Up until now I had steered clear of most of the senior NCO’s. Sgt. Leigh was a senior NCO, and my platoon sergeant, but seemed to be a caring one, always buying drinks and asking questions about us, he even told us an occasional story about his life in the Army, as well as stories about back in California.
He picked on me from being from Cantonment, Florida. When we first arrived together I jokingly told him I was from Flora-Bama. I went on to explain to him that because Cantonment and the city which it was in, Pensacola, was so close to the line and because most of the towns surrounding Pensacola had the Alabama way of life, that we had given it the nick name “Flora-Bama.” Even after the explanation he still picked on me. “Thornton’s so confused, he doesn’t know where he’s from!” But it was all in jest and seemed to make everyone feel at ease with eachother.
Jokes went back and forth, about me being a country bumpkin from Flora-Bama and him being a pretty boy from California.
In the Army, they always wanted to take up the least amount of space with the most people and we called this way of huddling up close together a way to “make your buddy smile.”
While in formation one day, Sgt. Leigh ordered us to attention; the position where we could either breath or blink but not both. We raised our left elbows and slid to our right to cover down on the space beside us. I forgot that I was in formation and at the position of attention when Sgt. Leigh said the famous words, “make your buddy smile.” In jest, I retorted to his comment with, “I bet you Californians know all about that!”
“Thornton!” Sgt. Leigh belted out. ”Fall out to the back and assume the front lean and rest position! In fact just start pushing up the Earth! You don’t deserve to rest.”
This command seemed quite ironic to me ever since I joined the Army. One, how could one actually rest in the pushup position, and two, could one actually push the Earth while doing pushups?
Knowing that I had stepped out of line this time, I stepped to the back of formation and assumed my restful position. Nonetheless, this day I learned the meaning of having etiquette, and friends.
Up until this point Sgt. Leigh had been the only E-6 or above that I had contact with, my whole world was about to be turned upside down by a man named Sgt. Soberts.
He was a beanpole of a man with wrinkles that covered his face. His breath was fragranced by the best cigarettes money could buy and day old coffee. Sgt. Roberts was our platoons “shop foreman.”
Roberts ranked no higher than Leigh, they both were Staff Sergeants. The truth was the platoon had no actual place for him, so we gave him a title to keep him from whining. Roberts was jealous of Leigh, I’m sure of that. Leigh had our friendship, and Roberts was our shop foreman which wasn’t even a real position in the Army.
As Roberts crowded over me like a lion over his prey, I stared right into his boots as I counted off each pushup. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But I lost track of what number you are on. Return to zero.”
This guy and I had every potential to be best friends up until this moment, but he just blew it. I grudgingly started over, muttering some not so nice words under my breath. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,” I shouted. Before I could count off number 11, Sgt. Roberts stopped me again. “We don’t count ten in the Army, we count one- zero. Start over!”
This guy was really getting on my nerves and I didn’t have a whole lot left since we had been drinking till 0300 in the morning again the night before. He seemed to smell my weakness, and any man within three steps of me probably smelled it too, I had after all, just finished drinking at least 5 gallons of beer not 2 hours before this moment.
With all my might I pushed the Earth off my chest one more time. “1…2…3…4…” I didn’t have a whole lot left in me. For some unknown reason, soldiers can knock out 70 pushups or more in two minutes during a PT Test, but when being 'smoked', as we called it, a soldier could barely do twenty without breaking down. Part of this was due to the fact we wanted to act as if we couldn’t muscle out more than we had to, but today it was out of frustration and beer.
Formation ended and Sgt. Leigh ordered me to recover. Before I left back to the barracks, he informed me that we could joke outside as much as we wanted, but in his formation, and in front of his superiors, I was to keep, “my damn mouth shut,” as he so eloquently put it.
I quickly apologized and told him the mistake would never happen again.
As I walked away, I overheard Sgt. Leigh lay his words of thanks into Sgt. Roberts about abusing his rank.
“The way you treated Thornton was uncalled for! This is not basic training!” he yelled.
I might have been broken that morning thanks to that Sgt. Roberts guy, but when Sgt. Leigh stood up for me I knew that Sgt. Roberts friendship that he had worked so hard to build that day with me would never be the same. Never again would we be the friends he obviously wanted so desperately to be.
It’s always nice to have a senior NCO in your corner, and Sgt. Leigh had my back. Moreover, I knew that this Sgt. Roberts guy would have problems with my friendship belonging to anyone else but him.