I don’t know what got me to thinking about my old college ROTC class the other day. Perhaps it was my note to my publisher in South Dakota in which I lamented my SDSU Jackrabbit’s sudden demise at the NCAA basketball playoffs.
But, whatever it was brought back memories of my two special years of obligatory ROTC service at South Dakota State.
From what I remember, South Dakota State University was what they called a “land grant” university. I never really understood what that phrase meant and I’ve been to lazy to look it up, but one of the duties of those who attended a “land grant” college during those years was to enlist for two years in an ROTC program operated by the Army or the Air Force.
This was during the Vietnam era when just about every second lieutenant that graduated ended up in the jungles of Vietnam. Hence, very few of us who wore the Army green were all that enthused about learning military techniques and tactics.
But, there was no choice about it and I dutifully stood in line at the beginning of the year, waiting to collect my uniform and shoes from the Quartermaster, a guy who looked as if he’d chewed nails for breakfast and ate the boards for lunch. I don’t think he really liked students much.
Our drill instructor was a sergeant major with enough stripes on his sleeves to make a quilt. He had no humor toward college geeks who really didn’t want to be in his presence anyway. He told me once that fighting in the jungle was a piece of cake compared to trying to make a bunch of acne-faced, awkward, clumsy freshmen and sophomore students march in line.
His face would turn vivid red and the veins would stick out in his neck when he called a reverse pivot and all hell broke loose on the drill floor.
I knew our sergeant was in trouble when it came the day for rifle training. We were all issued M-1s, which must have weighed about 10 pounds apiece. The heavy, clumsy rifles were a long way from the sleek Remington .22 caliber that I was fond of using. The Army issued rifles felt like clubs in the hands of my fellow cadets.
We tried learning to march and pivot without tearing each other’s heads and I must admit that my high school experience in marching band really paid off on that ROTC parade floor. I was doing reverse pivots, oblique march and guide right with the best of them. I noticed my sergeant was not yelling at me as much as he was the other cadets. Sergeant Major told me he might even promote me for my expertise. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.
Then we came to the exercises using the rifle. We were taught port arms, order arms, at rest and other maneuvers I can’t remember. But I do remember having to open the bolt of the rifle with one hand and putting your fingers down inside the bolt to release the action.
It was a tricky job to get your fingers out of the rifle without having your thumb come out looking like a swollen red turnip. Blood could be seen scattered across the gym floor as those less accomplished than I mistimed their rifle release. I remember seeing a number of purple thumbnails at the snooker table after that exercise.
But, all good things must end and it ended up the same way with me, ROTC and the Army. My elevated blood pressure eliminated me from continuing on to advance ROTC and I can’t really say I was dismayed about not being promoted. I never really wanted to tour Vietnam anyway.
And, I’m happy to say that our beloved sergeant major finally got his wish and got shipped back for his third tour of duty. When his plane left the ground in Brookings and he gazed down at that ROTC armory with a bunch of college kids marching in the front door, I’d bet a big smile crossed his ruddy face.
See you next time. Okay?