“Flunk the test,” my friends told me. “If you pass it, they’ll get you up in the middle of the night to drive a lieutenant somewhere.” And so, while sitting in the training class for a military driver’s license, I paid no attention, and gazed out the window at the drab scenery of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
It was my last year in the Army, and for the time being I was stuck in a maintenance platoon in Fort Bragg’s east side, along with other soldiers they didn’t know what to do with. Many in the platoon were “pot heads,” and those were the mentally well-adjusted men. During the days I would repair window panes and screens, and in the evenings I would do such things as visit a friend’s house and learn to my embarrassment what happens when you freely drink several kinds of alcoholic beverages in one sitting. I don’t know who cleaned up after me, probably the wife of my friend, whom my friend later shot and killed one day in the kitchen and claimed it was an accident, although I knew the marriage hadn’t been a happy one, he had felt trapped, and within a couple days my friend was “transferred,” never to be seen by me again.
Our commanding officer was a captain who had a pig nose and drove a luxury model of a Citroen, which resembled a frog. One day the captain called me into his office to warn me not to hang around with pot heads because they aren’t to be trusted. I didn’t take his advice.
But I did heed the advice of my friends and fully intended to flunk the test for the military driver’s license, because no way did I want to be got up in the middle of the night to chauffeur a lieutenant. I didn’t listen to a word in the class. At one point we all had to go out into a field to practice driving a deuce-and-a-half--a 2 ½ ton, troop carrying truck. But we drove it only in an open field, and all I remember was that shifting gears was really complicated.
“You passed,” he said.
And so I had a military driver’s license, but had paid no attention to the lessons. That very Saturday, I was told to drive twenty men across busy Fort Bragg and out into the woods in a deuce-and-a-half. I didn’t know how to drive the big truck, had never driven a truck through streets of heavy traffic before, and was now responsible for the lives of twenty men who thought I knew what I was doing. I was a nervous wreck by the time we arrived at our destination, where I was to sit alone for hours in the truck while waiting for the men to do their training in the woods. I had brought with me a book which helped ease my nerves and heal my soul, “Beyond Our Selves,” by one of my favorite authors, Catherine Marshall. I wasn’t a religious person during this period, but being the son of a Methodist minister, reading such things was like coming home. What I read in that book that day affected me, and at one point I broke down crying, and cried a good cry for a long time. Finally the tired men dragged themselves back and climbed into the truck, and I drove them out of the woods, feeling a bit better and a wee bit more experienced at driving.
Then, of all things, for a time, they made me a military taxi driver! I took stints in evenings sitting in an Army sedan, trying my best to decipher the crackling static on the CB radio, the only communications system the taxi’s had. I had to learn the two-way radio code language, such as “ten-four,” meaning “message received,” and I remember the one I used constantly: “Ten-nine,” meaning “repeat transmission,” or “what??!??” I don’t remember ever understanding the crackling instructions enough to pick up my intended passenger, but do remember otherwise.
Finally that foreboding event my friends had warned me about came to pass. I was awakened in the dark early morning hours of the night to drive a lieutenant somewhere. I was upset and grumbling complaints. Having been up late the night before, I was miserably sleepy when the officer, only a few years older than I, got into the car and we headed out of Fort Bragg and into parts unknown in North Carolina. We hardly spoke, but he did tell me that he was going to tell a couple that their son had been killed in Vietnam. After that he was quiet and thoughtful.
The drive was long in distance and hours, and I was not comfortable riding with an Army officer. It’s too bad I was as comfortable as I was, though, for along the way I fell asleep at the wheel. My eyes became blurry, my vision would shake when we’d go over bumps in the road, and finally I blacked out, asleep. My head, though, fell back and hit the seat’s headrest, waking me up with a start, and I had to swerve a bit to get back into the proper lane. My heart dropped, dreading how this officer would react to my falling asleep, but when I looked over at him, I saw that he was sleeping. He never knew! After that, I was frightened into wakefulness, and on we went.
It was daylight when we arrived at the house in the country where the couple lived. I sat in the car while the lieutenant went up to the door and knocked, and was let in. I would have fallen apart trading places with that officer at that moment. Time passed. When he came out of the house, there was no one else at the door to see him off. The young officer came down the steps and got into the car. I didn’t ask him how it went, nor did he tell me. In silence we drove away.
I no longer felt uncomfortable being with an Army officer. I was too busy thinking. This couple had lost their son, and both of us would have fallen apart trading places with them. Their brave son, giving his all for his country, had been killed while fighting a vast, armed enemy in the swampy jungles of southeast Asia; and I had complained for having to fight only against sleepiness. That day, traveling the many miles back to Fort Bragg, there were two men, quiet and thoughtful.
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