(For those of you who haven’t been following stories of my short-term military career in the 70’s, you may want to read the earlier postings to bring you up-to-date before tackling this one.)
Now I’m sitting pretty with orders to Germany along with the rest of my graduating class at Ft Sill. Only we still have a couple of items to handle. One, unless I can find a way to get my Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) changed from Fire Direction Control (FDC…the military does love its acronyms), I’m going to be spending my European military time in a tent somewhere in a winter-swept field near the Iron Curtain and East Germany, telling the artillery where to fire their practice rounds. And then I’m likely off to Vietnam anyway.
So I start asking around, starting with career soldiers who have already been rotated into Germany. Question One: How do I get my MOS changed? And Question Two: When do I have to do it? And they give me the clues to success.
Böblingen, near Stuttgart. An old Wehrmacht caserne, home to the transfer station for troops rotating into Germany.
I have been underway for hours, the flight from the East Coast delayed, then an overheated bus full of exhausted soldiers, and now a middle-of-the-night garishly-lit receiving room filled with dozing troops awaiting their assignments to outlying locations. The fluorescents are humming. And so am I, having consumed so much caffeine my ears are vibrating, but I must…stay…awake. For I have been told that my one chance for salvation lies before me in the shape of a somewhat rumpled sergeant who has just stepped to the front of the room with a clipboard in hand.
“If any of you wants a change of MOS, raise your hand.” His voice is a mumble, practically incoherent, but I have been alerted to this moment and my hand shoots up before the final words leave his mouth.
“Get up here, soldier,” he orders. I am the only one who heard, the only one who comes forward.
“What’s your problem?”
“No problem, sergeant, it’s just that I’ve lived here in Germany and speak the language, so I thought the Army might have a better use for me, as long as I’m here again.”
“You talk kraut?” Distrust in his words.
He lets out an exaggerated sigh, wishing for all his worth I had kept my mouth shut and he was heading back home and to bed with his long-suffering wife. “Wait here,” he says. And then dismisses the rest of the room. It is eerily quiet; only the overhead fixtures drone their obnoxious hum.
I get another paper cup of stale coffee. And wait. And wait.
A red-eyed lieutenant enters the room. “You O’Bryon?” As if there were anyone else in the now-empty room.
“And you think you speak German?”
“And you don’t like your MOS, the one the Army in its wisdom assigned to you?”
“Not so much, sir, in that I could be more valuable using my language skills.”
“Wait here,” he says.
I wait. And wait.
6:28 a.m. A captain walks into the room. “You O’Bryon, soldier?”
I so want to point out the obvious, but I bite my tongue, which tastes of stale coffee: “Yes, sir,” I mumble.
“Where’d you learn German?” he asks. I tell him I was in graduate school here when drafted.
By noon I have done a heap of waiting. I’ve been sent to see a major, command Chief of Staff, I gather from the nameplate on the door. By 14:00 hours I am sitting in the office of a lieutenant colonel. We chat about living in Germany. He’s chatting. I’m trying my damnedest to keep my eyes open and at least sound coherent. I think I’m succeeding. A colonel strolls in, looks me up and down, nods to the lieutenant colonel, and I am directed across the hall, where a charming civilian secretary gives me a smile and directs me to a chair. “Please wait,” she says. And returns to her paperwork.
A clock ticks inexorably on the facing wall. From time to time the girl gives me a slight smile. “Patience,” her lips mouth. As if I have a choice.
Her buzzer rings, she picks up, her eyes catch mine, and she sets down the receiver and directs me into the general’s office.
He’s very, well, generally. Tall. Good posture. Spiffy uniform with lots of nice service medals.
“You O’Bryon?” he asks. AARRGGHHH, I think, but say out loud: “Yes, sir!”
And then he starts to talk. And talk. And talk. At one point he asks me what else I can do besides speak German, and I tell him I also speak French.
“Great,” he says, because we deal a lot with the French as well as the Germans. Fought the tough ones in the war, the others didn’t have the stomach to fight. Personally, don’t care much for either one, but it’s what we do.”
I’m beginning to think I’m in, that all that coffee and all that waiting has paid off.
The general drones on, I’m in euphoria, when suddenly I realized I’ve been dismissed, the girl’s at the door to lead me back to the lieutenant colonel’s office, where I’m told to wait in the foyer. I wait. And wait. I doze off briefly.
And then the wondrous news. The lieutenant colonel calls me in. “O’Bryon,” he says, “you’re to be the general’s interpreter, sort of an enlisted aide. He likes you. You’ll go to official functions with him. If you do well, there’ll be more assignments. Can’t say for sure what for now, being as how there’s no such position as an enlisted aide. Meanwhile, you’ll work here in admin. And we’ll work on getting that MOS changed so you don’t get rotated out of here just when we’re getting used to you.” He smiles. Nice guy.
Now, I still didn’t know much about the Army. Hell, I came to boot camp not knowing that soldiers got paid. I thought the Army provided food and lodging and that was it. Imagine my surprise and delight when that first payday was announced. $300!
And I sure as hell knew nothing about what was expected of me as a general’s interpreter. But for the moment, at least, I was in, I was staying in Germany (even if temporarily) and it was time to celebrate.
I dragged myself to the assigned barracks. I fell on a bunk and crashed.
Plenty of time to celebrate the next day, a celebration which almost cost me my new job and sent me back to FDC and some cold tent on the edge of the Iron Curtain.
But more about that later.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon