It was too late in the day to go to Personnel for in-processing, so the company clerk sent me to Supply for bedding. A member of Third Platoon showed me to my new home, a third-floor squad bay with forty bunks lining the wall on one side.
In the morning someone pointed me at Personnel and I delivered my sealed records packet. To my great surprise, included in this slim stack of papers was a set of orders awarding me the Expert Infantryman Badge. The clerk helped me pin the badge, a silver flintlock on a narrow field of Infantry Blue, over my left pocket and congratulated me.
As my jaw was wired shut, I could thank him only by writing on a small pad I carried.
When I returned to Delta Company, I was almost immediately set upon by SFC Tabor, my new platoon sergeant. Why was I wearing the EIB? I wasn’t wearing it when I reported in! Did I have any idea what a terrible crime it was to wear an award I hadn’t earned?
Writing on my pad, I asked Tabor to call Personnel to confirm. He didn’t understand why I didn’t know I’d been awarded the EIB, and I didn’t want to tell him.
A week earlier at Fort Ord, California in my last week of infantry training, I went to the grenade range to throw practice grenades. They differ from the deadly variety only in that instead of four ounces of flaked TNT, they held a tiny bag of black powder, and instead of a steel plug on the bottom, a practice grenade has a cork.
That day someone tampered with a practice grenade, filled it with black powder and replaced the cork with a steel plug. It exploded and split into four big fragments. I was about seventy yards away when the largest fragment hit me square in the mouth, knocking out three teeth.
Hours later, after an oral surgeon had splinted two of the teeth back in place and wired my jaw shut, my company commander ordered me to remain in my quarters except for trips to the latrine and mess hall, where I could sip soup and a milkshake through a straw.
I didn’t want to remain in quarters. The next day was test day. Everyone in the company and men from several other units would take sixteen different skill tests. Those who scored 75% on each of the sixteen tests would be awarded the coveted badge. Historically, less than two percent of those who took the exam won a badge.
I wanted the badge, and although my head swam and I was in pain, after the company marched off that morning, I left the building, took a shortcut through the woods, and joined another unit about to be tested. I wrote on my pad and bared my teeth to show the sergeant at each test station that I would have to answer spoken questions in writing.
After the last station, I ran back to the company, took a shower, and went to sleep.
Two days later I was summoned to the company commander’s office. For an hour the C.O. and the first sergeant took turns chewing on my hind end. The C.O. finished by saying that under usual circumstances I would now face a court-martial, followed by a year in the stockade, followed by a dishonorable discharge, for disobeying his orders.
He couldn’t do that, however, because my aggregate score on the sixteen stations was the highest ever recorded at Fort Ord, and to bring charges against me would make my C.O. look very bad and force him to answer many questions.
My punishment, then, was that he, my company commander, would never award me the EIB. He handed me a trophy from the post commander commemorating my test score and threw me out the door.
Four days later, when my records were unsealed at Fort Lewis, I saw that the EIB award order was signed, not by my former C.O. but by the post adjutant.
I prayed that Tabor or my new C.O. wouldn’t call Fort Ord.
The next day Tabor called me into his tiny cubicle in the Arms Room and said that none of his squad leaders wanted me in his squad.
Was it because I was eighteen, looked fifteen, and was only an inch over five feet tall? Or that they didn’t trust me? Either way, it was an arrow through my heart.
When my jaw was unwired, Tabor said, I would report to the mess sergeant for duty as a permanent KP. Until then, I would spend my time removing chewing gum from the undersides of tables in the mess hall. But I would remain with the platoon and stand all inspections.
The first was the following day. I laid my unused field gear atop my bunk and arranged it, and my wall and foot lockers in accordance with the mimeographed chart provided. Tabor found no deficiencies, and when he examined the few items on my personal shelf he spent several minutes lingering over the small trophy from Fort Ord.
Following inspection and lunch, we were off duty. I, however, remained in quarters because of my injury. About 2:00 pm, fully dressed and dozing atop my bunk, I was awakened by the entrance of my platoon leader, Lt. Townley. I jumped to my feet and stood at attention.
Townley was a tall, slender, handsome West Pointer and an Olympic medalist in two sports. He had me sit on the edge of my bunk. He found a chair somewhere and dragged it to sit facing me. He then began to question me, in a quiet, conversational way, about all sorts of things, few of them having to do with the Army.
I laboriously wrote out my answers to each question, tore off the page, and handed it to him.
This went on for an hour or more.
Then he got up. I got up. He extended his hand, and I shook it. He left.
Monday morning my jaw wires came off. At mid-morning I reported to the mess sergeant, per Tabor’s order. The mess sergeant waved me to a chair and called Tabor.
Thirty seconds on the phone and he hung up. “Tabor wants to see you in Lt. Townley’s office.”
I found the office, with both Townley and Tabor in attendance. “The lieutenant and I talked it over,” began Tabor. “You are now the platoon messenger,” he said. “In the field, you will carry the lieutenant’s radios, his telephones, and a doughnut roll of wire. When we are in defensive positions, you will connect the squads to the platoon CP with telephone wire. Otherwise, you do whatever either of us tells you. Questions?”
“No, sergeant,” I said.
“When we are not in the field, you will clean and maintain all platoon radios, telephones, and other signaling equipment. If you need help, see the company commo sergeant. And one more thing,” Tabor continued, “Normally you would make PFC at eight months service. But all your duty was in training units. You haven’t proved yourself in a line unit. Don’t expect that stripe anytime soon.”
Platoon messenger in a mechanized infantry unit was a tough job—at least as hard as any of the riflemen, grenadiers, or machine gunners. But it kept me in platoon headquarters in the field, six feet from the lieutenant when we were on the march and listening to the platoon and company radio nets almost 24/7. It was an education in the fine art of running an infantry platoon that I couldn’t have had any other way.
The rest of the platoon, however, assumed that I was informing on them to Tabor.
About two months after I arrived, I was tapped for the overnight duty of CQ runner. The Charge of Quarters was a sergeant who, when his name came up on the duty roster, took over the orderly room when the first sergeant went home to his family every night that we were in garrison. His runner ran errands, answered the phone when he was making hourly rounds after lights out at 9:00, brought midnight snacks from the mess, and whatever else he was told.
In the morning I had breakfast and returned to my platoon to sleep. Before I could brush my teeth, I was told to report to the first sergeant.
Top, as he was often called, said that Delta Company was required to send one man to attend the division Noncommissioned Officers Academy, a leadership course required for promotion to sergeant. Few wanted to go because it was all spit-and-polish and field exercises. “You just volunteered,” Top said. “Class starts tomorrow.”
“Yes, First Sergeant,” I replied, my mind racing.
“They only accept men in the rank of PFC or above,” he said and handed me a set of orders and a pair of PFC stripes. “Get those on before I change my mind,” he said.
Sleep was out of the question. I was an accomplished seamster and often sewed on chevrons and patches for prices ranging from a dime to a quarter. I did so because I needed the money—of my $78 a month before taxes, $25 went home to my family, $18 went for the purchase of an obligatory US Savings Bond, and the rest didn’t stretch to cover haircuts, laundry, toothpaste, and shoe polish. I made an additional five or six dollars a month from sewing. and needed every dime. Now I needed seven more sets of PFC stripes but had no money to buy them at the PX. So I spent most of the day going around the company begging them from recently promoted specialists.
A month later I returned to Delta Company wearing the rank of a specialist, my reward for finishing first in my class. The company’s senior PFCs were aghast, even after I explained that my promotion did not cost Delta any of its monthly allocations. They didn’t care.
Tabor decided that I was now too senior to be the platoon messenger. He assigned me to Second Squad as the Browning Automatic Rifle gunner. The BAR weighs twice as much as the M-1 rifles everyone else in the squad carried. And I was obliged to tote twice as much ammo. I didn’t care—I was finally an infantryman.
My new squad leader was Staff Sergeant Juan Cruz, a swarthy, handsome Korean War veteran and a proud Chamorro from Guam. My duties included helping Cruz do weekly inventories of the arms room and assisting him in writing semi-annual performance ratings for the rest of the squad. Although I was only a high school graduate, Tabor had decided that I had the requisite skills to pen anything and everything that SSGT Cruz needed to put in writing. Cruz was a smart guy, a gifted small-unit leader, but English was his second language. I was also the only man in the platoon who could use a typewriter.
Cruz and I got along well, and after a month I handed off my BAR and became one of his two fireteam leaders.
And then I came down on orders for Korea.
I spent a year there, was promoted to sergeant, spent another eighteen months at Forts Benning and Jackson, and took my discharge.
In 1965, certain that we were going to war in Vietnam, I re-enlisted. Three years of civilian life meant the forfeit of three stripes, and I was obliged to serve in my previous occupational specialty, infantry.
Through enormous good fortune, by the end of 1965, I was in Vietnam with duty as information specialist/combat photographer with the First Air Cavalry Division. Early in 1966, Army Digest, as the service’s official magazine was then known, requested that our section provide them with images for an expansive, four-color cover story about the division and its men and machines. They sent several rolls of color film—we had none—and suddenly I was no longer the kid at the camera store who rang up film and processing purchases. I was a photojournalist on assignment for the US Army’s most prestigious publication.
I made a bunch of images of our flying machines in action, then went to the field, looking for shots of men at war. One afternoon I hopped off a helicopter and looked around the landing zone. In the distance, a column of troops made their way downhill through thick elephant grass.
I chose my borrowed 300 mm telephoto, turned the image into a vertical, and waited until the man at the head of the column swam into focus.
Sergeant First Class Cruz recognized me. As I gently released the shutter, he smiled.
Decades after that image appeared in Army Digest, his daughter became a Facebook friend.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
For over a century, Columbus, Georgia has been a GI town. Although the City of Columbus has grown steadily since Fort Benning was established in 1909, for many decades the fort’s military population greatly outnumbered the civilians of Columbus. The city’s strait-laced, church-going citizens tolerated soldiers on its streets, allowed a few saloons to flourish, but left the most wicked dens of iniquity to Phenix City, Alabama, its neighbor across the Chattahoochee River. During World War II, General George S. Patton famously parked a tank on the bridge leading to Phenix City to discourage GIs from contaminating themselves with the wickedness of that community.
In 1960, my first stationing at Benning, I bought a second-hand Minox camera in a pawn shop and began taking pictures more or less surreptitiously on my infrequent visits to Columbus. Coming out of a movie theater late one night, I saw a soldier accosted by a pair of cops. Safely inside my old Chevy I took a quick snap of the scene and drove away. The Minox uses 16mm film, and its negatives are the size of an adolescent’s fingernail. My image was fuzzy and grainy, but somehow compelling. Decades later I came across the negatives in a long-forgotten envelope. It remains an image that invites more questions than it answers: What happened to this soldier? What was his offense? Did the police treat him fairly? I was thereafter always extra cautious on my infrequent visits to Columbus.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
Next from the Blog: A new series of excerpts from some of my books, and from some of my yet-to-be published work. I begin with a taste of my latest in the Rabbi Ben Mystery Series, "A Tale Of Two Rabbis." For a longer peek at the book, click on the cover wherever it’s offered for sale (Amazon, Kindle, B&N. iTunes, Kobo, Smashwords). For more info and reviews, click here.
The kid under the bridge looked to be about ten, nicely dressed in slacks with a white shirt and tie under a sports jacket. A yarmulke graced the top of an oval head covered with dark curls. His skin was cocoa, with carmine highlights, and his face was so finely featured that at first glance Ben took him for a girl.
A trio of white boys in jeans and running shoes had shoved him against a wall beneath the bridge. The smaller two were almost Ben’s height, about five feet, seven inches, a head taller than yarmulke boy. The third kid, old enough to sprout a few sparse hairs on his upper lip, was six feet tall and well over 200 pounds, soft in the middle, and working on a second chin. He was going through yarmulke boy’s backpack, dropping books and papers on the ground, tossing an orange to one of his henchman, a bagged sandwich to the other, and then pocketing a cell phone.
Taking this in at a glance from the top of a gentle slope above the bridge, Ben started forward, feeling weak and shaky, but unwilling to be a spectator to what was obviously a robbery or something worse.
It was his first Tuesday afternoon in Pittsburgh. Five days earlier, he had kissed Miryam goodbye at Ben Gurion Airport, swapped hugs with her maternal grandparents and a phalanx of cousins, and boarded a plane for Boston. After a night in his Cambridge apartment, Ben had packed his four-year-old Honda Accord and drove straight through to Pittsburgh.
And on the previous morning, Ben had gone to a university clinic to give a bone-marrow sample and the first of what would be a year-long series of weekly injections and blood tests. Afterward, he took a cab back to his rented room in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where he slept all that day and night. At noon Tuesday, weak but hungry, he had made coffee and toasted a bagel. Unable even to consider the five-mile run that for years had launched his daily routine, Ben had settled on a walk, a leisurely exploration of the community where he would live until he learned if the Human Immunodeficiency Virus had been eradicated from his body.
And now this. Three big kids robbing a smaller boy.
Instinctively, he reached up to remove his glasses, fingers fumbling on his face until he remembered that two weeks earlier, in Tel Aviv, he’d had Lasik surgery.
Ben no longer needed glasses.
He lengthened his stride, still walking but now with a purpose, and as he came into earshot, he heard the big kid laughing.
“Hey, you know what this is? It’s a kigger—a kike and a nigger.” The big kid laughed at his own joke, and the other two joined in.
Yarmulke boy didn’t seem to see the humor.
Ben said, “Hey!”
Four kids turned their heads as Ben approached.
Ben said, “I’d ask what’s going on, but I can see that.”
The tall kid said, “Nothing going on. Just hanging out with my bros.”
Ben said, “You’ve got one minute to pick up all that stuff, take what you’ve stolen out of your pockets, and put everything back in this young man’s backpack. And then you’ve got one more minute to get out of my sight.”
One of the smaller kids asked, “Or what?”
The tall kid smiled. “Yeah. Or what?”
Ben said, “Or I kick all your bully boy asses.”
Yarmulke boy said, “Go away, Mister. You’re making everything worser.”
The tall kid said, “Yeah, go away before we kick your ass.”
Ben said, “You’ve wasted half your minute.”
The tall kid advanced on Ben, balling his fists, menace etched into his fair face. Ben waited, hands loosely at his side, until he was six feet away.
Then he danced forward on his toes, whirling to his left, bending at the waist and bringing his right foot across to land solidly in the kid’s midsection.
The kid went down like a sack of onions. Gasping for air, he writhed on the ground.
One of the boys fumbled under his shirt and produced a 9mm Beretta.
Ben snatched it away before the kid could thumb back the safety catch.
Ben said, “Pick up all those things and put them back in the pack.” The smaller of the two boys knelt, stuffing papers and books into the bag. Ben turned to the still-writhing juvenile giant and hauled him to his feet, then pulled two cell phones, an iPod and a wad of cash from his pockets.
Ben turned to yarmulke boy. “These yours?”
“Not the silver one. The phone, I mean. The black one’s mine. I think the iPod is Joey’s.”
“Who is Joey?”
“Joey Gordon. He’s in my class.”
“And the money?”
“No, sir. Not mine.”
Ben handed him his things, then turned to the three boys. “You’ve exceeded my store of goodwill. Get out of my sight—and if I ever hear that you bothered this young man, I’ll come after you and make you regret it for the rest of your lives.”
He feinted a kick at the tall kid, who turned and ran, the others on his heels.
With a few swift motions, Ben checked to see that the gun was unloaded, removed the magazine, then detached the barrel assembly from the receiver and distributed the pieces among his pockets.
He turned back to yarmulke kid. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Mister.”
“What’s your name?”
“How ’bout I walk you home, just to make sure you get there in one piece?”
Midway up the incline, Ben’s adrenaline rush began to wear off. The toll of his exertions had to be paid. He grew lightheaded and nauseous. Spots appeared before his eyes. Each step became an effort. Ben realized that he couldn’t go on.
“I have to rest,” he gasped.
Yarmulke boy said, “You don’t look so good, Mister. Are you sick?”
“Is there a bench… I… sit… a minute?”
“It’s only a little ways more.”
Ben opened his mouth to answer, but no words came out. Breathing became a labor. The sky revolved. The world grew dark and fuzzy.
Ben staggered toward the bushes lining the sidewalk.
Zach screamed, “Mister!”
© 2017 Marvin J. Wolf
publicly confess their shortcomings, and to beg for God’s mercy. In The Pale of Settlement, it was long the custom for the rabbi himself to note both his own shortcomings and also to rebuke the most prominent men in his congregation.
It is these prominent men who serve as the congregation’s leaders, and who raise the money to pay the rabbi and other employees. As one may imagine, rebuking these men is asking to be fired when a rabbi’s contract comes up for renewal.
Having a noted maggid lead the services, deliver the sermon and rebuke the unworthy is therefore often advisable. This particular maggid had become widely known for the quality and intensity of his sermons.
When he mounted the bimah, a raised platform in the synagogue from which he could address congregants, the maggid brought along a tiny silver snuff-box, which was far from unusual. As he began introductory remarks, he accidentally dropped the box, then surreptitiously kicked it under the Torah table, which was covered with an ornate cloth that reached almost to the floor.
Turning here and there, looking for his lost snuff box, the maggid soon threw up his arms in exasperation, then turned to the congregation. “My snuff box is gone—it’s almost as if the earth itself has swallowed it…
The rabbi’s expression changed, and he put aside the papers with his prepared remarks. “Swallowed by the earth! We must be reminded of Korah….” And the maggid was off on a rant about Korah, who in Exodus led a revolt against Moses and Aaron, and for this heresy was swallowed by the earth. Thus he created an opportunity to preach against the community’s wealthy and powerful, unsparing in his contempt, and faithful to the reason for his temporary employment.
The following year, in another town, he would again lose his snuff-box and sermonize on the lessons of Korah.
See? It’s not that hard.
Thus I now attempt to connect two photographs, taken thousands of miles and many years apart:
One of the most challenging skill sets taught in Army Basic Training is bayonet fighting. While we drilled in ranks holding our bayonet-tipped M1 rifles to practice the basic strokes of this ancient weapon, safely putting these skills into practice by fighting other men similarly equipped required replacing the bayonet with a thick pole with heavy padding on either end to simulate the bayonet and the rifle butt, respectively. This was called pugil stick fighting.
On a grassy athletic field on a warm spring afternoon in 1959, our platoon stood in a circle. We recruits were clad in fatigues; we each wore padded gloves, a football helmet and an external diaper with a thick rubber groin protector. Two drill instructors moved behind the circle; each selected a man. On command, both fighters rushed toward the middle of the circle and mixed it up with each other, lunging and parrying. We were encouraged to be as aggressive as possible and to try to “kill” an opponent by driving the red-colored tip of our pugil stick into his chest. While so engaged, “butt” strokes with the other padded end of the stick might be used to stun or disable our opponent.
A DI stood behind me, put a restraining hand on my shoulder, and whispered instructions in my ear. I was the shortest man in the unit, so he told me to use that, to stay low, lunge upward with my stick, making my strokes more difficult to parry. He added that a hard blow to my opponent’s shoulder or helmet with the butt end might disable him for long enough to stab him.
Then a whistle blew and I found myself running headlong into the center of the ring toward a man I immediately recognized as my bunkmate. We were all sleep deprived, but Robert Paolinelli, occupant of the bunk beneath mine, kept me awake hour, maddening hour after hour with his deep, resonant snores. This was our third week of training, and other than asking him many times to do something about his snores, we had barely spoken.
I hated him.
Running right at him, my mind focused on what I had learned to do, and a desire to punish him for my lost sleep. I whacked him on the shoulder, and when he staggered backward, I brought the butt end of my stick up and caught him squarely under his chin.
His helmet flew off.
He went down.
Instantly whistles blew and I backed away, suddenly contrite, and worried that I might have hurt him badly.
Paolinelli suffered two cracked teeth.
When I apologized to him, he laughed it off.
We became best friends. He bought me my first beer. He invited me to meet his mother and sister, who lived in San Francisco. On our first weekend pass, I did, and his mother stuffed me with pasta fazool.
Robert remained my friend for the rest of his life.
We both left the Army in 1962. He took a job with an insurance company, and I sold books, and then cameras, and then, in March 1965, I re-enlisted.
I returned from Vietnam on November 16, 1966 and took a bus from Travis AFB to San Francisco. As promised, Robert had left his key in a potted plant. While he was at work, I soaked in his tub for two hours, then collapsed on his sofa and slept. When he came home, we went out for dinner.
I had packed civilian clothes before leaving for Vietnam, but when I opened my duffel bag saw they were terminally mildewed. Robert was a few inches taller and twenty pounds heavier, so wearing his trousers and shirt required some adjustment.
But it was San Francisco in the Sixties. People dressed as they chose, and nobody gave me a second look in his baggy trousers and rolled sleeves.
The next day he was off. We took a streetcar to the Haight-Ashbury district. We walked around, gawking at the hippies smoking pot on the sidewalk, painting each other’s midsection, selling handicrafts and enjoying a brisk day with warm sun and a chilly ocean breeze. I took a few photos. And then, quite suddenly, I saw a young man with two small children and a woebegone expression on his handsome face. Behind him was a wondrous store window. In seconds I composed and exposed.
The image remains one of the strangest and most haunting photos I have ever made. Who was that man? What became of him and his children?
My friend Robert, he died at age sixty of a heart attack.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.