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All the way with JFK (Part One)

On Tuesday’s so-called speed walk my left knee started hurting before I was half-way through it and it caught my attention.

My rule of running and walking and pain is if the pain either goes away or stays the same, I’m fine. But if it gets worse, I stop immediately, walk back, and take the next few days off. I learned that the hard way from my time on the US Navy International Hiking Team.

Never heard of the USNIHT? Don’t feel out of the loop, cuz there IS no loop.

For a glorious two months in 1971 it was a team, and it did compete in different countries (two, to be exact). But it had no official designation and was unknown to anyone not in it.

The USNIHT was the brain child of James F. Krueger, Petty Officer First Class and I think, like Athena and Zeus, it sprang full-grown from his head.

Krueger was stocky blond of average height with a square jaw and bright blues that made him look like he’d just stepped out of a cornfield in the Heartland. Which wasn’t the least ironic since he was born and raised in Burlington, Iowa.

In a military sense, he’d been around more than anyone on the base.

He dropped out his senior year of high school and joined the Marine Corps for four years. After he got out, he came home, married his high school sweetheart and worked in construction (he was a master carpenter and cabinet maker and was skilled in most building trades). Then, with a child on the way, he joined the Army reserves. For him it was a plum. They hung out and drank beer and played basketball for one night a month, went away to summer camp for two weeks a year, and made some decent chump change in the meantime. Plus, best of all, they’d never been called up since the Korean war, so being able to stay home was a safe bet.

Unfortunately, it was not a sure bet. On Oct. 22, 1962 President Kennedy announced the presence of ICBM missiles in Cuba and everything hit the fan — including Army reservists being called up. And one of those reservists was Krueger. He was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, and spent nine months in a foxhole, waiting for the Cossacks to invade. Finally, realizing he darn well might spend the rest of his activation in the aforesaid foxhole, he said to hell with it and joined the regular Army.

Once discharged from the Army, he returned to Burlington and got a job with a contractor as a foreman. He liked the work and the pay and hours were great … for a while. Then he realized the contractor was a goniff of the first water, was cutting every corner and not adhering to building codes. Instead of building houses, Krueger now found himself in the middle of a house of cards, which could collapse at any minute. And when it did, he saw his having signed off on all the cob jobs would make his next job — making little ones out of big ones in the state slammer. So, he ran away and joined the Navy — literally.

Our paths crossed in Germany, though I got there about a year after he did. I never worked under him and apparently it was a good thing. He’d been a supervisor in a small unit in my division and his leadership skills left more than a bit to be desired: Almost everyone who’d been in his unit disliked him intensely, and the ones who didn’t dislike him hated his guts. A mutiny must’ve been imminent because he was relieved of that duty and ended up in the division office. But here’s the thing: I never figured out what he actually did. For all I know, his full time duty was making coffee and shmoozing with division chiefs for eight hours a day, because in addition to being first class petty officer, Krueger was a first class con man.

The membership drive begins

—-

Somehow, Kreuger and I got on friendly terms. Notice I didn’t say we were friends. I liked him a lot … and trusted him not one whit. But ultimately it didn’t matter because I really had nothing he could want. I had no rank, no influence, no money, no nuttin.

At least I thought that till one April day at the coffee mess he said, “Hey, how would you like to join the hiking team?”

“Hiking team?” I said. “What hiking team?”

“Ours. The Navy one,” he said. “We’re gonna enter some folks marches.”

“What’s a folks march?” I asked.

He explained they were a German tradition, held every summer, each one for four consecutive nights.

“How far are they?”

“Different distances,” he said. “Some are five kilometers, some ten, some fifteen. We’re gonna do a ten and a fifteen.”

I figured I could do the 10 K all right, but 15 was nine miles, a distance I’d never hiked before. But it sounded like a great challenge and great way to get in shape, so I considered it.

“Who else is on the team?” I said.

“Nope,” he said. “First, you tell me if you’re in. Cuz if you’re not, then I’m just wasting my time.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “OK, I’m in. Now who’s on the team?”

“Well,” he said, “…as of now, me and you.”

And thus the humble beginning of the USNIHT’s membership drive.

As befit Krueger’s con man status, he was also a silver-tongued devil, and in short order, he told me he’d gotten his 10-man complement. But problems still remained.

“Look,” I said, “we’ve got only work boots, not marching boots. We can’t hike in them.”

“You worry too much,” he said.

“Tell me something I don’t already know,” I said. “But where are we gonna get boots?”

“All everyone’s gotta do is give me their size, and I’ll get their boots.”

Which he did. And how’d he do it? Simple, he gave the German national who guarded the warehouse a bottle of scotch to take an extra-long smoke break. And while Krueger was plundering the boots, he also got us each two sets of SeaBees’ utilities, complete with caps.

Setting sights on The Big One

Once we looked like serious marchers, only one thing remained – we had to march. And that we did, every day.

Krueger was a task master and we hiked our dupas off, literally. And when I say “hiked,” that’s understatement. After a few weeks we could crank out eight sub-12 minute miles without stress or strain. The marches themselves were almost anti-climactic, as we blazed through them, finding them over before we’d hit our stride.

And then there were no more marches to be had … or so I thought. A few days after our last one I lamented this fact to Krueger, again at the coffee mess.

“Whattaya mean there are no more?” he said.

“What?” I said, “I have to speak more slowly?”

“Just is,” he said, “they’re only over around here.”

“And where are they still going on?” I asked.

“They’re not yet. But in late July there’s Nijmegen, in Holland.”

“And what’s that?”

“Oh, just the oldest, biggest and longest folk march in the world,” he said.

“How long is ‘long’,” I asked.

“Well, the one I’m planning for us is fifty K’s,” he said.

“Fifty K’s is about thirty miles,” I said. “That’s less than eight miles a day. What’s the big deal?”

“Because it’s fifty K’s A DAY,” he said. “Sounds like a big deal to me. How about you?”

I did some quick calculating. Two hundred kilometers was 125 miles. The distance itself sounded impossible of and by itself, but beyond that there were the issues of transportation, lodging, and most of all, training, which would be a full-time thing if we were to do it right.

I told Krueger this.

Then I said, “You don’t really think the Captain’s gonna go for this, do you?”

“No, I don’t think he will,” he said. “I KNOW it.”

I waited to see if he was kidding. He wasn’t.

“I dunnno,” I said, “I’ve got serious doubts about that.”

“You wanna bet?” he said. Again, he wasn’t kidding.

I considered the possibilities. The captain was a petty tyrant and a joyless poop who never acknowledged the enlisted men, much less seemed to care about them. Krueger may’ve been a good hustler, but was he THAT good?

“Well?” said Kruger.

“I’ll pass,” I said.

It was the smartest bet I never made.

(Part Two will be continued next week)

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