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4:30 am. Monday. Temperature -20F. Ray Barracks, Friedberg, West Germany.
It’s the coldest winter since the Battle of the Bulge. That was in 1944. This is 1978.
Every Monday and Friday, our mechanized infantry battalion, 1/36 Infantry, 3rd Armored Division, has battalion P.T. or physical training, calisthenics. The other days, its company level. But on Monday and Friday, the whole battalion turns out on the battalion parade field for P.T.
We gave up running. With the cold, came snow and it did not go away. From late November until April we literally never saw the ground because it was covered in hard pack snow and ice. So we didn’t run. Oh, sure, we tried it a couple of times. In spirit, we “ran” but in reality, we looked like a herd of slow-moving zombies. You could walk faster. So they gave up on that. So, its push-ups, jumping jacks – modified so there’s not much jumping – too slick, bend and thrusts, and other exercises that don’t risk slipping on ice.
Our normal first call, or wake-up call, is 5 a.m. The CQ, Charge of Quarters, usually a junior NCO, walks up and down the barracks, knocking on doors, shouting, “First Call!” This earlier, by a half-hour, first call is so we can get ready, get assembled and marched the few hundred yards to the battalion parade ground.
The getting ready part is not to be taken lightly. Spending an hour in minus-20-degree weather for P.T. takes some time. If The Hawk is out, even longer. “The Hawk,” you ask? The Hawk is, was, G.I. lingo for the bitter cold blowing wind.
Preparing for battalion P.T. could be summed up with one word: Layers.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, that this is the Army, and everybody has the same … eh … wardrobe. Not so. Not by a long shot. Issued P.T. gear for our battalion was blue and yellow warm-ups, but that’s where the uniformity ends. Depending on when you arrived in the unit, what was available, how badly the supply goons did their job, what size you required, and the phase of the moon, would all determined the make up of your P.T. gear, cold weather gear, and all other issued items.
The standard P.T. outfit consisted of … well, about anything you wanted. The permutations of scarves, hats, gloves, coats, pants, shorts, boots, tennis shoes, P.T. gear, civilian gear and military gear was endless. Most of it usually topped with an issued pile cap. Or a pile cap on a knit cap or vice versa. Just a pile cap alone could be worn in about a half dozen ways.
In short, we looked clownish.
Before actually leaving the barracks building (this is an old World War I German Horse Calvary barrack) there was usually a large contingent of troopers clustered near the large double exit door, staying clear enough if the door opened and the wind blew in – The Hawk — they would be shielded. Then wait for the 1st Sergeant to come down the stairs. This was the signal. The platoon sergeants would start rousting everyone outside and fall in. So, you took a final breath and ducked out the door and meet The Hawk. Ugh!
And this parade of circuslike figures assembled in company formation.
It was hilarious. Mainly, because misery loves company and there was plenty of both. And there is nothing funnier than a bunch of G.I.s wearing ridiculous clothes in a ridiculous setting of sub-zero temperatures. And we all knew it. The P.T. was not serious – how could it be? After being called to attention, we would all shuffle-march like prisoners going to the gallows, so gallows humor it was — in spades.
Oh, the wise-cracks! The jokes! The rich streams of sarcasm. It was practically a sport. The tongue-in-cheek moaning and threats of desertion! The pissed-off NCOs dreaming out loud of a state-side assignment. “Forty days and waked-up!!!” someone hollers. Meaning, they have 40 days until they go back to the United States — The World!
Arrival on the parade field was quick. Each company had its place. But the trick was not to be up front because no one wanted to offend the Battalion Sergeant Major. He wasn’t a tyrant or strict disciplinarian. No, he was just a really nice guy. Oh, everyone respected him. And so, no one wanted to offend him — he was just too nice.
We would start P.T. with jumping jacks. A quick warm-up set in which we resembled penguins trying to fly or the little brother in A Christmas Story. This usually resulted in a round of warm-up wise-cracks and jokes. And an effective way to keep your face from freezing.
Everyone kind of had their favorite spots. Buddies always tried to be around each other of course. Some carried on like comedy teams and have everyone around them rolling with laughter. I always tried to be in the back of the formation because that’s where the officers hung out. I didn’t dare tell anyone that. And be labeled a kiss-you-know-what?! Not on your life. Officers and enlisted aren’t supposed to mix or like each other. But, to be honest, they had the best wise-cracks. I mean, first-rate. If college taught them anything, it was comedic timing.
The Puerto Ricans, way out of their element, had some pretty good riffs. They would use their accents to full effect too. “Why do you white boys put the Army in such a cold ass place?! Hey Sergeant, move the battalion to Puerto Rico.” “And drink [expletive] Puerto Rican beer!? Forget it.” “What do you mean [expletive] Puerto Rican beer. We have good beer!” And it would go on like this. Razz and razz back.
On one of these biweekly frozen battalion flagellations, when President Carter couldn’t pass a budget, we were coming up to the end of the month with a high possibility that our pay would be delayed – that’s like Armageddon in the military! This was still the era of the old-school payday tradition where we received pay once a month — in cash. The officer would sit at a table in the battalion dayroom with a suitcase full of money and a loaded .45 on his hip. You report (salute), state your name, rank, and SSN, with pay stub in your left hand, and he counts it out to you. You perform a perfect about-face and get the rest of the day off. The local German bars loved this tradition as much as the G.I.s.
Our beloved Sergeant Major asked the battalion to break ranks and gather round his P.T. platform and announced the bad news that pay would not be forthcoming. Muffled groans and comments rippled throughout the battalion. NCO’s yelling “At ease your mouths!”(i.e., shut up.) Somewhere in the middle of the pack, a G.I. lets out, “At ease, hell, I want my money!” I thought there was going to be a riot.
In the end, we got paid on time.
The following summer, the Department of the Army came out with guidelines for hours of operation: The day begins at 5 a.m. And the 4:30 a.m. First-Call was no more.Published in