I shall never forget the summer of 1970 because I experienced an amazing transformation. In just 120 days, I was changed from a baseball player into a soldier. In April, I was snatched from the well-manicured ﬁelds at the Phillies baseball complex in Clearwater, Florida, and whisked away to the dust and heat of Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. As a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard, the time had come for my basic and advanced training.
I was a member of ECHO Company, the third platoon, a training unit consisting of both National Guardsmen and regular army draftees. Most of the guardsmen were college graduates, in their early 20s, while the draftees were usually about 18 years old. We all went through extensive physical and technical training. It was sometimes grueling, but, all in all, I enjoyed the experience. Although it’s every trainee’s obligation to complain about pretty much everything, I look back on my training now and regret that I didn’t keep a journal. I had some of the best times of my life alongside some very interesting guys.
Gene, for instance, was a drafted member of my unit who, only two months from being ordained, decided the Catholic priesthood wasn’t his proper path in life. He was a ﬁ ne man who apparently still had connections with the Lord. On the hand-grenade course, the grenade he was about to throw malfunctioned. The timing mechanism didn’t work, and the grenade activated as soon as he pulled the pin. However, it didn’t explode; it just clicked. Standing next to Gene, the training sergeant looked pale as Casper the ghost. Gene simply made the sign of the cross and walked away. The entire platoon was speechless.
Then there was Billy, a psychology major with a master’s degree. He had been drafted shortly after graduation. He was very intelligent, and we became friendly during the ﬁrst two weeks of training. One day, Billy told me he planned to get discharged from the Army, and he knew just how to do it. He acted very gung-ho at ﬁrst, and the drill instructors loved him so much that they made him a squad leader. He barked orders at the troops, was the ﬁrst to volunteer to be a “demonstrator” of new equipment, and generally acted like he loved soldiering.
However, after the ﬁrst four weeks, he gradually became withdrawn. His exuberance evaporated, and, at day’s end, he would just sit in the corner of the barracks without talking to anyone. Everybody wondered what was wrong with him – except Billy and me. I knew just what he was doing. The drill instructors took the bait and scheduled him for psychological testing. Familiar with all of the tests, Billy knew just how to act and which answers would most beneﬁt him. After the seventh week of basic training, Billy was given a General Discharge, and he was out. I ﬁgured he had a bright future in politics!
Noel was a young draftee of 18 from rural southern Missouri. He was a nice kid, very naive, and he looked to us older guys for guidance. Noel had a tough time, especially on the riﬂe range. You might assume a country boy would be naturally proﬁ cient with a riﬂe, but that wasn’t the case with him. He was the worst marksman in the whole company of over 100 men and was my platoon mate. Noel demonstrated his lack of prowess daily, for about a week, each time we went to the range to practice with the M-16 riﬂe, then the army’s newest standard weapon.
During shooting practice, one soldier would ﬁre while another soldier, his “buddy,” would grade him from a rear position. So each ﬁ ring lane had two soldiers who would alternate ﬁ ring and grading.
The lanes were only a few feet apart, and I was in the one right next to Noel. Since I was a good shot, the DI didn’t bother with me. He was too busy staying on Noel. You see, the DIs had an ulterior motive. Not only did they want the troops to be proﬁ cient with a riﬂe in case of a combat situation, but they bet money on their own platoons. When the day came to “Record Fire,” a DI could win or lose a pretty penny depending on the performance of his troops. The score on the day of Record Fire counted as a trainee’s ofﬁcial ranking. To protect his cash, our DI stood over Noel, doing his best to “motivate” the kid to shoot straight. This extra “support” was to no avail; Noel’s marksmanship was that bad.
With Record Fire two days away, I decided to have a little fun. I told my buddy that I was going to shoot Noel’s targets instead of mine. The DI wouldn’t notice because he never watched me; he was too worried about the guy who would cost him money. Of course, Noel was unaware of my plan. As I lay prone in my lane, the 50-meter target went up. Boom, I shot down Noel’s target. The DI rubbed his eyes in disbelief, saying, “Atta-boy, Noel. Keep it up, boy.” Noel yelled, “Yippie!”
Next, the 150-meter target popped up. Blam, I knocked it down. Noel was thrilled; so was the DI, thinking incessantly berating this kid must have paid off! “Oh, boy,” he said, no doubt counting his winnings a tad prematurely. Finally, the 300-meter target popped up. That’s a distance farther than three football ﬁelds. Nonetheless, bang, down went Noel’s target. The DI couldn’t believe it. He hooted and hollered as though he had hit the Missouri lottery. As we were lying there, I made every effort to contain my hysterical laughter, especially when that innocent, young country boy turned his head toward me and said, “Daggone, Charlie, I didn’t even pull the trigger that time, and it went down!”
Of course, good ol’ Noel messed up during Record Fire. Our DI lost the bet, and my buddy and I never said a word to anyone. We just took young Noel aside to tell him he had a bad day and not to worry about it. He didn’t.
I knew I should have kept a journal.
Charlie Sacchetti is the author of three books, “It’s All Good: Times and Events I’d Never Want to Change;” “Knowing He’s There: True Stories of God’s Subtle Yet Unmistakable Touch,” and his newest, “Savoring the Moments: True Stories of Happiness, Sadness and Everything in Between.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.