(There are places I remember . . .)
My first Army home was Fort Leonard Wood (Lost In The Woods). I was a full-sized “little green man” in a land of perfectly parallel and perpendicular buildings, exercise yards and parade fields.
Lawns were precisely trimmed grass and the rest was rock-strewn sandy soil with some wooded areas. I gave myself a bloody nose my first night there walking into a post in the middle of the blacked-out reception area barracks, sprained my ankle the third evening when I stepped on a rock that rolled and pitched me down an incline, and ran into a tree while on night maneuvers. Night vision was not my strength. When the sergeant said keep your head down on the infiltration course, I slithered like a slug beneath barbed wire and machine gun fire, not taking any more chances.
Next was Scott Air Force Base where I stayed two weeks, waiting to be assigned to one of the four Nike Hercules missile batteries surrounding St. Louis. Just long enough to learn that Airmen not only got to see airplanes up close, but also got better food than Soldiers.
My home for thirty-three months was Alpha Battery outside the tiny town of Marine, Illinois. I went to Marine to cash my paycheck and get haircuts. Some of the guys also went there to drink at Rosie’s Bar, where beer was stronger than at our one-room PX. The young men in town didn’t care for us because the girls did. The Town Constable picked up our Mess Hall’s scraps once a week for his pigs.
One winter evening a city-slicker from Chicago called the Sergeant of the Guard to report that a “herd of buffalo” were stampeding past his guard booth. Everyone on duty rushed outside to see a group of dairy cows plodding back to the barn down the road to be milked.
Some evenings and weekends my buddy and I would venture to the town of Highland where the owner of the Lory Theater admitted “Nike guys” for fifty cents to see a couple of recent (or older) movies. Carhops at the Dog’n’Suds drive-in, would chat with us. We tipped better than the local guys.
One evening, as we were returning from Highland the car in front of us swerved to miss hitting a racoon and lost control. That car went off the road, rolled completely in mid-air as it sailed across a drainage ditch, and landed on its wheels facing the opposite direction. As it rolled, the passenger door flew open and the passenger fell out.
Dan stopped his Mustang and we ran to help. We found the driver unhurt and her pregnant passenger lying on her back in tall grass, conscious but in pain. We tried unsuccessfully to get passing drivers to call an ambulance until another Nike guy came by. Two weeks later we learned that the baby had been born on time. Child and mother were fine.
* * *
There was one more place, for the shortest time, but the most thrilling of all my Army homes.
One Thursday morning in September the First Sergeant stepped before our morning assembly and called us to attention. “Gentlemen, the Captain has an announcement.”
Our Battery Commander stepped forward and said. “We just received a SNAP call from Adcap. Platoon Sergeants, commence crew drills and select your teams; I want a perfect score. We fly out of Scott Saturday evening. Lets shoot down some drones!”
I’d heard of the Short Notice Annual Practice calls and wanted to be chosen to at least see a missile being fired, and hopefully crew one. I was good enough (or lucky enough) to go twice.
Saturday night the chosen team, myself included, boarded the American Flyer Airline L-188 turboprop plane for the overnight flight to Biggs AFB adjacent to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas.
From Biggs, we went by bus to McGregor Range in the New Mexico desert, Northeast of El Paso. McGregor is surrounded by prickly pear cactus, jackrabbits and rattlesnakes.
We shared a barracks with another unit; once with Greek soldiers and once with Turks. I had hoped to be stationed in Italy, Greece or Germany after my contracted thirteen months defending St. Louis, but meeting Greek soldiers in New Mexico was the closest I came.
SNAP did allow me my first and second opportunities to travel outside the U.S. though, as some friends and I walked across the Rio Grande River to visit Ciudad Juarez a couple of times. I people-watched, then bought a tambourine and the most comfortable cowboy boots.
Re-entering the U.S., we had to pay a two-cent toll and say where we were born. The Border Patrol agent meant what country, but one fellow from Arkansas misunderstood and drawled, “Oil Trough.”
The agent’s eyes opened wide and a couple of seconds passed before he exclaimed, “Where the hell is that?”
Later, I recounted the incident to my uncle Joe, who said, “That’s where I was born!”
Oh, by the way, we successfully shot down our four target drones.