Your Mother Called (Memoir Excerpt)
It was a beautiful, clear blue sky kind of day. Mornings like this always made me wonder if volunteering for the service to get away from my Mother was a good idea. On the one hand, the Vietnam Conflict had shown no signs of slowing for close to fifteen years by the time I joined up. On the other, well you’ve read my previous chapters, right? Either way, it was a tough call so I decided to let the Staff Sergeant finish his spiel before I made up my mind once and for all.
“This is the infiltration course. It is a LIVE-FIRE exercise,” Staff Sergeant Oxenham screamed so loudly his voice strained and his face turned red.
He looked a little like a sweaty turnip. That New Jersey heat baking the humidity out of the sand must’ve been getting to him. We’d just hiked ten miles out to get to this sweltering obstacle course in the middle of nowhere with our rifles and fifty-pound rucksacks. After this drill, our reward would be camping here for three nights. Basic training at Fort Dix lives in all the worst parts of my memory.
The Staff Sergeant emphasized certain words either for dramatic effect or to give himself a second to think because he’d forgotten what came next in his speech. I was reasonably certain most of these guys who made a living yelling eighteen-year-olds through obstacle courses repeated these routines so much they just memorized the vibrations their mouths made in their skulls. All that to say, if this guy was as dumb as some of the other instructors I’d had, he’d hidden it well. That didn’t mean he wasn’t still a mean S.O.B.
“We will be SIMULATING,” he marched along, “REAL combat conditions!”
My exhausted mind knew there’d be five minutes of preamble before he got to the point of whatever fresh hell awaited us, so I caught a few beats of on-my-feet, open-eye sleep. There was even hope for a few extra seconds if he caught someone with a gig line out of wack and a dress-down ensued. At this point in my boot camp experience, I’d run twenty thousand miles (that estimation is based on feeling) and spent half a day in a tear gas chamber, so I knew whatever awaited me and my fellow recruits today would not exactly be a walk in the park.
Our boots sunk into the ground the longer we stood at attention. We had to adjust our stance every few seconds to avoid the mud going past the ankle line. Damp earth rose to my nostrils as a half-handful of bored-looking Privates splattered hose water all over the half-mile tangle of dirt, sandbags and barbed wire stretched before us.
The Sergeant pointed at two small, black rectangles sunk deep into a bunker at the far end of the field.
“The M60 has an effective range of twelve HUNDRED feet,” he hollered as he splashed through the ample black water that rushed to meet his boots. “It fires a BALL PROJECTILE with an average muzzle velocity of THREE THOUSAND feet per second.”
I had a premonition that today was going to be special the second I felt my socks go from dry to sopping. The gist of the drill seemed to be that we would be on the ground crawling while thousands of rounds of live ammunition ripped over our heads to desensitize us to being shot at. While that was happening, the sandbag bunkers flanking either side of the course would randomly explode with simulated grenade bursts. We’d start on our bellies and would have to flip over onto our backs at some point, using our elbows and boot heels to dig into the earth and worm our way forward the whole time.
“If you stick your butt up too high, it WILL get SHOT OFF,” he stopped to scream in one Recruit’s face for no particular reason. I was glad to be in the back row.
“If you stick your knee up too high, it WILL get SHOT OFF,” Oxenham’s voice continued to strain. “DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” I screamed with thirty other voices.
I don’t remember anyone blowing a whistle or screaming “go,” but before I knew it, I was on my belly in the muck feeling the gritty mud between my coarse military-issue shirt and skin.
Little red and white bursts erupted from those pitch-black bunkers in staccato succession as the thunderous machine-gun fire slammed echoes across the distant trees.
I pressed forward, one elbow-to-knee at a time. The mud, razor wire and topography made this half-mile seem much longer than I’m sure it was. The barbed wire kicked my claustrophobia into high gear each time my scalp or back grazed it when I hoisted myself too high. Every three seconds or so, a grenade would pop off in the bunker to the side, spraying fine grit in my eyes. Not to mention, I was right in the middle of about forty other sets of limbs and boots kicking up mud all around me. Between the high-velocity sand, grenades, machine-gun fire and the ever-occasional accidental boot to the face, I was very much awake at this point.
Because there were so many of us, we’d hit a bottleneck getting to the end of the course, so that left me idling in traffic waiting for my turn to crawl forward. Ahead of me was a double-apron barbed wire fence. It sort of looked like a traditional triangular tent, but instead of canvas, the sides were made of barbed wire. I would have to flop onto my back and backstroke through it with my rifle clung to my chest to avoid any dirt or debris jamming the barrel. This, of course, meant all that sand and mud would be scooped up by my collar and deposited down the back of my shirt. Did I mention I don’t miss this?
I had wiggled about halfway through the barbed wire when I heard my name.
“Sarosky,” a terrifyingly deep voice bellowed, “Sarosky, where are you?”
I yelled over the explosions and gunfire to signal my location and tucked my chin down to get a look at who was screaming for me. Bright blue sky and barbed wire was all I could see until Captain George Carter (our Company Commander and Oxenham’s superior) marched his way over to me, tipped his captain’s combat helmet back, and hunched over me, his hands on his hips. From where I laid, this guy looked like a nine-foot-tall khaki giant.
“How’s your cough?” he barked at me.
My fellow recruits and I all kind of did a double-take at the situation. I was confused as all hell.
“Fine, sir?” I went hoarse trying to scream over a grenade explosion.
Our Company Commander had driven his Jeep ten miles from base, out to meet us in the middle of nowhere and trudged right into the line of fire to address me. I and the recruits all around me wondered what would be so urgent as to possess this man to walk into the machine-gun fire because it hadn’t stopped. Was this man impervious to bullets? Were the gunners in the bunker somehow able to shoot around him? He didn’t seem to care one way or the other, which raised more questions.
Between bursts of fire, I heard him say, “Your Mother called. She’s worried about your cough. You need to go to the infirmary after this exercise.”
A few things dawned on me at this moment. First, we had been lied to about this being a live-fire exercise. Second, my Mother had called the Army to check in on a cough and raised enough hell on the other end to scare our Company Commander.
I’d been on leave the weekend before and one my friends stayed at the house with us. He’d just had a few teeth pulled and left some blood on one of the upstairs pillows. I happened to have a bit of a cough the same weekend, so my Mother assumed I’d coughed up blood and was on a mission to ensure my good health in her unique way.
I just want to emphasize this again to let it all sink in. My Mother put the fear of God into a man who’d seen active combat to a point where he felt compelled to get in his Jeep and drive ten miles to handle the situation. He didn’t send an aide or someone ranked below him. He handled it personally.
After the obstacle course, I hopped in the Jeep and got shuttled ten miles back to the infirmary where I was promptly given two aspirin for my alleged tuberculosis. The whole experience got me out of having to bake in that New Jersey hellscape for three full days, but also left me with a lot of time alone in the barracks to think about how far Mom’s reach could extend when motivated enough. Would she figure out how to dial Korea after I was to be deployed?
Only time would tell.