I Don’t Know But I’ve Been Told

Lessons from my days in olive drab

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Now when the army said they didn’t have room for us at Fort Ord, I actually wondered what we would be doing, but I shouldn’t have worried. The Army had a plan. 

The Army always had a plan. 

Now their solution to the problem of overcrowding was simple. 

They loaded us all on buses and sent us across the country to a place called Fort Polk, Louisiana. 

Now I have to admit, Fort Polk was a long way from the beautiful beaches of Monterey Bay, but Fort Polk was the place where the Army thought they could turn us into soldiers. 

And if you think about it, the army had set a pretty big task for itself. 

They were going take a bunch of US civilians, and in just eight weeks turn us into members of the most powerful military on the planet. 

When we arrived at Fort Polk, we were divided into groups and sent into barracks to meet our drill sergeants and be assigned our bunks. 

Now I can remember my very first day at Fort Polk while we were there setting up our bunks and unloading our duffel bags. 

Some of the men were taking showers and now I have to admit I hadn’t showered at Fort Ord, and I obviously hadn’t showered during our cross country trip on the bus. 

I was feeling a little grungy. 

So I decided to take a quick shower so I would begin my real Army training as a clean soldier. 

Who knows, that might even impress the drill sergeants that I was a good soldier. 

Well, that was my first mistake in the Army … doing something on my own. 

Now I realized it was a mistake when one of the drill sergeants began screaming at those of us who were taking showers.

Now this was a lot closer to what I expected from the movies I’d seen.

The Drill Sergeant explained in that very special way that Drill Sergeants explain things that he had not given permission to anyone to take a shower. 

And the first thing we needed to learn was we didn’t do anything unless he gave us permission to do that thing. 

Had it been possible to sneak away, I would have done so, but I was standing naked in the shower while the drill Sergeant screamed at us and there was no way to hide.

The Drill. Sergeant said we would do two firewatches that night. 

I had no idea what a firewatch was, but I quickly found out it was something along the lines of guard duty.

So instead of getting eight hours of restful sleep in my new home, I spent two hours at night pacing the barracks floor. 

I didn’t see any fires which was good because the wooden barracks had been built before World War Two and probably would have been consumed in seconds. 

But the next morning, the drill Sergeant got us out of bed and ordered us to take showers the Army way. 

The showers were to take 90 seconds.

Thirty seconds to get wet. 

Step back so someone else could get wet while the other person was getting wet. 

You had thirty seconds to soap up and scrub.

And then you were given thirty seconds to step back under the shower and rinse off and that was it. 

The First Goal

Now it was obvious that all of us had a lot to learn, and one of the first things we realized that the army set itself to do was to make us look like soldiers. 

They taught us how to fold our clothes, where to place them in our footlocker, and there was only one way — the Army way.

The Army taught us which uniform to wear. There were different uniforms for different occasions.

The Army taught us how to make our beds folding corners at 45 degree angles, making sheets and blankets tight. Now it took time to make some of them perfect and it had to be perfect. 

I can remember some nights I chose to sleep on top of the covers so that all I had to do in the morning was tighten the corners. 

The Important Stuff

Well, with those little skills out of the way, we got around to learning the important stuff. 

One of the most important lessons on our road to becoming a soldier was learning how to salute.

Now, I have to admit that I smile today at many Hollywood movies where the soldiers not only don’t salute properly, they seldom hold their salute until it’s returned. 

Well, after we learned how to salute, we then had to learn the next important task — who to salute.

We were just to salute officers but that meant we had to learn all the ranks and all the insignias so that we would know that a Second Lieutenant was lower than a Lieutenant Colonel. 

That kind of stuff. 

Now I have to admit I actually enjoyed saluting. 

I thought I did it well and I felt like it was a sign of respect. 

Many of the men in my unit, however, had a different view. 

Some hated saluting, and if they were walking down the street and saw an officer coming their way, they would literally cross the street so they could avoid having to salute the officer. 

Now there were also some others who were a bit more devious. 

If a group of them saw an officer coming their way on the sidewalk. 

They would purposely space themselves out in a straight line so that when the officer passed he would have to salute and salute and salute and salute. 

They seemed to enjoy that. 

Of course they were smart enough to know that you only really tried that on Second Lieutenants. 

We also had to learn the chain of command everyone from the drill Sergeant up to the President of the United States. 

We had to know who was important and where they stood in that chain. 

We had to know. 

Who we were supposed to obey, which as recruits was just about everyone who walked the face of the earth. 

We also learned how to gather into what was called squad formation. 

We learned how to stand at attention. 

And yes, there’s an army, a way to stand at attention. 

We learned how to stand at ease and how to be dismissed from a group. 

We learned how to turn — left face, right face about face. 

Now that may sound silly to you and I grant you it’s not rocket science, but there is an Army way to turn. 

In fact, once I was assigned to help a group of about, I think were four or five guys who were having difficulty learning their left face and right face. 

So we practiced and practiced and practiced until they master it. 

Like with saluting, when I watch a movie with a Hollywood soldier, I notice how the actors do an about face when they leave the presence of a superior officer. 

Few actors have the correct footwork.

And then we marched — lots and lots of marching. 

Now I enjoyed marching. 

Perhaps it was from my Junior High PE classes. 

I think our PE teachers were former Marines or something, but whatever, it was I just thought marching looked cool. 

I enjoyed being part of our group marching doing those things well. 

Keeping Step

One of the things we did when we marched to us use cadence calls that helped us keep step and it made the marching more fun. 

The Drill Sergeants would lead us in a cadence call while we marched. 

Now the drill Sergeant would call out a phrase and our entire company would respond back, usually with the same phrase. 

It could be as simple as left, right, left or Countdown 1 2 3 4. Bring it on down 1 2 3 4. That kind of thing. And when we were moving in double time, more like a slow jog, there were cadences just for that one. 

One that sticks in my mind that we used was called the Airborne Shuffle. 

The Drill Sergeant would call out. 

“I want to be an airborne Ranger”

And then we would respond with the same phrase. “I want to be an airborne Ranger.”

And the cadence went on. 

“I want to lead a life of danger.”

We’d respond. 

“I want to go to Vietnam.” 

“I want to kill some Charlie Cong.”

“Every day.”

“All the way.” 

“Airborne … Ranger.”

“Life of danger.”

OK, this is not exactly uplifting music, but it did help us keep in step. 

And they were trying to make us into warriors and for some reason they thought this would help.

However, as a Christian, I would say about a quarter, maybe a little bit less than that, of the cadence calls I wouldn’t say out loud. 

There was a cute little call about a yellow bird and I would say part of it as we marched. 

But then I wouldn’t say the part that described what we did to the little bird’s head. 

And then there was a cadence call that began with the drill Sergeant calling out, “I don’t know, but I’ve been told —”

And then we would all respond, “I don’t know, but I’ve been told.”

And the Drill Sergeant would tell us what he’d been told, and I’m not going to share with you what the Drill Sergeant said because I refused to say it when I was in the Army and I’m not about to say it to you today. 

And it wasn’t just the marching that had those kind of overtones. 

I remembered one time we were getting one of our uniforms out … I’m sorry the drill Sergeant told us we needed a certain uniform for a special occasion. 

I got my clothes on and I couldn’t remember which hat we were supposed to wear and I asked the guys around me do we wear a garrison cap with this? 

No one had any idea what I was talking about. 

It seemed no one in my entire unit knew what a garrison cap was. 

One guy finally held up a cap. 

It was a garrison cap and he said the name that everyone else used to identify it.

Well, it’s what the people in the army called it, but I would never use it and in fact I’ve I’ve wondered sometimes now that the army is co-ed, how many marching songs had to be dropped or severely rewritten? 

How many descriptions of items had to be redefined and how many people had to watch how they use the words that they used? 

Hopefully quite a few. 

Latrine Duty

There were four squads in our company and the first thing the drill sergeants did was to assign each squad to a separate job. 

To last a week long. Now my first week of basic training, my squad was assigned … yeah, what can I say, to clean the latrine? 

It wasn’t a fun job, but we did it and the next week we were assigned a different job. 

Whoever followed us, however, did a terrible job of cleaning the latrine and the captain ripped into the drill sergeants, and so the drill sergeants got together and decided since our squad was so good at it, the rest of basic training cleaning the latrine was our assigned job.

So in my eight weeks of Basic I spent seven weeks cleaning our latrine. 

Another interesting thing and it’s hard maybe to understand those if you didn’t go back to it. 

This was a time in our country when antiwar demonstrations were occurring everywhere. 

If bad things happened in the military, those incidents usually made the Evening News. Shortly before I came into the Army, some Marine crews had died, actually, in their training in Boot Camp, which was their name for what we would call Basic. 

Well, the government decided because of the terrible news that they were going to make some changes on how recruits were trained. And the army they made some that well, our drill sergeants were not real pleased with. 

They were supposed to treat us more humanely. 

First, our drill sergeants were not allowed to call us bad names because that would make us feel bad. 

OK, it’s difficult to explain how much this really bothered the drill sergeants. 

They had been calling people bad names. 

They probably faced it in their training and they had some pretty good bad names that they applied to the recruits, but it was no longer allowed. 

From here on out, however stupid our actions were, they were required to call us recruits. 

They were also not allowed to humiliate us in front of other recruits. 

And humiliation had been a big part, I think of their training methodology and we could see how much it was bothering them. 

In fact, I remember one time when we were taking a break, we asked the drill sergeants what kinds of things they used to do, when it was allowed. 

One of our drill sergeants had a couple of our recruits come out and try to climb a tree. 

You’d think, well, that’s not any big deal. 

Well, it is if you’re climbing a tree upside down. It makes you look kind of foolish, and it’s really hard to do. 

Well they had also been given another thing to help make our lives easier. 

We had to receive eight hours of sleep each night. 

Now I can remember a couple of times when the drill Sergeant had us going to bed in the late afternoon and we couldn’t believe it. 

We were wondering why until it dawned on us. 

The rule that we would be getting up at 3:00 in the morning to do some activity, and while it may have made us feel soft and cuddly, and the drill sergeants loved us, even as I was going through these training situations, I didn’t appreciate it because I knew if we were in a battlefield situation they were not gonna ask us, “Did you get your eight hour sleep? Well, we’ll just wait before we start our attack.”

Well, the drill sergeants had some other difficulties too. 

Our drill sergeants and I don’t know their background, but they tried to teach us the manual arms with our M16. 

But they had no idea how to do it with an M16. They had learned on an M14. 

And they just struggled and struggled. 

And finally I think they gave up, you know, they gave us a few things to do, but pretty much gave up.

And we were doing all these things, going to classes, doing studying all kinds of stuff. 


But I remember one day our drill Sergeant told us we were going to learn to police and now this actually sounded good to me.

I thought finally we get to learn some soldier stuff. 

Well our drill Sergeant got us together, marched us over to the parking lot of the PX and arranged us in a long single file line. And then he had each of us bend slightly at the waist and look towards the ground. 

And then he had us walk slowly, step by step across the parking lot. 

Our job was to pick up every piece of trash on the ground. 

This was called policing an area. 

So much for real soldier stuff and I have to admit, even now I’m bothered when I see people throwing trash on the ground. 

It’s like they shouldn’t be doing that. 

Someone has to pick it up. 

Lots and Lots of Shots

Now as a soldier you could be assigned anywhere in the world, and one of the things I remember about Basic training is that we got shots, lots and lots of shots. 

I assume they were trying to inoculate us to anything that could happen anywhere in the world. 

Usually we just marched up to the place where the shots were being given, formed in a line and walked through the building and the medics. 

At least, I assumed they were medics. 

Generally used the gun on us and the gun let them do instead of a single needle shot at a time they might have several shots. They’d push this gun against your arm, pull the trigger and boom, you’d get, I don’t know three, four or five shots at a time.

Well, I remember one time, our drill Sergeant said we were going to receive a shot to protect us from the bubonic plague. 

The bubonic plague. 

Now I’d studied enough history to know that … wasn’t the bubonic plague the Black Death in the Middle Ages that killed about oh, you know, 50 million people — a third of the population of Europe. 

Why was I getting a shot for the bubonic plague? 

Where were they planning to send me? 

The drill Sergeant calmed us down, told us not to worry. Besides, the Army was going to give us the afternoon off so we could do whatever we wanted to and just have a good time. 

Wow, they never did that before. 

Maybe the Army was becoming my buddy after all, so we got to our shots, went back to the barracks and the Drill Sergeant said the rest of the afternoon was ours. 

I think maybe two or three guys went out to play ball, but I’m not sure because I was getting a little woozy and tired and I lay down on my bunk and I didn’t move for several hours. 

Apparently I had a mild case of the Black Death, now just about everyone else in the unit was out cold on their bunks recovering from their shot. 

The Army had done it to us again. 

The afternoon off, yeah, right. 

Hurry Up and Wait

Well, I don’t know. One more thing. 

Have you ever heard the phrase hurry up and wait? 

I really think that phrase may have been invented in the Army. 

It was so common that the drill sergeants would make us rush out to get all of our stuff ready, then rush to some place, and then we would get to that place. 

And then we would wait and wait and wait. 

And we used to make fun of the Army for always doing that to us. 

Well, one day I had been assigned to help out in the headquarters of our company and I was in there one time when I saw a glimpse of how this might happen. 

I was at a desk. 

A phone call came in. 

I answered the phone. 

It was a call from the general. 

Not him personally, but his staff called and said the general was going to come visit tomorrow at 9:00 AM and I was to pass that message along to the captain. 

So I went to the captain and told the captain that the general had called and he was coming to visit at 9:00 AM. 

You could see the panic in his face. 

The general, the head of the whole Fort Polk, Louisiana was going to come and look at us. 

The captain called the executive officer into his office. 

The executive officer was the First Lieutenant, and I heard the captain explain very clearly that he wanted everyone in squad formation at 8:30 AM. There was no way he was going to be late for the general. He ordered the first Lieutenant, 8:30 AM. 

Then the first Lieutenant came out and got to the Master Sergeant, who is kind of the highest enlisted ranking guy who kind of runs the nuts and bolts of the company. Well he told the master Sergeant, to make sure that everyone is in squad formation at 8:00 AM. He wanted to be certain not to get the captain mad at him for being late.

And then I saw them Master Sergeant. He had the drill sergeants come in — the heads of each of our companies — and he explained to them that he wanted everyone dressed and ready to go in squad formation at 7:30 AM.

The Master Sergeant was not about to get the First Lieutenant mad at him. 

Well, I couldn’t believe what I just saw, but it started to make sense. 

And that night I went to bed, woke up the next morning and guess what our drill Sergeant said.

We had to get ready for a special meeting. The general was coming to see us so we all got dressed in whatever uniform you get dressed for when a general comes to see you. And we lined up in squad formation at 7:00 AM. 

Now I hadn’t told anyone, but I knew the general wasn’t coming until 9:00 AM, but there we were. 

The drill sergeants were quite happy. 

They made the master Sergeant happy. 

The master Sergeant was happy because he made the first Lieutenant happy. 

The first Lieutenant was happy because he made the captain happy and the captain was happy because everyone would be ready when the general arrived. 

So we waited and we waited. 

And we waited. 

And we waited. 

And then, oh, I would say maybe an hour or so after we had first got there. 

Someone came out of the company headquarters and they said they had just received a call from the general and he was busy that morning so he wouldn’t be able to make it. 

So we left and that was my little glimpse at the Army’s “hurry up and wait. “

So Speaking of lessons … I had a couple of important lessons from this time period. 

The one related to that story I just shared with you is patience. 

Patience is a good thing. 

You can sit and complain, and argue and moan and whine, but that doesn’t usually speed things along, so patience is a good quality to have. 

As I look back on my time in Basic Training, I think I learned an important lesson during this time period and I am so glad that I did not give in to the group pressure to conform to the ways that others spoke, the topics they wanted to wallow in, the attitudes they wanted to show.

There is a really fascinating verse in the Bible. Psalm 19:14. It says,

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart. 
Be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer. 
Psalm 19:14

That is a great verse and it tells us what God desires of us, and I would encourage you seek to please God in everything you do. 

Don’t let the group, whether it’s at work or at school or just the people you hang around with. 

Don’t let the group set the standards for your life. 

Choose to do what is right … whether anyone else does it or not. 

Thanks for listening to this episode. 

If you enjoyed it, please sign up to follow the podcast and in the next episode I’ll share what the Army did after they got us looking like soldiers.

They set out to train us to become warriors.

Now before I go, I’d like to share a blessing with you from the Old Testament.

“May the Lord bless and protect you; may the Lord’s face radiate with joy because of you; may he be gracious to you, show you his favor, and give you his peace.”

Numbers 6:24-26 (The Living Bible)

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