Once I passed my pre-induction physical (See, “Greeting” 12/12/02) and was re-classified from II-S (college student) to I-A (draft-ready), I began thinking (more accurately, worrying) about what job the Army would assign me to do for two years. This ever-present concern escalated dramatically following my induction in December 1968.
In the Army, one doesn’t speak of one’s job. Rather, each person is assigned a “Military Occupation Specialty,” or “MOS.” The Army has hundreds of MOSs, ranging from cooks and clerks and photographers, to infantry men. I spent countless hours wondering how the Army decides which draftee would be assigned which MOS. I knew all too well that, even if the Army had some rational process of making these thousands of individual personnel decisions, the process might well be trumped, or at least tilted, by the Army’s great need at the time for infantrymen (MOS 11B, or, as it is known in Armyspeak, “Eleven Bravo”).
This was so because the Army needed new, fresh infantrymen in large numbers in order to replace those who came home from Southeast Asia after completing their one-year tours, and those who came home in coffins. I also knew all too well that draftees stood an excellent chance of winding up in the infantry, because the technical MOSs (and therefore those less likely to belong to people returning to the U.S. in a box) were often staffed with the guys who enlisted and got to select their MOS, in return for an extra one or two years of service.
I admit it. The prospect of being assigned to the infantry frightened hell out of me. They were the poor guys we all had seen on the 7 o’clock news every night, humping packs and rifles through rice paddies and being killed by the thousands in a war that I never thought was a good idea in the first place. For numerous reasons (which might make the stuff of a future, more serious post), I had concluded that I would serve if called, but I would do whatever I could properly do to maximize the chance of not being shot.
I tried to think of something I had to offer, in addition to a college degree, that might convince the Army that I might be more useful to it by doing something other than toting an M-16. I realized that I had a couple cards to play, one being, in my sixties mind, the biggie. I COULD TYPE! (I also spoke and wrote passable German). I had to figure out how and when I could let the Army know that it had in its possession a guy who really could type – home keys, no looking at the keyboard – the real item. Remember, this was in 1968, back when computers were the size of a basketball court, and generally only women learned how to type. Men who could really type were a rarity.
It was settled. I would do everything I could do to be an Army Clerk Typist, or known somewhat derisively by the Eleven Bravos as a “Remington Raider.”
It looked like everyone’s one big chance to show his stuff was at hand, when one evening, a few days into basic training, the sergeants told us to be on our best game tomorrow because it was “Test Day.” [Not to be confused with the test that was the subject of “You Must have Cheated“] One sergeant explained that “Test Day” is the day that the Army would be giving us draftees about five hours worth of aptitude, achievement, and personality tests. The stated reason for the comprehensive testing was that it provides the Army with the means to capitalize on each draftee’s aptitude, abilities and personality characteristics in making MOS assignments. Eureka! So there was at least some evidence that the Army did not assign MOSs randomly. I asked the sergeant if a typing test was part of the process, and he replied that the typing test is a special test given after all the other testing is done. The same was true, he said, for foreign language tests. Special tests! I have two special skills! Yes!
My momentary (and increasingly rare) feeling of optimism was, however, short lived when the sergeant then said in a rich southern accent, “Hell, the truth is – them tests don’t mean shit. Y’all gonna wind up being grunts [infantrymen] anyway.” I was hoping that it was just a cynical comment designed to scare hell out of me (It did), rather than being a statement of fact or even an informed opinion. Nevertheless, I saw no downside in answering the questions on the tests (as well as demonstrate my flying typing fingers) so as to convince the Army that it could make excellent use of me for two years as a Remington Raider (and one who spoke German at that).
Test day had arrived. There must have been 300 of us in a huge room. The sergeant in charge, a shockingly articulate guy (I figured that he probably had a Masters Degree in English and enlisted to get the Testmeister gig), explained the various tests we would be given, and he confirmed that typing and foreign language tests would be given after the main testing was completed. There would be a lot riding on this – at least I wanted to believe that.
The tests covered everything from reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing skills (punctuation, word choice, etc.), and quantitative skills, ranging literally from simple addition to geometry and even a sprinkling of calculus. There were also tests of mechanical aptitude (gears, pulleys, levers), none of which were the stuff of a Remington Raider, and a test to gauge our aptitude for quickly learning to tell the difference between Morse Code’s dits and dahs coming through a headset first very slowly but ending up blasting through at machine gun speed. Finally, there were a couple personality inventories, presumably calculated to identify those among us who would do particularly well in a firefight or in a minefield.
My plan was to knock hell out of the reading and writing related tests and to try to answer the personality inventories in a manner befitting a Remington Raider. So, for example, one question might look like:
Given a choice, would you prefer to:
(a) go camping
(b) attend a sporting event
(c) participate in sporting event
(d) go hunting
(e) spend time in a library
Hunting? Camping? Sports? No way. Sounds like Eleven Bravo stuff to me. Remington Raiders like the library. Hey, I was desperate.
After hours of exhausting testing, the Testmeister announced, “Any man wishing to take a typing or a foreign language test report to Sgt. Smith [not his real name] in the small room in the rear.”
My time was at hand. I walked back to the room, expecting to be one of a couple dozen guys seeking to take the special tests, particularly since foreign language tests were being given. To my surprise, there was only me, a Hispanic guy named “Angel” and Sergeant Smith.
Sergeant Smith must have thought this to be his lucky day because, at most, he would only have to administer two tests. It would be even better for him if he had to administer NO tests, which, judging by what happened next, is what he had in mind.
He started with Angel. “What’s your name, boy?”
Angel: “Angel [Clearly Hispanic last name]”
Sgt.: “What test you wanna take?”
Angel: “Spanish,” Sergeant.
Sgt.: “You speak and read m***** f****** Spanish?”
Angel: “I always spoke it at home with my parents and grandparents.”
Sgt.: “Sure, you may be able to SPEAK m***** f****** Spanish, but can you READ it?”
Angel: (Now, scared shitless – as was I, listening to this crazy exchange) “Well, I don’t think I read it that well; I can read it, but mainly we spoke it.”
Sgt.: “You best not be wastin’ my m***** f****** time here, boy. Don’t let me see that you can’t read that shit. Now, are you gott-damned sure you want to take this test?”
Angel decided that he really didn’t want to take the test, after all. Some picture — a sergeant who barely spoke English in more than grunts scared a kid, who had spoken Spanish all his life, out of taking the test because he perhaps felt that he couldn’t read it like a Spanish professor!
Angel left. One down – one to go. Now, it was my turn.
Sgt.: “What’s your name, boy?”
Me: “James [Irish last name]”
Sgt.: “What language test you wanna take?”
Sgt.: (Exploding) WHAT?? You wanna take a m***** f***** German test with a last name like [Irish last name]? What’s a guy with a m******* f****** last name like [Irish last name] doing speaking German? Don’t BOOshit me, boy. You can’t really speak that shit.”
Me: “I believe I speak it well enough to take the test.”
Sgt.: (Getting really angry) “Well, can you READ it?” Here he goes again, I thought.
Me: “I can read it well enough.”
Sgt.: “You f****** BOOshitting me. Where you learn to speak that shit?”
Me: “In school.”
The sergeant ranted the same warning that he had given Angel to frighten him out of taking the Spanish test. I didn’t budge. This was my shot, and I’d be damned if I was going to let this lazy jerk scare me away just so he could have the rest of the day off.
Then it got REALLY crazy.
As the seargent was muttering and handing me that material for the German test, we had the following meaningful exchange:
Me: “When I’m through with the German test, I would like to take the typing test.”
Sgt.: “WHAT??? You wanna take TWO m***** f****** tests??? Nobody takes two m***** f****** tests!!!
Me: “No one ever said that one person could not take two tests.”
The Sergeant, apparently realizing that his on-the-spot concocted no-two-test “rule” wasn’t working, did a variation on the language rant.
Sgt.: “So, you must be some kind of m***** f****** smart guy. You can speak German AND you can type?”
Me: “I just want to take the tests, is all.”
Sgt.: “OK, you can take the m***** f****** typing test too, but you gott-damned better be able to type thirty-‘fie’ words a minute! Can you type thirty-‘fie’ m***** f****** words a minute?”
Me: “I think I can.”
Sgt.: (pointing out the window at a freshly snow-covered parking lot) “Listen up, boy. You BETTER type thirty-‘fie’ words a minute, or your wastin’ my m***** f****** time. If you wastin’ my m***** f***** time, you gonna shovel that whole m***** f***** parking lot your m***** f****** self.”
Wow. Talk about taking tests under pressure. And, to my mind, these weren’t tests that would make or break me for the Dean’s List. No, these tests could at least conceivably be a matter of life or death.
So, I took both tests alone, under the watchful and seriously resentful eyes of Sgt. Smith. When it was all over, he said that I had “passed” (whatever that meant) the German test and that I had typed forty-something words a minute.
It looked like I wouldn’t be shoveling the m***** f****** parking lot after all, but I fervently hoped that’s how Sergeant Smith would spend the rest of his m***** f****** day.
I left the room, mentally and emotionally exhausted, but even more hopeful that I still might become a Remington Raider.
Oh yeah. I took the tests wearing my civilian eyeglasses. I’ll tell you about Army glasses, but that’s a story for another day.