The control began to slip when the Army disbanded units like the 280th Combat Engineers where I had served as America beat Germany on its home turf. My roots were cut and I was transferred to Antwerp in Belgium to join what my orders said was a Machine Records Company. And I wondered, what the hell is that?
I’d grown accustomed to living in comfortable apartments we had taken over from Germans so when I arrived at a tent village in the middle of a swamp in Antwerp I was mad and ready to do battle.
I had a target immediately. A second lieutenant sat behind a desk wearing a tie neatly tucked into his well-pressed shirt. Wow. I hadn’t seen anyone wearing a tie during 18 months in Europe’s combat zones.
The lieutenant studied my Army bio, which showed I had two years of college before I enlisted.
“Surely soldier you can do something other than pull a trigger or dig a ditch,” he said, and I felt he was looking down his nose at me in my crumpled khakis. It was a gotcha moment. “No, lieutenant,” I answered, “that’s what I’ve been trained for.”
Then I was assigned to alphabetizing stacks of IBM punch cards, the equivalent of software in the pre-computer age. It was about as exciting as watching grass grow.
Every few days, the lieutenant asked if I liked my work. I told him no, it wasted my Army skills in mine sweeping and building bridges to use for attacking an enemy.
He always replied, “If you don’t like it here, I will get you assigned to the Military Police and you can stand out in the cold at night directing traffic.”
“Sounds better to me,” I would answer. I was a wise-ass and there were two other soldiers I met there with the same attitude, Charlie who was older, maybe almost 30, and Bob, a 19-year-old like me.
Soon after, we paid for our bad attitudes when the three of us were loaded on a truck and sent to join the MPs in a suburb of Antwerp. While we waited at the Antwerp railroad station for a train to take us to our new assignment, we evaluated our position. The lieutenant was right. Being in the MPs was probably no picnic.
Charlie had somehow acquired a pad of passes allowing soldiers to go on leave. We filled in our names and stated our destination as Paris. The guys chose Paris because they wanted to get a better job. Charlie said he knew a guy who knew a guy who was a brother of Billy Conn, then one of the world’s leading boxers. He was in Special Services producing shows for the troops. Charlie felt they could get in on that lush assignment.
Me, I just wanted to see Paris.
Charlie scrawled his name as Captain John Doe, and there we were on a train with forged three-day passes. Little did I know that trip would impact my life for years to come. Stay tuned for Part 2.