To look at him, you’d think there was nothing particularly unusual about Collier. He was just an average guy, though uncommonly nice. It’s true that he couldn’t quite roll his pack straps into tight spirals. The drill sergeant liked all of his troops to wind the excess of the pack straps into compact bundles, like little brown curls, or so many canvas cinnamon rolls. Collier couldn’t quite do that. Not in his background. Not his forte. As squad leader, it fell to me to make sure all straps were tight and wound. I saw to all the last-minute details: cleaning a forgotten weapon, arranging the sock display, tying a proper laundry sack knot, tying up loose ends on all the tedious details of life in boot camp.
Some of the members in my squad could handle the requirements. Others, like Collier, always seemed to be slightly behind, one step off cadence. Still, he was a helluva nice guy.
Domingo was a different sort altogether. He needed to be wakened every morning, and he wasn’t nice about it at all. He was such a heavy sleeper, the only way I could wake him up was to flip him off of his mattress. Making matters more difficult for both of us, he had a top bunk. Every morning it was the same thing: I’d flip him, and Domingo, from the cold floor of the barracks bay, would curse me in Spanish, vowing to end my life in some dark, distant alley in our mutual future. I believed him then, and I pass through alleys with trepidation even now.
But like I said, Collier was different. He was always apologetic about whatever problem he was facing, and truly thankful for any help received. When he came to my bunk that evening, I was aware by his body language that something was amiss.
“John, we have to qualify in grenade toss, don’t we?”, Collier said in an earnest whisper.
The barracks were very still and Collier was on butt patrol. The barracks were so old and had been painted so many times that the combustibility factor was extremely high. On one intentionally set fire, a similar barracks burned to the ground in five minutes. Having one squad member on cigarette butt patrol every night allowed everyone to sleep a little better.
“Yes, Tim. I believe that’s right,” I replied. “Can we talk tomorrow?” I’m not my best at three in the morning.”
“Yeah, sure. It’s just that I, well…I mean I can’t, uhhh…That is to say, I won’t be able to…At least, I don’t think…” Collier was more than just a little concerned.
What on earth are you talking about?!” I fumed. “It’s three in the morning and you are keeping me from my sleep. Spit it out, man!” I was harsh with him, I admit it.
“Yeah, well, it’s just that I… I can’t throw. I mean, if I have to throw a live grenade, well, I just haven’t been able to throw very far. How far do you have to throw them anyway?
Now, this was a new thought. How far did you have to chuck the deadly little things? I really didn’t know. I considered that I myself wasn’t able to throw home from center field. Hell, I had a hard time throwing from third to first base.
“Don’t worry about it, Tim. I’ll work with you and together we’ll build up some arm strength,” I said in my most reassuring, fatherly overtones. “It’ll be fine. Finish your watch and get some sleep. We’ll start tomorrow. G’nite.”
“Thanks, John. I really appreciate it.” And he did, too. He was always such a nice guy.
The next day I arranged a half hour of special training for Collier and me. Actually, it was time stolen from the weekly squad leader’s meeting, but they managed to carry on without me. I had smuggled a dummy grenade from the training room, and my idea was to get an advance look at Collier’s throwing problem. At the same time I would chuck one or two for myself to answer my own doubts.
Shaped in the familiar but now obsolete pineapple pattern, the dummy grenade was quite heavy, I thought. I could see that the charge had been removed and the cavity filled with some sort of epoxy. It felt like 100-percent lead, but was close in weight to the real McCoy. I balanced myself and assumed the stance recommended by the Army. Admonishing Tim to watch me closely, I stretched my arm back, whipped the grenade over my shoulder and let it go. Not a great throw, but a sound throw. A respectable throw; a throw long enough so that I’d live through the explosion. At least, I hoped so.
Tim ran after the grenade and brought it back, ready to hand it to me for a second toss.
“No, no, just back up a bit and we’ll toss it back and forth for a while,” I told him. “It’ll be good to warm up.” Tim looked a little troubled by that, but then again, he hadn’t looked very positive about anything all morning.
“Come on, just toss it lightly,” I said. “Just a big looping throw. Don’t put any heat on it. I don’t exactly have a catcher’s mitt.” All I had for protection were standard Army-issue leather gloves, plenty adequate for the light warm-up activity I had in mind. Collier just stood there looking poleaxed. I was about to yell at him to get a move on, when he… How should I put this? I was going to say, “when he moved of his own accord,” but that wouldn’t be accurate. Doesn’t do justice. Fails to convey.
In a herky-jerky, arm-flailing two-step, his limbs at war with the rest of his body, Collier was apparently propelled according to the physics of some alternative universe. Somewhere in the middle of this convulsive dance, Collier released the grenade, sending it sailing upward about twenty feet in an oblong arc that ended with a plop ten feet to the left of us.
“Collier, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” I had some more devastating rounds chambered for delivery, but when I glanced at his face I realized he wasn’t goofing around. His eyes told his story in painful detail. Tim not only had difficulty throwing far, he couldn’t throw at all.
In that brief scan of his stricken eyes I knew everything. He didn’t know how to throw. He had never known how to throw. In school he was the last picked to be on any team. He got clobbered in neighborhood snowball fights. He never played catch with his dad. One by one, these scarred thoughts flew across my mind like some sort of awful teletype.
Tim couldn’t throw- at all. “How have you gotten by? How hard have you tried to learn?” I said, throwing up both my arms in incredulity. “I mean, how is it possible that…? I stopped myself. “I’m sorry, but I just…I’m having a hard time…” I took a long breath and lowered my voice. . “You’re not fooling about this, are you?”.
“No, I’m dead serious,” Collier said. “I can’t throw. Never been able to.”
I looked at him with what must have been an expression of slack wonderment.
“I had asthma when I was a kid and I could mostly avoid the problem,” he said. “And when I couldn’t, well, kids were cruel, but eventually I grew up. I haven’t had to worry about it for years now.” Collier rolled his eyes up and away, then back to me. “I mean, as an adult you don’t regularly have to throw things, right?,”. His voice angled off at an imploring incline.
I declined to reply.
Tim spoke quietly to the floor. “I just didn’t think the problem was going to come up.”
I leaned down to intercept his gaze. “The grenades!” I hissed, rather explosively.
“Yeah, right. Exactly. What am I going to do? I mean, I can live with being embarrassed, but I don’t want to kill anyone.”
I had heard how people can hide their illiteracy, pretending to read newspapers, while getting all their news from radio and television. I knew it was hard but at least possible to survive and not knowing how to read. But not being able to throw? How do you compensate for that? Observing his body movements, I actually thought for a brief moment that Tim might be a born left-hander, trapped in a right-dominant society. We tested this hypothesis and utterly demolished it. If he was herky-jerky as a rightie, Collier as a leftie was reduced to spastic fits. However, in his left-handed conniptions, Collier did manage to shot-put the grenade a little farther.
The disconcerting thing was that a grenade in Collier’s hands seemed to acquire ballistic autonomy. In twenty minutes of successive throws, the grenade never landed in the same vicinity twice. Collier was even able to throw it backwards a few yards. Time and gravity seemed to unwind in floating slow motion, as again, and again, Collier flailed, and flung, with the grenade spiraling lazily upward, drifting, then falling with a disconcerting plop a few feet away. Not one toss in ten landed farther than fifteen feet from us, and that was with his best left-handed effort.
“Collier, you’re a dead man!” I freely advised… and immediately wished I hadn’t. Tim looked thoroughly beaten and hopeless.
“Listen, let’s work on it,” I said briskly. We’ve got a week before grenade training, and two weeks before the live grenade toss. It’ll be okay, I’ll help.” I hoped, for Tim’s sake, that I had managed to sound convincing. The truth was I didn’t have a clue what to do. Tossing the dummy grenade with Tim was like peeing into the wind.
For the next week, Collier and I tossed a variety of objects back and forth. Our most successful trials were with balled-up socks. These carried pretty far, and resulted in the least amount of damage from uncontrolled flights. By the end of the week, Tim was showing vast (for him) improvement, so that maybe only one in ten throws veered off wildly and the rest were okay. It turned out that Tim had some measure of control with his underhand. I thought if the rangemaster would allow him to toss underhand, Collier just might throw far enough to qualify. We also tried working on a “push” launch, which improved Tim’s accuracy, but we couldn’t get the distance. The real problems arose when Tim threw overhand. We managed to work some of the herky-jerky out of his body motion, but we couldn’t eliminate the bizarre one-throw-in-ten trajectories that defied the known laws of motion.
The drill sergeant blew his whistle, summoning us for dummy grenade drill on the parade ground in five minutes. Collier and I looked at each other, and he smiled. I tried to smile in return. Fortunately he had already turned to gather his gear. As we marched to the field I tried to console myself with the thought that we had done everything we could possibly do to prepare. Or at least, I had done everything I could possibly do… except throw the damn thing for him.
The procedure for dummy grenade tossing was pretty straightforward. We had about forty men in the company, so we had six lines with five or six men per line, and then about forty yards away the drill sergeant had five more men retrieving the thrown grenades and rolling them back to the throwing line. The drill sergeant made it extremely clear that the throwing would be in one direction only. The five men downfield were to roll the dummy grenades back to us, then exchange places with five others so they could have their turn tossing grenades from the throwing line.
The drill went smoothly, except that we had to be careful where we planted our feet because the ground was puddled and slippery from the previous evening’s rain. Some of the grenades went plop when they landed, while others went splat. Waiting for my turn to throw, I was thinking how the expected range of forty yards was doable. I felt confident I could reach that distance, and that with enormous luck and a strong tailwind, maybe Collier could too.
I was standing in line right behind Collier, coaching him on his practice throw. Suddenly it was his turn and as he bent to pick up the grenade rolling toward him, I flashed him a thumbs up, and he smiled back. The drill sergeant was standing just to Collier’s left, overseeing the entire throwing line. Collier stepped up and let the first one go. Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was luck, but the grenade sailed in a tight spiral nearly to the forty-yard mark. Collier turned to me and beamed, full of pride and confidence. He bent for the second rolling grenade, took the stance, and let go with his second throw. This one went even farther than the first. Unfortunately it went straight up. I believe I was the only one who correctly tracked its launch path. EvenCollier thought the grenade was heading downfield. The men on the other five lines were also throwing at the same time so it was hard to tell which plop came from what grenade. I only wished that somehow the grenade I saw go straight up would just keep on going until it achieved escape velocity and entered orbit. But it didn’t. It came down with a splut in a mud puddle not two feet from the pressed, starched, and up until that instant, immaculate field pants of our drill sergeant.
The drill sergeant bolted into the air like he’d been lit up by an RPG. He looked down at his pants, then glared blazes at the five men downfield rolling grenades back to the line and stormed off in their direction with the accelerating rumble of an angry rhino. We couldn’t hear all that was said, but the wind carried some of the higher-pitched Saxon syllables back to us. When not one of the hapless five would admit to having thrown a grenade at him, the drill sergeant made them all low-crawl in the mud for the fifteen minutes it took him to cool down. I felt badly about the unfairness of their punishment, but as enlisted men, we were inured to military justice by now. The sad fact was, it was simply their turn. Collier and I said nothing.
The rest of the week went well. Collier didn’t throw many grenades, but they all went in the right direction, no one was injured, and there were no sucker pitches arriving from downfield. On Monday the company marched to the live grenade range where each man would throw three live grenades to qualify. Qualifying meant that you progressed to the next phase in your Army career. Basically it meant getting out of boot camp. Not qualifying meant repeating the hellish eight weeks until you did qualify. My plan was to qualify in everything at the earliest opportunity.
Boot camp wasn’t all bad. As a squad leader, I enjoyed certain perks in partial compensation for rolling up loose pack straps and what all. When we went to the firing range for automatic weapons training, we squad leaders always shot last as a group. This worked out nicely because we got to shoot up all the ammunition the rest of the troops had not used. Enlisted men were not allowed to bring live ammo back from the firing ranges. As we lined up to leave, each one of us would have to individually attest to the rangemaster, “No brass, no ammo, Sir!”. This meant no brass shell casings and no live ammo were on our persons. Invariably there would be one raw and addled recruit who would pipe up in tongue-twisted confusion, “No ass, No bramo, Sir!” Invariably the rangemaster was unamused whenever this happened. Everyone feared screwing up, but worrying about it didn’t seem to help, because even the most experienced recruit slipped his clutch now and then. We squad leaders enjoyed a measure of immunity from this humiliation. We’d be shooting up the excess ammunition while everyone else was screaming “No ass, no bramo, Sir!” Rank has its privileges.
I was just thinking about the excess grenades I would be throwing, when our company was called to throwing line. There were about ten grenade pits, each one a three-sided enclosure built of fifteen-inch re-enforced concrete, with an open back end. The walls were only three feet high, allowing us a clear view over the front wall as we threw our grenades as far downrange as possible. Pummeled by years of grenade tossing, the range below looked like no-man’s-land, bleak and blasted.
The rangemaster was giving us the rundown on the operation and what he expected from us. There would be ten grenade pits, with one man in each pit, each man throwing three grenades, one at a time. Meanwhile, the rest of us would be lying on our bellies listening to distant explosions. As soon as a grenade left his hand, a trooper was supposed to drop and flatten onto the concrete pad inside the pit. Standing around the grenade pits, we could see trenches eight inches wide wrapping along the base of all three sides of each mini-parapet. The rangemaster’s warning came loud and clear. “If any of you drop a live grenade, you are to kick it into the closest trench and then immediately lay in the center of the concrete pad. It will be loud, but you should be safe.”
In addition to the rangemaster’s instructions, I had something else to think about. I knew that one of the ten men throwing would be Collier, and no one on the line would be safe if something went wrong. My guess was that Domingo would be right next to Collier if the drill went in alphabetical order. It briefly crossed my mind I’d have less to worry about in the future should Domingo meet his demise on this drill, but I quickly extinguished such thoughts as unworthy. Besides, the possibility of a loose, live grenade bouncing around in one of those concrete cubicles was too cruel a fate for anyone, even Domingo. Thankful that I was a squadleader and would be tossing cleanup, I wished all the best to those who would be on line with Collier.
The rangemaster began calling out names, and right away I knew something was wrong. He called for Bloomquist. Bloomquist was a squad leader. My blood began to chill. He’s mixing squad leaders with the rest of the company! Apparently there weren’t going to be any excess grenades requiring disposal. The rangemaster called Collier, then Diestler. I was positioned right next to Collier, ten feet directly to his left, precisely in the target zone for one of Collier’s most characteristic throws: his inimitable drill sergeant splut. This can’t be happening, I thought, dragging my feet like a condemned man to the gallows, calculating my mortal odds. One out of ten throws, and Collier has three live grenades. Hmm. Those might seem like pretty good odds, but I was not persuaded.
I lay on my belly, centered on my protective pad, scanning the trenches all around me. If Collier’s grenade fell in here, how much time would I have to scoop it into a trench? Depends on how high he throws it and how long it takes to come down. I realized the grenade could explode in a miniature airburst inches before hitting the ground. In that case the concrete walls around me would acquire a provocative new Jackson Pollock look, and not a lot of me would be left on the pad.
Kabloom! The first man was already throwing, and I was considering throwing up. I wanted to raise my hand for permission to go to the latrine, anything to get away from there. Kabloom! Good throws, followed by faraway blasts, but the ground still shook smartly when they went off.
Kabloom! It would be Collier’s turn soon. What if somehow the grenade landed on my back and got tangled in my field gear, making it impossible to throw into the trench? Kabloom! What could tangle on those little beasts? They were round, they were smooth, they were deadly. What could tangle? Kabloom!
“Collier, stand up. Get ready to throw.” I couldn’t see him, but I could hear the drill sergeant order Collier into the throwing stance. I imagined Tim hooking the three grenades on his web belt and assuming the ordained posture though it contravened every skeletomuscular impulse in his being. In my mind I could see Collier’s left arm outstretched, the grenade rising up behind his head, the release of the overhand throw. No, not the overhand throw! Please,please, let him throw underhand! The next thing I heard was the drill sergeant’s order to throw. The last thing I heard was the drill sergeant saying, “Oh my God! Hit the dirt!”
Time can be our ally in moments of crisis. Things slow down, way down, and despite the shortage of supportive evidence, I felt there was a pretty good chance I could get the grenade into the trench in time. So, where was it? I waited. Time adjusted his shorts and filed his nails. I was still waiting. I thought I heard a plop, but that couldn’t be right, could it? Because everything around me was concrete, and concrete goes clink. Could Collier have thrown directly into a trench? Could I possibly be so lucky?
Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. Not the Kabloom of downrange detonations, but more like KAROOMA!!!, maybe. Comic books do not have a word for it. Then I was flying. I had the distinct sensation that the force of the earth’s recoil had popped me up from the pad, so that I was levitated nearly a foot off the concrete. When I landed, I split my chin and had the wind knocked out of me. Just when I thought it was safe to look up, a wheelbarrow-load of topsoil landed in my pit. I was shaken, bruised, bleeding, and nearly buried, but I was alive. Apparently, Collier’s grenade had landed about two feet directly in front of my cubicle, its fifteen-inch-thick margin of safety now considerably reduced. I heard the drill sergeant yell, “Get this maniac out of my sight!” Then Collier disappeared and the drill sergeant was at my cubicle, ordering me to my feet and demanding to know if I was all right, to which I responded with the standard-issue reply: “Yes, drill sergeant!” I don’t believe I ever heard “No, drill sergeant!” the whole time I was in boot camp.
Still shaking from my near-death experience, blood buzzing with adrenaline, I was handed my three grenades and ordered to throw the first one. I cocked it behind my head and let it fly. I believe it took wing. It went so far that neither the drill sergeant nor I ducked behind the wall. We stood and watched in stunned admiration while the grenade devastated an old oil drum on the other end of the range. As the smoke cloud dissipated I could hear the drill sergeant’s whispered growl in my ear, “Nice throw. Next time get your ass flat on the deck.”
“Yes, drill sergeant!”
To put it kindly, Collier failed to qualify in grenade toss. He finished the rest of the training cycle with us, but when we graduated, he was sent back to another grenade training platoon. The rest of us had our orders for advanced training, sending us to more than a dozen different posts around the country. I think most of us felt a mixture of excitement and loss, knowing we would never see each other again. I lost contact with Collier. I know that he was only in for two years, so at the very worst he could only cycle 13 times through basic training. Odds are he eventually qualified in grenade before his hitch ran out. At least I hope so. He was a helluva nice guy.