GEORGE THE TALL CORPORAL – A GI REMEMBERS BASIC TRAINING

By Corporal Martin Weldon – Fort Wadsworth, N.Y.

You probably remember that training film—one in the Fighting Man series—that showed a group of American war prisoners in a German camp. They’re bitterly condemning the Wise Guy, the unrepentant cause of all their grief. He had started on his dangerous career of snafury even in basic training, while they were in maneuvers in Louisiana. This brings a look to the face of the Guy from Brooklyn, “Ah, yes,” says he, his face growing larger in the camera, “good old basic training!”



The first time I saw the movie that line got a great laugh. After all, we were undergoing basic ourselves at the time and, we were convinced, suffering indignity and cruelty unique in military annals. He-soldiers of six weeks that we were, splendid in our shiny helmet-liners and crinkly leggings, we were rugged enough to hoot a round of sardonic hoot at our own expense.

WWII basic training

GIs undergoing basic training.

Well, of course I feel quite differently about basic now—now that it’s over—but this piece was going to be a memory or George, the tall corporal from Indiana. We were in his charge, the new and fearful five of us. He was a sort of tent-mother to us. His job was to live with us, nurse us, show us how to make our combat packs and our beds, how to hang up our gas mask, tell us what to wear at each formation. But there were so many formations and they were called so unexpectedly that George couldn’t keep up with the necessary changes in uniform.  “Fall out,” he’d announce, “fatigues and raincoats and light pack.” Sure enough when we got there, everybody else was in ODs, their packs were fill field and raincoats were folded carefully around their belts.

It got so after a while that George stopped trying to take care of us. Like the warrior Achilles, he just sat there in his tent and sulked.

George was a card sharp with a novel but highly effective technique for securing victims: he admitted he cheated. Admitted is hardly the word. He proclaimed the fact, unasked and aggressively. And of course no one paid serious attention to an assertion so patently ridiculous. As a result George had as many victims as he had time for.

One reason I remember his card games is that they were played on my bed, usually while I was out to the movie. Upon returning I’d find my area ankle-deep in cigarette butts, my mattress cover disgraced, and George gloating, in his serious, chanting way, “You’re a dope, Fahey, you know you shouldn’t play cards with me. Don’t you know I cheat? That’s 17 bucks ahead tonight. That’s $630 ahead so far.”

He could tell you at a moment’s notice how he stood financially in six years of Army gambling. He never lost.

George was a moody man, with an Indian face, and his moods varied widely. In the space of an hour he would snarl at us, laugh with us, deeply ignore us and dig deep into one of his three footlockers and pass out old bleached neckties to remember him by.

One day, in a friendly mood, he gave us a veteran’s advice about the general orders. He had never been able to memorize the 11 rules and appeared to have assumed that all soldiers automatically had the same difficulty. He was honestly trying to help us. “Listen, dopes,” he said, “when that officer comes up to you and asks you what are those damn general orders, here’s what you tell him. He can’t touch you for it. You’re absolutely safe. Stand right up to him and say. ‘Sir, I don’t know the general orders. I’m hard o’ learnin.’”

To this day I don’t know whether George really cheated at cards. At night, with the fire going, we asked him as kids to poppa. He only laughed raucously. But he always refused to play with us, his rookie roommates.

And I know he never lost.



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