by Chuck Gundersen
You Never Can Tell
Lieutenant Marshall has had a second run-in with PFC Holley. This one is over a machine gun that was left unguarded during the night. Marshall doesn’t like Holley for a number of reasons, one being that Holley has been selected Colonel’s Orderly at Guard Mount ten times, the first man in the battalion to do that, and thereby being permanently excused from guard duty. In theory, it takes a good soldier to do that, but Holley is anything but a good soldier in Lt. Marshall’s view. He tells Holley that he’s a smartass and that smartasses are not good soldiers. He wants a response from Holley. “Are smartasses good soldiers, Holley?”
Lieutenant Marshall knew he was being patronized, and it galled him. This was his second run-in with PFC Holley, and he had the same feeling he’d had about the Bob Dylan episode: he should have the upper hand, but Holley, while maintaining the proper respectful demeanor, managed to simultaneously appear not to be respectful.
“You don’t mean that, do you, Holley? You’re saying it because you think I want to hear it.”
“Yes, sir, pretty much, but I also think it’s possible that you’re right.”
“Well, thanks for that, Holley.”
Holley, irritated at being called down, knowing that he and the squad members were all negligent, and that they should have established a guard rotation, but also knowing that Lt. Marshall cared less about the military question here than he did about the opportunity to put PFC Holley in his place, and also aware that there was a delicate balance, chose not to say “You’re welcome, sir.” He said nothing.
“Let’s pretend we’re at guard mount, Holley. I’m the inspecting officer. I’ve inspected your weapon, it’s spotless. I can see that your brass and your boots gleam and that you’ve got perfect military creases. Anybody can do that. Suppose I ask you some military questions.”
“What’s the nomenclature of the 50 caliber machine gun?”
“Browning Heavy Machine gun, 50 Caliber, M2, sir.”
“When was it first used?”
“World War I, sir.”
“How many rounds per minute does it fire?”
“520 rounds per minute, in our configuration, sir.”
“What does it weigh?”
“Eighty-four pounds, sir.”
“A flag pole is sixty feet high. If you raise the flag to half-mast, how far does the flag travel?”
“Ninety feet, sir.”
“Who’s the Secretary of the Army?”
“Stanley R. Resor, sir.”
“Who sang ‘Blue Suede Shoes?’”
“Carl Perkins, sir.”
“Oops, a little slip-up there Holley. Seems you don’t know everything after all. It was Elvis Presley.”
“No it wasn’t sir.”
“Yes it was, Holley. Sorry, but you got that one wrong.”
“No I didn’t, sir. Carl Perkins did the original version. Carl Perkins wrote the song and recorded it. His was the big hit version. Elvis did record it, but it was a cover version recorded after Perkins, and it wasn’t as good.”
Lt. Marshall looked at PFC Holley with an expression that was hard to read. Dislike was there, annoyance was there and also perhaps frustration over the fact that a minor victory — Holley’s appearing to miss the Blue Suede Shoes question — had been won and then vanished.
“I think you’re wrong, Holley,” he said, but they both knew he wasn’t.
“No, I’m not, sir.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. the point is that you make Colonel’s Orderly by knowing crap like that. You show up at Guard Mount all polished up, which, like I said, anybody can do, and you answer questions and you get chosen as best soldier and they make you Colonel’s Orderly and you do it ten times which nobody else has done, but it doesn’t really make you a good soldier.”
“That was my point, sir.”
“Guard Mount is a very narrow context.”
“You’re a witty guy, aren’t you, Holley? One of those wire-haired intellectuals. You think you’re smarter than everyone else and everything will always go your way.”
PFC Holley missed the last part of that because he was taken with the phrase “wire-haired intellectuals” and wanted to be sure he remembered it for future use.
He said “Sir?”
“You think everything will always go your way, but this time it won’t. We have to get that machine gun back to the track park and stow it in your personnel carrier. We have to be operational at all times — combat ready. So you’re going to carry it down there and stow it. It’s heavy — eighty-four pounds — as you said, and carrying it’s normally a two man job, but I carried it here last night by myself. You’re smaller than I am, but I know you can do it. So here. let me help you get it up on your shoulder.”
They picked it up together and Lieutenant Marshall helped Holley swing it up onto his shoulder. It grated immediately.
“All set?” Lt. Marshall said?
“Yes, sir.” Holley said.
“Good. Oh, let me get the door for you.”
Holley stepped through the doorway.
“Oh, Holley. Wait a minute. You know what. You’d better take it up to your armorer, what’s his name?”
Holley stopped and looked back. “Spec Four Beasley, sir.” he said, his shoulder already aching.
“Well, take it up to Beasley and have him check the serial number against his records. We need to be sure it’s the right one. Then take it back down to the track park and stow it. I know that adds a half mile or so to the trip, but we have to be sure. I have a staff meeting and then I’ll be down later to see that you’ve got it all stowed and secure.”
“Yes, sir,” Holley said. and he turned and walked away.
Lieutenant Marshall watched him walking slowly and uncomfortably under the weight of the machine gun. Before he’d gone a hundred feet, he stopped and tried to shift the position of the gun. He bent over a little trying to get some of the weight onto his back rather than just on his shoulder. Lieutenant Marshall smiled. He watched Holley until he turned onto the street that took him up toward Bravo company and disappeared behind the Motor Pool Maintenance shed, and then he turned and walked back into his office, happy.
Holley had barely turned the corner when his friend Kasko, the battalion sign painter, walking down the street toward the track park, saw him, came over to him and said “Where are you taking that? Why the hell are you carrying it by yourself?”
“Gotta take it to Beasley to have the serial number checked.”
“Jeez. Here let me give you a hand.”
He grabbed the barrel of the machine gun and helped Holley lift it off his shoulder.
Together, they carried it quite easily up to Beasley in the arms room, where it checked out fine and then they carried it on down to the track park, stowed it and had a smoke in the break area. Holley asked Kasko who sang “Blue Suede Shoes.”
“Oh man,” Kasko said. “A classic. Carl Perkins.”
Holley told him he was a wire-haired intellectual.
Lt. Marshall went to his staff meeting in a good mood.
Chuck is the owner of the Teago General Store in South Pomfret. Find more of his stories, poems and other writing, including parts one and two of this story, at www.chuckgundersen.com.
This article first appeared in the July 21st print edition of the Vermont Standard.
Parts 1 and 2 ran consecutively July 8th, July 14 editions.