A Story For Today

Back in 1974, I was serving my enlistment in the US Army. I spent most of my three year enlistment (two-and-a-half years) stationed at Fort Lee, VA, most of it working as company clerk for a transportation unit (that means truck drivers). Our company was in the middle of our annual field training exercises, where we spent a week out in the woods living in tents, getting meals from a mobile kitchen-on-wheels, standing guard duty in foxholes, and coming under a mock night attack by training personnel. (How did our unit do with the mock attack? Well, not quite this bad....)

The CO, other officers, First Sergeant, and clerks were set up in a command tent. Oops, no, wait, we were missing someone. Just before the field exercises, our First Sergeant had been transferred out to a different base. A new First Sergeant had been assigned, but there was a gap of several days between the start of the field exercises and the designated arrival date.

So it was several days into field exercises when First Sergeant Pietrowski arrived out in the field to join our company. He walked into the command tent, reported for duty, and handed over a folder containing his orders and personnel file.

The personnel file was ordinarily something that would have stayed behind at the company office, but First Sergeant Pietrowski had reported in at Fort Lee, found out the company was already out on field exercises, had paused only long enough to change into fatigues, pack essentials, and drive out to the boonies where field exercises were being held at a smaller Army camp.

And when he reported in, everyone in the command tent sort of gave each other side glances, like "This is our new First Sergeant?"

Because First Sergeant Pietrowski was old. He was ancient. He was a geezer. Maybe a geezer and a half. He had a beaked nose, more hair in his ears than the rest of his head, liver spots to make a Dalmation cry with envy, and about a googol of wrinkles and veins. He was probably only in his 60's, but he looked eighty. No, ninety. No, actually...

...well, I grew up in the 1960's reading lots of comics, so my first thought was that he looked just like General Immortus, the centuries-old villain who fought the Doom Patrol on multiple occasions.

General Immortus
Really. If someone had been trying to make a Doom Patrol movie in 1974, and had seen First Sergeant Pietrowski having a Coke at Schwab's Drug Store, they'd have offered him the Immortus role on the spot.

After the initial paperwork to register him with the company, First Sergeant Pietrowski said that between driving his family across the country to Fort Lee, then rushing to get out to the field exercises, he was feeling pretty worn out. If there wasn't anything that needed immediate attention, he could really use a nap.

(More side glances.)

So the First Sergeant laid down on a cot at one side of the command tent and....

After a few moments, one of the company lieutenants asked quietly, "Is he... still breathing?"

Yes-s-s-s-s, but lying on his back, hands folded neatly on his chest, and lying very, very still, the First Sergeant did indeed seem to be doing a great imitation of a corpse.

One of our young lieutenants stood up, picked up First Sergeant Pietrowski's folder, and went over to stand behind the cot where the old man lay. "Friends and family of the dear departed," he said softly, "We are gathered here to pay our last respects to First Sergeant Charles Pietrowski..."

This was disrespectful, and maybe a little mean. But it was really hard for everyone awake in that tent to try and not smile or let a small laugh escape their lips.

...and the lieutenant flipped open the folder, which held the First Sergeant's service records...

...and the lieutenant stopped speaking, and his eyes got wide, and he said "Oh," in a small voice. And then he said, "He took part in the Normandy landings on D-Day." And everyone in the tent went quiet. And the young lieutenant, whose rosy young cheeks had suddenly grown rosier, closed the folder, and stepped away from the cot, and put the folder back on the desk.

And no one in that company, officer or enlisted, ever showed disrespect to First Sergeant Pietrowski ever again.

(Who turned out to be a damn fine First Sergeant, and a damn fine man, despite age and appearance.)

(D-Day, June 6, 1944.)