Sometime during the second week of Army basic training at Fort Dix in 1968, the First Sergeant directed all the men in the company who wore eyeglasses to march to the place on the base where the Army would see to it that we all received Army eyeglasses. After having already relieved everyone of their civilian hair, and civilian clothing, taking away our civilian eyeglasses would effectively remove the only remaining vestige of our former civilian lives. This de-individualization was critical to the process of turning each of us into a “Gorilla Stompin’ Mean Fightin’ Machine.”
We knew the Army glasses were on their way because a few days earlier, the sixty or so of us who wore glasses were marched to the same location where we were filled out forms and temporarily surrendered our civilian glasses for about an hour so that an optician (probably a former truck driver in civilian life) could put our glasses on that widget that allows matching lenses to be made.
Now the sixty of us were back in the same large room sitting on the floor waiting to be “issued” our Army glasses. (As I noted before, the Army never “gives” you things; it issues you things). A sergeant and two corporals entered the room. It was plain to see that “issuing” the glasses was going to be a three-man operation. Corporal Number One held a stack of eyeglasses. The sergeant had an alphabetical list of names that matched up with each of the pairs of glasses. I wondered what Corporal Number Two’s job was, but I soon found out.
Here’s how it went. The sergeant started at the top of the list, “Aardvark, Anthony A. Front and center! On the double. Remove your civilian glasses and stand at attention.” Pvt. Aardvark would move quickly from the floor to the front of the room, where he would stand at attention. Corporal Two would take a pair of Army glasses from Corporal One, and in one motion quickly push them onto the face of Pvt. Aardvark. (Ah ha! I realized then that Corporal Two was the eyeglasses “putter on’r”) Once that was done, the Sergeant would say, “Move out,” at which time, Pvt. Aardvark would execute an about-face and walk briskly out of the room and back to our regular barracks.
This was proceeding through the alphabet without a hitch. Indeed a certain fluid rhythm began to emerge. Sergeant calls the name, and the guy goes to the front. Glasses are pushed onto his face. He is told to “Move out.” He does and about face and walks out of the room wearing Army glasses. No problems.
Then it was my turn.
The sergeant barked, “[Irish last name], James A. Front and Center!”
I scrambled from the floor to the designated spot and stood at attention. The eyeglass-putter-on’r pushed the glasses on my face. I was stunned for a moment and then blurted out, “I CAN’T SEE!” Keep in mind that, until that time, the sergeant’s voice had been the only one heard in the room.
Sgt.: “WHAT DID YOU SAY?”
Me: “I CAN’T SEE!”
Sgt.: (looking momentarily puzzled, then looking down at his list and then back up at me) “ARE YOU [Irish last name], James A.?”
Me: Yes, sergeant.”
Sgt.: “You CAN SEE. MOVE OUT!” I swear that is exactly what he said.
I made my way to the door and walked back to the barracks, not without some difficulty and a fulminating headache. I truly could not see worth a damn with the Army glasses. I decided that I would risk the wrath of the Army by continuing to wear my civilian glasses, lest I injure myself or others because I could not see what I was doing while wearing Army glasses. I assumed that I was “issued” someone else’s glasses. Sure, I knew that I was [Irish last name], James A., but I knew equally as well that I could not see with those Army specs.
About a week later, we were scheduled for an inspection, which was no ordinary inspection (not that any Army inspection can reasonably be considered “ordinary”). This particular inspection would be conducted by the Company Commander – an eyeglasses wearing Captain.
During these inspections, one stands at attention at the foot of one’s bunk while the Captain and the Drill Sergeant inspect every inch of the barracks, every locker, and every, single detail of one’s attire. EVERYTHING had to be perfect.
When the Captain and the Drill Sergeant came to me, the Captain looked at my boots (spit shined) my trousers (recently starched, and meticulously bloused at the top of my boots), my belt (perfectly shined and centered), my shirt line (a perfect vertical line from the top of my shirt to the bottom of the fly in my trousers), the lower part of my face (cleanly shaven), and then he came to my eyes.
Captain: “You’re not wearing Army glasses!”
Me: “No sir.” (I had learned that one does not take opportunities like this to open a dialog, rather one just answers the question posed – even though, technically, the Captain had made a statement rather than having asked a question.)
Captain: “Do you HAVE Army glasses?”
Me: “Yes sir.”
Captain: “But you’re not WEARING Army glasses.”
Me: “No sir.”
Captain: “Well, where ARE your Army glasses?”
Me: “They are in my locker, sir.”
Captain: “Well, why aren’t you wearing them?”
Me: “Because I cannot see with them on, sir.”
Me: “”I cannot see with them on, sir.”
Captain: “You cannot see with them on?”
Me: “No sir.”
At that point, the Captain turned to the Drill Sergeant, and said, “Make sure that this man sees a doctor.” The Drill Sergeant said, “Yes sir,” and the two of them moved on to the next guy. Meanwhile I was thinking, You dopey bastard. Don’t you think there just might be something wrong with the f****** glasses and not with my f****** eyes? This is Bizarro Land.
The next day I found myself at the Army Hospital waiting to see an ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist??? I could not believe that I had been ordered to see an ophthalmologist. These guys treat serious eye conditions and even do surgery on eyes.
The doctor entered the room and said, “What seems to be the problem?”
Me: “I cannot see with my Army glasses.”
Doc: “Can you see OK with your regular glasses?” BINGO!! He was the first person who thought to ask me that question!
Me: “I see fine with my regular glasses.”
Doc. “Why did they send you to see me?”
Me: “I have no idea why they did that, sir. I was ordered to come here.”
Doc: “O.K. Well then, let’s take a look at those Army glasses.”
He took a quick look at my prescription and looked at the glasses.
Doc: (chuckling, sighing, shaking his head, and shrugging his shoulders) “I see the problem here. They put the left lens where the right one should be and the right lens where the left one should be. You have a pretty bad left eye. No wonder you couldn’t see. We’ll fix them right now.”
A few minutes later, I walked out of the hospital wearing my gray, translucent-framed Army glasses and wondering how I would survive the next two years in Bizarro Land.