Now that the air has a definite bite, there’s little doubt that autumn is here. With each fall, my mind always rushes back to 1960. I was the guest of my Uncle Sam at Fort Lost In The Woods, Misery (Fort Leonard Wood, MO) taking part in “agony U.S. Army style” (also known as basic training).
I’m sure basic training was a whole lot different back then than it is today. Although this took place during peacetime, there was still a military draft. A far cry from the volunteer coed fighting forces of today.
We freshman fighters participated in the usual “fun” activities that go along with basic training – dismounted drill, obstacle courses, dismounted drill, gas mask training, dismounted drill, marksmanship with weapons, dismounted drill, infiltration course, dismounted drill and – last but not least – bivouac (sleeping under the stars in small tents, as in a military encampment.)
I had originally signed up to leave in August, but my papers had evidently been misplaced because I finally got the call in mid-October. All my friends who had previously survived basic training warned me: “GET YOUR BIVOUAC OVER BEFORE WINTER.”
Hmmm … let’s see, I thought the night I received my orders, with eight weeks training before bivouac – that means I’ll be enjoying sleeping outdoors in mid-December.
My arrival at Fort Leonard Wood left me impressed. Although it was made up of row after row of old wooden barracks, the beauty of an Ozark autumn more than made up for the dingy buildings we were to live in for the next several weeks.
Each day as we hiked out into the woods, I’d be amazed by all the colorful trees. It must have been a couple of weeks before the leaves began to fall. But the falling leaves were anything but musical to me and the rest of Echo Company, 4th Battalion, 2nd Training Regiment.
We soon discovered how the Army rakes leaves – by hand. Every morning we’d fall out with gunny sacks in hand to pick up the countless leaves that had fallen the day and night before in our company area. We’d pick and pick until time to march out for training – the leaves fell so fast that one could hardly tell where we had picked a half hour later.
After a couple weeks of this, I decided I’d be happy to see all the trees leafless. Little did I realize that late fall meant the rainy season in central Missouri.
For the next couple of weeks, it rained at least once a day. Being an Iowan used to the black soil, I had no idea what mud was really like until I visited Missouri.
I swear that stuff became part of anything it touched. Once it was embedded in our boots, it was part of them, something like super glue. What made it even worse was the fact that it was red instead of black, which made the stuff stick out like a sore thumb on a pair of army boots.
The mud would also get into the working parts of our rifles. So for the next several weeks, we spent most of every evening attempting to remove it from our gear.
Then winter started to set in. I hoped that this would make the mud dry up, but I soon learned an Ozark winter means freezing temperatures at night and above freezing temperatures during the day. Instead of the mud drying, it simply had a firmer foundation underneath it.
Finally it came time for our bivouac training. In spite of all the rumors that it had been cancelled because of cold weather, we soon found ourselves marching out with most of our military belongings strapped to our backs.
For the next five days, we not only trained and ate in the Missouri mud, we also slept in it. We’d awake each morning in a pup tent with an interior that was frost-covered and exterior coated in red mud.
It was one of those experiences in life that one can’t wait to see come to an end. Now, 58 years later, I look back on it with fairly warm memories. (Not warm enough that I would like to do it again, however.)
Ed Rood is the former publisher of Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live near Cambridge.