A lesson well learned


By Bill Derby

It was April 1966. The millisecond I raised my hand I knew it was a mistake. Somewhere in the handbook of life and military history it is written…. ‘Never, ever volunteer for anything in the Army.’ It was too late. Sergeant Solomon, my Army basic training drill instructor, looked me in the eye and said, “Okay, grunt you’re one!”

“One what,” I thought?

Sergeant Solomon had just inquired if any of us raw recruits had ever taken R.O.T.C. in high school or college.  I was thrilled to answer in the affirmative, “Yes, Sergeant,” since I had recently spent three years in uniform in Science Hill’s R.O.T.C. program. This short-lived enthusiasm quickly faded as the good sergeant bestowed an immediate parking lot promotion on four of us to temporary squad leaders of our basic training platoon.

As new squad leaders we were given little blue armbands with a corporal’s insignia that qualified us to bunk in a private room at the end of the barracks.

My squad leader roommate was a tall African-American from Mississippi. We looked at one another with the same apprehension of living together – a white boy from east Tennessee and an African-American from just below Memphis.  His name was Charles and he was one of the nicest people I had met in our platoon. We were both in the same miserable Army basic training boat.  He was surprised I had played in a rock n’ roll band in high school with some African-American bandmates and friends made during the trauma of the civil rights movement. We got along great getting used to one another’s habits and sharing stories about our families.

Military veterans remember their basic training and first drill instructor, usually not very fondly. The World War II era barracks were our first home away from home. Our Harmony Church, Fort Benning barracks had two levels, painted white outside with dark green floors. Rows of bunks lined each floor. At the end of the first floor was the latrine, a new word for many of us.

Each squad was responsible for keeping the appointed barracks area clean for the duration of our basic training. Bless his heart, Sgt. Solomon appointed our squad the daily duty of cleaning the latrine, the worst job possible. I noticed a little smile underneath his mustache as he gave us the good news.

My new squad looked mighty sad. We had all just come from the warmth of our mother’s arms, home cooking, girlfriend’s kisses, and most of all plenty of sleep. Now we were thrust into cleaning toilets, showers, urinals, mopping floors and shining fixtures. And we had no one to whine to. Sgt. Solomon certainly wouldn’t listen because he had mentioned something about us having grass growing somewhere on our anatomy and he was now the lawnmower.

Our little squad was resigned to the daily task. We worked hard keeping our area sparkling. Our cleaning time was right after breakfast. If a recruit had not used the facilities earlier, he was out of luck. I put two of our biggest squad members guarding the door to keep out tardy latrine users.

I recalled the Japanese camp commander in the movie “Bridge Over The River Kwai,” saying… “Be happy in your work.” Laughing, I often repeated that statement to my squad as we scrubbed toilets. I cannot recall them ever being happy though. Over the weeks we became more efficient. Even Sgt. Solomon commented on our excellent work. He knew the value of praise.

Before our final barracks inspection and graduation day we scrubbed extra hard. Heck, we were even proud knowing we had saved our platoon from enemy germs. Sgt. Solomon came up to me that morning and told me I had qualified for Officer Candidate School if I wanted to volunteer. One thing is for sure during those six weeks, I learned a good lesson…never, ever volunteer for anything in the Army.

To this very day my wife can’t understand why I don’t like to clean bathrooms.


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