This is Sergeant Till…

20 Jun

      you never met him,
and you never will.

He’s gone now to a far better place, the Sergeant is. The last time I saw him, in June of 1943, was in a baronial bordello in New Orleans. The first time was months earlier. He was plunking rounds into a bull’s eye at a hundred yards with a ’03 Springfield rifle, teaching me how to do the same. He was regular Army and top dog in the company, knife edged and stainless steel with eyes to match. You heard every word he said, the first time. He had four hitch bars, a jutting jaw and deep creases when disturbed. He handled discipline and punishment the hard, decent way. By himself. His 01 hat, vintage 1917 was his signature.

He was everywhere and saw and heard everything. One day, when I was running a field class, he heard a guy giving me some grief. Usually, I let this transient misfit make his noises. The sergeant called him on it, so the fool challenged sergeant Till. They met behind barracks #1, the usual place, and Sergeant Till brought boxing gloves. That’s the way things were done. He even offered his hand, but when the crumb grabbed at Till’s perfectly creased shirt and tie, it was over before it started. As the sergeant came by, he asked me, “Learned something?” “Yep,” I answered. “Know what’s in the other guy’s head.” He walked on and said “Precisely.” I asked him, “You knew what he would do?” “Exactly.”

One day he told me, “You are now first platoon sergeant, keep it up. He handed me the stripes, soon to be four. I was nineteen. He and I never became friends, he couldn’t have friends, he said. Be he could bring people along, make them better men and send them on to bigger things, perhaps survival. He made good soldiers out of the least of us. That’s what Sergeant Till did. Better than anyone else I ever met, anywhere.

Till believed in every page of the Infantry Drill Regs. He knew the law, written and otherwise, spoke several languages and could read people. My 1umberjack squad leader was teaching him Russian, just in case. He taught us non-coms tolerance, up to a point, fairness and firmness; about pride, dignity and responsibility. Also, how to put spirit into the organization “by example, the perfect training tool.” “I am your father and your rifle is your mother. Don’t ever let us down.” He said I was a good instructor, the officers agreed, and “how would I like permanent post at the camp?” It would be a job like his. He would take a yes or no answer in the next thirty seconds. I said “No” immediately and he shook my hand. “That’s what I would say, given the chance.” He was the coldest, smartest, most demanding teacher I ever knew. He was also the consummate s-o-b. Even though he is now gone forever I see and hear him clearly.

Our Division was a shell, a re-supplier of good men for outfits already in Africa, Asia and Europe. Need two hundred riflemen, ready to go to war? “X” Company was packed up, on the train and gone overnight with no notice or goodbyes. We lived on the edge, waiting our turn. In ’43, the news was never good.

My top ranked platoon earned a full two day pass, regularly, and our pennant stood over the front doorway. New Orleans was two hours away and Sergeant Till rode with us on the Army bus, telling us he was proud, to avoid VO, the MPs, cheap liquor and all that stuff. At times he seemed older and his service stripes put him well into his forties. He’d been an Army brat in Panama and China, the son of a senior desk officer. At fifteen, he enlisted as a common infantry soldier. His father disowned him and had him shipped to the Philippines.

We were standing like hayseeds on the corner and Till called, “You’ve got no plans, come with me. You’ll learn something, make you a man.” Now, I had some sound ideas about what a man is; I was one. We first visited a smelly bar with a stripper and beer plus an accordion player. I wasn’t bored. More like sick from the body smells and the liquor fumes. He then said we should visit a classier place, and it was. We had lunch at the Court of the Two Sisters and I paid. From there, we took the trolley out on the line to a saloon crowded with soldiers from the many camps in the area. It was an ancient warehouse and off limits. I found that out later, but the black Dixie band had style, New Orleans blues and jazz. Great lead trumpet man.

Somehow, a fight started and seconds later, the band swung into “Off we go into the wild blue yonder.” It was the signal that the MPs were coming down the road fast. That’s when I saw the mechanical maniacal side of Sergeant Till. He was a windmill, screaming, hitting and throwing people around. When, the MPs came through the door, Till sailed a beer bottle at the mirror behind the bar. It was a catastrophe. “a strategic diversion,” he explained later. He yelled, “Follow me, they’ve got us outnumbered.” We raced out the kitchen door, down an alley strewn with garbage cans, leaped over trash piles and jumped a fence. Then we came back to watch as the miscreants were rounded up and carried away in a military police bus. To be released within the hour. I heard later, among many legends, that Till was one arrest short of permanent reduction in rank. That’s why we had to get away. “You’re not a man, yet,” he said, maybe disappointed that I didn’t sail into that mess like he did. I said to myself that this guy was dangerous. I had to find a way to put some miles between us, respectfully.

Now, I had never been inside a house of ill repute. I didn’t even know what ill repute meant though I had read a quite a few books and known a few girls from the other side of town, who seemed nice enough. So when I saw this ancient vision far out of town, I stood immoveable on the wide veranda, taking in the architecture. A black doorman called us young gentlemen and acted as if he did not recognize Sergeant Till. That was company policy, I learned. Then seeing my goggle eyed wonder at the architecture, he said it was mostly original from the forties, the eighteen forties, built by a sea captain who was buried in the back yard under a hundred year old oak tree. “That was before the war of secession,” he noted. The hand carved doors were from Italy. The iron grillwork from Spain and the clerestory windows were made by Germans in S1. Louis.

When he saw Till getting edgy, he swung the doors wide and rang a small glass bell. He gave me a friendly slap on the back and welcomed me to the new world. Was I that obvious? I walked cautiously into the old world. France and Spain.

“What is this, some kind of movie set?” Till almost chuckled at my innocence. “You just check it out, make yourself to home but don’t stare at the merchandise,” he said. “Consider yourself special, but don’t recognize anybody here or I’ll have your scalp.” He was emphatic. We were carried back a hundred or more years to a gentler time. Till walked away. A beautiful girl in a plantation gown talked to the sergeant for five minutes or so, then he told me to wander around as much as I liked but only on the first floor and in the gardens. About an hour later, Sergeant Till came down the broad, red carpeted stairway. He looked showered, shaved, perfectly pressed and completely reborn.

Now, I’m not as completely stupid as I act and it only took me a half hour or so to figure out that this was not the u.s.a. or the Salvation Army. It was not my kind of place at all, so I hid in the shadows on a plush settee, accepted a beer and tried to look composed and failed. Various military brasses strolled about and I would not have been surprised if a Confederate general or two came in. I stared at the ceiling as girls walked past and didn’t notice me. I could have been wallpaper. For another half hour I touched the paintwork, the marble and the sculptures. I felt the mahogany mantles, inspected the fireplaces and admired the gas lamps.

A teen aged black man in green velvet livery asked if I would like my boots cleaned up? No charge. Why not? When he was finished, I gave him five bucks and told him to keep the change. He called me Captain, told me to relax and did the job a second time. He was really interesting, his father was the doorman. When Sergeant Till came back with two pretty girls and passed me by I figured it was time for the movies. That’s what I did after thanking the sergeant for a fine time. He didn’t seem to remember me and I ran when I heard the trolley bell.

Sunday was what you wrote home about to your parents and girlfriends. Last Mass at the Cathedral. Coffee and sugared donuts at the riverside; an afternoon cruise on Lake Pontchartrain and at night, the usually wonderful dance at the YMCA. I walked a sweet, dark Creole lady home, followed by her maiden aunt, her duenna and protector. There was no good night kiss, but the old lady said I should come back because I was a nice boy. My wife and I went back in 1998.

On Monday, a new First Sergeant took the company roll and orders of the day. He knew nothing of Sergeant Till. We’d heard nothing and everything. Till had gotten killed or went AWOL or to the stockade. He was shipped out with another battalion. Nobody knew for certain why he disappeared and since people came and went every day, Sergeant Till passed from the picture.

I got this story later. At about midnight, Till and another Sergeant who was a lot more fun than I was, got stinking drunk, swiped an MP jeep and flew up and down Canal Street, down Bourbon, narrowly missing the crowds of soldiers and their girls. He hit an iron lamp pole head on, went over the hood and into a store front. The glass tore him up. The other guy was killed and the girls were thrown into the grillwork, damaged but alive.

Years later, a guy I used to know recognized him. Sergeant Till was two hundred slobbering pounds heavier and walked with a cane. He had a Purple Heart with a cluster, wore a black eye patch and smoked a big cigar. I don’t know how he got that second Purple Heart but I can guess how he got the first one. Mallory didn’t get much out of old Till, except that he was honorably discharged with a good pension from his accident while doing riot duty. As a disabled vet he cadged a civil service job for himself and his wife, plus he had a couple of enterprises in the war surplus materials field. He seemed well off. Mallory felt that Till believed he was wounded in action. He also had a few overseas service medals but avoided talking about his service years. He had reinvented himself. Hell, I once met a guy who claimed he was me, and told a very accurate account to prove it. He was convincing and I almost believed him.

As I said, Sergeant Till was my role model, teacher, mentor and severe critic. I won’t think ill of him now that he is gone from us. I thank him for his place in my Army career which lasted a little more than three years. His image, there on the range, popping bull’s-eyes is heroic. He taught us to read minds, trust our instincts, expect the unexpected and move faster than the other guys. May his memory live on. There was no one to mourn his leaving. From what Mallory told me, he’s living on the Costa del Sol in a spectacular villa, larger than life with his wife and kids and a couple of nubile housekeepers. Real gone, Sergeant. Buena Vista, Buena Gusto.

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