Spring has hit the prairie, it hit 60 today and the forecast is for 70+ all weekend. Rain next week but it is April. There will be mud and all the foot wipin’, sweepin’ and moppin’ but you don’t have to plow the yard. The farmers are gettin’ antsy to get into the field, pretty soon everything will be so green it hurts your eyes and we’ll be fully involved in the business of feeding ourselves and the world. I’ve finished services on our gardening equipment, Dad’s utility tractor, the mower and two walk behind tillers. Mom and Dad are still in Texas, alligator season opened on the first and they’ve got three so far. A couple 6 footers and a 7 footer, no monsters yet but Dad’ll find at least one. He got a 10’8″ last year, the head is as long as my arm and as wide as my thigh. They’re mighty tasty too!
Today I’d like to go back to the Sunny Slopes of Long Ago. The last one was mainly setting the background and sharing a little pain at the untimely loss of my brother from another mother and the immortality I once possessed.
The 25th Infantry Division (Light) was a great place to start a career, we had two off-island (Oahu) deployments a year. That set a predictable pattern to the training. We’d gradually ramp up over the space of six months, do ARTEPs (Army Readiness Training Evaluation Program) and deploy ready to go balls to the wall. I had been in the unit about two years and knew the pattern. We were good in The Wolfhounds but we weren’t norse gods yet, that was still coming.
So lets set up the music for tonight. I was still a metal-head in those days, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Iron Maiden… I still love that music but y’all know old school country has taken over lately. I’ll play some “For Whom The Bell Tolls” or “The Trooper” for you later, tonight were going to talk about when I was comin’ up all aces. My life was blessed by the midas touch back then and I learned some key lessons, so tonight we’re listening to Lucky Tubb, Earnest’s grand- nephew. I’ve got an attraction or an appreciation for people who try to carry on their family business, I often wonder if I should have stayed and helped Dad with the farm. I didn’t but that errant thought in the back of my mind provides the appreciation for those who do. So, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Lucky Tubb and his song “Damn the Luck.”
I’d been in Alpha Company 4/27 INF for about two years, we knew we were good and acted like it but we weren’t immortal yet. We were about to turn a corner. I’d already been to the Philippines, Japan, Thailand and the Big Island (Hawaii). Awesome deployments, lots of hard work and lots of hard play. Thailand included a four day pass in Bangkok, everything you’ve ever heard about Bangkok is an understatement. After all this we had a company change of command. We got a new Company Commander. Captain Steele had been a lineman for Hershel Walker at the University of Georgia. The man was a brute. He used to take a shower after PT then stand buck naked and air-dry on the lanai (that’s Hawaiian for balcony). The first thing he did was change the training schedule. Rather than having a weekend off we went to the field to start training for our deployment to South Korea and what we called “Team Stupid” the real name was Team Spirit but we preferred our name, it was more apropos. We started at ground zero, humping god-awful rucks mile after mile, setting up patrol bases, digging hasty fighting positions every time we stopped then filling them in and walking more god-awful miles. We bitched like little girls with knots in their panties. We also started doing weekly road marches, first 12 milers which was the standard. Everyone had to do a 12 miler with 35 lbs in their rucksack, in under 3 hours, to earn their Expert Infantryman’s Badge. Its a challenge the first time you try it but we’d done it enough that it was still painful but not hard by any means. You see, I’d already learned the difference between pain and discomfort. That was a valuable lesson! But we progressed to 15 and finally 20 milers once a week. It took my young body a week to recover from a 20 miler but it started to have CPT Steele’s desired effect. We were good before but we were becoming damn good and hard as woodpecker lips. The 20 milers we did went up Kole Kole Pass, a mountain pass just behind Schofield Barracks and down the other side. The other side was a nightmare. It was all switchback roads going down slowly but never getting closer to your objective. 10 miles from the top down to where the Navy couldn’t confirm or deny that their nuclear missiles were stored. Then back up, back up sucked the worst. We didn’t carry 35 lbs either, we carried what we’d be carrying in South Korea. For me and the other guys in the 60mm Mortar Squad it was always over 100 lbs. I tipped the scales at about 160 in those days. I once did 20 miles in 4 hours and 35 minutes, step by step with one of my Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) brothers. RTO’s were respected even among Infantrymen because they always carried 20 or 30 pounds more than any one else. This time we didn’t have to carry our radios and spare batteries and the lightening of our load turned the training into a sunday morning stroll. Me and Kickbusch were sleeping in the grass in the center of the quad when CPT Steele finished the march. He walked up to the CQ (Charge of Quarters) and said, “I guess I’m the first one in.” The PVT on CQ said, “No Sir, Ness and Kickbusch got back about ten minutes ago.” I like to think CPT Steele was both heartbroken and proud at the same time. He tried to act not heartbroken when he came out to congratulate us but it leaked through here and there. The man was a brute.
Lets throw up another song, I’m a big fan of Lucky Tubb so I’ll use another one of his, “I Heard Your Name.” It doesn’t have any bearing on the story but its damn good country music like they played in the good ol’ days. This story is all about the good ol’ days after all…
Soon enough we were leaving for South Korea and “Team Stupid.” We’d trained for the cold of the Korean Peninsula by doing stupid things like not carry any “snivel gear.” Snivel gear was anything that made you feel better about your shitty position in life like blankets, sweaters, long johns and such. The idea was that it was cold and shitty and we could become “One With The Suck” by practicing the suck. To this day I equate that to practicing eating food you don’t like because someday you might have to eat it. My thoughts on the matter may be wrong because to this day there isn’t anything I’m not willing to taste and if I put it on my plate I’ll eat it before the meal is done. I think the principle holds true even though I have learned to enjoy beets but I should mention that I’ve always enjoyed Lutefisk, so my standards were already pretty low.
When I got on the C141 for the flight to Korea they weighed us with our alice packs (rucksacks), I weighed 323 lbs. I mentioned earlier that I was weighing in at about 160 in those long gone glory days. Fortunately (?) they took some of that weight away when we got there, you know useless stuff like my sleeping bag (fartsack) and other “nice to have” stuff. CPT Steele’s idea of nice to have and need to have didn’t match with mine. We went to the field in S Korea and executed our mission. We became “One With The Suck” and did our jobs. At night when the temperature dropped well below freezing two of my squadmates, Danny and Anthony Barnes, would lay out one of our space blankets and a poncho liner then argue for thirty minutes about who got to lie in the middle, then put all out other blankets and clothing on top of us, finish up by putting our trigger finger mittens on our feet and spoon. We had to roll over every fifteen minutes because frostbite was setting in on the exposed sides of the two guys on the outside, that was the reason for the thirty minute argument about who slept in the middle.
The cherry on top of the icing was when CPT Steele volunteered our company to walk 12 miles and establish an LZ (landing zone) for the rest of the battalion to fly in on Blackhawks. Wow, thanks Sir, dickhead. By the time we got to the LZ we were in the midst of a Minnesota style blizzard. I had a 12 inch snow bank covering my ballistic helmet going across my 135lb Alice pack. We had been given three MREs before we left because the airlift would be bringing in more food the next day. The airlift didn’t make it the next day. They didn’t make it for the next three days. We were some cold hungry Infantrymen by the time they did. Some of my brothers in arms had eaten two of their MRE’s by the time we got there then they started begging food from the rest of us. I’ll let you imagine my response. Sometimes it comes down to every man for himself. If they’d have been dying from malnutrition I’d have coughed up a cracker or two, maybe sacrificed a “Ham and Chockin” loaf but they wouldn’t die in three days time so “F” them.
We survived a couple hungry days, executed our mission and the battalion flew in with the best tasting MREs I’ve ever eaten. We eventually returned to tent city, cleaned our gear and spent some well earned time off in the ‘ville. I had my Soju experience and made it back alive.
Our return was when we realized our newfound immortality. A buddy of mine was in our room when he made the remark, “Yea, you guys got f*cked.” My roommates and I looked at each other and said, “F you, you couldn’t have done what we did because you and your company are weak. Eat Shit.” It was all over at that point. “Damn the Luck, I’m Comin’ Up All Aces. ”
The lesson I’d learned at that moment was that the harder you make it the more I like it and the better team it makes us. COL Mike Malone (RET) wrote a few leadership books I read religiously for many years, he swore the only way to make an elite unit was through “shared hardship and danger.” He’d nailed the shared hardship part, I added jumping out of airplanes for the danger part and I was off. I was never in less than an elite unit, I did things that would make college professors piss themselves and that was several years before the first terrorist ever shot at me and missed. CPT Steele went on to command a company in the 3rd Ranger Battalion in Somalia. I won’t watch that shitty movie to this day, that scrawny little actor couldn’t hold a candle to CPT Steele. He commanded a Brigade in Iraq before he retired. He was asked to retire in the same fashion as LTC Adam West and that strikes me as a shame but completely in character. CPT Steele made me realize what I could be and I never wantwed to be anything else. God-bless you Sir.
Thanks for reading my meanderings and here’s to the sunny slopes of long ago.
This is for our Lady Penguin as she recuperates from her surgery. She’ll be Comin’ Up All Aces soon enough. I didn’t even swear too much.