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Three Meter Zone | JD's Bunker | Poetry | Chapel | American Journal

Two Dollars and Seventy Cents

J. D. Pendry

"It was very prettily said, that we may learn the little value of fortune by the persons on whom heaven is pleased to bestow it." - Sir Richard Steele, 1710

I walked into the Army clothing sales store the other day. I needed to buy some new service stripes for my uniform. Stopping at the counter, I asked the clerk if he'd be so kind as to cut off 9 for me. He got out his roll of service stripes and counted several times to make sure he had nine before he cut them off. "Wanted to make sure I got it right", he said, "not too many people buy 9 of these. That'll be $2.70 Sergeant Major."

The price stuck in my mind as I was leaving the store. It cost me two dollars and seventy cents to account for twenty-seven years of my life. That works out to ten cents a year. Was it a worthwhile investment?

In 1969 our country was in a little bit of turmoil. We still had Vietnam, we still had the draft and we had folks using whatever means at their disposal to avoid both. I grew up in the coal mining towns of West Virginia where service was an accepted if not expected way of life for young men. Because of the economics of the time I found myself thrust into the anti-everything youth culture of Chicago. I was just not able, or maybe I wasn't willing, to adapt to that culture. Sure, I tried like many others did. And, just like many of them I dropped out high school and found myself earning minimum wage in a Chicago factory at sixteen years old. I was okay for a couple of years. Then, one day in September 1971, a few days short of my nineteenth birthday, I walked into an Army recruiting office. I suppose I was looking for what most of us look for in that stage of our lives - a little direction, something worthwhile to be a part of, some adventure, and maybe a little self-respect and a future. I couldn't have gotten in to today's Army without a high school diploma. Sitting here now with a college degree, a book to my credit and a world of life's experiences I'm grateful that another Army from another time, and many great leaders along the way decided to take a chance on me. Was that worth $2.70?

I went off to Fort Ord, California for my basic combat training. I found myself intermingled with what sociologists of the time referred to as a cross-section of our society. I had at least one real lawyer in my company. He enlisted, wasn't even drafted. I asked him about that. He was in the reserves he said. That would keep him out of Vietnam for sure and give him a service record that would look good for his political aspirations. I didn't think much about that then, but I do now. There were plenty like him in my basic training company. Not just lawyers, but some professional athletes and others whose cars came to pick them up when we were allowed out after 6 weeks. Then we had the guys who volunteered to be in the Army, but only because some judge told them to do Army time or his time. His time didn't pay as well. We still had draftees and they were a real mix. Many just out of college, not happy with the situation, but accepting it and trying hard to be good soldiers. That's where I discovered that when broken down to the basic human level, it really doesn't matter if you're rich, poor, educated, black, white or whatever. It's where I discovered that I'd never be able to throw a baseball over 90 miles per hour like the professional pitcher I went through training with could. But it was him and not me who went riding by on the straggler truck at the end of the 15-mile road march. I went through training with schoolteachers, lawyers, professional athletes and who knows what else. At the end of training I was one of only 5% of the company who got a stripe to sew on their uniforms. Army basic combat training done wonders for my self-esteem. I couldn't have bought that experience for $2.70.

In the spring of 1972, I went on a great adventure to the Republic of Korea. A place I'd heard about from vintage movies like Pork Chop Hill and some older relatives who went to war there, but had zero knowledge of. It was fascinating to a 19-year old that only had three locations on his list of world travels - West Virginia, the North side of Chicago and Fort Ord, California. It's where I discovered that in every country where American soldiers are two cultures exist - the local one that's adapted to soldiers and the pure one that belongs to the country. It's where I met the love of my life who after 26 years is still my most faithful friend and combat buddy. It's also where a barrel chested first sergeant named Pedro Olivari showed me what a NCO should be. He done things like drag me to the education center to make me finish high school, and had me enrolled in a college course before he retired and went home to Puerto Rico. When I saw a country under martial law and a not so free democracy I gained an appreciation for America that I've never lost. Worth $2.70? I think so.

Since I've been in the Army, I've taught in a university, climbed The Gunsight at Seneca Rock, West Virginia, cross country skied on frozen Lake Erie, taught young men and women how to be soldiers in Alabama, sat atop the Swiss Alps, walked through the tulip fields in Holland, looked out across the North Sea from Ostende, Belgium, turned right at Dallas and drove 700 miles to El Paso, spent time on the most beautiful and historic post in the Army - Fort Myer, and sat with a lump in my throat at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier. Quite an adventure for a teenage high school dropout looking for direction, don't you think? $2.70 well spent.

Copyright© J.D. Pendry