Sunday, April 27, 2008

It's a Small Army

I was a payroll clerk in the Army's Personnel Office in Grafenwoehr, Germany. "My" area, the payroll area, was the smaller of two connected, large, open office areas, the other containing the Personnel Officer, NCOIC, and several personnel clerks.

I heard the door to the Personnel Office open, and looked over. It was winter, and the new arrival was wearing a parka. From the back, very little of him could be seen. I did hear the Personnel Officer ask him, "Who are you?" His reply was, "I'm your new Sergeant Major."

Someone had led him astray, whether intentionally or unintentionally I do not know. The post had a perfectly good Sergeant Major who had no plans or orders to relinquish the position. The new arrival was, in fact, to become the First Sergeant of a company in Hohenfels, Germany, an isolated part of the Seventh Army Training Center.

He was processed by the NCOIC and brought in to payroll. We were introduced - he was First Sergeant Sam Donley - and I took possession of his payroll records, cleared up a couple of items, and that was it.

Perhaps a year later a figure in a parka (this is key because there were no insignia and there was no name tag) appeared in my office saying he had a couple of questions about "my pay."

"Sure thing. And you are . . . ?"

"Why wouldn't you know who I am?"

"Let's turn it around. Why would I? I have the payroll records for more than 500 people. I have met perhaps 100 of them more than once, and many of them I've never met at all."

This seemed to placate him, he reintroduced himself, and we resolved whatever issues were bothering him.

Fast forward to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, five years later. Two companies' "Orderly Rooms" (basically company headquarters, usually containing the Company Commander, First Sergeant, and Company Clerk) shared a building. I was assigned to one of the companies and the First Sergeant of the other was - yup - Sam Donley. I had hardly known him, had only met him the two times described above, and had talked to him on the phone a couple of times about payroll issues regarding soldiers in his company in Hohenfels, but we figured to be in close proximity to each other for perhaps the next year and a half, and it seemed to me that the appropriate thing to do was to stop in and say hello.

I did. He was sitting at his desk and I introduced myself as "your payroll clerk in Grafenwoehr when you were in Hohenfels. Just thought I'd say hello." Although I doubt that he actually remembered me, he smiled, stood up, walked over to me, shook my hand and said, "Oh, yes. How are you?"

We chatted for a couple of minutes and my impression that he was somewhat pedantic was reinforced when we were interrupted by a Sergeant First Class for whom Sam had some instructions. When he finished issuing them the SFC began speaking: "In other words, you want me . . . " - "What's wrong with my words?"

Something made Sam ask me if I played duplicate bridge, and he was very pleased to learn that I did. There was a weekly session held at the Sambo's in Sierra Vista, right outside the post. It was sanctioned by the North American Bridge League and I think I recall learning that Sam had started it. I agreed to show up at the next one, we shook hands, and I exited.

Sam and I became friends, not particularly intimate friends, but at least friendly. We were probably the two best players at the weekly event and we usually won when we played together. But we weren't partners very often, as the attendance was fairly small and we made ourselves available as partners to others in order to encourage attendence.

I guess I'm rambling here, as I don't have any point to make or any particular exit line. Sam popped into my head and I thought I'd write about him. Two more related thoughts:
  • This was the first time I had made myself available as a partner to players who were consistently weaker than I, and I learned a lot. One incident springs to mind - I was playing with an Army Captain who was very unsure of himself regarding bridge. In fact, we were partnered as the result of his wife asking me to play with him because she felt that a good result would make him more liable to attend the event frequently.

    Early on, he opened a hand's bidding with "One heart." I had great heart support and a wildly distributional hand. I jumped to six hearts and he was visibly shaken. He played the hand as if he were walking the plank and went down one in an ice cold contract. Nearly everyone else bid and made six hearts with the hand. But this was not his fault - it was due to my inexperience. What I should have done was drag him through a series of forcing bids. In other circumstances the sequence of bids would make no sense but in this case it would have given him time to realize that he was going to be playing in a slam contract, however reluctantly. Given that time to adjust, he would probably not have blundered due to a case of nerves.

  • The weekly bridge reinforced my decision to leave the Army. I was about a year and a half away from discharge and had been a GI more than eight years. It wouldn't have been a bad life for me except that there were so many rules regarding personal behavior. I chafed under being told what time to get up, what time to go to bed, what to wear, where I was and was not allowed to go, and - most particularly - with whom I might and might not socialize.

    Some of the players at the weekly event were commissioned officers and/or their wives, and I came to know and like some of them. However, this was the only occasion on which I could socialize with them, as I was enlisted, not commissioned. I understood and agreed with the logic behind this, but it still annoyed me.

    In the event, I was promoted to Staff Sergeant perhaps a year before my enlistment was up, but I did follow through with my determination to reenter civilian life.

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