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
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
Introducing a new type of (occasional) blog post, Photo Backstories. The idea came when I got an email recently from the son of a dear friend whom I hadn't heard from in a decade or more. He inherited a poster from his older brother, who had taken his own life at age sixteen. I had produced this poster in 1984 and personally bestowed it on the departed brother. Now the younger brother is 35 and wanted to know how the image and poster came about. After sending it to the young man, I realized others might be interested in the stories behind some of my pictures, and fleshed it out a bit to share with readers here.
Webmaster note: Please do let us know if you would like to see more of these photo backstories. I will pester Marvin gently.
also employed skilled craftsmen who used tiny brushes and color dyes to remove unwanted items from the secondary image by painting over them. That was how, for example, trash on a lawn became green grass, and scratches on the original color image vanished.
Some years later, when I was a freelance photographer, I became the vice president of the Southern California Chapter of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Among my duties was creating and arranging four of the ten monthly programs we put on annually. Free and open to the public these programs often consisted of a well-known photographer showing images from his or her portfolio, talking about these images and about their career, and taking questions from the audience. Other programs dealt with technical subjects such as lighting or recent technical innovations.
I had learned by then how hard it was to shoot a picture that looked as good on a page as it did in the camera, and as many ASMP members shot for magazines, I thought that they would be interested to know what I had learned about correcting color, retouching, and preparing an image for the printing press. This was, I hasten to add, decades before the advent of powerful home computers and photo editing software such as PhotoShop.
I created a two hour program around a printer, a color correction specialist, and two art directors. To publicize this program, I needed a poster that would be distributed to camera stores, art galleries and at other retailers where photographers, including amateurs, might see it. Eventually, my poster would be seen around Hollywood, West Hollywood, North Hollywood, Santa Monica, West Los Angeles, Venice, and several other Southern California communities. We also left 200 copies on a table near the door of our rented hall. All but a few went home with attendees.
The image I selected was one that I had made years earlier.
In 1984 I learned that the Chinese government offered very inexpensive tours to media people. I applied. When I got to the San Francisco Airport I discovered that nearly all others were septuagenarian publishers of small-town newspapers and their wives. There were a few younger people, all photographers, including Mikki Ansin and John Livzey. We flew directly to Shanghai, and from there went by canal boat, train, and bus across China’s central section, arriving at last in Beijing. At every stop, we were reminded of the glories awaiting us at The Great Wall. We rarely left our bus, train or canal boat except to go to a hotel or spend an hour at some tourist destination, which always included a Friendship Store. We spent much more time in Friendship stores, each offering inexpensive, duty-free imports from France, Italy and the United Kingdom. And lots of local products—silks, carvings, paintings and other artwork, clothing, and a large selection of unusual tchotchkes at very good prices. And everywhere we went we were promised the wonders of the Great Wall at the end of the tour.
Alas, at our tourist destinations, there was no time to just walk around and explore. Mostly we had no opportunity to take photos except through the window of a moving bus.
Eventually, we youngsters, all in our forties, became the Gang of Five and jumped ship. For example, when the old folks were shopping in Shanghai, we descended, sans guide, on a factory and spent an hour or two photographing the children in its childcare facility.
We got to the Wall on a typical northern China February day: It was very cold, with overcast skies and a stiff breeze from the Gobi Desert. We were promised half an hour on the Wall, and then an opportunity to visit a very special Friendship Store before returning to Beijing.
Half an hour? The Gang of Five revolted. We decided to spend as long as we liked on the Wall, and then find our own way back to our Beijing hotel.
Our guides held a rapid-fire discussion in Mandarin and gave in.
To our surprise, we were joined, briefly, by an older woman who had informally but very emphatically taken charge of all the passengers on our bus. She, too, wanted to spend more time on the wall and hoped her legs were up to it. We learned that this lady had once been the sergeant-major of an all-female anti-aircraft battalion in London during the Blitz.
Anticipating Northern China’s winter drabness, I had brought along a bright red knit watch cap. When I got to a likely spot in the window of one of the many watchtowers dotting the wall, I asked one of others, whose name I have forgotten, to don the cap. I positioned him on the Wall below me.
When he was in position, and while I was fussing with my tripoded camera, the sergeant-major stepped into my frame and demanded in her parade-ground voice that I take her picture.
How could I say no to a lady sergeant-major?
She wore a thick gray overcoat, a white fur hat, and her new Gucci scarf.
I shifted my frame to the left to re-compose the picture.
Clutching her handbag, she smiled at the camera. A gust of wind blew her black scarf across her face. For an instant, the Gucci logo became her third eye.
I made the exposure without thinking. Then the wind paused, the scarf fell, and I took a few more for the sergeant-major’s scrapbook.
Flash forward to my poster project. I had decided to call the lecture “The Color Enigma,” because to most photographers the information my panel would present was new. Few of us had any notion of what happened between the time we handed in our transparency and its publication in a magazine, or how to make exposures that better lent themselves to lithography.
I designed the poster, which included both a title and a line of explanation, plus the time and location of the event, and found a printer who agreed to run a thousand copies gratis, as a donation to the nonprofit ASMP.
Color printing on an offset press requires that each sheet make multiple journeys through the press, each time accepting a new layer of color, laid down as tiny ink dots on the paper. Usually, the last pass was black or, following that pass, a lacquer of some sort that made part of the image pop off the page.
The printer agreed that after printing the ASMP’s posters, he would remove all the type except the word “Enigma” on the red layer, burn a new printing plate, and make 500 copies of the poster for my own use, all at his cost, which was less than $100.
I gave the poster to my clients and prospective clients. I had about twenty left when I moved to North Carolina, but they were dusty and wrinkled, and I threw them out. That chapter of my life closed long ago.
© 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. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.