|Killing the Goose...|
Chapter 11: Turning Points
Tom Baird was like a signpost on a long journey through uncharted territory. If you were to trace the course of your life from where you began to where you are today youd find people at each turn who guided you along. That is not to say that you dont make your own choices. Of course you do. There are things that interest you and things that dont, things that come easily to you and things that you have to work at. Some of us seek pleasure and take pleasure in activities that cause others distress. We find some challenges exciting and others disheartening. We can see ourselves in some roles and we cant see ourselves in other roles.
From the time I was a little kid before the start of the Korean War when I learned what a paratrooper was I saw myself as one of them. The first Christmas present I every asked Santa Clause to bring me was a pair of jump boots. There was something about the idea of jumping out of an airplane into untold danger that appealed to me.
Something about jumping into almost any risky situation literally or figuratively drew me in that direction if the goal was honorable and I thought I could achieve it. Being a Garrison meant that I could never be attracted to a life of crime or pure self-indulgence, which in turn meant that there were boundaries I couldnt cross to get from one point on my journey through life to another. Being Jasper Garrison meant that I was also practical in my choices of when to indulge my appetite for adventure and when not to. If it was possible to look before I leaped I believed in taking that look. Thats what I did when I joined the Army Reserves in high school instead of enlisting in the Regular Army. I wanted to get a real taste of Army life and adult civilian life before I made up my mind.
I didnt see a place in the Army where I could wear the jump boots of a real paratrooper and become a real professional in some creative field at the same time. Who ever heard of an Airborne artist? To be completely honest, I have to say that I probably would have switched from the Reserves to the Regular Army and taken whatever job I qualified for if I thought that I was qualified to pass the Airborne physical. The guys I knew in Basic who were going to jump school when they fished their Advanced Individual Training said that jump school required 20/20 vision. My vision without glasses was 20/200. Id never seen a paratrooper with glasses so I had no reason to doubt them.
Civilian life did offer me the opportunity to pursue a creative career and to jump out of airplanes. Bob McLeod showed me that shortly before I got laid off from Ford. I didnt relish the idea of skydiving in cold weather and I couldnt do it without my wifes approval. These were not insurmountable obstacles once I got hired at Chrysler. Rosemary liked the idea. She had no desire to strap on a parachute but she was all in favor of going with me to a sport parachuting club. It was different. It was exciting. It was something we could do together.
When it looked as though the cold weather was behind us we made arrangements to go to the La Salle sport parachuting club about five miles from the Ohio border on I-75 in LaSalle, Michigan. On the first warm weekend in April that didnt interfere with my once-a-month weekend Army Reserve meetings, we went. My Cousin Luther went with us and took pictures from the ground and from an airplane.
One sour note would have been more so if we hadnt been prepared for it. When I called the club to get the details on how to get there, how much it would cost and so forth, the ebullient jumpmaster I spoke with started telling me about a gorgeous blonde chick in the club. I told Rosemary what he said and we gave each other the look.
The look Im talking about is what common experience teaches black people give each other when we suspect that race may be an issue. Its what we give each other when or suspicions are reinforced and its what we give each other again when our suspicions are confirmed.
When I showed up with Rosemary and Luther at the hanger in LaSalle where I was told that the guy I spoke to on the phone was packing chutes I didnt expect him to be as enthusiastic as he had been when we talked. He didnt surprise me. He was polite and businesslike. Rosemary, Luther and I gave each other the look. Then the jumpmaster made the classic mistake. He forced a smile and told us how pleased he was with a colored member of the club named Super.
The good news was that nearly everyone else treated us like any other visitors. The lone exception was Super, a milk chocolate-colored guy about my age and height with a build like a comic book superhero. He was impeccably groomed. He sounded whiter than white as he kidded with his white friends in the club, the white students and the white friends and relative they brought with them. Super never even acknowledged us until he heard us speaking to each other. I guess we sounded white enough because then he started talking to us as though we were humans. He didnt have to avoid us after that; we avoided him.
On the way home Rosemary said, Now I know why they call him Super. Its short for super-fool.
With tongue firmly in cheek Luther said, Why Rosemary, Im shocked that you would say such a thing.
Luther, Rosemary and I went back to the club the following weekend. This time Sara came with us. My second jump got a little hairy about halfway down when a freaky wind came up and blew me straight down the middle of I-75. Fortunately, at about 300 feet, a wind shift steered me away from the interstate. Unfortunately, it didnt improve my situation. My mind had barely adjusted to the inconceivable fact that I had escaped a landing on a six-lane highway only to be faced with a landing on a two-lane highway. The odds of that happening had to be astronomical.
With cars and trucks whizzing by in both directions below my dangling feet and getting bigger and bigger as I descended, things looked bad from my perspective. From Saras perspective they looked worse because everyone around her was pointing at me and saying out loud that it looked like I was going to land on the freeway. That was not what Sara came to see and there was nothing she could do about it.
I didnt regard this as a panic situation because the odds of falling out of the sky into a lane of fast-moving traffic seemed too remote to take seriously. I figured that if I concentrated my efforts on hitting a safe landing spot I probably would. I gained enough control to maneuver in the last few seconds of my descent when the wind eased up. That allowed me to slip far enough to my right to touch down about two feet from the road and do a parachute landing fall well out of traffic.
All in all it was a thrilling ride. I loved every moment of it especially the landing. You cant get around the connection between real physical danger and the adrenaline rush that comes with it. The greater the danger, for some people, the bigger the rush.
Now I was more excited than ever to get my five 1,200-feet static line jumps out of the way so I could freefall from 3,000 thousand feet or more above the earth. Rosemary and I went back to LaSalle five more times. Luther came with us one or two more times.
We couldnt talk Sara into it and my brother George, home from Vietnam since the first week of January, was too busy partying and riding his new motorcycle. George tried to get me into motorcycles but I knew too much about myself from my second jump to go near one. I could see myself getting hooked on the danger and eventually breaking my neck doing something reckless.
It was just as well that Rosemary and I didnt bring anyone with us on all of the trips because two of them were in vain. One time we drove nearly fifty miles just to sit around all day and come home because the cloud ceiling was too low and never lifted. Another time we sat around all day waiting for a pilot who never showed up.
The first five jumps were to prepare the student jumpers for their first freefall. On jumps one and two the student was to exit the plane in a stable position and make a good PLF (parachute landing fall). On jumps three, four and five, the student had to simulate a ripcord pull without getting spun around and to see how close he or she could come to the small, circular target next to the bright orange windsock. This, I was told, was where some students got into trouble by not concentrating on what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it.
I had no difficulty with the simulation pulls. I had no success with hitting the target. That was due only in part to my lack of know-how. The design of the T-10 parachutes we were using required little skill in maneuvering because it allowed little maneuverability on a hop and pop at 1,200 feet. For the most part you had to rely on the skill of your jumpmaster to put you out in the right place and the kindness of the wind to do the rest. I did, however get closer on my last three attempts. On my fifth jump I managed to land within ten feet or so of the target circle.
Now I was qualified for my freefall. When I made it I could call myself a skydiver. I was no longer sure how to feel about that. Something was wrong that I couldnt put my finger on. Something was wrong with me.
The regular club members were already starting to treat me as one of them. The more I got to know them the more I liked them, including the jumpmaster whod made the little faux pas with Super and with Super himself who seemed to have a terrible self-confidence problem in general and a morbid fear of rejection. They were all good people although I had little in common with them other than the facet that we were all drawn to jumping out of airplanes for one reason or another.
Somewhere along he way Rosemary and Luther had lost their enthusiasm about going to LaSalle and I wasnt as enthusiastic as I needed to be to make the long drive there and back by myself. Eventually the hours of hassle outweighed the minutes of excitement and I had to admit to myself that a few more seconds filled with cavorting in the sky didnt appeal to me as I had imagined it would before I made my third or fourth jump. I could also see why someone like me should avoid it.
Although I wasnt a thrill junky, yet, I realized that the potential was there. I knew that the biggest trill for me lay below 300 feet. That was the real reason I wanted to freefall. In the cold light if day there was no getting around it. I wasnt like the people who accepted the dangers of the sport to feel the rush of freefall and to perfect their aerial acrobatic skills. I enjoyed watching it but I had no more desire to do it than I had in turning back flips off of a diving board or shaking my naked butt in a go-go cage. It just wasnt my thing.
All of the skydivers may have said that they got their biggest kick from the freefalls, which is why they sometimes waited till the last second to pull their ripcords. That explanation for the late pulls may have been true for most of the jumpers. It didnt hold water for all of them. Some of them did it because the closer to the ground they were before they pulled the better their chances of hitting the target. I had no doubt, though, that for a few of them that socially acceptable reason was only an excuse.
If your main chute didnt open at 300 feet you would not have time to deploy your reserve. If you pulled the ripcord on your main chute below 300 feet you did so knowing full well that the main chutes didnt always deploy cleanly. If you made enough jumps, chances were better than even that you would have to use your reserve.
Playing Russian roulette with 99 empty chambers is one thing. This was Russian roulette with an unknown number of empty chambers, an unknown number of bullets and a new bullet added after every pull of the trigger. You cant figure the odds in a situation like that. That was the beauty of it. You could have it both ways. You could imaging getting close enough to Death to almost feel his bony hand on your shoulder or you could pretended that he was too far away to touch you.
What kind of person plays a game like that? Nobody that I wanted to be. That wasnt the half of it, though. Only in retrospect would I be able to see what it was although everything around me was telling me.
The only reason I think I went back to the club to make my freefall jump was to keep from feeling like a fraud when I wore my parachuting club sweatshirt to put the big impress on people. In three months Id managed to jump only five times. My last two jumps came on the same day despite everything I could do to jump at least once a week. I never knew when Id be able to go again. Summer camp with the Army Reserves was going to take up two weeks starting in early July so when the pilot didnt show for my freefall I knew that it would be a long time before I got another chance. I cant say that I ever regretted not doing it.
The previous fall the Army had instituted a Drill Corporal program to supplement a shortage of qualified drill sergeants. Recruits who passed the required aptitude tests would go from Basic straight into an intense training program for assistant drill instructors. Upon graduation they would go to their assigned units as E-3 privates with two stripes instead of one and the title of Drill Corporal. The Drill Corporal program gave me a chance to do the kind of teaching I thought I was capable of doing.
My job, back then, as the Training NCO of the 70th Division was mostly administrative, a carryover from my previous job as the Divisions Headquarters and Headquarters First Sergeant. I had to study all of the training manuals and learn them well enough on my own to teach them to the teachers. I had to stay abreast of Army regulations and the ongoing changes in policy and training. I also had to work out a system of organizing information and setting up training schedules.
The First Sergeant job had taught me an enormous amount about organizing people and activities with every level of officer from second lieutenant to full bird colonel coming to me in bunches for information. At first it seemed like an impossible assignment. Then I saw that the chaos I inherited from the previous First Sergeant, who had the permanent E-8 rank to go with his title, was all showbiz. The reason he had so many people coming to him in bunches was because he withheld information that he knew they would need until they discovered that they needed it. It made him seem more important than he was. Once I learned the pertinent Army Regulations and read the training schedule for the month ahead, the job pretty much took care of itself.
The same principles applied to the Training NCO position although the specific duties were different. With a lot of hard work at the beginning, a little imagination throughout and the time off I could give my two clerks for doing things more efficiently the job soon became a no-brainer. Either of my two clerks could handle it alone. I didnt even have to sigh anything. The training officer did that.
If its hard to picture an E-5 sergeant, the lowest ranking sergeant in the Army, as the Training NCO of a Training Division with an authorized strength of 4,000 men, it will be harder to picture the Training Officer. He was a first lieutenant, the Armys second lowest ranking officer. On his right shoulder he wore the AA patch of the 82nd Airborne Division, the unit he served with in Vietnam. On his chest, he wore a Combat Infantry Badge and his airborne wings. He was trim, cocky, smart and fun to be around. He reminded me of Calvin Morrison. In the middle of our first conversation a paunchy major came over to us and asked him for a match. He said, I havent had a match since Superman died.
The Training Officer wasnt big on doing anything behind a desk. He quickly learned that I wasnt, either. He outranked me, so you know how that turned out once he saw how little of the administrative work he had to do himself.
It was wise for the enlisted men in our unit had to stay in good physical condition if only to keep from turning our monthly Physical Training exercises into an hour of torture and humiliation. The PT was therefore a test of self-discipline. It was also a tool that the Training Officer and I could use to underscore our authority. That was particularly helpful to me when I had to tell the guys whod done two years on active duty and the sergeants who outranked me what to do.
The Lieutenant used me as his assistant instructor when he led the PT drill. He described the exercises as we stood on a platform in front of the formation and I did four of five repetitions of them. Then all of us did them together. Sometimes the LT would announce how many repetitions we were going to do. Sometimes he wouldnt.
This was applied psychology at its best. No matter how many eight-count pushups or gut-busting body twists the troops had to do there was the LT doing them, too. No matter how long the troops had to run in placed there he was right with them and there I was next to him having already done more than they would be asked to do. They couldnt quit if their lives depended on it because something more important than their lives was at stake their pride.
The trick was that I didnt have to talk when I was finished exercising and the LT didnt have to exercise when he was explaining the exercises and counting the cadence as I did them. The troops never saw the limits of our capabilities and we could push many of them beyond what they thought their own limitations were. We could key the number of reputations of a particular exercise to our strengths or weaknesses so that both of us came off looking stronger than we were. Reservists were mostly older, well-educated men who had joined the Reserves as an alternative to the draft. Although some of them doubtlessly caught on to what we were doing, there was nothing they could say or do about it.
When the lieutenant saw how much I knew about Drill and Ceremonies, Military Justice other Basic Training courses, he put me in charge of the 20 recruits who signed up for the Drill Corporal Program. Of the thousand or so men in the Michigan contingent of the 70th Training Division in 1967 and 68 fewer than a dozen of us were black. We had one black officer, Captain Roberts, in Support Company where I was originally assigned in 64. Thus, it came as little surprise to me that all 20 of the Drill Corporal recruits where white.
Support Company was charged with food services, supply, and general labor. In 64, nearly all of the blacks in the Division were in Support Company stationed at the Lavonia Armory along with Transportation Company and Headquarters and Headquarters. Making rank was hard to do in Support Company unless you had a job like my friend Bob Thomas, the company Supply Sergeant. Fortunately, the Divisions E-9 Sergeant Major, Sergeant Nowicki, noticed me when I was a corporal and got me acting sergeant strips, which eventually led to my permanent sergeant stripes and my Training NCO position.
The Army had a standardized way of teaching everything. The teaching manual was excellent. If you followed it there was no way you could fail to teach anyone who passed the Armed Forces Qualification Test what he or she had to know to become a good soldier. The manual said, Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them. The manual said, Use demonstration whenever possible. The manuals KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle taught the teachers that if they didnt break everything down to its basic components and correct mistakes as they occurred they had only themselves to blame if their students didnt learn.
Why, then, was there any difference between the way solders performed any aspect of military courtesy and dismounted drill spelled out so precisely in the 22-5 field manual? Why were some soldiers so much better than others at saluting, standing at attention, hand-to-hand combat or bayonet drill? Why could I do these things so much better than the people around me who got the same instruction from the same teachers?
The answers came when I analyzed stroke for stroke why I was so dominant in pugil stick fighting. It was because I took the trouble to understand the underlying principles of bayonet drill. I applied the balance, aggression, thrusting, feinting, parrying, rifle butt stroking and smashing principles to real fights. I ignored my football helmet and hockey gloves. I treated the forward pad of the stick like a bayonet and the trailing pad like a rifle butt. I took the initiative and I held it.
Thats what everyone was supposed to do. Few of them did it. They ignored the little things they learned in bayonet drill that they didnt think were important and they swung their stick like a club. They almost always swung at the head. I jabbed to the head, faked to the head and went for the legs or parried a swing at my head and followed through with a jab to the face. When one end of my stick was out of position I used the other end in one continuous motion. It was easy.
It helped that I had good reflexes but the secret was to stay ahead of the opponent, to anticipate what he was going to do and to counter it before he could do it. For every move there was a countermove. If you knew all of the moves and countermoves that could be made at any point in the fight you could anticipate what your opponent was going to do because there were only so many things he could do. If he didnt pick the best move and do it just right, there was no way he could beat you.
What does this have to do with teaching dismounted drill? Everything.
As the teacher, I had the imitative. At any given point there were only so many things the students could do in response to what I said or demonstrated. If they did anything that wasnt just right I could stop them and fix the mistake before it became a habit. As the teaching manual said, Practice makes perfect only when you practice perfect.
When the Drill Corporal recruits went to Basis Training they would be taught many skills that I could not teach them in the few scattered days we had together. I could, however, teach them some of the things I learned in high school ROTC that gave me such an advantage when I went to Basic. And I could do it in a way that would help them with everything else. To pull that off, I had to uses some well established training principles, invent some and violate others.
Drawing heavily on my experience in ROTC of being one of the slowest cadets to catch on to dismounted drill, I used the hell out of KISS with the Drill Corporal recruits.
My problem in ROTC had been that nothing I did the right way felt right.
I couldnt see myself standing at attention with my thumbnails along the seams of my trousers pointing forward and the tips of my fingers touching my trousers. I couldnt see myself saluting with the fingers and thumb of my right hand extended and joined and my right arm and palm angled in the prescribed military manner. I had to rely on the instructor to physically position me correctly and to tell me when I was slipping back into a more natural position. The student instructor usually got frustrated and started yelling in my face, which did nothing but make me feel like a loser. To be a good soldier you have to feel like a winner.
It was easy to make the recruits feel like winners because I believed that they were. The rest of it was a matter of supplying them with the evidence they needed to see it. The fact that they learned different skills at different rates allowed all of them time to master what they didnt do well and to repeat what they did well so often that it became second nature to them. My two mantras were: If it feels right before I tell you its right, its wrong, and When youre sure youve got it do it until youre sick of it then do it some more. At a certain point I could work with individual recruits and simply say, If it feels right its wrong while the others practiced what they did right until they got sick of it then practiced some more.
The PT field is where I got my best measure of each recruit. I wasnt interested in helping them build up their muscles or their stamina. The ones who had been thinking the farthest ahead would already have done that. Most of them would begin to work out on their own. The rest would get all of the real PT training they needed in Basic and they would get it in the right way. The way I was doing it was going to cause the ones who hadnt been exercising all of their muscle groups a considerable amount of sourness. To add to their misery I was going to tell them the stages of physical conditioning they had to know as drill instructors, which began with slow progression to prevent soreness. I was going to begin with the last stage, overload. It was time to play Sergeant Smoke-bringer.
My focus was on character and personality. I wanted to know how they responded emotionally to difficult physical challenges while at the same time showing them that they could do more than they thought they could do. That way I could give them a taste of what was to come in other areas of training that they would get in Basic and Drill Corporal School. At the same time I could learn how to give each of them the individual instruction or motivation he needed to excel.
I didnt care that two or three of the men were as physically fit as I was or more so. I would take them to what they believed their limit was and push them until I found the real limit. All I had to do was find some petty excuse or invent one to give them more of what they could already do well while the other recruits and I rested. Then we would go on a long run around the training field until the weakest men dropped out and a significant number of others looked as though they were on the verge of following suite. This was where I got my first and my best measure of each man.
I made sure that they were tired before the run started. When most of them looked as though they were going to drop I ran all the way around the running formation then ran backward for a while. When my legs started to weaken and I knew that I was on the verge of getting too winded to speak somewhat normally when the run was over I told them that we were almost finished. With a cheery smile I told them that we had to do only five more laps, a distance of about two and a half miles. They immediately started dropping like flies until only a few of them were left. Thats when I stopped the run and the men who had given up prematurely starting kicking themselves in the ass.
The first man to drop out after about a half mile was overweight and out of shape but so were some of the others who hung in their longer. He was the one I had picked to drop out first because of his outspoken dedication to preserve his civilian identity. His DIs in Basic were going to eat him alive. The rest of the men were going to have it much easier.
I started this chapter with the intention of devoting one paragraph each to the parachuting club and the Drill Corporal program so I could get back to where I left off in chapter 10 at Chrysler with Tom Baird. Halfway into the first paragraph, though, the rest of the chapter began to write itself. Tom Baird could not have influenced me the way he did in 1969 without the people I met and the things I did earlier outside of Chrysler. The world was a big place with lots of things that someone like me could do and I had seen so little of it. Did I want to be a clay modeler for the rest of my life? The parachuting club and the Army Reserves gave me a better idea of what I could be by giving me a better idea of who I was.
I was a risk-taker but not an irresponsible thrill seeker. I needed tough challenges but they had to mean something. I was a quick study, a leader, an organizer of complex tasks, and an innovator. I could think on my feet and do what had to be done under stressful conditions. None of these things counted for much in the Big Thee because I was also black.
In the parachuting club being black made for a few awkward moments. It did not stop me from going as far in the sport as my talents and desire would take me. In my Reserve unit, promotions above the rank of sergeant E-5 where unheard of in six years for anyone with less than two years of active duty service. I could nevertheless stand out for what I could do and get the opportunity to do it. If I had wanted to complete the schooling necessary to become an officer I could have served out my six-year military obligation as a lieutenant. I had good reasons for not making that choice. They were my reasons and my choice.
Chrysler did not offer me the choice of skipping the politics of career advancement in clay modeling by becoming an executive. No amount of schooling was ever going to make that happen. I was trapped in a corporate system of hidden rules that dictated what I could do and how far I could go. Where I was at that point in my career wasnt the issue. The issue was where I was going to be in the next five or ten years.
In July of 69 my six-year enlistment with the Reserves would be over. If I chose to reenlist for another six years I was certain to make Staff Sergeant E-6 and probably Sergeant First Class. If I chose to stay in the Reserves for 20 years I would most likely come out as a Master Sergeant. First Sergeant or Sergeant Major werent out of the question. It depended entirely on what I chose to do and how well I did it.
In the 68 Summer Camp at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri that kept me from making my freefall jump when I wanted to, I was already doing the job of a First Sergeant. I had squeezed the juice out of the Training NCO position. By becoming the First Sergeant of a training company I thought that I would have a better chance to get out in the field and train recruits.
For two weeks the 70th took over from the Regular Army cadre in areas not directly related to combat. The building I stayed in was the one behind my D-3-3 barracks. When we first got there I walked around to the front of D-3-3. I smiled at the two markers for the dead soldiers that were still on the lawn and thanked God that those days were over.
It turned out that I couldnt go to the field as often as I wanted to at first. I kept getting called into staff meetings where the top brass used our new Sgt. Major Martinez and me as walking AR manuals and ready references for small details that they forgot to plan for. I was no longer the Division Training NCO and I was still a buck sergeant so I wasnt flattered by these invitations I couldnt refuse. They pissed me off. Most of the time was wasted on useless trivia. The operating structure and facilities we needed were already in place. All we had to do was plug into them and keep stepping. A jackass could have done it, which is probably why the Army could afford to have so many of them.
When I could get out in the field with my drill instructors I did. We drilled the trainees in basic commands and how to execute them. We marched or ran them to cites where they got their academic and combat training from Regular Army specialists in Land Navigation, Hand-to-Hand Combat, Marksmanship, Camouflage, Fire and Maneuver, etc. This is where I met up again with the drill corporals Id given such a hard time to back in Michigan. They were on the job and looking good. When one of them had tried to buddy up to me back then by asking me what my first name was I told him that it was Sergeant. I did not expect for any of them to greet me like a long lost friend. They didnt.
On our last night at Leonard Wood I was walking to the barracks, thinking mostly about the time I ran a whole company to two wrong training cites a mile apart before I found the right one. To make matters worse, some of the drill corporals were with me. Although they didnt blame me to my face for the screw-up, I could imagine them going back to the others and telling them what a fool I had made of myself.
As if summoned from my worst fears, one of those drill corporals called my name from a block away and jogged up to me. He didnt mention the screw-up. Instead, he thanked me for the lessons I taught him before he went to Basic. He ended up talking me into joining him in the NCO club. When I got there, I saw the other 19 drill corporals. They sat me down at a table and started buying me drinks. They took turns shaking my hand, patting me on the back, toasting me and swapping stories about their active duty. Some of them had been leaders in Basic. Out of the 200 men in their Drill Corporal class they finished one through nineteen.
The man who broke the string was the first one who had dropped out in our first run at the Lavonia Armory in Michigan. He wasnt a bit unhappy about it. He joined the Reserves to beat the draft. Becoming a Drill Corporal was the only way he could get in the Reserves. He was an embarrassment to the other drill corporals. That didnt bother him, either, because he had never considered himself one of them. He was with them now, and they were all throwing a party for me.