The works of the Longview Memoirs were authored by residents of Longview, a senior living community with close ties to Ithaca College. Run by Ithaca College professor Marella Feltrin-Morris, the workshop occurs every spring.
III. THE MILK THIEF
I was inducted into the US Army on May 4th, 1944, at Fort Thomas , Ky., across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. A physical examination was first on the agenda. Examinees assembled in a large room, stripped, and lined up to await their exam. After standing in line a few minutes, I was ordered to report to the office of the chief medical officer. When I reported, he told me that my mother had telephoned him. My mother? How embarrassing. How did she get his name and phone number? She called to inform him that my eardrums were hopelessly perforated, making me unfit for service, and, as if that weren’t enough, I was too fragile to be in the army. He took a close look. His verdict: “You’re fine, son. Get back in line.”
After a week of indoctrination at Ft.Thomas, a troop train took us to an unknown destination. We were headed Southwest, and after four or five days of stop and go we finally arrived at Camp Hood, located in the hot, sandy, barren hills of Texas. A Sergeant marched us to our barracks, then welcomed us to Camp Hood by ordering us to fall in for a five mile hike , a distance many of us had never attempted. The Texas heat was overwhelming, and we were soon exhausted, our uniforms drenched with sweat. The minute the hike was finished, I gathered my remaining strength and rushed to the PX. Grapette was a popular soft drink at that time, and six cold bottles of the fizzy, purple nectar went down my throat with hardly a pause.
At Camp Hood one learned to be aggressive in the mess hall, especially at breakfast. The tables for eight had a cup, a drinking glass, and a bowl at each place, plus two quarts of milk meant to be shared. The first arrival filled his cup, glass, and bowl. Each additional arrival did the same, and soon the bottles were empty. I was rarely one of the first arrivals and hardly ever got as much as a half cup. Other breakfast treats were S.O.S (S- - - On a Shingle) and a large slab of rare bacon.
My craving for milk intensified by the day. I had to satisfy it. Theft was my only alternative. I must plan and execute a successful milk heist. When the night for the heist came, I got into my bunk and lay awake listening for the milk truck, which usually arrived around 2 A.M. At last I could hear the click of bottles being unloaded. I left the barracks, stealthily avoided the sentry, and, as all the buildings had a crawl space, concealed myself beneath the kitchen loading dock and waited. I chose my moment, swiftly proceeded to my objective, grabbed two quarts, and hurried back to the safety of the crawl space. Greedily I drank every drop, which took some time, as I had never attempted to drink more than a pint. After burping copiously, I returned the empty bottles and sloshed back to bed.
I wonder what the cooks thought when they found those two empty bottles on the loading dock.
IV. NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
I arrived at my new assignment at Fort Bragg, NC, in Sept.of 1945 after serving almost a year in France. GI’s with much longer periods of service than I had been discharged. Many jobs that required a rank higher than a lowly PFC (me) were vacant, among them the position of clerk in battalion headquarters. The Colonel interviewed me and gave me the job with a promotion to Staff Sergeant, which entitled me to a private room in the barracks. Working for the Colonel was easy duty. I made weekly training schedules in which “care and cleaning of equipment” (a euphemism for goofing off) was frequently scheduled. In short, I did what clerks do. One task was charting the daily venereal disease reports on graph paper. When a paper was completed it was posted on the wall and a new one started. Soon the wall was lined with VD graphs. I don’t know why the Colonel had me do it, as the graphs were basically the same, resembling one wobbly straight line.
One lazy fall afternoon I was at work (well, reading a book) when the phone rang. A group of veterans returning from several years overseas was arriving by train to be discharged. These guys were intimidating -the real deal. They had seen combat, pulled occupation duty, and been in service far longer than lucky me, who had been sent home early to invade Japan, whereupon Japan promptly surrendered. I like to think the reason for their surrender was because they heard I was coming, but of course it was the atom bomb. My orders were to meet them and march them to their barracks. A truck was sent to pick me up and take me to the train siding, which was several miles away. Why didn’t the army send two trucks and let these combat-wise veterans ride instead of walk? After all, they had recently crossed the Atlantic and endured a long train ride to Fort Bragg, all the while carrying heavy barracks bags. Barracks bags are about three feet high, made of olive drab cotton with a drawstring at the top. They hold all of a GI’s possessions. But one doesn’t question the army’s wisdom or lack thereof. The truck came, I grabbed my book, got in the back, and continued to read as we bounced along. After ten minutes or so the driver stopped, let me off, and continued on his way. I looked desperately for something familiar, but alas, nothing. I saw a railroad track, a wooden siding, and a dirt road with pine woods on either side. Then I heard it. The train was coming, and soon twenty-five weary, unshaven soldiers in rumpled fatigues, eyes at half-mast from lack of sleep, stumbled off the train and fell into a motley formation on the siding. Most of them sat or leaned uncomfortably on their barracks bags, waiting to be led by someone who was completely lost. I decided it would be better to walk, not march, in the direction the truck had come from, and politely asked them to follow me. After several minutes, I was confronted with a frightening problem: a crossroad! I could not let them suspect I was lost, so a rapid decision was essential. With a sinking feeling I chose the left fork. We were OK another ten minutes until we encountered a yet more terrifying problem: a dead end! Immediately the air was purple with profanities and curses, some I had never heard before, on me and all my relatives and ancestors. I mumbled “about face”, and we walked back to that damnable crossroad. I went to the left again, praying that a left turn would not be wrong twice in a row. The men now knew their so-called leader was either confused or lost. Epithets and volume intensified. My heart sank when no landmarks appeared through the trees, but there could be no change in course, no matter where it took us, or I was a goner. The sinking feeling in my gut intensified with every step, when miraculously the forest began to thin. Was it possible I had chosen the right road? The abuse continued unabated, but I felt a tinge of hope. Hope turned to ecstasy when the Fort Bragg water tower appeared on the horizon. Soon the men, still hurling insults, reached their barracks, but I was still alive and unhurt!
The army had put me in a scary situation. On the other hand, perhaps I should have closed my book and paid attention to where the truck was taking me. I wish I could remember the title of that book. It must have been a real page turner.