A soldier wearing a blue helmet and white cravat, both bearing the OCS logo met us outside. He greeted us politely and instructed us to say our goodbyes there at the car while I retrieved my duffel bag from the trunk. He then led me around the side of the building as my parents drove away.
There were other duffel bags lined up on a concrete patio outside the barracks and the soldier had me leave mine with them. He then instructed me to remove all brass insignia from my uniform and place them in a nearby box. “You won't need them anymore,” he said. “You're no longer an enlisted man. You're an Officer Candidate.”
The first letter that I received from my mother contained a comment as to how impressed she was with the polite young soldier who greeted us. It made me laugh. If only she knew. The blue helmet marked that polite young soldier was a Senior Candidate. The lowest ranking commissioned officer in the Army is a second lieutenant. Senior Candidates were treated as “third lieutenants” and it was their mission to inflict the same pain upon us Junior Candidates as other Senior Candidates had inflicted upon them – and then some.
He led me to a room where a table and chair were arranged with a tray and silverware from the mess hall. A strip of white tape was placed six inches from the front edge of the seat. I was shown how to sit on just the front six inches at the position of attention: Back straight, knees together, and hands on lap.
I was shown how to eat a square meal. The fork or spoon was raised perpendicularly from the tray to mouth level and then returned to the tray along the reciprocal route. Chewing did not commence until the fork was returned to the proper position and the hands were back on the lap. The knife remained diagonally across the upper left corner of the tray when not in use.
The Senior Candidate also told me that each table in the mess hall had four seats, and that candidates had to remain standing behind their seats after arranging their trays and silverware properly until the fourth arrived. When he had his articles properly arranged, he would assume the position of attention and command, “Take – seats,” at which time the four sat down in unison.
Lastly, I was admonished to avoid “eyeballing” the candidate seated across from me although we were staring directly ahead. I learned later that this required focusing on a point behind the other candidate. If your eyes met, you began laughing. It was unavoidable.
He then took me into the hall way to demonstrate the proper method of “making way.” Whenever an officer entered a hallway in the barracks, the first officer candidate to see him would command, “Make – Way!” At this time, all officer candidates in that hallway had to stand at attention against the nearest wall, with a space just wide enough for a sheet of paper to pass between their shoulders, posteriors, and heels, and the wall, and remain their until the officer exited the hallway.
With this portion of my orientation complete, the Senior Candidate morphed from a polite young soldier into a bizarre imitation of Sergeant Snorkel from Beetle Bailey comics. It was unexpected. Indeed, up until that moment, I had never experienced harassment at any time during my previous four months of service, in either Basic Combat Training or Advanced Infantry Training. I was shunted into the mess hall where Dante's fourth circle of hell was being reenacted with other Senior Candidates afflicting other Junior Candidates with all manner of vexations.
The “real” officers, our cadre, arrived that evening and introduced themselves. We had a captain – the company commander, a first lieutenant – the company executive officer, and one second lieutenant assigned as “Tac” officer for each platoon. I was assigned to the second under Lieutenant John Robb.
We were assigned in pairs to our rooms where we each had a bunk, a wall locker, and a footlocker. All were typical for Army barracks. However, we were also given a desk, chair, and chest-of-drawers. There was a diagram explaining not only the placement of the furniture, but also the exact method of folding and placing all articles of clothing, etc. on display in that furniture. We later learned that the “Tac” officer would make the rounds every day, measuring everything with a ruler, and assigning demerits for every deviation from the standards shown in the diagram.
Everything had to be kept impeccably cleaned and polished. We spent hundreds of hours during that six months spit-shining everything, including the floors. It took a couple of weeks, but we built up a sheen on the floors that looked like a mirror. Of course, we never walked on them. We would take our boots off whenever we entered the barracks and carry them around our necks with the shoelaces tied together so that we could climb from one piece of furniture to another to avoid stepping on the floor. It was sometimes necessary where we could reach a foothold on the furniture, but we limited our path to just a couple tiles so we only had to polish those regularly. Of course, the “Tac” officer walked wherever he liked when he inspected and we had to re-polish and buff those tiles.
The Kotex? I know you hadn't forgotten my mother's question. Those were stapled to the bottom of wooden blocks that we placed under the legs of all the furniture. We also affixed them to the bottoms of our footlockers, so we wouldn't scuff the floor too badly when we slid them out from under our bunks.
Read Jack's novel, Rebels on the Mountain, the tale of Nick Andrews, an Army spy, who has Fidel Castro in his sights but no orders to pull the trigger. The mafia as well as the American business community in Cuba will pay a fortune for Castro's assassination, but Nick has his career to consider, his friends to protect, and a romance to sort out in the chaos of a revolution.