It was a nine below zero, windy morning in January of 1967. I was at the Stork Barracks in Illesheim, West Germany. I was seven weeks into the army before I knew that Re-Up was not an army brand of soft drink. My naïve was great, but I did not care. When it was to my advantage I could say that I graduated from high school at the bottom of my class. Never mind that the high school I attended was number one in North Central Accreditation in 1961, our graduation year. (Side note: It will be the year 6009 before you can invert the year and get the same number again.) Good old Scarsdale High.
It was my turn to go and get the snacks from the post snack bar that was located some four hundred yards across icy and muddy cobblestones. (The mud came from the APCs and tanks that traveled, on occasion, through the main area of the barracks from the 4th Armored Division. The “mission” was probably either repair or to get the Commanding Officer’s groceries.) (Speaking of mud: Do you know what a frozen turkey looks like when it falls out of your bicycle basket and into mud? The mud freezes on the outside of the plastic and if it was not so cold, it would be funny.) There were nine of us who regularly took turns going to get the Stars and Stripes plus pop or snacks each morning. None of our group in the basement of the Luftwaffe Hanger wanted to be out there in the mud. We were not fighting to win in Vietnam anyway. Despite this, we were doing our job one hundred percent of the time.
After arriving at the smoke filled and uncomfortably warm snack bar, I joined the line from the door to the actual cafeteria line. As usual, I was grateful to God that I was in Germany and not Vietnam at that moment. Slowly, the warmth of the room was putting me into a dreamy sleep. I was so grateful for my wife always helping me in Germany: baking cakes for Staff Sergeant Charbono, the 1st Sergeant or Captain Cramer the Commanding Officer. Whenever some levee would come down from Brigade Headquarters for my 45J20 mos for Vietnam, Staff Sergeant Charbono would find someone else for the slot. I had it made. What could go wrong?
Staff Sergeant Charbono needed both mine and my wife’s class six cards along with my work ethics. How else could we paint the whole supply room for free? How else could we get tents and needed supplies when Vietnam took everything we had, plus everything on order? Being the boss of my life and my duties, I did as I was ordered. I never did anything illegal for him or anyone else. My baby son needed to have clean diapers every day, and to accomplish that I gave my heart and mind but not my soul. You could barter for anything with American Booze or German Cognac. Staff Sergeant Charbono would sell the Ansbach Uralt Cognac back to the Germans, for they were not yet able to stock it in their stores.
I finally got the newspapers, hamburgers and cokes in tall paper cups. All this was on a tray you could borrow, just like the ones in the mess hall. You could also use half of a pop can shipping carton to be prepared for anything. I set the tray down to prepare for the long walk back in the wind, snow and cold. When I was ready to go, I waited for the next GI to enter and hold the door open for me.
The first person to open the door was a kid who did not hold it open for me. I moved back so that the door would not catch on my tray of stuff. I was too late and the door hit the pop carton which spilled one of the drinks. It spilled on the starched portion of my fatigues and ran between my buttons. The door was spring loaded, but the wind between the two buildings sometimes played havoc with it. “Thanks a lot kid!” I yelled as the meatball looked back to see what I was referring to. I exited at that moment with the help of a courteous GI who did hold the door for me. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I heard: “Who are you calling kid?” I turned around to see this kid dressed up like an officer, complete with badges and the like. He had taken off his daddy’s coat inside and was now standing out in the wind yelling at me. There were a lot of kids on the post dressed up like their daddies. The majority of them were pleasant kids who did their daddies proud. In fact, I had the privilege of teaching the seventh and eighth grade Confirmation Class at the post high school building with Father Zudima. “What did you say?” I asked as I pivoted into the wind. (You know, this kid even had a couple of clean service patches on!) “I can’t wait until the military gets hold of this kid” I thought for an instant. “I am not a kid, I am a West Point graduate. You are on report. What is your unit? What is your name? Where is your hand salute?” “My name is Griffiths and we do not give salutes when our hands are full on this post, son.” I turned and walked away. He continued to yell into the wind, snow and cold until he just faded away in the distance. “Maybe he is an officer?” I thought for a millisecond or less. “Aw hell, he is still a jerk no matter who he is.”
I did not think of this encounter again until I put the nine dry newspapers down on Staff Sergeant Charbono’s desk. On the front page of the Stars and Stripes was a picture of this kid in the same uniform I saw him in a few minutes prior. The headline read: “Shortest West Point Graduate Sent To United States Army Europe.” “Sergeant, you know that old military adage about covering your ass?” “Griffiths, what have you done now? Don’t waste my time, I’ve been in this army all day. Thanks to Sanzi, I do love that expression.” I started to tell him what had just happened. “Stop!” he yelled. “This is beautiful! Let me get the Top Sarge down here so he can enjoy the moment with us. Someone go get Sanzi also. Top Sarge needs to chew someone else’s ass who is not in our unit, for a change.” He ran out the doors, yes ran, all 340 pounds of him. We loved him just the same. He was the living Beatle Bailey.
A few minutes later, the following people all came in: Top Sarge, the clerk of the day, Staff Sergeant Charbono, Sanzi and Sergeant Klepper. 1st Sergeant Hooper was a great guy and he listened for a few minutes. “Stop Grifffiths. I want the Commanding Officer down here. This is the first good thing this supply room has done since I’ve been here. He reached across Staff Sergeant Charbono’s desk and called up to the duty room upstairs. He told the Commanding Officer to: “Get down here, you want to be in on this.” I just finished relating the whole story when the phone rang. The Commanding Officer answered the call and when he got off, he told us to let him do the talking.
A few moments later, Specialist, 4th Class Carmichael led the 2nd Lieutenant into the room. The Army’s shortest Lieutenant began to speak. (He had left his coat upstairs.) Captain Cramer interrupted him: “Lieutenant, please remove your Class A hat inside the company area and listen up.” The Commanding Officer and Captain Cramer gave him the longest and loudest ass chewing I ever heard in that man’s army! He went the whole nine yards about “esprit-de-corps” and we are not the enemy here. Also included was talk about how without men like Griffiths, Sanzi, Regan, Goode and Carmichael the whole damn system would not work. For one day, it made me glad I took the draft. The Captain then had the Lieutenant escorted to the street by the 1st Sergeant.
“OK Griffiths, your college education saved your ass today, but I will not do it again. Between you and Sanzi, I have started to like this job.”
P.S. I want this read to me on my death bed.