Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Biloxi Blues, And Ours

Funny, the main character in Neil Simon's flick Biloxi Blues was a
Jewish kid from Brooklyn named Eugene who goes through changes
in Combat Basic Training on an Army base in the Deep South and
by golly I also was a Jewish kid whose name was (and still is)
Eugene who did Basic Combat Training down South, (Fort Jackson,
South Carolina, right near Columbia, South Carolina.

I saw the movie for the first time in my life a couple of days
ago on HBO. I knew I'd have to say something here about it.
While the main character is named Eugene I related to the
other Jewish guy in the platoon, Arnold Epstein about as
much. My personality and my Basic Training Experiences
were something of a blend of those of the Hollywood Eugene
and Arnold, who I believe also hailed from Brooklyn.

I went into the Army a virgin like Eugene did but unlike
Eugene this was not changed during my Basic Training.
Not to digress, I know that the sixties were the years of free
love, sexual revolution, do your own thing, if it feels good do
it, etc. And I had been as a radical Jewish kid in New York
on the fringes of all that before I got drafted, but I was
socially retarded, and held back by this strange religious
upbringing I got in my nominally Jewish-atheist-strangely
Orthodox family.

This didn't stop me from getting the crabs before my second
weekend pass home, and that is a funny story. I probably
was the only soldier at Fort Benjamin Harrison, or maybe
in the whole Vietnam Era Army (this was after basic training,
at another Army post) who got the crabs without getting laid,
probably from dirty sheets in a motel that I stayed in while
on a twenty-four hour pass.

Unlike Eugene and unlike Arnold I was a conscious opponent of
the system and I had wreaked enough havoc at my induction
into the Army to have earned my own "fifteen minutes of fame"
on the front page of The Village Voice during the summer of 1967.
That's a whole long story that I might tell here some day, but
suffice it to say Military Intelligence was quite aware of me the
whole time I was in The Army, most intensly during my months
at Fort Jackson.

The Drill Sergeant in Eugene and Arnold's world was a hard
drinking mentally unbalanced guy named Sgt. Toomey who
had some sort of a Jewish problem. This Eugene (me) had a
similar Drill Sergeant but with a twist. My Drill Sergeant's
name was Greenwald and his main Jewish problem was me,
because I was known to be a communist and a Jew from Brooklyn
and another Jew from Brooklyn, a doctor named Levy, an
Army Medical Captain, (another draftee) was undergoing
courts-martial for refusing to train Special Forces troops in
First Aid procedures because they were war criminals nad
were going to use the skills he might provide to forward an
ongoing string of war crimes in Vietnam. Levy was an oddball
in other ways too. He had spent his off duty time working on
registering Black voters in Columbia South Carolina. These were
the early days of the Voting Rights Act. Only a few years previously
Black people just could not vote period in South Carolina or for
that matter in most of The South. (How everything old becomes
new again! Including in Ohio, in The North.)There was a lot of
fear remaining among Blacks who knew that their rulers did
not want them voting. People like Levy and I were the classic
Jewish trouble makers who put Sgt.Greenwald in a very bad spot.

Greenwald might have been the only Drill Sergeant on Fort
Jackson with so Jewish a name. I don't know to this day if
he was Jewish himself. What we knew was that he had grown
up in an orphanage in Illinois and that he was one very angry
and dangerous man.

Some differences between Neil Simon's basic training and mine:

I will not forget getting off that bus that took me to Company E
6th Training Batallion, Second Training Brigade. They were in
our faces without mercy and I remember crawling with my
duffle bag on my back (or was I pushing it? it is a bit fuzzy) to
my barrack. (Not just me, we all did.) We met Greenwald who
gave us his welcoming speech: "I've been training troops for combat
for twenty-one year, and every man I've sent into battle has been
killed in action."

The story we heard was that Greenwald had been an E-7 whose
promotion orders to E-8 had been cut but waiting for signature,
that he had sewed his E-8 stripes onto some of his fatgues already
when he got arrested by MPs in a bar fight in the NCO Club and
was busted down to E-6.

Training at E-6-2 was tougher than in Neil Simon's Basic Training
company, I can tell you that. Our Company Commander was a
short muscular body builder named Lieutenant Michini
(the spelling may be wrong but I'll stay with one "n") a First Lt.
who had no ribbons to show ever having served overseas and
who in fact soon went on to become a Captain and become Batallion
Executive Officer at Sixth Batallion, Second Training Brigade.
Michini liked to run backwards alongside the company on those
pre breakfast one mile runs.

It's funny how I have a hard time remembering the names of the
other trainees but not such a hard time remembering Greenwald
and Michini's names. Anyhow my Army was racially integrated
unlike Neil Simon's. In my Army the Drill Sergeants were profane.
In my Basic Training, (during the first four weeks of it) they'd harass
us while we tried to eat and would not allow any of us to finish a meal.
We ran miles justa bout every day up "drag ass hill" with rifles and
full packs, followed by physical training. Yes, push-ups were ordered
as informal punishment.

It might sound perverse to you but these were happy days, as well
as very scary ones.

Along with KP duty, which was posted and was given out in rotation
with exception of acting platoon leaders, etc., they had another kitchen
duty that was given out as punishment and was not rotational, the
name they gave this duty I do not remember but it was essentially KP
(Kitchen Police, or kitchen clean up) by another name. Greenwald gave
me this duty just about every day, after dinner. This turned out to be a
boon to me because some of the left overs that the NCO's didn't steal,
and I mean steal by the car load, (and there were plenty of left overs)
were available to me and I brought goodies back to my platoon when I
could, helping me in the PR war that was going on in the company regarding me.

Because I had refused to answer the Loyalty Oath and had smuggled into
Fort Hamilton Progressive Labor members and pacifists to help me disrupt
my induction into the Army I was at times pulled out of regular training and
taken to the Military/Intelligence office downtown Columbia, South Carolina,
sometimes in civies and sometimes in Dress Greens. This made me stand out.
Remind me to tell you about those interviews.

It's getting late I have more to say about our Biloxi Blues and more reminisces too.

I will pick up on this riff another time...

this post is my intellectual property and cannot be copied
without my permission. copyright 2006, Eugene Weixel.