Midway through my enlistment period in the United States Army I was assigned to the Directorate of Combat Development to work for a high ranking Colonel at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Col. Petty was a very strong-minded, detailed-oriented person charged with a division responsible for creating new weapons and integrating them into the military.
He was a no nonsense type of leader and always expected everyone to carry out their orders perfectly at all times. He was also known to reassign subordinates due to failure, or for other shortcomings he deemed not appropriate for successful delivery of a product.
Once while walking out of a building after a long meeting, upon two Sergeants failing to salute him, he stopped, turned back and addressed them in a stern voice, “Sergeants! Do you not see the rank on my hat! You’re supposed to salute an officer; this better not happen again!” As soon as the Colonel addressed them they realized they better stand at attention and provide a proper salute. Which they did, and apologized profusely as the Colonel turned back around and walked away.
By the time of this assignment as an enlisted member of the Army I had already been promoted three times within a 18 month period and would be up for a fourth promotion, to Sergeant from SP4. So I was never worried about being able to work in a high pressure environment, even though I was only 19 or 20 years old at the time.
I had an immediate supervisor, SGT Novotny, and a Sergeant Major, SGM Larson that I reported to, but I spent most of my time around Col. Petty. A few of us enlisted personnel shared areas of responsibility including setting up A/V equipment in the conference room and assisting civilian staff with various tasks. But I was the only person in the building tasked with driving Col. Petty to his appointments, either to different buildings in the post, or somewhere off base like the Boeing headquarters. So pretty much I was usually not bothered by other staff in the office, including officers and enlisted members because they knew I worked for Col. Petty.
The job had its perks too, like frequenting the Officer’s Club for an occasional snack or beverage, meeting high ranking officials from the Ronald Reagan administration, or simply making my own work schedule, although always mindful of the Colonel’s meetings for the day.
Because I had to be at work early every day – by 6:30 each morning I was at the motor pool picking up the military sedan – I was normally excused from physical training (PT), and apparently that caused some friction with the other military personnel in the building. Especially the Sergeant Major. If I had to describe SGM Larson I would say he was a little like Sergeant Carter from the Gomer Pyle TV show, but a lot like Archie Bunker too, the old and opinionated character on the 1970’s sitcom All in the Family. Foul mouth and all.
There was this one particular time when Col. Petty was to be attending meetings in Washington D.C., at the Pentagon, and this included a Friday, a normal PT day scheduled for all, including the officers and high ranking NCO’s in our building.
Thursday afternoon the Sergeant Major called me to his office and told me in no uncertain terms that I was to be at PT in the morning, and that he didn’t want any excuses from me. He went on to say that I had already missed too many training sessions and there was no reason for me not to be there. I can still remember him saying, “Look it, Cromack! I know the Colonel’s not going to be here tomorrow so you better be at PT in the morning!” I assured him I’d be there, but still not believing me he continued, “If you’re not there in the morning I’m going to be very upset and I’m going to take it out on all of you guys tomorrow.” Again, I assured him I’d be at formation in the morning, and not to worry. I wasn’t sure why he had taken this attitude since all of the days I missed physical training was due to my work schedule and not that I was goofing off.
Later in the day SGT Novotny came by and told me the Sergeant Major had talked to him and made it his responsibility to make sure I was at PT the next day. SGT Novotny pleaded with me “Cromack! You gotta be there tomorrow, okay?” And so by the end of the day it seemed everyone in the building was interested to see whether I would show up the next morning or not.
But as I mentioned, at this point I’m also wondering why the big fuss since most of the time I’ve had a legitimate reason for not attending PT. But regardless, now I know what’s at stake for tomorrow and probably should make an effort to attend PT in the morning, no matter what. And nobody wanted the Sergeant Major ranting and raving the next day, especially with the Colonel gone.
I always make sure to set my alarm before I go to bed at night and certain I set it that night, I went to bed thinking I’d prove everyone wrong in the morning, or at least show them that they were overreacting.
Sure enough, I wake up on time, get dressed and start getting ready to leave. Headed out the door, it’s still dark and a bit cold as well. However when I try to start the car, nothing. Just a click. Click. Click. And then nothing again. Oh no! So I pop the hood open and check for any loose cables, the distributor cap is on well, the battery clamps are on tight, I can’t see anything visibly wrong. So I get in the car again and try one more time but still nothing. At this time I realize I’m running out of time and need to figure out how I’m going to get to the base from my apartment off base.
Remembering I have SGT Novotny’s telephone number I head back inside the apartment and dial his number. His wife answered, and I asked if John is there. In her soft Korean accent, she tells me, “No Walter, John’s gone.”
Well, now I’m really running out of time, and I’m running out of options too. And all this time I’m running the events from the previous day in my mind, and know there will be hell to pay, for everyone, not just me, if I don’t show up at formation very soon.
So now I know there’s only one thing to do to get out of this jam that I’m in. Having promised everyone that I’d be there just made things worse. I need to start running to the base, and very quickly, if I’m to make it on time. (Queue the “Run Forrest, Run!” music here.)
In the dark and cold morning I talk off running, literally sprinting down the street, with dogs barking on either side wondering exactly how many miles it is to the headquarters building where everyone is assembling.
Luckily the apartment I rented was located towards the base of the mountains, not too far from the Army hospital, William Beaumont Army Medical Center, so it was not too much of a strain, as the majority of the run was downhill.
So I get to the entrance gate manned by MP’s, show my ID and keep running to fall into formation. Upon arrival to where other troops were forming, I tried to play it cool and pretend all is well, and I even let the Sergeant Major know I was there.
So now training begins and we go through the usual 15 minutes or so of warm ups and calisthenics. But by the end of the first session I start getting tired and now wonder how in the world I’m going to be able to complete not just the exercise session, but soon we’ll start a three mile run. Oh no! I have to run again!
As I said before, I arrived at formation trying to remain inconspicuous fearing I would be the butt of all jokes the rest of the day. And I didn’t want the Sergeant Major to know he got the best of me either, this time anyway.
Somehow I made it through the run without falling out of formation, and no one is the wiser, and I think I’m done with my ordeal. Having returned back to the headquarters building, we are dismissed from formation and those who live off base head to their cars to go home, with just enough time to shower, eat breakfast and be back on time to put in a normal day’s work.
But now another dilemma: Do I ask for a ride back to my apartment and risk the grief I’m going to get at work?
Looking around to find Sergeant Novotny, I find him, swallow my pride, and ask him for a ride home. Knowing the gig is up, I tell him what happened hoping not too many would find out at work. I especially didn’t want the Sergeant Major to know because then he’d be gloating the whole day telling everyone he made me attend PT. Anyway, as I walk into the building, I hear the first shout of the day, “Hey, Marathon Man! Glad you made it to work!”
And so the moral of the story: When you’re running out of options, make sure you run downhill!