On April 9, 1966, I stood in formation by the three red and white 250-foot steel-girder jump towers at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was a warm Saturday afternoon, and I had just completed Airborne School after making five static-line jumps at 1,250 feet from a twin-tailed C-119 Flying Boxcar in Alabama. My sergeant handed me my orders and a small pair of silver-plated jump wings, shook my hand, and said, “Good luck!”
In the tradition of the airborne, I pinned my wings above my left breast pocket. I also wore a parachute glider patch above my folding dress hat and tucked my trousers into the elastic blousing bands above my new spit-shined jump boots. I was then placed on jump status and got an extra fifty-five dollars in jump pay each month––a status that required making a jump every three months.
I opened my orders and found that I was transferred to the riggers there on base until I could be sent to rigger school, six hundred miles away. I put my orders in my pocket and walked away feeling proud and strong. I was part of something great!
Three months later, Thursday, July 7, I graduated from Rigger School at Fort Lee, Virginia, and earned another set of wings. I was now qualified to pack and repair personnel parachutes and rig vehicles and artillery for aerial delivery. Under the terms of my enlistment, I was sent to Germany, where I hoped to see some of the battlefields of World War Two. Having missed out on parachuting into Normandy in the largest seaborne invasion in history, I always felt that I was born a generation too late.
There was nothing I could do about the circumstances of my birth, but I could certainly relive the experience by studying everything. I touched down at Rhein-Main Air Base on Friday, July 29. From there, I was driven to the General Charles Canham Kaserne in Bad Kreuznach, headquarters of the Eight Infantry Division (Mechanized).
The kaserne took its name from an American brigadier general who, three months after the Normandy invasion, took several high-ranking Nazis prisoner in the French port city of Brest. The senior Nazis, displeased at submitting to an officer of subordinate rank, demanded, “What are your credentials?”
Canham gestured to the tired, rugged infantrymen standing behind him, M1 rifles at the ready, and said, “These are my credentials!” Those words became the motto of the Eighth Infantry Division, which finished the war by liberating the Neuengamme concentration camp in northern Germany.
Proud of my assignment, I took my fatigues to the base tailors to have them sew on the division’s blue shoulder patch, bearing a white number “8” and a gold sword. Two days later, I got them back. Looking at the matching color airborne tabs sewn above, and my gold PFC stripes below, I felt a little thrill. I was to be no longer in training, but a member of the real army.
From Bad Kreuznach, I was assigned to the Eleventh Quartermaster Company, Aerial Equipment and Support, at the Rhine Kaserne in Wiesbaden. A large four-story red-brick building housed our company and members of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. The barracks, built at the turn of the twentieth century, had billeted German soldiers in both world wars.
I was placed in the Air Delivery Platoon, which rigged vehicles and packed huge hundred-foot-diameter G-11 cargo parachutes at the Robert E. Lee Barracks on the west bank of the Rhine, in Mainz.
My platoon had twenty men, and six were assigned to a room. In mine were Corporals Adams, Bosk, Browning, and Shehan and PFC Sikes, our company clerk. I was 17, without even a high school education. Everyone else was two or three years older than me. All had graduated from high school, and Sikes had finished college.
Life was great. I finally had my own bed, footlocker, and large two-door wall locker. So I unpacked my duffel bag, had my clothes pressed and starched at the base cleaners, polished my brass and boots, and got all my field gear assembled and stowed according to regulations. A couple of days later, Platoon Sergeant Selnick inspected our room. Looking inside my lockers, he turned to the other men and said, “This is how you should have your gear!” He then glanced over at their lockers and walked out of the room.
No one said anything. Perhaps I had committed some other offense, but that’s when I started getting “the treatment.” That night, around three in the morning, someone flipped me over in my bunk, and I slammed onto the hard slate floor. I saw a flash of light as my head hit, then bright hall lights as the door to our room flew open. Looking out from beneath the next bunk, I saw a pair of legs, fully dressed in trousers and boots, running out of the room, and heard a voice cackle with glee.
The next day, when we returned from work at the Robert E. Lee Barracks, I found my helmet and web gear, which we all stored on top of our wall lockers, on the floor. Opening my footlocker and wall locker, I found everything in disarray. Both lockers had locks, and the wall locker was so big it would have taken two or three men to flip or shake it. Obviously, several people were in on it, yet no one in my room said a thing. So I quietly straightened everything. Then, as I sat on my footlocker polishing my boots or lay on my bunk reading, I discreetly glanced at the other men’s faces, wondering who, exactly, was behind it.
That night, the same thing happened, and I realized that all the men were in their bunks, as they had been the night before. Therefore, the CQ (Charge of Quarters)—a corporal who was always on duty in case of fire and to answer the company phone—had to be the person flipping me over. But a different CQ was standing watch every night. I didn’t know anyone in our unit and was baffled that I could have offended so many people without knowing it. Then I thought of Sikes, whose bunk was right next to mine, who seemed to be taking great pleasure in it all. Sikes was smart, good with words, and guys listened to him. Company clerks, supply clerks, and cooks all have considerable leverage because they have access to information and goods that others need. Besides, I could see it in Sikes’s eyes—just the way he looked at me: arrogance and a complete lack of compassion.
When I returned from work the next day, I found my lockers in the same disarray, and someone had hawked a huge lugie on the middle of my bed. It was slimy and green, and I had no choice but to clean up the mess. I could usually think my way through difficult situations or, as a kid used to getting in trouble, just run away. But now I was trapped. There were several hundred men in my kaserne, and I felt alone in a crowd. Everyone was bigger than I, and I knew that if I reported it to my sergeant, he would talk to our platoon, and that would only anger them all, alienating me even more. Our company commander and platoon sergeant lived off base, so in our barracks at night, we had only the CQ to protect us—and our company CQs were apparently the very ones flipping me over.
I didn’t know what to do other than stick it out and hope it would stop. I thought of my mom, who was always there to talk when I was in trouble, and I thought of my father, who seldom said anything but was good at getting back at people in clever ways. But letters from Europe took three weeks to get home and another three weeks back. As for telephones, no one ever used them, because they had to be coordinated by operators on both continents, at enormous cost. The only time someone got a call was if a family member died or was about to. Being stationed in Europe was like living on an outer planet, and in a matter of days I had gone from on top of the world to rock bottom.
What I really needed was my two-years-older brother, Richard. He was six feet one, and guys in our Detroit neighborhood called him “Big A-rab.” A couple years earlier, a tall neighborhood punk named Buttski had punched me in the face to show off in front of his girl. “I’ll get ’im for you, Bob,” my brother said when I told him.
The next day, I waited with my brother as Buttski came strutting down the alley on Vernor Highway by our home. “Hey, Buttski, come over here!” my brother said.
“What’s up, Big A-rab?” Buttski asked.
Pow! My brother’s fist slammed into Buttski’s face, knocking him down.
“What’s that for, A-rab?” Buttski yelped.
“How’s it feel, fuck face?” my brother yelled.
“Hey, I’m sorry, man!”
“You better be!”
It felt good at the time, but at this moment, my brother was four thousand miles away.
The treatment continued day and night, with someone always spitting on my bed, trashing my lockers, and flipping me over. But I never said a word. A few weeks later, just when I was allowed to have a pass and go off base and drink with the guys, the treatment suddenly stopped. I became friends with everyone, but never with Sikes. He just didn’t like me, and I learned not to like him.
Fourteen months later, I volunteered for Vietnam, had completed my GED, and became an Army Ranger.
I never asked why the treatment happened. I just moved on, empowered by something Gen. George S. Patton once said: “I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs but by how high he bounces when he hits bottom.”