Recently, I read about Fort Jackson's annual Christmas exodus. One soldier bemoaned that she might infect her entire family with a cold. That brought back memories of Christmas 1967, when I arrived home from Fort Dix, N.J., suffering with walking pneumonia.
Like most of my fellow trainees, I didn't dare report for sick call before Christmas, if ever. The surest way to be labeled a malingerer was to claim illness. We would rather suffer a fever than face the wrath of a drill sergeant.
Also, it was universally accepted that no trainee admitted to the base hospital ever was seen again.
There was some truth to the rumor. The Army found it simpler to transfer recruits returning from sick leave to another class or "cycle." Soldiers who missed more than a day or so would be "recycled" to another company so they wouldn't miss any training.
Although a platoon may have been together for only a few weeks, the bonding was such that any recruit's departure was seen as a loss to the unit. While it wasn't discussed, we understood such losses foreshadowed battlefield casualties.
In any case, no one wanted to be "recycled" to a different unit.
I don't recall much about the Christmas holiday that year; I spent most of it in bed. Four decades later, however, my recollection of how I came to find myself in such a miserable state is vivid.
In retrospect, basic training at Fort Dix wasn't bad. We were screamed at endlessly; our heads were shaved and our "civvies" (civilian clothes) were seized; and we were made to stand at attention much of the time. Offsetting such misery was the fact that we had three square meals a day and soon found ourselves whipped into physical shape.
Unfortunately, life rapidly went downhill after we were transferred across the sprawling base for Advanced Individual Training. For whatever reason, my company was cursed. There was never enough to eat nor enough trucks to transport the entire company. We would spend hours shivering in the frozen wilds of New Jersey, waiting for "deuce and a half" trucks to return us to the barracks.
Ideal conditions for spreading colds
Since the entire platoon slept in an open bay, the combination of too-little sleep and not enough nourishment made ideal conditions for spreading colds or flu. It was amazing that the entire platoon didn't end up in the URI (upper respiratory infection) ward.
Of course, the looming Christmas holiday gave us incentive to try to look healthy at least.
It didn't take long to understand that officers and non-commissioned officers, who ran everything, viewed Christmas with Scrooge-like dread.
Their lack of holiday spirit was understandable. We trainees were headed home for two weeks, during which we would be pampered by our mothers and eat gargantuan portions of fattening chow, undermining weeks of Army discipline.
To their chagrin, also, they were responsible for ensuring that every soldier got on the bus that would get him home before St. Nick arrived. For what seemed like weeks, our daily pre-dawn formation was prolonged interminably while non-coms checked and rechecked lists to verify that everyone understood which bus to board for the trip home.
The base was situated roughly midway between Philadelphia and New York City, so the logistics of ensuring 30,000 or so soldiers arrived at the proper airport or train station were complex.
Because most of us would be sent to Vietnam as replacement troops, traveling individually or in small groups, the Christmas departure constituted the largest troop movement we would ever experience.
I was convinced that the real reason the cadre agonized over pre-Christmas departures is that the base commander lived in dread of getting a phone call from a congressional staffer, asking "What happened to Pvt. Jones? His mama says the Christmas turkey's getting cold and he hasn't arrived yet!"
To this day, I have but one regret about military service. On the first day of boot camp, we were asked if we had relatives serving in Congress.
Had I to do it over, I know what my response would be: "Does Uncle Strom count?"
God bless us all.