ROTC and I

What follows is a series of mini-stories about my limited experience with the US military. I need to assure the reader that I am not anti-military, but am often bemused by those in it. 


In late summer of 1962, Walt Niebauer, Nick Mesogianes, Steve Craven and I got into my 1950 Chevrolet to go to freshman orientation day at Rutgers. This was a Saturday during which we would pick courses, pay tuition and generally receive information about the upcoming experience of being Freshmen. One of the choices we would make was whether or not to join ROTC and if so, whether to pick Army or Air Force. During the ride up to New Brunswick (about an hour and 3 quarts of oil - I've owned two Chevys and both used more oil than gasoline), we each had decided on the Air Force. The army recruiter's pitch was so good, however, that on the way home, we discovered that we had all changed our minds! My first big mistake of my college career! None of us were ever commissioned into the regular army and only Steve finished the four years.


In the Army ROTC, we were issued class A uniforms, consisting of woolen trousers, a khaki shirt, a woolen jacket or blouse, a great coat, two pairs of black socks, a black tie, a woolen cap and a pair of black steel tipped shoes. We were also given brass insignia and  ROTC metals. To round it out, an M1 rifle weighing 900 pounds ( you carry it for two hours and you'll agree) was issued to us which we picked up on drill days. The Air Force received similar equipment sans the rifle (so they were already ahead). 

Every Wednesday, we were expected on the drill field, fully dressed and with our riles checked out from the armory. For the next hour and a half, we were drilled, marched, and inspected. Since I had shown a lot of ability with the close order drill, I was put in charge of a squad of 11 ( including me) to fine tune our drilling. This meant that I became a PFC (private first class), a rank normally given after the first semester. This meant I would probably make Corporal at the end of the semester and be on the track to Sergeant my second year. I was really gung-ho and our company had been voted the best each week during parade inspection due to all three platoons' hard work. 

One Wednesday, my squad had been particularly sharp in the first 45 minutes of drill and the Platoon Lieutenant told us we could take a 10 minute break. I approached him and asked "permission to smoke" and he responded "yes". About 6 of us were smokers and we all lit up and stood around talking. I was the last to complete my cigarette and I had made sure that the others had policed their butts (put out the ash and put butt in pocket). As I took my last drag, the brigade commander (a senior with ROTC highest rank of Colonel) approached. "Soldier", he barked, "why are you smoking on duty?" Now, I expected the lieutenant to step in and explain, but here came a disappointing lesson, he remained mute. Thinking that the lieutenant would make it right later, I replied, "No  excuse, Sir". He proceeded to give me 3 demerits (equal to 3 hours of rifle cleaning) and reduced my rank back to private. The lieutenant did nothing. That day on final parade, I made sure we did not win the banner by being out of step (in fact the entire squad joined in in protest and we never won it again). 

The lieutenant did approach me several weeks later asking why our performance had gotten so sloppy and I replied "three hours of cleaning rifles to protect you". He tried then to justify himself, but I was on my way to disillusionment with the caliber of officers ROTC was turning out. 


My next encounter was in the classroom during the first year. We often had spot inspections during class by the brigade upper echelon officers. One day, just after I had gotten a fresh haircut and shave, we had such an inspection by the same brigade commander who had gigged me for smoking on the parade ground. He went around the room noting minor infractions, when he came to me, he took out a credit card and ran it over my cheek. Because it made a scraping sound, I was assessed 1 demerit. He demanded, "Private, when did you shave last?" to which I replied, "20 minutes ago, sir, it must have really grown fast!" As the rest of the class and our instructor, a retired Lt. Colonel, did their best to suppress giggles, I was assessed 2 more demerits. What a jerk! The Sergeant in the armory and I became good friends due to my frequent visits and we agreed that he was indeed. 


In my Sophomore year, I decided to ride out the remainder of my two year obligation to ROTC and be done with it. My grade remained a B and I stayed out of trouble and only visited the armory sergeant to draw my rifle for drill and parades. The brigade commander from the year before had graduated and had been replaced by a different self-important jerk, but I steered clear of them. I was a PFC again and that was as far as I was going! 

One Wednesday, on the drill ground, my shoes became very dirty and dusty due to the condition of the area. I had ROTC class on Thursday just after lunch and I was able to press my shirt, blouse, trousers and cap. I had also shined all my brass to a high luster, but I didn't have time to spit shine the shoes. I knew that walking to class the officers would notice the uniform, etc, but they rarely noticed the shoes unless they were dull. I had a pair of black patent leather loafers that were indeed very shiny, so I decided to wear them. 

My seat in the class was in the back row of long tables (they were long enough for two guys and they were arranged three together so each side of the room had rows of 6 guys). And furthermore, I had the seat farthest from the center aisle in the last row. The windows were on the opposite side of the room making the corner I was in fairly dark, especially at floor level.

As luck would have it, in came the brigade commander and his staff. We all came to attention at our seats and I moved my feet as far into the shadows as possible. He was in a prickly mood that day and almost everyone had something wrong and were receiving demerits. {it's a case of needing to justify one's position of importance}. Since I was last, it was awhile before he got to me and when he did, he took a long look up and down and announced to the class, "Everyone, turn and look at this soldier, his cap is perfect, he has recently shaved, his tie is perfectly tied, brass is brilliant, shirt crisp, pants have a razor crease and his shoes....", Here he paused as he saw my shoes clearly for the first time, and then sputtered; "Private, where in hell are your shoes?"  I really didn't think fast enough to come up with a good excuse and merely responded; "Dirty from drilling, Sir!".

I got 5 demerits (if you had five unworked demerits, it cost you a grade), the most severe punishment possible. Of course, this was more due to his embarrassment than my crime.

After they had gone, the Colonel, our instructor said; "Well GD it Nipe, you made a monkey's ass out of him didn't you?, See me after class." After class, he gave me a slip for the sergeant at the armory telling him to reduce the hours to one, but account for all five. I guess the regular army knew how big a bunch of jerks some of the upper class men in the Corps were. 


On our last drill day in ROTC, we had a special drill in the football stadium on a Saturday {Ugh, not even a day off} to be reviewed by the cadets from West Point. This was an exciting and special drill for the gung-ho guys, but for most of us who had decided not to take advanced ROTC, it was just another boring and tiring experience. On top of that it was a very hot May day and we only had the class A uniforms, which we were allowed to wear with out the jacket on hot days, normally, but for this "prestigious" occasion we were ordered to wear them.

We marched in parade into the stadium and came to positions by companies at attention while the cadets began to do their inspections. It was an interminably long process and when this was finished we still had to pass in review. My squad was in the last row of our platoon which was in the last platoon of the company, in other words, there was no one behind us, we were in the last line of the company. Suddenly, the guy next to me turned toward me, pushed his rifle my way and passed out. Medics with stretchers quickly took him away. I dawned on me that he had been perfectly fine up to a minute before and I wondered if he had locked his knees in attention which will cause diminished blood flow. Then in a flash, I knew he had faked it and down I went. As I came "to" in the medic tent, I was on a cot next to him and he grinned and said, "Well it took you long enough!"


This final vignette occurred the same day as the previous one. Once we had finished the special drill in the stadium, we returned to campus to turn in our rifles and get back to normal. This was my last drill and the last time I would see the rifle. The only sad thing was it was also the last time I would see my buddy, the armory sergeant, though I would not miss stripping down and cleaning rifles while we talked.

Except for a final exam in ROTC (during which we did not have to wear uniforms), this was the final time I would have to wear the uniform and would turn it in on Monday (except for the shoes and socks, which for some reason the Army didn't want back!). So, as I was leaving the armory, I took off my name tag, undid my tie, unbuttoned the jacket and shirt and put my cap on sideways and began to walk towards my Fraternity house.

Lots of guys laughed as I went by, knowing the feeling I guess, but for the most part the journey was uneventful until I was about two blocks from my house on a parallel street.

Suddenly, a car with two Air Force officers pulled to the curb and they got out and approached me. The superior officer (actually the Air Force Brigade commander) was hollering at me the whole way. His adjutant merely looked a bit bemused and quickly I saw why, he was one of my fraternity brothers, Richard Byrnes (a Major) and though he was very military minded, he was not a fanatic like many of his rank in ROTC.

The Colonel demanded that I stop and tell him my name, I refused. He said he would remain right there until I did, so I sat down on the steps of a nearby building and told him I had nothing else to do that day. He said he would follow me and find out who I was and I said that it was a nice day to sit in the sun and maybe even wander about on campus.

Eventually, they got back in the car and I ducked down the alley toward my house and I could see that he was going to go around the block to catch me so I went in the opposite direction back toward my dormitory and made it there with no problem.

Later that evening at dinner, Richard, sat with at my table and told how the Colonel went on and on about how he would find me out and force me to take ROTC again, etc, etc. He pointed out that the Colonel had been madder than he had ever seen him. I thanked Richard for not ratting me out and he told me that the guy was such a jerk that he was glad for once some one had gotten the best of him!

Davdan @ 2008-2018