Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Bayonet in the Stage

"You are not in Kansas anymore.  You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen.  Respect that fact every second of every day." - COL Quaritch

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning....  Smelled like...victory." - LTC Bill Kilgore

"Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.  He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." - GEN George S. Patton (the movie one)

You know, there's this tendency for Hollywood to portray the military leader in a certain light, one that's quite a bit non-warm and non-fuzzy.  He's (and it's generally a he--women in the military are, if you believe our movie-making brethren, either stupid blondes or tragic victims of their male counterparts) extremely competitive, bloodthirsty, stern of countenance, and fond of uttering his own personal military lingo interwoven with periodic growls and cheers.

Of course, that's not really how we were.  Just sayin'.

Nevertheless, this image is based on a touch of reality, as are most caricatures(*).  It's not like people of all personality types just wake up one day and say, "I think I'm going to go be an infantryman for a while."  People are pulled into that field in part because of the perceived match between their personality and the stereotype.  Besides, the leaders, like it or not, have to occasionally be willing to send the soldiers they've trained with up a hill to their potential death.  It really does take a certain type of person, yet that type of person is still one that in reality doesn't deserve the negative taints that have been applied by the movie theater's artistic brushes.

So all that said--no shit, there we were.  (yes, that's a stereotypical start to a good ole' war story--so sue me)  We'd arrived at West Point, our future collegiate(ish) home and the playground of all the demons we would end up facing.  Days later we'd marched in formation to a theater, filed in, and taken our seats--quietly and with dignity, of course.  We were waiting to receive another briefing by somebody, one of a long string of talks designed to prepare us for the months and years to follow.

They were working to fire us up, playing loud music--um, loudly.  Granted, every morning we woke up to loud music (or a quote from the movie Patton, or something else along those lines), but they didn't always start briefings like that.

Soon enough Colonel Turner, head of our Military Science department, walked out onto stage.  Now, you have to understand that this man looked every bit the military man from the movies--or, perhaps, vice-versa.  Whoever cast COL Quaritch for Avatar may very well have been looking at Colonel Turner's picture as he did so, and when he didn't get a perfect match he added the scars to make Quaritch look as tough as possible.  Colonel Turner didn't need scars, though.  This man was GI Joe and Sergeant Rock mushed into one fictional ball of awesome and blasted into reality.  Every inch of him, from his close-cropped crew cut to his pressed battle dress uniform to his shiny combat boots, screamed "soldier of frickin' awesomeness."

I'm not making this up.  The man was amazing.  Scarily amazing, and amazingly scary.  And he was a pretty good guy, to boot. 

So back to my story--Colonel Turner walked out in front of all 1400(ish) of us wearing full combat gear and toting an M-16 tipped with an un-scabbarded bayonet.  Bare steel, it was.  He marched right out there, the epitome of the finest of America's fighting men, and planted the rifle, bayonet down, into the stage.  BLAM!

Don't try this at home, of course, but the effect is dramatic.  Ask my classmates--everybody I've talked to remembers, if nothing else, the bayonet stuck deeply into that stage.

Anyway, once he was done talking, he walked over to the still-quivering rifle, gave it a final strong tug that sent it into quiver mode, and strode confidently off, the rifle standing at attention like an exclamation mark in the middle of the now-lifeless span of wood. 

Awesome.  Awesome, awesome, awesome.  That was one of those awesome "defining moments" of my awesome cadet experience.  Did I mention it was awesome?

But the story's not over; fast-forward a bit.  West Point also had a sponsor program.  The sponsors were life-savers, sometimes literally, in that they opened their homes and hearts to us as a place to relax, get the stress off our chests, and regain some perspective.  It was wonderful, having this special place on post to go when we needed extra help to stay sane.

My sponsor was Colonel Butzer.  He scared the crap out of me at first because he was somewhere around nine feet tall with at least five hundred pounds of muscle wrapped around his frame.  Okay, I exaggerate.  A little.  But he was a big, big man.  He'd played football for Army back in the '60's, and later had accumulated all sorts of incredible Infantry experience.  He was also a patient, kind, and humorous man, I should add; once I got over my fear of his towering physique I became attached to him.  His wife, meanwhile, was somewhere around normal petite size, but beside him she looked like an itty-bitty fairy princess.  She was every bit the Infantry Colonel's wife, too--pleasant and proper at all times except when it wasn't called for, and then she was a conversational firecracker who laughed and joked right alongside us obnoxious and sometimes-obscene men.

An amazing couple, they were.  He was like the dad that my own late father couldn't be, and she was like a second mom.  In fact, when First Mom was there for graduation and they met my girlfriend, I cherished both her and Mrs. Butzer's opinions equally (luckily they were pretty much the same).

Colonel Butzer also worked directly for Colonel Turner as the second-in-charge of the military science department. He told us a story once--Colonel Butzer, not Colonel Turner.  It had to do with a bayonet quivering in a stage--remember that?  It turned out that the tug Colonel Turner gave the rifle was actually an attempt to dislodge it from the stage so that he could march out of sight holding his weapon.  But he couldn't.  Either he'd misjudged the force of the thrust he'd used to lodge it in the first place, or the wood was stronger than he'd thought it would be. 

Either way, the rifle got stuck.

Later they went back after it in force.  They had to get the stage cleared off, after all, because we also had etiquette briefings (no, I'm not kidding), and those are hard to conduct in a serious manner with an M-16 attached to a bayonet stuck in the stage.  Colonel Butzer confided that it took three or four guys to convince the wood of the stage floor to release its grip on the bayonet. 

And you know what?  Many never knew that the rifle was stuck.  Colonel Turner had gone out and impressed the core of his message indelibly into our hearts and our minds.  Then when something went wrong, he made it look right.

And he cleaned up the mess later, of course.

There's a lesson, there.


* (the male caricature, I should specify--Hollywood's stereotype of the Army woman is so completely opposite the reality of the incredible women with whom I served that it makes me angry to watch)


  1. one of the most memorable moments of my cadet career. Tex was Chuck Norris + George Patton + Tim Tebow all in one