Basic training at Fort Dix was an interesting experience. I didn’t hate it as much as the other men did, I guess because I was more used to institutional living than other men there. The discipline didn’t bother me, and neither did the food. It was, after all, the army, and what could be expected? This was munificent fare compared to what I’d had during World War II. There were jokes about the vile quality of the army chow, but I now enjoyed finding out why this was so. The reason for it was that the illiterates, and there were a surprising number of them, were usually assigned to the kitchens and became cooks. Although the army did prepare beautiful manuals about how to prepare food (a poster that still comes to mind is the one about salads: “Make them cold, crisp, and colorful!”), the cooks couldn’t read them because they couldn’t read at all. The only thing I minded was the celery. There was celery in almost everything, and I’ve always hated celery.
What I did find strange was the assortment of men with whom I now lived and worked. They were from all over the East Coast and their education had been even more limited than mine. Some of the Southern farm boys were extremely aggressive, willing to settle almost any argument with a fist fight, and once-in-a-while, I’d have to get involved in one of these also. Personal honor was still important to these Southern boys, and if I was going to live with them, it had to become important to me also. On the whole, I got along.
I took to army life easily. I even liked the long hikes. Many of the men would pass out while walking, partly because of the extremes of temperature we faced. In the morning, when we woke up, it was freezing. By afternoon, temperatures were in the 90’s. Backpacks and weapons on these long hikes didn’t make things easier. None of that bothered me. Possibly being thin and gangly helped.
Weekends were spent in New York, usually in Greenwich Village. It was on one of these weekends that I became a man. No, it wasn’t what you’re probably thinking. I was in uniform, and while walking toward the chess tables on Washington Square, I suddenly heard a child’s voice shouting, “Mister! Mister!” I looked around. A little boy was pointing and yelling at me, and I immediately understood he wanted me to pick up the ball that was rolling by. I did so and threw it back to him, and he gave me a little “Thank you!” wave of the hand. That was the first time anyone had called me, “Mister!” The kid didn’t know it but he had provided me with a memorable moment. I was now a man!
The Monday after that I was brought back to reality at Fort Dix. I had taken the test for OCS (Officer Candidate School), and was informed that although I had passed the test, at eighteen years of age I was simply too young to be an officer.
Well you could have also always stayed in the Army a bit long to become an officer.
Actually I thought about it, but it was impractical for a reason which will become plain a bit later.