December 21, 2002

“You must have cheated!”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jim @ 8:04 pm

I was in the Army only about a week or so, and there I was being accused by the First Sergeant of cheating on a test. One must understand the terrifying power of a First Sergeant. The First Sergeant is the highest ranking non-commissioned officer in a training company, and most definitely is not a man to be trifled with. First Sergeants usually have twenty years plus in the military, and they have been known to make young officers shake in their boots. Here’s what happened, and I believed then and I believe now that it could only have happened in the Army.

About a week or so into Basic Training, each man in the training company was given a three-hundred-question multiple choice test to take cold. The test dealt, quite predictably, with Army things (e.g. rank insignia, protocol, drill, communications, weapons, etc.), but it also dealt with the kinds of things that one learns in the Boy Scouts (e.g. camping skills, survival skills, and first aid). So, as a result of having been a Boy Scout and also having done some pre-induction reading about the Army (that too was probably spawned by the Boy Scout Motto “Be Prepared”), I scored something like 200 out of a possible 300 on the test. Other members of the company, presumably not having been Boy Scouts and not having done any pre-induction reading, generally did not do as well.

The First Sergeant did not accuse me of cheating at that time, but he was quite incredulous as to how a “raw recruit” (pronounced something like “rawCROOT”) could score so well. He asked me in front of all the men in the company how I managed what to him was an amazing feat. He was not happy when I told him that I had “learned a lot of that stuff in the Boy Scouts.” I suspect that he probably was a supporter of the Boy Scouts, but he did not appreciate the rest of the men laughing at the implication that this rough-tough Army stuff was the stuff of Boy Scouts.

After this less-than-pleasant interlude, other training sergeants spent three plus hours using the test as a teaching tool. They slowly (very, very slowly) read each question and then gave the correct answer from the four choices, along with a brief explanation of the reason for the answer. They did this 300 times. For the 200 questions I had known the answers to, this was frightfully boring, but for the other 100, I paid attention to the answers and the proffered explanations.

Now, I swear that the following is true. Twenty-four hours later, the sergeants handed us the SAME TEST. I thought, there must be some catch. This cannot be the same test that we went over in excruciating detail yesterday. But, ten or fifteen questions in, I realized that this was, in fact, the same test.

Following completion of the test (actually a re-test), papers were exchanged for grading, and the sergeants again did the same read-the question and then give the answer routine. I could not believe that they were going through this painful exercise a second time. I had assumed that virtually everyone who had heard the answers a mere twenty-four hours earlier would get all 300 correct.

Well, the guy’s test I marked got about 150 of the questions wrong!! Incredulous, I concluded that the guy must have been elsewhere the previous day. Wrong. He was there; he had had taken the test and also sat through the three hour tortured review of each and every question twenty-four hours earlier.

Enter the First Sergeant asking how the marks were. “Any man get more than 200 right?” I assumed my guy was the only one who could have possibly scored fewer than 200 questions right. Amazingly, others also did not raise their hands, indicating that my guy wasn’t the only guy in the room who must have been dropped on his head as an infant. The First Sergeant then worked the numbers: “Any man get more than 250 right?’ “More than 275 right?” Each time fewer hands went up. He got to “more than 285 right?” and no more hands went up. “So, that’s it then,” the sergeant said, until a guy on the other side of the room put his hand up and said, “This man got all 300 right.”

“WHAT??” the First Sergeant yelled. “That can’t be. Are you sure you marked the gott-damned test right?”

The other recruit confirmed that he had carefully marked the test.

“Something’s going on here,” the First Sergeant hollered. “Whose paper is that?” At this point, I was hoping against hope that it was NOT my paper, and that I had had a series of mental lapses during the test, causing me to get 15 wrong. I did not need another exchange with the First Sergeant.

The other recruit answered with my name.

“Who is this man? I want this man to stand up, NOW.” I stood up. The First Sergeant glared at me, and it was at this point that he said (honest), “You must have cheated! No man has EVER gotten all 300 right.”

My heart pounding out of my chest, and my mouth dry as sand, I replied, “I did not cheat.”

The other sergeants, who were present during the test, caucused with the First Sergeant and must have assured him that they had not seen any evidence of cheating. During this time, I was thinking, Cheating? You must be out of your mind. What the Christ am I doing here?

Faced with my answer and the assurances from the other sergeants, the First Sergeant went into a sarcastic mode and said, “You must be some kind of college boy. Are you some kind of college boy?”

“Yes,” I replied.

Reminiscent of Rod Steiger’s sheriff role in “In the Heat of the Night,” the First Sergeant said, “OK then Mr. College Boy smart guy. Why don’t you tell us how you managed to max this test?”

It was not the first and surely it would not be the last time that Army reality was more than I could process at the moment. I actually think that I raised my voice, and replied, “Sergeant, I cannot believe that you would even think to ask me that question. How did I max the test? YOU GAVE US ALL THE ANSWERS YESTERDAY!”

Perhaps sensing the loss of some ground in front of the entire company, his mood changed yet again to one of conciliation and even grudging admiration. He told all the other recruits that my “outstanding” (another favorite Army word) performance was something they should seek to emulate.

At the end of it all, the First Sergeant even gave me a tangible reward. He said, “In recognition of this man’s ‘outstanding’ (there’s the word again) performance, he goes to the head of the chow line for a week.”

By this time, my sense of reality was so out of whack that I actually began to feel as if I had accomplished something “outstanding.” And, I more than appreciated the honor of going to the head of the chow line that week. The other recruits made much of it as well, and happily made a spot for me at the head of the chow line, because I think they viewed my back and forths with the First Sergeant as one small, albeit very small, victory for the “rawCROOTs.”

This was not the only time I bumped heads with the Army over tests. But that’s a story for another day.

Army Underwear.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jim @ 1:02 am

It was freezing cold that night in December 1968, when the bus delivered us to the U.S. Army Reception Center in Fort Dix, New Jersey. We were “greeted” by an Army sergeant, who boarded the bus and wasted no time reminding us that we were all “in the Army now,” and that we should all keep quiet and walk single file into a large, sparsely furnished, overheated room for the purpose of filling out stacks of forms.

“Gentlemens, listen up! Last name first, then first name, then middle initial.” So instructed the crew-cutted Army sergeant over and over for the completion of each form. He did so in the loud, Army sergeant monotone I would come to know so well. (I thought, Gentlemens? Might that be some sort of super-plural form of he word gentleman? And, listen up? Why listen up? Can one listen down?) The seemingly endless forms were obviously designed to squeeze from us every single detail of the lives we all had before we became “gentlemens.”

“What if you put your first name first?” asked a voice from somewhere behind me. It was the first time any of us actually spoke to a sergeant. Several other voices hesitatingly revealed that they had made the same mistake. That produced a tirade in a much louder than usual Army sergeant monotone, “Gentlemens, you are no longer on the gott-dammed block, and I ain’t your gott-dammed mama! When I give instructions, you WILL gott-damn pay attention, and you WILL gott-damn follow my instructions.”

No question about it. This guy did not like his job, nor did he much like any of us. Then and there I decided that if in one of the dozen or so forms yet to go I mistakenly put my first name first, I would not fess up. No, I would take the easy way out and jab my gott-damned eyes out with the gott-damned number 2 pencil and hope for a gott-damned looney tunes discharge.

After all the forms were finally completed, we were led to the “mess hall” for some “chow.” (The Army just springs these new words on you.) One thing about the Army — you WILL get three “squares” per day, hence the 24-hour operation of the mess hall in the Reception Center to accommodate the streams of incoming draftees needed to fuel the war in Southeast Asia. Amazingly, some guys greeted this news warmly. I was much too miserable to be hungry. Good thing too, as we were given about five minutes to eat some really chewy chicken wings and lima beans. “Move it. Move it. Move it, gentlemens. Chew it here, swallow it outside, and digest it later!” Maybe I should just jab the gott-damned fork in my gott-damned eyes.

It was too late in the night for the Army to completely strip us of our civilian identities. However, to start the process we were all “issued” Army underwear. (The Army never “gives” you things; it “issues” them to you.) From there, we were “marched” to a two-story World War II barracks for the night, and we were told that under no circumstances was anyone to leave the “gott-damned” barracks until the following morning. It was frighteningly true. The Army really did “own” our “asses.”

The next morning — just like in the movies — the sergeant came roaring like a madman into the barracks at God knows what ungodly hour. “Off your asses on and on your feet! Move it! Move it! Move it! We ain’t got all gott-damned day, gentlemens.”

As ordered, we all put on our newly “issued” Army underwear under our civilian trousers. Army underwear (or skivvies) are funny looking billowy white boxer shorts that almost touch the wearer’s knees. After a quick trip back to the mess hall (remember, three squares) for a warp-speed breakfast, we were “marched” to the barber, where in approximately 20-30 seconds, each of us was relieved of a critical part of our 60’s identity – our hair, just about all of it. The barbers were ankle deep in the stuff – just another surreal picture. Everyone looked perfectly ridiculous, but, more importantly to the Army, everyone looked sort of the same.

The next stop was a long, long building where we would be issued uniforms. The idea here is that you start at one end of the building in your underwear and you exit the other end of the building with a uniform on your back and a duffle bag full of extra clothing. Army efficiency at work. So, when we entered the building, we were told to remove everything except for our newly issued Army shorts (I believe that our civilian clothes were mailed home, but I do not recall). From there, we were led into another large room, with rows and rows of folding chairs arranged in front of a stage.

We sat shivering in our Army shorts while one of two sergeants on the stage began to tell us how the uniform issuing procedure would work. In mid sentence, he was interrupted by the other sergeant, a huge black man, who pointed out into the audience and shouted, “YOU!!” Sweet Jesus, does he mean me? If he means me, I hope I just have a heart attack and die right gott-damned here.

“YOU!! YOU IN THE BACK!!!” the sergeant roared.

“Me?” the guy in the back said.

“Yeah, YOU!!! Get the f*** up here!” Thank God it’s not me.

It did, however, turn out to be a guy I went to high school with – a seriously smart, exceedingly polite and quiet guy who had recently graduated from a prestigious university. I was horrified for him as he walked, like a condemned man, to the stage in his shorts and nothing else, past the 100 or so of us, also in our shorts and nothing else.

He walked onto the stage, and the sergeant bellowed, “What’s your name, boy?”

My former high school classmate, now terrified recruit, said “Carl Thompson.” [not his real name]

The sergeant hollered, “Where’re you from, boy?”

Frightened, and obviously puzzled by the reason for the question, Carl said, “Where am I from?” Oh God, he repeated the sergeant’s question.

“You got shit in your ears, boy? I axed you, where’re you FROM?”

“Kearny, New Jersey, sergeant.”

“Well tell me something boy. Do everybody in Kearny, New Jersey wear his underwear backwards?”

Carl looked down and saw, to his shock and embarrassment,. that he had indeed put his underwear on backwards. He was speechless.

We all stifled our laughter, as we quickly looked down to make sure that we didn’t put our bed sheet sized underwear on backwards.

“Answer me, boy. Do everybody in Kearny, New Jersey wear his underwear backwards?”

Barely audibly, Carl said, “No, sergeant.”

“I can’t hear you, boy. Sound off like you got a pair!” (They really do say that.)


The sergeant stared at him, apparently savoring the moment, and then shouted, “Well, gott-dammit, FIX THEM!!”

No one, but no one, laughed as Carl, right there on the stage, took off his shorts, turned them around, and put them back on.

About an hour later we were all at the other end of the building wearing olive drab everything, very drab indeed. It all served to remind me of just how much my life had changed in not even 24 hours.

It would become even more bizarre, but that’s a story for another day.

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