I once told another editorial writer that having been in the Army was the second most educational experience of my life. (The first was raising teenagers.) He asked why, and once more I was obliged to back up a hasty opinion. His question got me thinking, and remembering:
I was not a very good soldier. I should make that clear from the first. I lacked the natural instinct, and envied those who had it. At ROTC summer camp, I admired the way my buddy Willie Griffin could tuck a couple of pillows deep into his bunk just so, and pass any bed check while he headed out for a night on the town. Well, such a town as Lawton, Oklahoma, was in the 1950s.
Willie would saunter in just before dawn next morning ready to move, shoot and communicate - the three cardinal virtues of the artillery. After knowing Willie, I never again underestimated anybody out of VMI.
I also knew I could never get away with something like that - didn't have the instinct. I'd make some dumb mistake. To quote the officer who was delivering a critique of my single day as battery commander during summer camp: "That was Cadet Greenberg's fatal error."
It's a phrase that has stayed with me, recurring with depressing regularity ever since. Like when noticing the crucial flaw in an editorial only after it appears in the paper.
I still remember the day, about halfway through our gunnery course, when the light dawned. Eager to share my amazing discovery, I turned to the guy next to me and whispered, "Hey, do you realize this is all just trig?"
He just looked at me. It was the look you'd give a well-meaning idiot, or a small child who came running to inform you that two plus two is four.
My only hope in ROTC was to go by the book. The Army could teach a chimp to move, shoot and communicate - if the chimp would just do it step by step. Which is what I made up my mind to do. I knew it was the only way I'd make it through.
Result: I must have been the most annoying safety officer at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was certainly a general pain to my superiors, who knew their men and their guns, and were quite comfortable with a hairline flaw on the surface of a shell. ("Good enough for government work.")
But here was this green young lieutenant who'd ask them to put that in writing, sir, before he'd let them fire it out of the tube. Only then would they mutter some less than flattering exclamation and order the round put aside.