Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
The Dirty Rifle
Every company in the training battalion at Fort Ord, California had an ongoing but unspoken competition for best company in each training cycle. Basic Training in the US Army in those days of the 1960s was limited to a few military installations on the East Coast most notably Fort Dix in New Jersey, and on the West Coast, it was Fort Ord in California. Ironically, the Footloose Forester who hailed from New Jersey and was originally registered there under the Selective Service Act (the draft), managed to have his registration changed to California where he went to live after he graduated from college. Thus, when his draft number came up, he was inducted into the Army in Oakland, California and sent to Fort Ord for basic training.
Winter was coming on as he joined in with other draftees and the majority component of those who enlisted, to endure field training in the cold. He was pleased that winters on the Monterrey Peninsula where Fort Ord was located are rather mild compared to Fort Dix, so did not expect the extreme cold and discomforts of the kind of winters he knew growing up. Truth be told, Fort Ord was in a beautiful location on the magnificent Monterrey Peninsula and the mild winter unfolded as he had hoped.
There was a widespread and continuous atmosphere of competition during basic training; competition among individuals who wanted to prove themselves as worthy soldiers, competition among the draftees and those who volunteered to enlist, competition among the platoon sergeants, and competition among the five companies of our training battalion. In the end there were going to be ceremonies recognizing the best soldier, the best platoon in each company, and the best company in the battalion. Thus, the issue of whether the raw recruits coming into boot camp were enlisted men or were draftees meant a great deal to the training staff there.
The platoon sergeants knew that the draftees who were also college graduates made better soldiers, on average, than most of those who enlisted who had not finished high school, or joined because they had no appreciable job skills. Of course, saying that out loud was taboo because virtually all of the drill instructors and platoon sergeants were themselves high school graduates or less, but who decided to stay in the military and worked their way up through the ranks. That is not a knock on the many, many fine soldiers that Footloose Forester knew over the years. It is simply an acknowledgement that the college graduates among the draftees tended to score better in varied battery tests and most of them were more mature in age and demeanor than enlistees who joined right out of high school. Although the Army much preferred having enlistees who graduated from high school and pressed to make having a diploma a requirement, in those days of the 1960s they just could not abandon all of the drop-outs and even accepted some with criminal backgrounds, if their records were for minor offenses.
Needless to say, the debate over who makes a better soldier—the enlistee or the draftee never was and never could be settled because the draft was finally abandoned near the end of the Viet Nam War. And we draftees at Fort Ord knew better than to bring it up. It was a no-win situation because draftees and enlistees wore the same uniforms and were expected to perform the same duties. Looking back, however; it is not just coincidence that when it came to open competition among the five companies in our training battalion for the distinction of Outstanding Company, our platoon sergeant, Ronald Miles, sought out the college graduates who were also draftees to groom them for the upcoming competition. He, of course, kept his plan to himself but there were telltale indicators. Needless to say, the level of resentment was telling within the platoons and among companies. High school graduates and drop-outs resented college graduates and especially those who were drafted into service and went on to outperform them. But Sergeant Miles knew the score and knew the stakes. Since he wanted to win both the competition for Best Training Company and Soldier of the Cycle, he secretly groomed certain inductees—all college graduates and all draftees.
This tale is a cathartic acknowledgment that Sergeant Miles planned to groom the Footloose Forester as his candidate for Soldier of the Cycle. Every soldier had to prove himself at every skill and perform every duty, but the Footloose Forester got a big boost in a way that went unannounced at the time. It was all about his dirty rifle.
During one of the many rifle training exercises, Footloose Forester was chosen (at random) by the firing range NCO to simulate being an enemy combatant taking up a defensive position in a foxhole and repelling an attack by a line of skirmishers. To accomplish this, the NCO provided him with about 300 rounds of blank .30 caliber ammunition to fire at the skirmishers, with his own rifle. It was great fun and a memorable day on the range. But when the long day was over and we marched back to our barracks in the early evening, the armory had to be opened to allow our company to return their unfired rifles to their assigned places in the gun racks. On the other hand, the rifle barrel of the Footloose Forester was caked with the baked-on residue of 300 rounds of ammo. Sergeant Miles would not be happy to have his candidate exposed with the dirtiest rifle in Fort Ord.
As serendipity would have it, a few days later we GIs were given the opportunity to leave post for the Christmas holidays. Footloose Forester declined to leave because his entire family was thousands of miles away on the East Coast, so he signed a waiver declining the leave. He stayed on post, alone. Except for the appearance of Sergeant Miles who interrupted his Christmas holiday at his home nearby to attend to a nagging problem. The dirty rifle of the Footloose Forester was unpresentable in any inspection that preceded the competition for Soldier of the Cycle. But Sgt. Miles had a plan.
Sergeant Miles informed the Footloose Forester that he would leave an upper story window in one of the barracks buildings open so that if he approached the building from the back side, the Footloose Forester would easily be able to step onto the roof and enter through the unlocked window on the second story. The barracks he chose was built into a steep bank and jumping onto the roof was part of the plan, besides, the main doors on the ground floor were kept locked for security purposes. Furthermore, Sergeant Miles got the permission of the regular armorer who knew that one of the rifles in his bank of rifle racks was outrageously neglected. Both of them would look bad if the dirty rifle was discovered during an inspection.
At the appointed hour on a quiet Saturday, Footloose Forester appeared at the armory and secured his dirty rifle and gun cleaning paraphernalia and proceeded stealthily to the back window of the barracks building that belonged to a different platoon than his own. Sergeant Miles may have had a key to our own platoon barracks, but not to this one.
A short jump onto the roof, a quick entry through the unlocked window, a rapid but thorough cleaning of his M-I Garand rifle, and an equally stealthy return of the rifle to its assigned slot in the rifle rack…and the Footloose Forester was home free. Footloose Forester won the Soldier of the Cycle competition, Sergeant Miles won the Best Company competition and his progeny squad leader had managed to keep everyone in the dark about the hanky-panky that took place.