FORT POLK, La. — The COVID-19 pandemic has many of us teleworking. If you’re like me, it also affords the opportunity to reminisce.
Often, I’ll have thoughts run through the recesses of my mind as I try to sleep, and will come up with story or column ideas that, at the time, seem almost Pulitzer worthy. When I wake up the next morning and start to write down the thoughts I had the night before, I realize that not only were they not Pulitzer worthy, often they were not even worth the paper they were written on.
However, recently I had a column thought bounce around my head as it lay on my pillow and decided the next morning it might even be worth jotting down.
First, let me ask a question: How many of you knew that Fort Polk once was a basic training site?
I know that Tiger Land has the reputation for being the training ground for infantry Soldiers headed to Vietnam in the 60s and early 70s, complete with mock villages much like those in the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk “box” that prepares units to deploy to battle fields across the globe. Most likely most of you know about the Tiger Land days.
But did you know other military occupational specialties also took basic training at Fort Polk before heading out to their MOS producing schools?
As a Louisiana native, when I joined the Army in March 1974 following a discussion with my dad — a tale for another day — I was assigned to the Fort Polk Reception Station where I was then placed in D-1-1 for training.
There are many things I remember about those eight weeks of training at Fort Polk: I went from a 40-inch waist and 250 pounds to a 32-inch waist and 210 pounds; I survived both the gas chamber and the grenade range, barely; and I learned that a human (barely) could allow a lizard to crawl down his throat, then pull it back out by a string tied to its tail.
I also learned two valuable lessons, both on the same bivouac to Fort Polk’s training area: Sometimes it’s best to keep your thoughts to yourself, and just because it seems like it might be a good idea, that’s not necessarily the case.
So, keeping your thoughts to yourself:
My best friend in basic — and a friend still to this day — was Joe Hiller. Joe hailed from Helena, Montana. He was a bona fide cowboy and guitar player. In fact, Joe taught me most of the guitar skills I have during our days serving as military policemen in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
Sorry about that little sidetrack. Anyway, Joe and I usually stood next to each other in formation, and on this occasion we had marched out of the cantonment area and were headed to our bivouac site, route stepping along a dirt road. As Joe and I were both musically inclined, we enjoyed the cadence songs we sang as we marched. Of course, with route step, there was no cadence, but that didn’t keep my sharp mind from thinking of new songs to share.
One of the more popular cadences was, “If I had a low IQ, I could be a (fill in the blank with unit, MOS, or whatever) too.” Joe was standing to my front and I said, “Hey Joe; I got a new cadence. If I had a low IQ, I could be a drill sergeant too.”
I immediately felt a tap on my shoulder. Yep, it was Drill Sgt. Poulard, who had made it clear on the first day of basic that he didn’t like anybody, not his wife, his children, and certainly not any of us blankety-blanks.
He said, “You think that’s funny Cannon? Step back here with me.”
As I fell out I told Joe, “Tell my mom I died with my boots on.”
When we reached the back of the formation Poulard told me to do the following: Say “It’s the enemy,” then low crawl to the nearest cover. Once I reached the cover I was to yell, “bang bang,” then stand up and continue through the woods. I was walking parallel to the road my fellow trainees were walking on, but I was low crawling through mud, creeks, briars and stumps, all the while watching for spiders, snakes and other creepy crawlers.
This went on for what seemed like an eternity, when Poulard yelled, “Cannon, recover.” He asked if I had any other cadences I’d like to share and I assured him I didn’t. As I moved back into my spot behind Hiller, I could hear the Montana cowboy chuckling. I learned a valuable lesson: If it doesn’t need to be said, don’t say it.
The second lesson came on the third and final night of our bivouac. The rumor was we would be hit with tear gas while we were out. As this was the final night, if the rumors were true, we were going to be hit. Hiller and I were tent mates and decided the best way to avoid getting a snoot full of tear gas was to go to sleep with our masks on. We did.
At about 3 a.m., Hiller and I were awakened by a drill sergeant pulling us out of our tent by our boots.
As we looked around, we saw Soldiers running around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to ward off the tear gas that permeated the area.
Hiller and I were oblivious to the mayhem as we stood with our gas masks on.
The drill sergeant ripped our masks off, and wouldn’t let us put them back on.
We stood there like a couple of morons as everyone else donned their masks.
The drill sergeant then announced, “You might think you’re being smart by sleeping with your masks on, however, if the enemy had really attacked, you’d be dead, like these two idiots, who would have been shot while sleeping with their masks on.”