The war had ended, the guns were locked in the supply shed and we were just waiting to go home.
My company was a chemical laboratory unit. Most of the officers had doctoral degrees, and most of the enlisted like me had college training or college degrees. Discipline was never much of a problem, and officers were very polite to the enlisted men, some of whom also had doctoral degrees. I suppose that we were a little arrogant, and our officers told us constantly that we must be gentlemen.
Before the war ended, we had lived in our own quarters — and our vanity and arrogance caused us no problem with other soldiers.
But now we were sharing quarters and mess accommodations with a company of soldiers whose officers were mostly high school graduates or less and men who regarded our company as a bunch of snobs who were sissies to boot.
Having only a little more than one year of college, I had still made it to supply sergeant with an extra stripe because of the required knowledge of chemistry that went with the job. I was proud of our officers but had no illusions of superiority. I was also one of a very few Southerners in the company. I took a good bit of kidding from my company officers about being a hillbilly but the kidding was good-natured. It was not mean-spirited. However, the rough and tough company we were sharing quarters and mess with were not at all inclined to put up with anything that looked like snobbery, and I think they were encouraged by their officers in this attitude.
Our head cook was an old Army pro who had no allegiance to either company. An excellent cook and a very nice guy, he did have a problem with alcohol that led to my bad day.
One of the biggest, toughest guys in the other company had put on his best uniform and was preparing for a night on the town when the slightly drunk cook splashed food on his uniform as he was passing through the food line. The soldier grabbed the cook, threw him to the ground and was pounding him into insensibility when our own company first sergeant sought my help and the help of two other soldiers in my company to rescue the cook. It was not an easy job as the big soldier tossed us around like rag dolls, but we were finally able to rescue the cook.
Our action was regarded as a company thing by the assailant, who promised to “get every one of us” in on the rescue. The others dismissed the threat, but I knew the guy was dangerous. I went to the supply depot and brought a sixteen-clip carbine to my tent just to be on the safe side.
Sure enough, a little later I looked out and saw that the tough soldier had met one of the rescue team and was starting to work him over in a very uneven contest. Thinking the guy would back down quickly in the face of a carbine, I went to the rescue of the guy who was taking the beating.
I had no intention of shooting the guy, but he seemed totally unafraid and started for me. I faced a terrible moment of indecision but my survival instinct kicked in strongly and I warned the guy that I would knee cap him if he came any closer.
Then I begged him not to ruin both of our lives by taking one more step. He seemed to debate the issue without any fear whatsoever, and I kept talking to him and telling him that we had no reason to be enemies and I had no desire to hurt hm. With a casual shrug, he turned and walked away in disdain.
I was not aware that he too had been drinking, and this had helped to fire up his anger. I sent him a message apologizing for our misunderstanding, and when he was sober he came to my tent to make his own apologies. When he learned that we were both from Kentucky, he softened his attitude toward me and proposed we be friends and go out on the town together. The friend part I accepted, but a declined the town bit with the lie that I had some duties to perform.
Because of this near disaster in my life, I think often of a policeman in the same fix. No matter how highly you regard the life of another person, your own life will generally take precedence when you have no time to think and no time or room to palaver.
The thing that ultimately saved me was being from Kentucky just as the other fellow was. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just expand that idea a little and quit killing each other because we all are citizens of the same place — planet Earth.
TOBY HIGHTOWER is a retired educator and former Hopkinsville High School teacher. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Write to him at 222 S. 25th St., Apartment 434, Terre Haute, IN. 47803.