By Dave Stancliff
IN THE ARMY
Basic training happened by the sea, at Ft. Ord, the U.S. Army’s Training Center for Infantry in California. It was named after Major General Edward Cresap Ord, who served with Fremont’s Army in the early days of California.
Rafter and his fellow trainees in Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, ran along the beach in the morning fog every day. They ran all over the base. Everywhere they went they ran. They sang as they ran. They moaned while running miles in full gear with their heavy M-14 rifles at port arms. They ran through obstacle courses. They ran carrying a buddy on their back. They ran in their dreams like dogs sometimes do.
Every morning they woke to infuriated drill instructors telling them to get their maggoty asses off their racks. The tension got worse every step of the way. Every day.
“You maggots have five minutes to enjoy Uncle Sam’s food. Then you better get out of here!” roared a drill instructor, as he strolled between the long tables during a typical breakfast. Scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, all disappeared down 140 gullets in record time each morning. Then it was time to run.
The trainees learned new skills every day. How to properly use a bayonet. How to get a linoleum floor squeaky clean with a toothbrush. How to sight your M-14. How to say - and act out a mime pointing at their rifle and their genitals,
“This is my rifle, this is my gun. One is for shooting and one is for fun!” whenever they made the mistake of calling their rifle a “gun.”
On the firing range, metal barrels with fires burning inside of them, stood ready as each trainee blackened the sight of his rifle before trudging through beach sand to the shooting range.
Targets down range. Pissed off drill instructors screaming at trainees who missed whole targets. Their bullets screaming off in another, undetermined direction while range masters shook their heads sadly at the thought of sending lousy marksmen to Vietnam.
They would surely die if they couldn’t shoot better than that. A good grunt was a good shot. A dead grunt was the one who couldn’t hit the side of a barn. Charlie, their opponent in Vietnam, was a damn good shot, the drill instructors assured the trainees, hoping to motivate them.
Instead, it scared some so badly they panicked and fired blindly. The nearly bald trainees, mostly 19 and 20 year-olds, were clueless about what was happening in Vietnam. Some were still in shock at being drafted and were only thinking of ways to get out before someone put them on a plane to that bad place.
Rafter was blessed with a good eye and steady aim. He turned out to be one of three trainees in the entire company who earned an Expert Marksmanship rating. His platoon drill instructor, Sgt. Christenson, was pleased with him. It made a platoon sergeant look good to have one of the best shots in the company. It also made him look good that Rafter had the highest physical training scores in the company.
The downside, for Sgt. Christenson, was Rafter’s lack of respect for authority. Little things like saying “Drill Sgt! Yes Drill Sgt!” instead of “Okay Sarge” prevented him from being an ideal soldier. Sgt. Christenson stayed awake nights wondering what it would take to straighten him out? He lost a lot of sleep pondering that puzzle.
Rafter continued to do stupid things like whispering, laughing, and farting in formation. Infractions so dire that he was forced to spend hours doing push-ups, kitchen patrol, extra laps, and cleaning toilets with a tooth brush.
It bothered Sgt. Christenson that Rafter had the potential to be a Sgt. York or an Audie Murphy and didn‘t appreciate it. He could be the next hero for his generation. It bothered Sgt. Christenson that a chance of a lifetime was passing him by because of Rafter’s lousy attitude and lack of respect for his superior officers.
To be known as Rafter’s mentor, when he stood before the president of the United States and received the Medal of Honor, would have been a crowning achievement. Such a waste of grand thoughts. In his heart, he knew Rafter would be lucky not to get a dishonorable discharge for his rebellious ways.
When he thought about the situation long enough, he’d seek Rafter out after regular training hours, and make him do push-ups until he got tired of watching.
Graduation Day. Everyone in the company, except Rafter, proudly paraded before a grand stand full of relatives and friends, wearing their new Class A uniforms with private stripes. Martial music blared. The sun glared. Everyone saluted as each company marched by the review stand.
Meanwhile, Rafter shined pots and pans in the company kitchen and butchered the lyrics to “Come Together“ by the Beatles.
His failure to pass a final inspection infuriated the company commander, Captain Miles, who had planned to present him with his Expert Marksman Badge and tell the audience how he set a new record at the base range. Perfection. But no.
The idiot’s locker looked like a bomb had exploded in it, and when reprimanded Rafter shot off his mouth, “Well what are you going to do? Send me to Vietnam?”
So it came to pass that Rafter’s shooting record was silently entered into the base history books by a bored corporal that afternoon.
Orders were cut, and he was sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, a base fondly called “Fort Lost in the Woods” by former graduates who had braved the Big Piney River and woods during night navigation courses and other outside activities. It was especially challenging in the winter.
Rafter arrived in early October 1969, for his advanced individual training (AIT). He was assigned to AIT Bravo Company, 3rd Platoon, 2nd Battalion. The clerk told him to go to supply and get his winter duds. He walked outside, stuck out his tongue to catch the gently falling snow flakes, and went in search of the supply building.
What a different look his new home had. In basic training they had concrete bays, three levels high and lined up in endless rows. Here, the barracks were old vintage wooden buildings used during WW I, with pot-bellied stoves at one end that required a “fire watch” by one of the trainees every night. This was treated the same as being a sentry in a war zone and falling asleep meant big trouble.
The overall effect was depressing for Rafter at first. Perhaps it was the slate gray skies threatening snow or the dilapidated wooden buildings. It could have been a sense of being far from civilization, surrounded by trees in a place so unlike Southern California it was like landing on the moon.
Rafter noted the drill instructors didn’t seem as pissed off as the ones in basic training. They still shouted at the top of their lungs, but not as often. The Army decided to introduce the M-16 and other trainees like Rafter who had qualified with the M-14, had to re-qualify with the new lighter weapon.
It reminded Rafter of a toy. When one of the guys in his squad, Jason Henry, said the stock was made by Mattel Toy Company, Rafter wasn’t surprised. It was quite a shock going from a heavy wooden stock to a light plastic stock that could shatter if you did what you were taught in basic. That is, diving to the ground for safety, using the stock to break your fall. The Mattel stock would shatter with a good body slam like that.
This time, Rafter didn’t get a perfect rifle score. He missed a few. It might have been because he was shooting prone in a pile of snow at white pop-up targets during a snow storm. Or because he had trouble paying attention because of his frostbitten feet.
In any event, he still qualified as an Expert Marksman. With this eagle-eye ability, he should have been sent to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina to train with an infantry unit and become a sniper, but a pissed off Captain Miles at Ft. Ord instructed a bored Army clerk to send him to Ft. Leonard Wood to become a combat engineer.
There he could learn to drive heavy equipment, build bridges, roads, fire bases in hostile places, and mine sweep vital roads. Combat engineers were in big demand in Vietnam. To top it off, he would train in the harsh Missouri winter. As good a revenge as any.
One day the Company Commander, Captain Elias Thorton, asked Rafter if he’d be interested in boxing? The base held weekly “smokers” or boxing matches, and representatives from the companies fought for the glory and whatever perks they could get.
Rafter had never boxed before. Never laced on a pair of gloves. Never hit a speed bag, or heavy bag. He liked watching Muhammad Ali. He told the captain that. The captain said he would train him if he was interested, and the company really needed a heavyweight. Rafter, who’d thrived on Army food, had gained an astounding twenty pounds and now weighed 200 lbs. Right at the weight limit for heavies.
Rafter bluntly asked, “What’s in it for me?” The captain smiled and assured him of special eating privileges (steak every day), no kitchen duty, no fire watches, and a weekend pass once a month to the nearby town of Waynesville, where prostitutes gave military discounts. They shook hands in agreement, a decidedly unmilitary thing to do.
Why did the captain want him to box if he knew Rafter had no experience? Hard to understand unless you knew Captain Thorton. He fancied himself as the trainer for the next Heavyweight Champion of the World. He never stopped looking for prospects. Every training cycle he looked over the men’s records in search of a champion. He literally drooled the day he saw Rafter’s physical test scores. Rafter could be a diamond in the rough. And he was the right man to polish this powerful kid into a champion. All this soldier had to do was listen to him.
Rafter’s first fight was as ugly as it was instructive. With just two weeks of training in the gym he thought he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee just like his favorite fighter Muhammad Ali.
Didn’t happen. His opponent used Rafter’s head for a punching bag for two rounds before he realized it was time to get serious. Halfway through the third and final round, Rafter pushed his shorter opponent back against the ropes and hit him with a solid right, breaking his jaw and sending him to the canvas, effectively ending the fight.
His opponent was one of the toughest heavies on the base and had never been knocked down, let alone out. The crowd broke into cheers, knocked back their beers, and started talking about Rafter as being the next Post Champion.
He fought six more opponents before his chance at the current base champion, Alex Harmon from Columbus, Ohio. They were messy bouts. He got hit a lot. Probably too much, but he always ended up knocking out his opponent. No decisions. His wins were undisputed acts of raw power and little technique. His left ear looked like a wrestler’s might after a long career. His nose was broken twice and looked pudgier than ever by the time he earned the right to fight Alex Harmon.
The big fight. Money was bet. Unit pride flared. Captain Thorton genuinely didn’t want to see Rafter get hurt, but he needed to see if there was a future for him. Knowing if Alex punched him in the head as much as his other opponents did, Rafter would go down like a sack of potatoes, he worked out a plan for him.
“Tie him up and don’t stand back and try to exchange punches,” he instructed. “Batter him inside. Keep your head on his chest and throw body blows.”
Rafter slipped off his warm-up robe and shadow boxed around the tiny locker room. “I think I could, Cap,” he offered.
“You could what? No! Now listen to me, this guy was a Golden Glove champion in Cleveland, Ohio last year. He’s already a member of the regular Army boxing team, and these bouts are just warm-ups for him. His people say he’ll probably qualify for the Olympics.”
Rafter stopped and looked at him. “You do want me to win, don’t you?”
“Of course, I’m just telling you the best way to fight him, okay? Do your work inside. Keep punching in close. Mix in some uppercuts. Solar plexus punches will bring his guard down. Wear him out so he can’t dance around and hit you in the chops. The guy could drop a bull if he gets a clean shot. But if you work on him, punish him, stay close and use your strength, you can win.”
Did Rafter take the Captains’ good advice seriously? Of course not. The moment the bell rang he stood toe-to-toe and within one minute and twenty-two seconds he was looking up from the canvas, surprised he got there but aware of someone counting: “Two..three…four…five…six…seven” Rafter got to his knees. “Eight, nine..” Rafter got up. The ref held his gloves up and looked into his still unfocused eyes and shouted “Fight!”
Alex stepped up and unloaded another combination on him. Rafter took it mostly on his gloves. An animal instinct took over and he reached out and pulled a startled Alex toward him and head-butted his tormentor! Bright red blood spurted from the gash on Alex’s forehead and he backed up in stunned shock.
The gym was impossibly silent for a few seconds. The earth stood still. Then pandemonium broke out. Rafter, his blood up, closed in on Alex and punched him with jackhammers to the body and head. All six-feet four inches and 245 pounds once destined to be a champion was a broken man within a minute. Alex would require three facial surgeries after his mauling.
As he sank to the canvas the referee pulled Rafter away. Alex’s corner men jumped into the ring roaring for revenge! Chaos broke out in the rowdy audience. Beer cans flew.
Captain Thorton’s dream was as shattered as Alex’s face. Rafter was, of course, disqualified and Alex declared the winner. Like it mattered. Neither man would ever box again.
Rafter was lucky to have the Captain in his corner that night as some of Alex’s friends, who dearly wanted revenge for their champion’s beating, might have evened the score. He became an instant Bravo Company legend. His boxing career was over.
Rafter had to settle back into the regular training drudgery like tying knots and learning how to sweep for mines with big, heavy metal detectors that emitted painfully loud screeches at the hint of something metal. Captain Thorton, temporarily stymied in his search for a champion, waited patiently for the new cycle to begin.
Rafter knew he’d end up in Vietnam. Drill instructors since basic made sure he knew. The training cadre at Ft. Lost-in-the-Woods knew that most of the men were bound for Southeast Asia. There was a real need for combat engineers there.
The cadre made sure not to get too close to the soon-to-be-condemned men. They didn’t want to know when they died, or how they died. They became jaded for their own sanity. It was much easier that way.
CHAPER THREE - VIETNAM - Coming April 9th, 2013