It’s always best to stay focused on the task at hand
—by Bill Haglund
My friend, Rich, and I were among a handful of “outcasts” during the time we spent with the 94th Civil Affairs Group at Fort Gordon, just outside Augusta, Ga., during the summer of 1966.
The unit was comprised of three companies – Headquarters, A and B. Headquarters Company was charged with training soldiers in both Company A and Company B for the certainty of service in Vietnam. As Company A completed eight weeks of training, Company B was half-way through and a new Company A was being formed.
It was an endless cycle.
Rich and I were “outcasts” because we really didn’t fit. We were among a dozen, or so, soldiers who were attached to Headquarters Company, but did little that had to do with the mission of the unit. I was attached because I played baseball for the Fort Gordon post team. I had to have something to do in the off-season so I became sports editor of the “CA Spotlight,” the company newspaper which was nothing more than a mimeographed 8-by-14 inch four-page piece put out every other week. Rich was the company mail clerk.
There were others, of course. Another friend, Gene, was the “fireman,” which meant he stoked the furnaces and worked 24 hours on, then 24 hours off. The company commander’s Jeep driver, and clerk, were among the other “outcasts.”
Still, we were expected to take part in every exercise – the bivouacs that occurred periodically, the nighttime forced marches and the blackout vehicle caravan, among others.
Rich and I had lots in common. We both played on the company softball team, we enjoyed music and we were constantly tossing the football around outside the barracks, or playing one-on-one basketball. Our mutual dislike of cottonmouth snakes and water moccasins was another bond and kept us from sleeping on the ground or going into any of the many water holes in the area.
Every soldier carried half a pup tent and half the stakes to pitch the tent. Rich and I always paired up – we’d “pitch” our tent in the back of his half-ton jeep. Better safe than sorry, of course, and we shuddered at the soldiers who’d go out during bivouac and bring back a cottonmouth they’d caught.
The first week of December that year also marked my last week on American soil for a couple of years. I’d be shipping off to Germany after a quick week at home to say goodbye to family and friends.
We had one of those black out caravans that week. Every vehicle in the entire company would drive through a heavily wooded, hilly area and none would have lights. The only illumination came from a very dim black light on the rear of the vehicle directly in front of yours. If you didn’t stay close, you’d lose sight and then, of course, you’d have to answer to the big brass.
With Rich driving his Jeep and me as his co-pilot and ever-alert eyes, we took our spot about midway in the caravan.
As we began moving, too rapidly we both thought, through the cool George air, I became accustomed to focusing on the vehicle in front. But, disaster awaited us and it was just around the bend.
Good friend that he was, Rich knew that I’d be gone in a week and he had plans to send me off in style. I didn’t see him reach under his seat, but suddenly he said, “Look what I have.”
I swear I only took my eyes off the Jeep in front of us a second, just long enough to spy the bottle of vodka he’d bought to help me celebrate my final few days at good old Fort Gordon.
Just a second, that’s all it was. But, when I turned back and peered out the windshield, there was nothing but darkness. As fate would have it, there was also a fork in the road.
“Which way do we go?” Rich asked. I didn’t know, but I pointed left, so off we went. We sped up a little, but couldn’t see any other vehicles. We kept driving through the woods, up some inclines and down others, turning left and right on paths.
After a just few minutes that seemed like hours, we suddenly came upon a clearing. There sat several “command” vehicles, including the company commander’s Jeep.
Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased. But, on a good note, the half convoy we had behind us all followed us out of the woods. Just seconds after we arrived, the first half of the convoy came out on a different path.
I don’t know how we escaped without punishment. Maybe it was because Rich’s father was a clergyman, or maybe it was because the C.O. knew I was leaving in a week. Really, all we got were a few harsh words and a lot of laughter from some of the other soldiers.
All’s well that ends well, I guess.
And a few sips from Rich’s gift bottle helped get us over that bump in the road and gave us something to laugh about and something to reminisce about when I contacted him in his native Philadelphia about 20 years later.
(Bill Haglund is a retired staff writer for the Dallas County News and Boone News-Republican. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)