Thursday, March 28, 2013

Private Schwartz Takes Command

Readers of the comics know Private Beetle Bailey as a soldier who often is on the receiving end of his sergeant’s wrath for dodging work. Private Schwartz was an adroit work-avoider with whom the geezer served in the U.S. Army in the late 1950s.

Beetle Bailey and Schwartz had one thing in common—neither ever advanced beyond buck private, the lowest rank in the army.
Schwartz might have designed a broom assembly line

Beetle apparently has failed to earn even a single stripe during his long cartoon career because of inept soldiering. Schwartz never rose above buck private because he was a conscientious objector.

I don’t recall Schwartz’s first name, and with good reason—I never used it. GI’s in the 1950s seldom referred to fellow soldiers by their first names unless they were the closest of buddies. I was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, assigned to the Artillery and Missile School for 22 months, and only remember addressing two pals by their first names in all that time. Schwartz and I never became “old army buddies,” although we lived in the same barracks room with about 25 other men for more than a year. Nevertheless, I was reasonably well-acquainted with Schwartz.

Private Schwartz was a New Yorker who had a master’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a fast-talking charmer who managed to wriggle his way out of disciplinary actions, although he was questioned about shirking his duties numerous times. Those of us who tried to stay out of trouble by doing our jobs fairly diligently marveled at Schwartz’s ability to drop out of sight for hours at a time and yet usually stay in the good graces of his superiors.

What was a conscientious objector (CO) doing in the army?  Mature adults are familiar with the COs who were morally opposed to serving in the military. When conscription was in effect, throughout much of recent American military history, COs were drafted along with other young males and assigned to alternative civilian duties, usually in health care fields. A little known fact is that many of these COs volunteered for arduous nonmilitary duties to prove they did not lack courage. For example, several hundred fulfilled their service obligations doing tough work for the U.S. Forest Service as smoke jumpers parachuting from low-flying aircraft to fight fires in remote areas during World War II.

Schwartz was among a different group of draftees who objected to using weapons but were not opposed to serving in military units that did not have combat roles. Our unit’s mission was training, not fighting. Schwartz served as sort of a general flunky. He helped the unit carpenter on occasion, kept the grounds around the barracks clean, and handled various other menial jobs assigned by a sergeant responsible for building maintenance.

Our unit did have weapons locked up in an arms room. The rifles and pistols were signed out to men required to guard prisoners or the payroll (I got both those assignments occasionally) or to stand guard near missile sites. Schwartz was exempt from those duties, as was another CO whose sole responsibility was to run the unit coffee shop. Apparently, part of the army’s handling of the non-combat draftees included a policy to never promote them.

Schwartz and our coffee shop operator were the only two buck privates among the 850 men in our battery, one of the largest artillery units in the army. Everyone else outranked them, including several hundred master sergeants who had key roles on instruction teams or in administration. A lieutenant colonel commanded our unit.

Schwartz displayed the kind of creativity shown by Private Bailey in the cartoon reproduced here shortly after our commander got a new superior officer—a “full bird” colonel named Hardman. He lived up to his name. Col. Hardman decided almost immediately that everything about our unit was sloppy, and we needed to shape up or face unpleasant consequences.

The shape-up orders came quickly, and all sorts of actions followed. Every decrepit wall and foot locker in the barracks was repaired and painted a uniform green. All the cots and lockers were rearranged into precise order. We started having daily formations at sunrise to count heads and weekly spit and polish inspections with everything we owned on display.

Just when things seemed in order, Col. Hardman told our commander he had two weeks to get every boot and shoe out from their usual resting places beneath our cots and into proper “military display” positions. The ultimatum included no advice about what proper military positions for shoes and boots were, or how to create them. About 300 single men lived in the barracks, so a lot of footwear was involved.

Several meetings in our commander’s office produced no useful ideas. Then Private Schwartz came to the rescue. He devised a plan for a combination foot locker and footwear display stand that could be positioned at the foot of every cot. Schwartz talked the unit carpenter into making a prototype. Our commander approved.

The building maintenance crew and a few special recruits went to work in the basement. They produced ten display racks in their first full day of labor. Having 290 more racks ready for Col. Hardman’s inspection 12 days away appeared to be a pipe dream.

Two days later, a happy unit commander appeared in the Sergeant Major’s office where I worked. “Sergeant Wesner,” he said to the top kick, “your men are doing a helluva job on this display rack project. They’ve got it whipped. Col. Hardman is in for a surprise.”

I sneaked down to the basement a while later to see exactly how any crew could have an impossible task “whipped.” There was Schwartz sitting in a swivel chair supervising three specialists, four privates first class, two buck sergeants, and his own supervisor, a sergeant first class, as they sawed boards and assembled display units in perfect order, one after another, in a line around the room. A completed unit was carried to the next room for painting at ten minute intervals.

Everyone was hard at work except Schwartz. After all, he had set up an assembly line, and would anyone expect Henry Ford to labor on his own lines? Private Schwartz clearly had assumed command of the display rack operation, and no one was disputing his authority.  Schwartz was honorably discharged about eight months later, still without a single stripe.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Punishment at the Pub?

In honor of our one tenuous link to the Old Sod—a great, great grandfather who lived and is buried in Ireland—beautiful wife Sandy and I traveled the seven miles to J.R. McGonigle’s Pub for a St. Patrick’s Day dinner. The music was loud. The conversations were boisterous. Green abounded, including the color of the beer flowing from one of the taps.

The place was packed. There aren’t that many Irishmen in the state of Michigan. Had anyone called the roll, odds were good it would have revealed the presence of more Schmidts and Skoronskis than O’Rourkes and O’Bannions.

We, of course, ordered the corned beef special. It came with red potatoes and the obligatory chunk of cabbage. The quantity was overwhelming. The quality was another matter, but a mug of Guinness from the non-green tap helped compensate for that. 

Did they take our bread?
When we left, I asked Sandy what she thought of the meal. It seemed as though something was missing. “There wasn’t any bread,” Sandy said. “That meal needs bread to be complete; a slice of rye would have been nice.”

Maybe someone heard me mention that great, great granddaddy was a Scot who migrated to Ireland several hundred years ago. There wasn’t a Catholic bone in his body, and he no doubt did not participate in celebrations of Patrick or any other saint. Did the “little people” punish us for the Scots-Irish part of my heritage by keeping the bread from our table?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

My Nonlethal Weapon

Many were surprised when the Transportation Security Administration relaxed rules to let passengers carry small knives aboard planes. Apparently, the U.S. was falling in line after international authorities decided separating cockpits from passenger areas with heavy, locked doors and putting “sky marshals” randomly on flights along with continued bans on some items were sufficient deterrents to skyjacking.

Almost unnoticed in discussions about the advisability of allowing even small knives aboard planes was a provision in the new rules allowing passengers to carry not more than two golf clubs with them. I noticed it, because my putter once made it onto a list of banned items.

It didn’t happen as a result of 9/11.  It happened way back in 1975. About the only airliner security in place then was a brief stroll through a metal detector.

I was sent from Ogden, Utah, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to attend a U.S. Forest Service meeting. When my next-door neighbors heard about it, they insisted I try my best to arrange the trip so I could spend a little time with their daughter and her husband, who had just bought a new house. We liked the young couple, and I financed an extra night’s lodging at my Albuquerque hotel and got an invitation to a golf game and dinner in response.

I didn’t want to be burdened by shipping a whole set of clubs, so I settled on carrying my putter along. I thought having at least one familiar object in my rental club bag might contribute to a decent score on a strange course.

When I checked in at the Salt Lake City airport, the attendant quickly separated the putter from me. “You can’t carry that on the plane,” she announced.

“Why not? It would fit in an overhead bin easily. I also could stash it in the space between the cockpit and the passenger seats.”

“None of that matters,” she said. “You’ll have to check it through as luggage. Here’s a tube we can slide it into, and I’ll tape up the ends.”

“I really don’t believe this,” I said. “Are you sure?”

“Look, sir,” she said,” here’s the regulation. See this entry. Your putter is classified as a lethal weapon.”

“Certainly not by anyone who every saw me try to use it,” I said.

The putter and I arrived safely in Albuquerque. After my meeting ended, my host and I played several holes on a very good course before dinner. I lost the informal game by quite a few strokes. My putter proved to be no threat at all in New Mexico.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

A Nominee for Best Film Line

The geezer rarely watches a movie simply because so few have been produced lately that are worth devoting a couple of hours to. Yet it seems while the number of good shows is declining the number of awards film folk bestow on each other is increasing.

It had good lines
So many Oscar winners were named at this year’s Academy Awards that there wasn’t time to allow many recipients to get to the podium to thank their mothers and anyone else they could think of for guiding them to the top of whatever their work is. It’s getting embarrassing. Nevertheless, the Academy is missing an important category.

Every now and then, a memorable line is spoken by one of the pretty people on the silver screen. Remember Rhett Butler telling Scarlett how much he cared? Or, Rick advising Sam to play it?  Such statements should rate a special award for the writer who produced a concise bit of unforgettable prose.

The best statement I’ve heard in the past several years came from a not-so-pretty, but pretty funny, little guy who was operating “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Sonny Kapoor said:

“Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.”

Hard to top that one. It’s the ultimate optimism. Think of all the times Sonny’s advice could provide welcome reassurance to someone who needs it during your day-to-day activities.

Although the thoughts have nothing in common, for some strange reason, Sonny’s statement reminded me of a saying common in the Forest Service during my working days at the Boise National Forest some 40 years ago:

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

Friday, March 01, 2013

Waking to Winter Wonders

As the latest monster storm was scheduled to pass through on the way to the East Coast, we did our share of moaning and groaning. But when we awoke  Wednesday morning to six new inches of lake effect snow, we marveled at the beauty of winter from every vantage point in our cottage home.

                  From the front door . . .

From the master bedroom . . . 

 From the rear doors . . . 

From the kitchen . . . 

Who needs spring? Well, this white stuff is OK, but green scenes would be nice for a change.