REVISITING THE PARK | Life in 'this man's Army'

In 1957, I thought about a vacation to California, but it certainly wasn’t with Uncle Sam. 

Stepping off the bus in California, newly drafted, I could tell this was not Madison Park anymore. There were people from all ends of the nation, but no John Wayne types. Tall, short, fat and thin folks — the only ones missing were Laurel and Hardy.

A little sergeant with eyes concealed by the brim of his hat called us to attention and, without taking a breath, yelled, “You are the worst group of recruits I have ever seen in all my 18 years! You’ll never make it in this man’s Army!” 

This was to be normal abuse. Worse yet, the bus to the airport had already left.

He marched us to the barracks, reminding us, “Use the other left foot!” 

Once inside, he informed us of our first mission: “Make the bunk. Your mother can’t help you now.”

We struggled with 45-degree corners and bedding tight enough to bounce a quarter. Calling us to attention again, he started with one bunk after another, throwing the entire bedding into the center aisle, yelling all the while. Then he left. 

Nothing made the sergeant happy. 

I helped a guy next to me, obviously a bundle of nerves. He said, “I’m from a family that owns a chain of department stores nationwide. I’ve never made a bed — been served breakfast in bed all my life.” 

His father could have pulled strings excluding him from the service, but he thought the Army would be a good life experience. 

But the sergeant picked on him, too: One 4 a.m. morning, the sergeant tiptoed into the dark barracks and threw this recruit’s bedding into the center aisle with him in it!

We had three minutes to dress, make bunk and fall into formation. Several times, we ran from barracks to formation until it was fast enough. This business-as-usual started before breakfast.


Something to laugh about

A few guys who joined our group of budding bunk conformists came in with handcuffs, chauffeured by their very own MPs. 

In the ‘50s, men who were delinquent in child support or alimony or charged with minor crimes were given the choice of jail, prison and parole or the Army. 

A heavily scarred guy from south L.A. did not engage in eye contact, and we all gave him space. He never smiled. 

During hand-to-hand combat training, he threw me. I struck Mother Earth with a resounding thud. Lying there, I looked up at him and said, “I’m glad you’re on our side!” 

He laughed and later told me of the gang life he came from and that he had lost a good friend because of it. It was far from my life in Madison Park.

One freshly uncuffed recruit laughed most of the time because he and his bride were living the high life until the divorce struck him hard in the wallet. 

What made him laugh was that he had quit the job that gave her a decent alimony. Choosing the Army for employment, he gave her only a slim fraction of his $78 monthly salary. 


Getting poked

The day we arrived at the dispensary for shots, it was around 85 degrees outside. We heard tormented sounds from the line ahead of us — apparently, the size of the needle about to poke our arms was a little less than a six-penny nail.

In front of me, a big guy from Indiana looked toward the needle. Suddenly blue-lipped, he kissed the floor. 

A few minutes later, he got to his feet, and while talking to me, the nurse cut his finger to draw blood. Once again, with lips of blue, he fell onto the nurse, the table and all the medical stuff, fully imprinting his face onto the pine floorboards.

Adding insult to injury, the typhus and cholera shots were too warm, which resulted in uncontrollable shaking and a feeling of extreme cold. The only antidote was to stand wall-to-wall in the shower to stop the shakes.

In the field, trucks brought us our meals. During maneuvers, we were always aware of rattlesnakes, scorpions and black widows, so it was time for a leisurely lunch. 

We stopped numbering the 200-plus yellow jackets just short of a billion. It seemed a 5-gallon bucket of cherries in a thick, sugary juice was a treat for our winged friends.

Many guys just left their metal trays covered with bees. The sound alone was enough to exit stage right. It was the last time they served lunch in the field.

The heat and bee stings weren’t fun anymore, but the sergeant reminded us, “They never called off a war due to bees.”


A happier ending

At the end of basic training, we all shook hands. Even the sergeant became a good guy, giving us a chance to become more than we were months previous. 

Each day at 5 p.m., when they blew “Taps,” no matter where you were — walking or driving — you stopped, got out of your car and saluted the flag, feeling maybe a little taller and proud to be part of a great country.

RICHARD CARL LEHMAN is a longtime Madison Park resident. 

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