It was now a waiting game. After a few weeks there were some people that actually planned to go AWOL. Slip out at night, jump the fence, then hitch hike down to California. Disappearing in the unwashed mob of student protestors might actually work for a time. Several people talked very excitedly about this, particularly after receiving orders from Drill Sergeant Fagan that could easily be seen as insane.
In the same way that we entertained bolting, some of us started seeing some positive things about the Army. We were developing a sense of pride and teamwork. Most of us entered the Army as very selfish and privileged youth. Yes, we might be poor, and some did struggle because of that. But we were also very much individuals with little thought for others, and no sense of sacrifice.
I couldn’t see it at the time, but there changes afoot. I was learning how to lead without ordering. I was committing without the expectation of returns. And most importantly I was learning a new language. The language of a soldier.
Being the second person in charge saved me from relating to Drill Sergeant Fagan, but periodically I would have to interact. There was something I remember about a locked shed where the buffer resided. The middle aisle that no one walked on became a monument to Drill Sergeant Fagan. The shine on that floor, the fine layers of wax, the thousands of layers of wax, had created a stunning, untrodden, jewel of a floor. The buffer that was necessary to produce this was locked up, and the key was missing. Someone had accidentally pocketed the key, and I was unable to get it unlocked. The floor had remained unbuffed for that morning.
In truth, no one could tell, we had run a damp mop for any dust and the floor looked magnificent. Who could tell? Well, apparently Drill Sergeant Fagan could tell. Once during inspection he demanded my belt to be removed so that he could inspect my brass buckle. What he didn’t know was that I had used an entire can of Brasso on that belt buckle. It is a fact that when brass is over polished it no longer looks brassy. It looks like 24 karat gold. It doesn’t last long, but for a few days it is amazing.
When I handed the belt over he barely looked at the buckle, instead he asked “Did you completely polish this buckle?” To which I replied “Yes, Drill Sergeant!”. This is always the correct answer. Then he continued, “Even the inside?” What? What did he ask? The inside, what crazy person would spend time polishing the inside of I belt buckle? It was always covered by the belt! Doesn’t he know that?
Fortunately I didn’t actually voice that aloud. Drill Sergeant Fagan knew about belt buckles, and even the insides of belt buckles, and my silence to his question about polishing the inside was a clear guilty statement. I spent the next hour outside, crawling on my belly.
And now Drill Sergeant Fagan was asking if the floor had been buffed. Could I lie? Were there cameras to let him know that there was no buffer. Did he have spies reporting on what was going on when he wasn’t there? Did he have the ability to see that another layer of wax had not been buffed upon? I took the cowards way and attempted to explain why I didn’t have the key, and that no buffer had been used.
And that was that. I learned the rule of “no excuses”. I had failed in my mission. I could have broken the lock, used brute force. I could have stolen another buffer. I could have done a dozen things, but finding an excuse was not acceptable. At morning formation I was called out in front of the platoon. It was right out of a British war movie. I took severals steps, right and left turns, I positioned myself in front of my squad and my platoon. Drill Sergeant Fagan approached formally, with his own series of steps, right turns and left turns, then suddenly he was directly facing me. Just as suddenly his arm raised, his hand grabbed my stripes, ripped them off, and then they were flung in my face. He then did an about face, took another arm band out of his pocket, and marched over to my assistant squad leader and formally presented it to him with an outstretched arm.
I was completely torn. Part of me was laughing at how silly it all must look, and part of me deeply felt the rejection. Maybe that’s actually true most of the time..