Reserve Officers Training Corps. I learned a lot from ROTC. I learned to avoid the military.
While I was at Penn State, all men were required to take two semesters of ROTC. Continuing on after that was optional, but the advanced ROTC was where they did the neat stuff like going off to summer camp and actually firing weapons. They also got paid, not much, but something.
During freshmen orientation week, the examining doctor said my eyesight was too poor to be eligible for ROTC, so I should sign up for some other three-credit course. I was not opposed to the military, but neither did I desire it, so I did not care much either way. Instead of ROTC, I signed up for Art History where we spent two pleasant afternoons a week sitting in the dark watching slides of the Egyptian, Greek, and European classics. (Asian art, like Asian history, did not exist in the minds of our professors in those days.) I enjoyed the class and can still talk about Giotto and Brunelleschi with some familiarity.
But, midway through my first semester, I found in my mail slot an order to report to the Commandant, IMMEDIATELY! I did as I was told and soon found myself standing before a cartoon version of of a military commander, all spit-and-polish, and medals, and even a cigar and sunglasses, almost identical with the renegade base commander Jack D. Riper in the movie, “Dr. Strangelove.” He may have even talked about preserving my “vital bodily fluids,” but his message was that the medical standards had been lowered and I damn well better sign up next semester. Somehow, it was all my fault.
So, again, I did as I was told. I was put into the Army ROTC. The Air Force ROTC and the Naval ROTC had far more prestige, but misfits were, as always, dumped into the Army.
I was issued a uniform left over from WWI, that consisted of cardboard shoes, a heavy, baggy wool uniform, and a cap that was universally named for a woman’s anatomy. All were a shade of brown that matched what most people flush away each day. The uniform had to be worn on the weekly afternoon “pass in review” parade on the wide grounds in front of the Old Main building, which meant we had to wear it all day long and were subject to the constant hoots and jeers of our classmates. Even sexy, upper class coeds felt free to jeer at us as we moved between classes. That hurt. Our misogynistic sergeant instructor, a career army man, referred to all coeds (also our sisters and girlfriends) as “Mary Jane Rottencrotch.”
But the marching drills were taught in the first semester. “How am I to join the pass-in-review without knowing what I am doing?” I asked my platoon leader, an upperclassman taking the advanced ROTC.
“Just get in the middle and do what everyone else does,” he told me. This turned out to be good advice, and I blended in easily. Once the band hit those first notes of “El Capitan,” I got right into the spirit of it all, and I not only blended, I excelled. My only problem was a tendency to salute with my left hand, being naturally left-handed. He took some time to correct this, because it did leave some officers with a “WTF?” expression.
Besides the parade, we had a weekly class that I really enjoyed. We field-stripped an M1 rifle, and I could, if asked today, still assemble the follower, the follower arm guide, and the follower arm spring. We even field-stripped the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle). After each class, we had to return the weapons to the armory across campus. It was raining on one of the days we did the BAR, and we were told to put the weapon under our raincoat to keep it dry. The thought occurred to me that with the BAR hidden under my raincoat, I could just keep on walking and have a nice souvenir of my ROTC days. The fact that I am here today and not in Ft. Leavenworth is because I resisted that temptation.
The remainder of the instruction was on directing artillery fire, which is not as simple as you may think. You have a triangle of the artillery, the enemy (hopefully), and the forward observer, off to the side. Say the artillery is missing by what looks to the observer to be twenty meters to his left, what do you tell them to adjust to?
It was all fun. The problem was with my second semester, which was the first semester that I missed. They chose just that time to switch the program around, so I was taught the exact same thing all over again. That was the army way, and logic had nothing to do with it. Besides, since I was a semester behind, I could not go on to the advanced ROTC anyway. Without that, it was all a waste of my time and the government’s money.
I did, however, learn to march properly. Try me. “Right oblique, HARCH!” (as we were taught to pronounce “march.”