Under the Texan Sun
"Johnson, these need to get filled right away. The captain wants
"Yessir," I sighed. Chubby, buzz-cut, and bespectacled Lieutenant
Blankman dropped a stack of special duty requests in the middle
of my desk and scurried out the door. I began to pick through the
pile to locate those most urgent. This could be the start of
another sixteen-hour day, I thought.
What a duty assignment. As an athletically challenged
twenty-three year old, twenty-pound overweight rock musician, I'd
conscripted into Uncle Sugar's Big Green Machine. I'd
been drafted in the late summer of 1969 and had managed, by dumb
luck and benign neglect, to survive the rigorous eight week
course of basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After
an additional eight weeks of advanced training at Forts Jackson
and Benjamin Harrison, I finally emerged as a PFC Personnel
Management Specialist, MOS 71H30 ... a new soldier armed with a
typewriter in the utmost defense of his nation! And now, situated
at Fort Hood, in the veritable armpit of Texas, my military
survival was in jeopardy because I could barely keep up with the
ever-increasing load of requests for special duty personnel. I
held about a dozen of those requests in my hand and sighed.
For the past two months I'd been handling Enlisted Special Duty
Assignments, while being slowly barbecued by the Texas heat on
the second floor of one of the Weber Grill-like beige
wooden buildings, green roofed to maximize radiant broiling, that
housed the offices of the 1st Armor Division
Adjutant General. An allegedly gravy position – at least
that's what the guy I replaced in that small one-man office told
me. "Pull personnel records for the one or two daily requests,"
he said. "Type them up, get them signed, then take it easy, or go
hide someplace," he advised as he ghosted away.
That idyllic scenario lasted for about a week. With many veterans
returning to Fort Hood from the war in Vietnam, the number of
special duty requests from division had increased exponentially
in an attempt to keep everyone busy. In spite of my best efforts,
I was falling further behind, with Lieutenant Blankman constantly
on my case to hurry and get more and more done.
Forty-five minutes later he was back at my desk with another load
of requests. "Johnson, these need to get filled right away. The
captain wants them."
I stopped typing and looked up at him – a big, pink
"What about this bunch you brought me before, sir?"
"Those have to get out right away, too. But these need to be done
"So those have to be done right away, and these have to be done
sooner than right away?"
The lieutenant considered this briefly. "Correct." He glanced at
his watch. "So you'd better stop asking questions and get going."
He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, turned, and
skittered out. Like a hamster. A hamster scurrying back and forth
in its glass cage. A hamster that looked like a tan marshmallow.
A tan marshmallow with shiny brass and glasses.
Twenty minutes later he popped back in. "Johnson, did you finish
with those other assignments I gave you?"
I stopped typing. "The right-aways or the
He sighed and rolled his eyes. "The ones I gave you earlier."
"Oh, the right-aways. Well, sir, I was working on these
– the sooner-than-right-aways you brought me a few
The lieutenant put his marshmallow hands on his hamster hips and,
in an authoritative manner taught at officer's basic, leaned
forward in a commanding pose. "I told you I needed THOSE right
away. The captain will be looking for them!"
"But sir, you said you needed these
sooner-than-right-aways sooner than right away and
sooner than the right-aways."
"Don't confuse the issue! When I say right away, I
MEAN right away!"
"But sir ...."
The lieutenant nervously looked at his watch. "The captain's
going to have my ass if these assignments aren't done right away
and it'll be all your fault ...." He punctuated
the remainder of his statement with a pudgy index finger pointed
at my nose, "... and then there WILL be
trouble." He let that sink in for a moment, then spun around and
disappeared down the hall, back into his cage. Buried deep in the
trenches of the paperwork war, I should've earned a medal at that
moment for not giggling at his performance. Remember, the
command relationship is built on mutual respect –
at least that's what they kept telling us.
A flush ran through my body and made me as hot on the inside as I
was on the outside. Catch-22, I thought. I'll get busted. Fort
Leavenworth, here I come. I took a deep breath, stared at the
page in the typewriter, and resumed my furious pounding.
I hadn't been at it long when I heard the downstairs screen door
bang shut. Someone stomped up the creaky wooden stairs and turned
into the lieutenant's office. The bellowing tone of the voice,
although muffled, was recognizable: leather-skinned, hard-bodied,
by-the-book, chew-'em-up-and-spit-'em-out Master Sergeant Stone
of the 16th Engineer Battalion.
My stomach jumped. I tried to type, but couldn't concentrate. I
stopped and listened. Heavy steps were moving out of the
lieutenant's office, coming closer. Another set of lighter, quick
steps made by someone scrambling to catch up with the heavy
steps. The image in my head was not pretty, but they say that
war is hell. I sat with my fingers poised over the
keyboard. Perspiration dripped down my neck.
Sergeant Stone stormed in clutching a bunch of orders, which he
thrust in my face. The lieutenant was right behind him,
stretching to see around the bulk of his shoulder. "What the hell
is this shit, Johnson?" the red-faced sergeant bellowed.
"Yeah, what is this, Johnson?" chimed the lieutenant in a futile
attempt to maintain his authority.
I looked at the crumpled papers in the sergeant's fist. I looked
at the lieutenant peeking over his shoulder. My nervousness began
to fade. Anticipation of the confrontation had been worse than
the actual event. My brow wrinkled. "It appears to be shit from
this office, sergeant," I calmly replied.
"You're damn right it's shit from this office!" He
slammed the papers onto my overflowing desk. "How do you expect
me to run my battalion when you keep taking my men for these
chicken-shit assignments of yours?"
"Yeah, Johnson, how do you?" the lieutenant added.
Twinges of anger prodded my innards. "Your battalion seems to
have the greatest number of chicken-shit-qualified men."
The sergeant's face got redder. He gritted his teeth. "I don't
give a rat's ass how friggin' qualified they are
– get 'em from somewhere else, you understand?"
"Understand, Johnson?" squeaked a hamster-like echo from the
back. "Let's help out the sergeant, okay?" the lieutenant meekly
glanced at Master Sergeant Stone. The sergeant turned, pushing
past the lieutenant without another word, and stomped down the
stairs. His parting was palpable, and his absence was almost as
powerful as his presence had been.
"I don't know about you, Johnson. Lotta problems. You'd better
get moving on those assignments. The captain is waiting," he
said, pointing to his watch as he left. His parting was
insubstantial, and his absence was almost as faint as a fading
I decided to skip lunch, and in three hours I was finished. The
small fan on my file cabinet didn't help to negate the effect of
the Texas sun baking our AG building; it turned the 90-plus
degree heat in the office into a 90-plus degree breeze. Sweat
caused by the temperature dripped down my forehead. Sweat caused
by my nerves ran down from under my arms inside my khaki shirt.
Dry Texas heat my poor sore eye.
I bunched together the big stack of assignments and hurried down
the hall to the lieutenant's office so he could sign off on them.
A slight feeling of relief washed over me.
The lieutenant was at his desk, reading some kind of a report. I
placed my stack right in front of him. "Here are those
assignments, sir," I said, a bit out of breath.
He glanced up at me, then grabbed a pen and began flipping
through the papers, lifting the lower corner of each to scribble
his name on the signature line of the next. "I don't know what
I'm gonna do, Johnson. I've got the captain on me, waiting for
these things, and now Sergeant Stone is giving me a hard time
about the special duty assignments – and look at all this
stuff here," he said, gesturing to the two-inch, neatly stacked
pile in his in-box. "I just don't know how I'll get everything
YOU don't know anything, I thought ... not a clue. All YOU have
to do is sign this stuff. I have to pull records and check status
and type requests and deliver forms and get orders cut and
everything else ... and you complain.
The lieutenant finished, dropped his pen on the desk, and rubbed
his hand. "I need a break," he said. "I'm going out for awhile."
He pulled his garrison cap out of the otherwise empty top drawer,
pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and left, colliding
with the desk on his way out.
I stared at the abandoned pen. It wasn't sizzling or smoking. It
wasn't even out of ink. I sighed, picked up the papers and went
downstairs to the captain's office. Captain MacDougal was there,
leaning back in his chair, feet propped up on a bottom desk
drawer, reading the Wall Street Journal.
"Sir, here are the Special Duty assignments you were waiting
for." I held them out to the captain. The captain set his paper
in his lap and took the stack, a puzzled expression on his face.
He flipped through them.
"I was waiting for these?" he asked.
"According to Lieutenant Blankman, sir."
"Oh." The captain smiled and tossed the assignments on his desk.
"Thank you, Private. That will be all." He picked up his
Wall Street Journal and went back to reading. I
stood there a moment, deflated, then saluted and left. Stupid
lieutenant was my immediate thought, then stupid
PFC instantly succeeded it as a more credible conclusion.
Back in my office, I slouched in my chair. I can't go on like
this, I thought. I don't get paid enough. I need a raise –
or a transfer – or a Section 8 discharge. All three would
A day later my prayers were answered ... almost. There were
rumors of a levy coming down for Germany. If only my name could
be somewhere on that reassignment of personnel listing from the
Department of the Army. The Deutschland. Nice weather, nice beer,
nice fräuleins. No more Lieutenant Blankman. Nice
fräuleins. No more special duty assignments. Nice beer. No
more Master Sergeant Stone. Nice fräuleins. No more Fort
Hood. Nice fräuleins.
PFC Riley from across the hall came into my office with a green
and white computer printout in his hand.
"Got the levies here. They just came in." He dropped the printout
on my desk. I got up and walked around and stood next to him.
"Germany ...." He ran a finger through the three pages of the
German levy. "Nothing."
"You said levies."
"Yeah. One came for Korea, too,"
He flipped to the Korean version. His finger ran down the first
page, second page – it stopped in the middle of the third.
I looked where he pointed and there it was: 71H30,
Johnson, Wayne E., et cetera, et cetera. Korea? At least
it wasn't Vietnam, but it wasn't Germany either. Korea?
"Looks like you're outta here."
"I don't want to go to Korea. It's cold and nasty and
everything's always gray. Didn't you see Gregory Peck in Pork
"It was a black-and-white movie."
"You just thought it was."
He flipped the printout closed. "Well, maybe the lieutenant can
get you out of it."
"The lieutenant can't even get himself out of his office without
running into the desk."
"Hmm. I guess you'd better start practicing with chopsticks."
The next day I stood in front of the lieutenant's desk. "Johnson,
they specifically requested a 71H30," he told me. "You're the
only one on that whole levy. Sorry." And that was that.
I trudged back to my office. At least I could maybe get a
promotion and raise before I left. Turning to the small shelf
beside my desk, I pulled out the Army regs, flipped to the
section on enlisted promotions and read down the page. Never
happen. I'd need waivers for both time in service and time in
grade, supported by a recommendation from my superior officer.
And even with the maximum waivers allowed, not to mention the
futility of getting some glowing praise from Lieutenant Blankman,
I'd still be short on both counts. I leaned back and pondered my
situation. I thought, "What the hey. Why should I let being
tremendously unqualified stand in my way? If the Army got rid of
all the unqualified people in its ranks then it would resemble
the Marine Corps ... and with two Marine Corps,
America would be twice as dangerous!
Incompetence is better, friendlier, much more practical."
I shoved the manual back into its slot and went over to my file
cabinet and searched through the folders for blank promotion and
waiver request forms. I found some and stuck the first sheet in
my typewriter. Special duty assignments could wait.
The next morning I was in before sun-up as usual. By the time
everyone else arrived, I had a good bunch of assignments
finished. I took my promotion form, waiver requests, and gushing
recommendation and slipped them into the middle of the stack. My
stomach knotted slightly as I headed down the hall and neared the
There he was, sitting at his desk, leaning over a few sets of
orders. I held out the papers. "Here are some more things for you
to sign, sir."
He took the pile and began scribbling. It was still early and he
wasn't in a hurry yet, so he read over each one briefly before he
signed. This supervisory action needs to be nipped in the bud, I
thought. I glanced at his in-box. The paper stack looked taller.
"Looks like you've got your work cleaned up from yesterday, sir."
The lieutenant stopped writing. "Cleaned up? See that?" he said,
pointing to the pile in his in-box. "You should only know how
much I have to do." Mildly agitated, he began signing the papers
again, without reading them. "And I've got the captain on me
waiting for these ... and now this Sergeant Stone thing which I
have to straighten out ... which YOU have to
straighten out before he goes to the captain ... I've got a lot
of pressure and responsibility in this position, you know ...."
I tuned out his pitiful ramblings and nodded occasionally while I
stared at the papers in front of him. The lieutenant babbled on
until he signed them all. I felt a tremendous rush of relief. He
hadn't spotted my forms.
"... and that's just the beginning." The flustered lieutenant
gazed at the center of his desk. "I need a break." He grabbed his
garrison cap from his top drawer and headed out past me, banging
into the corner of his desk.
I picked up the papers and dashed down the stairs to the
captain's office. The captain looked as if he hadn't moved since
yesterday – feet propped on a desk drawer, reading the
Wall Street Journal. I saluted while reporting.
"Good morning, sir. These need to get out right away."
The captain put down the Journal, sat up, and
returned the salute. He took the papers from me and raised the
corner of each one in turn to sign off underneath Lieutenant
"Here you go, son." He handed them back.
"Here I go, SIR!" I replied, almost gleefully,
as I saluted and bolted out the door and on to the company
Before noon I had all the required signatures. As I'd hoped, no
one had questioned the waivers or recommendation. I supposed each
officer who signed had foolishly assumed that the previous
endorser knew what he was doing. Now all I needed was to have
orders cut. I skipped up the wooden stairs to the print shop as I
had done practically every day since I'd been at Fort Hood, only
this time it was earlier and I was happier. I opened the door and
stepped up to the counter.
"Hi, Joe," I called to the Spec-4 at one of the presses. He
returned the greeting, wiped ink off his hands, and walked over.
"You're early today. Usual stuff? Be ready tomorrow p.m."
"Well ... actually I need a favor ...."
"Look, I told you guys before: if I get caught reproducing any
porno here again I'll be breakin' rocks. Can't you understand
"Rest, Joe." I pulled my sheets out of the middle of the stack.
"Could you cut these orders by three today?"
Joe grimaced and sighed. "I'm really backed up ...." He looked
them over. "Hey, these are for you!" he said
with a half smile.
"Yeah, and I really need to get them to Admin and into my records
so I can get a raise by payday. Could you do it?"
Joe raised his eyebrows. "If you can do me a favor."
I figured that. "What?"
"It's not even for me. Julie's cousin, John Schulman, PFC, is
here back from 'Nam and he's getting a lot of bullshit from his
master sergeant. John's a good guy, easy-going, kind of skinny
and bookwormy. He got chewed up with shrapnel and got a Purple
Heart. I don't know why the sergeant's picking on him. Anyway ...
could you give him some special duty – away from his
"Where's he at?"
"The 16th Engineers."
I cringed. Not Master Sergeant Stone, of all people. "I don't
know ... I ...." I took a breath and thought. Joe held up my
order request and looked expectantly at me.
"What do you mean kind of skinny?" I asked.
"I think when he had his private stripes sewn on, they had to
wrap them around his arms twice."
"Can he swim? Or even just flap his arms and kick so it looks
like he can?" I asked.
"I've seen him floating around the pool – in the deep end
– face up even."
"Close enough. I'll make him a lifeguard at one of the beaches."
"Hey, thanks. I'll tell Julie."
The beach I had in mind was on a lake out in the boonies at a far
end of this huge fort, and was never crowded. That would give
Schulman a chance to practice swimming if he needed it.
"You can come back about one to pick these up," Joe said with a
wave of my paperwork.
At one, I was ready to grab my promotion orders and head off to
Finance. I ran up the stairs to the print shop and flung the door
My excitement had me asking as I passed through the doorway, "Got
my orders, Joe?"
"Uh, yeah, but ...."
But? ... what do you mean by saying "But?"
"Snyder spotted something," he said in a loud whisper. "He wants
to talk to you." Joe turned toward Lieutenant Snyder, seated at
his desk in the back of the shop. "Johnson's here, sir," he
called, then turned back to me and said quietly, "This won't
affect the deal with Schulman, will it?"
I sighed. "Not unless I get court-martialed in the meantime."
The lieutenant made his way to the front and leaned on the
counter with my papers in his hand. "PFC Johnson, it seems
something isn't right here on this request of yours."
"It's right here ... there, sir."
"No problem with the request for orders, but these waivers are
out of line."
"Could be, sir. My typewriter is very old."
"When I say out of line I mean you're way short on time
in service and time in grade to be able to get a promotion."
"Really, Johnson." He looked me in the eye. "You work in
Personnel and check records all day long, and you know what I
"I surely don't, sir, but I bet you're going to tell me."
"I think that you knew you were short on both counts and pushed
these waivers and this glowing testimonial through, hoping that
no one would bother to read them before signing off."
"I can't imagine dedicated, responsible officers in positions of
authority would not read something they were signing, can you,
sir? ... I mean, you certainly did, sir."
The lieutenant pursed his lips. "You handle Special Duty
Assignments don't you?"
"For enlisted men. PFC Riley assigns officers."
The lieutenant leaned in closer and lowered his voice. "I
understand division is looking for a lieutenant-type special-duty
officer to take charge of the grounds at the Officer's Club Golf
"If I were that officer, I'd probably be too busy getting my
files squared away before I left here to notice any discrepancies
in promotion orders passing through this office."
"Um-hmm. I'll be right back, sir."
Ten minutes later, I returned. The lieutenant was still by the
"Sir, PFC Riley's typing the request now. By this time tomorrow
you should see the paperwork in here."
"Thank you, Johnson. Here are your orders," he said, grinning ear
to ear, handing me the papers.
"Yes, sir," I saluted and hustled out the door to the Finance
office. That favor had cost me a night of taking guard duty for
Riley. And the thought of another impending confrontation with
Sergeant Stone over Schulman tied my stomach in a knot. But so
what? I was a short-timer now. I could take it. No
matter how miserable my last days might be, I could take it.
I turned copies of my orders in at the Finance desk. Then it was
over to Admin to slip a copy in my files, and finally to the PX
to pick up a set of Specialist-4 shields, commonly known
as bird umbrellas. I stitched them on one of my khaki
shirts by hand that night.
My telephone rang off the hook all of the next morning and early
afternoon. The temperature was in the nineties again and I was
hot and frazzled. Just after two, the inevitable call came.
"Specialist Johnson, sir," I answered the phone.
"You stay right there. I'm on my way over!" The caller slammed
down the receiver. He didn't have to identify himself. Even if I
were deaf, I could identify Master Sergeant Stone from the
vibrations of the sound waves pumped out by the 95-plus decibels
of his voice.
It wasn't long before the downstairs door slammed. Then came the
heavy footsteps up the stairs, down the hall past the
lieutenant's office toward mine – and there he was in all
of his red-faced, sweating, nostril-steaming glory. But I had my
promotion, I had my extra pay, I was leaving ... and I didn't
The sergeant held a crumpled up piece of paper that I thought I
recognized as the requisition I'd typed for Schulman's lifeguard
"What the hell kind of bullshit is this?!!" Stone bellowed.
"Didn't I make myself clear? Did some of the shit that's in your
head fall down into your ears and plug 'em up?" He leaned over
the desk, slammed the paper ball down in front of me and glared.
"Goddamn lifeguard at the beach? And Schulman?" He squinted. "Why
do you want that little worm-dicked weasel?" he asked,
I reached to the right side of my desk and flipped through the
listing of Military Occupational Specialties. "Weasel ... weasel
... hmm. There's no MOS for weasels, big or little. And
if you've got a weasel, with the reproductive organ of a worm no
less, your battalion is not authorized to have one, so I'd just
as soon take it for a lifeguard. Although a weasel is a
carnivore, I believe that the specter of punishment rendered by
an Article 15 would encourage it to rescue the helpless rather
than eat them." I held my chin and looked directly at Stone.
"What do you think?"
Leaning massively over the paper ball on my desk, he tried to
intimidate me by moving further into my personal space. "I think
I ought to grab you by your wise-ass chicken neck and shove this
paper down your throat until it comes out your wise ass, you
wise-ass," he hissed.
Just then the lieutenant passed, leafing through a handful of
paperwork as he walked. He seemed much more hurried and hassled
than usual. A batch of the papers slipped out of his hands in
front of my door. When he swore and stooped to pick them up, the
lieutenant saw Master Sergeant Stone. He bunched the sheets
together and came into the office. "What's your problem,
sergeant?" he said wearily. I detected some agitation in his
"Special duty bullshit from this office, that's my problem. It's
always my damn problem. But this time –"
The lieutenant sighed and broke into his complaint. "Sergeant,
like you, we have jobs to do. We don't make these assignments up.
Johnson ..." he glanced at me, "... SPECIALIST
Johnson has to get men for special duty for me because the
captain requests them; the captain requests them because the
colonel requests them. If you have a problem with that I suggest
you take it up with division."
Thus spake Lieutenant Blankman? I was shocked. Apparently the
sergeant was shocked too, because there was a moment of dead
silence. The sergeant snatched the wadded paper off my desk and
"Keep doing what you have to do, Johnson," said the lieutenant.
I faced the typewriter, but out of the corner of my eye I could
see the lieutenant staring at me. He looked puzzled, but a nearly
imperceptible smile appeared on his face.
"Congratulations on your promotion."
"Thank you, sir," I said, avoiding eye contact. The lieutenant
turned and walked out ... without stumbling or scurrying or
clipping any furniture. Then he backed up and stood again just
outside the door.
"Johnson, wasn't I supposed to sign those promotion orders?"
"You did, sir."
Nothing ... and then he uttered a meditative "Hmm." What little
there was to his smile disappeared as he turned down the hall to
by Wayne E. Johnson
... who is a Vietnam-era veteran, a part-time writer and
ghostwriter, a children's book illustrator and book designer. His
articles and short stories have appeared in The Chicago
Tribune, Tooling and Production,
The Herald, The Journals of Father Nick
Thomas, and Rivulets. He edited and
designed the nonfiction hardcover book Making It In
Hollywood for Gail O'Donnell and Michele Travolta; and has a
screenplay under consideration. An earlier version of this work
was previously circulated among the members of the Napperville