Friday, June 8, 2012

Ma Vie Militaire (Part I)

Old AF Sarge in Rome
When I was a little kid, we did three things in our neighborhood. We played baseball in the spring and summer, we played football in the fall and winter. Year round, we played army.

Growing up in a small town in Vermont, we had lots of woods to play in. Back in those days our parents would boot us out of the house shortly after breakfast and we had to be home when the streetlights came on. No video games, no lying about the house watching TV. We played outdoors, all the time. Usually with toy guns, maneuvering around the hills and woods as if we were real soldiers.

Side note: I caught unshirted hell once from my Mom when I took one of her white sheets and kinda modified it to make myself some winter camouflage. I figured she could just wash it and it would be "good as new". You may well imagine what that sheet looked like after running around in the woods all day! Washing that sheet would have been a sheer waste of time and effort. Seems it was a bit torn and stained. Hey, I was a kid! What did I know about washing clothes?

So as you may gather, from a very early age I was interested in all things military.

My Dad had served in the Army just after the end of World War II (quit high school to join up when he was seventeen, war ended before he got there). My Dad's two brothers both served during World War II. Uncle Charlie was an infantryman (63rd Infantry Division), Uncle Louis was in the Army Air Corps. My paternal grandfather had also done a hitch on active duty during World War I and then stayed in the National Guard until he retired.

On my Mom's side of the family, my Great-Uncle John had also served in World War II as an infantryman (4th  Infantry Division). So there were a lot of military stories floating around when I was a kid. Nothing wild or crazy, the two infantry uncles would talk about the funny parts of their military experiences, would never talk about combat. Both were combat veterans, both had been wounded in action. As I got older I realized that both were the "real deal", as real combat veterans rarely talk about combat, if ever.

My Dad served as part of the occupation of Berlin. From his stories, my brothers and I got the impression that my Dad's military experience was three years of partying, wild hijinks and generally having a fun time. Of course, that may have contributed somewhat to my Dad making sergeant twice. Yes, twice.

The last time I saw my Uncle Charlie was just before we left for Germany and my NATO assignment. My Mom thought it would be cool if I wore my uniform on Christmas Day. No problem. At any rate, Uncle Charlie was looking over my ribbons and I was explaining to him what each one was.

When I got to my Air Force Good Conduct medal, Uncle Charlie yelled to my Dad in the kitchen, "Hey Bob, want to see what a Good Conduct ribbon looks like?" Yup, seems like Dad never got one of those. Too bad they didn't have a "I Had a Great Time in Berlin" medal. I'll bet he'd have a chest full of those.

Back to the topic at hand (I just had to tell the Good Conduct ribbon story). I have two male cousins and two female cousins. When the boys were of age, they both joined the Air Force. Bear in mind this was during the Vietnam War and the draft was still active. I'm sure Uncle Louis and Uncle Charlie (the boys were their sons), having both "seen the elephant" advised the boys that they would be out of their minds to allow themselves to be scooped up by the draft. So Air Force they went.

So now we've kind of established a military tradition in my family. My Grandfather's generation was Army, as was my Dad's. My generation was Air Force. (The kids are all Navy. Will my grand-kids be Marines? Who knows...)

After graduating from high school in 1971, I was off to Norwich University. Back then it was completely a military school, everyone wore a uniform, no civvies on campus except for the ladies who ran the library and did the administrative work. Everyone else wore a uniform.

Now the faculty on the ROTC side of things were all active duty. The rest of the faculty were all members of the "Vermont Militia", which I believe consisted entirely of the civilian faculty at Norwich University. This was odd in many ways. My faculty adviser was about a billion years old, but as a senior faculty member he was a full colonel. In the Vermont Militia. If the redcoats had shown up, the "colonel" would've been hard-pressed to make it out of his office, let alone fight.

Another of my professors was British. He taught French. One day I discovered that he also spoke German. Primarily because after he'd given out a homework assignment to be done over a three day weekend, I made a rather insulting comment about him, auf Deustch. He turned around and gave it right back to me auf Deutsch. The rest of the class (who had no German, and very little French) were scrambling through their books, trying to discover what page the Prof and I were on. That aside, he was a Captain in the Vermont Militia. He used to laugh about it and one day said, "If the Canadians ever come across that border, look for me to the south. I'll be the one running away, shedding my Vermont Militia uniform as I go."

Now that I think about it, they really were classic militia types. Not very military at all. Though they were a bit officer-heavy.

I did my freshman year at Norwich. At the end of that year, I had a decision to make. Should I continue at Norwich, pursuing my degree in Modern Languages? (Norwich at the time was very engineering-oriented.)

I had to ask myself a couple of questions. What would be the quality of the Modern Language degree I was going to get at a school which offered classes in only three, count them, three languages (German, French and Spanish)? Exactly what kind of job could I get with said degree?

When the time came to think about heading back to school, I told my Dad that I would not be returning to Norwich. My Dad, of course, said, "The hell you're not!" At that point I think I made my first adult comment ever. "Dad, my going back to school will be a waste of my time. And a waste of your money."

He appreciated that. So the argument was really rather pro forma. After perhaps five minutes of semi-heated "discussion", he asked me what did I plan to do, if I did not go back to school. I told him that I would get a job, get an apartment and try and make my own way in life. He appreciated that as well.

Though hesitant, he agreed that my going back to college was perhaps in neither of our best interests.

So I got a job. Got my own apartment. After about a year, I realized that working in a machine shop for the rest of my life was probably not a great career move. My Mom pointed out that I should've stayed in college and got my degree. I pointed out to her that the guy on the machine next to mine had his bachelor's degree. In Political Science. I'm thinking at this point that maybe the type of degree one gets has a bearing on one's future employment opportunities. Perhaps if I had gotten that degree in Modern Languages I would at least be able to swear at the PoliSci major on the next machine in multiple languages. But I'd still be working in a factory.

Around that time, I began what I call my "flirtation" with the United States Army. I was going to enlist, I would go into Armor and would get my degree while in the Army.

Went to the recruiter, took all the tests and scored very well. When the recruiter asked me what I'd like to do in the Army, I asked him what my test scores indicated I would be best at. He immediately answered, "Combat Arms". Cool, so I can go into Armor. Sure you can, he answered. Alright, I said, give me a couple of days to think about it.

Back I went the next week. Asked for the sergeant I'd been dealing with. And was told that he had moved on. Back to his old specialty. Hhhmm, so who is my new recruiter? I wanted to know.

That's when things started to go south with me and the US Army. New guy said I was too smart to be in Armor. I should be a Shillelagh missile system technician. Ah, no thanks. I want Armor.

"But you're too smart!"

"Sarge, if I want to work on missiles and stuff, I'll go into the Air Force. The Army has tanks, I want tanks."

"But, but, but..."

"I'll think about it." I mumbled as I left the recruiter's office.

Now in our area, the recruiters offices were all co-located. Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. As I left the Army recruiter's office, I heard a voice down the hallway, "So son, what's that about the Air Force?"

I turned to see a fellow in Air Force blue, with a crap-ton of stripes. I explained the situation to him and I guess I hinted that the I felt the Army was jerking me around. He explained things to me and I felt he was much more open and honest about the Air Force than the Army guy had been.

A half hour later, I left the Air Force recruiter's office. As I headed towards the door, I heard the Marine recruiter's voice boom out at me, "Ever think about joining the Marines?"

I stopped and told him, "Sure did Corporal. But then I sobered up." I do not have what it takes to be a Marine. Knew it back then, know it now. (The good corporal did get a chuckle from my response.)

Long story short. About a month later I joined up "delayed enlistment", five months after that I was on my way to Lackland AFB, Texas.

And the rest, you might say, is history. We'll pick this up in Part II of, "Ma Vie Militaire".


  1. Ooh, a continuing series. And I don't even have to pay for a subscription! My father was drafted into the Army for Korea, and quickly ran down to the Navy recruiter and joined up. 24 years for him and 24 for me. Recruiters don't have to lie...correct that- stretch the truth- nowadays. Business is good since the economy isn't. They're paying awfully well now too- an E-4, with pay and allowances in Norfolk is making 38K.

    Looking forward to the next post.

    1. Doing a series seemed like a good idea. We shall see how that goes. By the way, I'm still playing around with the top of the blog. I like the big Rhino, but I take your point regarding the casual readers. Might also be time for a new look anyway. I like playing around with the pictures. Besides what with the flyers in the family heading out to Lemoore, I'll need to give those West Coast squadrons a little love.

      E-4 pulling in 38K! Man, things seem better than back in my day. Course I didn't do it for the money but I'm glad the pay is better. Truth be told though, they still don't pay the troops enough, especially when you consider all they're doing for us.

  2. Lemoore Rhino pics?

    1. Very nice! There's a better than even chance that the WSO might be going to VFA-2. So that pic is looking good. Of course, the VFA-154 bird all dirtied up coming in on Stennis is mighty fine as well. And Black Aces over Afghanistan, how could I go wrong with that? I have much to ponder. But thanks for the pics Tuna!

  3. My Grandfather's generation was Army, as was my Dad's. My generation was Air Force. The kids are all Navy. Will my grand-kids be Marines? Who knows..."

    I'm guessing YES.

    My grandfather was Army - coast artillery back in the '30s. Both of my great-uncles were Army Air Corps (so pretty much USAF) in WWII. My dad and oldest brother went Navy - and my other brother went Coast Guard. So, of course, I had to join the Marines. My prevailing hypothesis is that the generations get progressively smarter. :-)

    1. I like your hypothesis. At least in my little family group, my kids are WAY smarter than me. I can't take too much credit there, the Missus did all the heavy lifting in the child-raising area. Heck, the Missus is smarter than me as well. I think the one really smart thing I've done in my whole life was to marry her.


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