11 November 2004

Good Soldier Outlier: Two Commanding Officers

During my stint as company clerk of HQ Co., 95th Civil Affairs Group, in Ft. Gordon, GA, in 1970-71, I served under two commanding officers (COs): one white, one black, both former enlisted men.

The white captain was a grizzled, foul-mouthed, unambitious hillbilly who took good care of his men but otherwise wasn't officer material. However, I believe he had received a battlefield commission, which would indicate a capacity for inspirational leadership under extraordinarily dire circumstances--when push came to shoot, to coin a phrase.

I don't remember his name, but I would sometimes get mysterious phone calls from supply sergeants or mess sergeants in other units with whom he had worked out some mutually advantageous exchange of rations or equipment. And on one occasion I became embroiled in his defense of one of his greenest soldiers, a 17-year-old who had bought a ring on credit from a jewelry store in Augusta whose letterhead motto was "Serving servicemen for over 50 years"--or words to that effect.

The owner had written to ask the CO to intervene and force his lowly private to stop defaulting on his ring payments. The CO was not sympathetic, and asked me to draft a letter saying the jeweler should have known better than to extend credit to a minor without an adult cosigner. In my response I included a gratuitous rhetorical slap at the end, asking whether the store's motto might be more accurately rendered, "Serving ourselves at the expense of servicemen for over 50 years." He read it, grunted, and signed it. I posted it, and we never heard anything more about that soldier or his ring.

Capt. Parham was the opposite in almost every respect: all spit-and-polish, demanding yet diplomatic, ambitious for himself and his men, and determined to make a difference. He was an inspiring boss.

In an effort to improve relations with the off-base community, he organized an excursion to Gracewood State School and Hospital for the mentally retarded, just down Tobacco Road a ways. (Tobacco Road runs right into Ft. Gordon.) We were all in uniform and caused quite a stir, with many shouts of "Look at all the soldier boys! Look at all the soldier boys!"

Capt. Parham and I were both taking college courses toward a degree, and I typed up more than a few of his term papers. One of them was about Flannery O'Connor, I remember. I took two extension classes from Augusta College: a physical anthropology course and then a humanities course that was mostly Greek and Roman classics. I remember reading Plato during one all-night shift guarding the motor pool.

It was during Capt. Parham's time that a chess fad passed through the Orderly Room. In fact, he probably initiated it. I've never played much chess, but at that time I happened to know precisely one opening, the Queen's Gambit, which I put to good use the one time I couldn't avoid a challenge. I checkmated my opponent in about 3 moves, acquired a reputation as a chess genius, and no one challenged me again. At least not until Capt. Parham brought in a checkerboard one day, challenged me, and proceeded to wipe my checkers off the board in short order.

Capt. Parham had ambitions for his men, too. And I let him down big time. It wasn't just that I didn't meet his high standards of spit and polish. He recommended me for NCO (Non-Commissioned Officers) school, and I was too stupid to know what I was getting into. It wasn't until I got to Ft. McClellan, AL, and met a few representatives of my prospective cohort that I started getting cold feet, despite their enthusiasm about the presence of so many women on base at the WAC School there. Fortunately, I was asked as soon as I reported for duty whether I really wanted to be there. I replied, "No, sir!" and was on the next bus back to Ft. Gordon.

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