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All the way with JFK (Part 2) — bloody but unbowed

Part One ended with James F. Krueger, Petty Officer First Class and first-class con man, off to work his ju-ju on the Captain.

Krueger’s mission: To persuade the Captain to sponsor our nonexistent hiking team, which in addition to money for entry fees and transportation, would require we be excused from our regular duties for two months..

Krueger had his work cut out for him.

The Captain was one very strange unit. He was a dour, aloof poop who didn’t care at all about the crew. We saw him only at inspections –either of personnel or the radio shack — and in both cases he worked extra-hard to find the least-important infractions. I would’ve labeled our morale low … if I’d ever found any.

So if he was such a lousy commander, how’d he ever become a captain? If you’d been in the Navy, you’d know the answer immediately: He’d graduated from Annapolis.

Annapolis officers were an elite bunch (or maybe more accurately, a bunch of elitists) who ran the Navy and protected their own. In many ways they operated like the mafia, except the mafiosi dressed a lot better and killed only their enemies and their traitors.

So it was inevitable that, as crappy a leader as he was, Old Ratchet Ass (as Krueger dubbed him) would make captain. But while those who promoted him may’ve been total snots, they wern’t complete idiots: He got the rank, but didn’t get the command.

An illustrative comparison: Twenty-five years after he graduated from Annapolis, Captain Brett Crozier was in command of a nuclear aircraft carrier, with a crew of 5,000.

Twenty-five years after Annapolis, our Captain was the CO of a rag-tag 250-man communication outpost in the boondocks of Germany — on a third-rate Army base, no less.

His status and importance were the same as the guy at the orgy who hands out clean towels.

When flattery gets you everywhere

When Krueger came back from the Captain’s, he had a huge grin plastered on his mug.

“He fell for it?” I said, incredulous.

“Hook, line and sinker,” said Krueger.

When I got over my shock, I asked, “How’d you ever manage to do it?”

“I didn’t do anything,” He said. “I just told him what we wanted, showed him pamphlets and press clippings of the march, and he jumped on it.”

“Just like that?” I said.

“Just like that,” he said, and snapped his fingers for emphasis.

“But why?” I said. “He never gave a damn about us.”

“He still doesn’t,” said Krueger. “But he sure gives a damn about himself.”

“So?”

“So it’s the second rule of command.”

“Which is?”

“Which is, Always take credit for anything your subordinates accomplish.”

“And what’s the first rule of command?” I asked.

“When you screw up, always find a subordinate to blame.”

Both rules made perfect sense to me.

“Plus,” he continued, “commanding officers all love sports…as long as they don’t have to break a sweat themselves.”

From Plan A to Plan B

Now that we had official sanction, only two chores lay ahead.

One was to train for two months. The other was, at the end of that time, to enter and finish a four-day, 50 kilometer-a-day hike.

Two months to train seemed more than enough time, and it was — for infantrymen with a year or two of training. But for a bunch of Navy telegraphers, it was wholly inadequate.

In order to finish a march of that length, you need two things. One is enough long hikes; the other is enough recovery days.

Because we’d never hiked any distance, we couldn’t manage either. We could do one long hike — say, 15-20 miles — but not two days in a row, because we were just too beat up. So the next day we had to take either a short hike or a rest day. So even though we kept plugging away, the closer we got to The Big March, the farther behind the eight ball we were.

When we started training, Krueger had come up with a plan that called for us, on our seventh week, to do four 25-mile hikes in a row. It made sense, since if we could finish 100 miles then, we could finish 125 miles a week later.

At least it made sense on paper. In reality it was a whole different beast.

We started week seven with a 25 mile hike that went all right. Then we did another one the next day. We finished it, but a lot more slowly… and more painfully. The next day, when I got up I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. It wasn’t that anything specific hurt, so much as everything hurt. I could move only in slow motion and as I did, I swear I heard my joints creaking.

When I got to the gym, I saw everyone was in the same sad shape. Rather than looking like young men in the prime of our lives, we looked — and moved –like rejects from Wrinkle City. Worst off was Krueger, which was no surprise, since he was the oldest, heaviest, and in the poorest shape. Still, while he hobbled like something that just crawled out of the cellar of a Vincent Price movie, a big smile was plastered on his mug and he absolutely reeked of confidence.

“OK, guys,” he said, “when Plan A fails, we go to Plan B.”

“And what’s Plan B?” said one of the guys.

“No idea,” he said. “Ask me again in a week.”

Everyone groaned, involuntarily.

“Just kiddin’,” he said. “Wanted to see if you were paying attention.”

We groaned again, this time voluntarily.

“All right, the hundred mile hike is out,” he said. “But hiking isn’t.”

He paused for effect, and went on.

“What we’re gonna do is forget the long hikes, since they’ll wreck us. Instead, we’ll stick with short ones, and take no chance of getting injured. That way, we may not have the endurance we would’ve had, but we’ll still be in good shape, rested, and ready to kick some major butt at Nijmegen.”

At best, it was a half-baked Knute Rockne pep talk, but it was just what we wanted to hear. Kick some major butt at Nijmegen? You bet … and then some!

A parting shot

That week and the next flew by and then we were about to board our bus, Holland-bound. But first, this being the military, there had to be a ritual of some sort. In this case, we were in the parking lot, lined up in rank order, about to hear something irrelevant from Old Ratchet Ass, himself.

For this glorious occasion of state, Krueger had gone out of his way to accessorize us. He’d given a quart of Kessler’s to one of the MPs, who’d scored chrome helmets and white web belts for us. The belts were about six inches wide and blindingly white. The helmets were so huge, I figured the MPs got them from the Philistine army. They balanced precariously on our noggins, about to fall off at any second. So while it looked like we were ramrod straight and still, out of respect, it was only so the helmets didn’t hit the deck. And while we were supposed to look like a crack military unit, we looked more like crossing guards at The Midvale School for the Gifted.

I’m sure the Captain was impressed with our military bearing, but I couldn’t tell, since the helmet covered my eyes and I could only see the boots of the guy in front of me.

The Captain mouthed a bunch of what I could only imagine were the usual cliches: The helmet obscured both my vision and my hearing, so I caught only every third or fourth word.

After we snapped off a cautious salute, we boarded the bus.

“Well,” I said to my seatmate, “I never thought the Old Man would say something nice to us.”

“What?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “at the end, when he said, ‘Be brave, and have a good time.’ “

He laughed out loud.

Then he said, “Either you can keep a straight face better than anyone I know, or you’re stone deaf.”

“Why?” I said. “What’d he say.”

“He said, and I quote, ‘Behave, and keep your boots shined.’ “

It was a laughable mistake … but only one of many we were about to encounter.

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