Summer always served as a “new beginning” for me when I was in the army. I got drafted on the Third of June and did my Basic Training in the hot, dry air of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I can’t tell you how many push-ups I did during the two-month training session as the meanest drill sergeant I ever seen brought fire to my poor soul by running me everywhere and cussing me out to force me into fighting shape.
Worse was on the hot days when we were forced to carry heavy back packs as we marched through the hills and the leader would order us to “double time,” that is, to run with such heavy burdens in the full sun. He’d watch sadistically, just waiting to prey on the first young man to fall out of formation and crash to the side of the path or the roadway. Those out of shape would be the first to hit the ground from either exhaustion or near heat-stroke. I remember how often I would pray just to hang in there to escape the sergeant’s wrath.
I made it through Basic without falling out of line, but I remember I was much less fortunate two years later when I had to run three miles without a break. I had been out of shape after serving a year as a training officer in Fort Polk, Louisiana, where I continued to smoke cigarettes and drink on occasion.
I was in near perfect shape when I graduated from Officers Candidate School on August 22nd, that summer day just several weeks after Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon. I was awarded with the highest score in my company when scoring 492 in my PT “Physical Training” exercise, failing to reach a perfect 500-score after running a mile in six minutes and 12 seconds. (A 6-minute mile was a perfect score.)
But in order to get into Jump School right before shipping out to Vietnam, I had to run three miles without taking a break. (You see, I wanted to toughen up before hitting the war zone and I volunteered to become a paratrooper and then join the ranks of the elite in becoming an Airborne Ranger.)
I couldn’t stay up with the pack that humid summer day in Fort Benning, Georgia, and I got “recycled,” that is, pushed back until I could attend the next three-week course.
Thankfully, I made it through the next run and jumped for joy in the process, getting “expelled” from a plane in four jumps and even parachuted out from a jet in one exercise. Unfortunately, I hit the ground running on my first jump and was nearly disqualified. You were taught to roll when striking the ground, thereby shifting the bulk of your weight away from your legs. I got hurt, but hid the pain from the observer who watched us land. I was lucky to hide the injury to my leg during the next four jumps and qualify for my wings, the pewter engraved medal worn only by paratroopers.
I never did become a Ranger. I like to think that the Universe conspired to keep me out of the rigorous program and to preserve my life while leading a group of regular “grunts” who made up my combat platoon. I’m happy to say that no one got killed while I was command those troops.
Summer hasn’t been the same since I was discharged from the military and came back home from Vietnam on a hot July night. But I’ll remember it every time my leg aches up and I get to tell war stories to family and friends.