Me and Sergeant Combs

 

In 1958, I was working for Bell Telephone as an installer when I was drafted into the Army. I didn’t want to go.

I wasn’t cut out to be a soldier. I was a bowler, a pool player, a wiseacre — a civilian to the core. So it was with a heavy heart that I showed up at the appointed time at the muster station in downtown LA. Almost before I could adjust myself to my new surroundings, I and five or six other schmucks were told to drop our trousers and grab our ankles. With the bedside manner of Nurse Ratched, an Army doctor came down the row sticking his finger up our rears. He never did tell us what he was looking for.

Whatever it was, my happy civilian life had taken a sharp turn for the worse.

After basic training at Fort Ord, the Army sent me to Fort Gordon just outside of Augusta, Georgia, to learn how to climb telephone poles. That’s the Army for you.  I already knew how to climb poles. I was climbing poles for Ma Bell when I was drafted.

I eventually ended up in a Signal Corps outfit in Germany. That’s where I met up with Sergeant Combs. He was a big guy with a Southern accent and a potbelly, a face as black as a lump of coal, and a scowl that had permanently frozen onto his face. When Combs was mad at me, which was pretty much all the time, he would call me a “little mother [forkin’] punk.” (Or something like that.) Combs seemed to have it in for me. Perhaps he sensed the civilian wiseacre in me, and he thought it was his job to drive it out.

Combs was a forkin’ lifer, and that was the ultimate put-down in the crowd I hung around with, which included a kid from Little Italy in Brooklyn who wanted to be a novelist and an intellectual San Francisco Jew by the name of Benjamin Dubinsky.

Below, that’s Dubinsky (on the right) and me trying hard to look like civilians. We were on leave in, I think, Florence or Rome.

Fortunately, although Sgt. Combs had taken a dislike to me, I remained out of his reach for the most part. That was because I ended up as the main clerk in Headquarters Company, the equivalent of a white-collar worker who commuted (that is, walked over from the barracks) to my office. Because communications from 6th Army bigwigs sometimes landed on my desk, I had Top Secret and Nato Top Secret clearances. Combs was the equivalent of a blue-collar worker, out there running the troops around in the hot sun. I was in a semi-protected place where he couldn’t get at me, and I think that frosted Combs’ cookies. (If you’re beginning to think that I was a terrible snob, you’re right on, but I wasn’t self-aware enough to know it.)

I let down my guard at least once. One day, Dubinsky and I were sitting on a stoop in front of Headquarters Company. Deep in a discussion, we didn’t see an officer who walked by. Combs came rushing out of the building — he must have been watching from the window — and read Dubinsky and me the riot act, a long tirade with telling examples and a few choice obscenities, for failing to stand up and salute an officer. I could tell that it was a sweet victory for Combs.

Our battalion was on bivouac one week when I ended up — just my luck — in a makeshift shower with Sgt. Combs. Just the two of us. Talk about awkward. I was showering with my nemesis, a naked Sgt. Combs. I turned to leave when I got a glimpse of Combs’ back. Damn! His back was a mass of scar tissue and craters. The guy looked like something out of a horror movie.

The next week, back at the base, I was driving Major Yang in my Jeep. I had gotten to know Yang pretty well, so I asked him about Sgt. Combs’ back. He told me that Combs’ pitted back was the result of a Second World War II mortar that had landed near him and scattered shrapnel all over the place. In fact, Combs not only had a purple heart, he also had earned other medals for valor. Yang also told me that Combs was from a poor Southern family and that he had enlisted as soon as World War II broke out. He re-upped after the war, Yang surmised, because the Army was probably the best place he had ever lived. Combs had found a home in the Army.

I suddenly had a terrible epiphany: Combs was a man’s man. And I was just who he said I was: a little mother [forkin’] punk who knew very little about the world and its ways. I felt lower than a snake’s belly.

Combs’ tirades were now a lot easier to take after that day in the shower. Understanding had softened the verbal blows that Combs rained down on my head.

Postscript: This may surprise you, but I’m awfully glad I was once a soldier, and I look back on my service with pride.

I wasn’t a good soldier.  I was too immature for that.  But I did my time and I did my job, and the Army changed me for the better. In case you’re wondering, I did get an honorable discharge.  In fact, you might say I have two honorable discharges. Six or so months after having served my required two years, I was called out of college back into the Army because of the Berlin Crisis. So I spent nine more months in the Army, this time in Fort Lewis, Washington. There was no Sgt. Combs in Fort Lewis, so I could have done my time standing on my head.

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  1. Brian Wyneken Member
    Brian Wyneken
    @BrianWyneken

    I’m guessing you were born within a year or two of when Sgt. Combs first enlisted.

    Great story!

    • #1
  2. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Brian Wyneken (View Comment):

    I’m guessing you were born within a year or two of when Sgt. Combs first enlisted.

    Great story!

    Brian, you’re right.  I was born in 1938 and Combs probably enlisted in 1941.

    • #2
  3. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Outstanding. Great post.  Thank you, you little mother [forkin’] punk.

    • #3
  4. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Outstanding. Great post. Thank you, you little mother [forkin’] punk.

    Thanks, Boss.  I’m now an old mother [forkin’] punk.  Boss, what’s your background in the services.  Were you an E.M. in the Army?  What was your MOS?

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Great story, Kent. We never know when a life lesson will show up. Thanks.

    • #5
  6. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    The picture is definitely Florence. Il Duomo is one of the most unforgettable and most beautiful (and unique) cathedrals. I’m not usually a cathedral fan, but Florence’s is different.

    Excellent story.

    • #6
  7. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Boss, what’s your background in the services.

    Graduated college, commissioned in the Infantry.  About 5 years later was selected for SF.  Spent the rest of my time there.

    • #7
  8. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Boss, what’s your background in the services.

    Graduated college, commissioned in the Infantry. About 5 years later was selected for SF. Spent the rest of my time there.

    Kent,

    Boss can’t tell you more; then he’d have to kill you.

    Tim

    • #8
  9. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Boss, what’s your background in the services.

    Graduated college, commissioned in the Infantry. About 5 years later was selected for SF. Spent the rest of my time there.

    Boss. you spent most of your career as a Ranger?  Man, that’s a lot of hard training. Any disabilities as a result of that training?

    • #9
  10. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    Great story.

    “Postscript:  This may surprise you, but I’m awfully glad I was once a soldier, and I look back on my service with pride.                           I wasn’t a good soldier.  I was too immature for that.  But I did my time and I did my job, and the Army changed me for the better.”

    My father had a similar experience.  He graduated from high school and went to Tulane University, where he promptly flunked out after a semester.  He then did a two year stint in the Navy (’47 -’49), got out, went to dental school, and built a successful practice.  All he needed was a little maturing.

    Military service can give someone the opportunity to mature and can bring out/develop good character traits.  But it can’t instill something that’s not there.  It won’t make a dishonest man honest, nor an unethical one ethical.  It can only bring our what already exists in one’s character. 

    Looks like it worked in your case. 

    • #10
  11. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    KentForrester: Postscript: This may surprise you, but I’m awfully glad I was once a soldier, and I look back on my service with pride.

    i.e. Type 2 Fun

    https://www.rei.com/blog/climb/fun-scale

    • #11
  12. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Which color shoes?

    • #12
  13. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    Which color shoes?

    Now, you have to be an old guy even to know what that means!  

    KentForrester: There was no Sgt. Combs in Fort Lewis, so I could have done my time standing on my head.

    So it turns out that Sgt. Combs did his job, and did it well.

    • #13
  14. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Wow – what a testimony to so many things – youth and ignorance, opportunity coming in the most unexpected ways (for you and Sgt. Combs), patriotism, and the biggest of all – you really never know someone until you’ve walked in their shoes (in your case your shower enlightenment).  I keep thinking of what these kids would do nowadays,  who feel entitled, who steal, burn, loot and attack others just because they can – in a real world crisis – and where did that entitlement message come from? How would they fare in a real state of emergency if we were at war and there was a draft?

    • #14
  15. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    KentForrester: I turned to leave when I got a glimpse of Combs’ back. Damn! His back was a mass of scar tissue and craters. The guy looked like something out of a horror movie.

    I was in the showers one day with (then) SFC Sar.  I saw wicked scars traveling longitudinally down one arm and both legs, almost like he’d been in the prone position when he got lit up.  “Holy crap, Sir!  where’d you collect those beauties?” [Note: this was before 9/11]

    I knew Sar was Cambodian, and then every now and then would get sent back to the region to help out.

    “Sir,” I’m not even going to try to transliterate the Cambodian accent, “I was in a sniper position and took fire.”

    “When?” I asked, trying to remember the last time one of our guys got shot up during a training mission.

    I was a sniper, killing Khmer bastards.  I was 13.”

    • #15
  16. cdor Member
    cdor
    @cdor

    KentForrester: Whatever it was, my happy civilian life had taken a sharp turn for the worse.

    Very funny Kent! Sgt Combs was a special man and you were just a stupid young punk who didn’t realize it at the time. I’ve been there. I’ll bet many of us have as well. But you have a special way of explaining it. Thanks.

    • #16