G.I. Joe Scouts

I was about twelve or thirteen when I joined the Boy Scouts. My parents told me about them – they were at the JYC or whatever acronym the Army used for that thing – an Army run “Juvenile Youth Center” where bored teens could hang out. It was worse than the USO, which had fallen into hard times during that period – probably due to the Vietnam war. They had an old dinged up ping-pong table, a couple broken balls, and a paddle or two – the rubber peeling off one side like dead skin. You could hear it flapping and woofing in the wind as you swung it around, batting the beaten balls on their unpredictable trajectories and hearing their dull thumps.

And that was about it.

Us kids were generally bored. We’d seen everything. I read a LOT. We’d scouted out the hangers, hung around in the barracks, stole supplies – you name it.   And we were very good.  Not that we were ‘bad’ kids, just generally bored Army brats with too much knowledge in this world.  So when my parents approached me – practically forced me – into this group, I joined as my brother did.

We were a very small group, this “Troop” of ours.  There were only five or six kids.  They were of various ages and colors – ranging from some small ones (two little black brothers), a medium one (Latino or Hawaiian) about my age, my brother, and someone else.  Race didn’t make any difference; never did, not until the blacks taught me to hate them for a while with their hatred for the ‘white man’ (though I was only a boy at the time).  Sometimes  I still have a problem with it, but then – so do they and they caused it.  At least in me later on.

We had a lot of ‘fun’ with those guys, our G.I. Scout Masters, serving as go-to boys for their beer. They sold it in the barracks in a soda machine – just insert four quarters and you were done – and we’d dutifully trot right on back, bearing their beer. We never drank it. Though German beer was good they didn’t offer it in the machines due to the higher alcohol content – and our Scout Masters always provided the quarters. They were our masters in more than one way, and we were their sons sometime.

They didn’t act like Scout Masters, not much. Nobody wore any uniforms, took any oaths or salutes. I wouldn’t learn those until later, when I joined a real Scout Troop over ‘here’ in the United States again. They acted like a couple G.I.’s who were set on having a fun mission – that of training us kids.   It involved a lot of hiking, quite often in Volksmarching (20 kilometers or more), hard winter camping, and learning survival skills, which included learning weapons and ammo, how to set up a tent, hunt for mines.  We met in one of the underground bunkers – the first of seven  of the rumored underground levels of the base we were on, Fliegerhorst Kaserne (Flying Horse, quite literally translated). These were also the two G.I.’s who took us on trips through parts of the huge sprawling bunker – it seemed to cover acres, and was built like a rat maze with rooms. All the doors were gasketed and vented with chemical ports – small black perforated domed eyes of thickly painted steel – with big dog-legged levers that pivoting in the middle, one on top and one on the bottom. There was a firing range there as well.

We spent a lot of time identifying bullets by their remains. The G.I.’s had us doing it at an outdoor mountain range one time, digging them out of a hill bank that acted as a range backstop, identifying them by name.

“This one’s a thirty caliber, and that one’s a forty-five,” they’d explain, holding up some mushroomed piece of lead, its copper jacket all torn and mangled. You could usually tell by looking at the lands (bottom rim) of the bullet what kind of gun it came from. But sometimes the bottom would be chipped and broken and you’d find yourself digging looking for the pieces, as if there was a story to be told and here were the hidden words. And that was the truth of it sometimes. Sometimes you could tell by small arms caliber fire what kind of bullets were used, and get some idea of the strength of their weapons. They could sometimes tell you the enemy’s – or a sniper’s – direction, though you hadn’t heard where the shot came from. And sometimes, piecing them together, you would learn a little bit about yourself. How to use your own skills to find things like that – those little bits and pieces, piecing them together, and announcing:

“They shot an M-16 from that booth on automatic,” and then pointing to the little holes, be able to explain where the fire came from, where was the enemy’s last known direction when this attack took place. From that you could determine where to go next. We always found ourselves going towards the enemy’s direction so we could track them, or else back to ‘base’ to make your report and stand by for ‘more orders’. A lot of the time those ‘something else’s’ ended up being extended marches – through the snow and woods; along some busy German road in the slush and the rain, backpacks bearing down across our backs. I wished so bad for a frame; mine didn’t have one. It took a long long time, saving up a little as I did, but it was well worth it when I did. My back became hard and strong by then.

One day we were walking when we heard some small arms fire coming from our right. Looking up the mountain, we could see a narrow green swatch of ‘range’ arrowing up on the mountains.  Earlier that day we had been poking for some mines and looking for booby traps and ‘things’ – those long thin wires they would lay out on the ground where a firework would go off announcing your presence to someone and you were ‘dead’.

Filtering up through the woods we ‘took’ that range strategically (announcing ourselves and surprising some older scouts posted around) and surrounding them, went into the long lean-to that served as wet weather protection and a place to clean arms. We all stood there fidgeting around while the two scout masters met, discussed something real quick, and the boys all laid down their weapons in the pits. I was hoping and praying we were going to get to firing them – you know, shooting the still warm weapons, but we didn’t. Instead the Sargent had us move on – filing out of the building single file. Later, after a long night, we came back and dug some bullets out – again, with our fingers stiff and sore because we had to use them. No one had a shovel, which I find rather strange – not even the two G.I.’s. Or if they had one I don’t remember.

So we walked again – a long time – set up our tents and laid down inside, still on the hard packed snow in our canvas bags because it had started snowing again. We were cold, wet and shuddering, wrapped in army canvas as we tried to stay warm . . . but soon the quilted warmth of our downy “Sleeping Bag, Arctic” kicked in, and we slept in our warm cocoons, our breath frosting our mouth and nose.

It was a long night . . . and just one of many I’ve experienced in my lifetime. And some not so comfortable as that . . .

Says a lot for the places I’ve been.

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