxury of two or three dozen warm bodies to snuggle up to, because twelve weeks later they dumped me down raw naked in a primitive area of the Canadian Rockies and I had to make my way forty miles through mountains. I made it — and hated the Army every inch of the way.

I wasn’t in too bad shape when I checked in, though. A couple of rabbits had failed to stay as alert as I was, so I didn’t go entirely hungry … nor entirely naked; I had a nice warm thick coat of rabbit fat and dirt on my body and moccasins on my feet — the rabbits having no further use for their skins. It’s amazing what you can do with a flake of rock if you have to — I guess our cave-man ancestors weren’t such dummies as we usually think.

The others made it, too, those who were still around to try and didn’t resign rather than take the test — all except two boys who died trying. Then we all went back into the mountains and spent thirteen days finding them, working with copters overhead to direct us and all the best communication gear to help us and our instructors in powered command suits to supervise and to check rumors — because the Mobile Infantry doesn’t abandon its own while there is any thin shred of hope.

Then we buried them with full honors to the strains of “This Land Is Ours” and with the posthumous rank of PFC, the first of our boot regiment to go that high — because a cap trooper isn’t necessarily expected to stay alive (dying is part of his trade) … but they care a lot about how you die. It has to be heads up, on the bounce, and still trying.

Breckinridge was one of them; the other was an Aussie boy I didn’t know. They weren’t the first to die in training; they weren’t the last.


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