MY LIFE IN THE MILITARY: Final Episode: Making the World Safe for Democracy, One Autobahn at a Time

So, if you’re interested in the rest of the story, let’s take a look at the demanding job I took on…

(For those  who have read the previous posts on this topic, you already know that in 1970 I went from expecting to risk  life and limb in artillery fire direction control in Vietnam to a cushy job as enlisted command interpreter to two generals and their staffs in Germany when the Cold War was at its height.)

Since the Army recognized no such “occupational specialty,” my new job as an interpreter needed some interpretation of its own  to pass official muster. The chief of staff designated me an “admin specialist.” Fine by me, since it sure beat waiting to be transferred to Vietnam. So I rode a desk most days, translating any German or French correspondence where my Top Secret security clearance gave me permission to read what the German civilians on staff weren’t allowed to see. I was also assigned the job–never did figure out why–of radioing in helicopter pilots who wanted to land out on our  parade grounds to drop off or pick up some VIP. And when the general gave a public address on any occasion, there I was at his side.

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I was unpacked and all set up in the enlisted barracks. And because I often had some time on my hands at headquarters, and all the bound Army regulations were staring at me from a bookshelf, I decided to see how I could move off-caserne and into a private apartment.

Sure enough, nothing in the “regs” expressly prohibited it, although most everyone thought that was only allowed for married men whose spouses had joined them and who couldn’t get on-base housing. So when I broached the subject with the first sergeant, he categorically denied the possibility. When I showed up the next day with the reg book in hand, he reconsidered, but said I needed permission from my supervising officer. The deputy commander said fine, the general said fine, so soon I had a nice one-bedroom about ten minutes from the caserne.

But not before I learned about KP. For the uninitiated, that’s Kitchen Police, a remnant of times past before the all-volunteer Army. Back in 1970 enlisted men had to work a long, long day in the kitchen from time to time. Now while I was still barracks-bound, I was informed that  I’d have to report for KP the following morning. What no one mentioned was  to tie a towel to my bunk so that the sergeant would know whom to awaken at four a.m.  When I awoke of my own accord and managed to reach the kitchen I learned that I had, by default, earned the right to spend the next 18 hours or so with my hands in scalding water, scrubbing clean all the  pots and pans. By day’s end, and despite the rubber gloves, my fingers resembled waterlogged sausages, and within the week all my fingernails dropped off like dead beetles.

“What the hell happened to your hands?” demanded the general.

“KP, sir.”

“No more KP for you, son. Join the Color Guard instead.”

So the next day I was practicing marching the parade grounds out front of headquarters wearing a bright-silver helmet liner, a white sash-and-belt contraption and some fancy-schmantzy spats on my boots. We followed those  flags round and round and did a lot of very smart saluting.

“Saw you down there on the parade grounds today, O’Bryon. Not much of a marcher, are you?”

I saw my opening and took it. “No, sir, cadence doesn’t seem to be my thing.”

“Can’t have you throwing off the Color Guard, son. No more of that for you. And no more of that damned KP, either.

“Works fine for me, sir.”

“And while we’re at it, what’s the story with the cock-a-mamie hat?”

(You readers should know that I wear a larger hat size than many, and the Army had only one in my size when I received my regulation clothing. That poor hat had lain in the rejection pile for ever and a day because it was lopsided and a deep gash creased its shiny bill.)

“That’s the only one they had,” I explained.

“Well, have the quartermaster order another,” said the general, “and in the meantime, no more Color Guard, no more KP, and for that matter, when we go out anywhere official, wear a business suit. You got a suit, O’Bryon?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fine,” he said, “a suit for everyday business, have them rent you a tux for fancy dress occasions. Until you earn sufficient rank, I don’t need these locals thinking I’m sending a low-level specialist to conduct business on my behalf.” Which he was.

Whenever the general did send me out on official business, I wore a suit and the driver of his sedan was in fatigues. For example, when the soldiers on the firing range overshot their targets and almost wiped out a local German farmer on his tractor, the General sent a 22-year-old enlisted man in a business suit to meet with the local village mayor and patch up relations with our NATO ally. When a few of our GI’s decided it would be fun to reenact a shoot-out with cap guns on a city street (!), guess who got to try to calm down the local authorities. (These days, of course, they would have all been mowed down by terrorist-savvy police.)

Evening events were something altogether different. When I accompanied the general and his wife to fancy balls held by the German and French commands, I wore a tux. And everyone assumed I was a civilian employee of the military, which was fine by me.

About the only time I wore a uniform (other than around the office) was when an Army vehicle managed to run over and kill a local civilian. Then the general had me attend the funeral services in dress blues, standing graveside to receive the damning stares and hate-filled glances of the poor bereaved family. I couldn’t blame them one bit, and I got rather practiced in expressing condolences. This part I hated.

Except the one time, when an 85-year-old was the dearly departed, his friends were all about the same age, and we all sat around a table drinking beer and schnapps and celebrating his life. “He would have wanted it this way, being run over by an Army truck,” said his sister with a smile, “he always loved the US Army.” Then we went to stand graveside as an oom-pah-pah band sent him on his way.

And that was that. I had an apartment and a good job with benefits. I bought a used car from a homeward-bound GI. And my prospects for some nice European travel looked good.

Now when I got my private apartment it was made clear that I had to be within fifteen minutes of the caserne and have a telephone on the premises for the occasional surprise alert. In case you don’t know, an alert would be announced in the very early morning and the entire command would gather in the old bunkers (my caserne had been an SS  tank division headquarters), pretending like the Soviet bombs were about to drop on us. Officially, no one knew when the top brass would decide to pull one of these surprises on the commands.

One evening, as I prepared to leave his office, the general mentioned in passing that I might want to sleep lightly that night, just in case something came up early the next morning. So I arose in the dark about four a.m., put on my fatigue uniform, and sat by the door, waiting to hear the phone ring  in my landlady’s apartment above my own. Then came that muffled sound from the telephone coming through the ceiling, I hear her tripping down the stairs in great haste, I grab my cap and stand by the door, and the minute she starts knocking on it–“Herr O’Bryon, Alarm, Alarm!–I open up and race past her with a quick thanks, off to do my duty. I can still hear her say in German: “Mein Gott, these Americans really are prepared!”

Once in the bunker, I sat for an hour with the general as we polished off a carton of donuts and several cups of coffee. I’m sure America felt safer still asleep in its bed, knowing we were on the job.

One enjoyable development was when the general decided to give me a half-day off every time I had to attend an evening event . What wasn’t exactly specified was whether I could combine these half-days into an extended period away from my demanding duties. So naturally I assumed that it was okay to take an aggregate week off and head to Vienna in my newly-acquired old Mercedes 180. The vacation was great, thanks for asking.

So when I got back a week later–and yes I had checked the commander’s schedule and the deputy commander gave my idea the thumbs up–the first sergeant of headquarters company (to which we were all officially assigned) had me picked up as AWOL and marched before the captain’s desk for appropriate punishment.

“Did you check with the general?” I asked with the greatest respect.

Turned out no one had.

The dress functions were great. I remember clearly one hosted by the local French command. Just imagine riding up a tall hill to a German medieval castle at night with French soldiers holding flaming torches lining the drive, the general and his wife in back of the sedan, me in my tux next to the  driver, little American flags on the fenders flapping in the wind. The French military band welcoming us with great fanfare as we emerge to enter the castle’s grand hall decked out colorfully with a great feast on long buffet tables. Once there, the general wanted me to be available, but told me to go have fun, which usually amounted to chatting up the daughters of the French and German command officers, who would have had me shot had they known I was an enlisted man in disguise. Instead, they treated my royally and allowed me to date some of their daughters.

On one occasion I found myself alone at a huge buffet. Having a fondness for European bakery specialties, I thought the flake-pastry swans filled with whipped cream especially tempting, so I took a huge bite. Mayonnaise…for dipping. Repulsed by the oily mess on my tongue and afraid of discovery having consumed half of a condiment-bearing swan, I pivoted toward the wall and right into the face of Mrs. General. Who was desperately trying to spit into a napkin the mayonnaise-filled half-swan she had just bitten off, following my lead, I assume. Following her lead, I grabbed a linen napkin of my own and disposed of the evidence of our crude American manners.

One sad day toward the end of my service I was promoted to Specialist 5th Class, and the general decided I had attained sufficient rank to attend a formal function in dress blues. It was amazing to see how quickly I lost the camaraderie of all those officers once they knew I was a mere enlisted man, but I’d had a good run. They never learned that their daughters had been in on my secret.

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There are probably many other stories to tell, but there you pretty much have it…my sterling military career. I worked for two generals before I hung up my business suits, my dress blues and tux, and headed home to America.

Many fought and died during that Vietnam era, including friends I made during training. Many others came home wounded, both mentally and physically.  Many still suffer from those wounds today. I respect, thank and honor them for what they had to go through and for the contributions they selflessly made.

And whenever someone asks what I did during that period and I tell them these details, they always respond by saying “Why, you lucky ***********!” or something equally supportive.

As for me, I am the first to admit it–in many ways I was just damned lucky.

 

 Copyright 2014 Patrick W. O’Bryon

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About Patrick W. O'Bryon

Writer. Traveler. Europhile, especially Italy and France. Real Estate Broker. Former academic in the field of Germanic Studies, Princeton Ph.D., interpreter and community liaison with the US Army in Germany. Hobbies: rescuing animals from abuse, abandonment and mistreatment, and being sous chef around the kitchen to my chef de cuisine wife.
This entry was posted in European Travel, Memoir, Travel Memoir, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to MY LIFE IN THE MILITARY: Final Episode: Making the World Safe for Democracy, One Autobahn at a Time

  1. sknicholls says:

    Very well done Mr. O’Bryon. Now I must read the entire series. I could not help but chuckle at the swan condiment fiasco. I once took an extra large portion of pepper hot tomato aspic and thinking it was some cherry red. sweet gelatin dessert shoveled it. Not a pretty sight, I am sure. Have never had any fondness for Jell-O since.

  2. Wow! At least my mouthful was only greasy and bland.

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