Bill's Story Part 3: Joining The National Guard
In honor of Veterans Day this week, here is another excerpt from Bill’s story, told with his signature New Jersey candor and sense of humor.
I graduated from high school in 1960, and my brother and I played baseball all that summer. Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to play baseball, so Joe and I played together on semi-pro teams during that season. He was a catcher, and I played outfield, usually center field. We were Yankee fans. Mickey Mantle was my favorite, and Joe’s was Yogi Berra.
We had a great time, but when that next September came around, I was looking for a job. I’d go to all these places, get the applications, and then I didn’t know how to fill them out, because I was a horrible speller. I learned certain tricks in order to complete the applications, and I kept looking, but nobody would hire me.
I wanted to stay home and play baseball, but I needed money, and I didn’t want to get drafted. At one point, I had to report to the Army draft board, where they’d give you a medical exam and decide if they wanted you or not. I was real shy, but everyone had to stand in a big circle and take all their clothes off.
Then the doctor went around the circle, and told everyone, “Bend over and spread your cheeks.”
I had heard that this would happen so I was prepared. I don’t know what the doctor was looking for, but it was so embarrassing.
I didn’t get drafted into the regular Army, but in November of 1960, I decided to join the Army National Guard. I went to Fort Dix for nine weeks of basic training. It was January in New Jersey, so it was cold, and it was snowing on our trip out there.
When we first arrived, we had to go through this line and get measured for our uniforms. They gave us overcoats and these crazy looking baseball caps. I wore a jacket from the Second World War. I was going, What the heck? We ended up looking like prisoners of war with the stuff they gave us, although they did give us some nice fur hats.
I only weighed a hundred and fifty five pounds when I started in the Army, but we were allowed to eat as much as we wanted, as long as we ate all our food within the given time period. If somebody sitting next to you didn’t want something, you could ask if they’d give it to you.
We had to run everywhere during training. We called it, “hurry up and wait.” It was double time out to the field, and then we’d have to wait for the sergeants, who came out in jeeps. The instructors didn’t have to run like us, but our sergeant did. His name was Sergeant Ortiz. He was in his forties, and he had been in the Second World War and the Korean War.
It was always so cold, and we’d asked him, “When can we put our earmuffs down?”
He told us, “When I do.”
And he never put his earmuffs down.
He was able to teach us a lot because of his experience in the wars, particularly the Korean War, which was horrible and cold. People actually froze to death in position holding their weapons. So he never put his earmuffs down, and he always had his collar open. He taught us hygiene things when we were out in the field, as well as other things, like how to shoot a weapon.
When I left basic training at Fort Dix, I was up to one hundred seventy five pounds. My legs were so thick, and I couldn’t button my jacket. Sergeant Ortiz had said, “If you’re skinny, you’re going to put on weight. If you’re fat, you’re going to lose weight.”
And he was right.
Once I was done with all my training, the sergeants wanted me to re-up to the regular Army, but I didn’t, and I left. I still had the remainder of my National Guard service to fulfill, and eventually I became a supply sergeant. I made sure to take good care of everyone, and in return, they took care of me.
Some of them did, however, also think I was a little nutty, especially when I drove trucks. One time I had these new guys with me, and I took them on a drive in a two and half ton truck. We were driving on all these rough dirt roads, and eventually we had to turn around to do something. I ended up deciding to cut through the woods.
I said, “We’ll go here.”
They looked at me like I was crazy and said, “That’s not a road, Schlegel!”
I said, “Yes it is.”
Well, I didn’t know it, but I had left the truck’s emergency brake on. The wheels were smoking and the breaks were burning. I kept driving along, bouncing off a bunch of trees, and I ended up breaking the windshield. By the time we got to the maintenance shop, the thing was really smoking.
The maintenance guy took one look at me and said, “Come here and give me your helmet.” He put water in it and poured water on the burning brakes. He was a nice guy. He said, “Hey, don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of the windshield.”
I didn’t get in trouble. But the guys who were in the truck with me were like, “You’re crazy.” The truth was that I didn’t actually have a driver’s license. They don’t ask about that when you’re in the Army. They don’t care, because they train you how to do everything.
Eventually, I learned how to drive and got my license when I was twenty-three. The National Guard was a good experience overall, and it made me think that the United States should do what they do in Israel, where everyone goes through basic training. I was glad I did it, and it taught me things I remembered for the rest of my life.