I Thought It Was A Good Idea
by Jim DiMarco
Wednesday, December 7, 1983.
74th Warhead Detachment, Schwabstädl Kaser
“Item three. There will be a bus trip to Paris, . . .” The Major droned on and I stood there, my mind a million miles away. It was almost four-fifteen, and if he didn’t shut up soon, I would miss the beginning of ‘General Hospital’ which started at four-thirty. Why, today of all days, had he decided to grace us with his presence at afternoon formation, I hadn’t a clue. It was all of fifteen degrees, and the wind was from the south, right out of the Alps.
Luckily for me, I was standing at the end of the third row, so he couldn’t see me fidgeting. My mind drifted. I wasn’t interested in Paris and didn’t plan to go back there until next July. I had made a promise to myself to be in Paris for my twenty-fourth birthday and as a bonus, attend the annual Death-Day party at Jim Morrison’s grave at the same time. I’d go alone if I had to, but I was going.
“Item four. After last month’s Able Archer Exercise, . . .” I glanced down the row at my squad. Kevin Delaney, Domenic Sanders, Henry Thomas, Mike Caltucci, Ken Slaby, Mike Carter, Mark Rutowski, Theo Keene, and Keith Hatch. Keith, Theo, and Mark had been transferred from Charlie Team to Bravo at the end of October along with Slaby, who came from Alfa Team. It made me comfortable to have my old roommates here, although they weren’t too happy about it. Bravo Team wasn’t as relaxed as Charlie Team.
They were replacements for the six members of Bravo Team who had been arrested by the Augsburg Polizei. The morons had been smoking hashish in Eserwall Park, across the street from the outdoor stage, where a local rock band had been playing. Where did they think they were, Amsterdam? The German authorities had turned them over to the Army and the six were now in Mannheim Stockade, after which they would be dishonorably discharged. There were no second chances in nuclear weapons units.
“Finally, item six.” About time, although I realized that I missed item five. No matter. “It has come to my attention that there is excessive use of alcoholic beverages among you. Let me say that I find this disturbing.” That caused me to pay attention. “I am directing Team Leaders and NCO’s to report any abuse that they consider detrimental to the Sergeant-Major or the XO.”
What planet was he living on? Report abuse to the Sergeant-Major? He could drink any of us under the table. And go into any room in the barracks, and you would find at least one case, if not three or four, of German beer in a corner. That was not even unusual. Hell, we could have two beers at lunch, provided we didn’t get drunk in the middle of the day. Put a bunch of twenty-year-olds in a situation like ours and drinking was a release, albeit not the healthiest of one.
Major Wilson turned the formation over to the Sergeant-Major, who immediately dismissed us. He didn’t want to miss the beginning of General Hospital either. SFC Knowles then dismissed our Team. I turned to my squad. “Let’s get the hell out of the cold.”, and, except Carter and Sanders, we headed to the mess hall. If we were near the head of the lines, we could have our food and be seated just in time for the beginning of the show. Sergeant-Major Parks was right behind me in line. “We haven’t spoken much since I sent you to Bravo Team. Why don’t you sit with me for dinner and we can talk.” This was a first. Usually, Parks ate with Murphy, but Murphy was over at Bad Tolz this week. “Okay, Sergeant-Major.” I got my dinner, meatloaf, mashed potatoes with gravy, lima beans, and a glass of fruit punch. I waited for Parks and followed him to his usual spot; the table right in front of one of the large-screen televisions at one end of the room. “You did a good job in HQ over the summer. Chief Warrant Officer Arthur says you were exceptional in the Weapons shop.” “Well, thanks, Sergeant-Major.”
We watched the intro for the soap opera. It seemed as if this episode was devoted to Luke and Laura. “Shit. I’m getting bored with Luke and Laura. Oh well. I was a little upset when Captain Barrett told the Major he needed you full-time. I didn’t put you in HQ part-time just to have you yanked out again.” “I didn’t ask him to do that. I liked it the way it was. He said that with the shortage of sergeants, he needed me to act as a squad leader.” I looked down, toying with my food, trying not to let him see anything in my facial expressions. “But you don’t like being a squad leader, do you?” I looked up in surprise, then smiled and nodded. “That’s right, I almost forgot. You know everything.” “Damn straight I do. What don’t you like about it?” Thinking about it for a few seconds, I replied, “I don’t like the responsibility. Not the responsibility of the work-related stuff. The stupid shit, like if someone writes a bad check. Or if someone gets some German fraulein pregnant. Or if someone’s girlfriend back home sends him a breakup letter and he wants to cry to me about it.” “Hmm, I understand. Well, unfortunately, Barrett is right; he is short of squad leaders until we get a new batch of transfers from Fort Sill. The next group isn’t due until February. You’ll just have to suck it up until then. I think that after that, I’m going to transfer you back to HQ full-time. What do you say to that?” I had finished my dinner and pushed my tray to the side. My glass was making figure eights on the table. “I wouldn’t object.” “Okay. Well, that’s settled. Now for what I really wanted to talk to you about.”
I raised my eyebrows in question. “You heard the Major during formation go on about excessive drinking?” “Sure. Almost everyone here drinks to excess. What does he expect? The Army takes a bunch of teenagers and entrusts them with nuclear weapons. That’s a hell of a burden for a mature person, let alone guys who are just out of high school. Drinking is a release; a way to get rid of stress. If we didn’t drink, we’d be shooting each other.” “I couldn’t agree more. But I’m not so much concerned with drinking as with something else you are familiar with.” “I don’t use drugs. You know that. I’m not that stupid.” “No, I’m talking about Dungeons and Dragons.” “What about it? It’s a fantasy role-playing game that a lot of the guys play during the winter or on weeknights in the summer. There’s not much to do on a weeknight. There’s shit on the one TV channel in English and nobody wants to go sightseeing on the weekends when it’s ten degrees outside. I’ve played it myself.” I’m not so much concerned about guys playing it. I’m concerned about the people who seem to be obsessed with it; who play it all the time. Can you tell me right now who in your squad isn’t in the mess hall?” “Yeah, Carter and Sanders.” “Right. Because they’re probably in their room getting ready to play tonight. That’s what’s got me bothered. They are so obsessed that they aren’t even eating in the mess hall but in their rooms. I’m worried that this might affect their duty performance.” “I hadn’t noticed any difference. I’ll keep an eye on them, but I don’t think it’s gone that far.” I was lying through my teeth, but I wasn’t going to throw these guys to the wolves, or rather wolf until I had a chance to straighten them out. “I think that you have a bigger problem than some guys who are pretending to be dragonslayers.” “Oh? And what would that be?” “In the fourteen months I’ve been here, I’ve never seen morale so low. People are on edge. Everyone is snapping at each other and there have been some minor altercations. I wouldn’t call them fights, because they never got that far. The guys need an outlet; some way to get out their frustrations.” “I’m not blind. I’m well aware of the morale problem. But there’s no simple solution. Do you have a way to wave one of Carter’s magic wands and solve the problem? Do you have the answer?” “No, I don’t. But I think that keeping people busy, keeping them occupied with work and other activities is part of the answer. And that goes back to D&D. It’s a release of sorts. Guys who play it are escaping from reality. And you have to admit, this reality that we are in sucks.”
Now it was his turn to play with his food. “I agree with that. This is a tough assignment. In the regular Pershing units, they are always training, always out in the field, always busy. But we are dependent on the Germans. They have a different attitude and are content with the way things are. So, we sit in the barracks all winter.” “Things are very tense right now. Especially with the holidays coming up. The guys need an outlet.” “I know. Think about it and see if you can come up with anything.” “I already have. How about a football game?” “A football game?” “Sure. We can use that empty field across from the canteen. And there’s all that lumber behind the supply building. We can make goalposts from the two by fours.” “But we don’t have any gear. No pads or helmets.” “We don’t have pads, but we all have helmets. But we can play flag football. Nobody should get hurt. And Gibson was a quarterback in high school. He has a football.” “I can get some more footballs from the PX in Augsburg. That’s not a bad idea. Alfa against Bravo and Charlie against Delta. Then the winners take on each other.” “You could give the guys on the overall winning team four-day passes. That will go over big-time. Everybody will jump at the chance to get a four-day pass. The second-placed team will get three-day passes.” “You know, I think you’re onto something. I’ll have to run it by the Major, but I’m sure he won’t object. At least it will get these guys out of their rooms on the weekends. I can have Mikalsky organize it. He’s good at that sort of thing. The Warrant Officers can be the referees.”
He stood up and looked around the Mess Hall. “Gibson!” he shouted. Dennis was on his way out the door, but turned and came over to our table, “Sergeant-Major?” “Sit down. DiMarco here tells me you have a football.” “Sure. I was the quarterback on my high school team.” “I know, he told me. He also had an idea that the Teams could have a football tournament; Team against Team. What do you think about that?” “We’ll kick their asses. Charlie Team has the biggest guys.” “It’s going to be flag football, blockhead. The last thing I need is to have twenty guys with broken bones. By the way you two, poker here at nineteen hundred hours. Bring your own beer.”
After changing out of my fatigues, I walked down the hall to Carter’s room and rapped on the door. Carter called out, “It’s open!” Entering, I went in and took in the dragon’s den. Carter and Sanders were roommates and they had pushed the desk into the center of the room. They had two chairs and two empty beer cases for the other chairs. Mike Egan was sitting on one of the beer cases and Brian Johanson, also from Charlie Team, was on the other. Carter and Sanders were two peas in a pod. Both were tall, skinny, nerdish types. They both were acne-pocked and wore glasses. Both were right out of Basic and Advanced Training. They were both nineteen years old and I really, really, didn’t like either of them very much. It’s not like they were bad soldiers; they were average, they did the minimum, and didn’t seem interested in doing anymore. Glancing around, I saw two empty Jiffy Pop Popcorn containers in the trash can along with an empty can of SPAM. We weren’t supposed to cook in our rooms, but some ingenious GI in years past had figured out that if you lit a can of paste wax on fire, you could pop popcorn on it. When you were finished popping, you simply dropped the lid on the can to put out the flames. Carter spoke up, “Hey Sarge, grab a box. Do you want to play with us tonight?” “No, that’s not what I’m here for. I have a poker game waiting for me over in the mess hall. I need to talk to you guys about something else.” I pointed to Johanson and Egan. “Take a walk for five minutes,” Egan asked. “Why? Why can’t we hear what you’ve got to say?” “Because if you do, I’ll have to beat the shit out of you. Now get the fuck out.” I was smiling as I said it, but Mike knew that I meant it. He had seen me do exactly that to someone else back at Fort Sill, but that’s another story.
“Okay, Jim.” I handed him my room keys. “Go to my room and have a beer. Take an extra one for your game.” “Thanks, Jim” After they left, I turned to my two squad members. “I need you guys to do me a favor. And you’ll be doing one for yourselves at the same time.” Sanders sniffed, “What’s the favor?” “I want you guys to start eating dinner in the mess hall. Also, I want you to get out of the barracks on the weekends. I know it’s winter out, but there are some good clubs over in Klosterlechfeld and in Konigsbrunn. Egan knows them all. You guys should get out more. There’s a lot of cute Frauleins just waiting for GI’s to charm them.” “Girls?” Carter swallowed, “I don’t know, Sarge. I never did know how to talk to them.” “Well, it’s easier here than back home, trust me. You guys have gone through the Head Start program, so you know the basics of German. You try to speak German to them, they giggle and laugh, then you buy them a few drinks, and the next thing you know, you’re in the back of Papa’s Audi, having a good time.”
Sanders asked, “What’s this really about, Sarge?” The guy was no dummy. “Okay. The Sergeant-Major wanted me to get you guys to become more sociable. Get you out of the barracks. In fact, we are probably going to have a football game between the Teams in the next few weeks. It would be good for you guys to get involved.” “Football? I don’t know. I guess I can kick. I played soccer in high school.” Carter piped up, “Me too.” It figured. Back in the ’70s, only the geeks played soccer. The rest of us played football, basketball, wrestling, track, swimming, or baseball. “Soccer? Great, we’re going to need a good kicker and punter. You’re on the team. I’ll let you know when I get the details.”
I went back to my room, got my keys from Egan, and headed over to the poker game, four bottles of beer in hand. I felt pretty good about possibly solving the problem, or at least making a start at a solution. The next day, during the Team meeting, Captain Barrett ended the meeting with an announcement. “As some of you may have heard, there is going to be a flag football tournament. Sergeant Mikalsky from Headquarters will be organizing it. The next two weeks at the QRA will be a perfect time to get our team organized and get some practice in. Staff Sergeant Roberson will be the team coach and will conduct tryouts. Right now, you are all released to get packed and ready to go. We leave tomorrow morning at 0900 hours. Dismissed.”
So, we got our team organized. Captain Barrett had gotten a football from the PX the night before we left and the next two weeks were spent with tryouts and practices. The Captain mandated that everyone who wanted to play was to be included, no matter if they were good or not. Sanders was the punter and Carter the placekicker and they were both pretty good. I wound up being a lineman on both offense and defense. Most of the guys had played football in high school or junior high so we were confident that we would do well. When we returned to Schwabstadl after two weeks, our team was in high spirits and ready to play. The first game was scheduled for the following Saturday and we would be playing Delta Team. I didn’t have many friends on Delta Team. The guys over there had a bad reputation. They were always getting in trouble and they were considered the wastrels of the Detachment. Someone from Delta was usually doing a stint at the stockade for fighting.
Saturday dawned clear and mild for January in Bavaria. The temperature was projected to be in the forties; perfect football weather. At one in the afternoon, we marched as a Team over to the field across from the German Canteen. With the two footballs we were allotted for practice purposes, we began to warm up. Parks and three Warrant Officers along with Delta Team showed up about five minutes later. Captain Sloane, Delta Team Leader, Captain Barrett, and Chief Warrant Officer Arthur met in the middle of the field. Arthur had a five-mark coin which he prepared to toss. He said to Captain Sloane, “Call it!” and flipped it into the air. She screamed out “Heads!” The coin landed and all three looked down at it. Straightening up, Arthur shouted, “Tails! Delta kicks off!”
In the Army Hospital located on Sheridan Kaserne in Augsburg, the doctor handed me an ice pack and a bottle of pills. “Aren’t you going to wrap my chest, ma’am?” “No, that’s only for broken ribs. You only have three cracked ribs. They’ll be sore for about three to four weeks. Avoid any tight-fitting clothing or physical contact. Use the ice pack and if it still hurts, I’ve given you those extra-strength Tylenols. All in all, you’re in a lot better shape than your friends. A broken leg, some broken ribs, broken noses, a broken jaw, two broken arms, and a compound shoulder fracture. What were you idiots thinking, playing football without pads?” “Major, it was supposed to be flag football. I guess things got a little out of hand.” “That’s an understatement if I ever heard one. Get dressed and go to the waiting room.” “Yes ma’am.” I gingerly slipped on my shirt and buttoned it, then hopped off the exam table and made a quick exit.
Walking down the hall, I saw the sign, ‘Waiting Room’. As soon as I opened the door, I said to myself, ‘Oh shit’. Major Wilson, Captains Sloane, Iverson, and Barrett, Parks, SFC Knowles, and SFC Jessup, who was Delta Team Sergeant all stared at me. Parks’ face was as red as a tomato and I thought he was going to show the hospital staff just how he had gotten the nickname, ‘Screaming Ralph’, when the Major yelled, “DiMarco, what the hell happened? This was supposed to be flag football! Nobody should have gotten hurt!” “Well sir, things got a little out of hand, I guess.” “A little! Do you know how many of my troops are here! I want an explanation!” “Yes sir, the doctor gave me a rundown of everyone’s injuries.” “I’m waiting.” “Well, it started when Esterman tackled Sanders when he was trying to punt. Then I grabbed Esterman and threw him back into Delany who then body-slammed him and then it just kind of snowballed. I didn’t see much after that. Everyone was on the field, fighting.” Before either Wilson or Parks could start screaming, Captain Iverson held up his hands. “You know, let’s look at this calmly. DiMarco had a minor role in the brawl, but there is a big positive about all this. The guys are in a great mood. Letting off some steam really has helped morale. I was in the mess hall right before I came here and everybody is talking and laughing, even the guys from Alfa Team that weren’t there. We may have some injuries, but morale seems to be really high. I’d say we accomplished what we set out to accomplish.” Jessup spoke up, “Maybe so, but Esterman has a broken nose, a broken jaw, five broken ribs, and a broken arm. What the hell happened to him?” He was looking at me. Jessup and I had never interacted much, so I was careful in my response. “I’m not sure Sergeant. I was knocked down right away.” I wasn’t going to tell him that Carter, after seeing his roommate hurt, had run out on the field and started to kick Esterman after Delany body-slammed him. Carter showed why he was such a good kicker. Four or five kicks did a lot of damage. Parks stared icicles at me, but didn’t say anything. He knew that I knew exactly what happened, but that I was protecting a guy in my squad. Major Wilson had regained control of himself. “Okay. I’ll accept that for now. Captain Iverson and I are going back to Schwabstadl. Sergeant-Major, you can take DiMarco back with you. You four,” he looked at Barrett, Sloane, Jessup, and Knowles, “wait for your men to be released.” “If it’s all the same to you Major, I would like to wait for Sanders. He’s in my squad, after all.” “Sanders isn’t going to be discharged for a few days. He needs surgery on his shoulder. You do as I say.” “Yes sir.”
Three days later, Sanders returned from the hospital. He had a contraption that we tried not to laugh at. There was an aluminum bar attached to a special belt. The bar held his arm out straight from his torso. There was a cast on his arm that kept it bent at a right angle. Fortunately, his arm didn’t point upwards, or he would have been continuously signaling a right turn. As it was, he had a hard enough time getting through doors without banging the cast and yelping in pain. That Friday evening, I was on duty as the B-Man, when there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, Sanders and Carter were standing in the hall. “What’s up, guys?” Carter was grinning. “We decided to take your advice, Sarge. We’re going to a club over in Klosterlechfeld.” “Great! Who’s going with you?” “No one. We just thought we’d walk down there and have a few beers.” “Well, you really should go with someone who’s been there before; just to show you what’s what. Hold on.” I picked up the phone and dialed Charlie Team’s building. A teenage voice answered. “Charlie Team, Private Nokes speaking.” “Private Nokes, this is Sergeant DiMarco, the B-Man on duty. I need you to send Sergeant Gibson or Specialist Egan over here right away.” “Sergeant Gibson just left about ten minutes ago, but Eagan is right here. Do you want to talk to him?” “Put him on.” “Hey Jim, what’s up?” “Carter and Sanders want to go to a club in Klosterlechfeld. Can you go with them?” “Absolutely! I was just going to head over there myself. Have them meet me at the main gate.” “Okay, thanks.” I hung up. “Alright guys, Egan is going to meet you at the main gate. By the way, Carter, that was a good thing you did during the fight, going after Esterman after he put your roomie on the ground.” “He’s just a bully, Sarge. I learned how to deal with bullies a long time ago.” “Well, if he makes any trouble for you when he gets out of the hospital, let me know. I’ll take care of him.” “Okay, thanks.”
Captain Barrett and I were discussing Wellington’s tactics during the battle of Waterloo when there was a knock at the door. I glanced at the clock. Eleven p.m. Standing up, Barrett opened it to reveal the face of Sergeant Alvarez, who had recently transferred from the 85th Detachment after being promoted. “Excuse me, sir, but I’ve got a German Polizei on the phone and I can’t understand him. This southern Bavarian dialect is hard for me.” I answered Alvarez, “I’ll come down and talk to him.” Walking down the hall to the Duty Sergeant’s desk, I picked up the receiver. “Das ist Feldwebel DiMarco.” “Ah, Jim. Gunter here.” Gunter was one of the local polizei stationed in Klosterlechfeld. We had met at one of the clubs the previous year and were amicable.” Some of your soldiers are injured and they need to go to the hospital. Should we send them to the Hospital in Meringer or the Army hospital in Augsburg?” “Who are they and what kind of injuries do they have?” “All have broken legs. They are last names of Sanders, Egan, and Carter.” I swore silently. “What the fuck happened that they all got broken legs?” “It seems as if one of them, the one with the shoulder cast, fell down the steps outside of Club Estervald because of the ice, and the other two were so drunk they fell on top of him. Then, the one named Egan got up and tried to pick up Carter and they both fell again and that is when they broke their legs.” I was speechless. How could they have been so drunk? Shaking my head, I told Gunter to send them to Augsburg and thanked him, then hung up. Alvarez asked, “What was all that about?” “Come on down to the Duty Room with me, so I don’t have to tell it twice.”
I wasn’t looking forward to telling the Captain that someone else in his Team had a broken bone and wouldn’t be on the duty roster. I was standing in front of the Major’s desk. SFC Knowles was on my right and Captain Barrett was on my left. Parks was sitting on the radiator behind Wilson. “DiMarco, I want an explanation. Sanders and Carter said that you encouraged them to go to this club and drink and pick up girls. Is that true? Did you encourage them to act so irresponsibly?” “Absolutely not sir. All I was trying to do was get them out of the barracks. I had Egan take them to the club so that there was someone with experience with them so they wouldn’t get in trouble.” “You know that Egan is a fucking drunk and not to be trusted. Why him?” “They know Egan and trust him. They wouldn’t have gone with anyone else except me and I was on duty.” “Well, the ramifications are serious. Sanders has a broken leg to go along with his broken shoulder and arm. He’s going to be sent back to the States on Medical Leave and then to Walter Reed for rehab. Carter and Egan will be kept here in Supply until they can rejoin their Teams. I’m holding you responsible for this. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t rip those stripes off your collar and put you back on guard duty.” “Well, sir,. . . .” I was interrupted by Parks. “He was just doing what I told him to do Major.” “What? “I told DiMarco to get these guys out of the barracks and to get them involved in some social activities. Get them out into German society and such. He was just acting on my orders.” I didn’t know why the Sergeant-Major was covering for me, but I wasn’t objecting. It seemed to let all the air out of Wilson. He looked at all of us, then said very quietly. “Out. All of you, get out.”
Walking down the hall, Parks quietly said to me, “Remember that favor I owed you for Kloster Andechs?” “Yes.” “Consider it paid.