All Men Created Equal

1 Jul

He meant well.
He may have tried.
But The Creator did not make all men equal.

Take Angelo Peretti, a New York boy, probably Brooklyn. He was not created equal. He was skinny and bony; nothing fit his lop-sided frame and when he flashed his comic smile, you could cry. He had the greatest heart in the Army, but my backpack was bigger and tougher than he was. He could never be equal to the job of making war though he tried.

On the other extreme, Roth, too, was not created equal, just bigger: belligerent, a muscular malcontent with a foul mouth. His claim on fame was his predictable collapse at a bridge over Kelsey Creek two miles from the camp. He was a latrine lawyer, a destroyer of character and good will who held court every night in the barracks. We named the bridge for him and deleted him in a story left untold.

Between the extremes, we had twelve thousand unmeasured, unproved people to build on; variety was our strength. Each of us brought his own spice to the table.

With help from his friends, Peretti survived. He staggered on, bent to the ground. Someone carried his rifle or picked up his pack. We carried him across streams and pulled him up hills. It would have broken his heart to fall out, so we kept him alive and upright. Among his assets, he could slam a soccer ball into the net at fifty yards.

Peretti should have gone home, but became a right-hand aide to a senior officer and by some freak of fate found himself in a frozen mud hole at Bastogne.

Also, among our “willing but unequals” were a dozen former officers and NCOs, reenlisted to help however they could. They were past prime (forties or more) and had sacrificed comfort, jobs, family and good pay to serve their country. They wrote home every night, had a fine time and served little purpose. Some shared their wisdom about honor, morality, propriety and judgment. They were kindly and useless, faded fast and went home with incredible camp stories. No matter their vows, they left us in clumps, without notice while we were out in the field.

We needed only three months to become physically hardened, almost soldiers; sanitized, unitized and equalized in ways we could not have imagined. Our veteran instructor and father-counselor, Sergeant DeVinney, no longer gasped in disbelief. He had taught us infantry tactics of World War #1, five positions for firing a 1903 rifle and how to throw a sizzling grenade the clumsiest way as the book prescribed.

 

What started this ramble about unequa1s? It’s a crinkly picture taken early in basic, when we were still chanting ‘left foot – right foot.’ The photo is old, as I am and was tucked away among memories. It shows a resolute troupe: grinning, quizzical, expectant and indifferent; an implausible cast of oddments, mission impossible. Some had never been in a picture. A few spoke only fractured English. One spoke Russian. Several spoke Yiddish. It was not yet the single minded deadly fighting force it would become.

As a no-stripe private I knew only a little about shaping up and conforming, however during high school vacations I’d worked in the Cadet dining hall at West Point and had a few weekends with the State Guard hunting rabbits. During High School I stood high in the Rifle Shooting Club. Therefore, I quickly made Corporal. It went to my head but I learned to respect everyone, especially the well-meaning retreads, even Roth. “Patience, tolerance, empathy …..conformity.” Lesson one: “don’t be a company wise ass.” My singular talent was terminated.

That photo was headed for the shredder when it spoke to me. “Don’t do that, don’t you care?” Who speaks? “We were with you, young and dumb, and went through hell like we were supposed to. Remember? Where were you?” I saved the picture and enjoyed retelling the good times.

After b-a-s-i-c at Camp Croft, where everybody was basic, we moved on and became the Sixty Third Division, the Fire and the Sword in Europe. The 63,d fought in the worst of winters, and left many of my misfit buddies on the frozen ground. Most made it, but now the years are taking them back. From what I heard, the best fell first. Thomas, Eino, Gorney, Smith, Taylor. Lord, isn’t that the way, that the bigger and stronger and faster should prepare the ground for those who follow. The 63rd left two testaments: one is my faded picture, with our neophyte leaders looking wide eyed, constipated and invincible. The photograph is signed by good people I remember. We got drunk in New Orleans. Sergeant DeVinney, our Dracula during training, became our pal on weekends.

The 63rd is also preserved on the Internet by a dedicated veteran and his son who produced a fine photo journal. It shows the Division in training and its fight into the German heartland. They were a Multitude of Equals in Strength, Faith and Determination, no matter their failures and differences at the beginning.

That’s a cheap line to honor them. It’s the best I can do.

Those grinning improbable soldiers in the back of the picture, were some of my platoon; scratching themselves, waving at the camera, gawking into space, one with his cap on backwards. Better said, they were their own platoon: lumbermen, coal miners, farmers and iron workers; slick New Yorkers, smooth Pennsylvanians and Texas bom natural gun fighters. A few escaped from Hitler. Some were a constant disruption or dumb as a brick. Some were ass-wipes and gold-bricks. At home they had wives and kids; girlfriends, true or false. Some of us were too short or too tall, like my alpine friend Kelley who got killed in training owing me twenty dollars.

Rodzinsky, on the left, could lift me off the ground with one hand. Taylor taught me how to handle trouble makers, first with kindness, second with deception, third with total impact. He showed me no mercy during boxing. He taught me to never let them see me sweat.

Bob Ware taught me patience, tolerance and gentlemanly manners. Larry Spencer, a Chicago editor encouraged me to write short stories. Jimmy Rua, our Supply Sergeant, kept me from blowing up the camp. Rowe taught me to hand vault a stone wall. For that split second of perfect flight — a year later lowed him a life.

In training, we saw those, clearly doubtful, who rose to the challenge while the exemplars dropped, gasping, by the side of the road. We saw those who drifted away at the survival runs, and those who charged into the obstacles, till the obstacles gave in and then came the discovery. “I can do it … I did it.” Each of us in our company of Unequals had to fmd our own measure and purpose. Impossible became possible. I remember vividly what I could not do. I was afraid of failing, of not being able or equal. I remember faking confidence. Then, the desperate doing, all of it. “Everything begins someplace,” said Sgt. DeVinney. “Find your place to stand, however you can and stand fast.” That simple line served me well for sixty years.

We lesser animals got together after dinner, by our own choice, and hammered until sundown at what we couldn’t do … and then did. That practice may have helped us in battle, too, when we knew we could not go forward but found the strength and determination to move on.

Our Regimental review was beautiful. We had become ready and able. Everyone was In step, standing tall and the band played on. And we won the Battalion Pennant week after week. The deadwood, malcontents, freeloaders, losers and those willing but unable were quiedy gone, some are recalled fondly. The remainder of us found our place, our highest common denominator. We suddenly grew up and went to war. We did impossible things.

We learned to never judge or diminish a man because of his visible fears, but to help him build from inside. There’s almost always more in there than expected. Most went beyond their limits. Personally, me? No way on earth I could go screaming into space at midnight with a hundred pounds of weaponry trying to shake itself loose. saw me in half and slam me into stony ground. No way. Not me.

I went to OCS and other points in the Spring of ’44. When I returned to base, the Division was on its way to Europe. Streets were empty, there were a few trucks and jeeps. There were no smells from the cook-house. Van Dom had done its duty. New people made their own place. I became a Paratrooper and served in three major campaigns in the Pacific. I proudly wear three Citations from the President of the United States.

Still, I see Van Dom’s columns heading for the rifle range, obstacle courses or foe a night march and a screaming assault through the swamps. I remember the brotherhood and the craziness. I’ll frame the picture.

Our basic training took about three months. Infantry doesn’t ask much: how to use your weapons, load your pack; how to be strong, run like a deer and climb mountains, how to sleep on your feet, follow orders, dig in, move forward, survive and take charge if necessary.

We learned fast, on the job because we had to and we wanted to. We did not go home on weekends or go to the bazaar foe tea or sell our weapons to the enemy. The Iraqi Army has been in basic training for eight years. They need more time. W11at are we failing to teach them?? What ace they unwilling to learn? When I see that tattered picture, I know. We had purpose and will and a nation, undivided. Not some of us – all of us.

 

Having been raised in a Puritanical community, my sex education was limited. On the train West, we stopped at a siding for some reason, probably because we were not in any hurry. About fifty yards from us was a line of fifteen or twenty pretty women in a field, waving and laughing. As the train whistled and moved out, the lifted their dresses; completely naked underneath, then turned their backsides to us and did it again. When the engineer blew his horn they screamed and scattered not knowing we were locked in. Or, maybe they did know. I still have war pictures in my head. That one is unerasable.

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