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National Guard Memories (Part 4)

In the fall of 1956 during the first football game of the year, which was against Greenwood, I injured my back. I thought it was a bruise but the pain persisted off and on for several years. A few years ago my lower torso was x-rayed and the radiologist told me that, at some time in my life, I had broken several vertebrae in my lower back. I immediately remembered the Greenwood game of ’56.

In the summer of 1957 when it was time for National Guard Camp my back was acting up. I could hardly walk. Missing summer camp was a cardinal sin and Charles Clem, our permanent duty member of the unit, hit upon the idea that I should go to camp but claim to have hurt my back jumping off a truck. That would allow me to be counted present but excused from all duties. I did exactly that. I spent the two weeks in the supply room doing menial tasks or just sitting. Once I was sent to a Ft. Chaffee chiropractor for my back problem. No x-rays were taken and, needless to say, the chiropractic manipulations did not do much for my broken vertebrae.

An amusing incident occurred one day when I was sitting in the supply room doing nothing. Our high school English teacher – Jerry Turner – was a sergeant in our unit. He was a Korean War veteran and his nick-name was “Jug.” It was about a thousand degrees that day and, though no place at Chaffee was cool, our supply room came as close as you could get to comfortable. Mr. Turner was sprawled on a bunk in the back of our supply room, fanning himself. A friend of his came into the room and, seeing him on the bunk said, “What are you doing, Jug?”

He replied, “I am cutting weeds out behind the latrine.”

I wanted to laugh out loud but stopped myself when I realized that he was not making a joke. He had ordered a group of privates to cut weeds out in the fierce summer sun while he lounged in the shade. And even though he was in the coolest place he could find and was DOING NOTHING, just like I was, he thought it proper to make the report he did. Neither he nor his friend laughed.

The books of my childhood were school textbooks and the King James Version of the Bible. My copy of the Bible was leather bound and well-read. I treated all books more or less the way I treated my Bible. That is why the following incident at Guard Camp was so stunning to me.

All work for the day was over and a few of us were lounging in the barracks. One member of our company was reclining in his bunk reading a paperback book. He would read the front of a page, then the back of that page and then do something I considered shocking! He tore out the page that he had finished and dropped it to the floor. After he read a page, he destroyed it! I couldn’t believe it.

One of the more exciting things we did at summer camp was to spend a day at the rifle range. On a typical day we would be arrayed in a long line, the firing line. The targets were 300 yards down range and situated above a deep trench. This is how we operated. At the command from the officer in a tower, each soldier fired a proscribed number of rounds at his target. The command to cease firing was given, and the soldiers in the trench pulled the targets down to assess how the shooters had done. The target puller communicated to the shooter by holding up poles on which colored disks were attached; red, I think, for a bull’s eye, black for the first ring outside the bull’s eye, etc. If the soldier missed the target altogether the puller waved a flag, known as Maggie’s drawers. When you missed the entire target everyone up and down the line could see it when Maggie’s drawers were waved.

One day our commander, Captain Don Floyd was on the firing line and I was his target puller. There was an officer in charge of target pullers and he decided to play a trick on Captain Floyd. (Captain Floyd was also Coach Don Floyd, our football coach.)

Don Floyd was a military veteran and an excellent shot with a rifle. I would pull his target down and there would be a pattern of holes more or less in the middle of the bull’s eye. But, following the orders of the officer in charge, I would signal that he had, for example, one bull’s eye, one first ring outside the bull’s eye and the remaining shots were Maggie’s drawers. I waved Maggie’s drawers longer than usual, giving everyone on the firing line time to see Captain Floyd’s shame.

After the firing was done for the day and we were back at our barracks, I encountered Captain Floyd. With a malicious grin on my face I said, “Captain Floyd, how did you do today at the firing range?” Clearly he knew that I was involved in the prank. With a smile on his face he doubled up his fist as if to hit me and said, “You low life SOB, I ought to slug you.” Then he laughed and we talked about what had happened.

I could shoot well enough to qualify but not by much. I had a tendency to yank the trigger, which threw off my aim. I was told over and over to gradually squeeze the trigger. Once I was practicing my ‘gradual squeeze’ on the trigger when the targets were down. The upper edge of the frame that held the target was barely visible. I sighted on its corner and gently squeezed the trigger.

To my chagrin the rifle fired. Its sound was, to me, like a thunder clap. Every eye along the firing line turned in my direction. The officer in the tower began speaking in a very excited voice. I’m certain he thought something dreadful had happened. No firing command had been given; no targets were visible. It seemed reasonable to think that some fool had shot himself or someone else. I thought I might be punished but, in fact, I was given an additional cartridge so that I would have the appropriate number for the next round of firing. Embarrassment was my only punishment.

In a way, I have a reward from that shooting mishap. I now have a fifty five year old fond memory of perhaps the only time, during my eight year National Guard career, when my trigger pull was smooth.

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