We’ve got no place in this outfit for good losers. We want tough hombres who will go in there and win!
—Admiral Jonas Ingram, 1926
When we had done all that a mud foot can do in flat country, we moved into some rough mountains to do still rougher things — the Canadian Rockies between Good Hope Mountain and Mount Waddington. Camp Sergeant Spooky Smith was much like Camp Currie (aside from its rugged setting) but it was much smaller. Well, the Third Regiment was much smaller now, too — less than four hundred whereas we had started out with more than two thousand. H Company was now organized as a single platoon and the battalion paraded as if it were a company. But we were still called “H Company” and Zim was “Company Commander,” not platoon leader.
What the sweat-down meant, really, was much more personal instruction; we had more corporal-instructors than we had squads and Sergeant Zim, with only fifty men on his mind instead of the two hundred and sixty he had started with, kept his Argus eyes on each one of us all the time — even when he wasn’t there. At least, if you goofed, it turned out he was standing right behind you.
However, the chewing-out you got had almost a friendly quality, in a horrid sort of way, because we had changed, too, as well as the regiment — the one-in-five who was left was almost a soldier and Zim seemed to be trying to make him into one, instead of running him over the hill.
We saw a lot more of Captain Frankel, too; he now spent most of his time teaching us, instead of behind a desk, and he knew all of us by name and face and seemed to have a card file in his mind of exactly what progress each man had made on every weapon, every piece of equipment — not to mention your extra-duty status, medical record, and whether you had had a letter from home lately.
He wasn’t as severe with us as Zim was; his words were milder and it took a really stupid stunt to take that friendly grin off his face — but don’t let that fool you; there was beryl armor under the grin. I never did figure out which one was the better soldier, Zim or Captain Frankel — I mean, if you took away the insignia and thought of them as privates. Unquestionably they were both better soldiers than any of the other instructors — but which was best? Zim did everything with precision and style, as if he were on parade; Captain Frankel did the same thing with dash and gusto, as if it were a game. The results were about the same — and it never turned out to be as easy as Captain Frankel made it look.
We needed the abundance of instructors. Jumping a suit (as I have said) was easy on flat ground. Well, the suit jumps just as high and just as easily in the mountains — but it makes a lot of difference when you have to jump up a vertical granite wall, between two close-set fir trees, and override your jet control at the last instant. We had three major casualties in suit practice in broken country, two dead and one medical retirement.
But that rock wall is even tougher without a suit, tackled with lines and pitons. I didn’t really see what use alpine drill was to a cap trooper but I had learned to keep my mouth shut and try to learn what they shoved at us. I learned it and it wasn’t too hard. If anybody had told me, a year earlier, that I could go up a solid chunk of rock, as flat and as perpendicular as a blank wall of a building, using only a hammer, some silly little steel pins, and a chunk of clothesline, I would have laughed in his face; I’m a sea-level type. Correction: I was a sea-level type. There had been some changes made.
Just how much I had changed I began to find out. At Camp Sergeant Spooky Smith we had liberty — to go to town, I mean. Oh, we had “liberty” after the first month at Camp Currie, too. This meant that, on a Sunday afternoon, if you weren’t in the duty platoon, you could check out at the orderly tent and walk just as far away from camp as you wished, bearing in mind that you had to be back for evening muster. But there was nothing within walking distance, if you don’t count jack rabbits — no girls, no theaters, no dance halls, et cetera.
Nevertheless, liberty, even at Camp Currie, was no mean privilege; sometimes it can be very important indeed to be able to go so far away that you can’t see a tent, a sergeant, nor even the ugly faces of your best friends among the boots … not have to be on the bounce about anything, have time to take out your soul and look at it. You could lose that privilege in several degrees; you could be restricted to camp … or you could be restricted to your own company street, which meant that you couldn’t go to the library nor to what was misleadingly called the “recreation” tent (mostly some parcheesi sets and similar wild excitements) … or you could be under close restriction, required to stay in your tent when your presence was not required elsewhere.
This last sort didn’t mean much in itself since it was usually added to extra duty so demanding that you didn’t have any time in your tent other than for sleep anyhow; it was a decoration added like a cherry on top of a dish of ice cream to notify you and the world that you had pulled not some everyday goof-off but something unbecoming of a member of the M.I. and were thereby unfit to associate with other troopers until you had washed away the stain.
But at Camp Spooky we could go into town — duty status, conduct status, etc., permitting. Shuttles ran to Vancouver every Sunday morning, right after divine services (which were moved up to thirty minutes after breakfast) and came back again just before supper and again just before taps. The instructors could even spend Saturday night in town, or cop a three-day pass, duty permitting.
I had no more than stepped out of the shuttle, my first pass, than I realized in part that I had changed. Johnnie didn’t fit in any longer. Civilian life, I mean. It all seemed amazingly complex and unbelievably untidy.
I’m not running down Vancouver. It’s a beautiful city in a lovely setting; the people are charming and they are used to having the M.I. in town and they make a trooper welcome. There is a social center for us downtown, where they have dances for us every week and see to it that junior hostesses are on hand to dance with, and senior hostesses to make sure that a shy boy (
But I didn’t go to the social center that first pass. Mostly I stood around and gawked — at beautiful buildings, at display windows filled with all manner of unnecessary things (and not a weapon among them), at all those people running around, or even strolling, doing exactly as they pleased and no two of them dressed alike — and at girls.
Especially at girls. I hadn’t realized just how wonderful they were. Look, I’ve approved of girls from the time I first noticed that the difference was more than just that they dress differently. So far as I remember I never did go through that period boys are supposed to go through when they know that girls are different but dislike them; I’ve
But that day I realized that I had long been taking them for granted.
Girls are simply wonderful. Just to stand on a corner and watch them going past is delightful. They don’t
I might have been standing there yet if a policeman hadn’t come by. He sized us up and said, “Howdy, boys. Enjoying yourselves?”
I quickly read the ribbons on his chest and was impressed. “Yes,
“You don’t have to say ‘sir’ to me. Not much to do here. Why don’t you go to the hospitality center?” He gave us the address, pointed the direction and we started that way — Pat Leivy, “Kitten” Smith, and myself. He called after us, “Have a good time, boys … and stay out of trouble.” Which was exactly what Sergeant Zim had said to us as we climbed into the shuttle.
But we didn’t go there. Pat Leivy had lived in Seattle when he was a small boy and wanted to take a look at his old home town. He had money and offered to pay our shuttle fares if we would go with him. I didn’t mind and it was all right; shuttles ran every twenty minutes and our passes were not restricted to Vancouver. Smith decided to go along, too.
Seattle wasn’t so very different from Vancouver and the girls were just as plentiful; I enjoyed it. But Seattle wasn’t quite as used to having M.I. around in droves and we picked a poor spot to eat dinner, one where we weren’t quite so welcome — a bar-restaurant, down by the docks.
Now, look, we weren’t drinking. Well, Kitten Smith had had one repeat
We were the only uniforms in the place; most of the other customers were merchant marine sailors — Seattle handles an awful lot of surface tonnage. I hadn’t known it at the time but merchant sailors don’t like us. Part of it has to do with the fact that their guilds have tried and tried to get their trade classed as equivalent to Federal Service, without success — but I understand that some of it goes way back in history, centuries.
There were some young fellows there, too, about our age — the right age to serve a term, only they weren’t — long-haired and sloppy and kind of dirty-looking. Well, say about the way I looked, I suppose, before I joined up.
Presently we started noticing that at the table behind us, two of these young twerps and two merchant sailors (to judge by clothes) were passing remarks that were intended for us to overhear. I won’t try to repeat them.
We didn’t say anything. Presently, when the remarks were even more personal and the laughs louder and everybody else in the place was keeping quiet and listening, Kitten whispered to me, “Let’s get out of here.”
I caught Pat Leivy’s eye; he nodded. We had no score to settle; it was one of those pay-as-you-get-it places. We got up and left.
They followed us out.
Pat whispered to me, “Watch it.” We kept on walking, didn’t look back.
They charged us.
I gave my man a side-neck chop as I pivoted and let him fall past me, swung to help my mates. But it was over. Four in, four down. Kitten had handled two of them and Pat had sort of wrapped the other one around a lamppost from throwing him a little too hard.
Somebody, the proprietor I guess, must have called the police as soon as we stood up to leave, since they arrived almost at once while we were still standing around wondering what to do with the meat — two policemen; it was that sort of a neighborhood.
The senior of them wanted us to prefer charges, but none of us was willing — Zim had told us to “stay out of trouble.” Kitten looked blank and about fifteen years old and said, “I guess they stumbled.”
“So I see,” agreed the police officer and toed a knife away from the outflung hand of my man, put it against the curb and broke the blade. “Well, you boys had better run along … farther uptown.”
We left. I was glad that neither Pat nor Kitten wanted to make anything of it. It’s a mighty serious thing, a civilian assaulting a member of the Armed Forces, but what the deuce?—the books balanced. They jumped us, they got their lumps. All even.
But it’s a good thing we
But that’s how I learned for the first time just how much I had changed.
We walked back to the station and caught a shuttle to Vancouver.
We started practice drops as soon as we moved to Camp Spooky — a platoon at a time, in rotation (a full platoon, that is — a company), would shuttle down to the field north of Walla Walla, go aboard, space, make a drop, go through an exercise, and home on a beacon. A day’s work. With eight companies that gave us not quite a drop each week, and then it gave us a little more than a drop each week as attrition continued, whereupon the drops got tougher — over mountains, into the arctic ice, into the Australian desert, and, before we graduated, onto the face of the Moon, where your capsule is placed only a hundred feet up and explodes as it ejects — and you have to look sharp and land with only your suit (no air, no parachute) and a bad landing can spill your air and kill you.
Some of the attrition was from casualties, deaths or injuries, and some of it was just from refusing to enter the capsule — which some did, and that was that; they weren’t even chewed out; they were just motioned aside and that night they were paid off. Even a man who had made several drops might get the panic and refuse … and the instructors were just gentle with him, treated him the way you do a friend who is ill and won’t get well.
I never quite refused to enter the capsule — but I certainly learned about the shakes. I always got them, I was scared silly every time. I still am.
But you’re not a cap trooper unless you drop.
They tell a story, probably not true, about a cap trooper who was sight-seeing in Paris. He visited Les Invalides, looked down at Napoleon’s coffin and said to a French guard there: “Who’s he?”
The Frenchman was properly scandalized. “Monsieur does not
The cap trooper thought about it. Then he asked, “So? Where were his drops?”
It is almost certainly not true, because there is a big sign outside there that tells you exactly who Napoleon was. But that is how cap troopers feel about it.
Eventually we graduated.
I can see that I’ve left out almost everything. Not a word about most of our weapons, nothing about the time we dropped everything and fought a forest fire for three days, no mention of the practice alert that was a real one, only we didn’t know it until it was over, nor about the day the cook tent blew away — in fact not any mention of weather and, believe me, weather is important to a doughboy, rain and mud especially. But though weather is important while it happens it seems to me to be pretty dull to look back on. You can take descriptions of most any sort of weather out of an almanac and stick them in just anywhere; they’ll probably fit.
The regiment had started with 2009 men; we graduated 187 — of the others, fourteen were dead (one executed and his name struck) and the rest resigned, dropped, transferred, medical discharge, etc. Major Malloy made a short speech, we each got a certificate, we passed in review for the last time, and the regiment was disbanded, its colors to be cased until they would be needed (three weeks later) to tell another couple of thousand civilians that they were an outfit, not a mob.
I was a “trained soldier,” entitled to put “TP” in front of my serial number instead of “RP.” Big day.
The biggest I ever had.