Fort Benning, in Georgia, is the largest Army infantry base in the world. Before leaving for Vietnam, I was stationed there and commanded a mechanized infantry unit that had large armored personnel carriers (APCs). These were tracked vehicles that transported combat troops. In their rear was a large, hinged ramp that could lower, allowing the 15-20 soldiers to jump out. The APCs had no steering wheel, but were steered with two floor sticks by a driver who sat in a turret up front with his head and shoulders sticking out the top.
One of our sergeants was a tall, lanky fellow who had freckles all over his face and arms. He had sandy hair, a huge gap between his two front teeth, and a quick sense of humor. His name was Ron. They said he came from a remote area somewhere in Tennessee, West Virginia, or North Carolina.
When Ron laughed and broke into his innocent-looking grin, he started us laughing as well. He could easily take any kidding we gave him and would throw his humor right back at us. We used to tease Ron by telling him that if he turned sideways and stuck out his tongue, he looked like a zipper.
The only problem with Ron was that if I ever thanked or complimented him in any way, he wouldn't show up for work the next morning! The man had no comprehension of a small time device we wore on our wrists that went “tick, tick, tick, tick.” Ron would go AWOL (absent without leave).
His behavior got to be an accepted joke within our platoon. When he was at work, he put in a ferocious day's labor. That's why we ignored his periodic absences. Instead of turning him in to be reprimanded, one of our drivers would go out to look for him right after our morning roll call, while the rest of our men ate in the company mess hall. Sure enough, the driver would usually find Ron out fishing somewhere. In fact, many mornings, a fishing pole rested in an out-of-the-way corner of our barracks, often with the bait still on the hook.
One day, an ominous order came down from our division headquarters to sharpen our bayonets. Such an order didn't make sense because our bayonets were already sharp. Then we received an order to turn in our APCs. A mech unit losing its APCs would be equivalent to United Airlines losing all of its planes. Even though our superiors wouldn't admit it, we knew we were headed for combat in Vietnam.
We began to get unusually busy. To make matters worse, my folks were supposed to come down to Fort Benning to take my car because I wouldn't need it where I was going. I couldn't spare the time to give them a tour of the base, so I turned to Ron and asked if he could take part of a day to show my folks around.
There is no way I can describe the contented, but bewildered looks on my folk's faces that night as I walked into their motel room after their day with Ron. My folks were white-haired, educated people in their 60s who were sometimes more than a bit proper. I was surprised when Mom said, “Bill, in your wildest dreams you will never guess what your father and I did today!”
Knowing Ron, I could guess. At least I thought I could. I was dead wrong! The wild story my folks told me exceeded anything I could imagine about what he had done for them.
Dad would sometimes get a bit serious. This was one of those times. “Bill, you better sit on the edge of the bed to hear what Mother has to say. She has quite a story to tell you about what that man did with us today.”
Ron had borrowed our platoon's jeep to show my folks around, and he dressed both of them in a set of fatigues and steel helmets. As he drove through the MP (military police) gatepost, they received the customary salute for an officer's vehicle, and Ron had my mother bow her head so the MP couldn't see who was actually sitting in the jeep.
He drove them out into a remote wooded area and stopped. There, parked underneath an array of pine branches Ron had used to camouflage the vehicle, was an APC he had temporarily shanghaied. He had my dad sit inside the APC on one of the benches where combat troops normally sat. (Dad was quite bewildered.) Then he positioned my mom in the turret so she could drive the monstrous vehicle!
There she sat, wielding the directional sticks, bashing down pine trees and driving anywhere she wanted to go, even through some nearby swamps. Dad just sat inside, confused as he heard Mother's laughter. She was having the time of her life!
From there, Ron managed to get them out and positioned, crouched by the edge of a drop zone where paratroopers landed. My folks were within ten feet of the paratroopers as they hit the ground! The troopers crashed to the ground in their fall and roll, then just stood there confused as my mother greeted them with a cheerful, “Good morning, boys.”
I can only imagine the flowery language those paratroopers must have uttered in response.
To their dying day, my folks never got over the thrill Ron had given them that day. However, I never said a word of thanks to him for what he had done. I needed all the help I could get and couldn't afford to have him go AWOL on me again.
A month later when we had reached Vietnam, his kind gesture was quickly forgotten amidst the confusion and horror of combat.
(Check back next week for the conclusion of this story.)