I Soldiered With Charlie

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Charlie and I first met under the most informal conditions imaginable—we were both stark naked. We were not alone in this, for with hundreds of others we were taking a physical examination for acceptance in the first officers’ training camp at Fort Myer, Virginia. The date was May 16, 1917.

On the previous day approximately twenty-five hundred men had descended on the post. Our hopes were high, even though the first latrine rumor most of us heard was that only one in four would be commissioned.

Our company was marched to the post gymnasium early the next morning. Once inside, we were brusquely ordered to strip, then form a single file. It was at this point that the indignities began. As the line entered the first door a hospital corpsman splashed each of us on the chest with a wet sponge. Next another corpsman, armed with an indelible pencil, scrawled a large number on the moist spot for identification. As we passed through a second door, the line never stopping its peristaltic movement, each of us in turn was grabbed by the arm. Some sharp instrument scratched a crosshatching on a spot near the biceps. A damp swab was passed over the lacerated skin, and another vaccination was accomplished.

While we turned our heads to examine our injuries the other arm was seized, and a blunt needle was plunged into it—the first of many, many inoculations. A surprisingly large number of husky men passed out at this point. They were unceremoniously towed out of the way of the procession and propped against the wall, their identifying numbers properly exposed.

Charlie had a huge “35” inscribed on his chest. I followed with a "36.” We were becoming acquainted with each other as the snake dance led us through another door. Here our conversation was abruptly interrupted by a newly commissioned lieutenant of the Medical Corps. He practically jumped at Charlie, snapped a question at him, and made rapid notes on his paper-crowded clipboard.

“Thirty-five,” he barked, striving hard for the tone of command, “what did you do in civil life?”

“Worked in a bank,” Charlie replied with a slight grin.

Perhaps it was the smile that accompanied it, but the answer seemed to infuriate the officer. He glowered at me but without questioning stalked rapidly away.

We came to yet another door. On the far side of it stood the same inquisitor. Spotting Charlie’s number, he hurled another question at him.

”Just what did you do in that bank?”

Charlie grinned the infectious smile that I was later to know so well.

“I ran it.”

In civilian life a man’s mien and clothes give a slight indication of his occupation, but how could anyone even hazard a guess when he was surrounded by hundreds of naked men? Charlie’s physique certainly did not suggest the stereotyped banker. Not tall, but powerfully built, he could readily have been taken for a professional athlete. The answer he gave really upset the questioner.

“What bank was it?”

“My bank, you damn fool!”

The astonished doctor hastily scribbled a note on his memo pad, then angrily rushed away. Charlie turned calmly to me and resumed our interrupted conversation. By this time we had discovered many mutual interests and had begun a friendship that was to last for years.

In the meantime the grapevine, starting from the rear of our file of unclad officer-candidates, had passed on the word to be careful how we answered the apparently innocent questions asked of us as we moved through door after door. The interrogation was being conducted, it was said, by psychiatrists, and a wrong answer could mean no commission at all.

Charlie was sure he had muffed his chance and was therefore not at all surprised to be ordered to the base hospital that afternoon for a special examination. Hallucinations! Thinks he owns a bank!

He rejoined the company a few hours later.

“Are you nuts, Charlie?”

“Sure. We’re all nuts to be here.”

He pitched in with us in the laborious task of issuing uniforms and equipment. With both arms painfully damaged by the morning’s experience, this turned out to be real, unrelenting hard work for bodies unaccustomed to such physical exertion. Taps came at eleven o’clock, but we were kept at it until the job was done to the company commander’s satisfaction. Our second night in the army was notably short. Reveille found us up and in line, if not awake, before dawn.

Charlie and I were of about the same height, and thus we were placed in the same squad. He was thirtyone, ten years older than I and infinitely more sophisticated. It was fascinating and informative to get him talking when opportunity offered.